21 December 2009

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Salvaging SUOR ANGELICA

Geraldine Farrar as Suor Angelica and Flora Perini as the Zia Principessa in the world premiere of Puccini's SUOR ANGELICA [Photo by White Studio]

Among composers who applied their talents to the quest for glory in the opera house, there are few who did not produce works, whether juvenilia or simply troublesome or uninspired, that they later preferred to ignore or deny.  Mozart, for instance, was little concerned during his work with Lorenzo da Ponte in the 1780’s with the pre-Idomeneo Italian operas of his earlier career, and despite noting the remarkable achievements represented by these scores as works of an uncommonly prodigious youth later audiences and musicologists have largely validated Mozart’s neglect of these operas.  Far rarer, however, are instances in which a score greatly prized by its composer is, though met with a measure of success, ultimately dismissed by critics and public alike, whether on dramatic or musical grounds.  In these cases, questions are invariably raised concerning the integrity of the affected composers’ instincts.  How is a situation in which a composer dearly loves a score at which ‘serious’ musicians and music lovers snicker to be interpreted?  Can the musical sensibilities of a composer whose sentimentality fosters lasting affection for an otherwise derided score be trusted?  Even knowing that Giacomo Puccini held the score dearest among his creations, Suor Angelica remains almost a century after its premiere a divisive and, to many opera lovers, embarrassing work.

Geraldine Farrar as Suor Angelica [Photo by White Studio]

Even in the wake of its world premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on 14 December 1918, with a cast that included Geraldine Farrar as Angelica and Flora Perini as the Zia Principessa, Suor Angelica was a much-debated opera.  Critic W.J. Henderson wrote of the score in The Evening Sun that the music ‘is almost always metronomic, dull, drilling upon its theme with the persistence of a dentist at a tooth.  There is no blood or bone to it, no strength to uphold the…concept.’  Mr. Henderson went on to praise Geraldine Farrar for providing, through dignified acting and imperfect singing, ‘what good impression the short tragedy made.’  Other contemporary critics likewise focused their notices on the strengths of Miss Farrar’s performance rather than on the score itself, while receiving mostly positively the verismo blood and thunder of Il Tabarro and the vaudevillian comedy of Gianni Schicchi, Suor Angelica’s companion pieces in Il Trittico.  It was decided almost immediately that Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi functioned better without what Mr. Henderson called the central ‘andante,’ Suor Angelica.  In the ninety-one years since its first night at the MET, Suor Angelica has received (through the Saturday matinee performance on 12 December 2009) seventy-four performances at the MET, all of them in complete presentations of Il Trittico: Gianni Schicchi has been performed 138 times, while La Bohème received its 1,208th MET outing on 10 January 2009 (it returns to the MET’s repertory for nine more performances in spring 2010).  The sopranos who have sung Angelica at the MET form an exclusive sorority: following Miss Farrar, Gilda Cruz-Romo, Teresa Zylis-Gara, Renata Scotto, Teresa Stratas, Diana Soviero, Barbara Frittoli, and Patricia Racette.

Barbara Frittoli as Suor Angelica in Jack O'Brien's 2007 MET production [Photo by Ken Howard]

The gestation of Il Trittico and of Suor Angelica in particular was difficult.  Based upon Puccini’s correspondence with his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, it is surmised that Puccini began considering composing a triptych of one-act operas as early as 1904, following the great success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890) and the premieres of his own Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904).  With commitments to New York for La Fanciulla del West (1910) and Vienna for La Rondine (1917; the premiere took place in Monte Carlo due to World War I), Puccini’s diary was consumed even without the distractions of the lingering effects of a near-fatal automobile accident suffered in 1903 and the 1909 scandal resulting from his wife’s wrongful accusations of adultery against their maid, the maid’s subsequent suicide, and a successful and much-publicized lawsuit brought against Puccini’s wife by the maid’s family.  Moreover, the death of Ricordi in 1912 brought Puccini’s work to a virtual halt.  Puccini worked at his Trittico, however, freed from Ricordi’s objections to the nature of the composition.  The disruption of all aspects of European life by WWI made a Continental premiere for Trittico virtually impossible, so when the success (ensured by the participation of Emmy Destinn, Enrico Caruso, and Pasquale Amato, with Arturo Toscanini conducting) of Fanciulla del West led the MET to accept the work, Puccini agreed to the New York premiere.  The composer was keen from the start that Trittico should be performed complete (that is, with all three operas in place and in the designated sequence) and was appalled by the notion that any of the Trittico operas should be extracted and performed alongside the works of other composers.

Puccini expressed on many occasions, including to Giovacchino Forzano (his librettist for Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi), that Suor Angelica was his favorite not only of the Trittico operas but among all his works to date.  As he composed Suor Angelica, Puccini drew upon his family’s long tradition as composers of liturgical music in his hometown of Lucca, as well as further exploring the vein of the dichotomy inherent in affairs of church and individual that he had tapped so memorably in Tosca.  Puccini was closely acquainted with monastic life, his sister Iginia having been resident for forty years at the time at which he was composing Suor Angelica at the Augustinian convent at Vicopelago.  Puccini often visited his sister, who eventually became Prioress, and made a gift of a harmonium (still in use) to the convent.  The oft-told story of Puccini playing the score of Suor Angelica to his sister (who was known in her order as Suor Giulia Enrichetta) and her community at the convent, most of whom were moved to tears by the music, is perhaps apocryphal, but it is certain that Puccini brought first-hand knowledge and genuine respect to his operatic depiction of convent life.

the Monastero della Visitazione di Vicopelago, where Puccini's sister Iginia was an Augustinian Prioress

Both musically and dramatically, it has often been suggested that Suor Angelica is too saccharine to be taken seriously.  Without question, the presentation of miraculous redemption in the final scene (surely envisioned by Puccini as a profoundly moving coup de théâtre) both exploits the theme of maternal love that was at the heart of the final act of Madama Butterfly and defies logic and Roman Catholic dogma.  Even looking beyond the obvious parallels with Massenet’s 1902 Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, however, this is not an infrequent theme in opera.  The self-sacrificial Senta is the instrument of presumed (and equally implausible) redemption in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer, and his Brünnhilde – a deeply-flawed woman – ends the Ring with a similar sacrifice that not only redeems errant mankind but also restores natural order and severs the bonds between men and corrupt, philandering gods.  To consider Angelica only among her Puccini brethren, there is also Tosca, another deeply faithful woman forced by circumstance to sin and suicide.  Despite her crimes, Tosca’s final cry of ‘O Scarpia, avanti a dio!’ suggests that she anticipates at least having the opportunity to plead her case before the Divine Judgment: damnation is not a forgone conclusion.

In a sense, Angelica might be viewed as a synthesis of Puccinian and Wagnerian womanhood.  What if, like Sieglinde in Die Walküre, Tosca had learned as she prepared for her fatal jump from the parapet that, unmarried and already an unwilling murderess, she was expecting Cavaradossi’s child?  Might not the religious Tosca, prolific in her adoration of the Madonna, have taken refuge in a religious order following the birth of her unfortunate child, too damaged to be a proper mother to her child but too connected to abandon him through death?  Pursuing this idea, perhaps the Zia Principessa is Puccini’s Fricka, the stern representative of the ‘proper’ family for whom preservation of traditional order trumps compassion.  It has been said that Puccini’s depiction of Angelica’s salvation is grotesque in its sickly effort at inspiring tears and disregard for the Catholic implications of her suicide.  Does not Wagner make it implicit in the closing bars of Götterdämmerung by prominently restating the motif to which Sieglinde – perpetrator of incestuous adultery and intended suicide – sang ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ that she, perhaps more meaningfully than Brünnhilde, has been the instrument of redemption by sacrificing her happiness and finally her life for her child?  Almost any scholar would argue that Wagner’s music in Götterdämmerung is more sophisticated, more important than Puccini’s in the final scene of Suor Angelica, but can it be said to be more heartfelt?

Sincerity is at the heart of Suor Angelica.  By all accounts, Puccini was not a religious man, but there is not in Suor Angelica even the slightest hint of parody (as is decidedly not the case in Tosca).  Much has been made of the incongruity of a nun, the participant in a life dedicated to contemplation of Scripture, achieving salvation after commission of the mortal sin of suicide.  The Church is respected, even venerated through subtle suggestions of mysticism, in Suor Angelica, but Puccini’s emphasis is laid unquestionably on Angelica as a woman, as an individual rather than an anonymous portion of a cloistered whole.  When Angelica rejects the notion that she still harbors connections with the world outside her convent, the other Sisters mutter their disagreement as if to reiterate that, for all her piety and surrender to the uniformity of her monastic community, Angelica remains an individual.  To some extent, this is an inversion of Butterfly’s rejection by her family when she adopts Christian beliefs in order to conform with her new husband’s lifestyle.  For Angelica, inclusion in her monastic sisterhood resulted from exclusion from her own family: as with Butterfly, exclusion from the comfortable family unit intensifies the connection with her child, all the more pitifully in Angelica’s case as she only has conjured images of a child she has not seen since his infancy.  Puccini does not attempt psychological profundity in his portrayal of Angelica’s grief, focusing instead on the emotional impact of her receipt of the news of her child’s death.  Puccini nonetheless avoids even marginally portraying the convent (or, by association, faith) as restrictive: oppression enters the opera with the Zia Principessa and, after her departure, remains only in the form of Angelica’s grief.  Throughout the opera, there is no artifice in Puccini’s depictions of Angelica’s suffering.  Her repentance in the final scene is genuine, and salvation is her reward.  It is what might be called an ‘artist’s rendering’ of Providence rather than an ecclesiastical depiction, but it is not effacingly cloying.

Austrian/Croatian soprano Sena Jurinac as Suor Angelica at La Scala

Musically, it is not difficult to underestimate the sophistication of Puccini’s score.  Though both Suor Genovieffa (in her recollection of her Arcadian pursuits prior to entering the convent) and the Zia Principessa (in her exhortation to penance) enjoy prolonged, subtly-developed melodic lines, the only true aria in Suor Angelica is the heroine’s ‘Senza mamma,’ the mother’s formidable lament – requiring ascents to exposed top A’s not unlike the climax of Butterfly’s famous ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ – upon learning from her aunt of her son’s death.  It cannot be denied that Puccini’s efforts at tone-painting are sometimes inconsistent and amusingly literal (the braying of donkeys as the alms sisters approach in Suor Angelica being a typical example) and that there are instances throughout his scores of motivic devices that are strange and inappropriate (of which the recurrence of Colline’s ‘Vecchia zimarra’ in the final bars of La Bohème can be cited).  Puccini’s use of musical symbolism was more careful in Suor Angelica, however.  The prevailing motif is that of flowers, which under Angelica’s care adorn both the paths of the living and the graves of the dead, bring relief to the ill, and finally grant Angelica release from life.  Metaphorically, flowers might be interpreted as extensions of faith in their inherent incarnation of the Biblical notions of sewing and reaping and also as representations of the metaphysical Trinity of life, death, and resurrection.  Puccini avoids overloading his musical depictions of the flowers that are crucial to Angelica’s existence within the convent with effects that distort the focus of the music.  Instead, the score depicts Angelica’s perceptions of her flowers, the woodwinds in the opera’s first scene expressing the wonder Angelica feels as she supervises the growth of her charges.  Later, as she prepares the herbal instrument of her death, Angelica’s agitation is calmed by the comforting presence of her floral escape, conveyed by the strings.  It might be argued in this regard that the compactness of Suor Angelica is very much in its favor: there is little opportunity, in the opera’s fifty or so minutes, for either extravagances or shortcomings.  Puccini’s caution with the tonal palette in Suor Angelica rendered a score that depicts his heroine’s increasingly inexorable fate without imposing on it unwarranted grandeur or obvious social commentary.  The delicacy of the scoring, even in moments of greatest emotional (and tonal) catharsis, emphasizes the sincerity of Puccini’s approach.

Often regarded as a poor companion to her sisters among the heroines of Puccini’s mature operas, Suor Angelica is nonetheless perhaps the most dramatically honest of Puccini’s creations.  It might be argued that the melodramatic trials depicted by Puccini in other operas were already in Angelica’s past: Puccini encountered her as she commenced her ‘end game,’ when all that remained for her was to lose her one connection with human existence, necessitating a directness that was not required of his maidens whose stories are told over three or four acts.  The collective cognoscenti scoff at those who weep for Angelica as she is miraculously reunited with her son and at Puccini for having devoted his art to telling her story.  Were it obvious that Puccini’s affection for Suor Angelica was based solely in sentimentality, a measure of contempt might be justified.  His heart having been engaged so genuinely, though, Puccini produced a score that, for all its supposed flaws, applies an impressionistic array of pastel colors to a black-and-white tale of suffering, loss, and salvation.  When the music is as beautiful as it often is in Suor Angelica, is it so wrong for us to remember those we have loved who have gone wrong but pursued hope to redemption and to shed a tear for a nun who, like the Blessed Mother she venerates, follows her son to heaven?

Patricia Racette as Suor Angelica at the Metropolitan Opera [Photo by Ken Howard]

09 December 2009

ARTIST PROFILE: Tyler Duncan, baritone

Tyler Duncan, baritone

The approach of the end of a year is a time conducive to reflection, to evaluating all aspects of life, giving thanks for things gained and remembering things lost.  The arts community, as any other sector of society, has suffered much during 2009, with institutions throughout the world struggling with the repercussions of the global recession.  Cuts in subsidies, eroding endowments, and the loss of support from patrons facing their own individual economic debacles have led to staff reductions, abbreviated or cancelled seasons, and the disruption of programs.  2009 has likewise brought sadness with the passing of many much-lauded, much-loved artists.  Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Art, however, is its ability to endure despair by if not being at least conjuring what Emily Dickinson called ‘the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.’  Music transcends adversity by supplying, in a sense, an eternal source of optimism, assimilating all the sorrows of the past in a voice that sounds in the present and reverberates into the future, that (as again Emily Dickinson wrote) ‘sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.’

Vital to the renewing spirit of music is the emergence of young artists who, honoring and absorbing the traditions of previous generations, reveal anew the hypnotic power of song.  There are musical works so perennially alluring or finely-crafted that they survive without lasting damage prolonged periods of artistic drought, but even the most sublime scores are refreshed by the work of committed, insightful artists.  Every successive generation of singers must face the suspicions of a community that, in many cases, clings to the past, longing for the restoration of a just-within-the-reaches-of-memory Golden Age when, as has often been stated, there were real voices.  Nevertheless, the finest voices of any age are evident to those who hear them, and new facets of singing are revealed.

Many of the ‘new’ facets of singing revealed to audiences during the past quarter-century have, somewhat ironically, been among the earliest jewels of the operatic genre.  Returning to the music of Monteverdi, Cavalli, Händel, Vivaldi, and their contemporaries has created hosts of opportunities for young artists.  Thankfully, the efforts of many younger artists in Early repertory have also lessened the divisive impact of the work of many early Baroque-specialist pioneers: the most exceptional singers of the past twenty-five years have provided compelling evidence that the works of Bach, Berlioz, Berg, and Britten can be sung beautifully and expressively by a single voice.  One of the finest of those adventurous single voices belongs to Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan, an artist as comfortable vocally and dramatically in Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers or a Bach cantata as in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro or Mendelssohn’s Elias.

Born in British Columbia, Mr. Duncan began his studies at Vancouver Community College as a jazz singer.  The transition to classical music was born, in part, of circumstance.  ‘I really wanted to sing but couldn’t get regular voice lessons,’ Mr. Duncan recollects, ‘so [I] switched to classical singing, and that was that.’  This change of emphasis led him to formal vocal studies at the University of British Columbia.  ‘UBC was a place that let me develop at my own pace,’ he says.  Under the tutelage of James Fankhauser and David Meek in voice and Rena Sharon in song interpretation, Mr. Duncan started to shape his career.  ‘I wasn’t involved in that much opera, but focused on song and oratorio [repertory] until my voice was able to handle the “bigger stuff,”’ Mr. Duncan recalls.  His attention to Lieder repertory was rewarded with several prestigious honors, including Third Prize in the 2005 Walter W. Naumburg Foundation Voice Competition (in which Mr. Duncan joined a roster of celebrated prize-winners including Shirley Verrett, Barbara Hendricks, Dawn Upshaw, and fellow Canadian Lois Marshall), a prize from the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation Song Competition, and Third Prize in the 2003 ARD International Music Competition (previously won by Jessye Norman, Francisco Araiza, and Thomas Quasthoff).

Mr. Duncan is conscious of the fact that defining the ‘bigger stuff’ to which he referred can be difficult.  ‘I have always been careful not to take on things that were too vocally taxing for me at a young age,’ he states.  ‘That being said, a song recital can be more taxing emotionally and vocally than many operas, and I tried to do as many of those as I could.’  Among artists whose work strengthened Mr. Duncan’s affection for Lieder repertory, the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – celebrated throughout his long career for championing German Lieder in recitals and dozens of recordings – looms large.  ‘My first huge inspiration came from the vast library of Fischer-Dieskau recordings in the library at UBC.  Something in me was very drawn to this repertoire,’ he muses.  Mr. Duncan also cites as an early influence on his perceptions of singing the work of Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.  ‘I had the opportunity to hear him live in recital several times in Vancouver.  His ability to word-paint in both operatic and song repertoire is one of the things that I love in his singing.’

Participation in a masterclass with the acclaimed Dutch soprano Elly Ameling at the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme in Aldeburgh led to invitations for Mr. Duncan to take part in the 1999 and 2001 sessions of the Franz-Schubert-Institut in Baden bei Wien, focusing on Lieder interpretation by studying with such renowned artists as Madame Ameling, Helmut Deutsch, Hans Hotter, Rudolf Jansen, and Robert Tear.  Whilst continuing his studies in Germany, Mr. Duncan also enjoyed opportunities to work with the remarkable German mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender and his legendary predecessor in Lieder repertory, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Tyler Duncan performing in the final concert of the 2001 Franz-Schubert-Institut in Baden bei Wien, Austria

As his career has expanded to include work in both opera and oratorio, Mr. Duncan has pursued a goal of using singing as an intensified means of communication.  ‘Making a text understood through singing in a way that connects with your audience’ is, in his view, the most important aspect of an artist’s endeavors.  This focus on communication not only facilitates deeper interaction with both music and audiences but can also allow a measure of freedom in overcoming the difficulties of particular scores or productions.  Mr. Duncan says, ‘I think if you are true to the text and your interpretation of it, and your technique is solid, you will be heard and you will be seen.  I enjoy both traditional and modern adaptations in opera.  What I don’t enjoy is a gimmick, when a director has one little Idea and builds an entire staging around it. What’s even worse is any production, be it modern or traditional, that doesn’t stay true to the music.’  This applies, to some extent, to singers, as well, he suggests.  ‘Be yourself: you are enough.’

Mr. Duncan has already enjoyed collaborations with many fine conductors (Kent Nagano), ensembles (Montréal Symphony, Philharmonia Baroque, Toronto Symphony, and Tragicomedia), and institutions (Berkshire Choral Festival, Boston Early Music Festival, Halle Händel Festival, and Princeton Festival), and it is within the context of collaborations that he measures the success of his career to date and looks to the future.  ‘I have a long list of conductors, directors and companies I would love to sing for,’ Mr. Duncan says.  ‘I’m hoping that as my voice grows I won’t lose the ability to cover a very broad spectrum of repertoire that includes modern, Romantic, Baroque, and music of all eras.  My goal is to never lose the lyric side of my singing.  One must, of course, sing what fits the voice, and not make the voice fit to what it is not destined for.’  Mr. Duncan launches 2010 with performances that pursue his goal of maintaining flexibility: Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers in New York and Venice, Bach’s cantata ‘Ich habe genug’ (BWV 82) with Toronto’s Tafelmusik, Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten in Calgary and Houston, Vaughan-Williams’ Five Mystical Songs with Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall, and Bach’s Matthäus-Passion in Amsterdam and Johannes-Passion at the Baldwin Wallace Bach Festival in Ohio.  His recordings due for release include works by Purcell and Giacomo Carissimi’s oratorio Jepthe on the ATMA label and John Blow’s Venus and Adonis on cpo, a souvenir of the acclaimed 2008 Boston Early Music Festival Production.

 Tyler Duncan (Adonis) and Amanda Forsythe (Venus) in BEMF's production of Blow's VENUS AND ADONIS [Photo by David Walker]

As with virtually all artists of the highest caliber, it is evident in Mr. Duncan’s work that singing is, for him, far more than a profession for which he was suited by natural gifts.  ‘I can’t believe I get to do this for a living and meet such wonderful people,’ he says, one of those wonderful people he has encountered in his career to date being his wife, pianist Erika Switzer.  ‘I do enjoy putting singing away when I’m at home and enjoying some down time, reminding my wife to smell the roses once in a while (all this after practicing, of course), [but] I hope that this is only the beginning.’

The dramatic alertness and sharp but never distracting stage presence that Mr. Duncan brings to his work suggest that the success he has enjoyed in his career thus far is indeed only the beginning.  Built around a solid core, his tone possesses both richness and thrust, qualities that enable him to perform his wide-ranging repertory with integrity.  His pointed diction and commitment to Lieder repertory have already brought comparisons with Fischer-Dieskau, but Mr. Duncan’s timbre is darker, with subtler overtones, and his technique more agile than those of his famous predecessor.  This flexibility allied with the beauty and reach of his voice make Mr. Duncan’s mastery of the Verdi baritone repertory seem certain.

In her aria ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ (‘I lived for art, I lived for love’), Puccini’s Tosca expresses an idealized artist’s creed.  In expressing his own views of the nature of his career, Mr. Duncan says, ‘Art, health, and love are as essential in life as air.  When a piece of the pie is missing, we just don’t function properly.’  Mr. Duncan’s performances combine art, the audible health of the voice, and an obvious love for singing; an impressive recipe prepared by a young artist fully in command of his gifts.

Tyler Duncan with his wife, pianist Erika Switzer

Special thanks are extended to Mr. Duncan for his kind contributions to this article and for use of his photographs.

Click here to visit Mr. Duncan’s official website.

Tyler Duncan is represented in North America by Matthew Sprizzo and in Europe by Erika Esslinger (Germany) and Ariëtte F.C. Drost (Netherlands).

01 December 2009

IN MEMORIAM: Helen Watts, CBE, Welsh contralto (7 December 1927 – 7 October 2009)

Helen Watts, CBE, Welsh contralto (1927 - 2009)

In an age in which momentary success can be propelled by relentless media coverage into instant stardom, the work of superb artists can be easily overlooked simply because their careers are focused on quietly pursuing the goals for which they were trained, seeking the fulfillment of achievements won through fastidious study and hard work.  The virtue of reliability, a rarity not merely among artists but among collective humanity, is seldom the calling-card of a famous singer.  It is, however, the cornerstone upon which the foundations of genuinely great singers’ legacies are laid.

With the passing of Helen Watts, CBE, on 7 October, the British musical establishment lost one of its most reliable singers, though she had been in retirement since 1985.  The broader musical firmament lost a wonderful artist, and three generations of the record-buying public lost a trusted, beloved friend upon whom they knew they could rely for beautiful, touching singing no matter which composer’s name was on the record’s cover.

Ms. Watts was born in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, Wales, the daughter of a pharmacist.  Despite early signs of musical gifts, Ms. Watts’ goal was to pursue a career in psychotherapy.  She nonetheless enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music and joined both the BBC Singers and the chorus of the Glyndebourne Festival.  She enjoyed an early success in a 1953 concert performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice: impressed by her singing as Orfeo, the Welsh conductor Geraint Jones recommended Ms. Watts to Sir Malcolm Sargent, who engaged her to sing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach during the 1955 Proms.  During her career, she would return to sing at the Proms a further twenty-five years, taking on repertory ranging from Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner to Britten, Tippett, and Schoenberg.

Versatility was a defining characteristic of Ms. Watts’ operatic and concert work, both on stage and in the recording studio.  She made her debut with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in 1965 as the First Maid in Richard Strauss’ Elektra, a role she had sung in Salzburg the previous year at Herbert von Karajan’s invitation.  Ms. Watts’ tenure at Covent Garden encompassed roles as diverse as Erda in Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Siegfried, Mrs. Sedley in Britten’s Peter Grimes, and Sosostris in Sir Michael Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage, a role in which she excelled in the house and on records.  Under the direction of Raymond Leppard, Ms. Watts sang Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea for Scottish Opera.  She also enjoyed great success at the 1971 Salzburg Festival in the castrato role of Farnace in Mozart’s Mitridate.  She triumphantly returned to her native land in 1969 to sing Mistress Quickly opposite the Falstaff of fellow Welshman Sir Geraint Evans for Welsh National Opera.  Ms. Watts maintained a concert repertory that was equally vast, singing well-received recitals and concerts that included a still-discussed 1970 performance of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder at Carnegie Hall with Sir Georg Solti.

Ms. Watts inherited the mantel of a prestigious tradition of British contralto singing that produced Dame Clara Butt, Kathleen Ferrier, and Gladys Ripley.  Both Ferrier and Ripley died just as Ms. Watts’ career was beginning, creating a void that she filled with artistic integrity and confident dignity.  Naturally for a British singer of her generation, the music of Benjamin Britten was central to Ms. Watts’ career.  She sang in the British premiere of the Cantata Academica and memorably sang both Spring Symphony and the title role in The Rape of Lucretia (in which she alternated during a 1964 tour of the Soviet Union with the young Dame Janet Baker, under the composer’s direction).  The music of Sir Edward Elgar was likewise prominent in Ms. Watts’ repertory: her recording of the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius set a lasting standard despite formidable competition.

It is perhaps in the music of Händel that Ms. Watts proved most memorable, however.  She joined the ranks of the Handel Opera Society in 1958, first singing Didymus in Theodora and Juno in Semele before taking the title role in Rinaldo.  On records, Ms. Watts was the Händelian par excellence of her generation, having recorded Messiah four times (the most celebrated of these recordings being the Philips set with Sir Colin Davis, though she was in equally good voice and perhaps even more touching for Raymond Leppard on ERATO) and contributed to L’Oiseau Lyre’s groundbreaking recording of Sosarme a superb performance of the role of Melo that towers over that of Sir Alfred Deller in the name-part.  Ms. Watts finest achievement in Händel repertory is likely her performance of David in a 1962 Vienna performance of Saul conducted by Møgens Wöldike, recorded in concert, in which she sang David’s lament for Jonathan (‘O Jonathan!  How nobly didst thou die’) with profundity, dolorous but beautiful tone, and palpable emotional engagement that have never been equaled by any other David on records, male or female.

Ms. Watts was awarded the Commander of the British Empire distinction in 1978 in recognition of her service to British music.  Her husband, violist Michael Mitchell, died in 2007.

Few artists have contributed so significantly to the musical life of a nation or amassed so considerable a discography with the grace and unpretentiousness Ms. Watts brought to her work.  Much of her career traced the path that led from performing traditions inherited from the nineteenth century to the ‘historically-informed’ practices of the last decades of the twentieth century, spanning just in her Bach performances the approaches of successive generations of conductors from Sir Malcolm Sargent to Helmuth Rilling.  It might be argued that, from a musicological perspective, unparalleled progress was made during the course of Ms. Watts’ career in the realization of Baroque music as its composers presumably conceived it.  That, a half-century after many of her recordings were made, listeners return – not just sentimentally but sure of the bountiful musical rewards – to Ms. Watts’ performances confirms that, however much practices and conceptions of how certain repertory should be performed change, the true style of any music is found in the commitment with which it is sung.  Helen Watts understood this instinctively and dedicated herself wholeheartedly to every score that was placed before her.  What an invaluable virtue this reliability truly was.

Cover of the original Philips LP edition of Sir Colin Davis' recording of MESSIAH, featuring Helen Watts

23 November 2009

IN MEMORIAM: Elisabeth Söderström, Swedish soprano (7 May 1927 – 20 November 2009)

Elisabeth Söderström, soprano

There are in the history of opera those few artists who become not merely celebrated singers of their own times but are remembered by subsequent generations as pioneers or agents of change, their work forever identified with a particular composer, a style, or a role.  For the towering Wagnerian heroines, there was Kirsten Flagstad; for bel canto, Maria Callas; for Baroque music, Dame Janet Baker.  Thus, when one thinks – and, indeed, that one thinks at all – of the operas of Leoš Janáček, it is impossible not to remember the work of Elisabeth Söderström, the beautiful Swedish soprano who through riveting performances and a series of standard-setting studio recordings with Sir Charles Mackerras for DECCA brought to Janáček’s operas the appreciation they deserved but, prior to Ms. Söderström’s work, had rarely received outside of Prague and Bratislava.

Born in Stockholm, Ms. Söderström’s earliest musical studies were undertaken in her native city, leading to a debut at the young age of twenty in Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne at the Drottingholm Palace Theatre.  The music of Mozart would figure prominently in Ms. Söderström’s career, facilitating her 1959 Metropolitan Opera debut as Susanna and culminating in a recording of the Contessa in Le Nozze di Figaro for Otto Klemperer (with whom she also recorded a monumental account of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis) that, despite the recording’s defects, many still consider a pinnacle of interpretation of the role.  An element of traditional Scandinavian coolness gave Ms. Söderström’s operatic work an air of aristocratic restraint, a quality that proved revelatory when she sang Debussy’s Mélisande for Pierre Boulez at Covent Garden.  The Sony recording, with the fine and underappreciated American tenor George Shirley as Pelléas, that resulted from the 1969 – 70 Covent Garden production (finally reissued by Sony earlier this year) likewise remains an important milestone in the interpretation of Debussy’s scores on records.

In addition to her unique interpretive insights, Ms. Söderström’s work was marked by uncommon versatility, her repertory ranging from Monteverdi (including an unsurpassed recording of Nerone in L’Incoronazione di Poppea for Nikolaus Harnoncourt) to contemporary works.  In mainstream repertory, she was one of the few artists ever to sing Octavian, Sophie, and the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (she quipped that, when her upper register began to fade, she would also take on Baron Ochs), triumphantly returning to the MET roster in the spring of 1983 after a two-decade absence for an American tour as the Marschallin.  She returned to the MET in the 1983 - 84 season to sing Ellen Orford in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, a largely thankless role in which many sopranos fail to make an impression.  Of Ms. Söderström’s performance, Irving Kolodin wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature that ‘in the taxing role of Ellen Orford, the widowed schoolmarm who tries somehow to rescue Grimes from his fated future, other MET casts have had a few who were good-looking and another one or two who were well-known.  Söderström adds to excellent sound and a fine appearance a distinction that most others have lacked: the capacity to evoke an Ellen whom Grimes professes to love, for all his incapacities to overcome obstacles between them.’  It was as the aging Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama that Ms. Söderström gave her last performance at the MET on 15 April 1999, having come out of retirement (as she said in interviews at that time) because of her desire to work with Plácido Domingo, who sang Gherman in the MET’s production.

Throughout her career, Ms. Söderström’s work was noted for its display of stunning insights, her reserve and slightly dry timbre making the flashes of full-throated passion and pathos all the more thrilling.  As Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, she was to the life both the poised country bourgeoise (and thus a suitably grand consort for Prince Gremin) and the young girl in the first flushes of an extraordinary love.  The dramatic profundity and vocal precision of her operatic work were equally evident in her concerts and recitals, which took her all over the world.

Ms. Söderström’s artistic home base was the Royal Swedish Opera, where she sang frequently during the decades when she was not appearing at the MET.  The mother of three sons, Ms. Söderström devoted herself to her children’s upbringing, mostly taking on engagements in or near Sweden whilst her sons were at school.

As expansive as her stage repertory, Ms. Söderström’s recorded legacy includes such landmarks as the complete songs of Sergei Rachmaninoff, accompanied by Vladimir Ashkenazy, but her discography is dominated by her Janáček portrayals: the title roles in Jenůfa and Káťa Kabanová and Emilia Marty in Vĕc Makropulos.  In each of her Janáček recordings Ms. Söderström shone with expressive radiance, fully introducing these fascinating scores to Western listeners who knew them only from infrequently-circulating Supraphon recordings, but with her intense, disturbing performance in Věc Makropulos she created one of the true treasures of recorded opera, a paragon worthy of inclusion with Flagstad’s Isolde, Callas’ Norma, and Schwarzkopf’s Donna Elvira.

An achievement even more meaningful than her long career was Ms. Söderström’s six-decade marriage with her husband, Sverker Olow, whom she married in 1950.  Ms. Söderström, who succumbed on 20 November in Stockholm to several years of complications from a stroke, is survived by Mr. Olow and their three sons.

It is rare that an artist sings the breadth of repertory that Elisabeth Söderström sang during her career, but it is even rarer that an artist gives memorable performances in every role within that spectrum.  It is thus that Ms. Söderström is best remembered, as one of twentieth-century opera’s greatest but least conceited pioneers and agents of change.

Elisabeth Söderström in the title role of Janáček's JENŮFA

17 November 2009

ARTIST PROFILE: Thomas Forde, bass-baritone

Thomas Forde, bass-baritone

Maria Callas once said that ‘an opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down.  It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I’ve left the opera house.’  This, to those who love the genre as participants or observers, expresses the sensation central to the operatic experience: a lingering fascination, a feeling of having taken part in a performance that began and ended but was strangely without beginning and ending.  Opera at its most engaging transports the listener to what Ivor Novello called the ‘Land of Might-Have-Been,’ a space somewhere between dreams and reality in which it is not important whether one truly believes the things opera asks one to believe as long as the emotional responses are genuine.  Implausibility fades into insignificance in the wake of a dedicated artist’s performance, and a listener’s surrender to the suspension of reality indeed remains part of his life long after the curtain falls.

Many writers have suggested that, as the genre in which the elemental aural and visual veins of human creativity converge, opera is the zenith of performing arts.  In this confluence of artistic lifeblood, the senses are seduced collectively.  Yet the work of an operatic artist is more difficult for this because the listener hears him, sees him, and strives to know what are those words he sings.  His task is to reach from the stage to take the listener’s hand, to banish doubt, and to lead his listener from the mundane to the Might-Have-Been.  The thrill of opera is born of the frequency with which artists fail at this task: when an artist succeeds, when there is for some period of time nothing else in the world but what one sees on the stage before one’s eyes, it is sorcery; the sorcery of Callas and of Opera.

When Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera presented Puccini’s La Bohème in autumn 2008, it would have been natural to expect any sorcery to originate with Mimì and Rodolfo, the young lovers struggling with poverty and fatal illness.  The work of an important artist emerges from its surroundings even if he has only a single line to sing, however, and the heart of Skylight’s Opera Bohème was Colline, sung by young American bass-baritone Thomas Forde.  Colline is (or should be) the pillar upon whom his suffering friends lean, exuberant and grave in turn.  In far too many productions, however, Colline’s frustrated philosophizing is confused with bitter irony, discrediting to a great extent the dignity with which Puccini infused the role: his little aria of farewell to his overcoat (‘Vecchia zimarra’) may not be top-drawer Puccini, but the sentiment with which Colline resolves to pawn his coat in order to buy medicine for the dying Mimì, along with his entreaty to Schaunard to allow Rodolfo and Mimì to be alone with one another in what he knows will be their last moments together, prepares the listener for the emotional impact of the final scene.  Colline is a sharp-tongued but deeply caring character, and Skylight Opera’s Bohème benefited enormously from the Colline of Thomas Forde, in whose performance it was clear that love for his friends is as central to Colline’s character as acerbic wit.

Thomas Forde as Angelotti in Puccini's TOSCA at Dallas Opera

Having earned his Master of Music degree from the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston and his Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, bass-baritone Thomas Forde has embarked on an exciting career marked by vocal beauty and natural gifts for open-hearted, dramatically convincing performing.  This journey began with apprenticeships with several of America’s most prestigious programs for young artists, including those at Central City Opera, Des Moines Metro Opera, and Utah Festival Opera.  Following these experiences, Mr. Forde was invited to sing in Fort Worth Opera’s production of Turandot, productions of Tosca and Salome at Dallas Opera, and Shreveport Opera’s La Traviata.  ‘I remember looking out into the 3,800-seat house of the Dallas Opera, and thinking, “How am I here?”’ Mr. Forde says of his early mainstage engagements.  ‘I was lucky that each role was appropriate for the timing in my life.  However, I missed the feeling of having a teacher and a coach that I could regularly approach for guidance.  I was learning a whole new set of skills by being out in the real world, but at twenty-four years old I knew I wanted to go back into the young artist scene and have a sense of stability in this crucial time of development.’

Mr. Forde’s desire to continue his development as a singer under the auspices of a program for young artists was fulfilled when he received an invitation to join the Seattle Opera Young Artist Program, a superb institution that has contributed to the shaping of the careers of such fine singers as Lawrence Brownlee, Brandon Jovanovich, and Indra Thomas.  ‘I had admired and longed to be a part of [the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program] since I was in my undergraduate experience,’ Mr. Forde says.  ‘Seattle Opera was a place where I confronted what I was really having issues with at the time.  I was still fairly young in the game of bass voice development, and the repertoire that I was assigned [at Seattle] was challenging, yet appropriate.  It was a place where I was constantly pushed to attain the next level of performance.’  With the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program, Mr. Forde sang the role of Snug the Joiner in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  ‘I learned an immense amount of skills regarding musicality, diction, and stage presence from people I had admired for a very long time,’ Mr. Forde recollects.

In addition to his work in Seattle, Mr. Forde also gained valuable exposure to the work of established singers by participating in Santa Fe Opera’s Apprentice Program.  ‘In my youth,’ Mr. Forde recalls, ‘I knew nothing about singing opera.  I had never attended an opera until I was in college.  I had taken voice lessons in high school, but I always saw myself pursuing acting with a cross-over into music theatre.’  During his tenure in Santa Fe, Mr. Forde observed performances by artists whose work shaped his conceptions of operatic singing and acting.  Especially vivid in his memory are performances by Christine Brewer, Natalie Dessay, Dimitri Pittas, and Patricia Racette.  ‘It was such a lesson,’ he states, ‘to watch Natalie Dessay sing her first Traviata.  In another sense, I learned what she has to go through every day to be at that level when she gave a Masterclass about the singer’s life.  It is an insane amount of dedicated work ethic.’

A great influence on Mr. Forde’s development of his vocal technique and individual approach to singing was introduced by his collegiate voice teacher, Ronald Hedlund, who Mr. Forde credits as being ‘the first [person] to calm [his] fears about taking a road into singing opera.’  Mr. Hedlund gave Mr. Forde a recording of the legendary Ukrainian bass Alexander Kipnis.  ‘I put [the disc] in my stereo when I got back to the dorm and listened to Kipnis sing “Il lacerato spirito” from Simon Boccanegra.  I hadn’t translated the aria as of yet, but I could hear from his coloring of different phrases and his use of dynamics that it was an incredibly pained and emotional piece of music.  He was one of the great basses, who sang with his true tone at all times.  He never darkened the tone, and he was not afraid of singing with emotion.  At times I think I need to try [to] shake the walls of the theater with each phrase, but whenever I go back and listen to Kipnis, I am taught a new lesson about singing.’

Thomas Forde as Antonio in Mozart's LE NOZZE DI FIGARO

This sense of subtlety, derived from the music and text rather than the size of the venue in which he sings, was evident in Mr. Forde’s Milwaukee Colline, of which he says, ‘[Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera Theatre] wasn’t a huge space, but there are a lot of intimate moments in a show with such a large chorus and so much going on during most parts of the opera.  You have to know your body really well, which is something I am focusing a lot on right now.  Your posture and your use of even small gestures can be so effective on any size stage.  I find the choices of whether to turn quickly or turn slowly, how I walk across the stage, or how I stand to directly effect whether the audience “gets” what I am trying to say to them. If I really have a clear idea of the character and the text, all of those things will start to come naturally.’  Adopting this close attention to the nuances of the characters he portrays through music and gesture as a critical aspect of his personal philosophy on performing, Mr. Forde will align this dramatic analysis to his easy, beautiful vocalism for Mozart’s Figaro in Tacoma Opera’s March performances of Le Nozze di Figaro.

Like many young singers, especially those of a Fach with relatively few truly excellent younger singers to its credit, Mr. Forde is mindful of the course his career should take in order to realize the full potential of his voice.  ‘Most of [the roles that] I have been offered have been appropriate,’ he reflects.  ‘One of the great things Seattle Opera encouraged me to do was to sing repertoire that would encourage youthful bass singing.  I started to sing a lot more Handel, Mozart, and even Puccini.  I was starting to sing repertoire that suited my personality and voice as a singer in [his] mid-twenties.’  Mr. Forde is fully conscious of the ambiguous nature of singing auditions for opera companies, many of which have specific preconceptions about the types of singers they wish to engage for particular roles, as well as problematic expectations for casting in future seasons.  He observes, ‘The challenge I have is that I have the capability to sing Sarastro [in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte] and Raimondo [in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor], but I am usually not what [companies] are looking for just yet.  My voice is still gaining color and timbre as I progress, but I am often viewed as being able to sing Colline, Figaro, Masetto, or Giovanni at this point in time.’  He adds, with characteristic humility, ‘I would never want to get a job because a company didn’t have any other choice.  It took me a while to realize when I walk into an audition that I don’t have the responsibility to show a company or a young artist program what kind of singer I am going to be in ten years.’

Judiciously building a career that has already garnered praise for the strength of his acting, the heart of Mr. Forde’s artistry is the pure tonal allure of his voice.  Possessing a veritable spectrum of colors that present a great wealth of dramatic possibilities that continues to broaden as his career progresses, Mr. Forde’s voice is youthfully vibrant but also plush, suggesting opportunities in a wide-ranging repertoire.  Hearing Mr. Forde’s voice in Italian repertory, it is easy to imagine his voice in time bringing great eloquence to Verdi’s ‘O tu, Palermo’ (I Vespri Siciliani) and ‘Ella giammai m’amò’ (Don Carlo), as well as the aria that helped to launch his interest in opera, ‘Il lacerato spirito.’  ‘I would love to have the chance to sing much more bel canto and Romantic music as my singing future moves forward,’ Mr. Forde says, adding that the music of Verdi and Wagner is ‘music I [know] in my bones I [will] sing one day.’  His early progress displays every requirement for the vocal and dramatic adaptations necessary to graduate into different, heavier repertory.  ‘There will never be another Sam Ramey…but [young basses are] all trying!’ he jokes.  Mr. Forde comes nearer to that mark than most of his colleagues owing to the panache and cantante quality of his singing.

Above all, Mr. Forde exhibits that quality that not only most significantly contributes to a singer’s artistry but also endears him to audiences: a palpable, almost contagious joy in singing.  ‘A voice is not an instrument you can turn off or leave at home.  If you’re like me, you find yourself singing or warming up all the time and not even noticing it after a while,’ Mr. Forde suggests.  Even while acknowledging the logistical challenges of pursuing a career that requires worldwide travel and virtually eliminates the possibility of having a single ‘home base,’ in addition to the emotional stresses endured by the artist and those who love him, Mr. Forde is keenly aware that the path he travels is the correct one.  ‘I love to sing, and I think that the reason I can be happy and smile so much during the process is that I know how lucky I have been so far. I can’t imagine anything else,’ he says.  Those who are fortunate enough to have heard him sing know that luck plays a minimal part in the success of this young artist: Thomas Forde is that rare singer who does not merely sing but enchants, a true operatic sorcerer.

Thomas Forde (right) as Wotan in Seattle Opera Young Artists Program's SIEGFRIED AND THE RING OF FIRE

The author’s heartfelt gratitude is extended to Mr. Forde for his incredible candor and kindness in contributing to this article, as well as for his assistance in providing the photographs used.

Click here to visit Mr. Forde’s official website.

Mr. Forde is represented by Kristin Cowdin of Guy Barzilay International Artists Management.

16 November 2009

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Recital by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano (Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.; 14 November 2009)

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

One of the foremost hallmarks of a great artist is the instinctive knowledge of when the time has come to bid a fond farewell to singing.  Many performers go on singing far too long or else subject their admirers to ridiculously endless schedules of ‘last’ performances that tarnish memories of their voices in prime condition.  Still, it is always with sadness that one says goodbye to an artist with whose work one has been acquainted for an extensive period of time, and there was regret even among those who would never admit it when rumors circulated that Dame Kiri Te Kanawa had reached the decision to end her singing career in order to focus her energy on fund-raising and developing new generations of New Zealand artists.

The Washington Performing Arts Society, the sponsor of Ms. Te Kanawa’s recital on Saturday evening, billed the event as her ‘final D.C. recital.’  Her appearances in the Metropolitan Opera’s spring 2010 revival of the Laurent Pelly production of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment (in the speaking role of the Duchesse de Krakenthorp, which Ms. Te Kanawa has stated that she will sing in part) have been acknowledged as her farewell to the MET.  In the course of brief remarks during her Kennedy Center recital on Saturday evening, however, Ms. Te Kanawa indicated that she may be rethinking her decision to curtail her singing career: at the age of sixty-five and enjoying both physical and vocal health, she suggested that Washington may well hear her again.  The slightly-less-than-capacity audience in Kennedy Center’s 2,400-seat Concert Hall received Ms. Te Kanawa’s subtle announcement with considerable enthusiasm.

Accompanied by the expert pianist Brian Zeger, known to audiences of the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday matinee broadcasts for his contributions to the ‘Opera Quiz’ segments, Ms. Te Kanawa offered an expansive programme that drew upon the full range of repertory familiar from her long career.  Mr. Zeger displayed superb versatility, adapting his playing to match the styles of each segment in Ms. Te Kanawa’s programme.  Mr. Zeger played especially well in songs by Claude Debussy and Franz Liszt, and he brought eloquence and polish to songs by Canteloube (the familiar Chants d’Auvergne, Ms. Te Kanawa’s DECCA recording of which remains one of the label’s best-selling releases) and Richard Strauss – predictable fare, considering Ms. Te Kanawa’s long associations with this music.

It was a very welcome surprise that Ms. Te Kanawa chose to open her recital with a segment of four selections from Baroque operas by Händel and Vivaldi.  Few sopranos of any generation would choose to start an evening with Cleopatra’s towering ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ from Händel’s Giulio Cesare, one of those remarkable arias in which overwhelming emotion erupts through Händel’s beautiful, time-suspending music.  Ms. Te Kanawa sang both this and the more predictable ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Händel’s Rinaldo with lovely tone and attention to the text.  The sprightly aria ‘Io son quel gelsomino’ from Vivaldi’s opera Arsilda, regina di Ponto was the least convincing number in the set, its roulades approximated.  Remarkable, though, was Ms. Te Kanawa’s singing of ‘Care selve’ from Händel’s Atalanta, a brief arietta so fetching that its very brevity seems unfair to the listener.  In this number, the legendary Te Kanawa magic emerged, the words on the breath and unexaggerated and the tone floated hypnotically.  For Baroque purists, there was even a well-shaped, genuine trill.  Ms. Te Kanawa’s engagement with Baroque repertory during the prime of her operatic career was slight, but for the two minutes of ‘Care selve’ she displayed a rare understanding of the qualities that can make even a brief Händel aria unforgettable.

Equally beguiling was Ms. Te Kanawa’s soft singing throughout the recital, particularly in Reynaldo Hahn’s pseudo-Baroque ‘À Chloris’ and the other French numbers, including a beautiful mélodie by Fauré.  Diction and rhythm lagged somewhat in these and in songs by Puccini and Wolf-Ferrari, to which Ms. Te Kanawa brought compensatory charm.

Ms. Te Kanawa will return, perhaps for the last time (as has been widely reported in the press: Ms. Te Kanawa has made no definitive comment on the matter other than to state that she is not retiring), to her signature role of the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier in Cologne in April 2010.  The music of Strauss has been central to Ms. Te Kanawa’s repertory since the beginning of her international career.  A certain measure of the flexibility familiar from her studio recordings and mid-career performances of Arabella, Capriccio, and Rosenkavalier is now missing, but Ms. Te Kanawa retains the innate knowledge of how to deal with Strauss’ Lieder, some of which are virtually operas in miniature.  As ever with this artist, musical values were given greater prominence than detailed attention to nuances of the text, but the quality of the singing justified the emphasis on vocalism.

Ms. Te Kanawa was joined by Washington Performing Arts Society’s Children of the Gospel Choir, an ensemble comprised of District-area schoolchildren under the direction of Stanley J. Thurston, for the ‘Pie Jesu’ from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem and César Franck’s ‘Panis Angelicus.’  The obvious joy in singing displayed by the Choir was delightful, and they complemented Ms. Te Kanawa’s singing with their own full-bodied, smoothly-blended tone.

Ms. Te Kanawa brought the evening to a close with two encores, both of them nods to her musical roots.  The first item was the aria, so familiar as to risk banality, ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, a piece that Ms. Te Kanawa famously sang on the soundtrack of the Merchant/Ivory film A Room with a View.  The exquisite poise remains intact, the top A-flats floated with something near the erstwhile authority.  The second piece, the Maori folksong ‘Po Kari-Kari Ana,’ sung a cappella, was simply magnificent, with Ms. Te Kanawa providing her most radiant singing of the evening.  It was a sublime ending to an evening that provided many glimpses of a legendary singer as she was at the top of her form.

Whether or not Dame Kiri Te Kanawa will be heard again in the Washington area, she left the audience for Saturday evening’s recital with decidedly pleasant memories of her work.  This recital was not an occasion for achieving extraordinary interpretive heights, but Ms. Te Kanawa reminded her listeners that singing is, above all, about the voice.  Though not what it once was, Ms. Te Kanawa’s voice remains a beautiful, even lyric soprano that has been preserved through a long career through careful choices of repertory.  Ms. Te Kanawa quipped during the recital that her programme was dominated by slow songs because she likes them, but these intimate pieces suit her voice at this point in her career very well.  All was not perfect, but there was plentiful evidence that Oscar Hammerstein II was right after all: even in the late autumn of her career, there is nothing like a Dame.

Concert Hall at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

08 November 2009

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – MESSIAH (Polyphony, Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Layton; Hyperion)

Händel: MESSIAH (Hyperion)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759) – Messiah, HWV 56: J. Doyle, I. Davies, A. Clayton, A. Foster-Williams; Polypony; Britten Sinfonia; Stephen Layton [recorded in St John’s, Smith Square, London, on 22 – 23 December 2008; Hyperion CDA67800]

The annual approach of Advent carries with it a certain dread for many musicians and music lovers for it is known that, in those days between American Thanksgiving and Christmas, virtually every chorister – amateur and professional – from Sydney to Seattle turns his attention to Messiah. Though he surely recognized the quality of the score he had produced, it is doubtful that even Händel at his most ambitious could have imagined the wide-ranging exposure his oratorio would enjoy in the centuries to follow its 1742 premiere in Dublin. Wherever English is spoken, Messiah is a part of the collective musical conscience, an integral element of a pervasive cultural ancestry that shapes artistic perceptions, whether native or adopted. Separated from its unique significance for English-speaking audiences and its Christian indoctrination, Messiah remains a landmark in Western music. However many Messiahs one has heard, a genuinely great performance reveals anew the power of Messiah to impress and move.

Still, a sense of Messiah fatigue is difficult to avoid, especially with the glut of recordings on the market. Particularly with the emergence of the Händel Renaissance during the past three decades, many conductors active in the field of historically-informed performance practices have committed their individual interpretations of Messiah to disc. The release of Christopher Hogwood’s L’Oiseau Lyre recording (using the 1754 Foundling Hospital version of the score) represented a turning point in the Messiah discography: with the exception of Sir Andrew Davis’ Toronto recording for EMI, the age of the big-boned, massive-force Messiah recordings was at its end. Messiah is problematic even for period-practice specialists because it exists in several versions that variously assimilate and discard changes made by Händel for different performers and venues. There is no single definitive version (or edition), ensuring varieties of approach and content among Messiah’s many recordings, but this cannot entirely eradicate the weariness of the saturated market. Thus, excitement at the release of a new recording of Messiah is an exceptionally rare commodity.

When hearing Hyperion’s new recording, a souvenir of the 2008 installment in Polyphony’s fifteen-year tradition of performing Messiah at St John’s, Smith Square during the Christmas season, twinges of excitement are undeniable. Conductor Stephen Layton clearly possesses both affection and respect for Händel’s score, qualities that are evident throughout this performance. Presiding over forces of proportions (twenty-four players, including harpsichordist and organist, and thirty-one choristers) that are likely similar to those employed by Händel, Maestro Layton offers an approach to Messiah that honors the scholarship of the past thirty years without carving away all the fat and forcing down the throats of his listeners a parched, dustily academic Messiah. Even with relatively small ensembles of players and singers at his disposal, Maestro Layton summons suitable swells of sound for the grand choruses; not the stirring cacophonies familiar from the legendary performances conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Malcolm Sargent, of course, but grandeur on a scale appropriate to the music in what might be taken for more or less its original form. Where Maestro Layton nods most perceptibly to the Grand Tradition of Beecham and Sargent is in choices of tempo. Rather than setting everything at a rapid pace after the manner of many period-practice specialists, Maestro Layton is unafraid of giving his singers – solo and choral – time in which to execute their divisions cleanly and crisply. Likewise, there is attention in Maestro Layton’s work to preserving momentum in numbers with slower tempi: ‘He was despised,’ for instance, is given a devoutly expansive performance that never threatens to lag. Maestro Layton perhaps proves most successful because he contributes to Messiah’s extensive discography a shapely, compelling performance that is not encumbered by any efforts at making an ostentatious ‘personal stamp’ on the score.

In the context of this recording, Polyphony seem to be an ideal ensemble for Messiah. Using both female and male altos and a careful distribution among singers that avoids over-prominence in any of the parts, Polyphony sing with secure, pointed tone and deliver the complex fugal passages with complete mastery. The ensemble’s hushed singing in a number like ‘Since by man came death’ is raptly beautiful, but they are also successful in summoning the tonal resources required to bring thrilling vigor to the famously extroverted choruses. Polyphony’s training and commitment are evident in the fact that no weak links emerge among any of the voices as the performance progresses. In this, they are superbly supported by the Britten Sinfonia, one of Britain’s busiest and most acclaimed chamber orchestras. The Sinfonia complement Polyphony with equal virtuosity and rhythmic accuracy, doubling the voices in fugues with perfect precision. Solo passages among the instruments are elegantly handled without compromising the integrity of the ensemble playing. The Sinfonia adapt their playing to the style of each number, bringing a particularly pleasing lightness to the Arcadian Pifa. Guided by Maestro Layton, both Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia contribute music-making that honors both tradition and scholarship without making of Messiah a museum piece.

Encountered first among the quartet of British soloists, tenor Allan Clayton sings his opening recitative and aria with technical aplomb, the divisions sung with apparent ease. In his later, more contemplative arias, Mr. Clayton remains very impressive: the anguished ‘'Behold and see’ draws from him very expressive singing that vividly conveys the meaning of the text without jeopardizing the beauty of the voice. Mr. Clayton’s performance reveals an exciting young voice with first-rate potential.

Bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams commands attention and admiration in each of his contributions to the performance. His opening recitative, ‘Thus saith the Lord of Hosts,’ is delivered with powerful tone and astonishing technique. For a singer who displays such authority in the vocal intricacies of Baroque music, Mr. Foster-Williams possesses a rich and rolling voice, reminiscent (among his countrymen) more of the magnificent Gwynne Howell than any of the thinner-voiced, Baroque-specialist basses. In this recording, Mr. Foster-Williams sings with attention to the text and to the subtle nuances of Händel’s word-painting, coloring his tone to match the inflections of the music. Each of Mr. Foster-Williams’ arias is a feast, but his accounts of ‘Why do the nations’ and ‘The trumpet shall sound’ are of special note. In recent memory, only the young Samuel Ramey rivals Mr. Foster-Williams’ performance of his arias in Messiah for flair and vocal opulence.

Several recorded performances of Messiah have floundered with the use of a countertenor in the alto arias. This recording is fortunate, however, to include the work of young countertenor Iestyn Davies, who also recorded Messiah with Edward Higginbottom for Naxos. [Mr. Clayton, too, has previously recorded Messiah, in EMI’s set drawn from an April 2009 performance broadcast worldwide from King’s College, Cambridge.] In each of his arias, Mr. Davies sings with great assurance and remarkably even, beautiful tone. Many countertenors lack the tonal depth to fully convey the sorrow of ‘He was despised,’ but this aria is perhaps the most touching and purely lovely portion of Mr. Davies’ performance. His ornamentation of his arias is tasteful and stylish, and his alertness to the emotional progression of the music is uninhibited by its difficulty. Mr. Davies has not the slightest hint of the ‘hootiness’ that affects many countertenors, especially those trained in the British tradition, and he gives evidence in this performance not merely of an unusually fine voice but also of first-rank artistry.

Like her colleagues, soprano Julia Doyle sings with crispness and good diction, shaping her reflective arias with poise. Her great coloratura challenge, ‘Rejoice greatly,’ is met delightfully, the divisions tossed off with an apt sense of joy. Ms. Doyle also ornaments gracefully, crowning several of her solos with gleaming, interpolated top notes. Ms. Doyle conquers the soprano’s greatest test in Messiah, the radiant ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth,’ with an approach free from affectation: giving full value to the breadth of the music, Ms. Doyle highlights the quiet exaltation of the text with the purity of her singing. Ms. Doyle’s performance makes a very positive impression and on the whole stands proud among her recorded rivals, whose ranks include many of the finest sopranos of the past century.

The version of Messiah performed for this recording essentially follows the sequence likely devised by Händel for use in London in 1750, when ‘But who may abide’ was substantially recomposed for the famous castrato Guadagni. ‘But who may abide’ and ‘Thou art gone up on high’ are therefore heard in their alto incarnations, while ‘But thou didst not leave’ is assigned to the soprano.

Scholarship is a tool necessary to any quest for understanding of the historical foundations and cultural significance of a particular score. Academics are not at the heart of Messiah, however, and this surely explains why, decades after their musical values have been discredited as antiquated and sometimes embarrassingly wrongheaded, many listeners cling with soulful devotion to their Messiah recordings that present the score on a Wagnerian scale. The stylistic nuts and bolts of an ensemble’s approach to Messiah are not as important as the spirit with which they take up the music. Hyperion’s new recording, offering an ensemble of conductor, soloists, choristers, and orchestra who all perform with unimpeded vitality, restores to Messiah its capacity to inspire without challenging the listener to a period-practice duel. It is the sort of performance about which one remembers the beautiful catharsis of the journey rather than the bumps and twists of every road.

a page from the autograph manuscript of MESSIAH

27 October 2009

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach – SONATAS FOR FLUTE & HARPSICHORD (Joshua Smith, flute; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; DELOS)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonatas for Flute & Harpsicord (DELOS)

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750) – Sonatas for Flute and Harpsichord, BWV 1020, 1030 – 1032; Partita for Solo Flute, BWV 1013: Joshua Smith, flute; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord [recorded in First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland, OH, during December 2008; DELOS DE 3402]

The visceral appeal of music is a marvel that cannot be fully explained with even the most eloquent words.  Physiologically, it is a function of synapses being engaged at an almost primordial level, of extraordinarily complicated series of responses to aural stimuli.  The metaphysics of music, though less tangible in a scientific sense, are more readily comprehensible.  A critical element of the natural grandiloquence of a memorable musical experience is surely derived from the fact that at its heart music is a triumph over the unexpected, over the listener’s fear of disappointment within the limitations of individual exposure.  Because it requires both a medium and an audience, music is never truly solitary and is always new.

Recordings are technological witnesses to listeners’ fears of musical betrayal.  There are those instances in which a listener, having lavished affection on an artist’s recordings, attends a performance by that artist and feels the excruciating deflation of a genuine respect when the artist in the flesh is not an unflawed copy of the artist familiar from records.  Conversely, there are artists of whose prodigious talents in live performance there are only glimpses on recordings.  Invaluable as efforts at preservation in the case of towering individual interpretations and conservation in the case of works that teeter at the edge of obscurity are, recordings are inevitably perilous for artists.  Making a superb recording is not the same enterprise as giving a memorably fine performance before an audience.  It is unfortunately frequent that audiences and listeners discern this before the artists themselves fully fathom the precariousness of their good intentions.

There is no shortage of recordings of the four sonatas for flauto traverso and cembalo offered on this disc by Joshua Smith and Jory Vinikour, with a multitude of versions from both popular concert flautists playing modern flutes and period-performance specialists playing Baroque instruments.  It would be disingenuous to suggest that these sonatas, even with their considerable discography, are standard-repertory fodder, however.  Perhaps, like so many Baroque works that have been revived during the past quarter-century, these sonatas – gems of form that reveal Bach at his apex as a composer of chamber music – have merely awaited discovery by artists who, in performance and on records, not only understand without exaggerating their musical significance but also regard them as their composer must have intended, as vehicles for artistic collaboration and exchange of the highest order.

Without understating the impact of the technical brilliance of the playing, it was obvious to the audience for their December 2008 recital [reviewed on this site] that followed the recording sessions that produced this disc that Mr. Smith shared with Mr. Vinikour completely natural affinities for the collaboration and exchange required by this music, along with an unforced artistic partnership that made their playing seem almost to emanate from two bodies drawing upon one soul.  In the case of that magical evening, it is not merely a poetic conceit to suggest that the soul that inhabited those two artists was Music itself.

Listening to this disc, not as a souvenir of that recital but as a performance with its own unique provenance, it is difficult to keep in mind the work that both artists devoted to this project.  Nothing is shirked, no challenge is met with anything other than absolute mastery, and yet the music-making is of such quality that there is no sense of effort.  For artists who enjoy the levels of virtuosity attained by Mr. Smith and Mr. Vinikour, the supreme difficulties of the music are in its interpretation.  Nevertheless, this appearance of ease should not distract from the incredible feats of technical execution that fill this recording.

The disc opens with the B-minor Sonata (BWV 1030), perhaps the most technically demanding but also rewarding of Bach’s sonatas for flute.  Questions of authenticity surround much of the extant flute music in the catalogue of Bach’s output, but the B-minor sonata is indisputably the work of Johann Sebastian Bach.  In both this sonata and the A-major sonata (BWV 1032), the harpsichord lines are composed in full, a departure from the continuo style of accompaniment typically employed in sonatas for solo instruments by Bach and his contemporaries.  Though limiting the keyboardist’s opportunities for extemporaneous ornamentation, this structure elevates the harpsichord’s music to a stature equivalent to that for the flute, creating a true partnership that must be maintained by both players in order for the music to make its full effect.  The rare grace of the collaboration between Mr. Smith and Mr. Vinikour here bears its sweetest fruit.  With every technical requirement met, these artists explore the emotional niches of this sonata, revealing harmonic progressions that suggest psychological insights one might expect to encounter in the chamber music of Beethoven or Brahms.

The G-minor Sonata (BWV 1020) that follows is somewhat dubious in terms of both authorship and instrumentation.  There exists a version of the score which features a solo violin rather than a flute, and some scholars have suggested (though without offering any compellingly concrete evidence) that the sonata is partially or wholly the work of Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel.  The sonata is a fine work, whatever its origins may be, and it receives a lovely performance from Mr. Smith and Mr. Vinikour.

The E-flat major sonata (BWV 1031) has also been subject to conjecture concerning Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach having lent his hand to its composition, but the considerable quality of the music has ensured that the sonata has remained in the flute canon.  In this sonata, the harpsichord part is conceived more in the traditional continuo fashion of Bach’s time, but the roles are equalized to a great degree in the final movement.  It is the second movement, the Siciliana, that is truly exquisite, however, and Mr. Smith plays the flute’s expansive melodic lines with an ideal blend of freedom and control.  In this context, the Siciliana seems almost a vocalise, the flute taking on the qualities of a delightfully pure, melancholic voice.  The final movement is underlined by a sense of joy that is apparent in the performance it receives.

The last work on this disc is the A-major Sonata (BWV 1032), another piece that is slightly problematic.  Ironically, BWV 1032 was the only one of Bach’s flute sonatas that was preserved in Bach’s autograph manuscript, but this fell victim like so many priceless works of art to World War II.  Forty-six bars from the beginning of the first movement are thus lost to modern musicians, most of whom perform editions that employ a reconstruction utilizing existing thematic material.  Returning to the structure in which the harpsichord part is fully composed, Mr. Vinikour is given (especially in the opening movement) terrific opportunities to display his impressive skills for powerful, theatrical playing.  Pursuing melodic paths that are different but always complementary, both flautist and harpsichordist take parallel journeys that illuminate their individual strengths as prodigiously-talented musicians, their seemingly unflappable instincts for chamber playing, and Bach’s innate genius for injecting even small musical gestures with grandeur.

Mr. Smith completes the disc with a performance of the A-minor Partita for solo flute (BWV 1013).  Consisting of four movements derived from dance forms popular in the Baroque era (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Bourée Anglaise), the Partita offers a compact but comprehensive treatise on Bach’s style of composition for the flute.  Phrases of serene beauty are joined comfortably with passages of bravura intensity, all of them played by Mr. Smith with his customary ‘singing’ tone and attention to detail.  It is worth restating in the context of the Partita that, when listening to this disc, it is easy to forget what a formidable technique is required in order to play the music at this level.

Thankfully, the flute sonatas of Johann Sebastian Bach are sufficiently familiar to musicians and music lovers that Mr. Smith and Mr. Vinikour are spared the daunting task of rehabilitating them.  What they achieve in this recording is the revitalization of the music in a way that, rather than altering the presentation of the works, alters the listener’s perceptions of them.  Listening to this recording, there is the sense not of hearing these sonatas again but of hearing them anew, in a performance that is appropriate to the period in which they were composed but not encumbered by it.  It is Baroque, of course, but Mr. Smith and Mr. Vinikour allow the listener to appreciate through their playing that this is, foremost, music.  The recording is, just as their Cleveland recital was, a complete triumph over the unexpected.

Jory Vinikour [Photo by Kobie van Rensburg]

24 October 2009

ARTIST PROFILE: Andrew Foster-Williams, bass-baritone

Andrew Foster-Williams [Photo by Marco Borggreve]

When at last the clouds of war that obscured the European continent for much of the first half of the twentieth century cleared, it quickly became evident that artistic environments were changed almost as significantly as physical and political landscapes. In the entre-guerres generation, Wagner singing was the crowning glory of the world’s opera houses, with singers such as Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, and Friedrich Schorr setting standards of heroic vocalism that seemed insurmountable – and, to a large degree, remain unmatched even now. After World War II, during which these operatic titans and their contemporaries persevered despite extraordinary hardships and the disturbing Nazi annexation of Wagner’s music, it was undeniable that the musical world bore genuine scars of strife. The age of benchmark Wagnerians, of truly revelatory Brünnhildes and Isoldes – Martha Mödl, Birgit Nilsson, and Astrid Varnay excepted – was in its twilight. In opera as in nature, though, evening paves the way to dawn, and the mid-century sun rose on an era of great male singers, of tenors, baritones, and basses whose extraordinary artistry, versatility, and vocal quality spanned the standard repertory from Monteverdi to Menotti. It was perhaps easy for contemporary observers to underestimate the value of this lode of male vocal talent. These remarkable singers – Bergonzi, Corelli, del Monaco, Tagliavini, and Tucker; Bastianini, Gobbi, Merrill, Taddei, and Warren; Bruscantini, Christoff, Hotter, London, and Siepi – en masse formed an uncommonly reliable base in the pyramidal structure of opera, the foundation being so uniformly impressive that those few high-voiced singers who achieved the dizzy heights of the genre’s zenith shone with new brilliance. A wonder of the operatic world during the decades at the middle of the twentieth century was the way in which companies throughout the world could offer their audiences credible alternating casts of tenors, baritones, and basses in standard-repertory works. Metropolitan Opera audiences for the 1954 – 55 season’s revival of Verdi’s Un Ballo in maschera were not badly served for having to choose between Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker as Riccardo or Josef Metternich and Leonard Warren as Renato. Though Herva Nelli sang Amelia in a Philadelphia performance by the MET forces, the main-stage Ballo in New York in the spring of 1955 had only one soprano heroine: Zinka Milanov. [It is worth noting that it was in this revival that, on 7 January 1955, Marian Anderson made her MET début as Ulrica. Slightly more than three weeks later, Renata Tebaldi made her house début as Verdi’s Desdemona, opposite Mario del Monaco and Leonard Warren and with the young James McCracken in the secondary role of Roderigo.] This production was typical of the era in which a rich field of male vocal talent could be harvested to provide suitably glamorous settings for the rarer stars among female singers.

Also as in nature, however, opera as a living art is cyclical. There are throughout opera’s history discernible vocal and dramatic patterns. In the last decades of the twentieth century, the pendulum swung again in the direction of high-voiced domination of opera, though with the added (and, from the perspective of the great tenors, baritones, and basses of the Mid-Century, surely unanticipated) participation of countertenors. Whereas the MET in 1955 could boast alternating casts of superb male artists to support a single star soprano (two, in fact: Roberta Peters sang Oscar), in 2009 the sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and – it still seems unlikely, frankly – countertenors find themselves in something nearer to a wasteland among low-voiced singers. [Questions stemming from the obvious fact that, among the MET’s 2009 – 10 roster of celebrated and box-office-star female singers, there are no true successors to Milanov and Tebaldi, nor even the overused but underrated Herva Nelli, will be ignored in the context of this article.] The rosters of the world’s best opera companies include a plethora of sopranos experienced with Donizetti’s Lucia but display an unfortunate paucity of qualified Edgardos, Enricos, and Raimondos. This shift has also enacted an equivalent change in the focus of conventional operatic ‘stardom.’ It is now an atypically talented tenor, baritone, or bass who is a meteor darting through a darkened sky.

In this environment, perhaps it should not have been surprising that the most impressively memorable performance in Washington National Opera’s 2008 production of Händel’s Tamerlano – a production that featured an exceptional mezzo-soprano, a fine young soprano, perhaps the most famous of countertenors, and a tenor who holds the distinction after a long, triumphant career of being perhaps the only living opera singer whose name is almost universally known – came from a young British bass-baritone. In the secondary role of Leone, this remarkable singer rose to the challenge of his only aria, a transplant from another of Händel’s scores, with singing of the sort that regrettably is an endangered species among male singers of his generation. Fuelled by the success of his performances in Tamerlano, Washington National Opera are involved in negotiations aimed at bringing this exciting young artist back to their stage, and Washington-area audiences have reason to give thanks to the National Symphony Orchestra for the opportunity to again hear (as Alaouddin in concert performances of Albert Roussel’s Padmâvatî) the wonderful voice of Andrew Foster-Williams.

Andrew-Foster Williams as Leone at Washington National Opera [Photo by Karin Cooper]

Born in Wigan in Greater Manchester, where he states that he ‘didn’t grow up with Classical music,’ Mr. Foster-Williams pursued musical studies that led him to London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music, from which he graduated with top honors. In addition to being named an Associate of the Royal Academy, Mr. Foster-Williams won several important prizes during his studies, including the Royal College of Music’s Opera Award, the Flora Nielsen Recital Prize, and the Elena Gerhardt Lieder Prize. Mr. Foster-Williams also took second prize in the 1998 Kathleen Ferrier Awards. These studies and awards built the foundation on which Mr. Foster-Williams continues to build an impressive and stimulating career in both operatic and concert repertory. ‘I spent a lot of time [at the Royal Academy] learning how to sing and discovering the roots of what kind of performer I would like to be,’ he says. ‘I think it’s fair to say that I was a rather green young man when I left college.’

A vital aspect of Mr. Foster-Williams’ artistry is the way in which his performances combine vocal beauty with complete emotional engagement. An insightful attention to the nurturing of this blend was characteristic of Mr. Foster-Williams’ formative operatic experiences. ‘I was extremely influenced by my first singing teacher [Roy Dillon]. He had a profound impact on my life in many ways, and he was solely responsible for my initiation into the world of music. The lasting memory I have of him is his commitment and great love of the art of singing. He made all the hard work, learning, and preparation seem such a pleasure,’ he recollects. Recalling performances that he attended while he was a student at the Royal Academy, Mr. Foster-Williams notes, ‘Whilst I was studiously preoccupied in trying to analyze the vocal skills of the artists I was watching perform, it’s actually performances from the likes of Philip Langridge, Thomas Allen, and John Tomlinson that linger in my mind. These artists are more than great singers: they are masters of communication. They manage to make singing and acting a symbiotic whole. Even as a ‘vocal-obsessed’ student they managed to seduce me into forgetting about my conscious studies and just made me watch them and be immersed in their performance and, therefore, the piece as a whole. These are my kind of singers, and the kind of singer I strive to be myself.’ This goal of being a singer for whom both vocal poise and dramatic verisimilitude are paramount is central to Mr. Foster-Williams’ artistry. His progress in achieving this goal is immediately evident when hearing his singing, even on recordings.

An element of Mr. Foster-Williams’ success as a communicative artist of the first order undoubtedly stems from a quality conspicuously lacking in many young singers: a pervasive self-awareness, or an individual performing philosophy. Mr. Foster-Williams observes, ‘Singing is a deeply personal thing to do, and [singers] are required to ‘lay ourselves on the line’ and be vulnerable every time we do it. As a consequence, we probably spend more time analyzing ourselves, and our equilibrium with the world, than the average person does. When we have found peace with the practical headaches of the profession, and can embrace the magic of the situation we find ourselves in, then the perceptions we have of other things (like art and humanity) are equally positive and have an air of wonder about them. Each day in my work I am immersed in dialectic about love and grief, about faith and power, violence and pity, torment and ecstasy. I feel like my mind and eyes are open to all aspects and interpretations of art – because they have to be. Watching my colleagues create and achieve something exquisite as a daily occurrence is very humbling. This is privilege! Whilst I know I live in a world with much conflict, I feel that, in a small way, I am directly involved in reaching out to those who find some solace in the world of music and theatre.’ His dedications to self-reflection and thoughtful observation of the work of his colleagues are apparent in Mr. Foster-Williams’ singing. His interpretation of Golaud in Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells’ Pelléas et Mélisande revealed not only a very attractive timbre but honesty, vitality, and emotional directness that made this brutish character unusually moving, even at his most abusive, an accomplishment acclaimed by audiences and critics alike.

Ingrid Perruche as Mélisande and Andrew-Foster Williams as Golaud [Photo by Belinda Lawley]

‘I am very focused when I perform,’ Mr. Foster-Williams says. ‘I don’t allow myself to step out of the moment. I know that if I were to step out of the moment then it all becomes about ‘me’ rather than the music, drama, and audience. It is only when one is focused that one can truly call upon all the resources one has built up and learnt.’ The nature of the roles in Mr. Foster-Williams’ repertory – ranging from Rameau and Händel, through Haydn, Mozart, Rossini, and bel canto repertory, to Britten and Stravinsky – inspires him to refine his approach to vocal acting in order to meaningfully portray such an array of characters to whom, in their turns, virtually no emotions are foreign. ‘It’s about precision,’ Mr. Foster-Williams suggests. ‘It is necessary, sometimes, to portray an emotion in a ‘larger than life’ way in order for it to read on the back row. This should be fine as long as the action and intension [are] very specific, focused and precise. Any flailing around in an uncontrolled way will lose the concentration of the audience. When one is doing something intimate on stage - and the required objective is to ‘draw the audience in’ - then the actions, however minimal, still have to be very focused and with clear intent so that the audience can still read it properly. Precision and clarity must come first before they can give way to spontaneity and naturalness. One has to develop an innate feel for how the audience is reading your gestures and intensions and alter accordingly and constantly. A performer has to understand that the only acceptable performance is one that the audience indulges in.’

Considerations of ‘appropriate’ repertory might seem largely irrelevant in the case of a singer with Mr. Foster-Williams’ versatility. There are in the recent annals of operatic history many instances of very gifted young singers squandering their talents by taking on too many roles – or the wrong roles – too quickly, however. Artistic curiosity is a thoroughly admirable trait, but its mingling with ambition, whether self-imposed or resulting from external pressures, can be fatal for a young voice. To his credit, Mr. Foster-Williams displays an uncanny comprehension of the necessary balance between exploration and setting boundaries within the parameters of one’s own voice. ‘We have entered a potentially dangerous stage in the profession; one in which young singers with great talent are encouraged to do too much too soon,’ he says. ‘The more high-profile work young singers do, the more work they are offered: the eventual result can be disastrous. Lower voices take more time to settle and mature. In this hectic world, it can be frustrating to ‘take time’ (particularly if one is bright and wants to get one’s hands dirty), but strategic building is the name of the game. I have been lucky to have the support of several orchestras and opera companies who have understood the more measured path my voice needed to take.’ It is critical, Mr. Foster-Williams feels, that a young singer ‘is intelligent, trusts one’s own instincts, and aligns oneself with great managers, teachers, and coaches.’

To date, Mr. Foster-Williams’ operatic and concert performances have taken him to the principal musical centers of Europe and North America. On the horizon are débuts with the Detroit Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic, as well as his first performance in New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. Mr. Foster-Williams’ discography is expanded this month with the release of a new recording of Messiah with Stephen Layton and the Britten Sinfonia on Hyperion. His superb performance in Opera Rara’s studio recording of Mercadante’s Virginia will be followed by his work in the same label’s forthcoming recording of Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira. For Chandos, Mr. Foster-Williams has recorded the role of Lotario in Händel’s Flavio with Christian Curnyn, with whom he also recorded Ormonte in Partenope. [Click here to explore and purchase items from Mr. Foster-Williams’ extensive discography.]

The impact of Mr. Foster-Williams’ artistry was summarized with near-ideal focus by Nick Kimberley, writing in London’s Evening Standard of Mr. Foster-Williams’ performance in Messiah at St. John’s Smith Square in December 2008. ‘His bass light and flexible,’ Mr. Kimberley wrote, ‘he sang as if telling a story that he really wanted us to understand. That story may be ancient but here it had the urgency of tomorrow’s headlines.’ This eagerness to communicate with audiences through singing is indicative of the integrity with which Mr. Foster-Williams practices his craft. That his work successfully conveys to audiences the stories that he wants them to understand is indicative of the presence of a great artist.

‘The most gratifying element of singing for me has something to do with connection,’ Mr. Foster-Williams says. ‘When I know I have served a piece of music well, and truly connected to an audience, it is the most magical feeling!’ Experiencing Mr. Foster-Williams’ singing, it is apparent that this association between connection and magic is self-perpetuating: audiences connect with his performances because there is in his work that elusive and wondrous element of magic. The shimmering beauty of the voice commands the ears’ full attention, the emotional and intellectual involvement inspire the heart’s complete surrender, and ultimately one leaves the theatre with memories of both performance and performer. In the context of any performance in which he participates, the renown of his colleagues notwithstanding, Andrew Foster-Williams never goes unnoticed.

Andrew Foster-Williams singing Schubert's WINTERREISE

The author’s sincerest thanks are extended to Mr. Foster-Williams for his extraordinary grace, wit, and kindness in responding to questions for this article and for his assistance in providing the photographs used.

Click here to visit Mr. Foster-Williams’ official website.

Mr. Foster-Williams is represented in Europe by Maxine Robertson of Maxine Robertson Management and in North America by Carrie Sykes of Schwalbe and Partners.