25 August 2016

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | August 2016: Vincenzo Bellini & Gaetano Donizetti — ALLEGRO IO SON (Lawrence Brownlee, tenor; Delos DE 3517)

IN REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini & Gaetano Donizetti - ALLEGRO IO SON (Delos DE 3517)VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835) and GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Allegro io son – Bel canto AriasLawrence Brownlee, tenor; Viktorija Miškūnaitė, soprano (Puritani selections); Liudas Mikalauskas, bass (Puritani and Fille du régiment selections); Andrius Apšega, baritone (Puritani selection); Kaunas State Choir; Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra; Constantine Orbelian, conductor [Recorded at Kaunas Philharmonic, Kaunas, Lithuania, in April 2016; Delos DE 3517; 1 CD, 62:15; Available from Delos, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

The late thespian Sir Alec Guinness once suggested that a superb tenor voice should sound like ‘a silver trumpet muffled in silk.’ These are very pretty words, to be sure, and a legitimate observation by the owner of one of the great voices of the spoken theatre, but what does the description truly mean? Without resorting to proposing that a listener ponder how a silver trumpet muffled in silk might actually sound, how is Guinness’s assessment translated into discernible qualities that the ear unbothered by poetic conceits can perceive? Supported with ideal grace and enthusiasm by the expertly-scaled singing and playing of the Kaunas State Choir and Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra and the alert, stylish conducting of Constantine Orbelian, tenor Lawrence Brownlee provides with the eleven selections on Allegro io son a definitive—and, in the context of Guinness’s lovely but enigmatic observation, revealingly defining—exhibition of the silken trumpeting of a superb, polished-silver tenor voice. Even amidst the musical brilliance of Allegro io son, which is all the more enjoyable for being so vividly recorded and handsomely presented by Delos, it is the undeviating directness of Brownlee’s approach to this demanding music that distinguishes this disc. Sincerity is not a trait that is often encountered in opera, on or off the stage, but honest, unforced connection with the music and the characters that it portrays is the heart of Allegro io son. Is an uncomplicated joy in singing perhaps the silk with which Guinness stated that the finest voices are adorned?

One of America’s most acclaimed singers, Brownlee is an artist who has legitimately earned every honor bestowed upon him, not the least among which is the prestigious Richard Tucker Award. Lauded for interpretations of rôles ranging from Rossini’s dashing leading men to the legendary jazz saxophonist and composer title character in Daniel Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, premièred by Opera Philadelphia in 2015, Brownlee is a performer whose wholly organic operatic portrayals are allied with the utmost technical refinement. Whereas some singers develop idiosyncrasies as their careers progress, Brownlee has thus far honed his skills without sacrificing any of the visceral immediacy of his singing, each new experience broadening his view but never distorting his focus. The tenor’s renown owes much to his breathtaking flair for executing Rossinian fiorature, but the expansive melodic lines of Vincenzo Bellini and the dramatic bel canto of Gaetano Donizetti are equally apt outlets for Brownlee’s prodigious gifts. Avoiding the forcing that compromises many singers’ endeavors in this repertory, Brownlee’s singing on Allegro io son possesses an evenness spanning the full range that, though perhaps easier to control in the recording studio than in the theatre, cannot be faked. As with the sincerity of his expression, the authenticity of his vocalism is remarkable, especially as it is employed in the performances on this disc. Brownlee practices what many pedagogues and fellow tenors can only preach.

It is fitting that the Bellini selections on Allegro io son are drawn from the composer’s final opera, I puritani, in performances of which Brownlee has proved in recent seasons to be a stakes-raising exponent of the rôle of Arturo, created in the opera’s 1835 première by Giovanni Battista Rubini. The fearsome tessitura and stratospheric range of the part lift it beyond the reach of most modern tenors even with downward transpositions and omissions, but Brownlee’s performances of Arturo for Washington Concert Opera, The Metropolitan Opera, and other companies have been notable not only for the appearance of ease with which he sings the music, evidence of his award-worthy acting skills [anyone lulled by his singing into doubting the difficulty of Brownlee’s repertory is encouraged to sing along—at pitch—with any of the selections on this disc to dispel these illusions], but also his astounding projection of the part’s infamous F5. Brownlee here sings Arturo’s de facto entrance aria—not so designated by Bellini in the score—from Act One, ‘A te, o cara, amor talora.’ Complemented by capable, often lovely deliveries of Elvira’s, Giorgio’s, and Valton’s lines by soprano Viktorija Miškūnaitė, baritone Andrius Apšega, and bass Liudas Mikalauskas, he sculpts the arching melody with superb breath control and rises ecstatically to a bright, steady top C♯. Then, rather than awing with an account of ‘Credeasi, misera’ with the aforementioned F5, he prefers beguiling with the more subtle charms of ‘Son salvo, alfin son salvo.’ Miškūnaitė sings Elvira’s offstage passage ‘A una fronte afflitto e solo’ hauntingly, and Brownlee answers with vocalism of impeccable poise and lustrous tone. Astounding is the panache with which he manages to sound genuinely heroic whilst also placing vowels squarely on the breath as true bel canto demands.

This disc takes its title from Beppe’s popular aria from the Italian version of Donizetti’s otherwise little-remembered one-act gem Rita, ‘Allegro io son, come un fringuel.’ The rapid-fire triplets with which the composer conjured the opera’s Spanish setting hold no terrors for Brownlee, and Donizetti’s trills are dutifully attempted, the second more successfully than the first. Completely successful are Brownlee’s ascents to the top Bs and C♯. From Act Four of La favorite come Fernand’s recitative ‘La maîtresse du roi!’ and aria ‘Ange si pur, que dans un songe.’ The tenor’s French diction is exemplary, slightly more natural, in fact, than his excellent command of Italian, and the anguish expressed by the character as he reflects on his idealized passion having been shattered simmers in Brownlee’s unexaggerated singing. The beautifully-sustained top C is integrated into the line rather than disrupting it. Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal is one of Donizetti’s most daunting and therefore least-performed works, and the title character’s sprawling aria that ends the opera’s second act, ‘Seul sur la terre,’ tests Brownlee’s abilities. Reminiscent of the music that prefaces the heroine’s first scene in Lucia di Lammermoor, evocative passages for harp—beautifully played by the Kaunas harpist—introduce an exquisite principal theme that straddles the tenor’s passaggio. Brownlee conquers the aria unflinchingly, resourcefully exploiting his tones’ glistening patina rather than pushing the voice. The trio of top Cs and climactic top D♭ ring excitingly, costing Brownlee nothing in terms of toil that he is not eminently capable of paying. Luciano Pavarotti famously likened the tenor voice to a bank account into which God, nature, or whatever force to which one attributes vocal endowments deposits a finite number of top Cs. Singers’ upper registers are often casualties of the natural aging of voices, but Brownlee is the exceptionally rare singer whose technique seems adept at regularly replenishing his cache of high notes.

There have been few singers as uniquely qualified to sing Ernesto in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale as Brownlee since the days of Tito Schipa and Cesare Valletti. Not even Alfredo Kraus sang Ernesto’s music so winsomely, and Brownlee has the advantage in comparison with the most noteworthy of his fellow Ernestos among today’s tenors of having a warmer, more appealingly youthful timbre. On this disc, Brownlee makes Ernesto’s Act Two recitative ‘Povero Ernesto! dallo zio cacciato, da tutti abbandonato,’ music that can too easily sound inane, truly touching. Matching the artful phrasing of the obbligato trumpet, Brownlee voices the larghetto aria ‘Cercherò lontana terra dove gemen sconosciuto’ ravishingly, the disinherited lad’s despair for once eliciting sympathy rather than derision. The moderato cabaletta ‘E se fia che ad altro oggetto’ receives from this Ernesto a rollicking reading bolstered by a newly-tapped vein of confidence: no note ever recorded exudes confidence more exhilaratingly than the interpolated top D♭ with which Brownlee ends the cabaletta. Aided by the chorus and the atmospheric sounds of the guitar and tambourine, his account of Ernesto’s Act Three serenade ‘Com'è gentil la notte a mezzo april’ is no less alluring. It may be an element of a ruse in its proper context in Don Pasquale, but the only Norinas whose hearts would not flutter in response to such a serenade would be either deaf or dead ones.

There are greater depths of expression in Donizetti’s music for Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore than many tenors bother to seek in their performances of the rôle. Content to garner laughs with a wide-eyed bumpkin’s antics, they leave to audiences’ imaginations the aspects of the guileless young man’s character that ultimately endear him to the sophisticated Adina. In his performance on this disc of the Act One aria ‘Quanto è bella, quanto è cara,’ Brownlee divulges to the listener that poetic wonder is not the exclusive right of those who are able to read poetry. The ebullience of a boyish affection is there in spades, but subtler emotions are also at play. This is also true of Brownlee’s singing of the ubiquitous Act Two aria ‘Una furtiva lagrima negli occhi suoi spuntò.’ There are so many dreadful recorded performances of Nemorino’s arias that one almost cringes to see them included in a disc’s track list, but Brownlee here offers performances of them that anyone who loves this music—or who appreciates singing in general—will want to hear again and again.

In November 2016, Brownlee brings his widely-praised portrayal of the lovesick Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, already savored by audiences in Cincinnati, New York, and throughout the operatically-inclined world, to Washington National Opera. Like his Italian cousin Nemorino, the Tyrolean Tonio is frequently depicted as an affable but essentially dimwitted fellow. To be sure, his Act One aria ‘Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête’ is not the most intellectually stimulating piece ever composed, musically or textually, but its infectious elation is irresistible. Here, too, having no need to fret over the music’s technical requirements, Brownlee looks more closely into Tonio’s heart than many of the tenors who sing the rôle. He interacts merrily but meaningfully with Mikalauskas’s Caporal, the voice pouring out with uncontainable glee. In Brownlee’s handling, there is far more to the cabaletta ‘Pour mon âme, quel destin’ than its eagerly-awaited string of nine top Cs. Each of those Cs rockets from Brownlee’s throat with infallible intonation, soaring as if to say, ‘Is this not how youngsters in love express themselves?’ Nevertheless, the man who so eloquently pleads his case to the intractable but not unmoved Marquise in the Act Two aria ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’ cannot be a backwoods yokel whose head is filled with cows and Edelweiss, and Brownlee unfurls the aria’s melodic line like a delicate ribbon. The interpolated top C♯ with which he crowns the aria is a tone of great plangency, a cry from Tonio’s wounded soul aimed squarely at the heart of the Marquise. In these performances, Brownlee’s upper register is unfailingly secure and vibrant, but his bel canto is defined by much more than effective high notes. The silver trumpet is vital, the requisite canto, but the silk is the bel without which singing is only stylized noise.

Recital discs often disclose more about singers’ egos than about their voices or artistries. In the insular setting of the recital disc, there are no needs for dramatic continuity or interactions with colleagues with which to be concerned. In too many instances, this freedom of sorts engenders sloppiness and showmanship of the most deplorable order. The singer in possession of an extraordinary voice can be forgiven for occasionally indulging the impulse to display it, but does a singer’s responsibility to composers dissipate when the project at hand is an aria recital rather than a recording of a complete opera? His singing of the selections on this disc, as insightfully-chosen a repertory as any singer has ever recorded, affirms that for Lawrence Brownlee the answer is obviously, emphatically No. These performances radiate unbreakable respect for Bellini and Donizetti and unshakable trust in the power of their music to, when sung as they intended it to be sung, convey complex emotions with universal simplicity. The tenor Marcello Giordano has been quoted as saying that ‘the tenor voice should be like sunshine.’ Sometimes sweet, sometimes scorching, Lawrence Brownlee’s voice is on Allegro io son always like silver gleaming through silk; a voice that generates its own sunshine.

20 August 2016

IN MEMORIAM: Incandescent Italian soprano DANIELA DESSÌ, 1957 – 2016

IN MEMORIAM: Italian soprano DANIELA DESSÌ, 1957 - 2016 [Photo © by Daniela Dessì/Lombardo Associates]DANIELA DESSÌ
14 May 1957 – 20 August 2016

As I have written in past, one of the most difficult tasks that an opera-loving writer faces is that of struggling with inadequate words to say farewell to admired artists, especially when those artists are taken from this world when there was so much more that their work might have given us. The unexpected passing of Italian soprano Daniela Dessì, who only recently announced a break from performing due to illness but anticipated returning to the stage for a gala concert in October 2016, is an occasion upon which celebration of all that audiences received from her is tempered by contemplation of the riches of which hateful disease now deprives aficionados of authentic Italian singing. Beautiful, intelligent, warm-hearted on and off the stage, and tirelessly dedicated to preserving the art of song, Dessì was a glistening jewel in a diadem that has become badly tarnished in the years since the voices of Magda Olivero, Anita Cerquetti, and Renata Tebaldi were silenced.

Born in Genova, Dessì was a singer whose extraordinarily expansive repertory was born not of circumstance and happenstance but of artistic curiosity and genuine interest in the history of opera since its modern emergence in the late Sixteenth Century. Acclaimed in rôles ranging from the title schemer in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and Sesto in Händel’s Giulio Cesare to Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and Maria Stuarda, Dessì exhibited rare mastery of virtually the entire spectrum of Giuseppe Verdi’s writing for soprano from her first beautifully-vocalized performances of the composer’s Messa da Requiem. In his New York Times review of her 1995 Metropolitan Opera début as Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, a rôle that she recorded impressively during Philadelphia concerts under Riccardo Muti’s direction, noted critic Alex Ross assessed her performance as possessing ‘secure, well-projected high notes, lustrous tone quality at lower volumes, a subtle expressive sense.’ These traits made her portrayals of Verdi’s heroines unforgettable. Related but discernibly unique were the aspects of nobility that characterized her Elvira in Ernani, Leonora in Il trovatore, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, and Aida. Her Alice Ford displayed a perfect balance between joviality and decorum. Whether negotiating the intricacies of Elena’s ‘Mercè, dilette amiche’ in I vespri siciliani or braving Amelia’s long vocal lines in Simon Boccanegra, Dessì’s Verdi singing was principally noteworthy for the unmistakable command of and affection for the composer’s music.

As memorable as her bel canto and Verdi performances were, it was as an interpreter of Giacomo Puccini’s soprano heroines that Dessì shone most brightly. She was a Mimì in La bohème whose joy was as profound as her sorrow, and she was a Tosca whose spirit soared to heights as great as those reached by her voice. Often singing opposite her husband, tenor Fabio Armiliato, her Minnie in La fanciulla del West embodied the indomitable essence of the American West but as a thinking, feeling, suffering woman rather than an archetype. She rekindled the sacred fire that burned in the performances of Rosina Storchio, Geraldine Farrar, Margaret Sheridan, Licia Albanese, and Maria Callas in her own interpretation of Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly. To hear her sing ‘Che tua madre dovrà’ was to understand the psychological depth of Puccini’s depiction of a young girl transformed into a shrewd woman by pain and motherhood. Every moment of vocal strain was incorporated into a portrait of grace and grit, one that brought John Luther Long’s resilient heroine to life on the crests of Puccini’s music.

When Geraldine Farrar sang Cio-Cio San in the Metropolitan Opera première of Madama Butterfly in 1907, Henry Krehbiel wrote of her in the New York Tribune that ‘she sounds the note of deep pathos in both action and song convincingly.’ Could he have heard Daniela Dessì in any of the rôles in which her vocal prowess and penetrating imagination were fully engaged, he would surely have lauded her in similar terms. Dessì was an artist whose foremost goal was communication, not perfection. That she continued to share her gifts with audiences even as her body was ravaged by illness confirms that singing was for her a source of life rather than a means of making a living. There can be no redress for the performances that she now will never give us, but there must be tremendous gratitude for all that Daniela Dessì taught us about music that we cherish.

IN MEMORIAM: Italian soprano DANIELA DESSÌ (1957 - 2016) as Nedda, with baritone Mariusz Kwiecień as Silvio, in Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI at The Metropolitan Opera, 2004 [Photo by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Gli uccelli sono volati troppo presto: Soprano Daniela Dessì as Nedda (left) and baritone Mariusz Kwiecień as Silvio (right) in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci at The Metropolitan Opera, 2004 [Photo by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

31 July 2016

CD REVIEW: Padre Antonio Soler — SIX CONCERTI FOR TWO KEYBOARDS (Philippe LeRoy & Jory Vinikour, harpsichords; Delos DE 3491)

IN REVIEW: Padre Antonio Soler - SIX CONCERTI FOR TWO KEYBOARDS (Delos DE 3491)PADRE ANTONIO SOLER (1729 – 1783): Six Concerti for Two KeyboardsPhilippe LeRoy and Jory Vinikour, harpsichords [Recorded at the Scoring Stage, Skywalker Sound, Nicasio, California, USA, 2 – 5 April 2015; Delos DE 3491; 1 CD, 74:15; Available from Delos, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

In nature, it is theorized that, on average, the proverbial tip of an iceberg visible to observers represents no more than twenty percent of the floe’s total volume. The same statistic could be used to accurately describe the ratio of familiar music in the Classical repertory to the overwhelming wealth of compositions that remain largely unknown. Even now, when new technologies enable Twenty-First-Century listeners to explore musical backroads and byways that previous incarnations of recording technology could not travel, there are for every Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms innumerable companies of composers living and dead whose music is substantially or wholly ignored. In truth, a well-meaning inclination to proclaim every piece recovered from neglect a rediscovered masterpiece is no more beneficial than dismissing unheard music as deserving its obscurity, but one of the inscrutable marvels of art is the rare but potent ability of artists to perform a work or a whole repertory in a way that not only figuratively clears the cobwebs but also literally redefines the ways in which the music is interpreted, performed, presented, and received. This is what Maria Callas and Magda Olivero achieved in bel canto and verismo repertories, what Marie-Claire Alain did for her brother Jehan’s music for organ, and what Arthur Grumiaux did for Händel’s forgotten violin sonatas. This, too, is what internationally-acclaimed harpsichordists Philippe LeRoy and Jory Vinikour accomplish with this new Delos recording of the Six Concerti for Two Keyboards of Antoni Soler i Ramos. This music is not unknown, but hearing this disc, in the context of which producer and recording engineer David Bowles centers the music in an acoustical space of stunning, almost clinical clarity, may prompt the listener to believe that this is his first contact with these Concerti. A performance of music for harpsichord is expected to dazzle with virtuosity, and there is no shortage of nimbly-executed deluges of notes here, but the stylistic acuity and aesthetic sophistication are the attributes that mark this as a pioneering disc. The notes are but the tip of this musical iceberg: as played by LeRoy and Vinikour, the true merit of this music shimmers beneath the surface.

The uncertainty that undermines complete understanding of these Concerti’s provenance is as frustrating as an instance in which so much is known or can with relative credibility be conjectured can be. The Concerti were not published until the sixth and seventh decades of the Twentieth Century, and the dedication inscribed on Soler’s manuscript—para la diversion del Ssmo. Infante de España Dn. Gabriel de Bourbón—only confirms the composer’s association with the Spanish royal family documented by history. Known events and intersections in the lives of Soler and the Concerti’s dedicatee Gabriel de Borbón (1752 – 1788), the tenth of King Carlos III’s thirteen children, date the composition of the Concerti to circa 1770, when the precocious Infante remained under Soler’s tutelage, and only the demands of the music exceeding the capabilities of the instruments known to have been in the Borbón collection during the second half of the Eighteenth Century advocates for the Concerti having been intended for harpsichords rather than organs, on which they have often been performed and recorded since their publication. Whether, like Bach’s famed Notenbüchlein for his wife Anna Magdalena, the Concerti were conceived primarily for the edification and entertainment of Soler’s patron as their dedication suggests or for public exhibition of the adolescent prince’s talent remains—and is likely to continue to remain—undetermined.

What is apparent from the first bars of the Andante movement of Concerto No. 1 in C major is that Soler’s music might have been composed to showcase the assets of LeRoy’s and Vinikour’s unique artistic partnership. The harpsichordists’ individual styles are very different, the Frenchman LeRoy approaching his music with understated intensity and the Chicago-born Vinikour employing a more outwardly flamboyant but no less introspective manner. LeRoy plays in Rabelaisian poetry and Vinikour in Hawthornean prose, but the musical narratives that they fashion are uncannily compatible. Both the graceful Andante and the effervescent Minué draw from LeRoy and Vinikour playing in which refinement and technical flair are ideally merged. The imagination that both gentlemen display in handling the variations in each of the Concerti’s Minué movements is one of the disc’s greatest virtues, the novelty of their phrasing consistently enticing the listener to eagerly await the music’s next unexpected subtlety. The slyly sentimental Concerto No. 2 in A minor opens with a dulcet Andante that gains from LeRoy’s and Vinikour’s sensitive touch the lilt of a troubadour’s canso. The sparks struck by the harpsichordists’ exchanges in the subsequent Allegro movement ignite a rhythmic bonfire that elucidates the inventiveness of Soler’s part writing. The Tempo de Minué is executed with such precise synchronicity that it seems impossible that human fingers are responsible for the performance, but what is heard here is mastery, not mechanism.

LeRoy and Vinikour allow none of the slower-paced movements among the Concerti to drag or lose momentum, and their performance of the Andantino in Concerto No. 3 in G major embodies the strategy that sustains the high level of their endeavors in all of the Concerti. Imposing nothing upon the music, they ask questions of no one other than Soler and themselves, and the answers that they incorporate into their playing are all the more persuasive for not being ostentatiously purported to be definitive. Here, too, the musicians’ performance of the Minué is characterized by tightly-sprung but unforced rhythmic accuracy. The emotional profile of the Affettuoso - Andante non largo movement with which Concerto No. 4 in F major begins is powerfully projected by LeRoy’s and Vinikour’s unaffected phrasing, Soler’s melodic lines allowed to breathe and nuanced harmonies given space in which to cast their spells without either aspect being unduly emphasized. Again, their playing of the Minué is lovingly ebullient.

The Cantabile that launches Concerto No. 5 in A major, the most conventionally expressive of the Concerti, is music of palpable sincerity that would not sound out of place in Haydn’s and the young Mozart’s keyboard sonatas. The pensive camaraderie between LeRoy and Vinikour yields its richest effects in this music, their hypnotic interweaving of melodic strands extracting every joule of timbral warmth from John Phillips’s gelid-toned Florentine-inspired harpsichords. Even the fifth Concerto’s Minué looks inward more noticeably than any of its brethren, and these musicians follow where it leads, lending every ornament a distinct purpose within the movement’s broader landscape. The fascinating structure of Concerto No. 6 in D major develops from its inaugural Allegro - Andante - Allegro - Andante movement, the alternating moods of which are put to striking dramatic use by LeRoy and Vinikour. The unfettered joy of their tandem guidance of thematic development in the Concerto’s Minué produces seven-and-a-half of the most pleasurable minutes on the disc.

It seems wholly logical that, on some level, music is inherently Existential. As John Donne might have opined, neither any musician nor any piece of music is an island upon the shores of which no external influences intrude. Examined from any conceivable perspective, music is defined by collaborations, by the bonds that form and evolve among music, performers, and audiences. In essence, this disc is two uninhibitedly communicative artists’ earnestly personal solution for one of music’s great, Sartre-esque enigmas. In this music and in their awe-inspiring arsenals of musical skills, Philippe LeRoy and Jory Vinikour are equals. Could he hear this recording of his Six Concerti for Two Keyboards, Padre Soler would surely also welcome them as equals with the pious altruism for which his contemporaries praised him.

Author’s Note: In addition to reviewing this recording of Soler’s Six Concerti for Two Keyboards, I had the great privilege of writing the liner notes for this release. I was in no way involved with the planning, preparation, making, or marketing of the disc, however, and therefore assess it without bias.

30 July 2016

ARTS IN ACTION: Berkshire Opera Festival brings Grand Opera to the Berkshire Region of Western Massachusetts with 2016 Festival production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

ARTS IN ACTION: Berkshire Opera Festival brings Grand Opera to the Berkshire Region of western Massachusetts [Graphic © by Berkshire Opera Festival]

It was said by the first Chancellor of unified Germany Otto von Bismarck—and repeated but not, as has sometimes been suggested, originated by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber in Evita—that ‘politics is the art of the possible.’ In this era of imperiled public funding for the Performing Arts, aging audiences, and short attention spans, what, then, is opera? Just as it was when the genre-initiating scores of Jacopo Peri and Claudio Monteverdi were first performed in the late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries, opera is the art of the beyond possible—neither the impossible nor Ivor Novello’s ‘land of Might-Have-Been,’ that is, but what can be. Harnessing the power of what opera can be and what opera can mean to a community is central to the mission of Berkshire Opera Festival, an initiative that aims to build upon the momentum established by Berkshire Theatre Group since its inception in 2010 by bringing world-class but accessible and affordable opera to the Berkshire region of Western Massachusetts. With programming including recitals and an Opera Talk presented by eminent connoisseuse and industry insider Cori Ellison, the 2016 Festival culminates in late August and September with BOF’s inaugural mainstage opera production, a staging of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly conducted and directed by BOF Artistic and General Directors and Co-Founders Brian Garman and Jonathon Loy.

In advance of the performances of Madama Butterfly, BOF’s objectives will be furthered by a pair of intriguing recitals, both of which will introduce singers from the Madama Butterfly cast, as well as special guests. On Wednesday, 10 August, the Festival will present Breaking Down Barriers: Songs by Female Composers of Puccini’s Time in Ventfort Hall Mansion in Lenox. Featuring passionate performances of Art Song repertory composed by unjustly-neglected veriste of Puccini’s generation, this performance will confirm that the creation of red-blooded Italian melodies is not solely a gentleman’s undertaking. A week later, on Tuesday, 16 August, Puccini’s own under-explored Art Songs seize the spotlight in The “Unknown Puccini”: A Recital of Songs by Puccini, performed at First Congregational Church in Stockbridge. With General Admission tickets priced at only $30, these budget-friendly recitals offer Manhattan-quality musical adventures that do not demand that attendees be Wall Street trust-fund babies. Tickets for both recitals can be purchased online or by phoning 413.213.6622.

Imaginatively brought to life by a team of talented, experienced artists including scenic designer Stephen K. Dobay and costume designer Charles Caine, BOF’s production of Madama Butterfly brings an ensemble worthy of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, where the opera had its bafflingly unsuccessful première in 1904, to the stage of Pittsfield’s beautiful and historic Colonial Theatre. The Cio-Cio San of celebrated Moldovan soprano Inna Los will fall victim to the charisma of the Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton of tenor Jason Slayden, and the couple’s drama will play out under the benevolent watch of the Sharpless of baritone Weston Hurt. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen will portray Cio-Cio San’s devoted maid Suzuki, and the meddlesome marriage broker Goro will benefit from the electric stage presence of tenor Eduardo Valdes, a Metropolitan Opera stalwart with nearly 600 MET performances to his credit. Bass-baritone John Cheek will pronounce Lo zio Bonzo’s thunderous denunciation of his delicate niece, and baritone Benjamin C. Taylor will woo her as the wily Yamadori. Mezzo-soprano Katherine Maysek will depict Pinkerton’s ‘vera sposa americana’ Kate, and to Pittsfield native baritone John Demler Il commissario imperiale’s utterances will be entrusted. Performances are scheduled for 27 and 30 August and 2 September, and tickets range in price from $20 to $98. An evening of top-quality, heartbreaking Italian opera in Pittsfield can be savored for the cost of dinner at the neighborhood trattoria! Tickets for Madama Butterfly can be purchased online or by phoning 413.997.4444.

One of the greatest challenges facing opera companies, particularly American opera companies, is the necessity of attracting new audiences to ensure the genre’s continued success without alienating the aficionados whose dedication has carried opera through the dark days of economic recessions and waning governmental support. With the myriad of instant-gratification distractions of today’s digital-media environment, a critical component of recruiting the next generation of opera lovers is overcoming the lingering stigma of opera’s perceived elitism. Talk is cheap, but, without compromising the integrity of performances and productions, opera can be, too. Committed to bringing opera that is ‘of the people, for the people, and by the people’ in the best Lincolnsian sense to Western Massachusetts, Berkshire Opera Festival is a paramount model of opera as the art of what can be.

ARTS IN ACTION: The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, venue for Berkshire Opera Festival's 2016 production of Giacomo Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY [Photo by the author]Nagasaki in the Berkshires: The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, venue for Berkshire Opera Festival’s 2016 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly [Photo by the author]

23 July 2016

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — LE NOZZE DI FIGARO (T. Hampson, S. Yoncheva, L. Pisaroni, C. Karg, A. Brower, A. S. von Otter, M. Muraro, R. Villazón, J.-P. Fouchécourt, P. Sly, R. Mühlemann; Deutsche Grammophon 479 5945)

IN REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - LE NOZZE DI FIGARO (Deutsche Grammophon 479 5945)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492Thomas Hampson (Conte d’Almaviva), Sonya Yoncheva (Contessa d’Almaviva), Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Christiane Karg (Susanna), Angela Brower (Cherubino), Anne Sofie von Otter (Marcellina), Maurizio Muraro (Bartolo), Rolando Villazón (Basilio), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (Don Curzio), Philippe Sly (Antonio), Regula Mühlemann (Barbarina); Vocalensemble Rastatt; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Jory Vinikour, fortepiano continuo; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded in conjunction with concert performances in Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany, in July 2015; Deutsche Grammophon 479 5945; 3 CDs, 173:34; Available from Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

What a time this is for those listeners who love the operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart! On the heels of a rollicking account of Die Entführung aus dem Serail from Le Cercle de l’Harmonie and Jérémie Rhorer and with traversals of La clemenza di Tito from cpo, Zaide from Signum Classics, and Don Giovanni from Sony Classical on the horizon comes Deutsche Grammophon’s thought-provoking new recording of Le nozze di Figaro, the fourth installment in conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s and tenor Rolando Villazón’s venture to record Mozart’s seven mature operas, spanning the decade from 1781’s Idomeneo, re di Creta to 1791’s Die Zauberflöte and La clemenza di Tito. Recorded during two concert performances and a rehearsal in July 2015 and expertly engineered by Tonmeister Rainer Maillard and Assistant Engineer Douglas Ward to both uphold Deutsche Grammophon’s legendary standards of sonic excellence and preserve enjoyable aspects of the live-performance atmosphere, most notably the audience’s blissful laughter, this account of Le nozze di Figaro unites Mozartean veterans with newcomers in a musical setting that fuses elements of period-appropriate practices with the extraordinary legacy of the opera’s 229-year history. This emphatically is not a dainty, tempest-in-a-teacup performance, however: Mozart’s, librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s, and playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s drama surges from these discs, every sigh, smile, and stress vividly, lovingly brought to life.

Written in 1778, Beaumarchais’s comedy La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro was the central work in a triptych that sent shock waves of seismic intensity through late-Eighteenth-Century intellectual circles, its convoluted sagas of wily servants sparring with despotic aristocrats garnering disapproval in seats of power throughout Europe. Though banned throughout Hapsburg lands by imperial decree owing not to its barbed social satire but to its copious sexual innuendo, Lorenzo da Ponte miraculously procured authorization from Joseph II’s court to adapt La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro for the operatic stage. The resulting libretto, the first of three of the poet’s texts that Mozart would eventually set, is a marvel of humor and humanity—precisely the sort of material that appealed strongly to Mozart’s cosmopolitan sensibilities.

Recently named James Levine’s successor as Music Director of The Metropolitan Opera, making him only the third holder of that title after Levine and Rafael Kubelík, the Québécois Nézet-Séguin, barely out of his thirties, confirms with his stewardship of this recording of Le nozze di Figaro that he is both a Mozartean of once-in-a-generation significance and a fully-qualified heir to Levine and Kubelík—and, looking further back into the annals of MET history, Gustav Mahler. The young conductor’s instinct for getting to the heart of each scene provides this performance with prodigious cumulative momentum, and Nézet-Séguin is among the few conductors to have presided over a recording of Le nozze di Figaro who never loses his way in the opera’s magnificent ensembles. Tempi are quick: Otto Klemperer’s studio recording of a similarly inclusive edition of Nozze di Figaro runs sixteen minutes longer than this performance, but only in a handful of numbers do Nézet-Séguin’s speeds feel slightly rushed. Even in these instances, the impact of the music is strengthened by the effervescence of the conductor’s approach. For instance, Cherubino’s Act One aria ‘Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio’ is taken at such a clip that the singer can barely get the notes out. Get the notes out she does, though, and the rapidity of Nézet-Séguin’s tempo is justified by the dramatic efficacy that the aria gains from the breathless vivacity of the musical performance matching the ethos of the text. Nevertheless, the score’s lyric episodes, especially the Contessa’s ‘Porgi, amor’ and ‘Dove sono i bei momenti,’ are handled with sensitivity and pathos. At its most individual, Nézet-Séguin’s conducting of this Nozze di Figaro is never pedantic or precious: every motion of his baton is motivated by his personal response to Mozart’s score and dedicated to kindling a lucid, cogent performance that takes advantage of his cast’s considerable strengths.

As unexpected as Nézet-Séguin’s mercurial tempi to ears accustomed to ponderous Mozart performances will be this recording's orchestral soundscape, which, contrary to recent trends in Mozart performances, is wholly without the slightest hint of a period instrument except for the aptly piquant sounds of Jory Vinikour’s fantastically witty but never obtrusive fortepiano continuo, practically an anonymous character in the opera who propels the drama without meddling in its resolution. Some listeners may never accept keyboard continuo extending beyond secco recitatives in Mozart’s operas, but in an era before the rise of podium-centric conducting in the modern sense can a composer and musician as ebullient as Mozart really be thought to have sat idly at the keyboard during arias and ensembles, awaiting the next stretch of secco recitative? Questions of historicity aside, Vinikour’s quicksilver but infallibly tasteful playing is one of the foremost delights of this Nozze di Figaro, one that the boundlessly inventive Mozart is certain to have appreciated.

As in the previous DGG recordings of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, Nézet-Séguin’s leadership spurs the Chamber Orchestra of Europe musicians to aspire to and succeed in matching the standards that Karl Böhm set with Staatskapelle Dresden in the 1970s. The orchestra’s instruments are modern, but the players who wield them have clearly absorbed many of the past half-century’s innovations in the field of period-appropriate practices. Like Böhm’s, Nézet-Séguin’s manner of preparing Le nozze di Figaro leaves traditions to conductors who prefer to borrow interpretations of Mozart’s music from others rather than devising their own. To this end, he and the COE musicians seek answers to questions about how to translate the notes into meaningful sounds in the score, trusting Mozart to have provided every clue needed to solve the opera’s riddles.

Like their COE colleagues, the Vocalensemble Rastatt singers draw the animation of their performance from the music that Mozart entrusted to them, their singing of ‘Giovani liete, fiori spargete’ in Act One and the ladies’ dulcet ‘Ricevete, o padroncina’ in Act Three embodying the prevailing spirit of Nézet-Séguin’s leadership. The singers are thoroughly convincing as townspeople eager to enjoy a good party and perhaps a bit of intrigue without sounding as though they were recruited at a small-town barn dance. Performing Le nozze di Figaro is not unlike managing arrivals and departures at a busy airport. In this performance, both Chamber Orchestra of Europe’s instrumentalists and Vocalensemble Rastatt’s choristers touch down smoothly, the air traffic control of Nézet-Séguin’s conducting steering them clear of every peril.

The junior member of a superlative ensemble cast, Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann portrays Barbarina with a voice and a persona as fresh as newly-fallen autumn snow on the Matterhorn. In the vivacious girl’s Act Three scenes with the residents of Castello d’Almaviva and Cherubino, Mühlemann’s singing is perfectly-proportioned, and she voices the melancholic Act Four cavatina ‘L’ho perduta, me meschina!’ hypnotically. If she continues on this path, one followed in recent memory by Dames Margaret Price and Kiri Te Kanawa, there are surely memorable depictions of Susanna and/or the Contessa ahead of her.

As the grumbling gardener Antonio, Susanna’s uncle, Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly is nothing short of ideal, the voice firm, attractive, and flexible and the quick vibrato intensifying the dramatic bite of the character’s frustrated sputtering. The brevity of the rôle is the only deficiency: Mozart would undoubtedly have composed an aria for Sly’s Antonio. In the Act Three scene in which Marcellina’s hastily-produced marriage contract with Figaro is negated by the revelation that the clever fellow is none other than her conveniently mislaid son, French tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is a frenetically fussy Don Curzio whose pompous pontificating on the legitimacy of Marcellina’s contractual claim on Figaro is wonderfully over the top. Encountering an artist of Villazón’s stature in a small rôle like Basilio is unexpected, but how special the results of this experiment prove to be! Most importantly, Villazón does not over-sing: his every note falls readily into its appointed space in the drama. He sings lightly, the words on the breath, in the Act One trio with Susanna and the Conte, and his aria in Act Three, ‘In quegli anni in cui val poco,’ is drolly but handsomely sung, the tenor’s ebullient personality sparkling in the aria’s tempo de menuetto section. He, Fouchécourt, and Sly might profit lavishly from moonlighting as an operatic comedy troupe.

As the male partner in the reluctant couple whose machinations, exploited by their aristocratic patron, feed the maelstrom that affects the drama’s course, bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro portrays Bartolo as a pompous conniver who only half believes his own orations. His razor-sharp diction compensates for occasional tonal unsteadiness, his verve in recitatives and ensembles supported by consummate musicality. Muraro sings the Act One aria ‘La vendetta, oh, la vendetta’ wonderfully: this Bartolo clearly remembers the lesson that he was taught by Basilio’s ‘La calunnia è un venticello’ in Il barbiere di Siviglia! The effects of an extensive career encompassing an uncommonly broad repertory on the voice of Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter cannot be ignored, but she gamely uses this to her advantage in her portrayal of Marcellina, Bartolo’s partner in crime and, as it turns out, more intimate activities. Sounding as proud as an affronted queen in her Act One scene with Susanna, von Otter sings her half of the duettino ‘Via, resti servita’ divertingly, savoring every mean-spirited syllable. Marcellina’s lines in the ActTwo finale are effortlessly dispatched, and von Otter wields her natural flair for unexaggerated comedy in the Act Three scene in which it is discovered that, rather than his contract-quoting betrothed, she is in fact Figaro’s mother, a development by which no one seems more shocked than she. Marcellina’s aria in Act Four, ‘Il capro e la capretta,’ is often excluded from both staged performances and recordings of the opera, but von Otter here sings it captivatingly, rolling through its divisions with the virtuosity that made her a force with which to reckon in Händel repertory. In the recorded history of Le nozze di Figaro, Marcellina has often been ignored, and in some of the instances in which she has been noticed it would have been preferable for her to have remained ignored. Von Otter cannot be ignored, and more’s the better: no Marcellina on disc has made the character’s rapid-fire transformation of a lover’s affection into a mother’s doting funnier.

Singing the lovesick Cherubino with polished, pristine tone and tasteful ornamentation, American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower brings the rather foolish lad to life without either condescending to or overdoing efforts at conveying masculinity. Like Richard Strauss’s Octavian and Komponist, Mozart’s Cherubino was conceived as a soprano rôle, and Brower negotiates the tessitura with ease, maintaining an enchanting lightness even in moments of greatest dramatic duress. As mentioned previously, the tempo for the Act One aria ‘Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio’ pushes Brower, but she pushes back, the frenzied excitement of the music reflected in her libidinous-frat-boy vocal acting. The control that she exhibits in sustaining the bel canto line in Cherubino’s Act Two arietta ‘Voi che sapete che cosa è amor’ adds psychological depth to Brower’s characterization, suggesting that he is capable at least occasionally of reasoning from a perspective above his belt. Her vocalism in the duettino with Susanna, ‘Aprite, presto, aprite,’ glistens, and she radiates adolescent awkwardness when interacting with Barbarina. Cherubino’s young heart palpitates for the Contessa, but there are so many enticing ladies of all ages and stations at the Conte’s court: how is a boy to devote himself to only one of them? Perhaps the root of the Conte’s dislike of Cherubino is his recognition of a kindred spirit and competitor in an environment with room for only a single ravenous philanderer. Brower’s Cherubino is a pawn in everyone’s games, but how attractive she makes being used sound!

In many performances of Le nozze di Figaro, the title character is little more than a grown-up but not altogether matured Cherubino, an amiable fellow who bumbles along with the mischief afoot in his master’s household. In this performance, the Figaro of bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni never misses an opportunity to make a play for the upper hand: the fact that he so seldom succeeds is indicative of the cunning of his adversaries. He and Susanna start Act One with a nimble performance of their first duettino, Pisaroni singing ‘Cinque... dieci... venti... trenta’ merrily, and the more sinister implications of the duettino ‘Se a caso madama la notte ti chiama’ are limned without vocal heaviness. Pisaroni’s delivery of the cavatina ‘Se vuol ballare, signor contino’ is good-natured, but the seriousness of his intention to tangle with the philandering Conte is unmistakable. He brings down the curtain on Act One with a voicing of the aria ‘Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso’ that brims with wry insinuation. Inventing the story of Figaro jumping from the Contessa’s window and upsetting Antonio’s prized flowerpot with quick-witted spontaneity, Pisaroni’s Figaro sails through the ActTwo finale by the seat of his trousers, even his best-crafted lies falling flat. Honesty may not be the best policy for his character, but the bass-baritone’s singing never fails him. In the Act Three scene with Marcellina, Bartolo, the Conte, and Don Curzio, Figaro finally finds himself at the top of the heap, the wily Conte flummoxed by the discovery of Figaro’s parentage, and Pisaroni’s voice booms with relieved pride. Nevertheless, uncertainty takes hold anew in the Act Three finale, and the shadows return in the singer’s vocal coloring. Figaro’s recitative and aria in Act Four, ‘Tutto è disposto... Oh Susanna, Susanna, quanta pena mi costi!’ and ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi,’ are sung as capably by Pisaroni as by the finest Figaros on disc, and he magnifies the importance of Figaro’s every word in the opera’s finale. From the gruff bottom to a ringing top F, Pisaroni has every note in Figaro’s range at the ready, and he portrays a dashing valet who serves sarcasm without sacrificing sterling singing.

This recording documents American baritone Thomas Hampson’s third interpretation of Conte d’Almaviva for a major label. His intellectual comprehension of the Conte’s motivations, already well-honed at the time of his first recording of the part in 1990, has broadened in the years of his acquaintance with the music, but the voice as recorded in 2015 sounds astonishingly untouched by the intervening years. Ever a resourceful artist, Hampson’s Conte was from the start an ‘old soul’ portrayal, one in which an unquenchable carnal hunger does not wholly obscure an inalienable nobility. In this performance, his Conte blusters slightly more than in past, enhancing the notion that the Conte is a man of a certain age whose position is now a greater attraction than his person. In the Act One trio with Susanna and Basilio, ‘Cosa sento! Tosto andate,’ Hampson sings strongly, his timbre warming when he addresses Susanna. In the Act Two trio with the Contessa and Susanna and the act’s subsequent finale, though, the character’s mounting frustration and fury metamorphose the silvery tones of Act One into steel-edged weapons. The Act Three duettino with Susanna, ‘Crudel! Perchè finora farmi languir così,’ is distinguished by a momentary return to the gentle melancholy of Act One: can it be that the lusty Conte actually loves Susanna, at least on some level? Essentially thrown to the wind in many performances, the recitative ‘Hai già vinta la causa!’ and aria ‘Vedrò mentr’io sospiro’ are magnetically sung by Hampson, who then voices the Conte’s parts in the brilliant sextet and the Act Three finale with boundless charisma. After the hubbub of Act Four, Hampson takes the lead in bringing about the opera’s moving dénouement. Aided by Nézet-Séguin, who sets exactly the right tempo for the passage, Hampson voices ‘Contessa, perdono’ simply but poignantly, his tones centered and ideally weighted. Hopelessly impenetrable would be the heart that did not react magnanimously to such a plea. An essential component of Mozart’s genius was his peerless ability to create morally-ambiguous characters who are alluring even when at their most repulsive. As sung by Hampson in this performance, the Conte’s words and actions are often reprehensible, but the man never is. It is silly when his first two commercial recordings of the Conte were so accomplished to suggest, as the colloquialism goes, that the third time is the charm, but there is no denying that Hampson remains a thoughtful, commanding Conte who charms.

Bavarian soprano Christiane Karg provides this Nozze di Figaro with a Susanna who is at once both at the center of the drama and slightly removed from it. Intermittently sounding like a countess in training, this is a Susanna who follows her heart only after analyzing every situation with her formidable intellect. In her Act One scenes with Figaro, Karg is the personification of pre-wedding excitement, her rejoinders to her husband-to-be reverberating with joviality. Then, the socially savvy Susanna emerges in the scene with Marcellina, Karg’s singing in the duettino ‘Via, resti servita’ matching the overtones of von Otter’s lines with her own pointed aspersions. Sizing up her opponents in the trio with the Conte and Basilio, she is alternately coy and caustic, careful to maintain her integrity without figuratively biting the hand that feeds her. Karg’s account of the Act Two aria ‘Venite, inginocchiatevi’ shimmers with girlish jauntiness that only partially conceals more somber thoughts. In the terrific trio with the Conte and Contessa, the first of Susanna’s pair of top Cs disappears into the sonic hullabaloo, but the second appears, comet-like, above the ensemble. Karg complements Brower’s elan in the duettino with Cherubino, ‘Aprite, presto, aprite,’ the two of them conspiring like Hänsel and Gretel on the brink of being caught by their mother with berry-stained lips. Her vocalism in the Act Two finale gleams, and, like Hampson, she allows hints of genuine affection to surface in the Act Three duettino with the Conte. Karg leads the sextet with the determination of a musical Joan of Arc escorting her countrymen into battle, but the smiling mischief returns in the celebrated duettino with the Contessa and the madcap Act Three finale. Susanna’s recitative ‘Giunse alfin il momento’ and exquisite F-major aria ‘Deh vieni, non tardar, o gioia bella’ are the musical apogee of Act Four, and Karg delivers the former with communicative thrust and sings the latter with composure and expressivity. She seconds the Contessa beautifully in the opera’s finale. Karg’s Susanna is an especially suitable match for Pisaroni’s Figaro as she also has every note of her part in the voice. Many sopranos make the mistake of thinking that they must venture to give Susanna a palpable dramatic profile in order to establish her stature in the drama, but Mozart did that for them. Karg understands that what is required to realize Susanna’s full dramatic potential is to faithfully sing her music. This Karg does, often dazzlingly, and she thereby easily earns inclusion alongside Maria Cebotari, Bidù Sayão, Irmgard Seefried, Edith Mathis, and Lucia Popp among the superior Susannas on disc.

Amidst the helter-skelter goings-on of this emotionally-charged Nozze di Figaro, the poised, imperturbable, sumptuously-voiced Contessa of Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva is profoundly touching and frequently surprising. The voluptuousness of her timbre prompts recollection of the fact that the Contessa is a rôle sung with merit in previous generations by Elisabeth Rethberg, Marcella Pobbe, and Renata Tebaldi, conscientious, capable Mozarteans whose voices were of markedly grander proportions than those of most of the singers now favored for Mozart performances. Yoncheva’s is not by any measure an enormous voice, but it is an instrument quite unlike the ‘blonde’ voices most often heard in the rôle. The Contessa’s E♭-major cavatina that begins Act Two, ‘Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro,’ situated without so much as one line of prefacing recitative, is one of the most treacherous entrances in opera, the long melodic lines unforgivingly exposed. Yoncheva needs nowhere to hide, singing the piece rapturously but with restraint and moving seamlessly through the full range of the music. In the trio with Susanna and the Conte that follows, ‘Susanna, or via, sortite,’ the soprano’s distinctive timbre makes her utterances stand out, and her voice is never lost in the boisterous ensembles that end Acts Two and Three. Yoncheva sings the recitative ‘E Susanna non vien!’ in Act Three with an immediacy that evinces the ironic anguish of a Contessa, once so eager to reinvent herself, who longs to again be uncomplicated Rosina. The C-major aria ‘Dove sono i bei momenti’ is one of Mozart’s most sublime inspirations, an interlude like Ottavia’s ‘Addio Roma, addio patria, amici addio’ in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and Almirena’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in Händel’s Rinaldo in which time stands still as undiluted emotions gush from the music. Yoncheva’s performance of the aria is magical, her chocolate-hued voice flowing through the music like lava. Her lines in the duettino with Susanna, ‘Che soave zeffiretto,’ are sung with an incandescence in which music and words are virtually indistinguishable. Responding to the Conte’s entreaty for absolution in the Act Four finale, Yoncheva’s Contessa grants his request with a thread of tone that expands into a deluge of emotion in ‘Più dolce io sono, e dico di sì.’ Rather than trying to adhere to other singers’ conceptions of the Contessa, Yoncheva makes the rôle her own, coming to Nozze di Figaro with experience in parts including Monteverdi’s Poppea, Gounod’s Juliette, and Verdi’s Desdemona but without external sources’ misleading theories about how she ought to sound. In truth, the only indications of how a rôle should be sung by which a singer should be guided, whether singing the rôle for the first or the fiftieth time, whether on stage or in studio, are those provided by the composer. In the performance on these discs, it is apparent that Yoncheva learned the Contessa’s music under Mozart’s tutelage as bequeathed to posterity in his score. With such a teacher, how could she do anything but sing as personally and gorgeously as she does here?

More than two-and-a-half centuries after its première, Le nozze di Figaro remains one of the most popular operas in the international repertory. Especially in the past fifty years, the score has proved immune to almost every conceivable directorial abuse. The music has survived poor singing, egotistical conducting, and wrongheaded efforts at adjusting the parameters of ‘stylish’ performance standards and increasing the opera’s ‘relevance’ for modern audiences. Regardless of these obstacles, the adage that asserts that the proof is in the pudding is as applicable in the opera house as in the kitchen. Why, then, does Le nozze di Figaro still challenge, amuse, and move? There is ample proof ripe for the hearing in this recording, which in terms of singing, conducting, and unwavering fidelity to the composer’s genius is a concoction fit for the most gluttonous Mozart appetites.