15 April 2014

CD REVIEW: Robert Schumann – COMPLETE SYMPHONIES (Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Yannick Nézet-Séguin; DGG 479 2437)

Robert Schumann - COMPLETE SYMPHONIES (DGG 479 2437)

ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856): Symphony No. 1 in B♭ Major, Op. 38 (‘Spring’), Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61, Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 97 (‘Rhenish’), Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 (1851 version)—Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ by Radio France during concerts at the Cité de la Musique, Paris, France, during November 2012; DGG 479 2437; 2CD, 124:23; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Robert Schumann was a great composer. That any debate about this distinction continues, more than 150 years after his death, is inexplicable. In post-Freudian assessments of Schumann’s music, there is a predilection for focusing overmuch on the effects of the composer’s mental illness on his scores, much as critics and scholars seek to attribute every detail of Dame Iris Murdoch’s novels to forewarnings, manifestations, or ravages of Alzheimer’s, but Schumann’s music is a triumph of ingenuity over adversity. Schumann’s significance as a ‘crossroads’ composer of Teutonic Romanticism is nowhere more evident than in his four Symphonies, composed—and, in the case of the score eventually published as the Fourth Symphony in D minor, revised—over the course of a decade (1841 – 1851), when his creative powers were at their peak. Artistically, Schumann’s Symphonies are collectively like a reservoir: having dammed the inflows of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, this quartet of pivotal scores enriched the musical waters that flowed out into the music of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, and Mahler.

Though Schumann’s Symphonies retain places in the repertories of most of the world’s major orchestras, too many performances seem prompted by duty rather than desire. One of the most gratifying qualities of the performances by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Québécois conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, recorded ‘live’ by Radio France and preserved by Deutsche Grammophon in spacious, meticulously-balanced sound that adheres to the Yellow Label’s legendary standards of excellence, is the audible zeal with which the Symphonies are played. The true madness to which Schumann’s Symphonies fall victim is that of misapprehension and neglect, and it is encouraging to find a young orchestra and one of today’s finest young conductors bringing to these masterworks tonal and interpretive warmth indicative of legitimate appreciation and affection. A smaller ensemble than many orchestras that have recorded Schumann’s Symphonies, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe produces lean textures that heighten the clarity with which Schumann’s orchestration is revealed to the listener without lessening the impact of the boldest passages. In comparison with both his contemporaries and later composers whose music his Symphonies influenced, Schumann’s scoring is rarely dense, and the Orchestra’s sharply-focused playing in these performances enables both Maestro Nézet-Séguin and the listener to give full attention to the nuances of the music and the manner in which Schumann utilized sonic textures as expressive devices.

Composed in 1841 and first performed under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn, Schumann’s First Symphony—christened the ‘Spring’ in response, at least in part, to the inspiration that the composer drew from his awakening love for his beloved wife Clara—was the work that established his reputation as a composer of large-scale orchestral music. The hypnotic freshness of the music is touched by suggestions of the melancholy to which Schumann was prone, but luminosity prevails. This is superbly conveyed by the playing of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. In the first movement (Andante un poco maestoso – Allegro molto vivace), Maestro Nézet-Séguin sets a tempo for the introduction that evolves organically into the faster pace of the development, and momentum is maintained without forcing the flow of the music. The Larghetto second movement is lovingly played by the Orchestra and handled with finesse by the conductor, the simple grace of the music spotlighted by the restraint and subtlety of the interpretation. The Scherzo is performed with attention to the contrasts of the Trios, and the final movement (Allegro animato e grazioso) receives a reading that shimmers with precisely the qualities that define it: animation and graciousness.

Though its genesis was contemporaneous with that of the First Symphony, the Fourth Symphony was substantially revised and only published in 1851. In this recording, the Fourth Symphony is logically presented in its appropriate chronological position, but Maestro Nézet-Séguin justifiably prefers the 1851 version of the score to the first version advocated by Brahms. The 1851 version is the more expansive of the two incarnations of the Symphony, and Maestro Nézet-Séguin harnesses the increased profundity of the music to a broadly-phrased performance of the Symphony. The outer movements (I: Ziemlich langsam – Lebhaft, IV: Langsam; Lebhaft) are handled with vivacity that is imaginatively differentiated from the almost severe levity of the Scherzo. Maestro Nézet-Séguin infuses his conducting of the Romanze (Ziemlich langsam) with profundity but avoids overextending the thoughtfully-constructed thematic material. Both Maestro Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra disclose comprehensive understanding of Schumann’s individual uses of harmonic progressions and sonata form to create and relieve tension among the four movements, which are performed without pauses as stipulated by the composer.

Though sketched in a matter of days in December 1845, circumstances of Schumann’s deteriorating mental and physical health prolonged his completion of the Second Symphony. While similar situations have drawn expressions of dark sentiments from many composers, Schumann lavished some of his most euphoric music on the Second Symphony. The composer’s study of the music of Bach surely prompted the chorale-like structure of the opening subject of the first movement (Sostenuto assai – Allegro, ma non troppo), and the consistency of Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s phrasing upon each restatement and transformation of the chorale elevates the sly homage to Bach to a veritable Leitmotif. The shifting harmonic foundation of the Scherzo is built with unerring intonation by the Orchestra, and Maestro Nézet-Séguin takes great care to divulge the varied characters of the two Trios. The exquisitely somber third movement (Adagio espressivo) is played with solemnity that does not become lugubrious, Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s pacing centering on maintaining rhythmic control without sacrificing flexibility. The triumphant essence of the Beethovenian final movement (Allegro molto vivace) rockets through the Orchestra’s performance, and Maestro Nézet-Séguin underlines each thematic nod to the Symphony’s previous movements in the development and coda with discernment. The Second Symphony is one of Schubert’s finest works and in this performance sounds like it.

The ‘Rhenish’ is perhaps the best-known of Schumann’s Symphonies, its soulfulness arising from the composer’s reaction to a sojourn in the Rhineland that took on the connotations of a religious pilgrimage, and this performance by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe glows with atmospheric feeling. The tonal restlessness of the robustly heroic opening movement (Lebhaft) is meaningfully imparted by the Orchestra’s playing, and the delicate chromaticism of the music benefits from the blends among sections achieved by the musicians. The second (Sehr mäßig), third (Nicht schnell), and fourth (Feierlich) movements are energetically but eloquently played, the intrepid poise of the horns and trombones complemented by the diaphanous execution of string figurations. The influence of Mendelssohn is perceptible throughout the Third Symphony, but this only emphasizes Schumann’s originality. The final movement (Lebhaft) is lusty and laconic in turns, dancelike passages alternating with melodic units that seethe with terse vigor. Maestro Nézet-Séguin avoids easy effects, thereby also avoiding the banality that many conductors inflict upon the music, and his reading of the finale—and of the Symphony as a whole—grows from a personal connection with the score that integrates inwardness with dynamism. The Orchestra players follow his leadership with buoyancy that eschews the tired traditions that deaden many performances of this eminent score.

Among the symphonic works of 19th-Century composers, the four Symphonies of Robert Schumann occupy a seminal but easily underestimated place in the progress of Romanticism from the early blooms of Weber and Marschner to the late fruits of Schmidt and Schreker. They are challenging scores for musicians, conductors, and listeners, not in the sense that they make incredible technical demands but in that they require concentration that the more obvious felicities of other composers’ works forgo. Schumann’s Symphonies lavishly repay investments of dedication and contemplation, and the dividends earned by the performances of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Yannick Nézet-Séguin on these discs are extravagant. Transcendence is its own kind of virtuosity, and these performances transcend habits and protocols. What remains after these musicians dismantle the preconceptions that burden this music is the intuition of Schumann.

14 April 2014

CD REVIEW: Franz Joseph Haydn – DIE SCHÖPFUNG (I. Falk Winland, A. Staples, D. Stout, R. Davies; T. Eipperle, J. Patzak, G. Hann; Fra Bernardo fb 1301272 & fb 1312522)

Franz Joseph Haydn - DIE SCHÖPFUNG (Fra Bernardo fb 1301272 & fb 1312522)

FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN (1732 – 1809): Die Schöpfung, Hob. XXI:2—(1) Ida Falk Winland (Gabriel, Eva), Andrew Staples (Uriel), David Stout (Raphael), Robert Davies (Adam), Kate Symonds-Joy (alto soloist in final chorus); Musica Saeculorum; Philipp von Steinaecker, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance in the Dom zu Brixen, Brixen, South Tyrol, Italy, on 12 September 2012; Fra Bernardo fb 1301272; 2CD, 102:00; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, and major music retailers] and (2) Trude Eipperle (Gabriel, Eva), Julius Patzak (Uriel), Georg Hann (Raphael, Adam); Chor der Wiener Staatsoper; Wiener Philharmoniker; Clemens Krauss, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance in the Großer Musikvereinssaal, Vienna, Austria, on 28 March 1943; Fra Bernardo fb 1312522; 2CD, 100:00; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, and major music retailers]

​For reasons that defy logical explanation, it remains fashionable to disparage the music of Franz Joseph Haydn. Prevailing opinion has suggested that Haydn’s music lacks inspiration and that, unlike Mozart, the older composer pandered to the social order of which he was a part rather than transcending its boundaries. It is true that, during his time in service to the powerful Esterházy family, Haydn was equal in the aristocratic hierarchy to kitchen servants, but he enjoyed something far greater than status: artistic freedom. There were obligations of his position, of course, but even in the fulfillment of his duties he was largely unmolested in his exploration of the originality that grew from the physical and musical remoteness of Esterháza. By the time of the première of Die Schöpfung in 1798, Haydn was already an old man by 18th-Century standards, the days of the circumstantial innovation of his tenure at Esterháza in the distant past, yet the novelty that glistens in virtually every number in Die Schöpfung remains incredible. From the post-Stravinsky perspective of 21st-Century listeners, neither the impact of the harmonic ambiguity and unresolved cadences of the Prelude's depiction of chaos nor the explosive modulation to C Major upon the creation of light seems radical, but to the cultivated Viennese of 1798, whose musical tastes were influenced by the conservative Baron van Swieten and his loves for Bach and Händel, these were the marks of legitimate progress. In many ways, Die Schöpfung is the first monumental choral work of Romanticism: without it, Beethoven's Missa solemnis, the Masses of Schubert and Weber, Mendelssohn's Elijah and Paulus, Rossini's Petite messe solennelle, Verdi's Messa da Requiem, Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem, Britten's War Requiem and Tippett's A Child of Our Time would all have been impossible. As Voltaire wrote of God, had Haydn never existed, it should have been necessary to invent him. Haydn invented himself, however, and never more sublimely than in Die Schöpfung.

Two releases from the young Fra Bernardo label offer the listener a veritable victor’s spoils of celebrations of Haydn’s genius. The first, a recording of a 2012 performance of Die Schöpfung from Brixen Cathedral, preserves an account of the score that employs Haydn’s preferred English translation dating from 1803, the year in which the composer’s autograph score was lost. Conducted by Philipp von Steinaecker, the choristers and orchestra of Musica Saeculorum combine the finest qualities of historically-informed performance practices with robustness that compellingly limns the pioneering expressivity of the score. Recorded with excellent balance, spaciousness, and sonics that avoid all of the pitfalls of recording live performances, this performance grants Haydn’s music the grandeur that it deserves without bloating the score into an unstylish behemoth. Vincent Ranger’s Hammerklavier continuo keeps secco recitatives shapely without rushing, and the playing of the period-instrument ensemble is wonderfully vibrant but precise. The chorus of twenty-two voices—including such accomplished singers as mezzo-soprano Kate Symonds-Joy, who takes the alto solo line in the final chorus with distinction, and tenor Guy Cutting—credibly puts forth both the power and the poise demanded by Haydn’s choral music. In Part One, the sheer exuberance of the depiction of the creation of light is arresting, and the joy of ‘Awake the harp, the lyre awake’ is thrillingly depicted. In this performance, ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’ is not mere rhetoric: the choristers send rousing sounds soaring into the firmament. The great chorus ‘Achieved is the glorious work’ in Part Two is sung with ringing passion, and the performance of ‘Sing the Lord, ye voices all,’ the final chorus with soloists, is both monumental and heartfelt. The quality of the solo singing matches the excellence brought to the performance by the chorus and orchestra. The gleaming, slightly tremulous voice of soprano Ida Falk Winland sails through Gabriel’s music with assurance and ideally angelic poise, her singing of ‘The marv’llous work’ and the celebrated ‘With verdure clad the fields appear’ beautiful and ebullient. The soprano solo lines in ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’ and ‘Most beautiful appear’ are sung with focused tone, and Ms. Falk Winland’s account of ‘On mighty pens uplifted’ is blithe and alluring. In Eve’s music in Part Three, Ms. Falk Winland sings radiantly, showing real affection for her Adam, who is charmingly sung by baritone Robert Davies. Tenor Andrew Staples sings personably as Uriel, the heady gracefulness of his voice counting for much. In fact, it is regrettable that so much of Uriel’s music is recitative, but Mr. Staples sings every line of his part with firm tone and exemplary diction. His singing in ‘The heavens are telling,’ ‘Most beautiful appear,’ and ‘Thou lett’st thy breath go forth again’ is truly gorgeous, and his performance of Uriel’s aria ‘In native worth and honour clad’ is noble but touching. Baritone David Stout is a lightweight Raphael, but he has all the notes for the part, descending into his lower register without forcing the tone. ‘Rolling in foaming billows’ is vigorously sung, and the gravity of ‘Now heav’n in fullest glory shone’ is projected to great dramatic effect. Like his colleagues, Mr. Stout sings strongly in ensembles. All of the performers in this Schöpfung communicate the most exalted sentiments of the text with unflappable musicality, the the resulting performance reveals the wit and magnitude of Haydn’s sagacity anew.

The wartime performance of Die Schöpfung in Vienna’s Musikverein conducted by Clemens Krauss needs no introduction, but it has never been heard in sound as superb as in Fra Bernardo’s restoration. The sonics are imperfect, but within moments the years fall away, and the heart of this remarkable performance throbs more engrossingly than ever before. Under Maestro Krauss’s inspired leadership, the singing of the Wiener Staatsoper Chorus and playing of the Wiener Philharmoniker are extraordinary. One of the foremost achievements of Fra Bernardo’s engineering is the immediacy with which the soloists’ voices are placed within the soundscape. The bright timbre of soprano Trude Eipperle is free from distortion even at the top of the range, and her voice sounds more relaxed and resonant than on almost any other recording. Her technique is equal to every demand of Haydn’s music, and her tone shines as the vocal lines climb. Legendary tenor Julius Patzak is heard at something near his best, the timbre dry but unfailingly expressive. Not all of Uriel’s lines are completely comfortable for him, but he expectedly gives his all in service to the music. Bass-baritone Georg Hann is defeated by some of the bravura passages, but the voice has extraordinary presence. In the straightforward utterances of recitatives, his virile tone peals through the music strikingly. As in the more recent performance, Fra Bernardo’s engineering maintains naturalness of balance with minimal intrusions by extramusical noises. This is a performance that deserves to be heard in the best sound possible, and Fra Bernardo’s edition provides that unobtrusively but insurmountably.

As exponents of old and new traditions in Die Schöpfung, these performances are bizarrely complementary. More than many recordings of this score, these two approach Haydn’s music with clear-sightedness and artistic integrity. These are unforgettable performances of Die Schöpfung that are gifts both to Haydn and to listeners who treasure his art, and the skill and love that the Fra Bernardo has lavished on these recordings are uplifting—and nothing less than the music deserves.

CD REVIEW: Felix Mendelsson & John Adams – VIOLIN CONCERTOS (Chad Hoopes, violin; Naïve V 5368)

Felix Mendelsson & John Adams - VIOLIN CONCERTOS (Chad Hoopes, violin; Naïve V 5368)

FELIX MENDELSSON (1809 – 1847): Violin Concerto No. 2 in E minor, Op. 64 and JOHN ADAMS (b. 1947): Violin ConcertoChad Hoopes, violin; MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra; Kristjan Järvi, conductor [Recorded at the MDR-Studio, Augustusplatz, Leipzig, Germany, in November 2013; Naïve V 5368; 1CD, 58:35; Available from Amazon, fnac, jpc, and major music retailers]

​Even in the unnerving, inconstant, cutthroat world of Classical Music, there is always space for prodigies whose gifts belie the years printed on their birth certificates. As much with Yo-Yo Ma and Sir Yehudi Menuhin as with Mendelssohn and Mozart, there has long been an undeniable fascination in witnessing the technical accomplishment of an adult musician emanating from a child's body. In many cases, however, the artistry does not mature in pace with the technique, and the freshness does not survive the journey into adulthood. Though he is yet in his teens, American violinist Chad Hoopes exhibits every quality necessary to be as a man a greater artist than he was as a boy. With this recording of Concerti by Felix Mendelssohn and John Adams, this gifted young man puts away childish things, as the Biblical conceit goes, and begins a new phase of a journey that seems destined to lead him to the highest levels of achievement and acclaim.

Mendelssohn's Opus 64 Concerto in E minor is familiar territory for virtually every musician who has ever held a violin with more than elementary interest. For a young violinist, approaching this Concerto is a bit like being the poor fellow whose grandiloquently verbose oration at Gettysburg in November 1863 was rightfully eclipsed by the two-and-a-half minutes of Abraham Lincoln's address. The early, prime, and late thoughts on the Concerto of almost every important violinist of the past century litter the work's discography, and every listener who loves the piece has a favorite performance—or a dozen favorite performances—ensconced on a pedestal, safe from the groping of pretenders. It is daunting to approach such an ubiquitous work with the legacies of many exceptional artists and their adherents’ prejudices grabbing at one's ankles, but if Mr. Hoopes is cowed in the slightest by the pressure of these circumstances it does not audibly affect his playing. In the frenetic opening movement (Allegro molto appassionato), in which the violinist enters straightaway without orchestral introduction, Mr. Hoopes immediately displays the energy and exuberance that Mendelssohn’s music requires. The clarity of Naïve’s recording enables Mr. Hoopes’s lean tone to be heard cleanly in the chromatic passages, and his playing is always audible above the superlative accompaniment of the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra. He and conductor Kristjan Järvi collaborate on setting tempi that reinforce the spirited nature of the music without disrupting the carefully-wrought thematic development. Mr. Hoopes plays Mendelssohn’s cadenza with rhapsodic breeziness, making light of the technical demands of the music, and he shapes the recapitulation and coda with imagination but close adherence to Mendelssohn’s rhythmic and dynamic markings. In the second movement (Andante), Mr. Hoopes and Maestro Järvi give an expansive reading of the music, using the transition to C major to broaden their exploration of the sentimental possibilities of the harmonic progressions. The emotional significance of the central segment in A minor is illuminated with transparency and poetry atypical for such a young performer, and Mr. Hoopes proves a consistently insightful musician. The third movement (Allegretto non troppo – Allegro molto vivace) benefits enormously from the youthful brilliance of Mr. Hoopes’s playing, but his phrasing discloses impressive technical sobriety. The innovative passages in which the soloist complements the orchestra are played by Mr. Hoopes with concentration equal to that with which he executes the most difficult solo lines. The final coda draws from Mr. Hoopes a rousing demonstration of virtuosity, ending the Concerto with alert pageantry.

Premièred in 1994, John Adams’s Violin Concerto is an unusual companion for Mendelssohn’s Second Concerto, but the profuse vein of originality that courses through the earlier composer’s music is also present to an astonishing degree in Adams’s Concerto. The opening movement, designated only with the metronome marking of ♩ = 78, is enigmatic, the solo lines undulating through the silken mist of the orchestral accompaniment. Mr. Hoopes manages the difficult double stops with excellent control, and, here and throughout the performance, his trills have perfect rhythmic precision. He burrows into the lyricism of the writing without shortchanging the mystery of the music, and the subtlety of his vibrato is ideal. As the music grows more extroverted, his bowing remains poised, and the purity of his intonation in chromatic passages pays extravagant dividends. The second movement (Chaconne: ‘Body Through Which the Dream Flows’) throbs with yearning conveyed through quietly grand phrases, exploiting the dark sonorities of the violin’s lower range. Mr. Hoopes plays the long melodic strands with the understated grace of a master of bel canto, and the slight frigidity of Adams’s orchestration—rendered with affection by the Orchestra and Maestro Järvi—underlines the desolation of the solo lines. The third movement (Toccare), a fast-paced, almost anxious piece that allows the soloist few moments of repose, gives Mr. Hoopes a vehicle to show off his bravura technique, and he takes advantage of every opportunity offered by the score with playing of consummate vividness. Here, the lilt of his double stops conjures thoughts of the music of Gershwin, and, when the trumpets and percussion introduce hints of Latino rhythms (the Concerto was co-commissioned by the New York City Ballet, incidentally), Mr. Hoopes responds with a facile sense of humor. The final minutes of the Concerto inspire him to playing of sparkling prowess that reveals Adams’s music to be equal to Mendelssohn’s in inventiveness if not in memorable tunefulness.

As a memento of fine work by an impressive young violinist, this recording of Concerti by Mendelssohn and Adams is a welcome release, one that is certain to find a prominent home in the recorded histories of both pieces. As evidence of a Wunderkind’s matriculation from prodigy to enduring artist of distinction, however, this disc is revelatory. Chad Hoopes transforms his violin into an earnestly individual instrument, and through its four strings he sings with inwardness, eloquence, and finely-spun beauty which most violinists with many more years of experience can only envy.

12 April 2014

CD REVIEW: Richard Blackford – VOICES OF EXILE (C. Wyn-Rogers, G. Kunde, G. Finley; Nimbus Alliance NI 6264)

Richard Blackford - VOICES OF EXILE (Nimbus Alliance NI 6264)

RICHARD BLACKFORD (b. 1954): Voices of ExileCatherine Wyn-Rogers, mezzo-soprano; Gregory Kunde, tenor; Gerald Finley, baritone; New London Children’s Choir; The Bach Choir; Philharmonia Orchestra; David Hill, conductor [Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London, UK, 20 – 22 April 2005; Nimbus Alliance NI 6264; 1CD, 60:36; Available from Nimbus Alliance/Wyastone, Amazon (UK), Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​There are in every life, be it that of a prince or a plumber, sentiments for which words and even thoughts are inadequate. There are emotions that cannot be conveyed by greeting cards, e-mails, or text messages; feelings that may be as universal as the fear of dying but are nonetheless too personal for communication. It is these things, these imperceptible particles of humanity, that define whole generations and give rise to evil some hearts and annihilate it in others. There are among the atrocities of this world no privations, no punishments, no visions more cruel than isolation. This is not to kill but to take a life still enthralled with living and throttle it, not to murder or mutilate but to remove from a social organism the sole source of its survival. Of such despair is born song. When man is denied the company of his society, he must maintain communication even with himself and in his song say, 'This I shall sing unto all the world, and you will know my voice.' Song is the solace for the child who cries out but whose mother never comes, for the lover whose love is never returned, for the refugee whose homeland remains only in a melody. It is the stillness of the moment before death and the deafening silence of the hour of rebirth. Those things that cannot be said must be sung, and these are the songs of Voices of Exile.

Combining solo and choral singing and orchestrations in the tradition of the great oratorios of the 18th and 19th Centuries with recordings of both folk singing and recitations of poetic texts, Richard Blackford’s score plumbs crushing depths of desperation and despair but also offers an unbroken thread of hope. Mr. Blackford’s compositional style is unmistakably modern but accessible in the best sense, and there are passages that possess resonant tonality that harkens back to the musical environments of Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. The work’s Prelude and five parts—Memories of Home, Journeys, Prison, Exile, and Freedom—depict in an hour that seems mere seconds the complete cycle of disaster, displacement, disenfranchisement, and liberation. For the past half-century or so, the use of recorded music, voices, and extraneous sounds has been prevalent in Classical Music, often with regrettable and at times risible results, but the intelligence with which Mr. Blackford integrates taped passages—a dolorous Bengali folksong, sung by Kamla Chaudhuri; the chanting of Somali singer Osman Dugleh; a recitation by Tibetan poet Gergyi Tarring Gonpo; a reading by Chilean poet Maria Eugenia Bravo Calderara; Tanya Czarovska's singing of a Macedonian folksong; and an ensemble of voices speaking the words 'Exile has no frontiers' in several languages—is exceptional. Interspersing passages from the poets of conflict-torn regions with the principal text by Tony Harrison, Mr. Blackford wisely chose to set all of the excerpted poems in English translations. Hearing the juxtaposition of the sung texts in English with the taped readings in the original languages both heightens the sense of universality of suffering and intensifies the perception of isolation that shapes the dramatic energy of Voices of Exile. David Hill conducts with a distinct mastery of the music, pacing each of the five Parts with attention to details of scoring and nuances of text. Under his leadership, the ugliness of hate and violence are revealed with unapologetic power, but the beauty of hope is never fully hidden. Maestro Hill's efforts are seconded by committed performances by the New London Children's Choir, The Bach Choir, and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Britain of course has one of the world's finest traditions of training children's voices, and the best of that tradition is put to the test in Voices of Exile. Mr. Blackford makes insightful use of children's voices, and the young choristers of the New London Children's Choir respond with poised, pleasing singing. The singing of The Bach Choir is equally fluent and fluid, moments of force en masse and chamber-like passages handled with equal expertise, not least in the Passacaglia and Fugue in Part Two. The critical writing for the solo violin in the Prelude and Epilogue is splendidly executed by the uncredited violinist (the Orchestra’s concertmaster, presumably), and throughout the performance the Philharmonia personnel distinguish themselves with playing of great involvement and sensitivity.

In both the complement of soloists and small details of musical structure, Mr. Blackford’s score displays a kinship with Sir Edward Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. The integrity of Mr. Blackford’s writing for voices also owes something to the example of Elgar, and there are occasional reminiscences of Finzi, Britten, and Tippett. Mr. Blackford’s vocal lines exhibit an unique concept of melodic construction, however, and there is nothing derivative in Voices of Exile. The solo lines in the Prelude are sung with great expressivity by American tenor Gregory Kunde, one of the foremost exponents of bel canto. In recent seasons, Mr. Kunde has increasingly taken on heavier rôles with great success, and his singing in Voices of Exile is a telling blend of bel canto grace and more overtly dramatic utterance. In ‘Fleeing’ (Somalia), the first movement of Part Two, Mr. Kunde’s singing is superb, conveying exhaustion and wavering resolve with tones that never tire or waver from pitch and attractiveness. Mr. Kunde’s lines in ‘Nigeria’ are delivered with spellbinding immediacy, propelling the harsh narrative to a wrenching climax. Here, his invigorating performance blends with the potent singing of Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, whose voicing of the lines depicting genocide are all the more chilling for being so beautifully sung. The wonder portrayed in Mr. Finley’s singing in ‘Memories of Tibet’ and ‘Crossing the Frontier’ (Tibet) is heartening, and the solemn resignation that fills his performance of ‘Neither here nor there’ (Bosnia) is unsparing, particularly in the radiant sadness of his delivery of the lines ‘I am not really here, and over there I am no more.’ British mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers sings with earthy severity in ‘Private Soldier’ (Chile), and the heartbreak of her storytelling in ‘Yemma’ (Algeria) is haunting. In ‘My Wish’ (Kurdistan), she and Mr. Kunde duet with incredible sensuality, phrasing ‘I make for you a bed of sweet violets, My arms entwine you as honeysuckle’ with almost unbearable affection. Uniting in ‘Daughter of the Desert’ (Angola), the three soloists meet the demands of Mr. Blackford’s music exquisitely, blending their voices in engrossing ensemble over the adult and children’s choruses. To Mr. Kunde falls the Epilogue, a setting of Tony Harrison’s ‘Poem.’ As in the Prelude, the challenging tessitura gives Mr. Kunde little trouble, and the refinement of his singing of ‘The love moth seeks the flame that men must light and light again’ completes the cycle of the musical and dramatic progression with lucidity and expansive vindication of the survival instinct of humanity.

Richard Blackford proves a composer with something valid to say, and he says it with uncompromising poignancy in Voices of Exile. The work’s subject matter inspired the composer to produce a score of ambivalent but apposite beauty, and that score inspired a masterful group of musicians to a performance that meaningfully intones the songs of voices silenced by inhumanity. It is a performance that memorializes the basic longing of people for connection and endurance with vivid musicality. In ways large and small, the voices of exile are the voices of all men, and Voices of Exile enables them to be heard over the cacophony of injustice that would extinguish them.

11 April 2014

CD REVIEW: L’AMOUR – French Opera Arias (Juan Diego Flórez, tenor; DECCA B0020307-02)

L'AMOUR - French Opera Arias (Juan Diego Flórez, tenor; DECCA B0020307-02)

ADOLPHE CHARLES ADAM (1803 – 1856), HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869), GEORGES BIZET (1838 – 1875), FRANÇOIS-ADRIEN BOIËLDIEU (1775 – 1834), LÉO DELIBES (1836 – 1891), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1792 – 1848), CHARLES GOUNOD (1818 – 1893), JULES MASSENET (1842 – 1912), JACQUES OFFENBACH (1819 – 1880), AMBROISE THOMAS (1811 – 1896): L’Amour – Arias from Le postillon de Lonjumeau, La dame blanche, Les Troyens, La jolie fille de Perth, Lakmé, La favorite, Roméo et Juliette, Werther, La belle Hélène, and MignonJuan Diego Flórez, tenor; Sergey Artamonov, bass (La favorite); Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna; Roberto Abbado, conductor [Recorded at Teatro Manzoni, Bologna, Italy, on 3, 5, 8, 11, 13, and 16 July 2013; DECCA B0020307-02; 1CD; 64:15; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Some of the most serendipitous occasions in opera are those that occur without the dual benefit and curse of expectation. An insightful artist, sure of his preparedness, can take advantage of an unheralded opportunity to transform the inevitable nervousness that accompanies an important début into dramatic energy that transcends the circumstances of the performance. When the tenor scheduled to sing the musically altitudinous rôle of Corradino in Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran in Pesaro’s 1996 Rossini Opera Festival production fell ill, a young tenor—then only twenty-three years old—was thrust into prominence, honoring the legacy of the rôle’s creator, Giuseppe Fusconi, whose careers in Corfu, Vicenza, and Venice—where he sang the part of Pietro in the première of Donizetti’s Enrico di Borgogna in 1818—seemingly often found him rescuing performances imperiled by colleagues’ indispositions. With a portrayal of Corradino that continues to inspire awe among those who heard it, the international career of Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez was launched into the operatic firmament with meteoric brilliance. Unlike many estrellas operísticas, however, Mr. Flórez has remained resplendently in orbit rather than crashing back to the terrestrial realities of spent vocal resources and inadequate technique. Now forty-one, Mr. Flórez continues to broaden his artistic horizons while maintaining the exalted level of accomplishment that has been a hallmark of his singing throughout his career. Though his DECCA recording of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice preserved a sterling account of the 1774 Paris version of the score and both Rossini’s Comte Ory (recorded in performance by Deutsche Grammophon) and Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment have figured prominently in his stage repertoire in recent seasons, L’Amour is Mr. Flórez’s first recorded foray into the fruitful stratum of 19th-Century French opera. Whether on account of the specific vocal demands of the music or the significance of the assignments for a singer of his prestige, L’Amour provides Mr. Flórez with the opportunity to beguile listeners with arias from rôles that he is unlikely to sing in the world’s opera houses alongside performances of music that might have been composed specially for his tenore di grazia voice. Mr. Flórez is to be applauded for following his artistic inquisitiveness along new trails at a time in the career at which many important singers are content to rest on their laurels by singing only music with which they are comfortable. Still more deserving of applause is the shrewdness of this artist that, after nearly two decades of conquering some of the most terrifying rôles in the tenor repertoire, enables him to sing with the beauty and uninhibited joy that glow in so many passages on L’Amour.

The account of Georges’s martial aria ‘Ah! quel plaisir d’être soldat’ from Boiëldieu’s La dame blanche with which Mr. Flórez launches L’Amour sets the pace for a thrilling but refreshingly thoughtful recital. Georges’s ‘Viens, gentille dame’ suits Mr. Flórez even better, but his singing of ‘Ah! quel plaisir d’être soldat’ is stirring, the text delivered with conviction and sly humor. Throughout the selections on L’Amour, Mr. Flórez’s French diction is admirable, with few of the distortions of nasal vowels that many singers—especially tenors—employ to facilitate placement of tones in the upper register. Negotiations of the ascents to and above top C are managed with his customary fearlessness, but here reservations arise and linger to the end of the disc. Mr. Flórez’s intonation remains splendidly reliable, but the steadiness of sustained tones at the extreme top of his range is no longer unimpeachable. The seemingly compromised quality of notes above top B♭ is likely exacerbated by the closeness with which the voice was recorded, but even his ardent singing of Elvino’s ‘Prendi l’anel ti dono’ in the 2008 studio recording of Bellini’s La sonnambula revealed a slight beat on the top Cs. [A performance of La fille du régiment heard at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010 revealed no deterioration of the top Cs in ‘Pour mon âme, quel destin’ or the top D in ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie,’ despite Mr. Flórez having been announced as being slightly indisposed, however.] The ebullience of Mr. Flórez’s singing of Chapelou’s ‘Mes amis, écoutez l’histoire d’un jeune et galant postillon’ from Adolphe Adam’s Le postillon de Lonjumeau is fantastic, but the aria’s top Ds sound desperate rather than exuberant. The interpolated top notes actually distract from the pulchritude of Mr. Flórez’s phrasing in Ferrand’s ‘Un ange, une femme inconnue’ from Donizetti’s La favorite, in which he receives resonant support from Russian bass Sergey Artamonov. His efforts are also complemented by the graceful contributions of the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna and Maestro Roberto Abbado.

The unmistakably Gallic eloquence of Henri’s air ‘À la voix d’un amant fidèle’ from Bizet’s La jolie fille de Perth may come as a surprise to listeners familiar only with the composer’s Carmen, but the charm of the music is winningly realized in Mr. Flórez’s performance of the aria. Famously recorded by Alfredo Kraus, the aria draws from Mr. Flórez similar refinement of phrasing, and the finesse with which Mr. Flórez approaches the climactic top notes is appropriately poised. The frolicking Jugement de Pâris, ‘Au mont Ida, trois déesses, from Offenbach’s La belle Hélène is so dazzlingly sung by Mr. Flórez that it seems finer music than it actually is. His comedic gifts are bountiful, and how awesome—and unusual—it would be to hear a voice of this quality in Offenbach’s high-flying tenor rôles! Gérald’s gorgeous ‘Fantaisie aux divins mensonges’ from Delibes’s still-too-seldom-heard Lakmé is one of the most mesmerizing selections on the disc, Mr. Flórez’s timbre and imaginative use of text imparting the rhapsodic nature of Gérald’s expression. Thomas’s Mignon also deserves to be performed more frequently and by more of the world’s important opera companies, and the fluidity of line that Mr. Flórez devotes to his performance of Wilhelm Meister’s ‘Oui, je veux par le monde promener librement mon humeur vagabonde’ elucidates the inspiration of Thomas’s vocal writing. In Roméo’s ubiquitous ‘Ah! lève-toi, soleil’ from Roméo et Juliette, the top B♭s at the crests of Gounod’s melodic arcs sound forced, and though his articulations of the vocal lines are elegant they do not justify the inclusion of the aria in this recital: a piece like Nadir’s ‘Je crois entendre encore’ from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles would have been preferable. It is regrettable that, aside from the sumptuous aria ‘O blonde Cérès,’ the rôle of Iopas in Berlioz’s Les Troyens gives a tenor little to do. The aria is ideal for Mr. Flórez, and he sings it with great distinction despite a top C that is slightly pinched.

With the often Wagnerian dimensions of Massenet’s orchestrations requiring a degree of vocal amplitude that it is unlikely that Mr. Flórez could ever supply, the title rôle in Werther is a part that he almost certainly will never sing in staged productions in larger opera houses. One of the most exemplary traits of his artistry is his cognizance of the capabilities of his own vocal endowment, and aside from a few informed experiments—Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at Pesaro in 2013, for instance—he has maintained careful control of his repertoire, avoiding singing certain rôles in certain houses for the sake of preserving his vocal prowess. In the context of a studio recording of arias, though, Werther is a tantalizing prospect, and Mr. Flórez’s performances of ‘Ô Nature, pleine de grâce’ and ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ are the musical and artistic pinnacles of L’Amour. In the first aria, Werther’s paean to the seductive dominion of nature, the passion in Mr. Flórez’s singing reaches ecstatic heights of rapture, and his bright, somewhat metallic timbre shimmers under the glaring sunlight of Massenet’s music. ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ is one of the most familiar arias in the tenor canon, and the variety of voices that has sung the aria effectively—lyric tenors like Giuseppe di Stefano, Juan Oncina, Cesare Valletti, and Alain Vanzo, as well as larger voices like those of Carlo Bergonzi, Franco Corelli, and Georges Thill—is fascinating. In a large opera house, the effort that would be required for Mr. Flórez’s well-projected voice to compete with the orchestra would be troublingly risky. As recorded here, Mr. Flórez sings the aria strongly, with only the top A♯s sounding strained. The sad truth is that the voices that have the necessary breadth to sing Werther in larger opera houses are rarely beautiful, and Mr. Flórez supplies the focused, attractive tone that makes ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ not just an impressive but a commanding aria. Crucially, Mr. Flórez sounds like a young, poetically-inclined, brooding young man undone by imprudent love.

Ultimately, L’Amour is the rare recital disc that has abundant commercial and artistic appeal. It is both an exploration of a facet of the career of one of the 21st Century’s best singers and an intriguing vista of one path that this marvelous voice may travel in seasons to come. After the auspicious triumph of his Pesaro début in Matilde di Shabran, Juan Diego Flórez has been a singer from whom consistent greatness is expected. In this recital of repertoire for which he has obvious affection, he delivers greatness even when the difficulties of the music challenge him in unexpected ways. Too many singers mistake clinical perfection for greatness. Like any artist of integrity, Juan Diego Flórez aims for perfection in the selections on L’Amour, but he also makes no attempts at artificially disguising his vocal vulnerabilities. Under the best of care, voices change with the passage of time: only the most sensitive singers’ techniques and artistries evolve in kind. L’Amour offers plentiful doses of the fleetness, flexibility, and spine-tingling top notes that characterize this singer’s best work, yet what makes L’Amour more than another pleasant recital disc is the very quality that defines it: love.

10 April 2014

CD REVIEW: Franz Liszt & Giuseppe Verdi – COMPLETE PARAPHRASES AND FREE TRANSCRIPTIONS (Rinaldo Zhok, piano; Odradek ODRCD309)

Franz Liszt & Giuseppe Verdi - COMPLETE PARAPHRASES (Rinaldo Zhok, piano; Odradek ODRCD309)

FRANZ LISZT (1811 – 1886) and GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Complete Paraphrases and Free Transcriptions (Arrangements of music from Aida, Don Carlos, Ernani, I Lombardi alla prima crociata, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, Il trovatore, and Messa da Requiem)—Rinaldo Zhok, piano [Recorded at Studio Odradek, 15 – 19 September 2013; Odradek ODRCD309; 1CD, 76:23; Available from Amazon, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​From a literary perspective, perhaps the most difficult and thankless tasks in the art of letters are those of translating the works of great writers. In so many cases, both poetry and prose are dependent upon the nuances of context and meaning unique to their vernaculars, and only an artist with gifts equal to those of the original writer can hope to replicate in like form the endemic qualities of a gem of one language in the different mechanics of another. The spirit of language is in inflection and interpretation of subtleties, and too many translations lose this spirit in salvos of words. So, too, is the ethos of a piece of music easily muted or obscured altogether when it is arranged—or translated, as it were—for forces other than those for which it was composed. On these grounds alone, his Paraphrases and Transcriptions of themes from the operas of Giuseppe Verdi erase any thoughts that Franz Liszt was not an important composer but merely a legendary virtuoso. In these pieces, the soul of Verdi emanates from the music more authentically than in many performances of his own operas. Liszt was not solely a wily craftsman as generations of miscomprehension have suggested: in his concert arrangements of Verdi's music, he accomplished the remarkable feat of conveying via the piano's eighty-eight keys the dramatic weight, suspense, harmonic richness, and glorious bel canto of the Italian composer's emblematic scores. Make no mistake, however: these are fearsomely virtuosic pieces in which Liszt exploited the full scope of his volcanic pianism. Many pianists can play the works on this disc, but only artists whose fingers are but a single component of their techniques can truly perform them. Born in Trieste, where Verdi's Il corsaro and Stiffelio were first performed, young pianist Rinaldo Zhok has by right of birth the suave sophistication and native absorption of Italian slancio required to commune with the soul of Verdi, and his playing on this disc—brilliantly recorded by Odradek—reveals that he also has mastered the technical alchemy needed to do full justice to the music of Liszt.

​Beginning with the stinging 'Coro di festa e Marcia funebre' from Don Carlos (R. 268, S. 435), in which the solemn monastic procession is juxtaposed with the ferocious bloodlust of the Auto-da-fé, Mr. Zhok immediately discloses the comprehensiveness of his artistry. He plays the principal theme of the chorus with frenzied power that contrasts meaningfully with the lugubrious, almost awkward rhythmic squareness of the march. The scene in the opera is an evocative exposition of Verdi's suspicion and overt distrust of the Church, of course, but the clarity which which Mr. Zhok depicts this in Liszt's arrangement is unexpected. Then, the delicacy with which he plays the transcription of Viclinda’s preghiera 'Salve Maria! … di grazie il petto' from I Lombardi alla prima crociata—or, in the form with which Liszt would have been acquainted, Jérusalem (First version; R. 264, S. 431)—delves straightaway into the lyrical heart of the music, the arching melodic line typical of the young Verdi unfurled with grace that does not obscure the wizardry of Liszt’s rendering of the accompaniment. The most familiar of Liszt’s Verdi arrangements, the ‘Paraphrase de concert’ from Rigoletto (R. 267, S. 434) is a reimagining of the great Quartet, 'Bella figlia dell'amore,’ and the inventiveness with which Liszt differentiates the four very distinct vocal lines in his setting is indicative of a thorough comprehension of Verdi’s compositional idiom. Mr. Zhok’s playing of the Rigoletto Paraphrase is similarly indicative of an insightful response to the sensual interplay of melodies. Caressing the phrase in which, in the opera, the Duca di Mantova ascends to top B♮, Mr. Zhok also takes care to infuse Maddalena’s and Rigoletto’s lines with appropriate emphases, highlighting the free-spiritedness of the seductress and the jester’s anger and paternal affection. Gilda’s growing heartbreak radiates from Mr. Zhok’s idiomatic phrasing. Both of the Paraphrases from Ernani are delivered with energy that mimics the dramatic impetus that the opera can generate in performance. The chorus from the Act One Finale adapted in Liszt’s first Ernani Paraphrase (R. 293, S. 431a) is majestically represented, Mr. Zhok’s playing aptly imparting the atmosphere of the scene and overcoming the slight heavy-handedness of Liszt’s arrangement. The second of the Ernani pieces (R. 265, S. 432) draws on Carlo's aria 'Oh, de' verd'anni miei' and the subsequent chorus from Act Three, some of the most searching music composed by Verdi in the first decade of his career, and the sensitivity with which Mr. Zhok plays Liszt’s thoughtfully-shaped arrangement of it accentuates the dignity of the dramatic utterance. The 'Miserere' from Il trovatore (R. 266, S. 433) is one of the most strikingly innovative scenes in any of Verdi’s operas, the tension perpetuated by Leonora’s agitated lines interchanging with the offstage singing of Manrico and the choral incantation of ‘Miserere d’un’alma già vicina’ building to an inflamed climax. As in the Rigoletto Paraphrase, the deftness with which Liszt emphasizes each element of the Trovatore scene without forfeiting the broader structure of the music is notable. The bristling potency with which Mr. Zhok plays the lines to which Leonora sings ‘Di te, di te scordarmi’ is sublime, and the clear-headedness of his playing produces a completely satisfying performance of this compelling piece as a whole. In the ‘Réminiscences de Boccanegra’ (R. 271, S. 438), the last of his arrangements of Verdi’s music, Liszt achieved a distinguished elegance, and Mr. Zhok’s delivery of the gossamer figurations of the opera’s beautiful but unnerving Prelude—the sort of music that sounds deceptively simple—is exquisite. In the Prelude’s repetitive blocks of melody, Verdi managed to depict so much of the emotional sweep of Simon Boccanegra, and both Liszt and Mr. Zhok accomplish this in the ‘Réminiscences.’ The 'Danza sacra e Duetto finale' from Aida (R. 269, S. 436) combines the dance of the priestesses in the Temple of Vulcan in Act One with Aida’s and Radamès’s 'O terra, addio.’ Mr. Zhok revels in Verdi’s pseudo-exotic harmonies in the dance, but the real joy of his playing—and, indeed, one of the most superb pleasures of an exceptional disc—is the radiance of his phrasing of ‘O terra, addio.’ The lilting phrases are floated with a poise that audiences long to hear in the voices of sopranos and tenors who sing Aida and Radamès, and Mr. Zhok’s command of dynamics is ruminatively exercised. Virtuosity in the service of contemplative expression is also at the core of Mr. Zhok’s playing of the disc’s bonus track, Liszt’s arrangement of the 'Agnus dei' from the Messa da requiem (R. 270, S. 436). The emotion of the music passes from the soul of Verdi, through the mind of Liszt, to the hands of Mr. Zhok.

Like the finest translations of literature, Franz Liszt’s paraphrases and transcriptions of the music of Giuseppe Verdi are appreciable works in their own right and possess their own unique life. Unfortunately, the ill-conceived notion of these pieces being shallow vehicles for egotistical maneuvering by opportunistic pianists persists. The playing of Rinaldo Zhok on this disc should contribute to the erosion of these prejudices. Only a prodigiously-gifted composer could arrange the music of Verdi with such fidelity to the original sources, and only a pianist with equal virtuosity and emotive loquacity can perform these pieces with the volubility they deserve. This is a special disc, and the performances on it declare that Rinaldo Zhok is a special pianist.

06 April 2014

CD REVIEW: Francesco Cilèa – L’ARLESIANA (G. Filianoti, I. Tamar, M. Bunoaica, F. Landolfi, K.-E. Lee; cpo 777 805-2)

Francesco Cilèa - L'ARLESIANA (cpo 777 805-2)

FRANCESCO CILÈA (1866 – 1950): L’arlesianaGiuseppe Filianoti (Federico), Iano Tamar (Rosa Mamai), Mirella Bunoaica (Vivetta), Kyoung-Eun Lee (L’innocente), Jin Seok Lee (Marco), Francesco Landolfi (Baldassare), Juan Orozco (Metifio); Opernchor und Kinderchor des Theater Freiburg; Camerata Vocale Freiburg; Philharmoisches Orchester Freiburg; Fabrice Bollon, conductor [Recorded in Konzerthaus Freiburg, Rolf Böhme Saal, Freiburg, Germany, 12 – 17 July 2012; cpo 777 805-2; 2CD, 105:57; Available from jpc and major music retailers]

​Francesco Cilèa's L'arlesiana is an imperfect opera, and its composer knew it. From the time of the opera's première in 1897 until his death in 1950, Cilèa returned to the score time after time, first consolidating its four acts into three for an 1898 production and later, at the instigation of his publisher, adding the celebrated Intermezzo in 1937. Like Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann, L'arlesiana is an opera that defies easy classification, one of which its composer's truest intentions remain elusive. The presiding tone is one of pastoral lyricism, with even the famous 'lamento di Federico' shaped more by resignation than by unrestrained passion (a distinction lost in the caterwauling of many tenors who sing the number in concert or recital), but there are passages in which Cilèa seemingly aspired to a gutsier verismo aesthetic. The sensitive composer unquestionably regretted the loss of music necessitated by the restructuring of the score, but there can be little doubt that L'arlesiana in its three-act form is to be preferred to an edition that goes on longer. The quality of Cilèa's music notwithstanding, the opera's plot is a flimsy affair that can only be stretched so far. Still, the restoration of Federico's aria 'Una mattina m’apriron nella stanza'—rediscovered by this recording's Federico, Giuseppe Filianoti—in Act Three strengthens the drama and perhaps makes some amends for the disfigurement that Cilèa felt that his bruised score endured. There are pages in L'arlesiana in which there is more fat than sinew on the musical bones, but there are also scenes in which steaming marrow courses through fissures in the opera's skeleton. Flawed works of art are often those to which observers respond most profoundly: perhaps there is a sense of personal validation in the triumph of imperfection. Few—and probably Cilèa least of all—would make grandiose claims that L'arlesiana is a great opera. Like many of the scores that languish just beyond the fringes of the international repertoire, however, L'arlesiana is considerably more than the sum of its parts and, when performed with an integrity that accepts rather than attempting to apologize for its deficiencies, can prove a gratifying, gracious entertainment. Long absent from stages and recording studios, L'arlesiana here receives an opportunity to reveal its charms anew, and it is an opportunity seized with affection, advocacy, and adroitness.

Coinciding with concert performances in Konzerthaus Freiburg, cpo's recording transfers the immediacy and preparedness of the live performances into the clean acoustics of studio sessions. Though cpo's engineering is typically admirable, the fine playing of the Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg is placed in a sonic space that sometimes sounds disappointingly one-dimensional, and both the choral voices and the higher-voiced principals lack richness and presence. The intermittent shallowness of the recorded sound does not diminish the excellent musical performance, however. Conducted with unflagging attention to detail by Fabrice Bollon, the performance benefits enormously from the conductor's intuitive pinpointing of the dramatic crux of each scene. The surprisingly wide range of colors in Cilèa's orchestrations is exploited in pursuit of dramatic intensity, and Maestro Bollon draws from the orchestra aptly Italianate sounds and phrasing that complements the vocal lines. The adults and children of the Opernchor and Kinderchor of Theater Freiburg and Camerata Vocale Freiburg sing with firm intonation and mostly acceptable diction. The singing of the children's chorus is charming at the start of Act Three, though it sounds as though Bach Cantatas or the music of Humperdinck's Kuchenkinder would be more familiar territory than Cilèa's raucous Farandole. The clarity of the part singing by both adult and juvenile choristers is enjoyable, though; and often missing from the performances of Italian choruses. For the reinstatement of Federico's aria in Act Three, Mario Guido Scappucci was engaged to orchestrate the music from Cilèa's recovered manuscript and to provide recitatives to place the aria in its proper context in Federico's duet with Vivetta, 'Non lo negar, non sei felice.' The skill with which Mr. Scappucci completed his task is revealed by the symbiosis with which his music conjoins with Cilèa's.

No member of the cast disappoints, and the consistency of singing among secondary rôles provides considerable pleasure. Mexican baritone Juan Orozco is a solid, aptly menacing Metifio, sounding quite content to take by force what he cannot win by allure. His performance in Act One is forceful, and there is something vaguely indecent in his singing of 'Mi diè gli ardenti baci' ('She has given me ardent kisses'). In Act Three, when Metifio resolves to abduct the girl from Arles, Mr. Orozco's voice brims with grim determination and defiance. South Korean bass Jin Seok Lee has more voice than Federico's uncle Marco needs, but it is a joy to hear the small part sung so capably.

L'innocente, Federico's disadvantaged brother, is sung with vocal freshness and great feeling by South Korean mezzo-soprano Kyoung-Eun Lee. The voice is unmistakably feminine, but the poise and precision of Ms. Lee's singing count for much. In the opera's opening scene, her exchanges with Baldassare and Rosa Mamai display the eagerness and slight ennui of an impressionable boy, and the relish with which Ms. Lee's L'innocente spies on his brother in the hayloft is quaintly comical. The unaffected sincerity of Ms. Lee's singing in Acts Two and Three palpably conveys both the scope of L'innocente's love for his brother and the extent to which he depends upon Federico. The fruitiness of Ms. Lee's timbre is not ideal for her rôle, but the spirit of her performance compensates, and the quality of her vocalism is self-recommending. Romanian soprano Mirella Bunoaica sings ably as Vivetta, the simple village girl who inevitably loves Federico, but her thoughts remain focused more on the notes than on her character. Her fervor is of the generic variety, and there is little romantic wonder in her performance. Nevertheless, she sings pleasantly and produces some lovely tones in the upper reaches of Vivetta's music. She partners Federico effectively, particularly in Act Three, and her singing of ‘Se, come amo, sapessi farmi amare’ and ‘Sono respinta…Tutto il mio core’ in Act Two are the most emotive portions of her performance. Were she granted the experience of a staged production of L'arlesiana, Ms. Bunoaica would likely make a very touching Vivetta. She needs only to hone her dramatic instincts to match the accomplishment of her youthfully effervescent singing.

Baritone Francesco Landolfi sings crisply and powerfully as Baldassare, launching the performance with a rousing account of ‘Come due tizzi accesi,’ the aria in which he recounts the dramatically significant tale of the brave goat who battles the wolf all through the night but loses her fight at dawn. Having already sung Rigoletto under Riccardo Muti’s direction and other Verdi rôles, Mr. Landolfi discloses an exciting voice of silk and steel, and his singing of Baldassare encompasses both great tenderness in his interactions with L’innocente and formidable strength of character in his dealings with the increasingly unhinged Metifio. Mr. Landolfi distinguishes himself in every phrase that he sings, and the distinction of his contributions to this performance of L’arlesiana suggests that he is an artist whose singing of Italian repertoire will rise to prominence in future seasons.

Had Mascagni’s Santuzza left Sicily after Turiddu’s death in Cavalleria rusticana and settled along the banks of the Rhône, she might have started a family and been transformed into Cilèa’s Rosa Mamai. In Iano Tamar’s performance, the similarities between the rôles are highlighted intriguingly. With an active repertoire including rôles ranging from Mozart’s Donna Elvira to Richard Strauss’s Elektra, the Georgian soprano is a reliably feisty performer, and the zest of her singing of Rosa Mamai in this performance of L’arlesiana ups the ante in every scene in which she appears. The character’s pride and protectiveness of Federico are vividly communicated, and from Rosa Mamai’s agitated first entrance—‘O Dio, nessuno ancora’—Ms. Tamar sings with immediacy and growing anxiety. In ‘Era un giorno di festa,’ in which Rosa Mamai tells Vivetta of the origins of Federico’s infatuation with the girl from Arles, Ms. Tamar’s singing discloses her suspicion of the mysterious girl, and the desperation in her exhortation to Vivetta to mimic the Arlesiana’s charms, ‘Stringi un po’ più il corsetto,’ is wrenching. The bitterness of Rosa Mamai’s paean to the special hell of motherhood, ‘Esser madre è un inferno,’ is potently conveyed in Ms. Tamar’s performance, but the doubt and irony of her prayer in ‘Signor! Tu che hai voluto’ are tempered by genuine longing for divine aid. Like Santuzza, Rosa Mamai is now usually sung by mezzo-sopranos—on the sparse occasions when the opera is sung at all, that is—but was first sung by Minnie Tracey, an American soprano who included among her repertoire Wagner’s Elisabeth and Isolde. Ms. Tamar is a suitable successor to her rôle’s creator, her voice still vibrant and secure throughout the range required by Rosa Mamai’s music. A few passages challenge Ms. Tamar’s stamina, but she emerges unscathed, and she offers a persuasively complete portrait of Rosa Mamai.

The rôle of Federico was created by Enrico Caruso, but it was one of the few of his preferred characterizations that he was never permitted to share with audiences at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It is the celebrated ‘lamento di Federico’ that has granted L’arlesiana what tremors of life it has had in the past half-century, but the part contains much memorable music. It is obviously a rôle for which Giuseppe Filianoti harbors considerable fondness: as Caruso understood and Ferruccio Tagliavini confirmed, the part is a gift for an Italian lyric tenor with a plaintive timbre and an aptitude for dulcet expressivity. Mr. Filianoti’s bronzed, slightly nasal voice is at home in Cilèa’s music, and the care that he takes in creating a rounded portrait of Federico is encouraging. The ringing nonchalance of his singing of the inebriated ‘Nel colmo del piacer cantiamo, amici’ is diverting, and there is a captivating honesty in his performance of the lamento, ‘È la solita storia del pastore.’ There is not a trace of artifice in Mr. Filianoti’s delivery of ‘Oh, come dolce e grande è l’amor tuo,’ surely one of the most frank statements of filial love in opera, and it is obvious in ‘Va, disperdi ogni triste pensiero’ that his Federico’s search for salvation in Vivetta’s love is half-hearted. ‘Una mattina m’apriron nella stanza’ is a significant discovery, and the diligence of Mr. Filianoti’s performance of the aria fully justifies its inclusion. The tessitura of Federico’s music is comfortable for Mr. Filianoti, and though his singing is not without strain at the top of the range the effort dependably yields sure pitch. The tenor’s artistry is thoughtful without being ostentatious or vulgarly flamboyant: ultimately, his Federico is a small-town boy whose head has been turned by a seductive hallucination, but the probity of his performance ennobles the character and aggrandizes the opera’s tragic impact.

This recording of L’arlesiana is a gift to the listener who values the Arcadian vein of Italian lyric theatre. Fallible and at times unpolished like the score that it presents, the performance committed to disc by cpo makes a plausible case for the engrossing musical and dramatic attributes of L’arlesiana. Regrettably, the current state of the Classical recording industry prevents the documentation of the work of most of today’s gifted singers in their best rôles, but the preservation of Iano Tamar’s Rosa Mamai and Giuseppe Filianoti’s Federico is especially fortuitous. No one should be more grateful than Cilèa.

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – TAMERLANO (X. Sabata, M.E. Cenčić, J.M. Ainsley, K. Gauvin, R. Donose, P. Kudinov; Naïve V 5373)

Georg Friedrich Händel - TAMERLANO (Naïve V 5373)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Tamerlano, HWV 18 (1731 version)—Xavier Sabata (Tamerlano), Max Emanuel Cenčić (Andronico), John Mark Ainsley (Bajazet), Karina Gauvin (Asteria), Ruxandra Donose (Irene), Pavel Kudinov (Leone); Il pomo d’oro; Riccardo Minasi, conductor [Recorded at the Villa San Fermo, Convento dei Pavoniani, Lonigo, Vicenza, Italy, in April 2013; Naïve V 5373; 3CD, 193:18; Available from Amazon, fnac, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​The musical genius and theatrical savvy of Georg Friedrich Händel were never on more eloquent form than in 1724, when the finest of his talents were engaged by the composition of three of his most memorable scores for the London stage: Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, and Tamerlano. A setting of a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym that explores a theme familiar to 18th-Century Britons via plays by Christopher Marlowe and Nicholas Rowe, the last of these was premièred by one of the finest casts assembled for the first nights of any of Händel’s operas: the alto castrati Andrea Pacini and Senesino as Tamerlano and Andronico, soprano Francesca Cuzzoni as Asteria, tenor Francesco Borosini as Bajazet, contralto Anna Vincenza Dotti as Irene, and bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi as Leone. The complex, oft-distorted history of the Tartar Emir Timur fascinated artists both in Händel’s time and beyond, the character having been depicted on the operatic stage in Vivaldi’s pasticcio Bajazet, Mysliveček’s Il gran Tamerlano, and, via Carlo Gozzi’s 1762 play, Puccini’s Turandot [in which the kindly old man whose grief for Liù proves so critical to the opera’s resolution is largely a product of Puccini’s imagination], but Händel’s portrait of the petulant, power-mongering conqueror is surely the most vivid that 21st-Century observers are likely to encounter. Only a misguided historian would go to the opera in search of factual verisimilitude, but the listener with an open heart who spends an evening with Tamerlano will encounter reservoirs of sentiment rare for music of the 18th Century. Händel’s Tamerlano is hardly the bold warrior and political fox of history, but he is a fascinating creature whom an alert singer can endow with charisma and magnetism. It is the trio of the suffering Asteria, her noble but flawed father Bajazet, and her ardent lover Andronico who emerge from Händel’s score as people of genuine passions, however. They are pawns in Tamerlano’s games, and they know it, but they play their parts with unwavering integrity. A modern criticism of Händel’s operas is that their characters do not ‘live’ as those in the scores of Verdi and Puccini do, that Cleopatra and Cesare do not make love in tones as obviously sensual to 21st-Century ears as those of Gilda and the Duca di Mantova and that Bertarido does not lament the inconstancy of conjugal devotion and fidelity with the fervor of Filippo II. This is to misunderstand the special qualities of Händel’s music, however. This recording of Tamerlano, spearheaded by Parnassus Arts Productions and benefitting from the affectionate scholarship of Giovanni Andrea Sechi, puts the perfervid emotions of the opera’s sextet of characters into an appropriately stylish context, but this is not a performance in which singers impersonally pursue historically-informed perfection. They are people reacting to one another, defying danger, daring to love and to hope to be loved. They are master musicians, but ultimately it is not technical skill that lingers in the memory: it is the mercurial splendor of Händel’s score; or, more hauntingly, the splendor with which is it sung.

Under the direction of Riccardo Minasi, the twenty-one instrumentalists of Il pomo d’oro deliver a performance that reverberates with energy, excitement, and feeling. The playing of Maxim Emelyanychev at the harpsichord and Simone Vallerotonda on theorbo, archlute, and Baroque guitar shapes a continuo remarkable for its responsiveness to the dramatic heartbeats of Händel’s music. Vitality and momentum are maintained in secco recitatives, but Maestro Minasi and the players do not hesitate to linger over moments of greatest lyricism. The virtuosity of Il pomo d’oro’s playing is complemented by an inspiriting sense of involvement in the performance. The intimacy of the recorded sound contributes to the consciousness of a collaborative artistic experience rather than a conventional performance in which singers, orchestra, and conductor are separate entities. There is an inviolable unity of purpose that permeates every moment of this performance, and the eloquence of Maestro Minasi’s conducting and Il pomo d’oro’s playing, which want for nothing in period-appropriate stylishness but transcend inelastic adherence to dry academic concepts, fosters an environment in which Händel’s exacting vocal lines seem the only natural means of communicating. Employing a recreation of the edition of the score that Händel created for the revival of the opera in London in 1731, when Senesino reprised his portrayal of Andronico and was joined by Campioli in the title rôle, the celebrated Anna Maria Strada del Pò as Asteria, Giovanni Battista Pinacci as Bajazet, Francesca Bertolli as Irene, and Antonio Montagnana as Leone, this recording exudes a continuity lacking in many performances of Händel’s operas. Every delicacy of Tamerlano is embraced by Maestro Minasi, and the nuances of his approach are brought to life with sensitivity and tenderness by Il pomo d’oro.

If contemporary accounts of Boschi and Montagnana are credible, few basses in recent years have combined bravura technique and dramatic presence with the histrionic power of their 18th-Century forebears. Russian bass Pavel Kudinov, who in 2010 sang Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen and Sarastro in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Bolshoi, proves in his performance of Leone’s music a worthy heir to the mantle of Boschi and Montagnana. A lively presence in recitatives, Mr. Kudinov gives robust accounts of Leone’s arias. ‘Amor dà guerra e pace’ in Act Two is sung with wit and wonderfully burly tone. Borrowed from Händel’s 1727 Riccardo primo and inserted into Act Three of the 1731 revival for Montagnana’s benefit [ironically, the aria was originally composed for Boschi, who created the rôle of Isacio in Riccardo primo], ‘Nel mondo e nell’abisso’ tests Mr. Kudinov’s coloratura prowess, and he displays admirable flexibility across the full range of the music. Rarely, Mr. Kudinov possesses both the requisite strength for Leone’s musical character and an attractive voice. A friend of emperors and princes, this Leone is a suitably noble gentleman, and the Irene of mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose is a seemly addition to his society. Like Mr. Kudinov, Ms. Donose has experience in a wide array of operatic rôles, and her mastery of bel canto facilitates an intuitive focus on placement of tone across the span of Irene’s music. In Act One, Irene’s aria ‘Dal crudel che m’ha tradita’ is bitingly sung by Ms. Donose, and throughout the performance she elegantly expounds the legitimacy of Irene’s cause. Having been betrothed to Tamerlano, she has been set aside in favor of Asteria, and the initial failure of her pleas for preservation of her honor—delivered in disguise—inspires her to principled sparring on her own behalf. Both her aria ‘Par che mi nasca in seno’ and arietta ‘No, che sei tanto costante’ in Act Two are sung with firm, burnished tone, the righteousness of her quest for justice conveyed by the unwavering versatility of her singing. In Act Three, when Irene’s crisis reaches its climax, Ms. Donose’s singing of ‘Crudel più non son io’ rings with conviction and cunning. The walnut colorations of Ms. Donose’s timbre are inherently regal, and Irene’s music is an ideal fit for both the proportions of the voice and the best qualities of her technique, with only a handful of notes at the top of her range lacking authority.

Bajazet is one of the most captivating characters in Baroque opera. Stern, unyielding, proud to a fault, and even wrong-headed, his actions are justified to an extent by his royal pedigree and love for his daughter. He spits violence and vengeance for virtually the entire duration of his part, but an intelligent singer can instill the sensibilities of a broken man into his performance of the rôle. In this recording, tenor John Mark Ainsley is an uncommonly direct, emotionally candid Bajazet whose calm, unfeigned depiction of the character’s paternal affection softens the cruelty of the part. This discernment is for naught if the music is not capably sung, and in this regard, too, Mr. Ainsley’s performance is exceptionally effective. In Act One, his singing of ‘Forte e lieto’ and ‘Ciel e terra armi di sdegno’ boils with rage and indignation. The irony and subtle inflections that Mr. Ainsley communicates in ‘A’ suoi piedi’ in Act Two are prickly but stirring, and the joy of a father reunited in spirit with his daughter floods his singing of the arietta ‘No, no, il tuo sdegno.’ His lines in the terzetto ‘Voglio strage’—the sole holdover from the 1724 version of the score—are bold and defiant, matching the attitudes of Asteria and Tamerlano. The agony of the accompagnato ‘E il soffrirete, d’onestade, o Numi’ gives way to a tremendous paroxysm of determination in ‘Empio, per farti guerra,’ which Mr. Ainsley sings with tempestuous spirit and invulnerable virtuosity, his intonation remaining admirably fleet at top speed. The restraint with which Mr. Ainsley shapes his performance of Bajazet’s suicide scene, one of the most original innovations of Händel’s score, gives the character’s death the aura of genuine tragedy. The poise of his delivery of the accompagnato ‘Fremi, minaccia; mi rido,’ the grandiose ‘Oh sempre avversi Dei’ the touching arioso ‘Figlia mia, pianger, no’ and ‘Tu, spietato, il vedrai’ sets his performance apart from every other Bajazet on records, and his portrayal of the complicated, confounding man is ultimately magisterial and moving. As dramatic artistry, Mr. Ainsley’s Bajazet is the work of a great actor. Musically, his compact timbre has never sounded lovelier, and his vocalism is the work of a great singer.

Countertenor Xavier Sabata offers a more pragmatic Tamerlano than many performances enjoy. The puerile hotheadedness of the man is conveyed with rollicking assertiveness, but there is an alluring reactivity in Mr. Sabata’s performance. Tamerlano is the sort of part that is perfect for his dynamic singing, and he makes splendid impressions in every line of his rôle. The arias ‘Vuò dar pace’ and ‘Dammi pace’ in Act One are sung colorfully (and it is interesting to note that such a bellicose man sings so frequently of peace), and Mr. Sabata’s performance of ‘Bella gara che faranno’ in Act Two is richly suggestive. Vocally, Mr. Sabata does his most impressive singing in the aria that demands nothing less, the barnstorming ‘A dispetto d’un volto ingrato’ in Act Three. The insurmountable virtuosity with which he negotiates his music’s divisions, both in ‘A dispetto d’un volto ingrato’ and throughout the opera is phenomenal, and he manages to sound self-congratulatory, dangerous, and strangely sexy without forcing or distorting his wonderful voice. There are a few instances of ‘hootiness,’ particularly in the vicinity of register breaks, but he cleverly uses these to his advantage, casting the cloak of villainy over occasional unlovely sounds. He seems to be having a truly rip-roaring time, and he creates a Tamerlano who sounds as though he might cut his rival’s throat on a whim but would show him a grand time before wielding the blade.

For the past decade, Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin has been one of the reigning divas of Baroque repertoire, but none of her recordings more completely exhibits the expanse of her gifts than this performance of Asteria. From her first utterance, she projects the girl’s shattered innocence, and the moxie with which she adapts her vocalism to the shifting fortunes of her character is outstanding. Her singing of Asteria’s first aria, ‘S’ei non mi vuol amar,’ crackles with indignation, and the suppressed heartbreak in her performance of ‘Deh, lasciatemi il nemico’ leaps from the radiant sound of her voice in coloratura passages. The piquancy of Ms. Gauvin’s singing of ‘Non è più tempo no’ never fully disguises Asteria’s overwhelming love for Andronico, and the coruscating but never disfiguring sadness that emits from her singing of ‘Se potessi un dì placere’ at the end of Act Two shimmers in her assured, gorgeous vocalism. The great aria ‘Cor di padre’ is sung by Ms. Gauvin with incomparable beauty of tone and depth of feeling that stops time. No less unanswerable is the passion that courses through her singing of the arioso ‘Folle sei, se lo consenti.’ Musically and dramatically, the zenith of Ms. Gauvin’s performance is the duet with Andronico, ‘Vivo in te,’ in which her voice intertwines with that of her Andronico with unmistakable sensuality. It is perhaps the greatest affirmation of unalterable love in any of Händel’s operas, and Ms. Gauvin ascends to an apogee of expression that transcends the accurate singing of notes: were it possible to distill the whole essence of love into sound, it could be not be more potent than in Ms. Gauvin’s singing in ‘Vivo in te.’ In every phrase that she sings in this performance, her voice remains rounded and arrestingly beautiful, and her ornamentation is both restrained and refined.

In ‘Vivo in te,’ the singing of countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić soars into the heavens in tandem with that of Ms. Gauvin, and he inhabits this exalted plane of articulation throughout the performance. Atypically for a rôle composed for Senesino, whose grasp of Händel’s most challenging bravura music was acknowledged by even the most critical of his contemporaries, the nucleus of Andronico’s music is comprised of concentrated outpourings of profound emotion. Mr. Cenčić’s singing of ‘Bella Asteria’ glows with adoration, and the conflicting heartbreak and yearning in ‘Benché mi sprezzi’ course through his pained but composed performance. The certitude of his account of ‘Cerco invano di placere’ awakens untold streams of endearment, and the sheer electricity of his delivery of the daunting ‘Più d’una tigre altero’ is startling. Even here, Mr. Cenčić’s technique is untroubled by the most exorbitant of Händel’s demands, and he is more careful here than in almost any of his previous recordings to ally his ornaments to the scope of the text. The intensity of his singing of the arietta ‘No, che del tuo gran cor’ depicts the sincerity of his connection with Andronico’s plight, and the quiet disenchantment that glistens beneath the surface of his performance of ‘Se non mi rendi il mio tesoro’ engages sympathy for his character’s unrelenting anguish in a way that alters perceptions of the opera as a whole. It is likely that Senesino achieved this, but his voice cannot have given greater pleasure than Mr. Cenčić’s. The latter’s voice is a wonder of nature and careful training, as Senesino’s surely was, and Mr. Cenčić is an artist who is never content to accept conventions unquestioningly. In truth, it is the extraordinary beauty of his voice that becomes conventional in this performance of Tamerlano, and he finds in Andronico a rôle that calls upon the best of his artistry and receives it.

There are in the long history of recording opera so few instances of performances undertaken solely for studio microphones stripping away artifice, disinterest, and coldness and getting at the hearts of composers’ scores. This recording of Tamerlano was bolstered by preparations for a production that will be heard in several cities, but it was what might be termed a musical preemptive strike. The most troublesome aspect of many studio recordings is the antiseptic pseudo-perfection: the singers simply seem to not be listening to each other. This Tamerlano is the rare recording that plays out as a genuine performance of an opera rather than a concert presentation of arias. It is very much a team effort, but the accomplishment that makes this recording special not just as a performance of Händel’s Tamerlano but as a milestone in recorded opera is that Karina Gauvin and Max Emanuel Cenčić embody an Asteria and Andronico whose tribulations are as ravishing and redeeming as Aida’s and Radamès’s, Brünnhilde’s and Siegfried’s, or the Marschallin’s and Octavian’s. It is a performance of an opera composed 290 years ago that sounds bewilderingly new.

01 April 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Antonín Dvořák – RUSALKA (J. El-Khoury, R. Thomas, M. Gawrysiak, H. Melton, T. Fox; North Carolina Opera; 30 March 2014)

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano Joyce El-Khory in the title rôle of Antonín Dvořák's RUSALKA with North Carolina Opera [Photo by Curtis Brown, © 2014 by North Carolina Opera] Soprano Joyce El-Khoury in the title rôle of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka at North Carolina Opera, 30 March 2014 [Photo by Curtis Brown, © 2014 by North Carolina Opera]

ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904): Rusalka, Opus 114Joyce El-Khoury (Rusalka), Russell Thomas (Princ), Margaret Gawrysiak (Ježibaba), Heidi Melton (Cizí kněžna), Tom Fox (Vodník), Rachel E. Copeland (Lesní žínka), Kristin Schwecke (Jiná žínka), Jami Rhodes (Třeti žínka), Donald Hartmann (Hajný), Shannon French (Kuchtík), Scott MacLeod (Lovec); Chorus and Orchestra of North Carolina Opera; Timothy Myers, conductor [Directed by Crystal Manich; lighting designed by Ross Kolman; costumes designed by Amanda Seymour; North Carolina Opera, Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina; Sunday, 30 March 2014]

In most performances, Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka is an opera that impresses the ears far more readily than it moves the heart. Premièred in Prague in 1901, the opera is a setting of a libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil that deals with a variation of a familiar fairy tale that is both endearingly timeless and surprisingly modern. Though hers is the title rôle, Rusalka is, like the Färberin in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, denied an identity of her own: in Czech, the word ‘rusalka’ denotes any nymph or sprite, so Dvořák’s heroine is a generality; or, as the text of the opera suggests, a figure whose existence spans two worlds without truly belonging to either of them. Among the characters in Rusalka, only the sorceress Ježibaba can claim any sort of legitimate individuality, though she, too, is ultimately an archetype. In this sense, Rusalka could be argued to be the most ‘operatic’ of operas, the characters who populate it symbolizing the ambiguities that define the genre: the heroine who both is and is not what she seems, willing to suffer the consequences of her dream of love rather than relinquishing it; the hero whose sincerity is undermined by doubt and manipulation; the quintessential ‘other woman,’ not so much a rival to be hated as a representation of the conventionally sensual aspect of the eternal feminine; the stern father whose worldview compels him to condemn what he cannot control; the good-natured sisters whose simplicity causes them to reject what they cannot understand. Dvořák brought these figures to life with greater alacrity than most composers might have managed, tingeing the opera with the understated melancholy and fantastically original response to nature that pervade much of Czech art and music, but the very impersonality of the principal characters can hold an audience at arm’s length. Every barrier between Dvořák’s score and the audience was torn down by North Carolina Opera’s inspiring semi-staged performance in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall. Directed by Crystal Manich, the staging made no attempt at giving the opera any sort of artificial ‘relevance.’ Rather, all efforts were focused on giving Dvořák’s score the best performance possible. The talented, unusually homologous cast having achieved this rivetingly, often unforgettably, the opera spoke for itself. More than four thousand miles from Prague, Rusalka came to life in Raleigh with unmistakable significance and boundless beauty. The ears of the capacity audience were undoubtedly impressed, and the enthusiasm of the ovations asserted that Dvořák’s ‘poor, lost Rusalka’ sank as surely into the hearts of those who heard her sad tale as into the depths from which she emerged.

Both musically and dramatically, Dvořák’s score has many similarities with the operas of Richard Wagner. Rusalka and the Foreign Princess (Cizí knĕžna) are close cousins of Elisabeth and Venus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and the Prince (Princ) bears passing resemblances to Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Siegfried, and Parsifal. Though Vodník is a Wotan-like figure, not least in his resigned renunciation of his beloved daughter, the opening scene of Rusalka inhabits the world of Das Rheingold, Dvořák’s Wood Sprites’ taunting of Vodník paralleling Wagner’s Rhinemaidens’ playful rejection of Alberich. North Carolina Opera’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Timothy Myers left no Wagnerian nuance of Dvořák’s score unexplored, his expansive but always controlled conducting spurring the North Carolina Opera Orchestra to playing that combined fortifying explosions of sound where appropriate with moments of exquisite delicacy. Owing to the rich resources of musical talent that have been lured to central North Carolina in recent years, the NC Opera Orchestra is a far finer ensemble than a visitor to Raleigh might expect it to be, and the instrumentalists displayed great refinement and virtuosity in their execution of Dvořák’s score. In particular, the demanding brass and woodwind parts were superbly played, with almost none of the flubbed notes and missed entries that affect the playing of many regional ensembles. Harpist Jacqueline Barlett proved herself to be a consummate mistress of her instrument, playing the critical passages of her part with rhythmic vitality and tenacious artistry. Though they never appeared on stage, the North Carolina Opera Chorus sang vibrantly, with only notes at the tops of their ranges challenging the singers. The blend among voices was masterfully achieved, and the singers—numbering fourteen ladies and eleven gentlemen—held their own against Dvořák’s orchestra in full cry. In a performance in which many passages were delivered by chorus, horn, and soloists from off stage, balances and tautness of ensemble were maintained with admirable consistency. Maestro Myers’s baton technique and faculty for cueing singers are noticeably superior to those of many young conductors (and, indeed, those of many older, more established conductors, as well) and he is obviously comfortable leading opera. His mastery of Rusalka was evident, and under his direction the performance had both the sweep and the subtlety that the music deserves.

In his brief appearance on stage and, especially, in his lines sung from the wings, baritone Scott MacLeod—also the Chorus Master—was a strong, resonant Huntsman (Lovec), his singing of ‘Jel mladý lovec, jel a jel, laň bilou vlese uvidĕl’ jovial but vaguely mysterious and grandly masculine. Also ringing of voice and charismatic of demeanor was bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as the Gamekeeper (Hajný), whose scenes with his nephew—the Turnspit (Kuchtík), sung with wide-eyed humor by mezzo-soprano Shannon French—were engaging and genuinely funny. The genial comedy of Mr. Hartmann’s and Ms. French’s fear of Ježibaba, not played too broadly, provided welcome levity in the otherwise bleak course of the drama. Soprano Rachel E. Copeland and mezzo-sopranos Kristin Schwecke and Jami Rhodes sang lustrously as the trio of Wood Sprites. Ms. Copeland’s singing of the First Sprite’s song of admiration for her beautiful hair, ‘Mám zlaté vlásky mám,’ was appropriately luminous, and when Ms. Schwecke’s Second Sprite and Ms. Rhodes’s Third Sprite joined her to complete the trio in praise of their youthful enticements the close harmonies were sung with accuracy but every appearance of spontaneity. In the opera’s first scene, the three ladies’ singing glowed with gaiety, and Ms. Copeland’s technique proved equal to the First Sprite’s long-sustained trill and top As. All of America’s regional opera companies should aspire to the high standard of casting of secondary rôles achieved by North Carolina Opera in this performance.

Heidi Melton’s Foreign Princess was a portrayal of Wagnerian amplitude and bel canto poise. The Princess’s vocal line rises to top B♭ within six bars of her entrance, followed in short order by a top C in duet with the Prince over the full power of Dvořák’s orchestration. It is not an extensive rôle, but every phrase that the Princess is given to sing is important and vocally dangerous. If Ms. Melton was daunted by a single note of her part, it could not be heard in her singing. The power and security of her vocalism across the wide range of her music were wonderful, and the insouciant glamour of her performance was seductive. The suggestiveness with which Ms. Melton sang ‘Ó, vystrojte se v šaty přebohaté: mám dvornost jeho vy však srdce máte,’ in which the Princess tells the mute Rusalka that even without words she has captivated the Prince’s heart, was illustrative of the presiding enigma of her performance as a whole. While there was no doubt that this Princess was a serious suitor for the Prince’s affections and a powerfully alluring woman, her reactions to Rusalka seemed more mystified than mean-spirited. Indeed, the only real derision in her performance was leveled at the Prince when, in the final moments of Act Two, she spurned his attention, as much horrified by the Prince’s rejection of Rusalka as by the sudden appearance of Vodník. A less insightful singer might well have made the Princess a mindless, unfeeling virago, but Ms. Melton lent the character a dignity that, in additional to befitting a princess, heightened the sense of isolation that drives the Prince to madness. Ms. Melton’s voice is one of true Hochdramatische proportions, but she encountered no problems with the tessitura of the Princess’s music. The uniqueness of her dramatic portrait was enhanced by the pleasure of hearing the part’s top notes sung so felicitously and forcefully.

Droll, peculiar, and credibly threatening in turn, mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak’s Ježibaba was a quirky creation, and, like her colleagues, Ms. Gawrysiak sang the rôle with confidence and vocal authority. Ms. Gawrysiak punched out the repeated low B♭s in her opening music with columnar strength, but the frequent ascents to E♭ and F at the top of the staff also held no terrors for her. The climactic top G♯s, A and B♭ of her music in Act One were delivered with panache. In Ježibaba’s scene with Rusalka in Act Three, Ms. Gawrysiak brought startling venom to her declarations that the only possible atonement for Rusalka’s misbegotten assumption of human form was the spilling of human blood. Dvořák and Kvapil offer no explicit explanation for Ježibaba’s hatred for humanity, but the passion of Ms. Gawrysiak’s performance suggested that there was some intensely painful history at the core of her abhorrence. In her final appearance, when the Gamekeeper and his nephew consult her for advice in curing the Prince’s increasing malcontent, Ježibaba seems converted into the twin sister of the Knusperhexe in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, and Ms. Gawrysiak clearly savored the transformation. A woman was always perceptible beneath the witch’s exterior in Ms. Gawrysiak’s performance, and the music was sung athletically but attractively.

An accomplished Wagnerian, baritone Tom Fox brought the weight, intelligence, and world-weariness of an important Wotan to his performance as Vodník. In his opening scene with the Wood Sprites, Mr. Fox sang and acted with whimsy, but the tone of his performance—and the coloration of his timbre—changed immediately upon Rusalka’s entrance. The sinewy earthiness of Mr. Fox’s voice was tremendously effective in Vodník’s music, and the exasperation, vexation, and indignation that flooded the voice as he recognized that Rusalka was not to be dissuaded from her quest to become human were bracing. The resonance and security of Mr. Fox’s lower register were telling throughout the performance, and he approached all of his high Es and Fs without hesitation. A few of the part’s highest notes stretched Mr. Fox’s resources, but he maintained an appreciable accuracy of pitch even on tones sustained by sheer will. The tenderness with which Mr. Fox’s Vodník received the despondent Rusalka in Act Two was palpably conveyed, and the visceral impact of his singing of ‘V jinou spĕš náruč, spĕš a spĕš, objetí jejímu neujdeš,’ his denunciation of the Prince for having discarded Rusalka for the arms of another woman, was engrossing. In Act Three, Mr. Fox reached grandiose peaks of dramatic expression, infusing his performance with every changing emotion of Vodník’s predicament. His singing in the scene in which he hurls out to the Gamekeeper and Turnspit that the Prince has betrayed Rusalka’s love rather than falling victim to her pulsed with sorrow and paternal umbrage. After singing to the Wood Sprites that the innocence and light-hearted joy of their lake were destroyed by Rusalka’s fate, the solemnity with which Mr. Fox left the stage was heartbreaking. Like Oroveso in Bellini’s Norma, Vodník is ultimately unable to reconcile himself with his daughter’s betrayal, and his offstage singing of ‘Nadarmo v loktech zemře ti, marny jsou všechny obĕti’ (‘Sacrifices are in vain, his dying is no salvation’) as the Prince dies in Rusalka’s embrace was devastating. Musically and dramatically, Vodník is a grueling rôle, one which many singers are grateful merely to survive. Mr. Fox gave his all in a performance that did not merely survive but wholly conquered the part.

Tenor Russell Thomas worked diligently to make the Prince an agreeable character, and fine as his uncomplicated acting was throughout the performance it was the polish and basic loveliness of his singing that compelled affection. The wide-eyed wonder of his first encounter with the newly-human Rusalka was touching, and the assurance with which he took the Prince’s many top A♭s and pair of B♭♭s in the final moments of Act One was spine-tingling. His frustration with the still-silent Rusalka in Act Two was expressive of true passion, and though his acting convincingly depicted both the unhinged desperation of his longing for Rusalka and the reluctant distraction of his attention, Mr. Thomas’s Prince’s wooing of the Foreign Princess was never more than half-hearted. When asked by the Foreign Princess in the closing pages of Act Two where Rusalka had gone, Mr. Thomas’s singing of ‘Kam prchla? Milý Bůh to ví’ (‘Where have you gone? Only God knows’) was suffused with emotion. When the Prince entered in search of Rusalka in Act Three, his desolation was that of a man mad with grief and guilt, and the eloquence of Mr. Thomas’s singing, again making light of the high tessitura, was wrenching. When Rusalka appeared at last and sang ‘Miláčku, znáš mne, znáš’ (‘Do you still recognize me, my love?’), the agony in Mr. Thomas’s singing was calmed, and he accepted at once that the only liberation possible for him was death in the throes of Rusalka’s kiss. His cries of ‘Líbej mne, líbej, mír mi přej’ (‘Kiss me, kiss me, set me free’) were piercing and all the more crushing for being so resplendently sung, the rise to top C managed without strain. The ease with which Mr. Thomas mastered the range of his music throughout the performance was awesome, and his thoughtful acting was crowned by an understated, sensual account of the Prince’s death scene.

The assumption of the title rôle by soprano Joyce El-Khoury belied that the part is new to her repertoire, her first performances of Rusalka having been in San Antonio earlier this year. [She will reprise the rôle in a concert performance in Amsterdam’s storied Concertgebouw on Saturday, 17 May.] Dramatically, perhaps the greatest challenges for a Rusalka are the scenes in Acts One and Two in which she must essentially take part in duets with the Prince without singing, her ability to speak having been sacrificed in her bargain with Ježibaba. Upon becoming human, the fascination with which Ms. El-Khoury’s Rusalka contemplated her newly-functional feet was fetching. In Act Two, her interaction with the Prince was delectable but troubling, her mimicking of his actions and expressions conveying her overwhelming desire to please him. Her increasing confusion at his violence was shattering, and the muted comeliness of her movements proved immensely effective. The rapt concentration with which she shrouded the Prince’s corpse in her veil and slowly left the stage in the opera’s last bars was acutely poignant. The unerring accomplishment of her acting was enhanced by the purity and stability of her singing. At her first entrance in Act One, it was apparent that Ms. El-Khoury had the music in both her voice and her heart, and her longing to be freed from the confines of her watery realm was the sentiment of poetry, not petulance. ‘Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém,’ the celebrated ‘Song to the Moon,’ was ravishingly sung, the voice seeming to take on the silvery light of the moon to which Rusalka was singing and the fearsomely exposed rise to top B♭ negotiated with ardor and perfect intonation. In the scene with Ježibaba, the sincerity of Ms. El-Khoury’s singing—and the biting brilliance of her top A♯—might have convinced a less thorny sorceress to grant her every wish without stipulations. When Rusalka’s reunion with her father in Act Two restored her ability to speak, the tone poured out of Ms. El-Khoury as though a dam had burst: the top Gs and fortissimo top A that she produced as Rusalka sang of her shame had the force of thunderbolts. The richness of Ms. El-Khoury’s timbre enabled her to glide over Dvořák’s often dense orchestrations without forcing the voice, and even in moments of greatest dramatic duress she maintained her technical deportment. Her singing in the opening scene of Act Three, in which the vocal line often centers in the lower octave of the voice, was communicative of very personal feelings of loss and hopelessness, and her resolve in refusing Ježibaba’s suggestions of murder as the penance for her mistakes was imparted by her pair of flashing top B♭s. Near the end of the opera, her top B as she sang to the Prince that her only possible intervention in his life could be to end it bore the energy of all of the character’s suppressed emotions, and Rusalka’s repeated questions of why the Prince betrayed her—questions to which he never responded—were voiced with profound sadness but no bitterness. Though a young singer, Ms. El-Khoury brought an erudite sensitivity to her performance, and her fresh, golden-toned singing proffered an earnest, recondite portrait of Dvořák’s elusive heroine.

With so many opera companies on the brink of financial and artistic collapse, it is easy to lose sight of the perceptive, wonderfully satisfying music-making that continues to enliven concert halls and opera houses throughout the United States. Opera is an expensive enterprise, perhaps more ridiculously so now than ever before, but, like so many other aspects of life and Art, those events and institutions with the greatest financial backing are not always those that are the most artistically successful. Money attracts familiar names but not necessarily important voices, and the voices that North Carolina Opera engaged for this performance of Rusalka were not just important but ideal for the music. Above all, however, what this performance reaffirmed is that not even the most prodigious resources can buy heart. The heart of this Rusalka throbbed with yearning and dismay, and every tear in the theatre will be a cherished memory in the souls of those who were fortunate enough to witness it.