26 August 2015

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss – DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN (T. Wilson, B. Fritz, T. Stensvold, S. Hogrefe, T. A. Baumgartner; Oehms Classics OC 964)

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss - DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN (Oehms Classics OC 964)RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Die Frau ohne Schatten, Opus 65Tamara Wilson (Die Kaiserin), Burkhard Fritz (Der Kaiser), Terje Stensvold (Barak, der Färber), Sabine Hogrefe (Die Färberin), Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Die Amme), Franz Mayer (Der Einäugige, Ein Stimme der Wächter der Stadt), Björn Bürger (Der Einarmige, Ein Stimme der Wächter der Stadt), Hans-Jürgen Lazar (Der Bucklige), Dietrich Volle (Der Geisterbote, Ein Stimme der Wächter der Stadt), Michael Porter (Erscheinung des Jünglings), Brenda Rae (Ein Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels, Stimme des Falken), Katharina Magiera (Stimme von oben), Birgit Treschau (Dienerin), Alketa Hoxha (Dienerin), Yvonne Hettegger (Dienerin), Young Sook Kim (Dienerin), Hiromi Mori (Dienerin), Book-Sill Kim (Kinderstimme), Camelia Suzana Peteu (Kinderstimme), Gunda Boote (Kinderstimme), Jianhua Zhu (Kinderstimme), Christiane Maria Waschk (Kinderstimme); Chor der Oper Frankfurt; Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester; Sebastian Weigle, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performances at Oper Frankfurt, Germany, in October and November 2014; Oehms Classics OC 964; 3 CDs, 193:10; Available from Oehms Classics, jpc (Germany), and major music retailers]

Whether symptomatic of perversity or profundity, Richard Strauss's and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Die Frau ohne Schatten is a score that engages my emotions very intensely; more intensely, in truth, than almost any other opera yet written. I do not claim that my affection for the opera fully plumbs the depths of its mystical symbolism, but I question the insightfulness of any artist, critic, or casual listener who fails to fathom the opera's pervasive, persuasive humanity. Like Mozart's and Schikaneder's Die Zauberflöte, the drama of Die Frau ohne Schatten occupies multiple planes of meaning. Taken at face value, its plot is fanciful but simple enough, recounting the necessity of a woman artificially obtaining what others naturally possess, but the collisions of privilege and privation, magnanimity and ennui, tangible and ephemeral inspired composer and librettist to look more deeply into the recesses of the psyches of the opera’s characters than in any of their other collaborations. Composed in the tempestuous years between 1911 and 1917, the dins and dissonances of World War I pockmark Strauss’s score, tempered by the strata of hope and resilience that are the most forceful weapons in an artist’s arsenal. Vitally, though, one need not wholly submerge oneself in the libretto's symbolism in order to be swept away by the surging currents of Strauss's music. The foremost majesty of Die Frau ohne Schatten is the simplicity that frolics in its depths: the characters who populate the opera's conflicting worlds are legendarily complex, but the emotions that motivate their actions—love, fear, guilt, longing—are surprisingly uncomplicated.

Like many operas with troublesome plots, Die Frau ohne Schatten has fallen victim to efforts to obviate the disconnect between the opera's singular philosophical milieu and the sensibilities of modern listeners. The desire to entice audiences with musical pageants in which their own lives are reflected is a critical component in the effort to ensure opera's continued existence and expansion, but it is a mistake to attempt to force an opera like Die Frau ohne Schatten into a mold of so-called relevance. Place the action in Revolution-era France, Nazi Germany, Franco's Spain, or some post-apocalyptic No Man's Land, and Die Frau ohne Schatten is no more approachable than when set into the temporal limbo stipulated by the libretto. Not even in Elektra did Strauss create a sound world so meticulously as in Die Frau ohne Schatten, during the three acts of which virtually every tenet of Nineteenth-Century tonality is dismantled, rearranged, and reassembled in ways that link the traditions of Brahms and Bruckner with the new directions of Schönberg and Webern. In practical terms, there is no making a work dealing with a woman transformed from a gazelle by a man who is himself on the cusp of literally being petrified relevant to audiences young or old. Die Frau ohne Schatten is an opera that requires suspension of disbelief. Recorded during staged performances at Oper Graz, this recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten establishes a context for the opera that depends upon nothing but the responses that Strauss's music and Hofmannsthal's words provoke. Ultimately, fully grasping the meaning of the opera’s metaphorical pragmatism is not as important as understanding why Die Frau ohne Schatten can be so moving.

Having shown himself to be an astonishingly versatile conductor in previous Oper Frankfurt productions recorded by Oehms Classics, Sebastian Weigle affirms on these discs that he is a conductor of incredible significance. Conducting Die Frau ohne Schatten is a task at which even conductors acknowledged as great talents have failed. Conducted at its 1919 Vienna première by Strauss's colleague Franz Schalk, a noted advocate for music by Bruckner and Mahler and a founder of the Salzburger Festspiele, Die Frau ohne Schatten has accumulated a very short list of wholly successful interpreters in the subsequent century. Karl Böhm was the opera's great champion in the Twentieth Century, followed by Joseph Keilberth, Herbert von Karajan (who took the liberty of reordering scenes), Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Giuseppe Sinopoli. Since the dawning of the new millennium, few conductors have vied for the Frau ohne Schatten laurels: Christian Thielemann has perhaps been the most visible contender, but Weigle's direction of this performance is equal to the very best of Thielemann's work. [As a point of reference for comparison, I cite Thielemann's conducting of a 2001 performance of Herbert Wernicke's production at the Metropolitan Opera, attended but not formally reviewed. All of Thielemann's MET appearances to date have been in Strauss operas: Der Rosenkavalier, Arabella, and Die Frau ohne Schatten.] In this performance, magnificently recorded via the ‘Oper Frankfurt Recording System’ and produced by Christian Wilde, Weigle favors the lean textures characteristic of his work, but the grandeur of Strauss's orchestrations, composed for the most extravagant instrumental ensemble required for any of his operas, is ever apparent. The scene changes, music that can easily dissolve into cacophony, are handled with unerring attention to their harmonic progressions: Weigle imparts a sense of knowing where the music started and to where it leads. Strauss made supporting the singers a difficult undertaking, but Weigle ensures that orchestral textures uplift the principals. Both the Chor der Oper Frankfurt and the Frankurter Opern- und Museumsorchester achieve extraordinary heights of excellence in their performances of Strauss’s music, every section of the orchestra playing wonderfully. The grueling celesta and glockenspiel parts are executed with special virtuosity, and Weigle oversees the weaving of tonal tapestries that serve as stunningly colorful backdrops for Hofmannsthal’s drama. Conducting Die Frau ohne Schatten requires an unique skill set, but the attention to details of orchestral timbres, rhythmic precision, and cohesion between stage and pit that are invaluable in Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini scores are no less paramount in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Weigle is a renowned master of these qualities, and he shapes a clear-sighted, logically-paced performance that focuses on the incredible allure and emotional weight of the music rather than struggling in the quagmire of extrapolated interpretations.

​The first statements of the Keikobad motif, as momentous as the motif representing Agamemnon in Elektra, that raise the curtain bellow menacingly in this performance, focusing the listener's attention for the introduction of one of the production's greatest strengths, the Amme of German mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner. Though the Amme is one of the most challenging rôles in the German repertory, she has often been entrusted to singers in the final phases of their careers: indeed, perhaps it is because of the incredible difficulty of the part that it has so often been sung by aging artists with nothing left to lose. Among recorded Ammen, only Irene Dalis, Mignon Dunn, and Ruth Hesse rival the histrionic intensity of Baumgartner's interpretation of the rôle, and neither they nor Elisabeth Höngen, Reinhild Runkel, and Hanna Schwarz sing the music more comfortably. Simply in terms of range and tessitura, it is a hellishly demanding rôle, essentially one for a lady with the range of a contralto, the sensibilities of a lyric mezzo-soprano, and the power and stamina of a dramatic soprano—in short, Erda, Carmen, and Isolde in a single throat. The Amme's first phrases following 'Licht über'm See - ein fließender Glanz' take her to top A♭, followed in short order by an exchange with the Geisterbote that, traversing the dramatically-vital phrase 'Er wird zu Stein,' descends first to low E♭ and then climbs two-and-a-half octaves to A on 'Er wird zu Stein!' Later, in her conversation with the Färberin, she is asked to unleash an explosive B♭♭ in 'Ach! Schönheit ohne Gleichen!' Baumgartner not only meets these demands with ease but manages to do so with absolute security and often revelatory beauty of tone. One delights in rather than dreading this Amme's lines. In Act Two, Baumgartner delivers 'Komm bald weider nach haus, mein Gebieter' with manipulative sweetness, followed by an account of 'Es sind Übermächte im Spiel, o meine Herrin' that exudes barely-concealed contempt. At the act's end, she unleashes a mighty 'Übermächte sind im Spiel! Herzu mir!' and brings down the unseen curtain with a top B♭ that charges the atmosphere like summer lightning. Catapulting to her demise in Act Three, this Amme is fearless, phrasing 'Fort von hier! Hilf mir vom Fels lösen den Kahn!' and 'Fort von der Schwelle, sie zu betreten, ist mehr als Tod' with unhesitant haughtiness that extends to her ringing top B♭. The same tone reverberates in her meteoric 'Fressendes Feuer in ihr Gebein!' Baumgartner indulges in none of the foolishness in when many Ammen mire their final moments. What need has she of melodramatics when she is capable of singing her music so idiomatically? Baumgartner is a hair-raising Amme not because there is constant fear of the voice unraveling but because she sings Strauss's music as written, eschewing the cawing and cackling that have become typical in the part. Simply put, she sets a new, drastically elevated standard for recorded Ammen.

American soprano Brenda Rae, the delightfully full-toned Zerbinetta in Oper Frankfurt's 2013 Ariadne auf Naxos, also conducted by Weigle and recorded by Oehms Classics, is an atypically glamorous Falkenstimme and Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels. The historical precedents for such luxurious casting of the Falkenstimme—the very young Christa Ludwig for Hessischen Rundfunks, Lucia Popp in Vienna, and Linda Roark-Strummer in San Francisco—are splendidly upheld by Rae’s glistening singing of 'Wie soll ich denn nicht weinen?' in Act One and 'Die Frau wirft keinen Schatten, der Kaiser ​muß versteinen!' in Act Two. She is no less persuasive as the Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels. Franz Mayer, Björn Bürger, and Hans-Jürgen Lazar cannot hope to match Rae’s vocal resplendence as Barak’s one-eyed, one-armed, and hunchbacked brothers, but they sing characterfully. Bürger and Mayer are joined by Dietrich Volle, the granite-voiced Geisterbote, in a lovely performance of the city watch’s 'Ihr Gatten in den Häusern dieser Stadt.' Katharina Magiera delivers the Stimme von oben’s 'Auf, geh nach oben, Mann, der Weg ist frei' authoritatively, and the ensemble of Dienerinnen—Birgit Treschau, Alketa Hoxha, Yvonne Hettegger, Young Sook Kim, and Hiromi Mori—make easy going of their high-flying music. Likewise, the well-integrated ensemble of Kinderstimmen—Bock-Sill Kim, Camelia Suzana Peteu, Gunda Boote, Jianhau Zhu, and Christiane Maria Waschk—might stir the maternal instincts of the most reluctant mother with their rendition of 'Mutter, Mutter, laß uns nach hause!'

Singing the one-dimensional Kaiser [in many performances, he might well be stone from the start], tenor Burkhard Fritz works hard in a rôle in which mere survival is admirable. The assertion that Strauss detested the tenor voice persists even in academic circles, and his music for the Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten is not an inappropriate example to present in defense of the allegation. The Kaiser has daunting episodes in each of the opera’s three acts, beginning in Act One with 'Amme! Wachst du?' This is music that has defeated a number of otherwise capable singers, but Fritz sings strongly, manfully weathering the problematic tessitura. He sings with audible tenderness as the Kaiser describes his first encounter with the Kaiserin. Notes at the top of the compass are not ideally projected, but Fritz sings the rôle without compromises. His performance in Act Two is a model of dramatic fortitude, the sentiments of the text expressed with imagination that takes flight on the wings of Strauss’s music. His accounts of 'Falke, Falke, du wiedergefundener' and the harrowing 'O weh, Falke, o weh!' are spellbinding. In Act Three, Fritz voices 'Wenn das Herz aus Kristall zerbricht in einem Schrei' forcefully but with elasticity of line. Like Baumgartner, Fritz sings rather than shouting his music, and the benefits to both Strauss and Hofmannsthal are phenomenal.

For the latter half of the Twentieth Century, one name was synonymous with the Kaiserin in the minds and affections of many admirers of Die Frau ohne Schatten: Leonie Rysanek. Recording the rôle for DECCA under Karl Böhm’s direction in 1955 and portraying the Kaiserin in staged productions in Europe and America, including in the score’s Metropolitan Opera première in 1966, the Viennese soprano quite simply was the Kaiserin for generations of listeners. The marvels of Rysanek’s vocal endowment notwithstanding, her enduring dominance in the Kaiserin’s music was due in part to the paucity of singers capable of rivaling her level of excellence in the rôle. Oper Frankfurt found in American soprano Tamara Wilson a Kaiserin to uphold and enrich the Rysanek legacy with singing of superb immediacy and tonal attractiveness superior even to what her great Austrian predecessor offered. At her first entrance in Act One, the girlishness of Wilson's singing is arresting, her management of the trill and top A♭s and B♭s in the bars following 'Ist mein Liebster dahin' allied with a slightly self-conscious naïveté. Then, though, Wilson's staccato D6 dispels any suspicion that this is going to be a shrinking violet Kaiserin. Wilson launches the top B on 'Er hat uns vergeben' with brilliance, but even this is scant preparation for the potency of her ascent to top B♭ on 'Amme, um alles, wo find ich den Schatten!' and the massive top C on 'Der Kaiser muß versteinen!' Heard in the scene with the Färberin, Wilson's voice radiates poise and purity up to the shining top B in 'Willst du um dies Spiegelbild nicht den hohlen Schatten geben?' In Act Two, this Kaiserin's conflicting emotions subject her to debilitating inner turmoil that the singer expresses devastatingly in 'Weh! Muß dies geschehen vor meinen Augen?' and 'Ach! Wehe! Daß sie sich treffen müßen' without upsetting the balance of the voice or the admirable security of her top C. She proves a first-rate singing actress in the act's third scene, limning the eloquent feelings of 'Es gibt deren, die haben immer Zeit' with subtlety and detonating another awe-inspiring top C on 'Ach! Weh mir, wohin!' The sheer beauty of the soprano's voicing of 'Vor solchen Blicken liegen Cherubim auf ihrem Angesicht!' is breathtaking, the ascent to top B♭ again achieved seemingly without effort. Wilson's singing of 'Ihm keine Hilfe, dem andern Verderben!' is nothing short of exquisite: her gleaming top D♭ alone is a mesmerizing reason to hear and treasure this recording. Her spoken passage in Act Three discloses a comfort with Hofmannsthal's German, but it is Wilson's comfort with Strauss's music throughout the performance that renders her Kaiserin a magnificent portrayal. Few are the singers past or present who have equaled Rysanek in any of her best rôles, but Wilson here establishes herself as the new paragon in the Kaiserin's music.

Listeners familiar with the Die Frau ohne Schatten discography have been spoiled by the presence of Fritz Wunderlich as the Erscheinung des Jünglings​ in a 1964 Wiener Staatsoper broadcast performance conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Young tenor Michael Porter creates a golden-voiced charmer in the Wunderlich tradition with a rhapsodic voicing of 'Gäb' ich um dies Spiegelbild doch sie Seele und mein Leben!' in Act One. Returning in Act Two, he beguiles his listeners on stage and over the airwaves with 'Wer tut mir das, daß ich jäh muß stehen von meiner Herrin!' The Erscheinung des Jünglings is superfluous if he lacks fetchingly handsome tones to lure the Färberin into the Amme’s and Kaiserin’s bargain: Porter’s singing could tempt her into committing far direr sins.

The Färberin’s first note is a top B♭, immediately announcing that her part is destined to be a trial for even the most gifted dramatic soprano. In the course of this performance, German soprano Sabine Hogrefe verifies the legitimacy of her answering to that description. Sparring with her husband’s deformed brothers when she is first heard in Act One, the annoyance and frustration in Hogrefe’s singing of 'Schamlose ihr!' erupt from her voice, and the disillusionment of her voicing of 'O Welt in der Welt! O Traum im Wachen!' is epitomized by her grumbling descent to low F. Completing her circuitous journey thought Act One, Hogrefe soars to the top B♭ in 'Was winselt so gräßlich aus diesem Feuer?' with panache. The life-changing trajectory of Act Two draws from Hogrefe dazzling accounts of 'Ich weiß von keinem Manne außer ihm' and 'Meinen Pantoffel in dein Gesicht,' the sinewy brawn of her singing contrasting with the poetic wonder of her 'Es gibt derer, die bleiben immer gelassen.’ Lustrous tonal pulchritude is not always Hogrefe’s to command, but the unexpected beauty of the character she creates is tremendously affecting. In Act Three, Hogrefe unlooses a tide of anguish with 'Schweiget doch, ihr Stimmen!' that annihilates the Färberin’s former querulousness. Her recitation of 'Barak, mein Mann, o, daß du mich hörtest' is unspeakably poignant. The transformation that Hogrefe depicts in the opera’s final scene is jubilantly resolved in her singing of 'Trifft mich sein Lieben nicht.’ Sailing to the top C in unison with the Kaiserin, Hogrefe’s Färberin clearly finds complete fulfillment, not in the external sources to which she was dedicated in Act One but within herself and her love for her husband.

This production of Die Frau ohne Schatten served as the vehicle for Norwegian baritone Terje Stensvold's farewell to Oper Frankfurt, a company that witnessed many of the singer's greatest triumphs, including his Wotan in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Solely as a document of this occasion, this recording is valuable, but Stensvold, not an artist content to accept accolades without earning them, sings Barak with such grace and gravity that it is his performance rather than his reputation that garners appreciation. Often bringing the unforgettable late-career work of Hans Hotter to mind, Stensvold's vocalism is no longer wholly steady, but his intonation remains exact and his dramatic instincts unimpeded. The part's range strains him, but the Barak who sings effortlessly is likely not worth hearing. Though the vibrato has loosened, the timbre possesses a lovely russet patina that lends an appealing autumnal glow to the baritone's singing, apparent from his first notes in 'Hinaus mit euch!' The Cs, Ds, and E♭s that litter Barak's vocal lines are produced by Stensvold with heartening solidity and thrust. Barak's unassailable good humor is apparent in Stensvold's singing of 'Trag' ich die Ware mir selber zu Markt,' but the sadness of his unexaggerated 'Hörst du die Wächter, Kind, und ihren Ruf?' is wrenching. Stensvold condenses the whole panoply of Barak's emotions into two words with his weary but hopeful declamation of 'Sei's denn!' Stensvold devotes a veteran Wotan's world-weariness to his depiction of Barak's straits in Act Two, phrasing 'Was ist nun deine Rede' and especially 'Komm her, du stillgehende Muhme, da ist für dich!' with emotional directness and sincerity that tear at the heart. The feat that he brought off in Act One is repeated with his soul-searching utterance of 'Wer da?' in Act Two. The poetry of Stensvold's account of 'Mir anvertraut, daß ich sie hege, daß ich sie trage' in Act Three is complemented by the unfettered joy of his singing of 'Steh nur, ich finde dich' in the opera's final scene, his top Fs and Gs demonstrative of Barak's exultation at being reunited with his beloved wife. In an era in which emerging singers are often assigned rôles for which their voices and techniques are not ready merely because their faces will appear youthfully appealing to audiences, Stensvold's Barak—and his career as a whole, for that matter—should be a model to be studied. In this performance, the voice does not function as flawlessly as it did a decade ago, but this is a Barak who shirks nothing. In reality, Stensvold gets right at the heart of the character and why Die Frau ohne Schatten is so touching: love is as imperfect as the people who feel it but also more perfect in its abilities to heal and bind even perilously-injured hearts than the astounding symmetry of nature.

Die Frau ohne Schatten is a journey. The peculiar marvel of the opera is that, from an interpretive perspective, the points at which it begins and ends are different for every artist who performs it and every listener who hears it. Under Sebastian Weigle’s baton, Oper Frankfurt’s Die Frau ohne Schatten begins with discord and ends with harmony. Between these states, a performance of staggering eloquence is consummated by a group of artists for whom Strauss’s music and Hofmannsthal’s words are not esoteric symbols but components of the collective human experience that any individual with the gift of hearing can appreciate.

25 August 2015

CD REVIEW: Musical Czech Mates – Antonín Dvořák’s ALFRED on Arco Diva (UP 0140-2 612) and Leoš Janáček’s JENŮFA on Oehms Classics (OC 962)

CD REVIEW: Antonín Dvořák's ALFRED on Arco Diva (UP 0140-2 612) and Leoš Janáček's JENŮFA on Oehms Classics (OC 962)[1] ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904): Alfred, B. 16Felix Rumpf (Alfred), Petra Froese (Alvina), Ferdinand von Bothmer (Harald), Jörg Sabrowski (Gothron), Peter Mikuláś (Sieward), Tilmann Unger (Bote, Dorset), Jarmila Baxová (Rowena); Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno; Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra; Heiko Mathias Förster, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in concert in Dvořák Hall, Rudolfínum, Prague, Czech Republic, during the Dvořák Prague Festival, 16 – 17 September 2014; Arco Diva UP 0140-2 612; 2 CDs, 125:21; Available from Arco Diva, ClassicsOnline HD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] LEOŠ JANÁČEK (1854 – 1928): Jenůfa (Její pastorkyňa), JW I/4Gal James (Jenůfa), Iris Vermillion (Kostelnička Buryjovka), Dunja Vejzović (Stařenka Buryjovka), Aleš Briscein (Laca Klemeň), Taylan Reinhard (Števa Buryja), David McShane (Stárek), Konstantin Sfiris (Rychtář), Stefanie Hierlmeier (Rychtářka), Tatjana Miyus (Karolka), Fran Lubahn (Pastuchyňa), Xiaoyi Xu (Barena), Nazanin Ezazi (Jano), Hana Batinić (Tetka, Hlas), István Szécsi (Hlas); Fuyu Iwaki, violin solo; Chor und Singschul’ der Oper Graz; Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester; Dirk Kaftan, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performances at Oper Graz, Graz, Austria, 7, 17, 21 – 22 May 2014; Oehms Classics OC 962; 2 CDs, 126:58; Available from Oehms Classics, ClassicsOnline HD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Anyone who has visited the Czech Republic or Slovakia in the years since the Iron Curtain was torn asunder can attest to the extraordinary pride these nations have in their cultural heritages. Consigned for centuries to biding their time as forced citizens of other nations and empires, the Czech and Slovak people maintained sharply-defined identities, remaining Bohemians, Moravians, and other distinct socio-ethnic societies even when their loyalties were involuntarily directed southward to Vienna or eastward to Moscow. The collective cultural legacy of the Czechoslovak nations is nowhere more vibrantly enshrined than in the region's music. Whether in the indigenous folk tunes of these intoxicating lands or in the music of their Classically-trained composers, the hearts of the Czech Republic and Slovakia beat in time with the musical expressions of the profound history and humanity of the people. Two operas could hardly be more different in scale, subject, and substance than Dvořák's Alfred and Janáček's Jenůfa, but the scores share the authentic spirit of a common cultural ancestry. One a product of its composer's artistic adolescence and the other one of the great masterpieces of its genre, both of these works embody the enterprising, unflappable soul of people whose determination has sustained them through horrors and hardships, from generations of decreed assimilation unto a new millennium in which hopes for autonomy have been realized in the thriving Czech Republic and Slovakia of the Twenty-First Century.

Antonín Dvořák's 'Heroische Oper in drei Aufzügen' Alfred dates from the period in the ​twenty-nine-year-old​ composer's creative development during which, probably by equal parts design and default, he was an earnest Wagnerian. The score contains occasional foreshadows of Jakobín and Rusalka but mostly breathes the air of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. Already, though, Dvořák's gifts for colorful orchestration are apparent in Alfred, not least in the atmospheric Tragic Overture that prefaces the opera and in the grand choral scenes that frame the action, particularly the stirring Morgengesang in Act Three. Composed in 18​70 to a German libretto by Karl Theodor Körner that had already been set by Friedrich von Flotow​, Alfred was ​neither ​performed ​nor published ​during Dvořák's lifetime​: the piece was not heard until 1938, when it was performed in a Czech translation in Olomouc. In fact, the September 2014 Dvořák Prague Festival concert in Dvořák Hall—as apt a venue as exists for the occasion—in the beautiful Rudolfínum was the first known performance of the opera in the original German. This expertly-engineered recording reveals few indications of its 'live' provenance, but it reveals much about the young Dvořák's compositional evolution, influenced as much by Bayreuth as by his native Bohemia.

In truth, none of the young cast in the concert performance recorded b​y Arco Diva​ are ideally-suited to their parts: the titular King of Wessex requires a burly baritone of the Telramund variety, the Viking warlord Harald is tailor-made for a capable Lohengrin, and the music for the long-suffering ​Alvina​ cries out for a young Ingrid Bjöner, Rita Hunter, or, most appropriately, Naděžda Kniplová. Under the thoughtfully-wielded baton of Heiko Mathias Förster​, the performance by the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno​ and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra​ nonetheless provides great enjoyment and plentiful moments in which glimmers of Dvořák's operatic future appear in the sometimes ostentatious orchestrations. At this early stage in his career, Dvořák did not yet possess the skills as a manager of orchestral balances that he would eventually display in his Symphonies or the command of choral writing that characterizes his 1877 Stabat mater. Still, there are numerous challenges for instrumentalists and choristers, and they are here met unflinchingly. Förster's pacing of the performance benefits from what might rather paradoxically be termed a measured impetuosity: there is ample but never excessive thrust, and Dvořák's Wagnerian inclinations are indulged without Alfred being made to sound like a child-sized Parsifal. Förster supports the principals without ignoring the demands made on the chorus and orchestra, and, were the performance blessed with a cast more triumphant than merely competent, the endeavors of conductor, choir, and orchestra would honor Dvořák with a near-perfect recreation of his first outing as a composer of opera.

Singing the small rôle of​ Rowena, soprano Jarmila Baxová​ discloses a voice of charm and allure and a technique little challenged by her music. First appearing as the Bote in Act One, tenor Tilmann Unger negotiates 'Ja Herr! Er traf mit seiner sieggewohnten Scharr auf Alfreds Heer' effectively, and he delivers 'Vergebens, gestrenger Gebieter, ward Alvina im Thurme bewacht' in the Act Two finale robustly. In Act Three, he transitions from the Bote to Dorset and insightfully interacts with his colleagues, especially in his scene with Alvina. Baxová's and Unger's work is matched by that of veteran Slovak bass Peter Mikuláš, who depicts Sieward with vitality that compensates for what the voice lacks in steadiness. He convincingly makes his mark in Act Two with a stentorian utterance of 'O, muß ich ihm das Gräßliche verkünden!' and alert, attentive singing in the trio with Alvina and Alfred.

As the figureheads of the invading Viking hordes, baritone Jörg Sabrowski and tenor Ferdinand von Bothmer are slyly-contrasted presences as Gothron and Harald. Much of the credit for the differentiation is owed to Dvořák. Köthner's libretto puts little flesh on the characters' bones, but, though certainly not the equals of Rusalka's Ježibaba and Vodník, the composer granted each man a distinct musical profile. Sabrowski sings Gothron's music expansively, commandeering attention in Act One with his volatile traversal of 'Im Siegestaumel schweldt das Volk.' Though a darker, more imposing sound would be welcome in Gothron's lines, more of Sabrowski's singing would also be heard with gratitude. Von Bothmer's Harald is a petulant, short-fused despot whose desire for Alvina seems inspired more by a lust for depriving Alfred of her company than by actually wishing to possess her himself. Sung by von Bothmer with slimy insouciance, Harald is here a perverse manipulator in the fashion of Richard Strauss's Herodes and Aegisth. In Act One, von Bothmer intones 'Das war ein blut'ges Tagwerk, Kampfgenossen!' persuasively, and in the Schlachtlied he shapes 'Das Los des Kampfes ist gefallen' and 'Speere blinken, Krieger sinken' with the immediacy of a man whose natural habitat is the battlefield. He is more Monostatos than Tamino in Harald's duet with Alvina, but he devotes greater intensity to the Act Three scene with Alvina. Von Bothmer produces all of Harald's notes cleanly despite strain in the upper register but does not have the vocal heft to reliably project over the orchestra: von Bothmer makes a valiant effort, but a more heroic voice is needed to fully limn the machismo bellicosity with which Dvořák infused Harald's music.

Prague-born soprano Petra Froese portrays Alvina, Alfred's queen consort [the operatic equivalent of the historical Eahlswith], with a bright, penetrating timbre that partially mitigates the relative lack of vocal amplitude. Hearing her performance in Alfred, the expensiveness of her Mozartean credentials is not surprising, but it is intriguing to note that her repertory also includes Elsa in Lohengrin and Gutrune in Götterdämmerung, parts which require a spinto's or Jugendlich-dramatische's stamina and ability to fully project over the Wagnerian orchestra. Like her Slovakian predecessor Gabriela Beňačková, the greatest Rusalka of her generation, Froese maintains presences in Czech, German, and Italian repertories. Had she a bit more of Beňačková's arresting tonal beauty and security on high, she might make a stronger impression in Alvina's lovely but mostly passive music. In her Act One duet with Harald, Froese's Alvina lifts her eyes to Providence with a nobly-phrased account of 'Allmächtiger, verlieh' mir Kraft!' She follows this with a sweetly feminine but iron-willed voicing of 'Ich bin's und war's, eh' Du Dein Wort vollendet,' its effectiveness undermined only by the thinness of the tone and a lack of authority on the highest notes. In the Act Two trio with Alfred and Sieward, the soprano sings with compelling animation and increasingly insightful management of her vocal resources. By the time that she reaches Alvina's Act Three scenes with Dorset and Harald, Froese is singing with energy and excitement. Not even her enthusiasm can rescue the opera's jubilant dénouement from an unmistakable outbreak of triviality, but the rousing resolution of Froese's performance makes amends for her tentative start.

Credited with expelling or subjugating many of the roving Danes who terrorized the British Isles in the centuries immediately following the disintegration of Roman dominion and diplomatically and militarily uniting tributary states into a form vaguely resembling modern England, the Wessexian king Alfred the Great is a figure of pivotal but likely semi-apocryphal importance in British history. More information now accepted as fact exists about Alfred than about almost any of his contemporaries, however, and he is not unworthy of operatic treatment, the suspicion that his reign was far calmer than legends assert notwithstanding. His royal mantle is here assumed by baritone Felix Rumpf, a native of Dresden who, just completing his second decade at the time of this performance, was roughly the same age as Alfred during the events depicted in the opera. Like Froese, Rumpf is an accomplished Mozartean, admired for his stylish Papageno, and Dvořák's music is sometimes a size too large for him. Also like Froese, he is an intelligent singer who knows better than to risk damaging his good-quality voice by attempting to feign a rotundity that it does not possess. Rumpf launches Act Two with a nuanced articulation of 'Wohl Euch, ihr tapfern Streiter!' He is too sensible to fall into the trap of over-emoting in 'O, welche Marter wird Dir nicht bereitet, hochherzig Mädchen!' and the ardent trio with Alvina and Sieward, but he sings with passionate abandon within the parameters of his voice. He dominates the Act Two finale with a statement of 'Des langen Kampfes müde lag unberührt der Stahl' that throbs with unflinching senses of duty and purpose. The finest music in the score is Alfred's prayer in Act Three, 'Höre unser lautes Flehen, Gott der Siege, Gott der Schlacht,' and Rumpf sings the number with understated grandeur. Rumpf is careful to convey Alfred's regal bearing via his superb diction, and he sings so aristocratically and attractively that it is frequently possible to forget that the voice is lean for Dvořák's corpulent vocal lines. Rumpf is an Almaviva rather than an Amfortas, but on his own terms he is a memorable, meaningful Alfred.

Composers' first operas have rarely been masterpieces, and Dvořák's Alfred is no exception. Many listeners' enjoyment of a piece like Alfred is seemingly complicated by a perceived necessity of analyzing every bar in search of evidence of latent genius. Alfred is clearly the work of a very talented beginner whose thoughts were affected, as were those of so many of his contemporaries, by the artistic altitude of the Green Hill. Förster and his colleagues provide a well-prepared, well-executed introduction to a score that introduces the listener to a master composer’s freshman exertion in a genre to which he would eventually contribute indelibly.

VOIX DES ARTS - Your Voice for the Performing Arts

Were it not remarkable in a myriad of other ways, Leoš Janáček's Jenůfa would be a milestone in the history of opera solely owing to the composer's libretto, an adaptation of Gabriela Preissová's drama Její pastorkyňa that was among the first prose libretti set to music. In it, the ugly visages of jealousy, lust, and damning social conformity are bared to the listener's scrutiny with music that is by turns lushly Romantic and starkly modern. In a manner of speaking, Janáček was an operatic Joseph, his coat of many colors enveloping a profound, intuitive empathy for humanity in music that translates into sound the innermost aspects of dreams that often go undetected. The product of a six-year gestational period and first performed in Brno in 1904, Jenůfa was not, like Dvořák's Alfred, it's composer's first opera, but in it the unmistakable, singular voice of Janáček—the voice that shaped Kát'a Kabanová, Věc Makropulos, and Z mrtvého domu—is heard for the first time without distractions derived from external influences. Not least because of his pattern of setting prose texts, Janáček's are among the most inventive operas in the international repertory, and Oehms Classics' recording of Jenůfa advocates powerfully for the score's continued appeal and thought-provoking social commentary. Most crucially, however, this recording establishes in Jenůfa an intimacy in which the demeaning intrusions of small-town mentalities into the everyday lives of citizens are examined as insightfully as in Peter Grimes and Der junge Lord. In Alfred, Dvořák dealt with heroic figures of lore: in Jenůfa, Janáček held a mirror to the scarred faces of common folk.

Recorded during staged performances at Oper Graz in sound of a quality that comes close to rivaling Oehms Classics' Oper Frankfurt recordings, this set documents a markedly 'modern' take on Jenůfa, the drama unfolding almost in the manner of a radio play. Conductor Dirk Kaftan exhibits mastery of the thorny score that places him in the company of Sir Charles Mackerras and Václav Neumann as an interpreter of Janáček's music. Intelligently choosing tempi in Preludes, set pieces, and conversational scenes, he highlights the manner in which the composer constructed the music upon the foundation of the cadences of the Czech language. Indeed, this is a performance that 'speaks' even when voices are silent. No matter who they are portraying in the course of the drama, the singers of the Chor und Singschul' der Oper Graz sing sonorously, the individual voices that occasionally stand out from the ensemble enhancing the choristers' credibility in public scenes. Among the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus of all ages, there are no weak links, an assessment that proves true of few performances or recordings of Jenůfa. Janáček's demands on the orchestra are no less stringent than those on the chorus, but the players of the Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester complement their choral colleagues by executing their parts with compelling concentration. Janáček's orchestrations were originally viewed with skepticism, their unconventionality deemed an obstacle to the opera's success with audiences. On a more modest scale, Janáček was as imaginative a wizard at blending instrumental timbres as his fellow Austrian-by-birth Mahler, however. Responding to Kaftan's leadership and Janáček's instructions with skill and soul, the Graz forces confirm that they are as adept at bringing Janáček's music to life as their neighbors to the north in Vienna, Brno, and Prague.

Emerging from their surroundings as both onlookers and participants in Jenůfa's tragic life, Ukrainian soprano Tatjana Miyus as Karolka, Wisconsin native contralto Fran Lubahn as Pastuchyňa, Chinese mezzo-soprano Xiaoyi Xu as Barena, Persian soprano Nazanin Ezazi as Jano, Serbian soprano Hana Batinić as the Tetka and a voice, and Hungarian bass István Szécsi as a voice all sing capably, not one of them lowering the high level of musicality in the performance with a flubbed rhythm or missed pitch. Led by Miyus's sweet tones in Karolka's 'Pánbůh rač dát dobrý den, dobrý den!' in Act Three, these intrepid singers create a formidable ensemble. As the Rychtář and Rychtářka, the mayor and his wife, Greek bass Konstantin Sfiris and German mezzo-soprano Stefanie Hierlmeier are a well-matched couple, as well, their voices resounding handsomely in every phrase that Janáček assigned to them, and Missouri-born baritone David McShane is similarly effective as the Stárek, the foreman of Stařenka Buryja's mill.

A chameleonic artist whose career includes notable assumptions of rôles as diverse as Saint-Saëns's Dalila and the Walküre Brünnhilde, as well much-discussed portrayals of Wagner's Senta and Kundry under the baton of Herbert von Karajan, Croatian mezzo-soprano Dunja Vejzović is an unexpected but inspired choice for Stařenka Buryja in Jenůfa. The voice retains much of its strength, and Vejzović remains an exhilarating performer. She sings 'Co to máš za radost!' 'A ty, Jenůfo, neplač, neplač!' in Act One with conviction that pulls the listener into the drama, and she continues in this vein in her every appearance. Ever a courageous, resourceful artist, Vejzović sings vigorously, conjuring memories of past glories, and in the context of this performance creates a memorable Stařenka Buryja.

Jenůfa's suitors Števa Buryja and Laca Klemeň are, like their female counterparts in Janáček's drama, two of the most challenging rôles in the Czech repertory. With almost identical tessitura and vocal writing that centers both parts in the passaggio, singers must differentiate the men largely by characterization. In the context of an audio recording, the ability to discern Števa from Laca is critical. This performance has a pair of singers whose voices are not vastly dissimilar but who manage to create distinct, distinguishable characters. As Števa, Turkish tenor Taylan Reinhard depicts a hard-edged man without artificially hardening his tone. In Števa's confrontation with Jenůfa in Act One, Reinhard spits out 'Já, já! Já! já! Já napilý? Já napilý? To ty mně, Jenůfka?' with stinging indignation, as though the character can hardly believe that Jenůfa would comment on his inebriation. Then, he tosses off his song with the farmhands, 'Daleko široko do těch Nových Zámků,' with grating insouciance but focused, ingratiating tone. The pent-up frustration that rushes to the surface in his declamation of 'Neškleb se! Vždyt' vidíš, tetka Kostelnička mne pro tebe dopaluje' is startling: it is clear both why Jenůfa is attracted to Števa and why her passion for him is ill-fated. In Števa’s scene with the Kostelnička in Act Two, Reinhard sings 'Proto, že se jí bojím, že se jí bojím' captivatingly. Czech tenor Aleš Briscein, whose repertory contains both of the tenor leads in Jenůfa, here sings Laca with simplicity and sensitivity that contrast sharply with the bolder profile of Reinhard's Števa. In Act One, Briscein voices 'Vy stařenka, už tak na všelicos špatně vidíte' and 'A on na tobě nevidí nic jiného' winningly, the character’s petulance rendered by the pinpoint accuracy of the singer’s diction. 'Chci, Jenůfka, chci Jenůfka, jen když buděs, buděs má' in Act Two also receives from the tenor a traversal of absorbing immediacy. Both Reinhard and Briscein are little troubled by their parts’ top B♭s, but they take pains to delineate the very different motives that inspire their characters’ actions. As enacted by Reinhard and Briscein, neither Števa nor Laca is wholly good or bad in a conventional sense, but good singing is a trait that they have in common.

The rôle of the Kostelnička is a histrionic tour de force, a gift for singing actresses in the performance of which far too many artists, consumed by acting the part, downplay or wholly ignore the importance of singing it. The Kostelnička gold standards on disc are both dramatic sopranos: Naděžda Kniplová, recorded in studio in Prague in 1969 and again almost a decade later, and Leonie Rysanek, documented in an incendiary 1988 Opera Orchestra of New York concert performance in Carnegie Hall. Acclaimed German mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion of course cannot compete with her illustrious forebears in the Kostelnička's music in terms of decibels, but as an actress with a clear-sighted understanding of the part she has little to fear by comparison. She also has to her credit a carefully-trained, genuinely attractive voice, and she is the rare Kostelnička whose principal focus is squarely on meeting the musical requirements of the part. Vermillion seizes attention in Act One, voicing 'A tak bychom šli celým životem' with near-seismic intensity, and never relinquishes her grip on the performance. She uncannily propels the drama in Act Two with her stern but vulnerable singing of 'Pořád se s tím děckem mažeš' and 'Ba, ta tvoje okenička už přes dvacet neděl zabedněna.' The full spectrum of Vermillion's considerable gifts is unveiled in her account of the Kostelnička's great monologue, 'Co chvíla...co chvíla...a já si mám – zatím přejít celou věčnost, celé spasení?!' The repeated top Gs and A♭s and the climactic top B♭s here and in the final moments of Act Two tax her, but her solid, exciting singing is a victory of will. Vermillion makes the Kostelnička's decision to murder Jenůfa's baby equally appalling and heartbreaking: there is no questioning the sincerity of her distorted good intentions. In Vermillion's intuitive singing, the moment when the Kostelnička resolves to commit infanticide is as apparent to the listener as that when Tosca grasps the knife in order to stab Scarpia. In Act Three, the distress of 'Vypravuju dnes Jenůfě svatbu s hodným člověkem' is chillingly conveyed, and here Vermillion ascends to the frequent F♭s at the top of the stave with unhesitating security. Her cry of 'Ještě jsem tu já! Vy ničeho nevíte! To můj skutek – můj trest boží!' is both desperate and cathartic: hers is a Kostelnička for whom public condemnation is far lighter a burden than the hell to which her own guilt has subjected her. In many performances, the Kostelnička is portrayed as a bully and a shrew. Vermillion lends her greater psychological depth, but the particular success of her interpretation is the splendor of her singing.

Many performances of Jenůfa are understandably defined by their Kostelničkas, but Oper Graz found in Israeli soprano Gal James a Jenůfa capable of holding her own opposite a first-rate Kostelnička. With her fresh, youthful timbre and incisive dramatic instincts, James is an uncommonly engaging Jenůfa, one who is audibly a different woman after being disfigured by Laca's blade and again after learning of her child's death. In her Act One prayer, 'O Panno Maria, jestlis mne oslyšela,' James's Jenůfa raises her voice to heaven with tones that only a very stony-hearted Madonna could ignore, and her expansive phrasing is evidence of a deeply-considered understanding of the music. James sings 'Stařenko, nehněvejte se' enchantingly, the glow of a young woman's love illuminating Janáček's melodies. The slashing urgency with which she articulates 'Števo, Števo, já vím, žes to urobil z té radosti dnes' imparts the sincerity of Jenůfa's affection and the harshness of her slow realization of its futility. The Act Two monologue 'Mamičko, mám tězkou hlavu, mám, mám, jako samý, samý kámen' inspires James to singing of tremendous dramatic potency and vocal beauty, the top Bs rightly projected as organic resolutions to Janáček's complex lines and 'Kde to jsem?' cloaked in uncertainty and fear. Jenůfa's response to being told that her child is dead, 'Tož umřel – tož umrěl můj chlapčok radostný,' is sung with a delicacy that is far more evocative of the profundity of the character's shock and grief than other singers' groans and shouts. Symbolically at least, Jenůfa begins Act Three as a woman injured as destructively as can be imagined, her beauty defaced and her motherhood violated. The defining trait of James's Jenůfa is survival, however, and she delivers 'Vstaňte, pěstounko moja' with resilience typical of her reading of the part. The magnificent arc of 'O Laco, duša moja! O pojd', o pojd'! Včil k tobě mne dovedla láska – ta větsí co Pánbůh s ní spokojen!' is sculpted by James with vocal acumen akin to the touch of a Renaissance master. The fortissimo top B♭ with which she ends the opera is a starburst of reawakening hope that epitomizes this Jenůfa's battered but never abandoned worldview. Singing the rôle with polish and potency that place her in the class of Beňačková and Sena Jurinac, James is a Jenůfa whose beneficent spirit is far sharper than Laca's knife.

Performances of Jenůfa are often dramatically enthralling, but only the best of them are as musically rewarding as this recording from Oper Graz. In truth, few performances of any opera devote as much attention to fulfilling the composer’s musical requirements as the cast of this recording of Jenůfa expend in their account of Janáček’s fascinating score. Both Oehms Classics’ Jenůfa and Arco Diva’s Alfred provide listeners with breathtaking vistas of the musical wonders of the Czech Republic and Slovakia that leave no doubt that the cultural traditions of these proud nations are as rich and as enduringly valuable as those of their neighbors along the Danube and Vltava and over the Alps.

09 August 2015

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL (D. Damrau, R. Villazón, A. Prohaska, P. Schweinester, F.-J. Selig, T. Quasthoff; DGG 479 4064)

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL (Deutsche Grammophon 479 4064)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Die Entführung aus dem Serail, K. 384Diana Damrau (Konstanze), Rolando Villazón (Belmonte), Anna Prohaska (Blonde), Paul Schweinester (Pedrillo), Franz-Josef Selig (Osmin), Thomas Quasthoff (Bassa Selim); Vocalensemble Rastatt; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Jory Vinikour, pianoforte continuo; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany, July 2014; Deutsche Grammophon 479 4064; 2 CDs, 138:38; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail was first performed at Vienna's Burgtheater in 1782, the first-night audience may not have fully sensed the magnitude of the occasion they were witnessing. Composed in response to Emperor Joseph II's Nationalsingspiel initiative, a concerted effort to counteract the expanding influence of Italian opera by encouraging the creation of new, innovative works in the German-language Singspiel genre, Die Entführung aus dem Serail was a sure-fire hit that pandered to the Viennese fascination with all things Turkish. By 1782, Hapsburg Vienna had for centuries been looking over her shoulder, gazing to the southeast in anticipation of Ottoman invaders. A century before Entführung's première, the Holy League expelled the besieging Turks from the walls of Vienna, the Janissaries' hasty retreat allegedly responsible for abandonment of the cymbals and timpani that were found by the conquerors and quickly assimilated into European musical traditions. When Mozart arrived in Vienna, he found a city in which westernized vestiges of Turkish culture remained very much in vogue. The marvel of Mozart's achievement in Entführung is that he produced a score in which the German Singspiel and Italian opera join hands, Osmin, Blonde, and Pedrillo emerging from Teutonic vaudeville, Konstanze a refugee from Händelian opera seria, and Belmonte an early representative of pure bel canto. Whether or not the score contains 'too many notes,' as Joseph II may or may not have observed, the intoxicating musical spirits of Entführung, diluted with splashes of strong Turkish coffee, were a concoction certain to please Viennese tastes in 1782. In a persuasive performance like this one, assembled in excellent, studio-quality sound [only Jory Vinikour's hypnotically inventive pianoforte continuo could have benefited from increased prominence within the soundscape] from recordings of concert performances in Baden-Baden's enormous Festspielhaus, Die Entführung aus dem Serail is confirmed to be not just a raucously fun ‘period piece’ but a work of genius with sensibilities as relevant in 2015 as in 1782.

Following Don Giovanni (reviewed here) and Così fan tutte (reviewed here), Die Entführung aus dem Serail is the third release in Deutsche Grammophon's cycle of recordings of Mozart's mature operas conducted by Québécois dynamo Yannick Nézet-Séguin. [Le nozze di Figaro was recently recorded in conjunction with Baden-Baden concert performances for release as the next installment in the series, with a cast including Thomas Hampson and Sonya Yoncheva as Conte and Contessa d'Almaviva, Luca Pisaroni and Christiane Karg as Figaro and Susanna, and Angela Brower as Cherubino.] The young conductor's pacing of Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte was lithe and often very impressive, but this performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail is his finest recorded outing as a Mozartean to date. In repertory spanning more than two centuries, Nézet-Séguin has shown himself to be a master of both grand gestures and finely-wrought filigree, but not even his justly-acclaimed performances of Verdi operas have displayed the command of the requisite style, artful management of orchestral and choral forces, and intuitive support of soloists as readily as this Entführung. Moreover, Nézet-Séguin here spotlights very real emotions that many conductors are content to merrily bury beneath batteries of faux-Turkish dins. A vital component of Mozart's genius from the start of his career as a composer of opera was an uncanny, virtually unrivaled ability to deal with incredibly difficult subjects—public duty and private loyalty in Idomeneo, infidelity in Figaro and Così, every imaginable vice in Don Giovanni, faith and self-reliance in Die Zauberflöte—in a manner that places the listener at the heart of the story. Similarly, Nézet-Séguin's conducting, rhythmically alert and informed by understanding of 1780s performance practices but unafraid of Romantic sweep when the score justifies it, draws the listener into this performance. Playing with effervescence that flows from the start of the Overture to the opera's last bar, the musicians of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe are participants in the performance rather than accompanists of it. When the oboe, violin, flute, cello, and clarinet introduce Konstanze in her fiendishly difficult aria 'Martern aller Arten,' they are not faceless obbligati: they are friends who seem to say to Konstanze, 'Come on, girl, you can do it!' This camaraderie emanates from the singing of the Vocalensemble Rastatt, as well, their performance of the Chor der Janitscharen in Act One, 'Singt dem grossen Bassa Lieder,' wonderfully animated. Much of the credit for this collegiate cooperation is owed to Nézet-Séguin. For singers, secondary in importance only to technique and health as a factor in the quality of performance is the knowledge that there is a supportive presence on the podium. From Mozart to the musician charged with the least-significant orchestral part, every participant in this Entführung knows that Nézet-Séguin is dedicated to facilitating everyone's success and performs accordingly.

Returning to the stage despite his retirement from singing staged opera, Thomas Quasthoff speaks one of the finest accounts of​ Bassa Selim on disc. Many productions of Entführung make the good-intentioned mistake of casting acclaimed actors who are not familiar with opera as Selim. With a speaking voice nearly as mellifluous as his hazelnut-hued bass-baritone, Quasthoff delivers his lines perfectly, complementing rather than upstaging his vocal colleagues, all of whom tastefully speak their own dialogue. Quasthoff is a Bassa Selim who is an enlightened despot without being a ham-fisted yeller. His singing is greatly missed, but he serves Mozart splendidly in this performance.

Singing the bumbling but boisterously nasty ​Osmin, Franz-Josef Selig lacks the sonorous tones in the lower octave of Gottlob Frick and the bottled-thunder timbre and spot-on comedic antics of Kurt Moll, but he voices Osmin's music handsomely and effectively, his singing more attractive than Josef Greindl's and more recognizably Mozartean than Martti Talvela's. In his Act One Lied, 'Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden,' and the subsequent duet with Belmonte, Selig sings strongly, and he copes manfully with the trills and low Fs in his aria 'Solche hergelauf'ne Laffen.' He bellows rippingly in the trio with Belmonte and Pedrillo, 'Marsch! marsch! marsch! Trollt euch fort!' and is the mean-spirited but ultimately hilariously inept henchman to the life. In Act Two, Selig duets with Blonde with gusto in 'Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir,' his articulation of the Andante 'O Engländer! seid ihr nicht Toren' exuding exasperation and flummoxing ignorance and matching his inebriated blubbering in the duet with Pedrillo. Osmin's best music is the aria 'O! wie will ich triumphieren' in Act Three, and Selig rises to the occasion with vocal power and technical acumen that encompasses good execution of his triplets and an honorable attempt at the trill. His low Ds lack the full-bodied support of the balance of his range. Selig's commitment to accurately producing the notes of his part contributes to an effective, uncaricatured portrayal of Osmin. Why do so many singers fail to realize that singing what the composer wrote is the surest method of bringing a character to life, whether comic or tragic?

Truly singing Pedrillo, a rôle far too often barked and blustered, Sachertorte-toned Austrian tenor Paul Schweinester​ is the rare exponent of this rôle who does not inspire the wish that the part were shorter. Beginning with wide-eyed, charismatic singing in the Act One trio with Belmonte and Osmin, 'Marsch! marsch! marsch! Trollt euch fort,' he is a vivacious personality throughout the opera—precisely the sort of friend for whom a leading man under duress longs. Schweinester makes Pedrillo's Act Two aria 'Frisch zum Kampfe! frisch zum Streite!' a joy, his trill and long-held top A heard with great pleasure. Then, he vigorously pairs with Selig in the hysterical duet with Osmin, 'Vivat Bacchus! Bacchus lebe!' The young tenor more than holds his own opposite his celebrated colleagues in the quartet with Konstanze, Blonde, and Belmonte. Pedrillo's Romanze 'Im Mohrenland gefangen war​' is often a trial for listeners, but Schweinester's performance gives the piece the brilliance that Mozart intended it to display. This is emblematic of Schweinester's performance as a whole: he is, as few tenors on recordings of Entführung have been, a Pedrillo who could as easily be a Belmonte.

Like similar rôles in a number of operas of all eras, the pert, perky ​Blonde​ can be a tremendous annoyance. Her music is written so that anything less than complete technical assurance amounts to failure. It almost seems too much to ask that a Blonde sing her high-wire act of a part beautifully, but that, on the whole, is what Anna Prohaska does on this recording. Though a lauded interpreter of Bach and other Baroque repertory, she possesses a more substantial voice than has often been heard in Blonde's music, and this is all to the good: there is no reason why the part must be sung by a Galli-Curci-esque chirper. Vocally, Blonde must hit the ground running, so to speak, her Act Two aria 'Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln' laden with coloratura leading her to E6. Prohaska ascends into the stratosphere with little evidence of effort and a heartening avoidance of shrillness. In the duet with Osmin, 'Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir,' the fearless soprano is equally comfortable when Blonde's line descends to A♭ below the staff. Prohaska tosses off the aria 'Welche Wonne, welche Lust' charmingly, her sustained top A a memorable tone, and, like her Pedrillo, she makes her mark in the quartet with Konstanze Belmonte and Pedrillo. There are a few patches of unevenness in the voice that suggest that her technique remains a work in progress, but she is as capable and captivating a Blonde as has been heard on records since Rita Streich.

Since devoting himself to the study and performance of Mozart repertory, Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón has not only sung and recorded Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni and Ferrando in Così fan tutte with Nézet-Séguin and recorded fine accounts of the composer's concert arias for tenor (also on DGG; reviewed here) but also conquered Salzburg in the title rôle of Lucio Silla. [He also sings Don Basilio on the forthcoming recording of Le nozze di Figaro.] From a historical perspective, it is frustrating to observe that the relatively recent notion persists that a tenor acclaimed for singing Verdi and Puccini rôles taking on Mozart parts is tantamount to a demotion in importance. Gone are the days when tenors like Richard Tucker and George Shirley regularly sang Ferrando amidst outings as Gabriele Adorno and Pinkerton without being thought to be retrograding into ‘beginners' repertory.' Villazón's voice here sounds healthy and secure, and his enunciation of German, though audibly not native, is fluent: Belmonte is a Spaniard, after all, and it should not be forgotten that one of the tenor's earliest appearances on disc was as the Steuermann in Daniel Barenboim's Teldec recording of Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer. In Act One, Villazón sets the high standard for the performance with a lovely, lively reading of Belmonte's aria 'Hier soll ich dich denn sehen,' the preponderance of top Gs and As​—typical of the part's passaggio-hugging tessitura—disclosing no fissures in Villazón's voice. After duetting rousingly with Selig, he voices the recitative 'Konstanze! Konstanze! Dich wiederzusehen' ardently. He devotes considerably more passion to the aria 'O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig' than many tenors are willing to venture, and the roulades hold no terrors for him. Drawing inspiration from Nézet-Séguin's perfectly-judged tempo, Villazón leads his colleagues in a bumptious but genuinely witty account of the trio with Pedrillo and Osmin, 'Marsch! marsch! marsch! Trollt euch fort!' In both 'Wenn der Freude Trä​​nen fließen' and the superb quartet, 'Ach Belmonte, ach mein Leben,' he graces Act Two with warm, Mediterranean vocalism. As might be hoped, he is at his best in Act Three, in which he offers a performance of the demanding aria 'Ich baue ganz auf deine Stä​rke' which has few peers, the aria often having been cut even from studio traversals of Entführung. Villazón crowns the aria with easy​ top B♭​s approached, as they should be, merely as notes resolving the upward mobility of the vocal lines. In the duet with Konstanze, 'Ha! Du solltest fü​r mich sterben,' he is the epitome of the golden-voiced Latin lover. Compared with the work of Mozarteans like Ernst Haefliger and Fritz Wunderlich, Villazón's is neither conventional nor conventionally beautiful Mozart singing. It is significant, sensitive, stimulating singing, however. Belmonte is not a Catechism-quoting schoolboy: he surely need not sound like one in order to be 'stylish.'​

In Nézet-Séguin's Don Giovanni for DGG, German soprano Diana Damrau​ was a Donna Anna who ruled the rôle and dominated the performance, even alongside Joyce DiDonato's no-holds-barred Donna Elvira. As Konstanze in this recording of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, there is unmistakable evidence of the toll that a frenetically-paced international career has taken on the exceptional beauty and flexibility of her voice. Still, she remains an extraordinary singer, and there are glimpses in this performance of her finest work. In Konstanze's Adagio aria in Act One, 'Ach ich liebte, war so glü​cklick' the bravura passagework extending to top D and the trills tax her, the voice sounding sluggish and under-rehearsed. In Act Two, she gives secure, insightfully-phrased performances of the recitative 'Welcher Kummer herrscht in meiner Seele' and the sublime aria 'Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose,' the repeated top B♭​s prompting no concerns, but the scale of the vocalism—and, in truth, of the voice itself—seems small for the music. The indubitably great Damrau emerges in the much-feared aria 'Martern aller Arten,' her technical aplomb in the runs  frequently cresting on top C dizzying, and she here rises to top D without a care in the world. This burst of prodigality continues in the quartet with ​Belmonte, ​Blonde, and Pedrillo, 'Ach Belmonte, ach mein Leben!' Taking the top line with distinction, she is finally every inch the performance's prima donna. She partners Villazón in their​ Act Three duet 'Ha! Du solltest fü​​r mich sterben' with temperament befitting a put-upon Spanish lady, firing her top C as a final salvo affirming her moral superiority. If the Damrau heard from 'Martern aller Arten' to the end of the opera were the Damrau of the opera's first half, this would be as near-definitive a Konstanze as is likely ever to be heard. It is interesting to consider that, when Don Giovanni was first performed in Vienna in 1788, the rôle sung by Salieri's pupil Caterina Cavalieri, for whose abilities Mozart devised Konstanze's music in Entführung, was Donna Elvira, not Donna Anna. It was for Cavalieri that the composer wrote Elvira's aria 'Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata,' the tessitura of which is, in general, higher than that of Donna Anna's music. Perhaps the models of Schwarzkopf and Steber (whose Donna Elvira is confirmed by existing MET broadcasts to have been markedly superior to her Donna Anna) are the benchmarks for Konstanze not merely because these ladies were fantastic singers but because their voices were centered in the tessitura as Mozart intended. By right of natural vocal talent, Damrau should have been their peer. In the event, she is a competent, sometimes superlative Konstanze rather than a legendary one.

Much is made in the annals of operatic history of the première of Auber's La muette de Portici having played a part in inciting the rebellion that led to Belgian independence. The first performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail may have precipitated no riots, but in those same annals of operatic history it is by a broad margin the more revolutionary work. It is not unreasonable to hypothesize that, without Entführung, there may have been no Die Zauberflöte, Fidelio, Der Freischütz, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Ariadne auf Naxos, or Wozzeck. As in Italian opera, in which vein the importance of Josef Mysliveček's work is increasingly assuming its rightful place beside that of Mozart's operas, the Wunderkind of Salzburg shares influence on the development of German opera with contemporaries like Ignaz Holzbauer and Peter von Winter. Under Yannick Nézet-Séguin's baton, though, the significance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail has never seemed more vast. In this valuable recording, Nézet-Séguin and an ensemble of artists who trust him and one another present a Die Entführung aus dem Serail from the musical pinnacle of which the perceptive listener with an appetite for the saga of opera's evolution can, as The Who’s song puts it, 'see for miles and miles.’

07 August 2015

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini – TURANDOT (J. Wilson, A. Bocelli, J. Nuccio, A. Tsymbalyuk, G. Olvera, V. Buzza, P. García López, J. Agulló, V. Anastasov; DECCA 478 8293)

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini - TURANDOT (DECCA 478 8293)GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Turandot [Completion by Franco Alfano]—Jennifer Wilson (Turandot), Andrea Bocelli (Calàf), Jessica Nuccio (Liù), Alexander Tsymbalyuk (Timur), Germán Olvera (Ping), Valentino Buzza (Pang), Pablo García López (Pong), Javier Agulló (L’imperatore Altoum, il Principe di Persia), Ventselav Anastasov (Un mandarino), Carmen Avivar (Ancella di Turandot), Jacqueline Squarcia (Ancella di Turandot); Escolania de la Mare de Déu dels Desemparats, Coro de la Generalitat Valenciana; Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana; Zubin Mehta, conductor [Recorded in Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, Spain, in 2014; DECCA 478 8293; 2 CDs, 116:50; Available from DECCA Classics, Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

It is discouraging and often deeply disheartening to note that the open-mindedness that is an indelible element of opera is absent from the points of view of many of those who claim to love and safeguard it. Opera is an art form that asks the observer to hear and see with the heart, not with the ears and eyes, and the listener unable or unwilling to set aside preconceptions and prejudices when taking his seat in the theatre or pressing 'play' in his own living room is doomed to frequent disappointment. By some exalted assessments, the foremost function of Art is to reflect the workings of humanity in such a way that the most clandestine failures and foibles are revealed, not in hostility but with humility and sincere hope for positive change. Such is the hypocrisy of opera that people who purport to love it complain of a dearth of important, influential singing with one breath and with the next dismiss today's finest singers because they are not the equals of favored singers of past generations. To be more drawn to and moved by certain singers than others is natural, and there are biases that are perhaps impossible to overcome. The listener who heard Flagstad as Isolde is unlikely to prefer or even accept any other singer's portrayal, but Flagstad is regrettably no longer among us. Opera should be an equalizer, its only partiality being for singers, conductors, and musicians who work hard and give of their best. Much of what has been written—by parties who are unlikely to have actually heard it, in many cases—about this Turandot is as stupid as it is insensitive and offensive. Conducting the score before studio microphones forty-two years after first recording it for DECCA, Zubin Mehta unfurls an affection for Puccini's music unfaded by time. For that reason alone, this recording earns respect. As it turns out, however, there is much in this Turandot to confound naysayers and remind listeners that, no matter how mightily it struggles to disarm misunderstanding, opera is an art of acceptance.

Mehta's approach to Turandot is documented in several recordings of radio broadcasts and audio and video preservations of live performances, in addition to the much-discussed 1972 DECCA studio recording with Dame Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, and Montserrat Caballé. In the four decades since last recording the opera in studio, Mehta's basic management of the score has changed little, but there are appreciable differences in the nuances of his interpretation that are indicative of a subtle but substantial evolution in the conductor's understanding of the music. His earlier reading has as its tonal center of gravity a focus on the sumptuous Romanticism of the quintessentially Puccinian melodic fecundity of the score. Now, the opera's tunefulness is still central to Mehta's conducting, but the atmospheric context of thematic development is decidedly that of the Twentieth rather than the Nineteenth Century. Interestingly, the principal soloists in the present recording possess voices of dimensions similar to those of Mehta's first DECCA cast: a lushly powerful Turandot confronts a straightforwardly lyrical Calàf and a silken-voiced Liù with a lean streak of steel at her command. This vocal configuration produces vastly different results in the more modern sound world of the newer recording. In Act One, the influence of Puccini's acquaintance with the music of Debussy permeates the score, and the distinctive voices of Bartók and Ravel are clearly heard amidst the cacophonies of Acts Two and Three. Under Mehta's direction, the singers of the Coro de la Generalitat Valenciana and, especially, the children of the Escolania de la Mare de Déu dels Desemparats sing idiomatically, credible as a populace first inflamed by Turandot's thirst for blood and ultimately crushed by the weight of their own zealotry when it claims Liù as an innocent victim. Their invocation to the moon in Act One is stirringly done, and the youngsters' voicing of 'Là, sui monti dell'Est la cicogna cantò’ is touching. There are subtle indications of true regret in 'O giovinetto,' the perverse funeral march that accompanies the courageous Principe di Persia—sung winningly by Spanish tenor Javier Agulló—to the scaffold. The massive walls of sound constructed by Puccini in Act Two, epitomized by 'Diecimila anni al nostro Imperatore,' are recreated by the choristers with confidence that increases with every bar. The high-water mark of the choral singing on these discs is 'Ombra dolente, non farci del male! Perdona, perdona!' in Act Three, the choristers meaningfully limning the crowd's sudden recognition of its collective complicity in the relentless pursuit of Turandot's cold agenda that takes Liù's life. Like their choral colleagues, the players of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana face no demands from composer or conductor that they are incapable of meeting. The crucial xylophone and harp parts are performed particularly well, but the overall level of playing among the instrumentalists is commendably high. Musical standards are sufficient for both the incredible originality and beauty of the composer's score and the many thoughtful details of the conductor's interpretation of it to be apparent throughout the performance.

Singing the small rôles of the Ancelle di Turandot, sopranos Carmen Avivar and Jacqueline Squarcia perform their tasks with lovely, well-schooled voices that promise future successes. [Avivar is already an accomplished heroine in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, in fact.] Agulló returns as L'Imperatore Altoum, Turandot's well-meaning father, and it is fantastic to hear a fresh, steady sound in the part rather than the typical superannuated singers' wheezing and whining. Agulló phrases 'Un giuramento atroce mi costringe a tener fede al fosco patto' with tenderness, and this 'figlio del cielo' seems genuinely thrilled when Calàf solves the three riddles. The Mandarino of Bulgarian baritone Ventseslav Anastasov is also a vocally youthful impersonation, the top C♯s in his declamations of 'Popolo di Pekino! La legge è questa!' projected with penetrating focus. The singer's distinctive vibrato adds an element of urgency to his resonant delivery of Puccini's music: he is an aptly engaging representative of an uncommonly energetic emperor.

As the chameleonic Maschere Ping, Pang, and Pong, Mexican baritone Germán Olvera, Italian tenor Valentino Buzza, and Spanish tenor Pablo García López sing athletically separately and in ensemble. From the first bars of their ‘Fermo! che fai? T'arresta!' in Act One, the gentlemen seem to be having a grand time, Olvera's fun not even slightly inhibited by Ping's frequent top E♭s and Fs. He laces Ping’s ‘Lascia le donne! O prendi cento spose’ with biting irony, and his singing of ‘Olà, Pang! Olà, Pong!’ in the Maschere's scene at the beginning of Act Two is the aural equivalent of rolled eyes and shrugged shoulders. The uncomplicated beauty of the trio's paean to their native country, ‘O China, o China, che or sussulti e trasecoli in quieta,’ is ravishing. The tenors' upper registers are alluringly bright in ‘Tu che guardi le stelle, abbassa gli occhi' in Act Three: many a weak-willed Calàf might readily surrender to their dulcet-toned entreaties. Apart from a few pinched tones, Olvera, Buzza, and García López are a near-ideal triumvirate. These young singers cause one to wonder why opera houses (and record labels) tolerate Ping, Pang, and Pong being so often poorly sung.

Timur is a study in contrasts. Still brave and proud, the deposed king is bent by age and disability, his blindness symbolic of his destroyed concentration on the common good of his people. Young Ukrainian bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk injects his portrayal of the noble old man with vestiges of his former glory that render him unusually sympathetic. Suddenly reunited with his son, this Timur imparts a sense of destiny fulfilled, a sense that is upset first by Calàf's determination to win Turandot's hand and later, irreversibly, by Liù's death. Tsymbalyuk sings ‘O figlio, vuoi dunque ch'io solo, ch'io solo trascini pel mondo la mia torturata vecchiezza' in Act One harrowingly, tacitly mourning what Timur perceives as the second loss of his son. In Act Three, the security of his tone in ‘Liù! Liù! sorgi! sorgi! È l'ora chiara d'ogni risveglio!’ makes his pain all the more moving, and he voices ‘Ah! delitto orrendo!’ with profound grief, his ringing top E♭ and F wrenchingly angry and desperate. Supported by Mehta's tempo and management of the orchestra, Tsymbalyuk's expansive phrasing of ‘Liù! bontà! Liù! dolcezza!’ expresses in a few bars the enormity of Timur's love for Liù. Timur has rarely sounded as three-dimensional on records as Tsymbalyuk makes him in this performance. Furthermore, his music has seldom been sung so handsomely even by legendary basses in their primes.

Not even thirty years old when this Turandot was recorded, Palermo-born soprano Jessica Nuccio depicts a fragile but surprisingly mature Liù. It has rarely been more obvious in a recorded performance of Turandot that Liù's servitude is a choice, not a compulsion. First heard in Act One begging for assistance in lifting the fallen Timur, clearly as much a father to her as to Calàf, the girlish honesty of Nuccio's phrasing of ‘Il mio vecchio è vaduto’ is like a ray of sunlight forcing its way through the tempestuous orchestration. She enunciates ‘Chi m'aiuta, chi m'aiuta a sorreggerlo’ with understated ardor, and there is a heartbreaking blend of pride and shame in her statement of ‘Nulla sono...una schiava.' She rises to the top B♭ on ‘mi hai sorriso’ with innocent passion that even the most dim-witted Calàf should not fail to comprehend. Nuccio's performance of ‘Signore, ascolta!’ is a highlight of the recording, her top A♭s and B♭projected with purity and spot-on intonation. In Act Three, this Liù's death recalls the ritualistic suicide of Puccini's Cio-Cio San. Nuccio spins the top As and B in ‘Tanto amore segreto, e inconfessato' with the glimmer of golden threads. Throughout the performance, she is very cautious in the lower octave, giving an impression of reserving her resources for excursions above the stave, but such self-cognizance is laudable, especially in a young singer. Another highlight of the recording is Nuccio's account of ‘Tu, che di gel sei cinta,’ her top B♭ lofted heavenward as a final gesture of devotion to the man she hopelessly loves. With informed stewardship of her beautiful, evenly-produced lyric instrument, Nuccio seems on the path to wonderful things in the footsteps of the incomparable Mirella Freni.

Andrea Bocelli is of course the raison d'être for this recording, musically and commercially. If there are listeners who hear this Turandot solely because of Bocelli's participation, what harm is there in that? If there are listeners who do not hear this Turandot solely because of Bocelli's participation, however, foolish prejudice offends composer, conductor, and cast. In truth, the tenor embarrasses neither himself nor his colleagues. The voice is a somewhat colorless, sometimes strenuously-produced instrument, but Bocelli is an imaginative, ardent singer whose excellent diction and authentic Italianate temperament lift his Calàf above the level of a number of today's tenors who sing the rôle. When Bocelli's Calàf encounters Timur in the opening pages of Act One, his ‘Padre! Mio padre!’ complements Tsymbalyuk's expressions of elation. Bocelli discloses no fear of the top B♭ on ‘O padre, sì, ti ritrovo!’ or the B♭♭ on ‘T'ho pianto, padre...e bacio queste ma ni sante!’ His voices grows steadier and more impactful as the range extends upward, in fact. Trumpeting Calàf's decision to challenge Turandot's wrath, his repetitions of her name tremble with erotic tension as they ascend to his ecstatic top B♭. Kinder to Liù from the start than many Calàfs, his voicing of ‘Non piangere, Liù!’ is comforting and shaped with silvery, elastic tone. In Act Two, this Calàf declares his intentions to the emperor with exclamations of ‘Figlio del cielo, io chiedo d'affrontar la prova!’ that become more impassioned with each repetition. The unison top C with Turandot on ‘Gli enigmi sono tre, una è la vita!’ taxes Bocelli, but once past this challenge his upper register never fails him. His vocalism in the Riddle Scene is marvelously masculine, the top B♭s on ‘Il mio fuoco ti sgela: Turandot!’ fired like missiles. The interpolated top C on ‘No, no, Principessa altera! Ti voglio tutta ardente d'amor!' is a tone worthy of Bocelli's teacher, Franco Corelli. Bocelli's performance of the ubiquitous ‘Nessun dorma’ is slightly disappointing, the bland phrasing suggesting that he is distracted by the expectation of producing a clarion noise on the most abused top B in opera. His imagination again takes flight in ‘Ah! Tu sei morta, tu sei morta, o mia piccola Liù,’ though, and the spitfire ‘Principessa di morte! Principessa di gelo!’ Scaling the heights of the opera's final scene, in which Franco Alfano's completion of the score is utilized, Bocelli sings more expressively than many tenors find it possible to do when battling such punishing tessitura. This performance is not a stunt or the indulgence of a talented amateur. Calàf is a rôle that Bocelli likely could not manage credibly in a large opera house like the MET [it should be noted, however, that he has sung the part to acclaim in the open-air Teatro di Silenzio in his Tuscan hometown, Lajatico], and there are subtle indications in this recording of electronic assistance, but judged on his own terms—not those of Merli, Martinelli, del Monaco, Corelli, Bonisolli, or whichever Calàf is the darling of the listener's heart—he is a satisfying, unimpeachably musical Calàf.

In the title rôle, American soprano Jennifer Wilson continues the tradition of Gertrude Grob-Prandl, Birgit Nilsson, and Dame Gwyneth Jones by coming to Turandot with extensive experience as a Wagnerian to her credit. In recent years, good Brünnhildes have infrequently proved good Turandots, but Wilson defies that trend with a performance of prodigious and, above all, wobble-free tone. The start of ‘In questa reggia' announces that this is a Turandot whose high notes need not be dreaded. Wilson's singing of ‘Principessa Lou-Ling, ava dolce e serena’ boils with generations of accumulated ire, and her top B on ‘Quel grido e quella morte!’ is heart-stopping. The pedal-to-the-floor top C on ‘No! No! Gli enigmi sono tre, la morte è una' is galvanizing. Wilson's reserved traversal of the Riddle Scene is ignited by her piercing ‘Su, straniero, il gelo che dà foco, che cos'è?’ and ultimately tempered by the dramatic uncertainty of her ‘Figlio del cielo! Padre augusto!’ The engineers might have made detonating the pair of top Cs over the chorus on 'Mi vuoi nelle tue braccia a forza riluttante, fremente!' easier on her, but she dispatches the notes fabulously. Turandot’s capitulation to the liberating power of love courses through Wilson's voicing of ‘Che mai osi, straniero,’ and she conveys an intriguing tranquility with ‘La mia gloria è finita!' The soprano's top As and B in ‘Del primo pianto’ are as evocative of burgeoning sensuality as her top Cs in Brünnhilde's duets with Siegfried in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, but the apotheosis of Wilson's performance is the top B♭ on ‘Il suo nome è Amor!’ Here, in a single phrase, she summarizes her still-underestimated artistry: there is no power—vocal, dramatic, or metaphysical—except through dedication and understanding of oneself.

Though it is an exceptionally well-crafted score that extols its composer's genius on every page, Turandot is not an opera like La bohème that can withstand poor singing. Poor singing having become debilitatingly commonplace in performances of the opera, however, what accounts for the enduring popularity of the opera after its slow start, complicated by Puccini's death before completing the score? On the surface, Turandot is essentially a clash of archetypes, but few composers were more skilled at disguising archetypes as people about whom audiences care. Beneath the surface, then, Turandot is a love story, and, whether or not they are willing to admit it, almost all opera lovers respond to plots that explore love among characters who win audiences’ affection. Insightfully conducted, enthusiastically and often superbly sung, and expertly recorded, this is a Turandot with much to love.

06 August 2015

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – DON GIOVANNI (W. Dooley, D. Gramm, B. Sills, M. Sénéchal, B. Lewis, L. Hurley, R. Trehy, E. Triplett, M. Boatwright; St-Laurent Studio Opera Vol. 7 YSL T-270)

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - DON GIOVANNI (St-Laurent Studio Opera Vol. 7 YSL T-270)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Don Giovanni, K. 527—William Dooley (Don Giovanni), Donald Gramm (Leporello), Beverly Sills (Donna Anna), Michel Sénéchal (Don Ottavio), Brenda Lewis (Donna Elvira), Laurel Hurley (Zerlina), Robert Trehy (Masetto), Ernest Triplett (Il Commendatore), McHenry Boatwright (la Statua); Chorus and Orchestra of the Opera Company of Boston; Sarah Caldwell, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance in the Boston Opera House on 21 February 1966; St-Laurent Studio Opera Volume 7 YSL T-270; 3 CDs, 155:51; Available from St-Laurent Studio and Norpete.com]

An oft-quoted axiom argues that repeating the same action with the expectation of different results is symptomatic of insanity. If there is any degree of diagnostic veracity in this assertion, opera is in its very essence a permanent state of mental defect. The real insanity of opera is that, with directorial prerogative guiding and misguiding the production of the art form, it is logical to expect different outcomes when scores are enacted upon the world's stages. Why not expect Rheintöchter who spelunk in one production and sport only bow ties and stilettos in another or Carmens who alternately have taurine fetishes or daddy issues? In Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's and Lorenzo da Ponte's Don Giovanni, there is enough craziness in the drama itself to render further doses of zaniness redundant. There is ample fodder for interpretive misconduct in the opera's plot of unrepentant philandering, vengeful statuary, and Providential retribution, but not even the cleverest or most shocking conceits can rescue a poorly-sung Don Giovanni. It is doubtful that even the colorful, innocuously irreverent Mozart knew people who actually conducted conversations in secco recitative: nevertheless, this fact did not discourage him from populating his Italian operas with folks whose sentences are punctuated by cadence chords, exacerbating the twisted reality of the genre. Existing in versions originating with the opera’s 1787 première in Prague and its first performance in Vienna in 1788, as well as countless bowdlerizations resulting from two centuries of editorial meddling, the particular insanity of Don Giovanni is that, details of specific productions notwithstanding, one can reasonably approach any production or recording of the opera with anticipation of variety. Which arias will be included? Will the original Epilogue be performed, or will the curtain fall with Giovanni’s presumed descent into hell? The only effective therapy for this mania is to sit back and allow the tide of Mozart’s music—whichever portions of it are offered—to carry away every irregularity and uncertainty, and Yves St-Laurent’s and Jean de la Durantaye’s expert restoration of a 1966 Opera Company of Boston performance gives the listener a gift of a Don Giovanni sung with brawn and beauty by a cast including some of America’s most significant artists. Perhaps Don Giovanni is a prime model of the inherent insanity of opera as an art form, but this Don Giovanni is a potent antidote to the dementia of many recent productions of Mozart’s masterful score.

A heartening aspect of this Don Giovanni, dating from 21 February 1966, is its celebration of diversity in America's regional opera companies. Except in contexts in which the art itself prompts dialogue, why race continues to be a matter of discussion in opera in 2015 is painfully unfathomable. Why in the 1950s and '60s talented singers like Gloria Davy and Lenora Lafayette, the former engaged by the Metropolitan Opera for only fifteen performances and the latter never singing there at all, struggled for acceptance in their native country is more easily explained but no more easily justified. Founded in 1958 as Boston Opera Group by conductor Sarah Caldwell, a pioneering advocate for equality of the sexes on the podium and the first woman to conduct at the MET, the three-decade existence of the Opera Company of Boston was marked by a dedication to nurturing native-born talent and transcending conventional boundaries. Thus, first-rate international talent of the caliber of Magda Olivero and Renata Tebaldi rubbed shoulders with American singers like Richard Cassilly and Marilyn Horne. Opera Company of Boston also gave opportunities that were often not forthcoming elsewhere to artists of color, not least mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett, a singer whose voice alone should have obliterated every racial barrier and ridiculous prejudice in the Arts. The present performance of Don Giovanni featured, under Caldwell’s baton, African American singers as the flesh-and-blood Commendatore and his phantasmagoric effigy in an era in which singers of color were still excluded from many productions. The Opera Company of Boston’s chorus and orchestra, though thoroughly professional and often more involved than their counterparts in the pits of the world’s great opera houses, cannot be claimed to be the equals of the MET or Covent Garden choruses and orchestras, but the generally excellent sound achieved by St-Laurent and de la Durantaye places the choral singing, orchestral playing, and Caldwell’s conducting in a flattering acoustic in which the felicities of their collaboration are audible. On the whole, Caldwell’s tempi are satisfying, conveying the opera’s dramatic propulsion without trampling the singers. There are moments of sloppy ensemble, but this is a capably-conducted, viscerally exciting Don Giovanni.

It is unusual to split the duties of i Commendatori living and dead between two singers, but Opera Company of Boston's production engaged a pair of splendid artists to portray the intractable Don Pedro before and after his demise at the hand of Don Giovanni. In the opera's opening scene, the protective father is brought to life by baritone Ernest Triplett, a 1961 graduate of the New England Conservatory whose work in the Boston metro region was greatly admired. The nobility of his singing of the Commendatore in this performance confirms the legitimacy of the high regard that Massachusetts audiences had for him. The voice, deftly handled, makes a boldly heroic impression, this Commendatore's defense of his daughter's honor backed by the courage of his convictions: so sympathetic a character has Triplett created in a brief time that the daughter's sorrow and rage over the father's murder are shared by the listener. When the Commendatore returns in spectral form in Act Two, his crepuscular utterances are forcefully intoned by bass-baritone McHenry Boatwright. Though he sang in the 1956 première of Clarence Cameron White's Ouanga at the Metropolitan Opera House, presented by Pittsburgh-based National Negro Opera Company, Boatwright was never a member of the MET roster. Unfairly neglecting his superb singing in an extensive repertory, it is for his standard-setting Crown in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess that he is now best remembered. In the Commendatore's sepulchral music, his voice exhibits granitic strength. When Boatwright sings ‘Don Giovanni a cenar teco m’invitasti e son venuto,’ there is nothing to be done but to attend this Commendatore at table. As an instrument of divine justice, Boatwright’s Commendatore is an ideal complement to Triplett’s more sensitive reading: the character finds in death the victory and vindication that were denied him in life.

Though his brother John appeared often at the MET, baritone Robert Trehy never bowed on the MET stage. His singing as Masetto in this Boston performance makes this seem a glaring omission in MET casting. Admittedly, a poor Masetto seldom ruins a performance of Don Giovanni, but how greatly a good one can enrich a show. Trehy is here a very good Masetto, making much of his interactions with Zerlina, both in anger and in tenderness. He voices ‘Ho capito, signor, sì!’ manfully and is an atypically virile presence in every scene in which he appears, his voice more than equal to the requirements of Masetto’s music.

Describing a singer as utilitarian has a negative connotation suggesting that the voice was more hardy than handsome, but a sunny timbre bolstered by an indestructible technique rendered soprano Laurel Hurley an utilitarian singer in the best sense at the MET, where she impersonated Zerlina to critical acclaim twenty-nine times in a decade. Here, she exudes glamour and femininity, joining Giovanni in a sultry account of ‘Là ci darem la mano,’ but despite her roving eye there is no question that her heart belongs to Masetto. Hurley sings ‘Batti, batti, o bel Masetto’ vibrantly, and her ‘Vedrai, carino, se sei buonino’ is agreeably beguiling. Hurley’s voice shines in ensembles, and she projects Zerlina’s every giggle and pout winningly.

It was not until 1982, when he impersonated the servants in Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann, that French tenor Michel Sénéchal enlivened the MET stage, where he was heard as recently as the opening night of the 2005 – 2006 Season as Don Basilio in Le nozze di Figaro. Principally known beyond the borders of his native country as a character tenor par excellence, Sénéchal was acclaimed in France as an accomplished exponent of high-flying parts such as Rameau's Platée, Rossini's Comte Ory, and Nicias in Massenet's Thaïs. In Boston's Don Giovanni, Sénéchal was regrettably deprived of Don Ottavio's 'Dalla sua pace la mia dipende,' the aria composed in Vienna for Francesco Morella, but he sings every note allotted to him with aristocratic grace, unerring stylishness, and a voice that sounds tailor-made for the music. Comforting Donna Anna and swearing to partner her in her quest for vengeance for her father’s death, the tenor summons his trademark honeyed tones followed by more robust vocal mettle than might have been expected from him. His and his Donna Anna's voices blend unusually well, and Sénéchal is among the few recorded Ottavios who actually sounds as though he is so hopelessly in love with Anna as to be willing to suffer any impediment to their union. His appalled reaction to Anna's description of her assault by the libidinous Giovanni is passionate, and the ease with which he scales the heights of Ottavio’s lines in ensembles is marvelous. Sénéchal’s performance of Ottavio’s aria in Act Two, ‘Il mio tesoro intanto andate a consolar,’ proves worth the wait (and makes the absence of ‘Dalla sua pace’ all the more lamentable), his breath control completely conquering music that defeats many tenors. In the opera’s final ensemble, Sénéchal depicts an Ottavio whose capitulation to Anna’s wishes is a token of his devotion rather than an indication of weakness. Vocally, Sénéchal is not the most opulent Ottavio on records, but he is among the most stylish and theatrically effective.

One of America's most adventurous singers, the meteoric career of Pennsylvania-born soprano Brenda Lewis included creation of Birdie Hubbard—the soprano’s own birth name was Birdie, incidentally—in Marc Blitzstein's Regina and the title rôle in Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden, as well launching the newly-established Houston Grand Opera in 1956 as Richard Strauss's Salome. Her assignments at the MET are evidence of her uncommon versatility: remarkably, her rôles there included Puccini’s Musetta, Johann Strauß II's Rosalinde, Wagner's Venus, Mussorgsky's Marina, Barber's Vanessa, Berg's Marie (perhaps her most prized portrayal), Salome, and even Bizet's Carmen. Her sole MET Donna Elvira was sung in a 1953 non-broadcast performance, so this recording of her Boston Donna Elvira is an especially welcome souvenir of an outing in the Mozart repertory in which she made her professional début and enjoyed notable successes at her artistic home, New York City Opera. Lewis charges into the performance like a hungry tigress on the trail of meat, her incendiary ‘Ah, chi mi dice mai quel barbaro dov’è?’ exploding like fireworks. The voice is shrill and the coloratura not entirely comfortable, but the impact of the aria is like that of a lightning strike. No less dynamic is her voicing of ‘Ah! fuggi il traditor!’ In the Act One finale, Lewis sings her lines in ‘Bisogna aver corraggio’ and ‘Protegga il giusto cielo’ with real distinction. In the Act Two trio with Giovanni and Leporello, her articulation of ‘Ah taci, ingiusto core!’ is surprisingly touching. Unfortunately, like Ottavio’s ‘Dalla sua pace,’ the Act Two aria that Mozart composed in Vienna for Caterina Cavalieri, ‘Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata,’ is omitted in this performance. Lewis’s vocalism in the opera’s penultimate scene and Epilogue is feisty. There are enough moments of stress and untidiness in Lewis’s singing to remind the listener of the difficulty of Elvira’s music, but this intelligent singer puts every exertion to use in her depiction of a woman scarred to the bone by love.

Milwaukee-born bass-baritone Donald Gramm sang Leporello, one of his most admired portrayals, twenty-four times at the MET between 1966 and 1981 and recorded the part for DECCA with colleagues including Dame Joan Sutherland, Pilar Lorengar, Marilyn Horne, and Gabriel Bacquier. From the first bar of his jocular ‘Notte e giorno faticar,’ Gramm provides a stream of comedic immediacy that flows through the performance. He interacts with Giovanni with the annoyance of a man tired of being ignored and abused. He seems legitimately horrified by the death of the Commendatore, and his broadly droll ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’ is not devoid of humanity and subtle empathy for Elvira. In the duet with Giovanni at the beginning of Act Two, ‘Eh via, buffone, non mi seccar,’ Gramm sings artfully, and he makes Leporello’s aria ‘Ah, pietà, signori miei’ far more memorable than many singers have done. His work in ‘O statua gentilissima del gran Commendatore’ and the Epilogue is treasurable: here, for once, is a Leporello who manages to be funny without compromising the quality of his singing.

It is not for her performances of Mozart rôles that Beverly Sills is most remembered, but she was no stranger to Don Giovanni. As early as 1953, she sang Donna Elvira at San Francisco Opera under Tullio Serafin's baton, a part that she reprised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Later, in addition to the Opera Company of Boston performances that produced this recording, she sang Donna Anna for New York City Opera both in New York and on tour, including a 1966 revival in which her Ottavio was the young Plácido Domingo, with Baltimore Civic Opera, at Mexico City's Palacio de Bellas Artes, in Lausanne opposite Gérard Souzay's Giovanni, and in a 1966 concert performance in Manhattan's Lewisohn Stadium that was her first appearance with the Metropolitan Opera. At the start of this Boston performance, Sills’s singing imparts the full spectrum of Anna’s terror, grief, and indignation. Her voice stands out in every ensemble in Act One, her performance gaining momentum despite a few stretches of dullness in recitative until she unleashes a furious gale of histrionic intensity but aptly Mozartean singing in ‘Don Ottavio, son morta!’ and ‘Or sai chi l’onore.’ The luster of her top As is stunning, but the most sensational trait of her performance is the towering dramatic profile that she creates without overstretching the voice. The ascending lines of the masquers’ trio in the Act One finale are sung with tremendous poise. Sills is utterly in her element in ‘Non mi dir, bell’idol mio,’ singing the roulades better than almost any other soprano on records, the voice smaller than those of many Annas—of her generation, at least—but the characterization no less imposing. In the aria and in the opera’s final scene, Sills succeeds in making Anna the moral spine of the performance rather than an indecisive harridan who toys with Ottavio’s affections for her own amusement (or, as in many productions, for no apparent reason at all). That Sills sings well in this performance is hardly surprising: that she sings this well is phenomenal.

Native Californian baritone William Dooley débuted at the MET in 1964 as Tchaikovsky's Onegin opposite the Tatyana of Leontyne Price, and his Mozartean credentials at the MET encompassed a number of turns as Conte d'Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, both in New York and on national tours. A member of the generation of gifted American baritones who furthered the legacy of Lawrence Tibbett and Leonard Warren, Dooley was in Boston a Don Giovanni of technical solidity and vocal excellence. In many ways, his concept of the rôle combines elements of the much-appreciated interpretations of fellow Americans Sherrill Milnes and Samuel Ramey, amalgamating lecherous appetite with good-natured machismo. His Giovanni seems a reluctant murderer, but there is no doubt of the voracity of his amorous audacity. Dooley’s Giovanni sounds embarrassed by the near-hysterical Elvira’s sudden appearance, but his 'concern' for her, feigned to convince Zerlina of his nobility of spirit, is almost as sincere as the saccharine verse on a greeting card. The suavity of Dooley’s line in ‘Là ci darem la mano’ could charm a leopard out of its stripes—or a Zerlina out of her determined resistance. There is little menace in this Giovanni’s seducing, but Dooley’s performance of ‘Finch’han dal vino calda la testa’ simmers with testosterone-fueled fervor. He duets with Leporello arrestingly, and joins Leporello and Elvira in their trio with disquieting charisma. His traversal of ‘Metà di voi qua vadano’ is brilliantly conspiratorial. Dooley’s Giovanni meets his end unflinchingly: create hell on earth, he evinces, and the only possible destiny is infernal, and to struggle would be pusillanimous. In the course of the performance, Dooley encounters a few phrases that test his resources, but he clears every obstacle with the freedom of an Olympic pole vaulter.

That Don Giovanni is one of the greatest operas not only of the Eighteenth Century but in the whole history of the genre is an assessment that is unlikely to prompt dissent, but how many performances of the opera in the past quarter-century have unreservedly affirmed this? Opera Company of Boston’s 1966 production of Don Giovanni assembled a cast whose individual and collective efforts gave Mozart’s score the kind of treatment that it deserves. That treatment is the foremost triumph of St-Laurent Studio’s recording of the 21 February performance. In an age in which far more time is spent—wasted, really—debating how Mozart’s operas ought to be sung than preparing singers to sing them, how refreshing it is to hear a performance of Don Giovanni in which impeccably-trained singers simply let Mozart dictate how their voices should be deployed.