02 March 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Richard Strauss – GUNTRAM (R. D. Smith, M. Owens, T. Fox, Z. Nelson, W. Wu; Washington Concert Opera, 1 March 2015)

IN REVIEW: Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM performed by Washington Concert Opera on 1 March 2015RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Guntram, Op. 25 [1940 version]—Robert Dean Smith (Guntram), Marjorie Owens (Freihild), Tom Fox (Der alte Herzog), Zachary Nelson (Herzog Robert), Weí Wu (Friedhold), James Flora (Ein alter Mann, Der Herzogs Narr), Amanda Palmeiro (Eine alte Frau), B. Karl Hempel (Erster junger Mann, Vierte Minnesänger), Jose Sacín (Ein Bote, Zweiter junger Mann), Timothy Kjer (Vasall, Dritter Minnesänger), J. Austin Bitner (Erster Minnesänger), Tad Czyzewski (Zweiter Minnesänger); Chorus and Orchestra of Washington Concert Opera; Antony Walker, conductor [Washington Concert Opera, Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; Sunday, 1 March 2015]

There is a perverse fascination in both popular culture and broader human history with scrutinizing celebrities and important figures and disclosing to their admirers and detractors the circumstances of their lives before they were ‘stars,’ so to speak. Seemingly, there is an inexplicable delight in knowing that a glamorous doyenne of the cinema grew up milking cows and tending vegetable gardens or that a Senator supported himself during college by waiting tables at a greasy diner. This curiosity also extends to music. Opera singers are often asked in interviews about which professions they might have pursued were their voices not suited for the stage. How might Richard Strauss have answered had he been asked which ‘ordinary’ trade he might have plied had he not been a composer? Unlike Berlioz, who wrote in his ostentatious memoirs that his musical destiny was so unmistakably manifested that his mother sensed it even whilst he remained in her womb, Strauss was a pragmatist inclined to barbed self-deprecation. It is unlikely that he actually believed himself to be a first-rate second-rate composer, but he acknowledged his weaknesses by composing with continual focus on his strengths. Before Richard Strauss the Munich-born son of a horn player invented Richard Strauss the composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Vier letzte Lieder, who was he and what did he envision for himself? Composed during 1892 and 1893 and premièred in Weimar in 1894, Strauss’s first opera, Guntram, offers intriguing answers to these queries. Guntram is the product of an earnest young Wagnerian-in-training, but the opera is more than an apprentice work. In it, among the echoes of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, are the first whispers of the original voice that would eventually speak new things into the ears of opera and those who love the genre via scores like Elektra, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Why, then, is Guntram almost never performed? The answer most likely to be offered is that the opera does not merit the attention and affection lavished on its later counterparts in the Strauss canon, and this is not without basis. Equally justifiable and perhaps more truthful is the explanation that the difficulty of the music makes Guntram a hard sell even to those singers with the vocal capital needed to take on the score. Why learn a difficult rôle that in the course of a two-decade-or-longer career one might be called upon to sing only a handful of times? To the delight of devoted Straussians, among whom this writer is counted, Washington Concert Opera again scored a notable victory by assembling under the leadership of Artistic Director Antony Walker a cast of singers not only capable of but also devoted to singing Guntram. This performance of Strauss’s first opera may not have unearthed anecdotes of the composer’s boyhood, but it offered abundant details of his musical origins and where he was destined to go as an artist.

Like L'Orfeo, Don Giovanni, Carmen, and Parsifal, Guntram is an opera that simply cannot function effectively without a strong presence in its title rôle. Similar to the challenges of finding an Orfeo with the technique to master ‘Possente spirto,e formidabil nume,’ a Giovanni who can juggle multiple seductions without seeming an over-sexed jackass, a Carmen who allures without alienating, and a Parsifal who is a fool but never foolish is that of finding a Guntram who can proclaim the character’s platitudes without burying his pathos in pomposity. The language of Strauss’s libretto mimics the stilted verbosity of Wagner’s operas that was already outmoded by the time that Der Ring des Nibelungen was completed, but this is a native tongue for American tenor Robert Dean Smith, whose acclaimed successes in Wagner and Strauss repertories render him an uncommonly qualified Guntram. In the event, however, he had no need to rely upon the validity of his credentials: he performed at a very high level and lent credence to the character’s lofty pronouncements. In Act One, Mr. Smith introduced Guntram with a handsomely-voiced 'Hier, ihr Guten, rastet, erholt euch’ and rose to heights of restrained ecstasy in 'Ein glückliches Loos?' and the first of Guntram’s grandiose arias, 'Schweigen der Liebe.' His singing of Guntram’s heartfelt plea to Freihild, 'Edle Fürstin, nicht stosse mich von dir,' was stirring, and the power that he unleashed in the difficult phrases of 'Nun, Streiter der Liebe, bald naht deine Zeit' gave the air of sincerity to the character’s trite oration. The climax of Act Two is Guntram’s song 'Ich schaue ein glanzvoll prunkendes Fest,' and Mr. Smith sang it masterfully, combining the vocal muscle required to scale the heights of the melodic lines with still-youthful tone. Strauss was at his best when composing Act Three of Guntram, and so was Mr. Smith in this performance. The fear and indignation in his voicing of 'Hinweg, hinweg! Drohe mir nicht' were startling, and the tenor’s sculpting of 'Heilige Offenbarung in himmlischem Klang' was expert. In the opera’s sublime final scene, the ardor of Mr. Smith’s singing of 'Ewig einsam, im Anschau'n des Göttlichen' and 'Wenn du einst die Gauen durchschreitest' was complemented by the emotional directness of his enunciations of 'Gönn' mir die Wonne trostreichen Wissens' and 'Freihild, leb' wohl, leb' wohl auf ewig.’ If a practical reason for Guntram’s neglect were to be cited, it might well be the incredibly punishing tessitura of the title rôle, and though Mr. Smith occasionally struggled with the unrelenting assault on his passaggio his intonation was unimpeachable throughout his range, and he provided a great deal of refined, attractive singing and clarion top notes that would have earned him the envy of many a Walther von Stolzing or Bacchus.

IN PERFORMANCE: Marjorie Owens as Freihild (left) and Robert Dean Smith as Guntram (right) in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Herrliche Liebe entquoll deinem Munde: Soprano Marjorie Owens as Freihild (left) and tenor Robert Dean Smith as Guntram (right) in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram, 1 March 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Fresh from celebrating her husband Quinn Kelsey’s selection as the recipient of the 2015 Beverly Sills Artist Award, soprano Marjorie Owens sang like a lady with much about which to rejoice. A staple of the Strauss repertory during her tenure at Semperoper Dresden, she is one of the few singers in the world with experience in singing Guntram. Singing Freihild in Washington, she revealed at once why her Strauss heroines have been so admired in Dresden, a city with a near-legendary relationship with the composer’s music. In Washington, Ms. Owens strode onto the stage with the radiant confidence of Boudicca triumphantly arriving on her chariot. From her first note in Act One, the voice filled Lisner Auditorium with flawlessly-pitched, utterly secure tone. Ms. Owens phrased 'Endlich, endlich entflohn dem Schwarm frei aller Fesseln!’ with the masterstrokes of a true artist and launched top notes worthy of great Brünnhildes and Isoldes—or Ariadnes and Kaiserins. Freihild’s scene in Act Two, 'Fass' ich sie bang, sehnsucht' gen Traumes traurige Erfüllung,’ was exhilaratingly sung, the vocal splendor of Ms. Owens’s voicing of ‘Freihild frei, frei durch Guntram!' making the dramatic importance of the phrase unmistakable. She also met the demands of Act Three unhesitatingly, contrasting her finessing of 'Guntram! Guntram, was ist dir?' with the sheer magnitude of her singing of 'Sieh, du Lieber, ich bin bei dir' and 'Heiligste Not in der Besten Herz.’ The sunburst of tone that she unleashed in 'Heil dir, Geliebter, dein Herz hat gesiegt' was extraordinary, but the wonder of Ms. Owens’s performance was that every note that she sang was extraordinary. Even considering that Washington Concert Opera preferred the 1940 revision of Guntram, it was surprising to note that a rôle composed for the eventual Frau Strauss was given so little to do, especially in comparison with Guntram. Perhaps the desire to hear Ms. Owens giving flight to Strauss’s opulent vocal lines caused her part to seem even briefer.

With an impressive Wagnerian résumé including performances as Alberich in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung at the Metropolitan Opera, Tom Fox brought to his singing of der Alte Herzog in Guntram ideal weight of tone and a dark, rugged timbre that ably conveyed the Old Duke’s nobility and vulnerability. Mr. Fox has the technical wherewithal and intelligence to rage without shouting, and in this performance he used German vowels as a guide in coloring the voice. In Act One, his vibrant 'Freihild, mein Kind, mein süßes Kind!' spread through the auditorium like lava, and his stern but paternal account of 'Auch dich, meine Tochter, möcht nicht länger ich missen beim rauschenden Feste' was both imposing and poignant. 'Was zögert ihr?' and the affecting 'Gottes Gnade verlieh mir dies Scepter' in Act Two received from Mr. Fox performances of thundering gravitas. Anger and misery define der alte Herzog dramatically, but Mr. Fox made sumptuous vocalism the character’s defining musical quality.

Golden-throated baritone Zachary Nelson sang the duplicitous Herzog Robert with the kind of vehemence clad in vocal velvet that makes an operatic villain such a wondrous beast. Snarling threateningly in Act One, his singing of 'Verdammtes Volk, hab ich euch gefasst?' was thrilling, and his robust voice rocketed through the colossal textures of ensembles. An indefatigable fount of nastiness in Act Two, Mr. Nelson’s Robert was an ideal foil for the self-righteously devout Guntram. Strauss gave the character no redeeming qualities: his death in Act Two could hardly be mourned, but, depriving the audience of the pleasure of hearing a fantastic voice, Mr. Nelson’s absence in Act Three was lamentable.

IN PERFORMANCE: Maestro Antony Walker conducts Washington Concert Opera's performance of Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]The Wizard from Oz: Maestro Antony Walker conducting Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram, 1 March 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]

Part Sarastro and part Gurnemanz, Friedhold ultimately has more to say than he has influence over Guntram’s actions. As sung by bass Weí Wu in this performance, though, the rôle lacked nothing in vocal stature. Mr. Wu sang 'Schwer ist das Leben, gottgefällig unsrer Werk!' in Act One with solemnly inky tone, and the momentous 'Gegrüsst, Guntram, grosser Sünder' and 'In bangem Stauen sieh mich scheiden' in Act Three benefited from his formidably intense vocalism. Friedhold’s unbending sacrosanctity did not inhibit Mr. Wu’s nuanced interpretation of text, but the significance of the voice made any dramatic handicaps on the part of the libretto inconsequential.

In accordance with what in the recent past has been typical of Washington Concert Opera’s performances, the singers assembled for supporting rôles in Guntram constituted an especially strong team. Tenor James Flora brought a resonant, impeccably-trained voice and fearlessness to his singing as ein Alter Mann and der Herzogs Narr, first touchingly ruing the condition of his homeland and then soaring above the staff in the Fool’s interjections. Mezzo-soprano Amanda Palmeiro sang gloriously as eine Alte Frau, delivering 'Meiner jungen Söhne frühes Grab' in Act One with great feeling and a stream of plush tone. B. Karl Hempel was similarly forceful as both the Erster Junger Mann and the Vierte Minnesänger, and Peruvian baritone Jose Sacín sang powerfully as the Zweiter Junger Mann and ein Bote. Timothy Kjer’s firm voicing of the Vasall and Dritter Minnesänger was complemented by sonorous performances by J. Austin Bitner and Tad Czyznewski as the Erster and Zweiter Minnesänger.

From the first silvery notes of the Ouvertüre, Maestro Walker exhibited an acquaintance with Strauss’s score that belied its neglect. At the time of his creation of Guntram, Strauss was not yet the supreme master of balancing vocal lines with gargantuan orchestrations that he would soon become, and Maestro Walker was attentive to the daunting task of maximizing the impact of the large orchestral soundscape without drowning the singers in a cacophonous flood of tone. WCO’s orchestra and chorus impressed with their well-rehearsed, well-executed performances. Though brief by Wagner’s and Strauss’s later standards (and made slightly more so by utilization of the 1940 revision, in which the composer trimmed the score), Guntram is a demanding piece for both the orchestra and the chorus. Concertmistress Eva Cappelletti Chao’s playing of solo passages was sophisticated, and principal cellist Gita Ladd led her section in graceful executions of very difficult music. Likewise, there were virtually none of the problems that often affect brass and woodwind playing in music of this nature. Perhaps because of the necessity of projecting their voices against the huge orchestra, there was very little interaction among the singers, which minimized the performance’s dramatic effectiveness, but this in no way damaged the music-making. Among soloists, choristers, and instrumentalists, Maestro Walker engendered unassailably high musical standards, however. In essence, Guntram is more pageant than play, and Washington Concert Opera’s performance was a parade of phenomenal Strauss singing.

IN PERFORMANCE: Washington Concert Opera's performance of Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM starring (from left to right) Zachary Nelson as Herzog Robert, Robert Dean Smith as Guntram, Maestro Antony Walker, Marjorie Owens as Freihild, Tom Fox as Der alte Herzog, and Jose Sacín as Ein Bote (Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]Nie wird Friede in diesem Lande: (from left to right) Baritone Zachary Nelson as Herzog Robert, tenor Robert Dean Smith as Guntram, Maestro Antony Walker, soprano Marjorie Owens as Freihild, baritone Tom Fox as Der alte Herzog, and baritone Jose Sacín as Ein Bote in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram, 1 March 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]

28 February 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – LA TRAVIATA (J. Echols, M. Chang, J.W. Kang, J. Wright, J. Lazarz, D. Hartmann, J. Malgieri, L. Fabio, K. Melges, J. Ittoop, J. Kato, B. Blakesley; North Carolina Opera, 27 February 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Giuseppe Verdi - LA TRAVIATA (North Carolina Opera, 27 February 2015)GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): La traviataJacqueline Echols (Violetta Valéry), Mario Chang (Alfredo Germont), Joo Won Kang (Giorgio Germont), Jacob Wright (Gastone), Jennifer Lazarz (Flora Bervoix), Donald Hartmann (Barone Douphol), Jesse Malgieri (Marchese d’Obigny), Lora Fabio (Annina), Kurt Melges (Dottore Grenvil), Joseph Ittoop (Giuseppe), Jacob Kato (Commissionario), Brent Blakesley (Domestico); Chorus and Orchestra of North Carolina Opera; Timothy Myers, conductor [Directed by Marc Astafan; Chorus prepared by Alfred E. Sturgis and Scott MacLeod; Lighting by Todd Hensley; North Carolina Opera – Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina; Friday, 27 February 2015]

When the acclaimed soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli took the stage of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice on 6 March 1853, she faced a barrage of hostilities as only Italian opera can fabricate. A decade earlier, the young Giuseppe Verdi had conducted her in her Vienna début as Abigaille in his Nabucco, and only weeks before that fateful evening in March 1853 she had sung Elvira and Gulnara in La Fenice productions of Ernani and Il corsaro in addition to having enjoyed a considerable success as Donna Eleonora in the première of Carlo Ercole Bosoni’s La prigioniera. By the time that rehearsals for Verdi’s new opera, La traviata, began on 22 February 1853, the production was already a source of considerable angst for all involved with it. A setting of Alexandre Dumas fils’s literary homage to his paramour Marie Duplessis, La Dame aux camélias, La traviata was a rare contemporary subject, and Verdi was adamant that its first production should reflect its topical setting. His disappointment when it was made apparent that La Fenice would instead transplant the action in Seventeenth-Century Paris soured the composer to the production, and though the soprano was only thirty-eight years old at the time of the first performance of La traviata Verdi complained bitterly that Salvini-Donatelli was both too old and too full-figured to be convincing as the frail, consumptive Violetta. His efforts to replace her with another soprano were unsuccessful, so she bravely faced Verdi’s disapprobation and the audience’s scorn. There being little evidence of the ravages of disease in the soprano’s physique, she was heckled when her infirmity was referenced, but Verdi’s famous assessment of the opera’s première—‘La traviata ieri sera fiasco. La colpa è mia o dei cantanti? (‘La traviata yesterday was a fiasco. Is the blame mine or the singers’?’)—overstates the extent of the failure of the performance. In truth, contemporary accounts of the evening record that Verdi was called out to acknowledge the audience’s approval as early as the end of the Preludio and that, contrary to the contempt for her figure, Salvini-Donatelli’s singing was enthusiastically applauded, particularly her performance of ‘Sempre libera’ at the end of Act One. The Germonts père et fils—sung by Felice Varesi, Verdi’s first Macbeth and Rigoletto, and Lodovico Graziani—fared less honorably, but the success of the first night was sufficient to prompt nine additional performances of the opera in its inaugural season. Perhaps scarred but certainly not incapacitated by the reception of the first performance, Salvini-Donatelli sang Violetta in at least three further productions of La traviata between 1853 and her retirement from the stage. As the circumstances of the première of La traviata demonstrate, singers facing ridicule of aspects of their performances other than their voices is not a Twenty-First-Century phenomenon, but the history of Verdi’s bittersweet portrait of doomed love is also a validation of the potential of music to overcome such stupidity.

With direction by Marc Astafan and lighting by Todd Hensley, North Carolina Opera’s production of La traviata was a feast for appetites starved by Regietheater productions that prioritize ‘concepts’ ahead of Verdi’s intentions. The only concept that truly achieves the relevance for modern audiences so touted by opera companies is respect of composers’ and librettists’ requests. This need not be an excuse for dogged literalism, but productions that impose details extrapolated from sources other than operas’ scores and libretti risk gouging out chasms between performances and their audiences. A Traviata set on Pluto rather than in Paris can be effective, but one that substitutes some point of view other than Verdi’s essential focus on a dying woman, the man who loves her, and the father who stands between them is destined for failure, if not in immediate musical or dramatic terms then surely and insurmountably as a memorable realization of Verdi’s beloved opera. North Carolina Opera’s production placed Verdi’s, Francesco Maria Piave’s, and Dumas’s characters where they were meant to be. On loan from Nashville Opera, the sets and costumes evoked a Paris of legendary pulchritude but emotional isolation, the richly-hued costumes credibly and mostly flatteringly dressing the characters in clothes appropriate to their stations in Nineteenth-Century French society. Mr. Hensley’s lighting lent the production an initial warmth that transitioned meaningfully to the colder realities of Acts Two and Three: in the final scene, Violetta seemed not so much to be decaying as to be already poised between life and death. There was never any question of the fact that Violetta was the soul of the opera, and the production was especially insightful in its depiction of the extent to which Germont comes not just to pity but to truly feel affection for Violetta in the course of their scene in Act Two. Mr. Astafan guided the cast—including choristers—in imaginative blocking that capitalized on the potential of set pieces like the Brindisi in Act One but also reflected the almost claustrophobic intimacy of scenes in Acts Two and Three. Interactions among characters were strikingly organic: there was dramatic justification for every action and gesture except for the ‘crushing’ of Violetta by the guests at her party in Act One. This is the sort of conceit that is psychologically defensible but seems clumsy in practice. Tellingly, though, every individual on stage seemed comfortable not only with his or her own part in the drama but also with colleagues and the production. Refreshingly, it was Verdi’s Traviata rather than a Traviata in spite of Verdi.

North Carolina Opera’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Timothy Myers is one of the state's greatest cultural treasures. Whether conducting music by Mozart, Wagner, or Dvořák, Maestro Myers reliably exhibits preparedness, absolute understanding of the demands of the scores before him, and stylistic versatility that collectively enable him to approach music of divergent styles with far greater insight than the all-purpose stand-and-deliver sensibilities of many conductors permit. The core principles of conducting, the most vital of which is a resolute command of rhythm, are unchanging, but Così fan tutte is not Tristan und Isolde, which is not Rusalka. The greatest felicity of his pacing of La traviata was that he laid bare Verdi's Traviata: it was not the Traviata of some old recording, a well-learned imitation of a famous conductor's traversal of the score, or a quirky 'personal' reading of the opera. It is a sad indication of the willfulness of conductors to suggest that seeking everything that needs to be known about conducting a piece in the composer’s score amounts to an individual interpretation, but in the sense that Maestro Myers executed every marking in Verdi’s score with astonishing fidelity his Traviata was just that. He lingered over neither laughter nor tears except when Verdi advised that he should linger, and his management of orchestral textures and timpani figurations elevated Verdi’s orchestrations from accompaniments to participants. Under his baton, the orchestral musicians discarded formulaic playing and delivered their parts as though they were on stage among the characters. Despite instances of uncertain ensemble, the gossamer writing for the strings in the first bars of the Preludio and at the start of Act Three was hauntingly realized, and the poignant woodwind phrases in Act Two were played with liquid flow and perfect intonation. In the scene at Flora’s ball, spirits were ebullient until Alfredo’s denunciation of Violetta halted the festivities with the power of a thunderbolt. Here as in Act One, the choristers sang well—markedly better, in truth, than their colleagues in far larger cities where opera is regularly performed, though it was unfortunate that a lone gentleman of the chorus made his first entrance a bar too early. Such things are part of the excitement of live performance, however. Though coordination was problematic, the offstage Coro di maschere in Act Three, ‘Largo al quadrupede,’ was vibrantly done (slightly too vibrantly in the case of the castanets and tambourine, in fact), heightening the contrast of the Parisians’ revelry with the dying Violetta’s quiet suffering. With both orchestra and chorus alert to his cumulative vision of the opera, Maestro Myers did not need to manufacture tragedy: rather, he allowed the audience to perceive how marvelously Verdi had already done so.

La traviata is an opera that is driven by its principals, but poor singing in secondary rôles can have a noticeably deleterious effect on a performance. Like many regional companies, North Carolina Opera casts many of the supporting parts in productions with local talent and young singers. This practice enlivened this performance of La traviata with wonderful vignettes enacted by fine singers. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lazarz impersonated a flirtatious but kind-hearted Flora, very much the life of her own party. Soprano Lora Fabio was a touching, sisterly Annina, her concern for Violetta clearly that of a much-loved friend. The obsidian-voiced Donald Hartmann’s Barone Douphol was a convincing roué without too much vaudevillian posturing, and his cavernous, virile tone made him a dangerous, somewhat sinister presence. The handsome Jesse Malgieri was a Marchese d'Obigny who demanded to be noticed: having commandeered attention, he voiced his lines with firm, easily-projected tone and exuded philandering charm. Kurt Melges and Jacob Wright sang well as Dottore Grenvil and Gastone, crafting intelligent portrayals despite the brevity of their lines. The aptly-named Joseph Ittoop was a capable, energetic Giuseppe, complemented by Brent Blakesley’s eager Domestico, and Jacob Kato was fine as the Commissionario but even better when, in the scene at Flora’s ball he reacted as a member of the chorus to Alfredo’s insulting of Violetta’s honor with visceral shock and disgust.

The sonorous voice and kinetic demeanor of South Korean baritone Joo Won Kang could find no better conduit than Germont’s music. Possessing a natural instrument of precisely the correct weight for the rôle, the voice secure throughout the range and the upper extension reaching top G without strain, Mr. Kang was a Germont of severity, moral authority, and, ultimately, great sympathy. As it should be, his Act Two scene with Violetta was the emotional climax of the performance. Phrasing 'Pura siccome un angelo' with the poetry of Lisitsian, the diction of Taddei, and the inviolable solidity of Tibbett, what this Germont demanded of Violetta could hardly be refused, but the blossoming uncertainty and compassion evinced in ‘Sì, piangi, o misera, piangi' were vividly conveyed by the baritone’s ardent but restrained singing. Mr. Kang’s account of ‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol, chi dal cor ti cancellò,’ one of the greatest arias for the baritone voice (and one of the most difficult to sing well), was exquisite, his breath control equal to the demands of the music. He was the rare Germont who made the excision of his cabaletta, 'No, non udrai rimproveri,' regrettable: the piece is dramatically inert, but any opportunity to hear this singer longer would have been most welcome. Confronting Alfredo after his imprudent assault on Violetta’s dignity at the ball, Mr. Kang’s Germont seemed almost too dismayed to get his words out in ‘Di sprezzo degno se stesso rende,’ but the musical line was sculpted with unyielding integrity. Though Germont’s part in Act Three is small, Mr. Kang’s aura was tremendous. When he sang that he had come at last to embrace the expiring Violetta as his daughter, his sincerity poured out over the footlights. Verdi baritones are some of the rarest creatures in opera. Hearing one on good form is a matchless pleasure. Hearing one in a city like Raleigh is unexpected, but Mr. Kang distinguished North Carolina Opera’s Traviata with a Germont as good as the best in the world, past and present.

Winner of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition in 2014, young Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang brought to his portrayal of Alfredo both boyish appeal and emotional maturity that deepened as the opera progressed. From the start, it was apparent that Mr. Chang’s Alfredo was an impetuous young man in love with the notion of being in love: he was unusually believable as the awe-struck suitor besotted with Violetta but too shy to approach her. Goaded into serenading her, he seemed to gain strength merely from being in her presence. His launching of the Brindisi, ‘Libiamo, ne' lieti calici,’ at once revealed a fresh, focused lyric tenor with an attractively bright timbre. His ‘Un dì felice, eterea’ was the effusion of a fervent lover struggling to put his feelings into words, but the heady bel canto of his delivery of ‘Di quell'amor, quell'amor ch'è palpito’ left no doubt that he had found his amorous footing. At the start of Act Two, Mr. Chang provided a rousing performance of Alfredo’s aria ‘De' miei bollenti spiriti,’ making easy going of the repeated ascents to top A♭ (though even his effective acting could not quite make sense of why the aria was delivered to a brandy snifter), and his animated account of his cabaletta, ‘O mio rimorso,’ was capped with a solid top C. In the brief interview with Violetta during Flora’s ball, the arrogance of Mr. Chang’s dismissal of Violetta’s warnings did not fully disguise the character’s injured pride and sorrow. He threw himself into his voicing of 'Ogni suo aver tal femmina,' Alfredo’s cruel mocking of Violetta before her peers, with abandon, but, having been chastised by his father, his regret and self-loathing in 'Ah sì! Che feci! Ne sento orrore!' were genuine. In Act Three, Mr. Chang reunited with Violetta with the same obvious upbeat optimism with which he first caressed her hand in Act One, and there was no doubting the uncomplicated faith of his sentiments in his urgent, luxuriously-phrased singing of 'Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo.' The directness of his utterance of ‘Oh, mio sospiro e palpito, diletto del cor mio!' as the reality of the hopelessness of Violetta’s condition overtook him was harrowing. As she unexpectedly rallied in the opera’s final moments, his smile returned, making the moment when Violetta suddenly died in his arms agonizing. Mr. Chang avoided forcing the voice in Alfredo’s most dramatic passages, but he projected handily throughout the performance. Aside from a few slightly pinched tones, Mr. Chang’s Alfredo was a total success.

Soprano Jacqueline Echols made a very favorable impression as Musetta in North Carolina Opera’s 2014 production of Puccini’s La bohème, but having witnessed her thoughtful performance in that opera was inadequate preparation for observing the dignity, eloquence, and heartbreaking tragedy that she achieved as Violetta in La traviata. At her first entrance, during the Renoir-like tableau vivant that occupied the stage during the Preludio, Ms. Echols established a cynical but alluringly sensitive characterization that persisted until Violetta took her final breath in Act Three. She began her part in the Brindisi, ‘Ah, se ciò è ver, fuggitemi,’ with the glistening insouciance of a great star of silent film. Her singing of ‘Ah! fors'è lui che l'anima’ was brilliant, the evenness of the voice throughout the aria’s range unwavering. So forthright was her musing on Alfredo’s declaration of love that she seemed almost convinced to run away with him on the spot. Her laughter cascading through the theatre, Ms. Echols imparted the inevitability of Violetta’s forever-altered light-heartedness. The pair of top D♭s that frame the stanzas of ‘Sempre libera degg'io folleggiare di gioia in gioia’ stretched the soprano’s resources but were perfectly on pitch, and her singing of the celebrated cabaletta was expert, the coloratura negotiated with technical aplomb. Ms. Echols devoted to Violetta’s scene with Germont in Act Two singing of concentrated meaning, her delivery of 'Non sapete quale affetto' radiating untold depths of affection, and her singing of 'Dite alle giovine sì bella e pura' and 'Morrò! la mia memoria non fia ch'ei maledica' was often sublime. She rose to the great melodic arcs of 'Amami, Alfredo, quant'io t'amo! Addio!' and 'Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core non puoi comprendere tutto l'amor' with expansive tone that grew ever more gleaming as the lines ascended. In a sense, Ms. Echols’s Violetta, visibly transformed by her love for Alfredo from a beauty of figure to a beauty of soul, was already dead as the curtain came down on Act Two: the body lingered, but the spirit was extinguished. After an expressive reading of Germont’s letter in Act Three, the bitterness of Ms. Echols’s cry of 'E tardi' was cutting. The zenith of her performance was her singing of 'Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti,’ in which she was granted both stanzas, her top As gorgeous even when nearly broken by emotion. Her show of joy in 'Parigi, o caro, noi lasceremo' was for Alfredo’s benefit, her true attitude expressed in her moving 'Gran Dio! morir sì giovine, io che penato ho tanto!' Costumed like the princess of a grand realm in Acts One and Two, Ms. Echols was never more beautiful than in Act Three, when even in a dingy shift she shone. This epitomized her Violetta: exciting in the decorative music of Act One, she disclosed the full panoply of her gifts as a singing actress in the open-hearted music of Acts Two and Three.

That La traviata is frequently performed in every corner of the globe into which opera has spread is demonstrative of the impact that Verdi’s tale of love upended by duty and illness continues to have on the jaded mentalities of Twenty-First-Century audiences. Is there any greater proof of the viability and vitality of opera than the fact that grown men and women still shed tears for a ‘fallen woman’ who dies just when happiness seems within her grasp? North Carolina Opera gave Friday evening’s audience a Traviata that inspired tears by allowing Violetta to live, love, and die as Verdi intended. This Violetta, Alfredo, and Germont were not symbols or archetypes: there were people who loved, sung by people who loved them. For all its magnificent complexity, opera is, at its heart, that simple.

26 February 2015

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Soprano MARJORIE OWENS expands her Straussian domain in Washington Concert Opera’s GUNTRAM

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Soprano MARJORIE OWENS [Photo © by Marjorie Owens]Freeing Freihild: Soprano Marjorie Owens, who will sing the rôle of Freihild in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram on Sunday, 1 March 2015 [Photo © by Marjorie Owens]

Olive Fremstad. Frieda Hempel. Maria Jeritza. Gertrude Kappel. Eleanor Steber. Leonie Rysanek. It was by these six extraordinary singers that Richard Strauss’s Salome, Maschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, Helena in Die Ägyptische Helena, Elektra, Arabella, and Ariadne were introduced to New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Each in her own way was a powerful advocate for the composer’s music. Preparing for the MET première of Salome, Fremstad went to the New York City morgue in order to bring to her portrayal of the obsessive Judean princess a realistic struggle with the weight of Jochanaan’s severed head. Hempel repeated her Prinzessin von Werdenberg to even greater acclaim at Covent Garden. Kappel’s MET career was preceded by a tenure at the Wiener Staatsoper, where she was engaged for dramatic rôles in the German and Italian repertories by Strauss himself. In addition to being the MET’s first Helena (and Turandot), Maria Jeritza created the rôles of Ariadne and the Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Steber débuted at the MET as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier before going on to sing the Marschallin and Arabella. Both on the world’s stages and in recording studios, Rysanek was in the hearts of many audiences the reigning Strauss soprano of the Twentieth Century. Fifteen years into the Twenty-First Century, it is not uncommon to encounter the complaint that there are no great Strauss singers among today’s young artists. There are no Fremstads, Hempels, Jeritzas, Kappels, Stebers, or Rysaneks gracing the world’s stages today, but there is a Marjorie Owens. Anyone who has not yet heard this exceptional soprano sing music by Richard Strauss has thus far been deprived of experiencing one of the new century’s most thrilling musical phenomena.

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Soprano MARJORIE OWENS in the title rôle of Richard Strauss's DAPHNE at the Semperoper Dresden in 2014 [Photo by Matthias Creutziger, © by Semperoper Dresden]A Voice anything but Wooden: Soprano Marjorie Owens (center) in the title rôle of Richard Strauss's Daphne at the Semperoper Dresden in 2014 [Photo by Matthias Creutziger, © by Semperoper Dresden]

The prototype of the Strauss soprano was the notoriously cantankerous Pauline de Ahna, to whom the composer was married throughout virtually his entire creative career. She was the model for the enigmatic Färberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten and the insecure but ultimately touchingly sincere Christine Storch in Intermezzo, and she created the rôle of Freihild in Guntram, to whose troublesome tessitura Ms. Owens will return in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of the 1940 revision of the neglected score. In addition to having sung Freihild and the title rôles in Ariadne auf Naxos and Daphne at Dresden’s Semperoper, where she has been celebrated as the company’s venerated prima donna in dramatic rôles in both the German and Italian repertories, Ms. Owens’s marble-toned Ariadne also garnered praise in Boston and Fort Worth. A winner in the 2006 Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions (her intriguing selections in the Grand Finals concert were Elettra’s ‘D’Oreste, d’Ajace’ from Mozart’s Idomeneo and Magda’s ‘To this we’ve come’ from Menotti’s The Consul), she returned to the MET stage for her formal début as Verdi’s Aida on 2 January 2015. Thinking of the legacies of sopranos who excelled both as Aida and in Strauss rôles—Ljuba Welitsch, Birgit Nilsson, Dame Gwyneth Jones, and Anna Tomowa-Sintow come to mind—inspires Ms. Owens not only to consider her own place in this tradition but also to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle contrasts between her recent Strauss and Verdi characterizations. ‘Vocally, Freihild and Aida are rather different,’ she shares. ‘They both require a serious amount of technical control in the arias, but Aida is rather low [in tessitura] in the dramatic passages—other than the famous high C—whereas Freihild, like most of Strauss's heroines, has a higher tessitura. However, Aida has much more singing to do for the evening!’

Ms. Owens is also unusually attentive to the dramatic nuances that differentiate Freihild and Aida. ‘Character-wise, the similarities are slim between these women. We come upon Freihild at a desperate moment in her life [at which] she is prepared to commit suicide. Once she meets Guntram, her life revolves around him. All she desires is Guntram,’ she says. Aida, on the other hand, is motivated by vastly divergent passions, she intimates. ‘Aida is driven by love for her people, even to betray Radamès—the man she loves. The irony is the ending for both: Aida is reunited with Radamès in death, [but] Freihild must live the remainder of her life without Guntram, instead focusing on helping her people.’ For this discerning singer, simply having the notes in the voice is not sufficient justification for performing a rôle: she must also have the character in her heart and mind, which means that Freihild and Aida are more than grandiose utterances and one of the most cruelly-exposed top Cs in opera.

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Sopranos MARJORIE OWENS in the title rôle (right) and Joanna Mongiardo as Naiad (left) in Richard Strauss's ARIADNE AUF NAXOS at Boston Lyric Opera in 2010 [Photo by Jeffrey Dunn, © by Boston Lyric Opera]Es gibt ein Reich: Sopranos Marjorie Owens in the title rôle (right) and Joanna Mongiardo as the Nymph Naiad (left) in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at Boston Lyric Opera in 2010 [Photo by Jeffrey Dunn, © by Boston Lyric Opera]

Still a young lady, Ms. Owens in nonetheless cognizant of both the challenges of building a long career in dramatic rôles and the responsibilities of sharing her methods of meeting those challenges with the next generation of Strauss singers. For her, the equation that must be used to solve the problems of Strauss rôles is deceptively simple: ‘Advice for a soprano specializing in Strauss = Technique,’ she explains. ‘So much technique! An excellent technique is the basis of all Strauss and Mozart. Without one, it's nearly impossible to get through these types of rôles alive.’ An artist as savvy as Ms. Owens is aware of the ruinous shortcuts that some singers try to take. ‘Singers can perform some repertoire with vocal tricks, but it's impossible in Strauss,’ she states. ‘[Strauss] provides some of the most difficult and beautiful music ever written for sopranos: [the] Kaiserin, Elektra, 4 Last Songs, Daphne. Before a singer can tackle [a] character, she must have the technical chops to sing through the piece.’ She also enjoins budding Straussians to embrace the texts of the composer’s works. ‘Enjoy the German language,’ she encourages, ‘because many of Strauss’s most popular operas were [written] with Hofmannsthal, and the libretti are gorgeous!’ Still, the prime consideration is and must always be the score. Ms. Owens advises, ‘Most importantly, be utterly and completely in love with the music. Strauss may have proclaimed himself a first-class second-rate composer, but his creations definitely prove the contrary!’

From both musical and dramaturgical perspectives, the operas of Richard Strauss are not always perfect, but his writing for the soprano voice is rarely less than magnificent. To adapt the composer’s own expression, first-class second-rate singers can give memorable performances of Strauss’s music, but to hear a rôle like Freihild in Guntram sung by Marjorie Owens is to hear the music as the composer intended it to be sung. Four months after the 1894 première of Guntram, Strauss married Pauline de Ahna: to what expressions of devotion might hearing the opulent voice of Marjorie Owens in his music have inspired him?

Marjorie Owens in represented in the United States by Columbia Artists Management Inc.

Heartfelt thanks to Ms. Owens for taking time from her hectic performance and rehearsal schedules to respond to questions for this profile. Gratitude is also extended to Kendra Rubinfeld of Kendra Rubinfeld PR for her facilitation of this article.

25 February 2015

CD REVIEW: Chamber Music by Ferdinand Ries (NAXOS 8.573193), Sir Charles Villiers Standard (NAXOS 8.573388), & Douglas Lilburn (NAXOS 8.573079)

[1] FERDINAND RIES (1784 – 1838): Sonata in F Major, Op. 8, No. 1; Sonata in C minor, Op. 8, No. 2; and Grande Sonata in F minor, Op. 19Eric Grossman, violin; Susan Kagan, piano [Recorded at Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, New York, USA, 2 – 3 April 2013; NAXOS 8.573193; 1 CD, 77:44; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers; WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDINGS]

[2] SIR CHARLES VILLIERS STANFORD (1852 – 1924): Piano Trio No. 2 in G minor, Op. 73 and Piano Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 15Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin; Alice Neary, cello; Benjamin Firth, piano); David Adams, viola [Recorded at Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK, 24 – 26 March 2014; NAXOS 8.573388; 1 CD, 61:23; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

[3] DOUGLAS LILBURN (1915 – 2001): String Quartet in E minor (1946), Duos for Two Violins (1954), String Trio (1945), Canzonettas for Violin and Viola (1942, 1943, 1958), and Phantasy for String Quartet* (1939)—New Zealand String Quartet [Recorded at St Anne’s Church, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 26 – 28 July 2012; NAXOS 8.573079; 1 CD, 72:49; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers; *WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING]

Particularly since 1800, composers of Classical Music have often found their most meaningful and personal modes of expression in chamber music. This is certainly true of Beethoven, whose string quartets are unquestioned masterpieces of their genre as well as works of art in a broader sense that define both the composer’s legacy and the capacity of chamber music to initiate spiritual communication in ways that elude larger musical forms. It is also true of Schumann and Brahms, whose chamber works conjure specters too frail for concerti and symphonies, and the intimately-scaled sonatas and string quartets of Elgar and Delius confront emotions of extraordinary dimensions that must only be whispered, not shouted. Perhaps there is an element of shared peril in chamber music, the small ensembles giving composers, musicians, and audiences few places in which to hide: the prospect of failure is more spectacular when there are no orchestral safety nets. With the pomposity and grandeur of large-scale compositions stripped away, it often seems possible in the context of a chamber work to discern composers’ most profound sensibilities and insecurities. With three superb discs featuring chamber music by Ferdinand Ries, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and Douglas Lilburn, the indefatigably insightful NAXOS label directs listeners’ attention into unfamiliar but richly rewarding niches of chamber music repertory. Spanning nearly a century and a half of musical evolution, these discs explore both the ways in which the sentimental immediacy of chamber music has consistently inspired composers and the infinitely diverse textures they have coaxed from combinations of finite groups of instruments. As so often in recent years, NAXOS recordings here fill a void likely to have remained unoccupied otherwise. Rather than wasting money and artists’—and listeners’—time on new recordings of already over-familiar repertory, why do other labels not follow NAXOS’s lead?

Born in Bonn in 1784, Ferdinand Ries was, like his eventual teacher and fellow Bonn native Beethoven, the product of a musical family. His artistic pedigree was more exalted than Beethoven’s, in fact, but his craftsmanship as a composer was consistently outshone by the glimmer of Beethoven’s genius. As the music on this disc validates, however, Ries was an intelligent, imaginative composer in his own right, and his chamber music deserves attention equal to that granted in the past decade to his oratorios Der Sieg des Glaubens and Die Könige in Israel. Played on this disc by violinist Eric Grossman and pianist Susan Kagan, Ries’s music for their instruments impresses both with its command of early Romantic gestures and the formal elegance of form. The opening Allegro ma non troppo movement of the Sonata in F Major (Op. 8, No. 1) was clearly influenced by Beethoven’s Frühlingssonate, but the younger composer’s originality rapidly emerges. Both in the first movement and in the subsequent Allegretto vivace, Mr. Grossman and Ms. KaCD REVIEW: Ferdinand Ries - THREE SONATAS FOR VIOLIN & PIANO (NAXOS 8.573193gan trade Ries’s melodic lines with consummate virtuosity. The violinist’s beautiful tone and spot-on intonation is heard to advantage in the lovely Larghetto, and both musicians sustain momentum in the contrapuntal writing—more reminiscent of Mozart than of Beethoven—in the concluding Allegretto quasi allegro movement. The Allegro con spirito introduction of the C-minor Sonata (Op. 8, No. 2) is energetically shaped by Mr. Grossman and Ms. Kagan, and the closeness of their collaboration yields magical phrasing in the tranquil Adagio cantabile, the echoes of Beethoven contrasting with a melodic fecundity that brings the chamber music and Lieder of Schubert to mind. Guided by Ms. Kagan’s rock-solid rhythmic accuracy, Mr. Grossman devotes controlled exuberance to the frenzied Allegro scherzando. The majestic Grande Sonata in F minor (Op. 19) traverses musical terrain similar to that roamed in Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata and Carl Maria von Weber’s Opus 63 Trio in G minor. The concentrated melancholy of the Sonata’s Largo espressivo preamble, its starkness almost like the ritornello of a Baroque aria, is touchingly manifested in Mr. Grossman’s and Ms. Kagan’s performance. The Allegro agitato that follows is executed with brilliance by both players, but the pinnacle of their performances on this disc is their expansively-phrased account of the eloquent Andante, a movement in which Ries the pupil attained the distinction of Beethoven the master. The broadly ambivalent Allegro, its development alternating cheerful passages with bars in which the music’s sunny panoramas are obscured by storm clouds, benefits from the musical and dramatic sagacity of Mr. Grossman’s and Ms. Kagan’s partnership. Indeed, this is true of all of the works on this disc: interacting with one another with unaffected coordination and resourcefulness, they provide Ries’s music with performances of the quality necessary to unveil its excellent but long-hidden caliber.

Like Ries before him, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford enjoyed the considerable advantage of being born into a musical family, but whereas Ries lived in the shadow of his great teacher Stanfod was relegated to relative neglect by the success of his pupils. Among composers who studied with Stanford were Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, the prominence in British musical life of both having undermined Stanford’s reputation as a composer by the first decade of the Twentieth Century, but the Dublin-born Stanford was recognized by many of his contemporaries as a significant artist. Owing both to his formative musical and to natural inclinations, his inherent tastes were for the works of Schumann and Brahms, and his chamber music, though disclosing attractive individuality, largely adheres to the models of his German idols. Still, Stanford’s Piano Trio No. 2 in G minor (Op. 73) is an unique, cleverly-conceived piece. The musicians of the Gould Piano Trio—violinist Lucy Gould, cellist Alice Neary, and pianist Benjamin Frith—revel in the unabashed tonal conservatism of the music, bolstering Stanford’s foursquare melodic structures with sharply-defined realizations of his Romantic but restrained harmonic proCD REVIEW: Sir Charles Villiers Stanford - PIANO TRIO NO. 2 & PIANO QUARTET NO. 1 (NAXOS 8.573388)gressions. The composer clearly learned from Brahms’s example that adherence to basic forms can be liberating, and the tight structure of the trio’s Allegro moderato movement does not inhibit a sweeping largesse of expression. The musicians maintain accuracy of ensemble throughout the performance without sacrificing fluidity, and their playing of the slightly saccharine Andante maximizes the music’s effectiveness by avoiding over-accentuation of the academic nature of the thematic development. The tempestuous Presto is robustly delivered, and the playing of the final Larghetto – Allegro con fuoco is marked by sensitivity to the ambiguity of both the tempi and the harmonic patterns. The Gould Piano Trio’s players are joined by violist David Adams in their performance of the Piano Quartet No. 1 in F (Op. 15), the Allegro con brio drawing from all four players exhibitions of technical wizardry and first-rate musical teamwork. In the Scherzo, allegro vivace movement, their dedication to scrupulous observation of the composer’s markings does not preclude uncomplicated enjoyment of the music. The lyricism of the Poco adagio is highlighted by the musicians’ attention to blending their instrumental timbres, and they are unafraid of caressing phrases in an effort to expose the full spectrum of Stanford’s subtle ingenuity. The Quartet ends with an Allegro con brio movement of an almost rigidly celebratory nature, the work’s conclusion only begrudgingly granted a smile. Guided by Ms. Gould’s sure-toned playing, which is never marred by the excessive vibrato often heard in music of this vintage, the musicians fashion an unpretentious but revelatory performance. Fortunately and, considering the composer’s reputation as a better pedagogue than practitioner, rather unexpectedly, Stanford’s music exudes those same qualities. Even great celestial bodies are apt to be eclipsed, after all.

Douglas Lilburn was one of New Zealand’s greatest artists of the Twentieth Century and a composer whose ambitious but approachable music still awaits the recognition it deserves beyond Oceania. It seems counterintuitive that isolationism in the Arts could persist in a civilization defined by globalization and widespread cultural assimilation, but how else can the unfamiliarity in North America with a composer of Lilburn’s talents be explained? The performances on this disc by the New Zealand String QuartetHelene Pohl (first violin), Douglas Beilman (second violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), and Rolf Gjelsten (cello)—should leave no doubts in the minds of listeners about the enduring value of Lilburn’s music and the heartfelt earnestness of musicians’ response to it. The String Quartet in E minor (1946) is a fine work, its language that of a decidedly Twentieth-Century but singularly prepossessing voice. The New Zealand String Quartet’CD REVIEW: Douglas Lilburn - COMPLETE CHAMBER MUSIC FOR STRINGS (NAXOS 8.573079)s playing of the Andante first movement immediately initiates a glowingly lyrical ambiance, sustained by the musicians’ compact ensemble. The pithy imagery of the Allegretto and Allegro movements tests the limits of conventional string timbres, but the players answer the composer’s challenges with unflappable mastery. In his Duos for Two Violins (1954), Lilburn transports the listener to the peerless landscapes of New Zealand, evoking scenes familiar from his own youth. The Andante con moto receives from Ms. Pohl and Mr. Beilman a strong but shrewd performance, and the sequence of Allegro, Andante, Allegro, Lento, and Allegramente episodes flows like a mountain stream, shaped with crystalline grace by Ms. Pohl and Mr. Beilman. The String Trio (1945) was the first chamber work by a New Zealand-born composer published beyond that country’s borders, and the rapt sophistication of the performance on this disc verifies the music’s worthiness of that distinction. Ms. Pohl, Ms. Ansell, and Mr. Gjelsten insightfully differentiate the Allegro non troppo, Allegretto, and Allegro movements, inviting recognition of Lilburn’s unorthodox but reverent obeisance to Schubert. Composed in 1942, 1943, and 1958, the Canzonettas for Violin and Viola—Semplice, Andante semplice, and, simply, III—are endearing pseudo-Elizabethan miniatures, here played with the piquant sensibilities that might be devoted to performances of music for viol consort by Byrd or Lawes. An early work, the 1939 Phantasy for String Quartet is a predictably rhapsodic piece, patterned after Jacobean music. The New Zealand String Quartet players excavate the lodes of originality with which the composer anchored the work. Advocacy for Lilburn’s music is apparent in every track on this disc, but the performances are most admirable for the high artistic standards from which they never deviate.

Stylistically, the chamber works of Ferdinand Ries, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and Douglas Lilburn are worlds apart, but these three exemplary NAXOS recordings again remind listeners that music has the peculiar ability to unite composers, musicians, and audiences of all eras and generations. Ries could not surpass his teacher, Stanford was upstaged by his students, and Lilburn has not yet managed to completely overcome nationalistically-motivated skepticism, but the performances on these discs make no excuses for the trio of forsaken composers and their music: every artist involved, both musical and technical, approaches these works merely as well-crafted music that deserves to be heard. Indeed, these are discs that deserve to be heard often.

24 February 2015

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – LA FORZA DEL DESTINO (G. Brouwenstijn, R. Tucker, A. Protti, N. Scott, M. Dunn; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0310)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - LA FORZA DEL DESTINO (Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0310)GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): La forza del destino—Gré Brouwenstijn (Leonora), Richard Tucker (Don Alvardo), Aldo Protti (Don Carlo di Vargas), Norman Scott (Padre Guardiano), Mignon Dunn (Preziosilla), Mario Verazzi (Marchese di Calatrava), Giulio Viamonte (Fra Melitone), Růžena Horáková (Curra), Victorio Bacciato (Un alcade), Virgilio Tavini (Mastro Trabucco), Guerrino Boschetti (Un chirurgo); Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Colón; Fernando Previtali, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 12 August 1960; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0310; 2 CDs, 152:26; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

It is hardly surprising that an opera house named in honor of Cristoforo Colombo should have to its credit an adventurous history. If its namesake unknowingly perpetrated a colossal blunder when in 1492 he sailed the ocean blue and landed not in the East but in the West Indies, the occupants of the Teatro Colón have achieved a far higher rate of accuracy in reaching the intended destinations of their operatic voyages. In the ​first seven decades of the Twentieth Century, following the inauguration of the present auditorium in 1908, many of the world's greatest voices regularly filled the extraordinary space​ of the Teatro Colón. Drawn to the theatre in the 1930s by the tireless industriousness and genius of the company's Music Director—and naturalized Argentine—Erich Kleiber, their presence made Buenos Aires a south-of-the-Equator Mecca for performances of the operas of Wagner and Richard Strauss. The music of Giuseppe Verdi also flourished along the banks of the Río de la Plata, perhaps never more memorably than in the performance of La forza del destino on 12 August 1960. Recordings of this performance have circulated on small labels for years, but Walhall Eternity Series’ edition enables greater appreciation of the Teatro Colón’s legendary acoustics and places the listener to a prime seat in the stalls for what in 1960 might have been a typical Forza del destino but in 2015 is a sensational one.

This 1960 performance subjected Verdi’s scores to the cuts that were standard at that time, but uncut performances of La forza del destino remain at least as rare as good ones. Paced by Fernando Previtali with the cumulative dramatic impetus familiar from his RCA [later issued by DECCA] studio recording, the performance bristles with danger and daring. Having studied in his native Italy with noted composer Franco Alfano, now best known—rather unfairly—for having completed the final scene of Puccini’s Turandot, and the gifted conductor Vittorio Gui, Maestro Previtali followed in Erich Kleiber’s footsteps during the 1960s as the Teatro Colón’s Music Director. In this performance, the theatre’s choral and orchestral forces follow his beat committedly, launching the opera with an energizing account of its celebrated Overture. Thereafter, choristers and instrumentalists respond to both Maestro Previtali’s and Verdi’s demands with concentration and conviction, and the sound quality of the recording is adequate to permit admiration for the results that they achieve.

​A particular hallmark of ​the Teatro Colón’s productions in the 1950s and '60s was, to the extent that can be discerned from broadcasts and pirated recordings of the period, their amalgamations of the ranks of local artists with the rosters of visiting ‘star’ singers in coherent casts that frequently possessed the now-defunct camaraderie of a true company. Like Sir Rudolf Bing at the contemporaneous MET, Teatro Colón management fostered the refinement of native-born talent, capitalizing on the boons of wartime immigration to Argentina. In this performance, the singers of supporting rôles highlight the great success of the Teatro Colón in surrounding principals with voices of quality that enhanced the impact of a production. A frequent participant in Buenos Aires performances of this vintage, Guerrino Boschetti is in this Forza del destino a thoroughly capable Surgeon, his brief part sung solidly, and Victorio Bacciato is similarly effective as the Alcade. The muleteer Mastro Trabuco receives from Virgilio Tavini a broadly charming portrayal, and Mario Verazzi is a firm-toned, suitably gruff Marchese di Calatrava whose exchanges with his impressionable daughter suggest true paternal concern. Růžena Horáková has less to do as Curra but is no less involved with her rôle or successful in making her mark on the performance.

Throughout a long and fascinating career, Tennessee-born mezzo-soprano Mignon Dunn was one of opera’s most versatile artists. In 1983, she was a thrillingly authoritative Laura in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda at the MET, and four years later she was a stirring La Cieca in the same opera—a rôle that she also sang in New York in the early years of her career—in Chicago, where she gave an outstanding account of the famed ‘Voce di donna.’ She was capable of snatching the laurels away from Manrico and Leonora as Azucena in Verdi’s Il trovatore, seeming to scorch the ground upon which she walked as Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin, and fully inhabiting the bizarre domain of the Amme in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Singing Preziosilla in Buenos Aires, she leaves a memorable impression. As performed at the Colón, Preziosilla’s only real opportunity to engage the audience is in the Act Two scene ‘Al suon del tamburo,’ but Ms. Dunn seizes it with the sure grasp of a consummate stage animal. Dramatically, she brings more dignity to Preziosilla than many singers have done: vocally, she enriches the performance with singing even finer than the music merits.

The resident Franciscans, Fra Melitone and Padre Guardiano, are sung with contrasting wit and world-weariness by Giulio Viamonte and Norman Scott. In this performance, the two characters are more than usually depicted as competing facets of a single archetype, conforming with Verdi’s oft-documented distrust of clergy and the Church. Mr. Viamonte’s singing of Melitone’s ‘Auf!... Pazienza non v'ha che basti’ in Act Four is amusing without being marred by excessive foolishness. Tragically, Mr. Scott’s career was ended by his death at the age of forty-seven only eight years after this performance. Here, his singing of Padre Guardiano displays what a loss his untimely passing was to opera. In his scenes in Act Two, he envelops Guardiano’s music with burnished, steady tone, comforting Leonora and placating his brethren. His phrasing of ‘Sull'alba il piede all'eremo’ and ‘Il santo nome’ is magisterial, and the humanity of his voicing of ‘Non imprecare; umiliati’ in Act Four heightens the tension of the opera’s conclusion. Memorably portrayed by great basses including Tancredi Pesaro, Ezio Pinza, Giulio Neri, Jerome Hines, Boris Christoff, and Cesare Siepi, Padre Guardiano is one of the most difficult of Verdi’s bass rôles to bring off with dramatic credibility: Mr. Scott manages to do so while also singing the music expertly.

Cremona-born baritone Aldo Protti celebrated his fortieth birthday less than a month before this performance, which found him on career-best vocal form. His experience in La forza del destino included performances opposite the Leonoras of Renata Tebaldi, Leyla Gencer, and Anita Cerquetti, and in this performance his ​Don Carlo di Vargas is again a sonorous brother to a delicate, womanly Leonora. Mr. Protti brings unflagging strength to ‘Son Pereda, son ricco d'onore’ in Act Two, and his Carlo joins Alvaro in a thrilling performance of ‘Solenne in quest’ora.’ Carlo’s great aria in Act Three, ‘Urna fatale del mio destino,’ is sung with ringing tone, and the subsequent ‘È salvo! oh gioia immensa’ erupts with vigor and irony. Especially in America, where his nine performances as a member of the Metropolitan Opera company twenty-five years after this Buenos Aires La forza del destino were all as Rigoletto, Mr. Protti was overshadowed by Leonard Warren, Ettore Bastianini, Robert Merrill, and, in the latter days of his career, Sherrill Milnes. This performance exhibits the level of singing of which Mr. Protti was capable: first-rate diction, firm, virile tone and magnificent high notes make his Carlo an impersonation worthy of comparison with the best ever recorded.

​Richard Tucker sang Don Alvaro at the Metropolitan Opera in February and March 1960 alongside Leonie Rysanek, Lucine Amara, and Renata Tebaldi, including the ill-starred 4 March performance in which Leonard Warren died on the MET stage, and returned to the rôle at the Colón in August 1961, when his Leonora was Floriana Cavalli, and at the MET in the 1961 - '62 Season, partnered by Eileen Ferrell, Mary Curtis-Verna, and Lucine Amara. Having also recorded the part in studio opposite both Maria Callas and Leontyne Price and shared the stage with perhaps the greatest Leonora of the Twentieth Century, Zinka Milanov, Mr. Tucker was a veteran Alvaro who knew his way round the music and the drama. He is an ardent lover in Act One, his singing of ‘Ah, per sempre, o mio bell'angiol’ phrased with fervor. Not surprisingly, however, the pinnacle of his performance is his account of Alvaro’s aria in Act Three, ‘O tu che in seno agli angeli.’ The Italianate morbidezza of Mr. Tucker’s voicing of the aria—one of Verdi’s most difficult—is gripping, his unsubtle but logical phrasing lending the aria tremendous theatrical power. He also spars excitingly with Mr. Protti’s Carlo in ‘Solenne in quest'ora,' as well as in their confrontation in Act Four, ‘Le minacce, i fieri accenti.’ Despite the importance of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation to opera in the United States, beyond the great tenor’s native shores his name, never as familiar to non-American ears as those of del Monaco, Corelli, and Bergonzi, seems in danger of being forgotten. The singer capable of portraying an Alvaro as riveting as the one who dominates the performance on these discs should be honored in every heart and household where opera finds a home.

​Unlike her Don Alvaro in this performance, who was from the time of his MET début​ in 1945 until his death in 1975 a powerful presence in Verdi rôles, Gré Brouwenstijn is best remembered not for her work in Italian repertory but for her Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio and her Wagnerian portrayals at Bayreuth and elsewhere. At London's Royal Opera House, however, she was acclaimed as Aida (the rôle of her Covent Garden début), Leonora in Il trovatore (in which part she was first heard at the Holland Festival), Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Desdemona in Otello, and Elisabetta di Valois in Don Carlo. Never heard at the MET, Ms. Brouwenstijn was introduced to America by performances with San Francisco Opera and in Chicago, where she sang the title rôle of Janáček's Jenůfa, and she was particularly appreciated in her native Netherlands as Puccini's Tosca. Though she lacked the mesmerizing pianissimi of Milanov and the opulent tones of Tebaldi, Ms. Brouwenstijn's effectiveness as Leonora in La forza del destino is confirmed by both this performance and an existing recording of a 1962 performance in which she held her own against another American Don Alvaro, Jan Peerce. In Buenos Aires, her singing in Act One is distinguished by a beguiling femininity, Leonora’s tense conversation with her father, the Marchese, juxtaposing the character’s initial timidity with burgeoning resolve. She phrases ‘Me pellegrina ed orfana’ with grace, and she is a rare Leonora who sounds both grief-stricken over her father’s death and consumed by love for Alvaro. The sincerity with which Ms. Brouwenstijn limns Leonora’s repentance in Act Two is very touching, and she unravels threads of shimmering tone in ‘Se voi scacciate questa pentita’ and the inexpressibly beautiful ‘La vergine degli angeli.’ Though so much exquisite music comes before it, the great test of any Leonora’s credentials is her Act Four aria ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio; cruda sventura,’ and in this performance it is a trial from which Ms. Brouwenstijn emerges triumphant. The relative leanness of her timbre is a decided asset, permitting greater mobility in Verdi’s arching melodic lines than heavier voices can manage. There are depths of tenderness and tranquil acceptance in Ms. Brouwenstijn’s singing of the opera’s final scene. She is a singer who is expected to always be effective in whichever rôle she happens to be singing, but in this performance she is far more than that: she is a Leonora of azure-hued Dutch porcelain rather than boldly-colored Murano glass, but she shares with Caniglia, Milanov, Tebaldi, and Leontyne Price the ability to extract from Verdi’s music the marrow of a hauntingly alluring characterization.

La forza del destino is a difficult score. Its plot is often in danger of seeming trite, but in the hands of singers and conductors who take their parts at face value, trusting Verdi rather than seeking external, anachronistic psychological contexts for the opera, it can prove to be one of the composer’s most ravishingly poignant creations. Certainly, the music is sublime, and it is the quality of the music that is most apparent in this performance from the Teatro Colón. Facing ferocious competition from studio recordings and famous broadcasts, this may not be a ‘desert island’ Forza del destino, but it is one that shames the poor singing, lackluster conducting, and sorry production values of too many of today’s performances of the opera. Clichéd as the assertion may seem, this is a performance of La forza del destino that throbs with a genuine distillation of the force of destiny.

IN REVIEW: American bass NORMAN SCOTT, Padre Guardiano in Teatro Colón's LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, photographed as Colline in Puccini's LA BOHÈME at the Metropolitan Opera [Photo by Sedge LeBlang, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Glorious Guardiano: American bass Norman Scott, Padre Guardiano in Teatro Colón’s 1960 La forza del destino, photographed as Colline in Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958 [Photo credited to Louis Mélançon but seemingly the work of Sedge LeBlang, © The Metropolitan Opera]

22 February 2015

ARTS IN ACTION: Washington Concert Opera reviving Richard Strauss rarity GUNTRAM

ARTS IN ACTION: Composer RICHARD STRAUSS at the time of the 1894 première of his opera GUNTRAM, scheduled for performance by Washington Concert Opera on 1 March 2015Junge Genius: Richard Strauss at the time of the 1894 première of his first opera Guntram, scheduled for performance by Washington Concert Opera on 1 March 2015

Those who attended the 1894 Weimar première of Richard Strauss’s first opera, Guntram, likely surmised that they were hearing the work of a talented disciple of Richard Wagner but might never have suspected that they were witnessing the artistic birth of, as he introduced himself to the American liberators of his beloved Garmisch in 1945, der Komponist von Rosenkavalier—the composer of Der Rosenkavalier. With his first great tone poem, Tod und Verklärung, behind him, the young Strauss’s development as a composer was at a crossroads at the time of his work on Guntram. Having discarded the ethics of Schopenhauer in favor of the philosophical grandiloquence of Nietzsche, the not-yet-thirty-year-old Strauss infused his score for Guntram with thematic ideas that would recur four years later in the monumental tone poem Ein Heldenleben. Despite the near-disastrous reception that the opera received in 1894, the composer’s lingering affection for his freshman effort for the stage was confirmed by his return to Guntram in 1940, when he substantially revised and shortened the score. The lingering suspicion of the score among Twenty-First-Century musicians and audiences was revealed by its inexplicable absence from celebrations of the sesquicentennial of Strauss’s birth in 2014: among countless productions of the familiar operas, the seldom-performed Feuersnot and Intermezzo received performances and recordings, but Guntram continued to hide in the shadows cast by his Straussian siblings, represented by only three concert performances at Dresden’s Semperoper. That omission will be rectified in part on 1 March 2015, when Washington Concert Opera will present a concert performance of Guntram in Lisner Auditorium on the campus of The George Washington University. Fielding a superb cast of singers lauded for combining vocal power with tonal beauty under the experienced baton of the company’s Artistic Director Antony Walker, Washington Concert Opera again offers District-area audiences an opportunity to make the acquaintance of a neglected score and, in this case, gives attentive ears the chance to listen for the seeds that ultimately flowered in Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau ohne Schatten.

ARTS IN ACTION: Conductor and Washington Concert Opera Artistic Director ANTONY WALKER, who will lead the company's performance of Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Bridget Elliot, © by Pinchgut Opera]The Man with the Plan: Sydney-born conductor Antony Walker, Artistic Director of Washington Concert Opera, will lead the company's performance of Richard Strauss's Guntram on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Bridget Elliot, © by Pinchgut Opera]

Washington Concert Opera’s performance will utilize Strauss’s 1940 edition of the score, which also served as the basis for the opera’s only other known performance in the United States, a 1983 concert performance in Carnegie Hall by the Opera Orchestra of New York featuring German tenor Reiner Goldberg in the title rôle and Hungarian soprano Ilona Tokody, with whom OONY’s Music Director Eve Queler also made a studio recording of Guntram for Sony/CBS Masterworks. While preferring Strauss’s later, tightened version of the score, Maestro Walker is sensitive to the demands that Guntram makes on conductor, cast, orchestra, and audience. ‘One of the biggest challenges in conducting Guntram is that although it is very Wagnerian in language in many passages, Strauss’s use of the orchestra to accompany the singers is less transparent and heavier than Wagner's writing,’ he says. ‘I will have to be very careful with balancing the orchestra with the singers. Fortunately, in concert the singers are in front of the orchestra, and in Lisner the orchestra is seated behind the proscenium. The combination of both these facts makes the balance between singers and orchestra a little easier!’

Likewise, Maestro Walker is attentive not only to the significance of Guntram in Strauss’s artistic evolution but to the opera’s place in the transition of large-scaled musical forms from the lush tonalism of the Nineteenth Century to the more sinewy idioms of the Twentieth Century. ‘Guntram is an intensely lyrical work, with sweeping vocal lines and beautiful orchestral textures,’ the conductor muses. ‘I hope our audience falls in love Strauss's luscious and luxurious vocal and orchestral lines: a language that is the fullest expression of late 19th Century Romanticism and on the cusp of the modernism of the early 20th Century. As one experiences Guntram,’ he suggests, ‘one can listen for Wagnerian influences, echoes of Strauss's early tone poems Macbeth, Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration, as well as [reminding] oneself that this work was [introduced] in 1894, the same year as Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faun, Massenet's Thaïs, Mahler's 2nd Symphony, and a year after Verdi's Falstaff, Humperdinck's Hänsel and Gretel, and Puccini's Manon Lescaut—a fascinating period of transition in Classical Music!’

As is typical of Washington Concert Opera performances, the company’s Guntram will benefit from the participation of a cast of singers ideally-chosen for their parts: Kansas-born tenor Robert Dean Smith in the title rôle, soprano Marjorie Owens—a recent Metropolitan Opera débutante—as Freihild, acclaimed Wagnerian baritone Tom Fox as Der alte Herzog, Annapolis native baritone Zachary Nelson as Herzog Robert, and Chinese bass Wei Wu as Friedhold.

ARTS IN ACTION: Tenor ROBERT DEAN SMITH, Guntram in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Richard Strauss's first opera on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Todd Smith, © by Robert Dean Smith]Heil, Minnesinger: Tenor Robert Dean Smith, who will sing the title rôle in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Todd Smith, © by Robert Dean Smith]

One of America’s most celebrated singers of the punishing Wagner and Strauss repertories for tenor, Robert Dean Smith recently garnered praise for his singing of another of opera’s most daunting tenor parts, the title rôle in Verdi’s Otello, in a performance recorded by NAXOS [reviewed here]. In contemplating his preparations to sing Guntram, Mr. Smith is quick to dismiss the notion suggested by tenors of the past that singing Verdi’s Otello is, in vocal terms, a game-changer. ‘In no way does singing Otello alter my "approach" to Guntram—or any other rôle, for that matter,’ he says. ‘It does give me another unique experience that affects ALL of the rôles I sing. Every rôle has specific vocal demands necessitating the application of a correct singing technique so that Verdi will sound like Verdi, Wagner like Wagner, and so on. With each new rôle, with each performance, and also with each rehearsal, I have a mindset for wanting to develop artistically and vocally, improving the ability for expression and communication of the music.’ This mindset is especially crucial in approaching Strauss’s Guntram, he feels, owing to the character’s innate musicality, a quality that surely inspired the composer, perhaps even in a covertly autobiographical sense. ‘Guntram is a singer, like Tannhäuser and, to some extent, Walther in Meistersinger,’ Mr. Smith states. ‘I always find it a pleasant challenge to "sing" as a character on stage. Guntram is one of the good guys, although he does kill, albeit in self-defense. His love of nature, his generosity, and sense of duty are the positive qualities I would like to bring out as much as possible.’

ARTS IN ACTION: Baritone TOM FOX sings der alte Herzog in Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM with Washington Concert Opera on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Alex John Beck, © by CAMI]Der kluge Staatsmann: Baritone Tom Fox, Der alte Herzog in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Alex John Beck, © by CAMI]

Like Mr. Smith, Tom Fox chooses to focus primarily not on the musical pedigree of his rôle in Guntram, Der alte Herzog, but on the character’s dramatic specificity. ‘Well, certainly [he] is not patterned after Alberich [a rôle in which Mr. Fox has excelled at the Metropolitan Opera, both in Siegfried and in Götterdämmerung] or Klingsor, [but there] could be a tad of Telramund in there,’ he confides, ‘but those are all Wagner Böse rôles. I feel [that] Strauss was nearing King Marke in Tristan with the alte Herzog. The rôle of Robert seems more along the same type as Alberich, but Strauss was too young when he composed this piece to grasp the psychology of Wagner’s tremendous vocal writing for those rôles. Certainly—for me, at least—Strauss later followed his own path in his vocal writing, acknowledging the influence of Wagner along the way.’ Mr. Fox, whose Vodník in North Carolina Opera’s semi-staged performance of Dvořák’s Rusalka [reviewed here] was a marvel of intelligent, understated characterization, is keenly aware of the inconsistencies in Strauss’s depiction of the alte Herzog and the resulting difficulties in making the character one with whom an audience can sympathize. ‘Actually finding and settling on an interpretation [means] not giving too much weight to the lack of dramaturgy in Strauss’s libretto,’ he remarks. ‘I don’t find any sympathy for Robert in the story, so why is the alte Herzog so embittered at the death of an abusive son-in-law?’ Thinking further about his insightful understanding of the rôle, Mr. Fox adds, ‘That being said, I let Strauss’s composition guide me. His orchestration in the Funeral Aria exhibits tremendous pathos for the old man and his falling-apart empire—hence “become the old man suffering loss and equating everything with his supposed glorious past.” This helps motivate the rage that I feel the part demands at the end. The beginning of the rôle shows the Herzog’s love for his daughter and his acceptance of the Minnesinger Guntram.’

ARTS IN ACTION: Soprano MARJORIE OWENS, who will sing Freihild in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Devon Cass, © by CAMI]Rôle fit for a bride: Soprano Marjorie Owens, Freihild in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Devon Cass, © by CAMI]

The rôle of Freihild was originated by soprano Pauline de Ahna, who four months after the first performance of Guntram became Frau Strauss. Washington Concert Opera’s performance will feature one of the very few sopranos in the world with experience in Strauss’s first opera. Having sung Freihild in the three Dresden performances in 2014, Marjorie Owens comes to Washington after having rung in 2015 with her Metropolitan Opera début as Verdi’s Aida [in which role she alternated, incidentally, with another Washington Concert Opera alumna, Tamara Wilson]. She was, in fact, the Strauss soprano par excellence at the Semperoper in 2014, her celebration of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth having encompassed, in addition to Freihild in Guntram, performances of the title rôles in Ariadne auf Naxos, which she also sang with great distinction in Fort Worth in 2013, and Daphne. Another great Straussian, Dame Gwyneth Jones, paid homage to Pauline de Ahna in a performance piece entitled Die Frau im Schatten (The Woman in the Shadow), noting that the soprano’s influence over her husband was more heard than seen by the public. Her influence was extraordinary, however, and the quality of Strauss’s music for Freihild is indicative of the power that the soprano exerted over the composer. Mr. Smith likened Strauss’s characterization of Guntram to Wagner’s portrayal of the title character in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and comparisons between Elisabeth in the same opera and Elsa in Lohengrin with Strauss’s Freihild are similarly apt. Elisabeth is another part in which Ms. Owens has excelled in Dresden, solidifying her qualification to sing Freihild with unimpeachable musical and dramatic authority.

It seems that virtually every important German-speaking composer of opera has to his credit at least one score that languishes in obscurity. Even amidst the increased scrutiny of the Baroque revival of recent decades, infrequently-performed Händel operas are numerous. Beyond Salzburg, how many audiences have heard Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus, Ascanio in Alba, or La finta semplice? Having only one player in the game spares Beethoven from neglect in the world’s opera houses, but Wagner’s legacy seldom extends to modern performances of Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi. Perhaps even more than any of these scores, Richard Strauss’s Guntram has much to offer the Twenty-First-Century listener. Maestro Antony Walker and Washington Concert Opera have repeatedly proved wonderfully adept at conveying the singular passion and pageantry of opera on the concert stage. Their Guntram is poised to establish our nation’s capital anew as one of the world’s foremost operatic capitals.

To learn more about Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Guntram, please visit the company’s website. Click here or phone 202.364.5826 to purchase tickets.

Sincerest thanks to the artists for their time and frankness in responding to questions for this article. Special thanks, too, to Kendra Rubinfeld of Kendra Rubinfeld PR for her assistance in facilitating the artists’ responses.