18 September 2014

CD REVIEW: REINCARNATIONS – A Century of American Choral Music (Seraphic Fire; Seraphic Fire Media SFMCD13)

CD REVIEW: REINCARNATIONS - A Century of American Choral Music (SFMCD13)

SAMUEL BARBER (1910 – 1981), COLIN BRITT (born 1985), PAUL CRABTREE (born 1960), SHAWN CROUCH (born 1977), DOMINICK DiORIO (born 1984), DAN FORREST (born 1978), MORTEN LAURIDSEN (born 1943) NICO MUHLY (born 1981), JAKE RUNESTAD (born 1986), and FRANK TICHELI (born 1958): Reincarnations – A Century of American Choral MusicSeraphic Fire (James K. Bass, chorus master); Anna Fateeva, piano; Patrick Dupré Quigley, conductor [Recorded at Bower Chapel at Moorings Park, Naples, Florida, USA, 21 – 23 May 2014; Seraphic Fire Media SFMCD13; 1 CD, 77:05; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, iTunes, and major music retailers]

To adapt a clichéd colloquialism to the heady world of the contemporary Performing Arts, Patrick Dupré Quigley and Seraphic Fire are among the rarefied few in the realm of choral music who ‘get it.’ This is to say that Seraphic Fire and Maestro Quigley, the ensemble’s conductor, founder, and Artistic Director, consistently exhibit an innate understanding of the qualities necessary to ensuring not only their own artistic survival but the broader success of Classical Music in general, as well. Foremost, emphasis must always be on maintaining the highest possible musical standards, and whether the music at hand is the work of Monteverdi, Brahms, Barber, or Muhly the artists who comprise Seraphic Fire adopt as their task performing with style, eloquence, and humanity expressed through song. In these politically-correct times, too many performances of choral repertory are the musical equivalents of embalming corpses: the lifeblood is drained and replaced with numbing antiseptic, ensembles too frightened of being accused of having ulterior motives to sing with true passion. Everyone involved with Seraphic Fire proves more than ever in their performances of the selections on Reincarnations that, whether singing of God or goblins, the only viable agendum in the interpretation of choral music is the unapologetic realization of composers’ intentions. This seems such a simple, puerile concept, but it is one that is as elusive as important new compositions for choir. There is some extraordinary music on Reincarnations, but Seraphic Fire’s singing is of a consistency and expressive depth that give the least of the pieces on the disc the fervor of authentic genius. This is the uncommon sort of singing of which this wonderful group of musicians is capable, and the dedication of the singing on Reincarnations is never diluted, dissipated, or diverted.

Seraphic Fire’s exploration of a century of American choral music via Reincarnations is a perfect storm in which musical fronts collide in vibrant artistic displays worthy of the canvases of El Greco. Pivotal in the stylistic unity of the ensemble’s approaches to the divergent idioms of the selections on the disc is the superb playing of Russian-born pianist Anna Fateeva. She may have been born into the tradition of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, but she inhabits the musical environs of Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century American music with unmistakable comfort. Any pianist with a modicum of talent can spend an afternoon at the keyboard mastering the details of a particular piece, but the unerring ease with which Ms. Fateeva’s playing captures the differing spirits of Shawn Crouch’s Light of Common Day and Morten Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs is evidence of deeply personal refinement. Playing of quality less than what Ms. Fateeva provides would be a disservice to the singing of Seraphic Fire. Sopranos Megan Chartrand, Lianne P. Coble, Sara Guttenberg, and Molly Quinn, altos Amanda Crider, Reginald L. Mobley, and Virginia Warnken, tenors Steven Bradshaw, Brad Diamond, and Patrick Muehleise, and basses James K. Bass, Cameron Beauchamp, and Charles Wesley Evans form an ensemble of impeccable balance and tonal blend. Remarkably, these thirteen singers can both summon the robust sounds of much larger choirs and concentrate their sound into a captivating whisper. The singers, Ms. Fateeva, and Maestro Quigley all consort with the spontaneous discernment of chamber musicians. Their performances on Reincarnations define excellence in the execution of choral music of any musical style or era, but as a journey through the traditions that ushered American choral music into the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries they establish new standards by which the success of future presentations of similar repertory will be judged.

Nico Muhly’s I Cannot Attain Unto It, a setting of verses six and seven of Psalm 139, is a gorgeous, astutely-constructed piece, the ‘stuttering’ effects in the vocal lines movingly conveying the psalmist’s wonder. The power of Muhly’s music is intensified by the forthright probity of Seraphic Fire’s singing, and the vocalists’ lucid but unstilted diction heightens appreciation of the shrewdness of the treatment of the text; indeed, in I Cannot Attain Unto It and all of the pieces on Reincarnations. The combination of Ms. Fateeva’s pianism and Seraphic Fire’s singing makes a stunning effect in Shawn Crouch’s setting of lines by William Wordsworth, Light of Common Day. The composer’s subtle manipulations of rhythm and tempo, reflected in the piano accompaniment, provide continuity as the nuances of the text lure the vocal lines into unexpected tonalities, and this performance shimmers with full displays of the composer’s invention and the simple beauty of the poet’s language. Heard in succession, there is an intriguing kinship among Wordsworth’s earthy verses and the texts of the Shaker hymns that serve as companions to Paul Crabtree’s setting of words by Mother Ann Lee. ‘Give good gifts one to another’ from the 1893 Mount Lebanon Hymnal is stirringly sung, and the energy that the singers—not least Ms. Quinn, Ms. Crider, Mr. Muehleise, and Mr. Beauchamp in quartet—devote to their performance of Philip R. Dietterich’s arrangement of ‘Followers of the Lamb’ lends the hymn meaning that goes far beyond didactic rhetoric. Ending with Mother Ann Lee’s words ‘Do all your work as though you had a thousand years to live and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow,’ Crabtree's Death and Resurrection from The Valley of Delight, the piece’s opening texts drawn from traditional American verses and ‘Dedication’ in Lynn Emanuel's Noose and Hook, is a poignant homage to the composer’s late mother-in-law and, on a broader scale, to three centuries of American choral customs. Here, too, Seraphic Fire’s performance is augmented by a solo quartet, and the voices of Ms. Quinn, Mr. Mobley, Mr. Diamond, and Mr. Bass emerge from the choir hauntingly.

Samuel Barber's Opus 6 Reincarnations is a cornerstone of the American choral repertory but one that is more frequently cited as a musical treasure than substantiated accordingly in performance. Though credited in the liner notes as the original work of James Stephens, the texts with which Barber’s music is entwined are, in fact, Stephens’s translations of Irish poetry by Antoine Ó Raifteiri. The subject of ‘Mary Hynes' is known in Irish lore as ‘the shining flower of Ballylea,’ and Barber’s setting of the text coruscates with the legendary young wan’s pulchritude. So, too, does Seraphic Fire’s singing of the piece. The world of ‘Anthony O'Daly,’ a historical Whiteboy activist hanged in 1820, is understandably darker, but the choir’s singing never sags under the emotional weight of the words. The sentiments of ‘The Coolin’ are bizarrely touching, and the unforced grace of Seraphic Fire’s articulation of the text lends the piece a singularly American spirit of resilience despite the provenance of the verse.

The starkly comforting text of Dan Forrest’s Good Night, Dear Heart is taken from Australian poet Robert Richardson's 1893 poem ‘Annette,’ long misattributed to Mark Twain because of the famous verse’s appearance as the epitaph on his daughter Susy’s tombstone. Forrest’s music imparts both the sting of loss and the burdened blessing of carrying on with greater fluency than even Twain’s words might have done, and the spareness of the vocal lines inspires the singers to special intelligibility. Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘To Kathleen’ provides the poetic conceit for Colin Britt’s As there are flowers, and his setting of the exquisite lines ‘Beauty that may not die as long / As there are flowers and you and song’ luxuriates in the simple efficacy of the text. Seraphic Fire’s rendering of Britt’s music reflects the ethos of both music and words, and the firmness of the choir’s singing at the top and bottom of the compass creates a foundation upon which the ingeniously-sculpted harmonies are built with razor-sharp accuracy.

The sheen of Ms. Quinn’s soprano is put to radiant use in I Am, Dominick DiOrio’s setting of Baltimore-born Mary Elizabeth Frye's 'Do not stand at my grave and weep,' one of the most familiar poems in the American popular canon despite never having been published or copyrighted by its author. Employing recurrent melodic figures almost in the manner of the Flemish masters of Renaissance polyphony, DiOrio’s music conjures an atmosphere of unsettling serenity in which Seraphic Fire’s tonal vividness reveals every harmonic metamorphosis. Ms. Chartrand’s singing is no less lustrous in Fear Not, Dear Friend, Jake Runestad’s tranquil adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's celebrated poem, to which the choristers devote linguistically-flawless singing that suffuses their performance with the conviction of the closing lines, ‘And we, who have learned greatness from you, we, / Your lovers, with a still, contented mind, / See you well anchored in some port of rest.’ This mood persists in their singing of Frank Ticheli's Earth Song, and the singers’ voicing of the composer’s subdued entreaty for peace is overwhelming.

The work of one of the icons of Twentieth-Century American choral music, Morten Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs is an arena in which novelty and praxis converge revealingly. The carillon-like fanfare with which ‘Lament for Pasiphaë’ opens gives way to suspended harmonies reminiscent of Debussy and the generation of American composers influenced by his music. Shadows of Gershwin and Stravinsky flutter through ‘Like Snow,’ and the tonal ambiguity of ‘She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep’ injects the piece with a disquieting aura of uncertainty. ‘Mid-Winter Waking’ tingles with the ebullience of a madrigal written for a collegiate glee club, but the dissonant unease underlined by the pedal point-like bass notes in the piano part in ‘Intercession in Late October’ closes the cycle, the texts of which are by Robert Graves, with vague suggestions of malaise. Lauridsen’s way with the final couplet of the cycle, ‘Spare him a little longer, Crone, / For his clean hands and love-submissive heart,’ is schemingly duplicitous: both desolation and jubilation emerge from the musical textures. The same notion applies to Seraphic Fire’s singing of Mid-Winter Songs: the occasional bleakness of the music does not prohibit total enjoyment of the performance. Like all of the selections on Reincarnations, Lauridsen’s music makes formidable demands on the singers, and they rise to the occasion unflinchingly. Therein lies the core of what makes Reincarnations such a gratifying disc: every performance is a genuine occasion, and every note is not merely sung but completely ‘sold.’

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s words perfectly express the impact of Reincarnations. The future of American choral music is the ‘Beauty that may not die as long / As there are flowers and you and song.’ The recent compositions on this disc affirm that America’s choral tradition, though an upstart in comparison with the millennium-old groves of European music for voices in ensemble, remains a robustly healthy tree gloriously in bloom. As long as there are flowers like the pieces on Reincarnations and song like that of Seraphic Fire, the beauties of America’s choral heritage will never fade.

09 September 2014

IN MEMORIAM: la verista ultima – Italian soprano Magda Olivero, 1910 – 2014

IN MEMORIAM: Italian soprano MAGDA OLIVERO, 1910 - 2014Io son l’umile ancella del genio creator: Italian soprano Magda Olivero, 1910 – 2014

MAGDA OLIVERO

25 March 1910 – 8 September 2014

I never heard the legendary Italian soprano Magda Olivero in an opera house or concert hall, but on recordings I have never heard anyone else quite like her. As Liù in the September 1938 EIAR recording of Puccini’s Turandot, the first studio account of the opera, she radiates both fragility and unflappability; in her singing of the title rôle of Mascagni’s Iris the aroma of chrysanthemums mingles with the stench of death; her Minnie in La fanciulla del West is one of the few portrayals of this voice-wrecking part that manage more than survival of the tessitura; her Carlotta in Massenet’s Werther, sung in Italian, combines Italianate expressivity, Gallic poise, and the Teutonic rectitude of Goethe’s Lotte; her Katiusha in Risurrezione blows through Alfano’s score with the force of a typhoon; her Kostelnička in Janáček’s Jenůfa at La Scala dominates even the steel-willed Jenůfa of Grace Bumbry. Then there are her Tosca and Adriana Lecouvreur: one a great prima donna of the operatic stage and the other the doyenne of the Comédie-Française, both are characters with whom Ms. Olivero identified virtually on a cellular level. Certainly, her performances of these rôles transcended the efforts of even her most prodigiously-gifted rivals. When she introduced her Tosca to the Metropolitan Opera in in April 1975, Harold C. Schonberg wrote in the New York Times that her performance represented ‘the art of singing rather than singing itself.’ Audiences who heard her ten MET Toscas—three in New York, the others on tour in locales as far afield as Atlanta, Dallas, and Memphis—did not quite agree. Rewarded on the evening of her début with an ovation that even Mr. Schonberg conceded was one of the most prolonged in MET history, she won the hearts of audiences whose ears were prepared to deny her. Lifelong opera lover James Forrest, himself an esteemed critic and authority on the great singers of the Twentieth Century, as well as a friend and mentor from whom I have learned much, still recalls hearing her Tosca in Minneapolis in May 1969. Now, after forty-five years, details of her musical and dramatic impersonation of Victorien Sardou’s feisty diva remain etched in Mr. Forrest’s memory: such can only have been the work of an irreplaceable artist.

Born according to most sources in the town of Saluzzo in Piemonte, not far from Torino, on 25 March 1910, Ms. Olivero was a musical being almost from birth. Like those of Maria Callas, her earliest efforts garnered little praise or encouragement, but she persevered and, barely out of her teens, launched her career with performances for Italian radio. Possessing a voice that extended with ease to the interpolated E♭6 in Violetta’s ‘Sempre libera’ in Verdi’s La traviata, she quickly developed a technique that enabled her to take on a wide repertory without exacerbating the flaws in her natural instrument. At the start of her third decade, she married and retired from performing, but her legacy was already established. It was at the request of Francesco Cilèa, who longed to again hear her sing his Adriana Lecouvreur, that she resumed her career. Cilèa died in November 1950, just months before Ms. Olivero’s return to the stage, but the rejuvenation of her artistry was a wonderful supplement to the composer’s bequest to the musical world. From the time of the start of the second phase of her career in 1951 until her final retirement from the stage at the age of seventy-one, Ms. Olivero sang an astonishing array of rôles. A 1964 Zagreb performance of La bohème, unfortunately preserved in very poor sound, partnered her delicate Mimì with the Rodolfo of Juan Oncina, an unlikely pairing that nonetheless produced a searing enactment of the Bohemians’ lot. Her Classically-molded portrait of Cherubini’s Medea brought her to Dallas, where she was given a Texas-sized welcome. The enterprising Alfredo Silipigni lured her to New Jersey for Adriana Lecouvreur, Fedora, and Mefistofele, and ports of call for her well-traveled impersonation of Puccini’s—and, as the histrionic intensity of her famed 1970 Arena di Verona performance opposite Plácido Domingo suggests, Abbé Prévost’s—Manon Lescaut also included Amsterdam and Caracas. The murky document of a 1961 Naples Madama Butterfly verifies the authenticity of her Cio-Cio-San: other sopranos brought greater vocal amplitude to Puccini’s vocal lines, but probably no other Twentieth-Century singers except Licia Albanese and perhaps Geraldine Ferrar embodied the betrayed geisha with equal grit. Her Naples and Florence Giorgettas in Puccini’s Il tabarro, a decade apart, disclose a character study that was fully-formed in 1960 and remained astonishing unchanged, vocally and dramatically, in 1970. Sampling recordings of her Torino, Trieste, or Venice performances of La fanciulla del West facilitates as complete an acquaintance with the Bible-quoting, gun-toting Minnie as the opera’s discography permits. Even Mariya in Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa—sung in Italian, of course—proved a congenial part, and her espousal of Twentieth-Century opera, particularly the scores of Sandro Fuga, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Renzo Rossellini, Nino Rota, Flavio Testi, and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, legitimized the endeavors of avant garde composers. Among so many missed opportunities for studio recordings almost certain of setting new standards, one of the most regrettable is the failure of a thoughtful label to preserve her Elle in Poulenc’s La voix humaine: she was riveting in Cocteau’s French at San Francisco Opera in 1979, and in her native Italian she was crushing.

Only Ms. Olivero’s unsurpassed traversal of Giordano’s Fedora was recorded commercially in its entirety, and the resulting DECCA set, which couples Fedora with excerpts from Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini with Ms. Olivero and Mario del Monaco (also her Loris in Fedora) that are perhaps even more lustfully sung, served as my introduction both to Ms. Olivero and to Fedora, an opera that I love without shame. Fusing the toughness of Maria Caniglia’s Fedora with the sweetness of Renata Tebaldi’s, Ms. Olivero brings the calculating Princess to life with startling variety. Central to her interpretation are the suggestions in Act One that her liaison with the mortally-wounded Count Vladimir is her last chance at any meaningful kind of love and in Act Two that she is genuinely taken aback by her recognition of her love for Ipanoff. Sentiments that in the performances of many sopranos seem witless and forced are in Ms. Olivero’s Fedora not only credible but inevitable. She enriched her recorded legacy in 1993 when, at the age of eighty-three, she recorded selections from Adriana Lecouvreur [some sources suggest that the complete opera was recorded but that only excerpts were released by the Bongiovanni label] with piano accompaniment in Milan. The voice, never an exceptionally opulent instrument, remained on stunningly good form. Unlike the legions of singers who have squandered fantastic natural voices, Ms. Olivero knew what she had from the start and quickly learned how to manage those resources. She benefited from the informal tutelage of Tullio Serafin, from whose advice she eventually diverged, but the essence of her artistry as a singer and an actress is summarized by a remark that she made in an interview with Stefan Zucker: ‘you always have to make a choice—you try to make the best one.’

Magda Olivero’s career was a study in making the best choices. Vocally, there were compromises: artistically, there were none. Though she sang music in a staggering potpourri of styles, she was wise in choosing rôles in which she was confident of her proficiency. For her, the concern was not having the notes but how to sing them. Above all, she was the composers’ servant, and how miraculous was her service.

IN MEMORIAM: Italian soprano MAGDA OLIVERO, likely as Puccini's Tosca, circa 1966 [Photo credit uncertain]Vissi d’arte: Italian soprano Magda Olivero, likely depicted as the heroine in Puccini’s Tosca, circa 1966 [Photo credit and vintage uncertain]

07 September 2014

CD REVIEW: Johannes Brahms – DIE SCHÖNE MAGELONE (Daniel Behle, tenor; Sveinung Bjelland, piano; Capriccio C 5203)

CD REVIEW: Johannes Brahms - DIE SCHÖNE MAGELONE (Capriccio C 5203)

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 – 1897): Lieder including Romanzen aus ‘Die schönen Magelone,’ Op. 33Daniel Behle, tenor; Sveinung Bjelland, piano; Hans-Jürgen Schatz, narrator (Wundersame Liebesgeschichte der schönen Magelone und des Grafen Peter von Provence) [Recorded in Radiostudio Zürich, Switzerland, 4 – 6 March 2013; Capriccio C 5203; 2CD, 140:51; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​It has sometimes seemed in the past decade that the music of Johannes Brahms has been in danger of going out of fashion. The four Symphonies, once the cornerstones of many orchestras’ repertories, are now heard with less frequency, and the chamber music is encountered only slightly more regularly. Ein Deutsches Requiem and the potent Vier ernste Gesänge cling to currency, but the greater portion of the composer’s vocal music goes unheard. In comparison with Berlioz and Wagner, Brahms was a quiet genius, one who was aware of his own significance as a musical innovator but pursued his career with greater humility. The novelty of Brahms’s genius lies in his enlargement rather than a concerted subversion of the traditions that he inherited from his music ancestors. Careful analysis of his music suggests that, for Brahms, discarding conventions was not necessarily indicative of ingenuity: sometimes those who color outside of the lines are simply messy. In his Lieder, Brahms took up the examples of Beethoven, Schubert, and his beloved Schumann and enriched them with his own mastery of harmony and concentrated dramatic expression. At their best, Brahms’s Lieder possess the formal symmetry of Beethoven’s finest songs, the tuneful fecundity of Schubert, and the rhapsodic wildness of Schumann. Above all, Brahms’s Lieder are a gift to singers but sadly one that too few of them are willing to accept. Tenor Daniel Behle’s Capriccio recording of the fifteen Romances from Ludwig Tieck’s Die schöne Magelone and other Lieder not only welcomes the bequest but goes a step further by presenting the Romances both as individual works and in the broader context of Tieck’s narrative, provided by noted German actor Hans-Jürgen Schatz. Any recording of this music is a windfall received with gratitude, but this recording is an especial gift to the listener who thinks Brahms a capable but uninspired composer of Lieder.

The concept of coupling Brahms’s Romances from Die schöne Magelone with readings that establish the sentimental atmosphere from which the songs emerge is intriguing, and it is to the credit of everyone involved with this recording that the experiment succeeds so thoroughly. Renowned for an extensive career in German television, Ms. Schatz has a mellifluous voice ​that is virtually ideal for narration. In this performance, he immerses himself in the text, revealing both the presiding ethos of the narrative and specific details of interpretation—the forest and the trees, as it were—without resorting to overwrought melodrama. Still, Brahms’s music is the raison d’être for this release, and it was clever programming on Capriccio’s part to offer Brahms’s Romances from Die schöne Magelone on separate discs, with and without the linking narration. In both the Romances and six other Lieder, pianist Sveinung Bjelland is a distinguished interpreter of Brahms’s music in his own right and a fitting partner for Mr. Behle. Brahms’s melodic strands are coarser than Schubert’s and Schumann’s, and approaching Die schöne Magelone, Brahms’s sole self-contained Lieder cycle, as though it is an extension of Die schöne Müllerin or Frauenliebe und -leben imperils realization of the singular impact of Brahms’s creativity. In truth, many performances—or, more appropriately, many of the few performances—of Die schöne Magelone are dull, but this performance by Mr. Behle and Mr. Bjelland engages the imagination throughout its duration. In essence, Brahms’s accompaniments synthesize Schubert’s close support of the vocal line with Schumann’s greater independence, exercising considerable freedom of thematic development within formal boundaries. In his robust but flexible playing, Mr. Bjelland finds the rowdiness beneath the polished surfaces of Brahms’s music. Crucially, he clearly understands that performances need not be prissy in order to be poetic. So fine is Mr. Bjelland’s playing, technically and interpretively, that the most artfully-crafted Lieder on this disc seem like artlessly organic modes of expression.

The unaffected expressivity of these performances is also owed in no small part to Mr. Behle’s ardent, youthful singing. Still in the early years of his international career, he has the musical world at his feet, but he is a singer who conquers with charm rather than brute force. There is a streak of titanium in the voice, giving strength but not heaviness, but the primary impression made by Mr. Behle’s singing is one of athletic lyricism in the tradition of Peter Anders and Fritz Wunderlich. His account of ‘Meine Liebe ist grü​n​​’ (Op. 63, No. 5) shimmers with the freshness of the fragrance of lilac blooms on the twilit air, and the sense of wonder that floods his singing of ‘Juchhe!’ (Op. 6, No. 4) elucidates the text’s celebration of the awe-inspiring beauty of the earth. The brooding nocturnal atmosphere of Goethe’s text for ‘Dä​​mmrung senkte sich von oben’ (Op. 59, No. 1) is evoked with subtle shading of the timbre, Mr. Behle darkening his vowels without impacting his patrician phrasing. ‘​Liebestreu’ (identified in Capriccio’s liner notes as Op. 6, No. 3, but actually Op. 3, No. 1*) introduces elements of unrestrained anguish, which Mr. Behle explores poignantly without weakening the intellectual asperity of his interpretation. The beautiful ‘An die Tauben’ (Op. 63, No. 4) is an impassioned depiction of lovesickness: the healthiness of Mr. Behle’s tone contrasts meaningfully with the increasing misery of the text, and the liquidity of his phrasing suffuses the song with a touching sense of yearning. The singer’s tone makes the climax of ‘Von waldbekränzten Höhe’ (Op. 57, No. 1) a cry of despair but an exceptionally secure, attractive one. Throughout the performances on this disc, Mr. Behle sings with near-complete control of his voice, the few moments of stress resulting from his refusal to sidestep difficulties. He uses words as springboards for emotional propulsion as well as anyone singing in German today and, indeed, better most singers of past generations. His way with Brahms’s Lieder ushers him into the exalted company of Heinrich Schlusnus, Alexander Kipnis, and Aksel Schiøtz.

The Romanzen from Die schöne Magelone present a plethora of challenges to both singer and pianist. Though conceived and presented as a coherent cycle, the individual songs cover a great deal of philosophical territory. Unlike a cycle such as Schubert’s Winterreise, in which there is at least a thread of discernible narrative linearity, Die schöne Magelone is a work of ambiguous sentiments that flurry and fade. Past performances have intimated that Brahms’s invention in Die schöne Magelone was inconsistent, but Mr. Behle’s and Mr. Bjelland’s performance reveals a splendidly even level of musical achievement. The opening song, ‘Keinen hat es noch gereut,’ is sung magically by Mr. Behle, the compact harmonies focusing attention on the subtleties of the vocal line. The wry wit of ‘Traun! Bogen und Pfeil sind gut für den Feind’ is highlighted by Mr. Bjelland’s playing of the darting piano part, and both singer and pianist submit themselves to the ambivalence of ‘Sind es Schmerzen, sind es Freuden.’ ‘Liebe kam aus fernen Landen’ and ‘So willst du des Armen?’ are two of Brahms’s most plaintively introverted songs, and Mr. Behle sings them with intensity that does not spill over into saccharine whimpering. The barely-contained excitement of ‘Wie soll ich die Freude, die Wonne denn tragen?’ ripples through Mr. Behle’s and Mr. Bjelland’s performance, their limning of the enthusiasm in Brahms’s music echoing the poet’s fervor. There is a beguiling hint of irony in ‘War es dir, dem diese Lippen bebten,’ brought to the surface by Mr. Behle’s straightforward performance. Perhaps because of the implications of a musician lamenting a forced separation from his beloved lute, there is particular verve in both tenor’s and pianist’s treatment of ‘Wir müssen uns trennen.’ Another gem of the cycle is ‘Ruhe, Süßliebchen, im Schatten,’ and the serenity of the music is ideally served by Mr. Behle’s composed vocalism. Each of the last six songs in Die schöne Magelone is a small-scale masterpiece, beginning with the turbulent ‘So tünet denn, schäumende Wellen’ (‘Verzweiflung’), the titular despair expressed in this performance not through moping but in tones of scorn. As dictated by the text, Mr. Behle’s singing of ‘Wie schnell verschwindet so Licht als Glanz’ inhabits a world obscured by shadows, and the heartbreak of ‘Muß es eine Trennung geben’ throbs in his euphonious tones. Complementing his colleague’s sweetly vinous negotiation of the vocal line, Mr. Bjelland pertinently divulges the ‘wandering feet’ that tread through the accompaniment in ‘Geliebter, wo zaudert dein irrender Fuß?’ Undertones of regret and resolve impart a deeply moving vulnerability in the final pair of songs, ‘Wie froh und frisch mein Sinn sich hebt’ and ‘Treue Liebe dauert lange,’ and Mr. Behle and Mr. Bjelland bring the cycle to a close with a genuine sense of catharsis. In their hands, Die schöne Magelone is truly an unified entity rather than merely a sequence of vaguely homologous songs.

Daniel Behle is clearly a superb singer, but this recording of Die schöne Magelone and a selection of six representative Lieder also confirms his ascendancy as a noteworthy crusader for the preservation of the endangered Art of Song and as a exemplary interpreter of the music of Johannes Brahms. Singing of this quality is no trick of the recording studio: it can only be achieved when voice, technique, intellect, and insight are firing on all cylinders and operating in absolute balance. Sveinung Bjelland’s top-tier playing completes the musical experience, enabling these Lieder to uplift the spirit of the listener. The real winner here is Brahms, however: hopefully, this recording will prompt more young singers and pianists to explore Brahms’s Lieder, but, having heard these performances, it is understandable if they do not feel up to the task.

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*In the ClassicsOnline listing for this release, track 4 of the first disc is identified as ‘Spanisches Lied,’ Op. 6, No. 1. This is also incorrect, as the song on offer is, in fact, ‘Liebestreu,’ Op. 3, No. 1, the text of which begins with the line ‘O versenk’, o versenk’ dein Leid, mein Kind, in die See.’

05 September 2014

CD REVIEW: HANDEL ARIAS (Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano; Hyperion CDA67979)

CD REVIEW: HANDEL ARIAS (Hyperion CDA67979)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Arias from Alcina (HWV 34), Ariodante (HWV 33), Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17), Hercules (HWV 60), and Radamisto (HWV 12a); Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano; The English Concert; Harry Bicket, conductor [Recorded in All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, UK, 6 – 9 June 2012 and 6 – 7 September 2013; Hyperion CDA67979; 1CD, 68:31; Available from Hyperion, harmonia mundi USA, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

As acknowledged even by some of today’s finest artists, at the heart of the alleged diminution of opera in the first fourteen years of the new millennium is a dearth of the truly grand singing that made nights at the opera in years past events of indelible substance. Thirty years ago, when Georg Friedrich Händel’s Rinaldo was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the first of the composer’s operas to grace the MET stage in its then-101-year history, Händel’s barnstorming score shared glory with the company début of Samuel Ramey, whose Argante brought to Händel’s music the sort of vocal star quality familiar to MET patrons in the operas of Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. Particularly revealing in the context of today’s operatic quandaries is Donal Henahan’s assessment in the New York Times of Marilyn Horne’s performance of the title rôle. Though she was judged to have been marginally off her best form, it was noted that ‘Miss Horne’s second best is anybody else’s triumph.’ Innovative productions and daring repertory are important components of opera’s imperative quest to attract and retain audiences, but the perseverance of the genre depends upon these kinds of singers and singing. Opera is an art form that must flourish: mere endurance is perhaps a worse fate than extinction. As the career of Cheshire-born mezzo-soprano Alice Coote has advanced during the past decade, opera has thrived whenever and wherever she sang. In an exceptional array of styles ranging from Monteverdi to Muhly, Ms. Coote’s versatility has been equaled only by the consistency of her vocal comfort in each niche of her repertoire. Acclaimed as one of today’s foremost Händelians, she is both in her sovereign grasp of Händel’s idiom and the warmth and intelligence of her singing of music by Schubert, Elgar, Mahler, and Richard Strauss the heir to the position carved out in the vocal Pantheon by Dame Janet Baker. Only an extraordinary artist could be worthy of comparison with Baker, and Ms. Coote has ratified her petition with her Nerone and Messaggera, Maffio Orsini and Hänsel, Komponist and Octavian, Meg Page and Anne Strewson. In this new disc of arias from five of Händel’s best scores, she fully manifests her merit as a singing actress. Whether impersonating the wife of a hero of Antiquity, the son of a Roman consul, the consort of a Thracian prince, a Saracen knight, or a vassal prince betrothed to a Scottish princess, she sings persuasively. Her singing emanates the tranquility of earned technical assurance: in the arias on this recording, she knows where she is going and how to get there and therefore is liberated to savor the voyage.

Under the direction of Händel authority Harry Bicket, the musical sorcerers of the English Concert again justify the esteem in which they are held by aficionados of historically-informed playing by conjuring precisely the right atmosphere for each of Ms. Coote’s interpretations. These musicians cooperate so constructively that leadership is hardly necessary, but they respond to Maestro Bicket’s direction with keenness that mirrors the camaraderie between the conductor and singer. The performances on this disc are not instances of singer following conductor or vice versa: Ms. Coote and Maestro Bicket manage the music as dialogues rather than dictations. The understated continuo provided by Maestro Bicket’s duties at the harpsichord and the unfailingly elegant theorbo playing by William Carter builds a solid foundation while also magnifying attention on the inventive ways in which Händel’s orchestrations support and in some cases counteract the vocal lines. All of the instrumentalists play with the unwavering grasp of Händel’s style expected of them, but what makes their performance so gratifying is its daredevil spirit. This is not ‘sit back and relax’ accompaniment: this is playing that is itself a wordless character in each dramatic microcosm.

In the three incarnations of Radamisto that greeted Londoners in the 1720s, the part of Zenobia, the title character’s wife, was taken in succession by three of the finest singers with whom Händel worked during his long career: Anastasia Robinson, Margherita Durastanti (who sang Radamisto in the opera’s first production), and Faustina Bordoni. Ms. Coote’s singing of Zenobia’s aria ‘Quando mai, spietata sorte’ from Act Two places her in the company of these great artists of the composer’s time. The singer duets rapturously with the oboe obbligato, expansively phrased by Katharina Spreckelsen, shaping the principal theme—reminiscent of the famous ‘Ombra mai fù’ from Serse—with subdued anguish. Ms. Coote’s command of Italian is excellent, avoiding the artificial vowels and glassy consonants heard from many English-speaking singers in Italian repertory, and in her performance of ‘Quando mai, spietata sorte’ she ornaments very discreetly, a welcome practice from which she does not deviate in any of the arias on this disc.

Ruggiero’s ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto’ from Act Two of Alcina prompts Ms. Coote to further intensification of her skills as a musical raconteuse. She intuitively employs Händel’s austere vocal lines as vehicles for concise psychological expression but does so without ever placing a single note beyond the boundaries of good taste. The celebrated ‘Verdi prati, selve amene’ is sung with emotional absorption that honors Händel’s lofty inspiration without exaggerating the aria’s sentimentality, and the steadiness of Ms. Coote’s tone permits full appreciation of the depth of the composer’s dramatic adroitness. In the rousing ‘Stà nell’Ircana pietrosa tana tigre sdegnosa’ from Act Two, its bellowing horn parts played splendidly by Ursula Paludan Monberg and Richard Bayliss, Ms. Coote unleashes her formidable bravura technique, confirming that her excursions into the music of Mahler and Strauss have robbed her of none of her trademark flexibility in Baroque coloratura. Her delivery of Händel’s passagework is free from disruptive aspirates, and she is among the few singers capable of maintaining textual sharpness when the vocal lines burst into fireworks displays.

The vocal opulence that Ms. Coote unfurls in Händel’s music for Dejanira in his dramatically electrifying Hercules recalls the singing of perhaps the rôle’s most fire-breathing recorded interpreter, Sarah Walker. Like Walker, Ms. Coote is a very womanly Dejanira with a steel edge, and the histrionic ardor of her delivery occasionally permits a slight ungainliness to emerge. She keeps this under control, however, and even uses it to her advantage. Good English diction by native speakers is something that cannot be taken for granted, and Ms. Coote enunciates Dejanira’s words nobly without sounding as though she is delivering an address before Parliament. Sensitively supported by Mr. Carter and the bewitchingly sonorous playing of cellist Joseph Crouch, her performance of ‘There in myrtle shades reclined’ from Act One is almost unendurably poignant, the euphoric, excruciating beauty of the voice lending Dejanira’s contemplation of conjugal bliss special luminosity. The recitative ‘Dissembling, false, perfidious Hercules’ and aria ‘Cease, ruler of the day, to rise’ from Act Two are delivered with comparable force, but it is in ‘Where shall I fly?’ from Act Three that Ms. Coote transforms herself into an expert tragédienne. Dejanira’s horror and remorse at having machinated her blameless husband’s death drew from Händel’s imagination one of his most original scenes. Ms. Coote clutches every note with the desperation of a woman clinging to her lover’s dying breaths, and the prevailing humanity of her singing of ‘See the dreadful sisters rise’ startlingly conveys Dejanira’s heartbreak. Furthermore, solely as vocalism her portrayal of Dejanira is momentous.

The serenity with which Ms. Coote sings Sesto’s piercingly lovely ‘Cara speme, questo core’ from Act One of Giulio Cesare, reinforced by Mr. Carter and Mr. Crouch, is delightful. The aria is a moment of repose in the operatic life of an impetuous character, and there is a strange irony in the tenderness with which he sings of having sanguineous revenge. Ms. Coote devotes her energy to singing the aria and lets the dramatic implications fall where they may: refusing to allow her aim to be diverted from straightforward vocalism, she hits the target dead in the center of Sesto’s volatile spirit.

Her singing of the title character’s ‘Con l’ali di costanza’ from Act One and ‘Dopo notte atra e funesta’ from Act Three of Ariodante further asserts that, in terms of accurate, dexterous negotiation of rapid-fire divisions, Ms. Coote remains a world-class Händelian. In both of these arias, her security throughout her range makes a great effect, and her restraint in cadenzas is far more impressive than the historically-inappropriate flamboyance in which many singers indulge in this music. Her singing of the familiar ‘Scherza infida!’ from Act Two, preceded by an incisive account of the recitative ‘E vivo ancora? E senza il ferro?’ that again benefits from Mr. Carter’s collaboration, throbs with confusion, exasperation, and resolve. That this is one of Händel’s finest arias is obvious, but even the celebrated Giovanni Carestini, Händel’s first Ariodante, is unlikely to have sung it better than Ms. Coote.

In the decades since the global resurgence of interest in the composer’s operas, many precocious Händel singers have emerged. Sadly, so, too, have a number of singers who should have left Händel repertory to their more suitably-talented colleagues. Some of the most successful Händelians of previous generations—Dame Janet Baker, Margreta Elkins, Maureen Forrester, Monica Sinclair, and Sarah Walker, for example—were those who did not approach Händel’s music in isolation. Alice Coote is another singer for whom the road to singing Händel is not a dead end: rather, it is a scenic route that curves through four centuries of music for the mezzo-soprano voice. The kind of adaptability demanded of modern singers, unprecedented in the history of opera, often breeds a disheartening anonymity, a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ plainness that holds listeners at arm’s length. In the performances on this disc, Alice Coote enclasps Händel’s music with the full strength of her artistry, and these eleven arias lavishly reciprocate her embrace.

HANDSOME HÄNDEL: (from left to right) Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo, and Alice Coote as Sesto in Georg Friedrich Händel's GIULIO CESARE at the Metropolitan Opera, April 2013 [Photo by Marty Sohl, © The Metropolitan Opera]Non ha più che temere: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon as Cornelia, countertenor Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo, and mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as Sesto in David McVicar’s production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Giulio Cesare at the Metropolitan Opera in April 2013 [Photo by Marty Sohl, © The Metropolitan Opera]

04 September 2014

CD REVIEW: STELLA DI NAPOLI (Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; ERATO 08256 463656 2 3)

CD REVIEW: STELLA DI NAPOLI (ERATO 08256 463656 2 3)

VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835), MICHELE CARAFA (1787 – 1872), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), SAVERIO MERCADANTE (1795 – 1870), GIOVANNI PACINI (1796 – 1867), GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868), and CARLO VALENTINI (1790 – 1853): Stella di Napoli – Arias from Adelson e Salvini (Bellini), I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (Bellini), Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth (Donizetti), Maria Stuarda (Donizetti), Le nozze di Lammermoor (Carafa), Saffo (Pacini), Il sonnambulo (Valentini), Stella di Napoli (Pacini), La vestale (Mercadante), and Zelmira (Rossini)—Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Héloïse Mas, mezzo-soprano; Rémy Mathieu, tenor; Nabil Suliman, baritone; Jean-Michel Bertelli, clarinet; Morgane Fauchois-Prado, glockenspiel; Orchestre et Chœur de l’Opéra de Lyon; Riccardo Minasi, conductor [Recorded at Opéra de Lyon, France, 17 – 24 October 2013; ERATO 08256 463656 2 3; 1CD, 72:15; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Joyce DiDonato is a great singer. Any question about this truth is answered within seconds of the start of the first track on this disc. More than any of her other recordings to date, however, Stella di Napoli offers devotees and doubters alike a litany of reasons why she is a great singer. For one thing, there is her insatiable curiosity, a longing for the thrill of discovery that leads her into cobwebbed corners of archives and libraries in search not just of neglected music but of the stories of the people who composed and performed it, as well. In the context of this recording, that drive leads her along the cosmopolitan, slightly savage streets of Naples, where in the era of Rossini and Donizetti the Teatro di San Carlo was the gilded barrel in which the intoxicating elixir of bel canto was fortified. Yes, Joyce DiDonato is a beautiful woman with a beautiful voice, but the performances on this disc strip away the glossy brilliance of the sleek cover art and fashion-plate portraits to reveal the undulating life force of an honest, hardworking musician whose moonbeam timbre and phenomenal technique are but two aspects of her artistic dynamism. Expectedly, there is some spectacularly virtuosic singing in this recital: what makes this disc genuinely explosive, though, is the singer’s inescapable charisma. Children are taught to avoid looking at the sun, but there is no turning away from the combustible singing on this disc, which refuses to relinquish its grasp on the senses until the final note has sounded. Collectively, these meticulously-crafted arias from the first decades of the Nineteenth Century are the gleaming star of Naples, and here as never before Joyce DiDonato is an operatic supernova.

A marvel of nature that defies conventional categorization, Ms. DiDonato’s voice is poised—as history suggests that Isabella Colbran’s and Maria Malibran’s were—between mezzo-soprano and soprano. In her tangy lower register she can purr like a wily seductress or proclaim like a Roman emperor, and she can place tones at the top of her range with the brightness and security of a gifted lyric soprano. In her singing of Sister Helen Prejean in Virgin’s recording of the Houston Grand Opera production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, there are passages in which she sounds uncannily like the young Leontyne Price, in fact. Ms. DiDonato’s winsome versatility and cognizance of proper tonal projection have enabled her in recent seasons to augment her repertoire of Baroque and bel canto rôles with parts like Richard Strauss’s Komponist and Octavian. For less-shrewd singers, similar expansions of repertory often lead to compromising of vocal flexibility. The facility and brio of Ms. DiDonato’s bravura singing on Stella di Napoli exclaim that no such jeopardy has befallen her voice. Whether in long-sustained cantabile passages or volleys of coloratura, she is supported with panache by conductor Riccardo Minassi and the forces of l’Opéra de Lyon. Experienced in historically-informed performances of Baroque music, Maestro Minassi approaches the selections on Stella di Napoli with unique sensibilities. Whether in the familiar territory of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti or the uncharted waters of Carafa and Valentini, Maestro Minassi is attentive to the demands of the music and to the subtleties of Ms. DiDonato’s interpretations. The conductor’s investment in studying and leading performances of Händel’s operas pays handsome dividends in his pacing of the music on Stella di Napoli. From the perspective of the consistency of musical achievement among all personnel involved with this recording, his relationship with the Opéra de Lyon choristers and musicians is obviously an advantageous one. The choristers sing with the immediacy of a staged performance, not a studio recording, taking their cue from Ms. DiDonato’s indefatigable commitment and displaying good Italian diction. In the lines for Marta in Pacini’s Stella di Napoli, Sofia in Valentini’s Il sonnambulo, and Climene in Pacini’s Saffo, mezzo-soprano Héloïse Mas is a worthy seconda donna, and tenor Rémi Mathieu and baritone Nabil Suliman sing robustly in their assignments in Saffo and Rossini’s Zelmira. The musicians of the Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon are a formidably-talented lot. They follow Maestro Minassi’s beat and echo Ms. DiDonato’s phrasing vivaciously, and the solo opportunities—Jean-Michel Bertelli’s soulful clarinet obbligato in the aria from Carafa’s Le nozze di Lammermoor, the boisterous glockenspiel playing of Morgane Fauchois-Prado in Donizetti’s Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, and the appealing efforts of the unjustly-unidentified harpist—are seized with relish. Working with a team of musicians as gifted and attentive as these does not make a singer a Joyce DiDonato, but it would make many singers’ recording experiences far more enjoyable for both the artists and their listeners.

Opening this recital with the title character’s polacca cabaletta ‘Ove t’aggiri, o barbaro’ from Giovanni Pacini’s 1845 Stella di Napoli was a perfect choice. Ms. DiDonato immediately establishes the energetic dramatic atmosphere that permeates the disc. The accuracy and brilliance of her pinpoint staccati are thrilling, and Pacini’s music, though not of the quality of his Carlo di Borgogna (a flop at its 1835 première), Maria, regina d’Inghilterra, and Medea, makes sufficient demands on Ms. DiDonato’s technique to spur curiosity about the balance of this forgotten score. Saffo, on the other hand, may well be Pacini’s finest opera, and ‘Teco dall’are pronube vengo al paterno tetto’ and ‘L’ama ognor qual io l’amai’ from the final scene are spirited and original. Ms. DiDonato is an appropriately golden-tongued poetess, and she maintains a glowing lyricism even when under greatest vocal stress. Beginning and ending the disc with music by Pacini is sensible from a stylistic point of view, but the scrutiny that Ms. DiDonato’s performances apply to the music affirms the composer’s worthiness to occupy these places of prominence in this examination of lyrical stars of Naples.

Two of the most intriguing selections on Stella di Napoli are those that present studies of familiar themes by unfamiliar composers. The heroine of Michele Carafa’s Le nozze di Lammermoor is the same unfortunate bride of Lammermoor—historically, née Janet Dalrymple—who inspired Donizetti’s setting of Sir Walter Scott’s famous novel. Donizetti’s Lucia is the more popular lass, but the aria ‘Oh, di sorte crudel’ suggests that Carafa’s Highlands protagonist is more harmonically adventurous. Ms. DiDonato ably negotiates the intricacies of the music, her certainty of intonation unveiling the inventiveness of the composer’s work. Carlo Valentini’s Il sonnambulo does not inhabit the same world as Bellini’s La sonnambula, but there are similarities between the two operas that extend beyond Felice Romani’s authorship of the libretti of both works. Romani’s Il sonnambulo was itself a well-traveled text, having also been set by Carafa, Persiani, and Luigi Ricci. Adele’s ‘Se il mar sommesso mormora’ from Valentini’s setting is an evocative piece, and Ms. DiDonato sings it with elegance and vision. The aural imagery depicting the workings of nature makes the success of this aria especially reliant upon the quality of the orchestral playing, and it succeeds gloriously in this performance.

Despite the continuing obscurity of a number of his finest scores, Saverio Mercadante was one of the leading innovators of the first half of the Nineteenth Century. His 1840 La vestale, sadly still in the shadow of Spontini’s opera based upon the same source, is one of the quiet masterpieces of Italian Romanticism. Giunia’s aria ‘Se fino al cielo ascendere’ is a marvel of concerted utterance to which Ms. DiDonato devotes precisely the condensed potency that the music requires. She is one of the few singers in the world today who can compellingly portray a vestal virgin without being affected or cloying, and the infusion of vocal purity that she injects into Mercadante’s lines is vocally and dramatically efficacious.

The title rôle in Zelmira is one of the parts that Gioachino Rossini created for his future consort, Isabella Colbran. Judging from contemporary accounts of Colbran’s artistry, Ms. DiDonato is as apposite a modern successor to the legendary singer’s legacy as recent years have heard. Rossini presumably knew Colbran’s voice like his own and crafted music that exploited its every capability. Still, the aria ‘Riedi al soglio’ might have been composed for Ms. DiDonato. Rossini’s roulades and ornaments exploit many of her trademark pyrotechnical feats, and she sings with a prowess unusual even in this age of great Rossini singing. She ignites coloratura passages like an eruption of Vesuvio, and her trills are among the best in the business.

No Italian composer active in Naples or elsewhere in the Nineteenth Century constructed melodies with greater fluency than Vincenzo Bellini. La sonnambula, Norma, and I puritani remain in circulation on the world’s great stages, but Bellini’s early Adelson e Salvini has been performed only a handful of times in the past half-century. Nelly’s aria ‘Dopo l’oscuro nembo’ is a piece worthy of Bellini’s more famous prime donne, and Ms. DiDonato sings it with the eloquence and poise that a great Norma devotes to ‘Casta diva.’ Bellini’s long-sustained melodic lines are well-suited to Ms. DiDonato’s natural suppleness of phrasing. Thankfully, I Capuleti ed i Montecchi clings to a foothold in the international repertory, and Ms. DiDonato’s account of Romeo’s ‘Deh! tu, bell’anima’ evinces the charm that empowers the opera’s resilience. If Ms. DiDonato is a logical inheritor of the legacy of Isabella Colbran, she is an equally intuitive descendant of Giuditta Grisi, who created both Bellini’s Romeo and Estella in Pacini’s Carlo di Borgogna. In Ms. DiDonato’s singing of ‘Deh! tu, bell’anima,’ Romeo’s sorrow is sent soaring into the heavens, her expert diction illuminating the dolorous probity of Romani’s text.

A number of Gaetano Donizetti’s operas were premièred in Naples, including Lucia di Lammermoor, Roberto Devereux, and Caterina Cornaro. His 1829 Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, the earliest of the composer’s Tudor adventures, shows his indebtedness to Rossini more obviously than his later scores, and the combination of Rossinian fiorature with Donizetti’s distinctive dramatic thrust engenders an ideal musical playing field for Ms. DiDonato. Amelia’s aria ‘Par che mi dica ancora’ was first sung by soprano Luigia Boccabadati, a singer much appreciated by both Donizetti and Meyerbeer, but the tessitura of the music poses no problems for Ms. DiDonato. Indeed, she seems to grow more comfortable as the vocal lines ascend, and her connection with Amelia’s suffering is palpable. So renowned is Ms. DiDonato’s way with Donizetti that the Metropolitan Opera staged the company’s first production of the composer’s Maria Stuarda as a vehicle for her assumption of the title rôle. Already acclaimed for her portrayal of Elisabetta in the same opera, the competing fire and finesse with which she took up Mary’s crown were epic. Her singing of Maria’s despondent prayer from Act Three, ‘Deh! Tu di un’amile preghiera,’ has the regal composure befitting a daughter of Marie de Guise, but the real joy of this performance is the effortless clarity of Ms. DiDonato’s fashioning of the bel canto line. This is the sort of singing that seems to suspend time, and Ms. DiDonato is one of the few of today’s singers who can achieve this time and time again.

As a testament to the vocal health of one of the world’s best singers, Stella di Napoli is one of the most welcome releases of 2014. In these ten slices of Nineteenth-Century Neapolitan operatic life, the listener is guided through the development of bel canto, from the florid domain of Rossini to the dramatic milieux of Donizetti and Mercadante. In performances less fervent than those on this disc, the music of Carafa, Pacini, Valentini, and even the ingenious Mercadante might seem pale alongside the bold inspirations of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, but this recital reminds the open-minded observer that any music can captivate in the hands of a great singer. Joyce DiDonato makes no apologies for any of the arias on Stella di Napoli: she just sings them, and nothing further is required.

QUEEN OF BEL CANTO: Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title rôle of Gaetano Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA at the Metropolitan Opera, 2012 [Photo by Ken Howard, © The Metropolitan Opera]Stella di Scozia: Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title rôle of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the Metropolitan Opera in December 2012 [Photo by Ken Howard, © The Metropolitan Opera]

02 September 2014

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – PIANO CONCERTOS NOS. 18 & 19 (Dame Mitsuko Uchida, piano; The Cleveland Orchestra; DECCA 478 6763)

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - PIANO CONCERTI NOS. 18 & 19 (DECCA 478 6763)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Piano Concertos Nos. 18 in B-flat major (K. 456) and 19 in F major (K. 459)Dame Mitsuko Uchida, piano and conductor; The Cleveland Orchestra [Recorded in performance in Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, USA, 1 – 5 April 2014; DECCA 478 6763; 1CD, 60:48; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Recorded during live performances in the magnificent acoustics of Cleveland’s Severance Hall, this new installment in Dame Mitsuko Uchida’s journey through the complete Piano Concerti of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart preserves sparkling accounts of two of the composer’s loveliest contributions to the genre. With critically-acclaimed and still-competitive Philips recordings of the complete cycle of Mozart’s Piano Concerti with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra remaining in circulation, Ms. Uchida is in this traversal of the Piano Concerti for DECCA that most dangerous of artistic entities—a widely-lauded mistress of her craft with nothing to prove. The peril arises from the natural expectation for interpretive advancement or at least discernibly insightful variation. In so many instances, artists’ later thoughts on particular repertory add little to the appreciation of their interpretations: to adapt a conceit from a 1960s pop hit, comparisons of too many musicians’ recorded ‘repeat performances’ with their earlier efforts disclose that, in terms of meaningful artistic development, the second verse is often the same as the first. There is an added novelty in Ms. Uchida’s DECCA recordings of the Mozart Concerti in the pianist’s direction of the orchestra from the keyboard, but the truly gratifying aspect of these performances of the 18th and 19th Concerti—one that is obvious from the first bar of the recording—is the freshness of Ms. Uchida’s interpretations. As in her celebrated performances of Schubert’s piano music, she seeks the impetus for her recreations of the unique architecture of Mozart’s Concerti in the music itself. What the performances on this disc lack is any sense of self-conscious efforts to distort the music in order to fabricate an appreciable reimagining of her approach to the Concerti. Comparing running times on artists’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ recordings of a piece is a favorite pastime of many listeners, but Ms. Uchida’s playing makes this irrelevant. The noticeable deviations from the standards established by her earlier recordings are evidence of further refinement of the already-seasoned acuity apparent on the Philips discs. DECCA’s production values provide a recording in which every detail of Ms. Uchida’s interpretations can be enjoyed in clear, naturally-balanced sound that never betrays the ‘live’ circumstances of the recording. These performances are not ‘remakes’: they are the culminations of new exchanges between one of the greatest composers and one of the most distinguished exponents of his music.

The controlled fluidity of Ms. Uchida’s manner as both pianist and conductor coalesces impeccably with the playing of The Cleveland Orchestra. Since the heady days of seasons led by Music Directors Artur Rodziński and George Szell, The Cleveland Orchestra’s relationship with the music of Mozart has been an exceptionally fruitful one, and current Music Director Franz Welser-Möst has perpetuated the Orchestra’s legacy of stylish, rhythmically-buoyant performances of Mozart repertory. In these performances, the Orchestra personnel respond to Ms. Uchida’s direction with suppleness of phrasing that dovetails flawlessly with both her comprehensive conceptions of the scores and the distinctive subtleties of her pianism. Led by concertmaster William Preucil, the strings offer slender but full-bodied tone that nods to 21st-Century notions of period-appropriate playing without sacrificing the weight of sound that has served the Orchestra so well in Romantic works. Principal flautist Joshua Smith, whose Mozartean credentials were confirmed in a wonderfully-phrased DECCA recording of the timeworn K. 299/297c Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra, performs the flute parts in both Concerti with the commands of breath and rounded tone of the best bel canto singers, his awesomely reliable intonation put to radiant use in the solo flute line in the Andante movement of the B-flat Major Concerto. The eloquence of his playing is equaled by the oboes, bassoons, and horns, and the Clevelanders again prove themselves to be among the world’s finest orchestras.

The year 1784 was a whirlwind of creative activity for the young Mozart. Not yet thirty, the composer had already reached an astonishing level of achievement in his music for piano, and just in 1784 he composed six of his concerti for the instrument. The 18th and 19th Concerti are an apt pairing stylistically as well as chronologically, the two scores sharing instrumentation and basic structure, and the consistency of Ms. Uchida’s playing emphasizes the links between the concerti. In the Allegro vivace first movement of Concerto No. 18, Ms. Uchida sets a tempo that honors the briskness that Mozart is likely to have intended but also allows a degree of expansiveness that suits the breadth of the music. The gossamer brilliance of her execution of passagework remains impressive and often dazzling, but her focus is now more on emotional rather than technical virtuosity. Still, the rhythmic precision of her playing of trills and other ornaments is particularly laudable. She and the Orchestra markedly contrast the modulations into minor keys with the major-key passages without resorting to overdone sentimentality. There are fleeting insinuations of disquiet and cafard even in these relatively carefree works, but these performances acknowledge them without amplifying their significance. In the opening Allegro movement of Concerto No. 19, too, Ms. Uchida adopts a sensible tempo and an abiding lightness of touch that does not impede exploration of darker moods. The central Andante movement of Concerto No. 18 spurs Ms. Uchida to rapturously contemplative playing that she never allows to derail the music’s innate momentum. Her shaping of the second movement of Concerto No. 19, marked Allegretto, heightens the impact of the modified sonata form employed by Mozart, her understated differentiation of the major-key primary theme and minor-key secondary theme spotlighting the composer’s inventive development and interplay of the two subjects. Concerto No. 18 ends as it began, with an Allegro vivace, and Ms. Uchida replicates the nimbleness with which she played the first movement in her performance of the third. The Allegro assai third movement of Concerto No. 19 is one of Mozart’s sunniest inspirations, and Ms. Uchida’s playing accentuates the genius of Mozart’s fusion of joviality with sophistication. She uses Mozart’s cadenzas in both concerti, and this increases the continuity of the performances. The preeminence of Ms. Uchida’s affinity for Mozart’s music was not in doubt prior to the release of this disc, but these performances reaffirm that she is among the most prescient Mozarteans of her generation.

Recordings of Mozart’s Piano Concerti are anything but sparse, but good ones are no more plentiful than important novels or great paintings. Even rarer are performances in which pianist and orchestra consort as naturally and lucidly as Dame Mitsuko Uchida and The Cleveland Orchestra. Each of Mozart’s Piano Concerti presents singular trials and bounties: in these performances, every challenge is met and every prize claimed. Neither the pianist’s nor the Orchestra’s reputation depends upon this series of performances and recordings, but these presentations of Mozart’s 18th and 19th Piano Concerti showcase music-making that validates the conviction that great music and great musicians are as relevant, as mesmerizing, and as absolutely necessary in 2014 as they were in 1784.

01 September 2014

CD REVIEW: Holst, Ireland, Quilter, Vaughan Williams, & Willan – LOVE’S MINSTRELS (Philippe Sly, bass-baritone; Michael McMahon, piano; Analekta AN 2 9967)

CD REVIEW: LOVE'S MINSTRELS (Analekta AN 2 9967)

GUSTAV HOLST (1874 – 1934), JOHN IRELAND (1879 – 1962), ROGER QUILTER (1877 – 1953), RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872 – 1958), and HEALEY WILLAN (1880 – 1968): Love’s Minstrels – English Songs from the 19th and 20th CenturiesPhilippe Sly, bass-baritone; Michael McMahon, piano [Recorded in Oscar Peterson Concert Hall, Concordia University, Montréal, Québec, Canada, in September 2013; Analekta AN 2 9967; 1CD, 62:19; Available from Analekta, Amazon (Canada), Amazon (USA), jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

When Classical Music is summoned to the dock to defend itself against charges of irrelevance and insignificance, one of the most damning pieces of evidence trumpeted by the prosecution is the perceived paucity of artists of merit who are worthy of advancing the traditions upheld by the great musicians of the past. One of the most confounding ambiguities in the Performing Arts—and surely one of the most disheartening for young artists—is the lamenting of the fallen standards in Classical Music by those who supposedly are the staunchest defenders of its future. The young singer who takes on Schubert’s Winterreise or Schumann’s Dichterliebe must contend not only with the efforts of his contemporaries but also—more perilously—with memories of artists of the past. If he must always face the attitude that this or that singer said all that can be said about a piece, as it were, why does he carry on? Why does he sacrifice so much of himself in the practice of an art in which in the esteem of some observers he will never be better than second-best? Such are things that can crush the spirit of a sensitive artist. However, there is also the reality that a young artist might be for today’s audiences that paragon by whose example they measure all future performers. In this recital of songs by Gustav Holst, John Ireland, Roger Quilter, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Healey Willan, Ottawa-born bass-baritone Philippe Sly confirms both that he should lose no sleep over comparisons with the finest Lieder singers of the past and that he is an artist who contemporary listeners will recall to their grandchildren as a representative of a storied Golden Age of Song. Here, he truly is, as the disc’s title suggests, love’s minstrel: whether singing of joy or sorrow, he is a storyteller whose tales ravish the ears and the heart.

An insightful interpreter of a large spectrum of styles ranging from the Baroque to new music, Mr. Sly possesses a voice of considerable attractiveness over which he exercises exceptionally level-headed control. Vocally, he is a legitimate successor to the traditions of Édouard de Reszke and Pol Plançon, his singing combining refinement, power, and utter dedication to the music. These qualities are mirrored in Michael McMahon’s sensitive yet rousing pianism, and together Mr. Sly and Mr. McMahon descend far into the emotional depths of the songs on Love’s Minstrels. The English folksong settings of Healey Willan, the London-born composer and organist who spent the last half-century of his life in Mr. Sly’s native Ontario, are far too little known and appreciated. The directness of expression that Mr. Sly devotes to his singing of Willan’s settings of ‘Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes’ and ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ is arresting, but as in all the songs on this disc the element of his performances that most commands attention and appreciation is the full-throated beauty of the vocalism. Mr. Sly is the rare singer who can maintain the roundness and focus of his tone at all dynamic levels, and his piano and pianissimo singing on this disc—in which he wholly avoids the self-conscious crooning employed by many singers—is tremendously impressive. Mr. McMahon responds instinctively to Mr. Sly’s vocal manipulations of nuances of text, phrasing his playing in perfect synchronicity with the singer. The familiar ‘Londonderry Air,’ here a strangely unsettling piece, and ‘Loch Lomond’ are pensively done, highlighting the subtle wit and quiet melancholy of Willan’s artful arrangements.

Like Willan’s folksong arrangements, John Ireland’s Three Masefield Ballads, settings of poems from John Masefield’s 1916 maritime-themed Salt-Water Poems and Ballads, do not receive the attention and admiration that they deserve from both musicians and audiences. Unlike the texts of many of the songs on Love’s Minstrels, however, Masefield’s ballads are not great literature, but they compellingly convey the atmosphere of the sea. Mr. Sly’s singing of ‘Sea Fever’ evokes the agitation of seagoing livelihood, and in both ‘The Bells of San Marie’ and ‘The Vagabond’ he and Mr. McMahon create very specific portraits of life on and by the sea, evoking not only the pungent sensations suggested by the text but also the very spirit of England.

Roger Quilter’s Five Shakespeare Songs are not unknown, but they rarely enjoy the kind of verbal and musical acuity that Mr. Sly and Mr. McMahon bring to them. ‘Fear No More the Heat O’ the Sun’ from Cymbeline is one of the most gorgeously lyrical speeches in any of Shakespeare’s plays, and Mr. Sly sings Quilter’s distinguished setting of it—music not unworthy of the words—with what seems a very individual profundity that is almost unbearably poignant. ‘Under the Greenwood Tree,’ Amiens’s song from As You Like It, is delivered with great clarity of thought and complementary leanness of phrasing. Mr. Sly’s singing of ‘It Was a Lover and His Lass,’ also from As You Like It, captures the lilting courtliness of Shakespeare’s verse, and the union of the singer’s velvet tone with Mr. McMahon’s lulling simplicity of approach makes of ‘Take, O Take Those Lips Away,’ the boy’s song from Measure for Measure, ninety seconds of penetrative bliss. ‘Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain’ from Twelfth Night is also performed with intelligence and dramatic purpose that honor both Shakespeare and Quilter.

The disc draws its title from a song in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s popular 1903 cycle The House of Life. Employing texts by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Vaughan Williams produced an episodic, slyly enchanting traversal of the gamut of love’s tribulations. Even when his melodies are most bucolic, the composer conjures a pragmatic world that seems to shrug its shoulders at love with a resigned, ‘cannot live with it, cannot live without it’ mentality. Stylistically, these are some of Vaughan Williams’s most characteristic songs, their harmonies prefiguring his 1929 opera The Poisoned Kiss, and stirring performances of the cycle have been recorded by singers as diverse as Kathleen Ferrier, Sir Thomas Allen, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. Add Mr. Sly to the ranks of these luminaries. His account of ‘Silent Noon,’ the most familiar of the songs in The House of Life, has Ferrier’s pointed austerity, Allen’s aristocratic but unaffected enunciation, and Rolfe Johnson’s honeyed vocal elocution, as well as his own unique emotional earnestness. Mr. Sly and Mr. McMahon construct a logical narrative progression through the cycle, their performances of ‘Love-Sight,’ ‘Love’s Minstrels,’ and ‘Hearts Haven’ inviting the listener into an acutely cerebral dissection of love and longing. The gravity of Mr. Sly’s singing of ‘Death-in-Love’ and ‘Love’s Last Gift’ reveals layers of meaning that many singers leave unexplored. Beyond the British Isles, Vaughan Williams’s songs are too often regarded primarily as pleasantries: the urgency of Mr. Sly’s singing of The House of Life not only validates the faith in these works that British singers have displayed in the century since their composition but also vindicates Vaughan Williams’s significance as a composer of songs.

Using the composer’s translations of ancient Sanskrit texts, the three songs from Gustav Holst’s Opus 24 Hymns from the Rig Veda recorded by Mr. Sly—‘Ushas’ (‘Dawn’), ‘Varuna I’ (‘Sky’), and ‘Maruts’ (‘Stormclouds’)—present challenges to both singer and pianist. The complex, obdurately metaphysical texts inspired Holst to fashion music of intriguing, almost deceptive inventiveness. Holst was an accomplished tunesmith, and Mr. Sly and Mr. McMahon recognize in every melodic strand of Holst’s music the stark sentiments that lie beneath the surfaces of the vocal lines. Mr. Sly makes of ‘Ushas,’ ‘Varuna I,’ and ‘Maruts’ an organic linear depiction of the past, present, and future of existential humanity, a sort of holy trinity of desire, fulfillment, and regret. The firmness of Mr. Sly’s singing throughout his range enables him to transform passages that on the page seem inconsequential into surges of ardor that elucidate unexpected interpretive details. Aided by the flexibility of Mr. McMahon’s accompaniment, Mr. Sly is never content merely to sing songs: in the Holst songs and all of the pieces on Love’s Minstrels, he communicates startlingly inward intuitions in music.

The quality that separates important Lieder singers from merely proficient ones is passion, and passion resonates in every song on this disc. Moreover, the vocal beauty heard on this disc surpasses the work of many of the most acclaimed interpreters of Lieder. So many recital discs are now egotistical rather than artistic journeys or else vapid commercial ventures, but the soul of a superb singer and uncommonly expressive artist is bared in this recording. There are moments on this disc that are emotionally raw, almost painful to hear because they are so uncomfortably honest, but they charm as surely as the passages of light-heartedness. Love’s Minstrels is undoubtedly the work of an important Lieder singer and musical artisan. So intimate and personal are Philippe Sly’s interpretations of these fascinating songs that it also seems like a conversation with a much-loved friend.

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Why the MET Matters

The Metropolitan Opera [Photo by the author]

Exasperating as the weeks prior to resolution of the Metropolitan Opera’s labor crisis were for many people both participating in and observing the mediations, there is perhaps something inherently heartening in the fact that the continued operation of one of the great bastions of what is deemed by some sources to be a dying art form inspired such passionate debate. Fuses are almost always understandably short when livelihoods are at stake, and the sheer enormity of the challenges facing the MET cannot be ignored or underestimated. In a real sense, though, the problems that brought the MET to the brink of disaster this summer cannot be solved overnight: there are issues in play that are generational rather than situational. The greatest possible failure would be to overlook the ways in which New York, the United States, and the musical world in general have changed since the MET took up residence in its home at Lincoln Center in 1966. The invaluable Chagall murals have looked out upon both the disintegration of the MET’s sister company across the plaza and the revitalization of the Broadway theatre scene in the years since the crippling blow of 11 September 2001. Beyond the dollars and cents of contract negotiations and production costs, the true question that lurks in the shadows is whether any of this really matters. In this age of venomous rhetoric and the bewildering notion of institutions being ‘too big to fail,’ what is the Metropolitan Opera’s place in contemporary musical America? As the sea of oblivion swallows so many Arts organizations and dictates artistic decisions, does the MET genuinely deserve a seat in the life raft?

My first experience at the Metropolitan Opera was a 1997 performance of the Franco Zeffirelli production of Bizet’s Carmen with Denyce Graves in the title rôle, Plácido Domingo as Don José, Norah Amsellem as Micaëla, and Gino Quilico as Escamillo. I was nineteen years old and had seen opera in cities as dissimilar as Raleigh and Moscow. I was a young pianist and violinist and had been told that I possessed a good voice that should be trained and shared. My first exposure to ‘serious’ vocal music came at the age of eight, when I was drafted by a traveling company that visited my elementary school to participate in a performance of music by Gilbert and Sullivan. As a third-grader with a range that extended at least to soprano F6, I was quite annoyed at being given the child’s part with the most to remember and sing, but a seed was planted. The leader of the traveling troupe recommended voice lessons and singing with a good boys’ choir, but these sorts of opportunities were few and far between in the South three decades ago. Precisely why I wanted a piano a year later is a continuing mystery, but my parents’ condition for buying the desired instrument was that I must take lessons until I acquired some notion of how to play the thing. [Sorry, Mom and Dad, that I was ultimately more horror film than Horowitz as a pianist.] As a high-schooler, I saved change from my lunch money to buy my first opera recordings: the DECCA Fidelio with Birgit Nilsson and James McCracken and the Philips La bohème with Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras. I no longer recall whether I had heard Carmen prior to seeing the MET performance, but some of the music was surely familiar to me. The Zeffirelli Carmen was extravagant, decadent even, but I was enthralled by the realism, the grandeur, and the imagination of it. The tableau shown during the Act Three Prelude, some of the most exquisitely beautiful music ever composed, will never leave my memory, the depiction of rain falling gently on the mountainside that camouflages the smugglers’ lair haunting in its loveliness and suggestion of calm before calamity. It may not have been a performance of Carmen for the ages, but it introduced me to the Metropolitan Opera with elegance and largesse. It was and will always be my Carmen.

A day later, another Zeffirelli production offered me the opportunity to make the musical acquaintance of Luciano Pavarotti, who sang Calàf in Puccini’s Turandot opposite Jane Eaglen in the title rôle and Hei-Kyung Hong as Liù. It was late in the day for Pavarotti, whose lyric instrument was stretched by Calàf’s music when in its prime, especially in a house of the size of the MET, but he sang with concentration and vocal sheen. By this time in his career, he was the very personification of the stand-and-sing stereotype, but even with limited mobility he was engaging. The superb diction for which he was seldom given sufficient praise made the sentiments of ‘Non piangere, Liù’ vivid and touching, and his answering of Turandot’s riddles rang with impassioned defiance. The resolve with which he planted his feet and tightened his stance as the climactic phrase of ‘Nessun dorma’ approached might have seemed comical out of context, but there was little doubting that when this Calàf sang ‘all’alba vincerò’ he meant it. His top B was not the clarion noise of a Corelli or del Monaco, but it was solid and exciting. Domingo’s Don José and Pavarotti’s Calàf represented the MET as I had imagined it to be: important singers in typical—if not always ideal—rôles, supported by gifted conductors and one of the greatest orchestras in the world.

Since being baptized in the melodious waters of opera and being reborn as a proselytizer for the genre, the history and legacy of the Metropolitan Opera have been crucial components of my decidedly imperfect operatic education. As a foreigner at university, the MET’s Saturday broadcasts became a link to home in an artistic sense, and the eight-decades-worth of broadcasts available officially and unofficially form a cache of performances both ordinary and extraordinary that exhibit the good, the bad, and the ugly of opera in the past century. Whilst driving recently through Texas Hill Country, where the highfaluting denizens of the MET would be as alien as Martians, I listened to two broadcasts from years past. The first, a 1951 performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, preserves the singing of a cast of voices one almost certainly would never encounter in Mozart repertory today, and the second, a Die Walküre from 1977, is a performance that should be second-rate but manages to be riveting from beginning to end. Anyone who sees Paolo Silveri, Ljuba Welitsch, Regina Resnik, and Eugene Conley on the cast list for Don Giovanni must be forgiven for assuming that there is some mistake. In 2014, the notion of hearing voices like these—assuming that they exist—in Mozart operas, even in large opera houses, is almost ridiculous. Nadine Conner, who in 1951 sang Zerlina, might now be singing Elvira or even Anna: the irony, of course, is that Conner, a consummate artist and musician whose MET rôles included Mozart’s Susanna and Pamina (the rôle of her début), Verdi’s Gilda and Violetta, Gounod’s Marguerite, Offenbach’s Antonia, Strauss’s Sophie, and Puccini’s Mimì, could likely have sung both parts honorably (and, indeed, in houses other than the MET may well have done). Silveri, a distinguished Verdi baritone, has more voice than almost any Giovanni heard in recent years, and he is a more dangerous, eerily seductive figure as a result: when this Giovanni is dragged to hell, there is no questioning that it is a well-earned trip. Welitsch was in a sort of vocal Indian summer, but her Anna is a deeply-felt, undeniably glamorous creation, thoroughly enjoyable provided that one does not require dull perfection. Resnik’s Elvira is a characterization worthy of this great artist: more impressively, the music is phenomenally sung, the tricky runs and awkwardly-placed top notes in ‘Ah, fuggi il traditor’ executed with aplomb, and she is an Elvira whose hysteria never trumps her innate dignity. Conley had a ruggedly handsome voice of moderate size—the kind of voice that would now be forced into inappropriately heavy repertory. After hearing Twenty-First-Century Ottavios, Conley seems a vocal behemoth, but he, too, delivers his music at a very high level and sings his part with élan. Ottavio is still a twit but in this performance at least not an anemic and undernourished one. Lorenzo Alvary is a Masetto who will not be ignored, and Nicola Moscona is a Commendatore who dies with dignity and haunts with gusto. Salvatore Baccaloni was getting on in years (and sounds it) and is an exaggeratedly blustering but occasionally surprisingly vulnerable Leporello. Neither the choral singing nor the orchestral playing are unfailingly first-rate, but Fritz Reiner conducts Don Giovanni like a real opera, not a dainty period piece. His performance sounds nothing like how readings of Mozart’s operas sound today, but it soars when it should soar, startles when it should startle, and elates when it should elate. Is such a level of commitment to revealing the dramatic intensity of a composer’s genius to an audience ever unstylish?

The ’77 Walküre, conducted raptly if somewhat lugubriously by Erich Leinsdorf, whose MET début in 1938 was also in Die Walküre, is an unexpected triumph of ensemble casting. A trio of Americans in principal rôles prove especially wonderful. James King’s Siegmund was a well-traveled portrayal, heard at Bayreuth and virtually everywhere else that Wagner was performed in the 1960s and ‘70s, but his singing in this performance exceeds his own standards, particularly in the final pages of Act One. Sieglinde receives from Janis Martin one of the finest performances of this underappreciated singer’s career. The high lines of ‘O hehrstes Wunder’ do not come easily, but she taps reserves of vocal strength when the character and her music are most demanding. The focus, ferocity, and security of Mignon Dunn’s Fricka are awe-inspiring. The most confident Wotan would tremble at this Fricka’s displeasure, but Dunn commands without distortion or duress. Were this not a compellingly-acted performance, it would nonetheless be legendary solely for Dunn’s visceral, unflappable singing. Manfred Schenk is a stolid, sturdy Hunding, effective but no match for his high-octane colleagues. As Wotan and Brünnhilde, a pair of Brits turned up in New York to remind the MET audience of how moving Wagner’s music can be when sung with attention to producing properly-supported tone and maintaining bel canto lines. Good Siegmunds and Sieglindes have historically been more plentiful than good Wotans and Brünnhildes, but the first minutes of Act Two in this performance erase all doubts about consistency in casting. A legitimate bass-baritone comfortable with the full range of Wotan’s music, Norman Bailey sings with a drive and world-weariness that evoke sympathy from his first phrase. He is an inept husband and harsh father because he is insecure: Wagner makes this obvious, but how many Wotans also convey it while singing sonorously and accurately? There is a certain heaviness in Bailey’s singing, but he uses this to his advantage, making his cavernous tone evocative of the depths of Wotan’s frustration and despair. His Wotan is lightened by discernible joy when Rita Hunter jubilantly fires off Brünnhilde’s opening volley of ‘Hojotohos,’ every trill delivered and top note placed with precision. Hunter was a large woman whose size limited her viability as a stage creature in the eyes of some observers. She was also a lovely, unpretentious lady whose performance philosophy was refreshingly uncomplicated: learn the music thoroughly, then sing it as well as possible. The ease with which Hunter sings Brünnhilde’s music in this performance, uncannily combining power with an attractively girlish timbre, is tremendous. The monumental steadiness and beauty of her lower register are inestimably beneficial in the Todesverkündikung and Brünnhilde’s exchanges with Wotan in Act Three, in which she interacts with equal fortitude with King’s Siegmund and Bailey’s Wotan. She and Bailey bring the performance to a close with singing of uncompromising excellence. The shared heartbreak of this Wotan and his favorite daughter spills over the footlights and flows across the years undiluted and undiminished.

Since my first Carmen seventeen years ago, I have been privileged to witness some memorable portrayals at the MET: Sumi Jo’s fragile but determined—and perfectly-projected—Gilda; Dolora Zajick’s pot-boiling Azucena, complete with the top C demanded by the score in Act Two; Deborah Voigt’s Cassandre in Les Troyens and Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten; Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s majestic and moving Didon in Les Troyens, in what sadly proved to be her final MET performance; Pamela Armstrong’s sensationally-sung Mimì; Diana Damrau’s Marie and Juan Diego Flórez’s Tonio; Nina Stemme’s Ariadne and Sarah Connolly’s heart-stoppingly intense Komponist. Likewise, there are dozens of broadcasts that have defined and redefined my understandings of individual singers and their artistries: Flagstad’s Leonore and Elsa, Traubel’s Isolde, Varnay’s Sieglinde and Maria Boccanegra, Melchior’s Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, Albanese’s Cio-Cio-San, Steber’s Violetta, Tosca, and Arabella, Nilsson’s Elektra and Turandot, Rysanek’s Senta and Chrysothemis, Sutherland’s Donna Anna, Leontyne Price’s Aida, Arroyo’s Lady Macbeth, Bergonzi’s Nemorino and Pollione. There are also those performances that preserve wondrous details unlikely ever to be duplicated: the ringing sincerity of Lily Pons’s salute to her native France in a wartime La fille du régiment; the inimitable pairings of Maria Callas’s Tosca with the Cavaradossis of Richard Tucker and Franco Corelli; the grim determination of Dorothy Kirsten’s golden-voiced Minnie in La fanciulla del West; the untainted purity of the young Montserrat Caballé’s Luisa Miller and the stunning feat of her long-held top B♭ in the final scene of Don Carlo; the unwavering simplicity of Teresa Żylis-Gara’s Desdemona; the fervor of Gilda Cruz-Romo’s Suor Angelica; the resilience and vocal splendor of David Daniels’s Bertarido in Händel’s Rodelinda. These and thousands of other performances form the heritage not just of artists or even an opera company: they are the musical history of a city, a nation, and an art form. Perhaps the paths taken by the Metropolitan Opera in recent seasons are not what Giulio Gatti-Casazza, Edward Johnson, Sir Rudolf Bing, or previous generations of MET audiences and opera lovers might have envisioned, but the continued endurance of opera depends upon adaptability and flexibility. Is opera in 2014 what Monteverdi, Mozart, Wagner, or Puccini imagined that it would be, if they imagined its longevity at all?

If there are no easy solutions to a problem, the trend in American politics is increasingly to do nothing at all. For better or worse, art is inherently political, and the Metropolitan Opera has fallen victim to the counterproductive finger-pointing and in-fighting that make Washington an impenetrable thicket of inefficiency and ineptitude. As with any business model, the vast majority of the MET’s personnel are not growing rich on their earnings despite the fact that they are performing critical tasks in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Even for an acknowledged star like Renée Fleming, singing is a job in some ways like any other, a job for which she trains, prepares, and must adhere to deadlines and schedules. Have artists’ fees in general become inflated? There is no straightforward answer to this upon which artists, their representatives, and opera company managements can agree, but the expenses of maintaining a career as an artist have undeniably skyrocketed. Now, not even bad publicity is cheap. In this not-so-brave new world, art is a commodity, and in order to preserve its ‘brand appeal’ the MET must be marketed accordingly. Fighting economics is futile even in the alternate reality of opera.

Perhaps the most daunting challenge facing the MET is reconciling the appropriation of public funds with what is by any analysis a minority interest. In America, opera is largely borrowed culture, but it is a genre in which we as a nation have excelled, in part because of our American arrogance that refuses to acknowledge inferiority. Being faced with the deterioration of a venerated institution like the MET, the action of a people who never surrender should be to correct the environmental factors undermining organizational integrity rather than merely plastering over fissures and then pretending that they do not exist. Inexhaustible endowments are the dream of every Arts administrator, but opera is a product that must be sold. Rather than pulling it from the shelves when sales lag, the causes for the decline should be discerned and remedied. There are no silver-bullet solutions for the MET’s problems, but it often seems that attention has been diverted from the single most potent weapon in the MET arsenal: music itself. L'incoronazione di Poppea, Tamerlano, Così fan tutte, Norma, La forza del destino, Parsifal, Salome, and Peter Grimes are no less powerful now than when they were first performed, and those who argue that there are no singers today capable of doing these scores justice simply are not listening. Neither are the guardians of the MET in many cases, admittedly, and the presence of top talent on the MET stage, in the orchestra pit, and on the podium remains a vital but sometimes neglected component of the company’s success. So does the cultivation and retention of an involved, loyal audience.

During the past seventeen years, I have purchased tickets for MET performances whenever I was in New York, even if I could not really afford them. I have shed tears over the deaths of Mimìs and Cio-Cio-Sans who were far from perfectly-sung. I have switched off a few broadcasts in disgust. I have cheered beloved friends appearing on that gargantuan stage. Above all, I have relied upon the Metropolitan Opera as an oasis of cherished artistic traditions in this era in which imagination and ingenuity are valued only if they can be expressed in 140 or fewer characters. My confessedly naïve credo as a musician has long been that my only priority is learning the music at hand absolutely and, knowing it, trusting it as a friend. No one at the Metropolitan Opera knows or cares who I am, but the MET is a friend for whose future I am responsible in my small way. What all of us who love opera must endeavor to perpetuate is that, when future generations hear Nicolas Cage entreat Cher to ‘meet [him] at the MET,’ this still has an aura of magic and old-fashioned but timeless romance.

Mezzo-sopranos Elena Zaremba as Anna (left) and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Didon (right) in Hector Berlioz's LES TROYENS at the MET, 2003 [Photo by Marty Sohl, © The Metropolitan Opera]Thy hand, Belinda…oh, I mean Anna: mezzo-sopranos Elena Zaremba (left) as Anna and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (right) as Didon in Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens at the MET in 2003 [Photo by Marty Sohl, © The Metropolitan Opera]