21 July 2014

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – GIOVANNA D’ARCO (A. Netrebko, P. Domingo, F. Meli; DGG 479 2712)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - GIOVANNA D'ARCO (DGG 479 2712)

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Giovanna d’ArcoAnna Netrebko (Giovanna d’Arco), Plácido Domingo (Giacomo), Francesco Meli (Carlo VII), Roberto Tagliavini (Talbot), Johannes Dunz (Delil); Philharmonia Chor Wien; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Paolo Carignani, conductor [Recorded in concert in the Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, Austria, during the Salzburger Festspiele, August 2013; DGG 479 2712; 2CD, 108:49; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​The curious student of history in search of the ‘real’ Jeanne d’Arc who may or may not have contributed meaningfully to the defeat of the besieging English and Burgundians at Orléans in 1429 should seek her neither in Friedrich Schiller’s 1801 play Die Jungfrau von Orleans nor in Giuseppe Verdi’s 1845 operatic setting, Giovanna d’Arco. The pompous, rather foolish, excessively-Romanticized girl of the theatrical and operatic stages is a dramatic recreation of a figure about whom very little is known with any degree of certainty: recognized by many as one of the greatest Frenchman, her significance and even her very existence are dismissed by some revisionist historians. For the young Verdi, she was an ideal—and idealized—heroine and a near-perfect character for Erminia Frezzolini, the accomplished soprano and pupil of the influential Manuel García who enjoyed great success as Giselda in the first production of Verdi’s I Lombardi alla prima crociata. Though Verdi and the audience at the opera’s La Scala première had sincere affection for his Giovanna, critics were unimpressed by her musical finery. In a real sense, her reputation has never recovered: several eminent sopranos have lent their talents to Giovanna’s cause both on stage and on records without having won for her a place in the standard repertory alongside her Verdian sisters. Still, not even the most neglected of Verdi’s operas is devoid of interest, and any opportunity to appreciate the beauties of Giovanna d’Arco is welcome. Recorded in concert during the 2013 Salzburger Festspiele and featuring two of opera’s most celebrated singers, this performance promises much, but in several notable aspects it fails to deliver more than basic proficiency. Just as the attentive historian will not find a reliably factual portrait of Jeanne d’Arc in Giovanna d’Arco, the steadfast admirer of the composer’s music sadly will not find in this recording the truest essence of Verdi’s opera.

Capably conducted by Paolo Carignani, the carefully-balanced but vibrant singing of the Philharmonia Chor Wien and convincingly Italianate playing of the Münchner Rundfunkorchester are preserved in acoustics that uphold Deutsche Grammophon’s long-standing tradition of sonic excellence. With fine performances by tenor Johannes Dunz as Delil and bass Roberto Tagliavini as Talbot, this recording has the sturdiest foundation of any performance of Giovanna d’Arco on disc. In this era of allowing listeners to make their own decisions about composers’ successes and failures by performing scores note-complete, the extensiveness of the cuts inflicted on Verdi’s score in this performance is maddening. The logic behind some of the excisions defies explanation: the cut of a passage in Giovanna’s cavatina in the Prologue, ‘Sempre all’alba ed alla sera,’ relieves the soprano of a phrase descending from D6, for instance, but Verdi provided an ‘oppure’ for the offending passage that rises no higher than B5, a note demanded several times in the cavatina. If a singer cannot manage a few additional bars in the same vein as the balance of her music, ought she to be singing the rôle at all? Each of the principal characters loses stretches of music ranging from a few bars to a few pages, and virtually every number in the score is truncated in some manner. Cabalettas are shorn of their repeats, depriving the singers of opportunities to ornament their vocal lines in the manner of the bel canto idiom that Giovanna d’Arco embodies. With first-rate musicians on hand to support the principals, such unmusical disfigurement of Verdi’s score is equally inexcusable and inexplicable. If the intention was to perform ‘highlights’ from Giovanna d’Arco, the resulting recording should be identified and marketed accordingly.

In the theatre, where there is aural space into which the voice can expand, Italian tenor Francesco Meli can prove an exciting singer. In the context of an audio recording, his timbre is somewhat monochromatic, the unrelenting brightness of tone ultimately rendering his mostly tasteful singing monotonous. In this performance, his native Italian diction gives his portrayal of the floundering Carlo apt dignity, but there is little differentiation among the various emotions of his character’s plight. In Carlo’s cavatina and cabaletta in the Prologue, ‘Sotto una quercia parvemi’ and ‘Pondo è letal, martiro il serto,’ Mr. Meli sings strongly, his voice firm and even throughout the range. In the course of the performance, however, Mr. Meli’s dynamics are virtually unchanging, and there are passages in which his volume precludes the finesse that his vocal lines need. In the unaccompanied trio in the Prologue’s finale, ‘A te, pietosa vergine,’ Mr. Meli both sings and phrases beautifully, and in the reprise of the galloping principal theme at ‘Or sia patria il mio solo pensiero’—one of the fabulously banal tunes that came easily to the young Verdi but do not depart from the listener’s memory without a fight—his virile presence is winsome. His singing in the duet with Giovanna in Act One, ‘Ho risolto…E in tai momenti,’ is passionate, but the passion here is the same as that in the Prologue; and, for that matter, that in successive scenes. Mr. Meli’s best singing comes in Carlo’s romanza in Act Three, ‘Quale più fido amico,’ which he shapes with true feeling and obvious attention to the nuances of the text. Granted more of Carlo’s music in which to make his mark, Mr. Meli might well bring greater presence to his performance. Here, he creates a forthrightly-sung but dramatically pale monarch. It is a satisfying performance but one that barely even indicates the distinctive elegance of which Mr. Meli is capable.

Plácido Domingo recorded Carlo in Giovanna d’Arco an ordinary career ago, but it hardly needs to be stated that the Spanish singer’s career has been and continues to be anything but ordinary. The extent of the success of Mr. Domingo’s endeavors in baritone repertory—and particularly in Verdi’s singular baritone rôles—is among the most passionately-debated topics in opera today. It must be conceded that the voice remains in generally excellent condition. The timbre has tarnished somewhat and the focus of the tone loosened, but there is surprisingly little unsteadiness. The tessitura of a rôle like Giacomo in Giovanna d’Arco poses no difficulties, but the ease with which he produces the notes required by Verdi undermines the effectiveness of Mr. Domingo’s singing. A vital element of the visceral impact of Verdi’s baritone parts is the sense of danger: the truly memorable Verdi baritone should sound as though he is taken to the limits of both his range and his technique. In that regard, Mr. Domingo might be said to sing Giacomo’s music in this performance almost too well. Phrasing is now guided more by physiological necessity than by any great insightfulness, but Mr. Domingo retains consummate musicality. Regardless of the range of the music that he is singing, he also remains a tenor. Nonetheless, this performance is his most accomplished outing in a Verdi baritone rôle to date. The basic timbre is dark and burnished, and though his diction has lost its sharpness he delivers the words with gusto. He knows his way round a Verdi score, and even his scant experience with Giovanna d’Arco is apparent. In the Prologue, moreover, only Mr. Domingo seems to take any real interest in the drama. His contributions to the closing trio are appropriately stern, and he descends to the lower reaches of Giacomo’s vocal lines with greater freedom than he has brought to many of his performances of baritone rôles. Mr. Domingo gives an expansive account of his aria in Act One, ‘Franco son io, ma in core,’ and his performance of the subsequent cabaletta ‘So che per via dei triboli’ conveys the conflicting bitterness and despair of the text. He comes nearest of any of the principals to limning a genuine bel canto line in his singing of the romanza in Act Two, ‘Speme al vecchio era una figlia,’ and the power that he brings to Giacomo’s denunciation of Giovanna in the Act Two finale has all the magic of Mr. Domingo at his best. The duet ‘Amai, ma un solo istante’ in Act Three is one of the earliest flowerings of Verdi’s emblematic explorations of the relationships among fathers and their daughters, and Mr. Domingo sings his part in it with emotional involvement. This Giacomo imparts the cruelty of recognizing, like Rigoletto, that his injured daughter still lives only to then lose her. Mr. Domingo continues to be an engaging artist, and this is among his finest performances in his adopted baritone repertory.

Anna Netrebko is an exasperating singer. Especially in Salzburg, where even details of her dining and shopping habits are fodder for public discussion and emulation, she is as close to holding the title of prima donna assoluta as any soprano can claim to be in 2014. The basic natural vocal material is superb: largely free of the dreaded Slavic shrillness and wobble, the voice has an attractive timbre, ample thrust, and moderate agility. The tone often lacks a firm core, though, and clumsy handling of vowel placement leads to an intermittent hollowness in the lower octave. Now that she is putting her commercially-successful but mostly ill-advised forays into bel canto repertory behind her, Ms. Netrebko is venturing ever further into the Verdi repertory. Her portrayal of Giovanna in this recording is representative of both what she can achieve when her artistry is completely committed to a performance and how inconsistent she can be when it is not. Ms. Netrebko’s singing of Giovanna’s beautiful cavatina in the Prologue, ‘Sempre all’alba ed alla sera,’ is unfocused and imprecise, and her technique lets her—and Verdi—down in the Prologue’s finale, in which her vocalism is unpolished. The ascents to C6 are managed relatively easily, but her decision to interpolate a desperate-sounding top C to bring down the curtain on the Prologue is clearly motivated by a desire for applause rather than an expression of Giovanna’s youthful exuberance. ‘O fatidica foresta,’ the romanza in Act One that contains some of the most beautiful music in the opera, receives a lovely performance from Ms. Netrebko despite triplet figurations that are not always cleanly articulated. Her singing begins to warm in the duet with Carlo that brings Act One to a close, and she rises to a strong, resonant B♭5 in the finale’s coda. In Giovanna’s duet with her father, Ms. Netrebko responds to Mr. Domingo’s fervor with singing of increased dramatic impetus, and here her command of the tricky fiorature is far more impressive than earlier in the opera. Ms. Netrebko rises at last to the level of assured, emotive singing that her reputation attributes to her in Giovanna’s death scene, in which her traversal of the andante, ‘S’apre il ciel discende la Pia,’ is gorgeous. She manages the sustained B♭5 with sensitivity and great poise, and her Giovanna takes her leave of her father, her king, and her country with moving grace and simplicity. It is possible that Act Three in this recording was taken from a different performance than the recordings of the Prologue and Acts One and Two: if so, the disparity between her singing of Act Three and of the first three parts of the opera that this reveals is a disservice to Ms. Netrebko. With so much of Giovanna’s music missing in this recording, Ms. Netrebko’s performance of the title rôle cannot be even-handedly compared with Montserrat Caballé’s radiant singing in the 1972 recording with James Levine and the younger Domingo. The Russian soprano’s instrument is more suited by nature to Giovanna’s vocal lines than those of Renata Tebaldi, Teresa Stratas, or Dame Margaret Price, the latter pair of whom were heard in the rôle in concert in New York, but this performance can ultimately only be deemed a partial success. When at its best in Act Three, however, Ms. Netrebko’s singing is the work of a bona fide prima donna.

Having originated in a celebration of the Verdi Bicentennial and enjoyed the participation of a team of talented musicians, this recording is both a competent, fitfully enjoyable performance of one of Verdi’s neglected early exercises in the forms that, with ever-broadening modifications, served him so well until the end of his career and a missed opportunity. It is difficult to reconcile a sincere desire to honor Verdi’s legacy with concert presentations and a recording of Giovanna d’Arco with the brutal pruning to which the score fell victim in that context. As a souvenir of Plácido Domingo’s Giacomo, a rôle to which he is unlikely to return often if at all, this recording is a worthwhile addition to the discography. It is also a venture that offers many lessons. As many other performances and recordings have likewise confirmed, a cast of ‘star’ singers does not necessarily constitute a cogent ensemble for any given opera. Foremost, though, this Giovanna d’Arco intimates that a recording that takes such a cavalier approach to an underappreciated score primarily frustrates the audience it is intended to delight.

11 July 2014

CD REVIEW: Judith Weir – THE VANISHING BRIDEGROOM (A. Tynan, A. Stéphany, A. Tortise, O. Gilhooly, J. Lemalu; NMC D196)


JUDITH WEIR (born 1954): The Vanishing BridegroomAilish Tynan (Bride, Wife, Mother), Anna Stéphany (Daughter), Andrew Tortise (Lover, Friend, Preacher), Owen Gilhooly (Bridegroom, Husband, Father), Jonathan Lemalu (Doctor, Policeman, Stranger), Stephen Jeffes (Narrator), Andrew Murgatroyd (Dying Man), Christopher Bowen (Youngest Son), Edward Goater (Middle Son), Edward Price (Eldest Son), Simon Birchall (Bride’s Father), Paul Haas-Curievici (Good Robber), Nicolas Simeha (Bad Robber 1), Jonathan Saunders (Bad Robber 2), Olivia Robinson (Woman 1), Sién Menna (Woman 2), Lynette Alcántara (Woman 3); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Martyn Brabbins, conductor [Recorded in concert at the Barbican, London, UK, on 19 January 2008; NMC Recordings NMC D196; 2CD, 82:53; Available from NMC Recordings, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Recently confirmed to succeed Sir Peter Maxwell Davies as Master of the Queen’s Music, Cambridge-born composer Judith Weir is among the guiding voices in contemporary Classical Music both in and beyond Britain. Though her work is often—sometimes bewilderingly—compared to that of Benjamin Britten, her compositional idiom is refreshingly unique, not least in the manner in which aspects of disparate tonal methodologies are combined imaginatively. Vitally, the sound worlds conjured in Ms. Weir’s compositions are shaped by landscapes that are unfailingly musical. For this preference for genuine music rather than stylized noise she endures charges of conservatism. Lamentable as it is that a composer of any era should be criticized for setting out to create sounds that beguile rather than batter the ears, Ms. Weir is owed a debt of gratitude for adhering to her principals and providing in The Vanishing Bridegroom a contemporary opera of originality and wit. Commissioned for the 1990 celebrations of Glasgow’s service as the European Capital of Culture, the score exhibits Ms. Weir’s compositional techniques at their most refined, the opera’s polytonal and polyrhythmic elements combining with judiciously-employed doses of atonalism and minimalism to produce a musical panorama that is both thrillingly original and refreshingly approachable. Uniquely, Ms. Weir achieved with The Vanishing Bridegroom the feat of creating a contemporary opera that audiences weaned on standard repertory will actually enjoy hearing, and with this preservation of a 2008 concert reading of the opera at the Barbican NMC Recordings—the go-to label for top-quality performances of the best British contemporary Classical Music—triumph by giving The Vanishing Bridegroom a recording that any listener willing to cast preconceptions aside will want to hear again and again.

To state that Ms. Weir’s score is accessible to audiences for whom opera as a generative art effectively ceased to exist with the death of Benjamin Britten is not to suggest that it panders in any way to old-fashioned sensibilities or that performing it is an easy task for any of the personnel involved. Under the direction of conductor Martyn Brabbins, a dedicated champion of contemporary music, the complexities of The Vanishing Bridegroom are conquered without being smoothed over. The unifying formulaic structures of the opera’s three parts—‘The Inheritance,’ ‘The Disappearance,’ and ‘The Stranger’—are disclosed without being emphasized, allowing the listener to reach individual conclusions about the dramatic connections among the characters and situations. The demands made on the orchestra by Ms. Weir’s music are met with panache by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Spurred by Maestro Brabbins’s energetic leadership, the instrumentalists respond to the shifting moods of the score with great attention to detail, mining the transitions from lush neo-Romanticism to sparse, angular textures for lodes of emotional significance. All sections of the orchestra are given challenging music in which they excel, but the string playing is especially notable for its ideal combination of lean, biting tone and impeccable intonation. Many conductors seem adrift in contemporary music or else are specialists who lack familiarity with standard repertory. Perhaps the greatest peril to an opera like The Vanishing Bridegroom is to approach it as though it needs some sort of unconventional treatment. Shaping the vocal lines with the finesse required for Bellini, regarding the interactions among singers and orchestra as in Verdi, and recognizing the thematic development in the manner of Wagner: these are the tenets of a successful modus operandi for conducting any opera, whether it was composed in 1890 or 1990. Maestro Brabbins paces this performance of The Vanishing Bridegroom with the obvious belief that this is not a ‘new’ opera, a British opera, or an occupant of any other confining categorization. It is merely an opera, and just as in Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, or Madama Butterfly the foremost qualification for success is possessing a complete acquaintance with the music. Maestro Brabbins knows The Vanishing Bridegroom and conducts the score accordingly.

The overall excellence of the BBC Singers, who en masse are a great source of reliably musical singing throughout the performance, is further confirmed by the fine work of individual choristers in solo parts. It would be too much to ask of the singer of the Narrator’s music to manage it without effort, but tenor Stephen Jeffes uses the strain to which the music pushes him to convey the vehemence of the drama. Tenors Andrew Murgatroyd as the Dying Man, Christopher Bowen as the Youngest Son, and Edward Goater as the Middle Son, baritone Edward Price as the Eldest Son, and bass-baritone Simon Birchall as the Bride’s Father in ‘The Inheritance’ and soprano Olivia Robinson and mezzo-sopranos Lynette Alcántara and Sién Menna as the three Women in ‘The Disappearance’ all sing capably and with audible engagement with their rôles. The young singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama—tenor Paul Haas-Curievici as the Good Robber and baritone Nicolas Simeha and bass-baritone Jonathan Saunders as the Bad Robbers—also contribute vital, admirably finished performances. In ensemble, the BBC Singers are never more impressive than in their lines as the menacing but seductive, Gaelic-speaking Fairies in ‘The Disappearance.’ Like their BBC Symphony colleagues, the choristers follow Maestro Brabbins’s leadership without hesitation, and the integrity of their elocution meaningfully propels the opera’s theatrical development.

As the Doctor in ‘The Inheritance,’ the Policeman in ‘The Disappearance,’ and the eponymous Stranger in the opera’s final Part, bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu sings sonorously if not always with absolute steadiness, especially in the upper reaches of the voice. His Doctor is an insinuating, vaguely sinister figure reminiscent of Docteur Miracle in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann. Here and in his portrayal of the Policeman there are subtle suggestions of humor that contrast markedly with the darkness of the musical surroundings. Mr. Lemalu’s Policeman is the bored, dimwitted small-town constable to the life, his statements of ‘People just disappear / That’s what they do’ changing easily enough to ‘People don’t just disappear / They don’t do that’ according to the expectations of his audience. There is an ethereal, indefinably visionary quality in Mr. Lemalu’s performance as the Stranger that warrants comparisons with the title character in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer. Ms. Weir’s demonic Stranger is vanquished rather than redeemed by his interactions with a woman, but there are similar assaults on innocence and paradigmatic transformations. Mr. Lemalu is at his best when hurling out his voice at full throttle, and a few suspect pitches are evidence of his complete surrender to the dramatic potency of his rôles rather than musical carelessness.

Baritone Owen Gilhooly brings a resonant, sinewy voice to his performances as the Bridegroom, the Husband, and the Father. As the symbolic Bridegroom in the opera’s first Part, a cousin of the hapless Arturo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Mr. Gilhooly creates a portrait of a man who is a pawn in a nasty game but is no one’s fool. He is a Husband who is almost willingly beguiled by the Fairies in ‘The Disappearance,’ but his bewilderment at the passage of time upon his return is genuine—and genuinely moving. The Father in ‘The Stranger’ has less to do, but here, too, Mr. Gilhooly impresses, furthering the kinship with Der fliegende Holländer by exhibiting an opportunistic attitude towards his daughter’s betrothal that evokes thoughts of Wagner’s Daland. Mr. Gilhooly is unbothered by the difficulty of his music, and his ringing, masculine tone gives the solo singing a firm, bronzed core.

The most dramatically varied rôles taken by a single singer are the Lover in ‘The Inheritance,’ the Friend in ‘The Disappearance,’ and the Preacher in ‘The Stranger.’ Though viewing the three parts as manifestations of a single personality type is a valid interpretation, each of these characters has his own agenda. The Lover’s renunciation of his vows to the Bride is both selfless and selfish, and the Friend is both a knowing and an unknowing accomplice in the Husband’s disappearance. The Preacher is an enigma: brash and obsequious in the manner of Olin Blitch in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, he fascinates and repulses in equal measures. The refined, slightly grainy tenor of Andrew Tortise is effective in all three rôles. He proves an ardent Lover in ‘The Inheritance,’ but the coldness that chills the sound when the Bride reveals her marriage to another man is telling. As the Friend, Mr. Tortise is an amiable-sounding bloke who is nonetheless slightly too eager to insist that he had no hand in his mate’s unexplainable disappearance. In his performance of the Preacher, he is oily charm personified. Mr. Tortise’s diction cannot always survive the challenges of his music, but the voice never falters, gaining strength and beauty as the lines ascend. Dramatically, he is a constant presence, managing to convey both unsettling humanity and mystery.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany is impassioned in the Daughter’s encounter with evil in ‘The Stranger.’ Ms. Stéphany’s Daughter is a woman who is distracted but never completely undone by a golden-tongued charmer. The capriciousness of her singing of ‘There was a knight riding frae the east’ gives way to increasing determination upon the appearance of the Stranger, and the resolve with which she voices her final statement of ‘Evil gleams brighter than brass’ is exultant. Ms. Stéphany’s voice is a somewhat ungainly instrument over which she does not yet have complete control, but her musical and dramatic instincts are sure. The efficacy of her characterization compensates for the few imperfections in her vocalism, and she makes the opera’s ending bizarrely cathartic.

In her assignments as the Bride in ‘The Inheritance,’ the Wife in ‘The Disappearance,’ and the Mother in ‘The Stranger,’ soprano Ailish Tynan faces some fiercely strenuous music. She more than holds her own and even succeeds in making the pitfalls of her vocal lines an appreciable component of her characterizations. Ms. Tynan devotes an attractive purity to her singing as the Bride, and both her vocalism and her acting as the Wife convey apprehension tinged with resignation. Like Mr. Gilhooly’s Father, less is asked of her as the Mother, but Ms. Tynan maintains an integral part in the drama. So tremendous is her technical assurance that she is able to evince an appearance of ease. The fearlessness with which she attacks the exposed top notes in her music is stunning: still more laudable is the unerring accuracy of her pitch. Even when creating rôles for specific singers, composers rarely write such exacting music with the expectation of hearing it sung as well as Ms. Tynan sings in this performance.

Why The Vanishing Bridegroom is not in the repertories of the world’s important opera houses—especially those in locales in which English is the primary language—is a question only made more confounding by this performance, preserved in studio-quality acoustics and given the first-class presentation that it deserves by NMC Recordings. Surely an opera that inspires singing, playing, and conducting as accomplished as those heard on this recording can inspire equal commitment and appreciation from audiences. Questions about the foibles of opera companies and their constituencies cannot always be answered, but this recording confirms that the response to any question of whether Judith Weir’s The Vanishing Bridegroom is an important opera is a resounding yes.

Please consider supporting NMC’s endeavors to encourage, promote, and preserve the work of Britain’s finest composers of contemporary Classical Music by purchasing this recording directly from NMC or by contributing in recognition of the organization’s twenty-five years of incomparable achievements. Visit NMC’s website to learn more.

CD REVIEW: Maurice Emmanuel – SALAMINE (F. Wend, B. Demigny, J. Giraudeau, J. Peyron, A. Vessières, L. Lovano; Solstice SOCD 301)

CD REVIEW: Maurice Emmanuel - SALAMINE (Solstice SOCD 301)

MAURICE EMMANUEL (1862 – 1938): Salamine—Flore Wend (la reine Atossa), Bernard Demigny (le Messager), Jean Giraudeau (Xerxès), Joseph Peyron (un dignitaire de la Cour), André Vessières (l’ombre de Darius), Lucien Lovano (le Coryphée); Orchestre radio-symphonique et Chœurs de la RTF; Tony Aubin, conductor [Recorded for radio broadcast in Paris, France, 22 March 1958; Disques FY et du Solstice, SOCD 301; 1CD, 72:03; Available solely from Disques FY et du Solstice]

​Europe in the 1920s was a continent gradually retreating from the edge of annihilation. Cataclysmic ‘total war’ on an unprecedented scale left disfiguring scars on decimated populations, physical landscapes, and philosophical foundations from the windy shores of Britain to the primordial forests of the Balkans. The map was redrawn, and the Hapsburg dynasty that had dominated swaths of the continent for centuries was toppled: modern Europe was born, but it was one of the costliest births in human history. Art, too, was forced by calamity to crawl towards reinvention, to replace the pretty complacencies of fin-de-siècle perspectives with new attitudes forged by the destructive realities of lives touched by oblivion. From this renaissance of altered creativity was born Maurice Emmanuel’s stark tragédie lyrique Salamine. Based upon a recounting of the ancient Battle of Salamis by the composer’s beloved Aeschylus, the opera inhabits a sonic world far more reminiscent of the music of Emmanuel’s pupils Messiaen and Dutilleux than that of his teachers Delibes and Franck. Intense, hypnotic, strange, and more universal than traditionally Gallic, Salamine is a score that boils with musical invention and the voices of threatened humanity. Its magnitude in the recovery of European Art in the decade following World War I notwithstanding, it is a captivating work begging to be heard. A century after the start of the Great War, the superlative efforts of Disques FY et du Solstice—exemplified by the work of producer Yvette Carbou—provide Salamine the opportunity to reclaim its place in the narrative of the reconstruction of European Art.

The battle between the Greeks and Persians of antiquity waged in the waters surrounding the Aegean island of Salamis in 480 BC is a critically-important event unknown in the Twenty-First Century to all but the most attentive students of history. A turning point in the Greco-Persian conflicts of the Fifth Century BC, the Greek victory over the vastly superior numbers of the invading armies of Xerxes the Great—familiar to opera lovers as the tree-hugging protagonist of Händel’s Serse—began the series of decisive military actions that halted Persian conquest of the Greek mainland. To Aeschylus, whose epic play The Persians is one of the most noteworthy first-hand accounts of any episode in Greek history, the routing of the Persian navy at Salamis was one of the truly defining events of his age. From the perspective of history, it is a tremendously significant step in the development of modern civilization. This significance would have been especially apparent to Emmanuel, who was renowned for his scholarship on Greek musical modes, literature, and cultural history. From this unique point of view, World War I surely seemed a sort of second Salamis, a pivotal shift in the balance of power in which long-dominant ideologies were marginalized or eradicated altogether. Musically, Ancient Greece and WWI symbolically collide in Salamine. Admired by the progressive Paul Dukas, Emmanuel’s score is a synthesis of the ancient and the modern that was rightly acclaimed as a masterpiece at the time of the opera’s première at the Opéra de Paris on 19 June 1929. Though revived at the Opéra the following season and arranged by the composer for concert presentation, in which form it was performed at least five times between 1932 and 1969, Salamine has never managed to emerge from the shadows. Thus are the stupid prejudices of Classical Music: were Salamine a ‘rediscovered’ work by Debussy, Puccini, or Schönberg, it would likely be acclaimed as a work of genius as it deserves to be.

Performed in concert as a part of a day-long radio celebration of Ancient Greece on 22 March 1958, Salamine was entrusted to the care of some of France’s most insightful veterans of radio and staged productions of an exceptionally wide range of music. The resulting broadcast recording has been brought back to life with startling immediacy by Solstice’s expert remastering. The singing of the Chœurs de la RTF is stirring throughout the performance, never more so than in ‘Déjà saisissant la rive de Thrace’ in Act One and ‘Qu’ils semblent loin, aux jours d'orage’ in Act Two. The chorus acts as a foundation to the opera’s action in the manner of Classical Greek tragedy, and the RTF singers provide a steadfast musical base. Under the direction of composer and conductor Tony Aubin, the musicians of the Orchestre radio-symphonique de la RTF deliver Emmanuel’s score excellently. The orchestra’s playing of the opera’s Ouverture orchestrale is both muscular and graceful, and the wonderful Prélude orchestral and Danse funèbre in Act Two receive aptly intense performances. Displaying the affinity that composers have often brought to performances of other composers’ works, Maestro Aubin maintains tight but elastic control even in the score’s most strenuous passages. The musical forces of Europe’s national radio services have rarely been recognized as first-rate ensembles, but the skill with which the RTF singers and musicians perform Emmanuel’s punishing music permits no questioning of their abilities and integrity.

Solely for the performance of baritone Lucien Lovano as le Coryphée this recording should be in the libraries of all of the world’s conservatories. From the first line of his opening mélodrame, ‘Tandis qu’au hasard des combats,’ Mr. Lovano gives a masterclass in the art of Sprechstimme. This brilliant artist takes Coryphée’s narrations to the edge of Sprechgesang, his careful articulation of pitches heightening the dramatic impact of his utterances to an extraordinary degree. In Act Two, his intoning of ‘Reine, que vénère la Perse’ is powerful and pointed. In every line of his part, Mr. Lovano’s diction enhances the consequence of his performance, and he conjures a stylized, dramatically-charged environment for his colleagues.

Mr. Lovano’s histrionic authority is matched by the firm, resonant singing of bass André Vessières as l'ombre de Darius. A stalwart of French radio productions, Mr. Vessières was a talented singer to whom the oft-repeated cliché suggesting that he would be a celebrated artist were he singing today is uncommonly applicable. Certainly, he possessed a beautiful voice, and he gives of his best in this performance. His singing of ‘Si l’oracle des dieux n’est pas trompeur, croyez’ lends the shade of Darius the dignity and menace that he should have, and Mr. Vessière makes a huge impression in what ultimately is a small rôle. Bass-baritone Bernard Demigny is also a source of strength as le Messager: the energy and focused tone that he brings to his singing of ‘O cités de l’Asie! O trésor sans pareil’ and ‘Tu sauras tous nos maux: châtiment ou rancune’ are allied with a genuine presence that injects dramatic momentum into the performance.

One of the principal glories of the French school of singing since its inception has been the tradition of heady, altitudinous tenor vocalism. Though Emmanuel’s vocal lines are vastly different from both the haute-contre writing by Lully and Rameau and the music for the Grand Opéra rôles by Meyerbeer, Gounod, and Massenet, the music for tenor voices in Salamine requires the same eloquence and stamina demanded by Meyerbeer’s Raoul de Nangis, Gounod’s Faust, and Massenet’s Werther. In this performance, the tenor rôles are entrusted to a pair of the finest French singers of the mid-Twentieth Century. Portraying a dignitary of the Persian court in Act One, Joseph Peyron sings beautifully, making the most of his few lines. One of the few tenors to take on the Herculean rôle of Énée in Berlioz’s Les Troyens—a part in which he was recorded twice, first in a near-complete performance under the direction of Berlioz specialist Sir Thomas Beecham for the BBC in 1947 and in a studio recording of Les Troyens à Carthage conducted by Hermann Scherchen in 1952—in the modern era, Jean Giraudeau was an adventurous artist with a wide repertory, having also created the rôle of the Chevalier de la Force in the French première of Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites in June 1957, and a voice that retained sweetness to the top of the range. As Xerxès in Salamine, Mr. Giraudeau faced a considerably less arduous vocal task than in Les Troyens, but his performance lacks nothing in terms of concentration and involvement. In his performance of ‘Hélas! trois fois infortuné’ in Act Three, he credibly depicts the grandeur of the historical Xerxes, and the voice is both secure and attractive.

A stern but respected presence at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute in the 1970s and ‘80s, ​Swiss-born soprano​ Flore Wend, selected by the famously finicky Ernest Ansermet to sing Yniold in his 1952 recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande [in which Mr. Vessières also participated] and the title rôle in his unsurpassed recording of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges [an opera in which Mr. Lovano, Mr. Peyron, and Mr. Vessières were also recorded], is now remembered by few other than students whose careers she influenced. As la reine Atossa in Salamine, she reveals a distinctive timbre and a freshness of voice that give her singing a special allure. The tone is rarely beautiful, but the beauty that she achieves in her performance is unmistakable. The vigor of her singing of ‘L’angoisse et le souci que je devine en toi’ in the second scene of Act One is pulse-quickening, but her regal demeanor is never lost. Later, in ‘Le silence et l’horreur m’ont cloué​e à​​ ma place’ in the third scene of Act One, her grasp of the dramatic situation catapults the opera towards tragedy. Atossa is a part very dissimilar to Debussy’s Yniold and Ravel’s Enfant, but Ms. Wend dominates the music—and, indeed, the performance as a whole—from first note to last. Demonstrating a vastly different facet of her artistry, this performance adds immeasurably to the appreciation of Ms. Wend’s career. It also increases the guarded optimism for additional recordings of her work to emerge from private collections and radio archives.

The French artist Auguste Rodin once wrote, ‘Je n’invente rien, je redécouvre’—‘I invent nothing, I rediscover.’ In this era in which it seems that all there is little left to discover about Classical Music and Opera, the emergence of a performance like this 1958 RTF traversal of Maurice Emmanuel’s Salamine provides a rare opportunity not only to rediscover an overlooked score but also to reevaluate the misconceptions that contributed to its neglect. In its unapologetic homage to Ancient Greece, there is a whiff of academia to Salamine, but it is a sensationally original work that deals with timeless—and timely—themes of conflicts among individuals, cultures, and civilizations. It is perhaps damning to the opera’s prospects for reintegration into the repertory to suggest that a cast could not be assembled today to equal the group of artists who stepped before RTF microphones in 1958, but the discography is richer for the release of this recording. For the invention, Maurice Emmanuel is to be extolled: for the rediscovery, the insightful efforts of Solstice are to be applauded.

IN REVIEW: a rare photo of Swiss soprano FLORE WEND, la reine Atossa in Solstice's recording of the 1958 RTF broadcast of Maurice Emmanuel's SALAMINE LA BELLE REINE ATOSSA: a rare photograph of Swiss soprano Flore Wend, who sings the rôle of Queen Atossa in Solstice’s recording of the 1958 RTF broadcast of Maurice Emmanuel’s Salamine [Photo from private collection]

07 July 2014

CD REVIEW: Bellini, Donizetti, & Rossini – ROMANTIC SONGS (L. Marimpietri, U. Benelli, E. Fabbro; DECCA 480 8138)

CD REVIEW: Bellini, Donizetti, & Rossini - ROMANTIC SONGS (DECCA Most Wanted Recitals! 480 8138)

VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791), and GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Romantic Songs – Songs by Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini¹ plus Arias by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini²—Lydia Marimpietri, soprano¹; Ugo Benelli, tenor¹; Enrico Fabbro (Erik Smith), piano¹; Graziella Sciutti, soprano²; Wiener Philharmoniker²; Argeo Quadri, conductor² [Recorded in Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome, Italy, 10 – 13 July 1967¹, and Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, 16 – 22 October 1960²; DECCA Most Wanted Recitals! 480 8138; 1CD, 79:43; Available from Amazon, jpc, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Rare is the season in any of the world’s major opera houses that does not include any of the bel canto masterpieces of Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Vincenzo Bellini. In the repertories of many theatres, Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Bellini’s Norma are the pillars that buttress the bel canto repertory. Surprisingly, however, these masters of bel canto, universally acclaimed for the melodic fecundity of their operas, are not favored with equivalent appreciation for their contributions to the ruddy vein of Nineteenth-Century Art Song. Indeed, the observer whose acquaintance with Art Song repertory is molded primarily by recordings must be excused for failing to know that Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini composed songs at all. When so many shadowy musical niches are being illuminated by the curiosity and ambition of today’s artists, the smaller-scaled lyrical offspring of the fathers of Figaro, Lucia, and Norma remain unaccountably overlooked. With its dual aims of restoring to both unheralded recordings by celebrated singers and extraordinary performances by less-remembered voices the recognition that they deserve, DECCA’s Most Wanted Recitals! series is a fitting vehicle for the rediscovery of the Romantic Songs of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. This disc is thus the lovingly-overhauled vintage vehicle for the homecoming of these seductive songs, and a more charming pair of Italian drivers than soprano Lydia Marimpietri and tenor Ugo Benelli could not have been found.

Originally recorded in 1967*, this recital of jewels from the undisturbed trove of bel canto songs benefited from its inception from the high standards of sonic excellence maintained by DECCA, exemplified by the engineering and production work of Stanley Goodall, Erik Smith, and Gordon Parry. Newly remastered for release on compact disc by Victor Suzán Reed, the recording retains a natural balance among voices and piano, and any vestiges of the recording’s age have been largely eliminated without the ‘bloom’ of the vocal reproduction being diminished. Neither singer often escalates beyond mezzo-forte, but the recordings are refreshingly free of distortion. The clarity of the sound enables full appreciation of the subtle but robust inflections of Erik Smith’s—billed as Enrico Fabbro—accompaniments. In each of the fifteen songs, Mr. Smith provides precisely the right atmosphere for the text, and he both supports and slyly guides the singers’ interpretations. The legendary John Culshaw had a hand in the 1960 recording of the arias sung by soprano Graziella Sciutti appended to this disc: these tracks, too, have been affectionately remastered and sound nearly as well on disc as on vinyl.

Duties in performing the bel canto songs are shared equally by both singers. Largely neglected by record labels and grossly under-appreciated by listeners in both the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Ms. Marimpietri was gifted with a light but unfailingly beautiful voice and superb musicality that served her well in a broad repertory. Perhaps most remembered for her resplendent Drusilla in Raymond Leppard’s edition of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at Glyndebourne and the BBC Proms, subsequently recorded—albeit in truncated form—by HWV/Angel, and her fun-loving but resolute Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, also seen at Glyndebourne and the Proms, she also excelled in music ranging from Bach [a recording of a ‘live’ RAI Milano performance of Bach’s BWV 243 ‘Magnificat’ under Hermann Scherchen’s baton is a true collector’s item] to Boito and contributed sterling performances of secondary rôles to several notable recordings: Dircé in Cherubini’s Medea with Maria Callas, Suor Genovieffa in Suor Angelica and Nella in Gianni Schicci with Victoria de los Ángeles, and Walter in Catalani’s La Wally with Renata Tebaldi, for instance. Ms. Marimpietri opens this disc with a ravishing account of Bellini’s ‘Il fervido desiderio,’ her articulate but never affected diction heightening the dramatic impetus of Bellini’s languid melodic lines. Her singing of Donizetti’s ‘Me voglio fa’na casa,’ ‘Meine Liebe,’ and ‘A Mezzanotte’ is consistently refined but never at the expense of simple, open-hearted emoting. Two of the finest songs included in this recital, Bellini’s ‘L’abbandono’ and ‘Almen se non poss’io,’ receive from Ms. Marimpietri performances of grace and subtle wistfulness. Rossini’s ‘La partenza’ (Soirées musicales No. 3), one of its composer’s most hypnotic creations, enjoys in Ms. Marimpietri’s handling serenity and attention to detail that would prove equally ideal in the Lieder of Mozart, Schubert, or Schumann. 

With a discography containing acclaimed studio performances of Rossini’s Conte d’Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia (opposite Teresa Berganza’s Rosina), Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola (wooing the Angelina of Giulietta Simionato), and Lindoro in L’italiana in Algeri (partnering the Isabella of Lucia Valentini-Terrani), Mr. Benelli’s career as a first-rate tenore di grazia is reasonably well-documented on disc. Though his career at the Metropolitan Opera consisted of only a quartet of successful performances as Don Basilio in Le nozze di Figaro in 1986, Mr. Benelli was heard in many of the world’s most important opera houses, and the longevity of his career is evidence of an ironclad technique. His singing of Rossini’s ‘La gita in gondola’ (Soirées musicales No. 7) and ‘L’orgia’ (Soirées musicales No. 4) exemplifies his authority in the music of the Poet of Pesaro. Tracing the sensibilities of the texts, Mr. Benelli often employs head resonance as the vocal lines ascend, but when he produces top notes in full chest voice they have the ease and resonance familiar from his opera recordings. Bellini’s ‘Bella nice che d’amore’ and ‘Per pietà, bell’idol mio,’ the latter so memorably sung by Renata Tebaldi, are performed to perfection by Mr. Benelli, his artistry filling the vocal lines and enabling him to avoid stretching his slender, silvery voice unduly. Donizetti’s ‘Amore e morte’ and ‘Eterno amor e fè’ draw from Mr. Benelli displays of consummate supremacy in bel canto, and his singing of Bellini’s Arcadian ‘Malinconia, ninfa gentile’ exudes the quiet melancholy that permeates the song’s text. Ms. Marimpietri joins Mr. Benelli in Rossini’s ‘La serenata’ (Soirées musicales No. 11), and their voices combine exquisitely. It is unfortunate that texts and translations of the songs are not included with this release, but the clarity with which both singers enunciate facilitates communication of the words. Fundamentally, the singers’ instinctive grasp of Rossini’s, Donizetti’s, and Bellini’s idioms enables even the listener with no knowledge of Italian to comprehend the sentiments of each song.

Though gratitude is due to DECCA for a well-filled disc, it is also regrettable that additional material featuring Ms. Marimpietri and Mr. Benelli could not have been found to supplement their recital of Romantic Songs; Ms. Marimpietri’s contributions to the long-unavailable DECCA recording of excerpts from Verdi’s Falstaff mentioned on the original LP jacket reproduced in lieu of liner notes, for example. Still, the arias sung by Graziella Sciutti (1927 – 2001) make an interesting finale to the disc. Ms. Sciutti was the quintessential Italian soubrette of the third quarter of the Twentieth Century. A lovely, lively stage creature, she brought vitality to an array of French, German, and Italian rôles. Her principal métier was Mozart repertory, but she was also celebrated for her performances of lyric coloratura parts, particularly in Vienna. The selections on this disc exhibit all of the hallmarks of Ms. Sciutti’s singing: the brittle, razor-sharp timbre; the pin-point articulation of coloratura; the innate cheerfulness of manner; and the tendency for her intonation to sag at the ends of phrases, especially in descending passages. The performances of Despina’s arias ‘In uomini, in soldati’ and ‘Una donna a quindici anni’ from Così fan tutte and Susanna’s ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ from Le nozze di Figaro are typical Mozartean fare for Ms. Sciutti and are capably, coyly sung. Less representative of her discography in general are the three bel canto arias. Her accounts of Rosina’s ‘Una voce poco fa’ from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and ‘Oh! quante volte’ from Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi are not new to compact disc but are welcome reminders of the singer’s slightly unconventional but convincing way with bel canto lines. Contrary to the statement on DECCA’s disc insert, Ms. Sciutti’s recording of ‘Convien partir’ from Act One of the Italian version of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment has also previously appeared on CD. This, though, is the performance by which Ms. Sciutti should be memorialized. Though characteristically breathy, the tone is beautiful and secure up to a glistening top B♮, the phrasing of Donizetti’s cantabile melody is unforced, and her command of the delicate acciaccature is natural. A couple of pitches are flat, but these are five minutes of the most appealing singing that Ms. Sciutti ever recorded in studio. Ably supported in all six arias by the Wiener Philharmoniker and conductor Argeo Quadri, she offers many glimpses of the musical and dramatic vibrancy that won the hearts of so many audiences.

Throughout the label’s history, DECCA releases have been appreciated for their complementary artistic and technical quality. The new Most Wanted Recitals! series has the noble goal of reintroducing some of the label’s most interesting recordings to circulation. If the quality of Romantic Songs is typical of releases in the series, it is a goal dazzlingly fulfilled. Certainly, this disc remedies a glaring omission in the discography of Nineteenth-Century Art Song. Perhaps the honest, heartfelt singing of Lydia Marimpietri and Ugo Benelli might even inspire some of today’s adventurous young artists to explore these sweet blossoms of pure bel canto.

*Note: Mr. Benelli has confirmed that his selections on Romantic Songs were recorded in London, not in Rome as stated in the insert accompanying the DECCA CD, whilst he was in the UK for the 1967 Glyndebourne Festival production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, in which he sang fifteen performances of Nemorino between 26 May and 6 July.

28 June 2014

ARTIST PROFILE: the incendiary bel canto of scorching soprano BRENDA HARRIS

BELLE OF BEL CANTO: American soprano BRENDA HARRIS [Photo by Lisa Kohler, © Brenda Harris] BELLE OF BEL CANTO: American soprano Brenda Harris [Photo by Lisa Kohler, © Brenda Harris]

In 1842, at the age of twenty-six, Italian soprano Giuseppina Strepponi achieved immortality by triumphantly performing the voice-wrecking rôle of Abigaille in the première of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. She was already an acclaimed singer, having made her début at La Scala—and first encountered Verdi—in the 1839 première of her future husband’s Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, and by the time of her success as Abigaille she had already sung the heroines of Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, Norma, I puritani, and La sonnambula, as well as Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Less than a decade after the first performance of Nabucco, Strepponi’s voice was in crisis, and thus was born the stigma that still serves as a dire warning to any soprano whose curiosity leads her to Abigaille’s music. Interestingly, contemporary accounts suggest that Strepponi’s natural vocal talent was supplemented by a formidable technique that enabled her to meet the demands of dramatic bel canto with every appearance of ease, but the spectacular difficulty of Abigaille’s music makes the connection of the relative brevity of Strepponi’s career with her appearances in Nabucco an easy assumption for later generations of observers. What Twenty-First Century appreciations of an artist like Strepponi often fail to consider is that singers in the first half of the Nineteenth Century rarely had the opportunities—or the expectations—for versatility that shape the careers of modern singers. Strepponi might well have sung Mozart’s Elvira, Anna, and even Fiordiligi, but she would not have been called upon to sing Händel’s dramatic coloratura rôles, Mozart’s Elettra and Vitellia, or the later lyric parts that might now figure prominently in her career. Whether or not healthy doses of different repertoire might have calmed the musical tempest that uprooted Strepponi’s vocal security, singing an array of rôles spanning more than two centuries of operatic innovation has certainly contributed to the uncommonly individual artistic development and exhilarating vocal consistency of American soprano Brenda Harris. When she visits Charlotte in October 2014 to sing Abigaille in Opera Carolina’s production of Nabucco, Ms. Harris will climb the vocal Everest that has cost many sopranos their operatic lives. The musical Himalayas are her natural habitat, however, and where other sopranos—even the legendary Strepponi—have stumbled, she soars.

The versatility that might be the undoing of many singers is one of the hallmarks of Ms. Harris’s brilliant career to date, and she is keenly aware of the technical challenges of maintaining a repertoire that has extended from Mozart’s Elettra to Richard Strauss’s Elektra. ‘I started out as a Mozart singer,’ she shares, ‘and I believe I could still sing a couple of his rôles—Elettra, Vitella—quite well. That said, I think there are many voices for which Mozart just might not be the best idea.’ Few sopranos in recent memory have sung both Mozart’s and Strauss’s incarnations of the fiery Electra, but there is the unforgettable example of Birgit Nilsson, who maintained that singing Mozart preserved the flexibility and freedom in the upper register that served her well in her more typical Hochdramatische repertoire. It is a notion that intrigues Ms. Harris. ‘Ten years ago, I probably would have gone the Nilsson route,’ she says, ‘but now I believe that singing Mozart is a wonderful thing for Mozart singers. Mozart requires not only a very specific technique but a certain temperament, and if one or both of those things aren’t part of a singer’s make-up, Mozart can be very challenging. However, if it’s right for you, and for as long as it’s right for you, I say stay with it. I sang mostly Mozart rôles for years, and I think it kept my voice fresh, in line, and healthy.’

Soprano Brenda Harris as Giulietta in Offenbach's LES CONTES D'HOFFMANN at Minnesota Opera in 1996 [Photo by Gary Mortensen, © Minnesota Opera] BELLE NUIT, Ô NUIT D’AMOUR: Brenda Harris as Giulietta in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann at Minnesota Opera, 1996 [Photo by Gary Mortensen, © Minnesota Opera]

Vocal health is only one of the qualities that make Ms. Harris’s performances unforgettable experiences. Interestingly, the path that led her to a career in opera was not paved with youthful exposure to Classical Music. ‘I never heard opera as a kid,’ she recalls. ‘I grew up listening to Country and Pop—Barbra Streisand, Patsy Cline, Kate Smith. I didn’t hear my first opera until I was in college.’ Still, as might be expected of a singer so closely associated with dramatic bel canto repertory, she identifies Maria Callas as a powerful inspiration. ‘I have to cite Callas, who I didn’t understand when I started singing seriously. My ears were only conditioned to hear beauty,’ she says, ‘and I didn’t yet understand artistry. I didn’t appreciate her. Once I started to revere expression along with vocal technique, she become my idol—and remains so!’ Ms. Harris is also mindful of Callas’s brief but legendary history with Abigaille, a rôle that she sang only three times but in which her influence is still strongly felt. ‘I listened to many recordings when learning [Abigaille],’ Ms. Harris intimates, ‘but I pretty much stuck with the 1949 Callas recording [taken from a live performance in the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples]. I always come back to that one. She’s just always so true to the score.’ Callas is the gold standard, but every Abigaille deserves respect, Ms. Harris suggests. ‘The rôle is just too darned challenging to criticize anyone!’

Soprano Brenda Harris as Abigaille in Verdi's NABUCCO at Minnesota Opera in 2012 [Photo by Michael Daniel, © Minnesota Opera]SALGO GIÀ DEL TRONO AURATO: Brenda Harris as Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco at Minnesota Opera, 2012 [Photo by Michael Daniel, © Minnesota Opera]

Consideration of the lasting influence of Callas, not just in Nabucco, on all subsequent generations of opera singers in general, leads Ms. Harris to contemplation of her own development as an artist. ‘As I said earlier, my young singer self didn’t appreciate Callas. What!? I’m almost ashamed to admit it,’ she laughs. The legacy of Callas is impossible to overlook in an appraisal of Ms. Harris’s repertoire. Her triumphs in rôles like Bellini’s Norma, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth and Violetta, and Puccini’s Tosca echo the brilliance of Callas’s core repertoire, but Ms. Harris also offers glimpses of how la Divina might have excelled in apt parts that she never sang: Elisabetta I in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux and the heroines in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, for instance. Asked to assess her own artistry, Ms. Harris cites as the hallmarks for which she strives in her performances sincerity and ardor. In her view, both the greatest challenge and the greatest reward of singing opera is ‘facing yourself,’ an insight with which Callas would surely have concurred.

As is virtually inevitable for any singer active on the international circuit in the past decade, Ms. Harris has encountered her share of productions that stretch the boundaries of traditional modes of operatic interpretation. Ms. Harris views efforts to make standard-repertory works more accessible to Twenty-First-Century audiences with a combination of appreciation and skepticism. ‘I have no problem with “concept” productions as long as they are well thought-out and consistent,’ she says. ‘Inconsistency is the problem I find with most modern/updated productions. That said, I’ve done many concept productions that have been provocative and brilliant! A new take on an old chestnut can be one of the most wonderful evenings in the theatre.’ She is quick to add that directorial efforts at increasing the ‘relevance’ of opera are not a crucial weapon in opera’s battle for endurance. ‘I don’t think it’s necessary for the survival of opera,’ she suggests. ‘No, not at all. What is? Better singing and music-making! When I first started studying and going to opera,’ she remembers, ‘I heard the greatest singers live—Sutherland, [Leontyne] Price, Caballé, Pavarotti, Kraus, and many, many more. We’re not hearing those kinds of voices now. I think that’s what’s hampering opera. You can surround mediocre singing with the most lavish of productions, ‘concept’ or not, and it won’t matter, but put great singing and acting in front of an audience, and they’ll buy a standard Traviata in droves. That’s what I believe, anyway.’

Soprano Brenda Harris in the title rôle of Bellini's NORMA at Opéra de Québec in 2000 [Photo by Louise Leblanc, © Opéra de Québec] CASTA DIVA: Brenda Harris in the title rôle of Bellini’s Norma at Opéra de Québec, 2000 [Photo by Louise Leblanc, © Opéra de Québec]

This notion raises the issue of how one defines great singing. The training of voices and the standards by which young voices are judged are essential components of the development of important singers. One of the quintessential debates among connoisseurs of voices concerns whether ‘safe’ singers with meticulously-refined techniques or those inclined to sacrifice reliability to vocal adventurousness are more to be encouraged. ‘That’s a tough question,’ Ms. Harris says. ‘These things are never cut and dried. I have fear for the flawed [but] exciting choice. When these voices are rewarded before they’re ready, they usually flame out, and I’ve seen way too much of that in my career. It saddens me immensely when voices and people don’t reach their potential.’ Above all, Ms. Harris opines, young singers must be nurtured not just as vocalists but also as protectors of the art of opera. ‘Singing for me is a life, not a vocation, and I preach that in all my master classes. We must not forget that we love this art form; that we love music and that we got into this world because of that and that alone. Believe me,’ she continues, ‘it’s easy to forget when one is in the “business” of singing for a little while. So many “business” things seem so important, but the only thing that’s really important is why we do this. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that singing has given me my life. I am so very often being lifted up—carried, even—to places that are so otherworldly, it would be criminal not to be passionate and give everything I can to this beautiful thing we do.’ Thinking back on her own time as an ‘apprentice’ singer, Ms. Harris concedes that experience has taught her much that cannot be conveyed in the secure environment of conservatory classrooms. ‘I very much doubt that my young singer self would recognize me [now],’ she divulges, ‘but I think—I hope—she’d really like me!’

Possessing a voice as remarkable for its spectrum of timbral colorations as for the visceral heat that it can radiate throughout her extensive range, Ms. Harris is the rare singer whose performances disclose an innate faculty for finding the emotional significance of even the most fiendishly difficult music, a skill enhanced by her natural gifts as an actress. ‘I’m not a “personalization” person like a method actor,’ she states. ‘I’m an “imagination” person, sort of like the Uta Hagen School. I very much enjoy being a character, but I almost never relate the theatrical [aspects of a rôle] to me or my own life. I find [that] it interferes with my thinking and takes me right out of the story.’ For Ms. Harris, opera under the best conditions becomes a sort of parallel universe. ‘When surrounded by all the trappings and perhaps a good director and/or conductor, music and imagination take over, and though I don’t think of it as an “escape” it’s most certainly a different place than normal life, and I enjoy it immensely!’

Enjoyment is the essence of Brenda Harris’s artistry—enjoyment for herself and for her audiences. ‘I definitely try to imagine what characteristics I can relate to, but I never see the character as me,’ she says. ‘While I can always find ways to relate to the feelings, experiences, and situations of a character, I never feel that the line is blurred.’ Anticipating her Charlotte performances as Abigaille, she glows with the sheer exuberance that makes her singing so special. The character is a magnificent challenge, but it is the music that makes the arduous exertion worthwhile. ‘Let’s not forget,’ she observes, ‘we have Verdi! Sometimes just singing what he wrote gives one a soul and a character! Ah, but singing what he wrote! That’s a tall order!’ A tall order, indeed; but one that this exceptional singer is sure to serve with the succulent spiciness of an arrabbiata and the decadent richness of a tiramisù.

Soprano Brenda Harris as Lady Macbeth in Verdi's MACBETH at Edmonton Opera, 2007 [Photo uncredited; used with Ms. Harris's permission] UNA MACCHIA È QUI TUTTORA: Brenda Harris as Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth at Edmonton Opera, 2007 [Photo uncredited; used with Ms. Harris’s permission]

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Sincerest thanks are extended to Ms. Harris for her kindness, openness, and sincerity, as well as for taking time from her schedule to respond to questions for this article. All photographs are used with Ms. Harris’s permission.

To learn more about Brenda Harris, visit her Official Website. She is represented by Mirshak Artists Management in New York.

For more information or to book tickets for Opera Carolina’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco featuring Gordon Hawkins in the title rôle, Brenda Harris as Abigaille, and Andrew Gangestad as Zaccaria, please visit OC’s Website or phone 704.332.7177. Performances are scheduled for Saturday, 18 October (20hr EDT), Thursday, 23 October (19hr30 EDT), and Sunday, 26 October (14hr EDT).

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini – MAOMETTO SECONDO (D. Jeffery, P. Nilon, S. Davies, C. Hulcup, C. Diffey, R. Dowling; Avie AV2312)

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini - MAOMETTO SECONDO (Avie AV2312)

GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Maometto secondoDarren Jeffery (Maometto), Paul Nilon (Erisso), Siân Davies (Anna), Caitlin Hulcup (Calbo), Christopher Diffey (Condulmiero), Richard Dowling (Selimo); Garsington Opera Chorus and Orchestra; David Parry, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performance at Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Buckinghamshire, UK, during June and July 2013; Avie AV2312; 3CD, 168:17; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

It has been frequently repeated during the past two centuries that the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa stated that when she wanted to hear opera performed at a suitably regal level she traded the heady atmosphere of Vienna for Haydn’s Eszterháza. If words to this effect were ever spoken at all, it almost certainly was not by Maria Theresa, but apocryphal attributions often travel more lightly on their feet than accurate ones. Were an opera-going sovereign to utter similar sentiments about her musical opportunities today, she might well say that, in order to hear good music performed with unflagging excellence, she packs her bags for Wormsley in Buckinghamshire, the home of Garsington Opera. Founded in Oxfordshire in 1989 by Leonard Ingrams, Garsington Opera supplements the cultural life of the home counties with summer seasons of an imaginative array of operas performed in their original languages. Their 2013 traversal of Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo was the first Garsington production preserved for posterity on compact disc, and the resulting recording confirms that the musical monarch in search of memorable opera could find no better destination than the bucolic landscape of Wormsley Park.

Premièred at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in December 1820, Maometto secondo greeted the world with perhaps the finest cast that could have been convened for the occasion: Filippo Galli, creator of several of Rossini’s most demanding bass rôles and Enrico VIII in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, in the title rôle; Andrea Nozzari, Rossini’s first Leicester in Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra, Otello, Rinaldo in Armida, and Rodrigo in La donna del lago, as Erisso; the composer’s muse Isabella Colbran as Anna; and the acclaimed contralto Adelaide Comelli as Calbo. Astoundingly, the fickle Neapolitans were little impressed by the opera, so the ever-practical—which is to say unapologetically opportunistic—Rossini starting making revisions to the score almost immediately, incorporating a great deal of ‘new’ music into a version of the score that even included the celebrated rondo finale from La donna del lago, ‘Tanti affetti in tal momento.’ The 1822 Venice première of this revision brought Rossini greater success, followed in Paris in 1826 by the well-received first production of a considerably reworked French version, Le siège de Corinthe. Though the preference for Rossini’s first thoughts on the opera has often been put forth by musicologists for decades, the 1820 Neapolitan version of the score was not resurrected until 2012, when it was performed by Santa Fe Opera. The 2013 Garsington production recorded by Avie was the British première of the recently-completed critical edition of the 1820 ‘original’ score. In any of its incarnations, Maometto secondo contains some of Rossini’s most innovative and difficult music, and the opera’s singularity is apparent in this recording of Garsington’s production. Produced by Michael Haas and engineered by Jonathan Stokes, Neil Hutchinson, and Christopher Roberts, Avie’s recording presents the opera in generally well-balanced, spacious sound of a consistently high quality that belies Garsington’s open-air setting. Voices remain audible throughout the performance without ever sounding artificially enhanced, and details of Rossini’s imaginative orchestration are never obscured. Audience noises are virtually nonexistent and certainly never obtrusive, and the stage noises captured by the microphones give the physical drama of the opera an aural profile, enhancing the listener’s perception of the recording as a genuine theatrical experience.

Under the practiced baton of David Parry, the performance blossoms with true bel canto elegance. Throughout the performance, the Garsington Opera Orchestra and Chorus achieve standards of musical excellence that the Rossini aficionado would be pleased to encounter in London, Milan, or New York. It is apparent that the Garsington Orchestra players fully comprehend that, perhaps more so in Maometto secondo than in any of Rossini’s other Neapolitan operas, they participate in the performance rather than merely accompanying it. In this performance, their participation is never less than captivating. The instrumentalists acquit themselves winsomely, with especially wonderful showings by the brasses and woodwinds. The choristers hurl themselves into the drama, as well, and they manage to uphold the best of British choral traditions whilst also bringing convincingly Italianate slancio to their contributions to Maometto secondo. The choral singing is uniformly distinguished, but the Garsington ladies are very impressive in the lovely ‘Nume, cui ’l sole è trono’ in Act Two. His credentials as a master of bel canto having been established in a plethora of memorable performances and recordings, Maestro Parry has nothing to prove in this Maometto secondo, but his leadership is rewardingly elastic. Tempi are mostly ideal, and he is attentive to the challenges that the singers face. There are a few moments in which Maestro Parry presses ahead when it seems that the soloists would prefer to slow things down, but the conductor’s instincts for the tautness of Rossini’s dramatic pacing are in evidence in every scene. There is a lingering misconception that in bel canto the orchestra, chorus, and conductor are of secondary importance, and some performances make a strong case for this misapprehension. The Garsington Orchestra and Chorus and Maestro Parry give a rousing argument for the defense in this recording of Maometto secondo.

An exhibition of the touchstones of musicality to which Garsington Opera has climbed in its quarter-century history is created by the company’s fielding of a pair of gifted tenors in secondary rôles. As the Muslim nobleman Selimo, ​Richard Dowling sings richly, creating a strong character in recitative and filling his lines in ensembles with distinction. Christopher Diffey is an equally vivid presence as the Venetian general Condulmiero​, especially in the opening scenes of Act One. Both gentlemen possess voices of top quality and make the most of every opportunity Rossini grants them.

​In her performance as the Venetian general Calbo, Australian mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup fires volley after volley of blazing coloratura, seeming a fusion of Conchita Supervia and Marilyn Horne in their primes. Ms. Hulcup’s voice combines a robustness of timbre that enables her to credibly portray male characters with a bravura technique that firmly places her in the ranks of today’s best Rossini singers. Ms. Hulcup sings her lines in the terzettone ‘Ohimè! Qual fulmine’ in Act One—Rossini’s emblematic ‘big fat trio’—with stunning immediacy, her characterization of Calbo demanding the listener’s sympathy. In Act Two, her performance of the fervent aria ‘Non temer’ is shaped by dramatic intensity tempered by absolute mastery of bel canto technique. The peak of Ms. Hulcup’s performance is reached in the terzettino with Anna and Erisso in Act Two, ‘In questi estremi istanti,’ in which she unleashes the full power and poetry of her artistry. There are passages at the bottom and top of Calbo’s music that challenge Ms. Hulcup, but she copes with every requirement of her rôle with the confidence of a marathon runner who has the finish line in sight. Poor Calbo can get lost among the high-flying, frenzied exchanges between Anna and Erisso: Ms. Hulcup ensures that her character remains at the center of the drama from first note to last.

Interestingly, the resolute Venetian governor of Negroponte Erisso is characterized almost solely in ensembles, which is perhaps symbolic of the extent to which his destiny is so closely allied with those of his daughter, Calbo, and Maometto. West Yorkshire native Paul Nilon is a Rossini tenor to the manner born, and his security in Erisso’s very daunting music yields many breathtaking feats of virtuosity. Not surprisingly in a part created by Nozzari, Erisso’s vocal lines cover a great deal of ground in terms of tessitura, descending to baritonal lows and soaring with some frequency to the vicinity of top C. Mr. Nilon does not negotiate his rôle without strain, but he careens through the music with abandon that never ventures beyond the boundaries of bel canto tastefulness. In the grand trio with Anna and Calbo in Act One, Mr. Nilon pours out Erisso’s coloratura as though it were the most natural means of communication known to him, and his rhythmic crispness and poise at the top of the voice convey the character’s dignity. Mr. Nilon’s singing in ‘In questi estremi istanti’ in Act Two is a model of vocal strength and dramatic vitality. The range of emotions that Mr. Nilon conveys is extraordinary, but the principal joys of his performance are the finesse and unflappable technical acumen of his singing.

Singing the rôle of Erisso’s daughter and the disguised Maometto’s lover Anna, American soprano Siân Davies ​is a marvelous discovery. Garsington’s production of Maometto secondo provided her with the vehicle for her European début, and this recording introduces her to the fabulous, often fickle world of recorded opera. It is a propitious introduction. In Anna’s cavatina in Act One, ‘Ah! che invan su questo ciglio,’ Ms. Davies revels in Rossini’s ravishing cantilena lines, and the evenness of the voice across the full range of the music enables her to make ascents into the upper register dramatically as well as musically satisfying. Her lines in ‘Ohimè​! Qual fulmine’ set the bar very high for her colleagues, and here, too, the diamond-bright sheen of her top notes is glorious. The quiet grace of her singing of Anna’s preghiera, ‘Giusto cielo,’ contrasts awesomely with her spit-fire coloratura in the terzettone, and the technical command that she displays in the duet with Maometto in Act Two, ‘Anna, tu piangi,’ and ‘Alfin compita è la metà​ dell’opra’ is admirable. Like Ms. Hulcup, Ms. Davies saves the best for last: the radiance of her voicing of the andantino in the opera’s finale, ‘Madre, a te che sull’Empiro,’ is heartening and quite moving. Ms. Davies possesses a voice with a soft-grained, lusciously feminine timbre, and her technique proves equal to Rossini’s music. In this performance, she interacts with her colleagues with the naturalness of a gifted actress. Ms. Davies makes her mark with aplomb: in a world in which first impressions are invaluable, this young artist creates memories that herald the start of a great international career.

​A Maometto secondo with a weak Maometto is like a Tosca with a lounge singer rather than a bona fide diva in the title rôle. Taking as his inspiration what was then known of the historical Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, Rossini created a dynamic character tortured by the conflict between duty and desire. English bass-baritone Darren Jeffery takes this performance by the collar at his first entrance and never loosens his grip. In his opening scene, Mr. Jeffery reveals all of the strengths of his artistry: excellent diction, a rousingly masculine timbre, dramatic potency, and technical acumen. In Maometto’s Act One cavatina, ‘Duce di tanti eroi,’ he immediately unveils a charismatic portrait of the troubled sultan, and his singing exudes sincerity even in the most ferocious coloratura. Mr. Jeffery’s voicing of Maometto’s pained interview with Anna in Act Two is stirring, and his singing of the aria ‘All’invito generoso’ simmers with all of the suppressed emotions provoked by Maometto’s situation. Dramatically, Mr. Jeffery depicts an imposing but unmistakably human Maometto, and the uncompromising nobility of his performance disables the uncomfortable stereotypes that can afflict portrayals of Islamic characters in Western art. Mr. Jeffery finds the kernels of Maometto’s complexity in Rossini’s music and allows them to take root in his performance. As recorded, there is a measure of unsteadiness in Mr. Jeffery’s singing, but his is the sort of burly, burnished voice that needs space in which to resonate. He gives an electrifying performance, and his Maometto emerges as both the villain and the victim of a clash between two vastly different but maddeningly like cultures.

With so many fine Rossini singers active today, there is no use in putting on a Rossini opera if it cannot be put on with panache. Panache is what fizzes in every moment of this recording of Garsington Opera’s 2013 production of Maometto secondo. A better cast for this watershed score could hardly have been assembled, and Avie give the production the outstanding presentation that it deserves. Each operatic performance is an unique artistic creation, and this can complicate the process of compiling a recording from several performances. The unfluctuating merit of this recording further validates the viability of recording opera in performance, however. The success of this inaugural venture is manifested in the fact that it induces both total enjoyment of this performance of Maometto secondo and great anticipation for the next Garsington Opera production to appear on disc.

CD REVIEW: Mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup as Calbo (left) and tenor Paul Nilon as Erisso (right) in Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO at Garsington Opera, June/July 2013 [Photo by Mike Hoban, © Garsington Opera] BEL CANTO AT THE BRINK: Mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup (left) as Calbo and tenor Paul Nilon (right) as Erisso in Rossini’s Maometto secondo at Garsington Opera, June/July 2013 [Photo by Mike Hoban, © Garsington Opera]

26 June 2014

CD REVIEW: Christoph Willibald Gluck – OPERA ARIAS (Daniel Behle, tenor; DECCA 478 6758)

CD REVIEW: Christoph Willibald Gluck - OPERA ARIAS (DECCA 478 6758)

CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK (1714 – 1787): Opera Arias for Tenor – Arias from Antigono, Le cinesi, La contesa de’ numi, Ezio, Ipermestra, Iphigénie en Aulide, Orphée et Eurydice, La Recontre imprévue, and La Semiramide riconosciutaDaniel Behle, tenor; Armonia Atenea; George Petrou, conductor [Recorded in Dimitris Mitropoulos Hall, Megaron, The Athens Concert Hall, Athens, Greece, 4 – 9 July 2013; DECCA 478 6758; 1CD, 63:50*; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers; *Note: The digital download version of this release includes an additional aria, ‘Plus j’observe ces lieux’ from Armide.]

​The flow of new recordings released in celebration of the Verdi and Wagner Bicentennials ultimately proved to be more of a trickle than the anticipated deluge, and by any credible standards the discs that floated into the market left much to be desired and little to be remembered. With many of the world’s finest singers and musicians now being those with proven historically-informed performance practice credentials, expectations for a glut of musically-impeccable new recordings honoring the 300th anniversaries of the births of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Christoph Willibald Gluck, and Niccolò Jommelli soared with the dawning of 2014. The musicologist with an adventurous nature and a reliable security detail might venture that this trio of Eighteenth-Century masters were, in terms of contributions to the progress of the musical genres with which they tussled, even more significant than their Nineteenth-Century successors. Without Jommelli, there might have been no Verdi; without Gluck, no Wagner: without C.P.E. Bach, much of the magnificent landscape of later music would be barren. Even now, in the year of his tercentennial, the legacy of Gluck beyond Orfeo ed Euridice—the body of work that influenced and inspired operatic endeavors from Fidelio and Euryanthe to Les Troyens, Rusalka, and The Rape of Lucretia—remains in the shadows. While every dismembered score by Händel and Vivaldi is patched up and restored to some semblance of life regardless of its merits, Gluck’s operas slumber in libraries and archives, grateful merely to see their titles quoted in tomes on Eighteenth-Century music. Perhaps there is a lingering perception that his early bravura scores are works of which the composer of Orfeo ed Euridice, Iphigénie en Tauride, and Armide ought to be ashamed, works of the sort that his own reforms sought to render obsolete, but of what value is appreciating progress without evaluating the point from which the journey began? An unprejudiced evaluation of Gluck’s operas reveals an exceptionally varied portfolio of scores that span virtually the entire course of opera in the composer’s lifetime, from the late Baroque of Händel and Hasse to the Viennese Classicism of Haydn, Mozart, and Salieri and the Turn-of-the-Century innovations of Beethoven, Cherubini, Grétry, and Méhul. Gluck was not merely an observer of operatic history: he was, for more than a half-century, its guiding light, and an earnest comprehension of Gluck’s importance as a musical trailblazer is immeasurably enhanced by acquaintance with the products of his creativity at all junctures in his career. This disc of discerningly-selected arias for tenor is one of the most valuable tools for building that acquaintance to have emerged since the invention of sound recording. Moreover, benefitting from the top-quality engineering and presentation for which DECCA recordings have been renowned for decades, it is a disc that preserves some truly wonderful singing.

A recital of opera arias that enjoys the support of Armonia Atenea and George Petrou has considerable augurs of success before the singer steps into the recording studio. Tested in repertory ranging from Händel to Beethoven, the instrumentalists of Armonia Atenea have demonstrated expertise in the shifting idioms of Eighteenth-Century music, and their playing of Gluck repertory on this disc reveals a further facet in their virtuosic diadem. These arias demand both determination and delicacy, and the Armonia Atenea players deliver powerfully. In the fiery music from Gluck’s earlier operas, the musicians stretch their muscles with playing of uncompromising precision and rhythmic vitality. In a number like the over-familiar ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’ from Orphée et Eurydice, the inclusion of which is justified by the radiant performance that it receives, the musical magicians of Armonia Atenea lament with Orphée in an arresting union of sound with sentiment. Only an occasionally over-active harpsichord continuo disturbs the keenly-judged collaboration among orchestra, conductor, and singer. Maestro Petrou’s pacing of each aria exudes confidence, familiarity, and innate understanding of both Gluck’s requirements and the soloist’s needs in terms of breath control and dramatic deportment. It is largely to Maestro Petrou’s credit that nothing sounds derivative: whether in the vein of Hasse or in the full throes of reform, each aria glistens with the individual voice of Gluck. The authentic spirit of the composer also inhabits the work of musicologist Giovanni Andrea Sechi, whose specially-prepared editions and historically-appropriate ornaments introduce these arias to Twenty-First-Century listeners in settings that restore the full splendor of Gluck’s creativity.

In his recent recordings of Humperdinck’s Königskinder [Oehms Classics—reviewed here] and Brahms’s Die schöne Magelone [Capriccio] and his sonorous performances as Matteo in Osterfestspiele Salzburg’s production of Richard Strauss’s Arabella opposite Renée Fleming, it has been apparent that young tenor Daniel Behle is an artist destined to be one of the most important singers of his generation. In his singing of the arias on this disc, he grasps that destiny with both hands and, in one of the most beautiful recordings of tenor singing released in recent memory, realizes the promise of his earlier recordings. The voice is the genuine article, a full-bodied lyric tenor with a solid core: the power and patina are those of steel and gold, not chrome-plated pyrite. The liquid ease of Mr. Behle’s tonal production and his well-schooled bravura technique make him a first-rate exponent of Eighteenth-Century music for the tenor voice, ranging from the bracing coloratura of Bajazet in Händel’s Tamerlano to the effusive lyricism of Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The reserves of strength in Mr. Behle’s singing make guardedly tantalizing suggestions of Jugendlicher Heldentenor potential, and his youthful mastery of Lieder repertory gives notice of meticulously-honed interpretive instincts. The best qualities of Mr. Behle’s artistry find outlets in Gluck’s music, and each of the arias receives from him a performance that allies consummate musicality with sensitive emotional accents drawn from the text.

Opening the disc with a vigorous account of the title character’s aria ‘Quercia annosa sull’erte pendici’ from Antigono, an aria that would not seem out of place in Mozart’s Mitridate, rè di Ponto, Mr. Behle immediately discloses his stylistic affinity with Gluck’s music. The coloratura of Mirteo’s aria ‘Io veggo in lontananza’ from Act Two of La Semiramide riconosciuta is dispatched impressively, and the ringing top notes and credibly-managed trills make the cadenzas delightful displays of exhilarating but historically-appropriate singing. Mr. Behle explores unexpected chromatic avenues in the aria’s closing cadenza to great effect, his sure intonation enabling musically satisfying resolutions of diminished harmonies. In the same character’s aria from Act One, ‘Bel piacer saria d’un core,’ Mr. Behle’s handling of coloratura is even more expressive, and his negotiations of the grueling vocal intervals are thrilling. Danao’s powerful aria ‘Non hai cor per un’impresa’ from Act Two of Ipermestra—a score more deserving of revival than almost any of the Baroque obscurities performed and recorded in the past decade—receives from Mr. Behle a pulse-quickening performance, the biting irony of his delivery of the lines ‘hai costanza, ingrata figlia, per vedermi palpitar’ (‘you stand unmoved, ungrateful daughter, and observe my trembling’) shaping a noble but piercing portrayal of the aria’s dramatic ardor.

Massimo’s aria from Act One of the 1750 Prague version of Ezio, ‘Se povero il ruscello,’ is sung as beautifully by Mr. Behle as it is accompanied by Armonia Atenea. The phrasing of the oboe obbligato is perfectly matched to Mr. Behle’s singing, which blooms marvelously as the vocal line ascends. Even considering that the aria was repurposed as the dulcet ‘Che puro ciel’ in Orfeo ed Euridice in Vienna in 1762, Gluck’s excision of the aria in his 1763 Viennese revision of Ezio is lamentable. Mr. Behle’s sustained tones and refined diction in ‘Se povero il ruscello’ provide great pleasure. Paced at an apt tempo, Mr. Behle presents ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’ from the 1774 Paris version of Orphée et Eurydice as an agitated expression of grief rather than a lugubrious dirge, the pair of top B♭s voiced with freedom and grace. A resonantly-sustained top B crowns Mr. Behle’s singing of Achille’s superb entrance aria from Iphigénie en Aulide, ‘Cruelle, non, jamais votre insensible cœur,’ which inspires the tenor to one of his most impassioned performances on the disc. The high, haute-contre tessitura of ‘Je chérirai, jusqu’au trépas,’ Ali’s aria from Act One of the underappreciated La Rencontre imprévue, makes no demands of Mr. Behle that are not met gloriously. Breathing the same air as ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice,’ the aria’s expansive melodies are phrased by the singer with serene composure complemented by the cor anglais and violin obbligati and the theorbo continuo. Mr. Behle possesses an especially beautiful top A: the vocal line of ‘Je chérirai, jusqu’au trépas’ might have been composed for him, and his ascent to top C is elegant and secure.

Giove’s recitative ‘Qual ira intempestiva’ and aria ‘Oggi per me non sudi’ from La contesa de’ numi, composed for a festive occasion in Copenhagen in 1749, are suitably pompous, and Mr. Behle approaches the music with vocal grandeur appropriate for the ruler of Olympus. He rips through the words of the opening recitative with the force of Jove’s thunderbolt, and his singing of the aria is opulently energetic. Mr. Behle’s singing of Silango’s aria ‘Son lungi e non mi brami’ from Le cinesi is stirring, the sting of his enunciation of ‘ti sento dir che m’ami, né trovo amore in te’ (‘I hear you say that you love me, but I find no love in you’) lending his performance tremendous emotional impact. It is regrettable that purchasers of the compact disc version of this recital are deprived of Mr. Behle’s gorgeous performance of Renaud’s air ‘Plus j’observe ces lieux’ from Act Two of Armide. This aria is illustrative of Gluck at the pinnacle of his gifts as a composer and dramatist, and his singing of it is demonstrative of the best of Mr. Behle’s achievements as a singer and lyric artist.

When there is near-universal acknowledgement both of Gluck’s unique genius and of the lasting importance of his contributions to the transition of opera from the Baroque models of the Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries to the luxuriant Romanticism of the Nineteenth Century and beyond, the neglect suffered by the bulk of his operatic scores is inexplicable. The tercentennial of Gluck’s birth is an anniversary worthy of commemoration, but the lofty hopes for a bevy of excellent new and reissued recordings of the composer’s music have mostly been unfulfilled. This disc honors Gluck in remarkable ways, however, and it is a recording worthy of inclusion among the ranks of the legendary recital discs of DECCA’s storied past. Most delectably, though, it is a celebration of Daniel Behle, one of the Twenty-First-Century’s finest young tenors. Gluck will receive no finer tribute on the occasion of his 300th birthday than Daniel Behle’s singing on this disc.