26 March 2010

CD REVIEW: Christoph Willibald von Gluck – ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE (J.D. Flórez, A. Garmendia, A. Marianelli; DECCA)

Gluck's ORPHÉE ET EURYDICE (Flórez, Garmendia, Marianelli; López-Cobos - DECCA 478 2197] CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD VON GLUCK (1714 – 1787): Orphée et Eurydice – J.D. Flórez (Orphée), A. Garmendia (Eurydice, une Ombre heureuse), A. Marianelli (L’Amour); Coro y Orquestra Titular del Teatro Real; Jesús López-Cobos [recorded ‘live’ during concert performances at the Teatro Real, Madrid, 27 &30 May and 2 June 2008; DECCA 478 2197]

In two important ways, this new recording of Gluck’s 1774 Paris version of Orphée et Eurydice – unencumbered by academic conceits and awkward transpositions – seems an opportunity missed, but it must be conceded from the start that hearing Juan Diego Flórez sing the fearsomely difficult ariette ‘L’espoir renaît dans mon âme’ is one of the greatest pleasures to be had from opera during the past quarter-century.  Thankfully, Mr. Flórez’s commitment to his role does not end with the challenge of this coloratura showpiece aria, but in truth there is more to Orphée than, well, Orphée.

The gestation and performance history of Orphée et Eurydice are famously complicated matters.  Set to an Italian libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, Gluck’s first version of his Orpheus opera was premiered in Vienna in 1762 with the celebrated alto castrato Gaetano Guadagni (some of whose ornaments are preserved in the singer’s hand) singing the role of Orfeo.  More than a decade later, at the zenith of his efforts to steer opera towards a closer conformity with the tenets of Classical Greek drama, Gluck adapted the score to a French libretto by Pierre-Louis Moline, revising the orchestration and vocal lines to comply with French tastes shaped by the music of Lully and Rameau.  Ironically, though, while the original 1762 version was groundbreaking in its avoidance of secco recitative and bravura vocal effects, the first act of the 1774 version ended with the aforementioned ariette for Orphée, ‘L’espoir renaît dans mon âme,’ an heroic piece in the Italian style that Gluck had already used in his Il Parnaso confuso and Le feste d’Apollo.  Gluck had at his disposal as the first Paris Orphée Joseph Legros, an accomplished exponent of the typically French haute-contre vocal Fach, evidenced by the composer’s extension of Orphée’s tessitura to the E-flat above the tenor’s top C.  [Jeremy Hayes reminds the reader in his brief liner notes for this DECCA release that pitch in Eighteenth-Century Paris may have been as much as a whole tone lower than modern concert pitch, but this remains a controversial matter.]  In the Nineteenth Century, Hector Berlioz – perhaps Gluck’s most ardent champion in the century following his death in 1787 – created a version of the opera for the great mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, combining music from both the 1762 Vienna and 1774 Paris versions.  As with the great singers of the past, it was the remarkable talent of Juan Diego Flórez, and specifically his ability to cope with the high tessitura of the 1774 Paris version of the score, that inspired the Madrid concert performances from which the material for this recording (which was produced, incidentally, by the excellent Peruvian tenor Ernesto Palacio, Mr. Flórez’s tutor and manager) was drawn.

Fine as the singing and playing by the Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real (the same personnel as the Coro y Orquestra Sinfónica de Madrid) are in this performance, they ultimately are professional but no more and are let down somewhat by their conductor, Jesús López-Cobos, the outgoing Music Director of the Teatro Real.  In terms of choices of tempo, Maestro López-Cobos maintains a center-of-the-road course, avoiding the extremes and idiosyncrasies that undermine so many performances, but he also lacks the Gallic poise that the 1774 Paris version of Orphée requires, Gluck having been heavily influenced not only by Classical Greek dramatic devices but also (significantly) by the tragédies lyriques of Lully and Rameau, as well as the Mid-Century operas – neither wholly Baroque nor Classical in form – of the Italian composer Niccolò Jommelli.  In the context of a less exceptional performance than this, Maestro López-Cobos and his Teatro Real forces might well seem more than merely adequate, but it is difficult to avoid pondering what a revelatory recorded performance might have been had with ensembles like William Christie and Les Arts Florissants or Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort supporting the star tenor’s efforts.

Capable singing is contributed by both sopranos, Ainhoa Garmendia (who replaced Nicole Cabell) as Eurydice and Alessandra Marianelli as L’Amour, each singer meeting the coloratura requirements of her role with relative ease.  Ms. Garmendia sings especially beautifully in the first scene of the third act, in which Eurydice – restored to life – doubts Orphée’s love and, compelling him to betray the terms of her release from the Underworld by looking at her, perishes anew.  There is a sameness in the timbres of the sopranos, but the brevity of their roles (and, indeed, of the opera as a whole, which runs for just less than 105 minutes in this performance) prevents this from becoming wearying.

As it was in past when Léopold Simoneau and Nicolai Gedda recorded Orphée, primary interest focuses on the tenor who sings the title role.  Even with these fine performances preserved on commercial recordings, it is regrettable that neither Hugues Cuénod nor Michel Sénéchal, those paragons of French haute-contre singing, was recorded as Orphée.  Among latter-day Orphées on records, the Frenchman Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (on NAXOS) is likely the closest in style to Joseph Legos: in the present performance, Juan Diego Flórez sings with largely the same resonance that he employs in his bel canto repertory, and Richard Croft’s performance on Marc Minkowski’s recording for Archiv/DGG is something of a compromise between the two approaches.  The slight nasality of Mr. Flórez’s tone, especially in the extreme upper register, lends a certain eloquence to his French diction that projects a compelling sense of the appropriate style.  Moreover, the complete security with which Mr. Flórez encompasses the range required by the music is astonishing on its own terms.  There are perhaps a few tenors who could run him close in this music – the Americans Lawrence Brownlee and Kenneth Tarver, the Briton Toby Spence, and the Frenchman Marc Laho, for instance – but it is simply inconceivable, especially when listening to this recording, that any singer could surpass Mr. Flórez’s performance of this music.  The dreaded ‘L’espoir renaît dans mon âme’ (omitted in their respective recordings by Simoneau and Gedda, who also employed modest downward transpositions) seems hardly a challenge for Mr. Flórez, who sings the ariette with the assurance one might expect from the world’s reigning Rossini tenor par excellence.  The ease of Mr. Flórez’s singing perfectly conveys the spirit of the piece, which expresses the reawakening of hope in Orphée’s heart as he realizes that his beloved Eurydice may be restored to him.  Equally effective and even more beautiful is Mr. Flórez’s singing of the arias ‘Quel nouveau ciel’ (‘Che puro ciel’ in the Italian version) and ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’ (the universally-known ‘Che farò senza Euridice’), in the latter of which one can sense Mr. Flórez willing Maestro López-Cobos to preside in a manner more sensitive to the stylistic nuances of the music.  Whatever discussions persist concerning Mr. Flórez’s singing of his typical bel canto repertory, there can be no denying that this recording of a role to which it is not likely that Mr. Flórez will often return in his career preserves the work of a great singer at the height of his abilities.

Alas, he deserved better from DECCA, the label whose reputation he has done much to maintain since making his first recording for the company a decade ago, of Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto with Les Talens Lyriques and Christophe Rousset.  The recording, a composite assembled from three concert performances, is well-balanced on the whole but is a far less faithful document of the Teatro Real’s acoustics than several zarzuela recordings on other labels.  Opera lovers have accepted that ‘live’ recordings are the way of the future, being faster and less expensive to produce and release, but whereas many of the ‘live’ recordings of concert performances (EMI’s recording of Sir Simon Rattle’s account of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges with the Berliner Philharmoniker, for instance) give no evidence of their origins, DECCA’s final product in this instance sounds little better than many of the so-called ‘pirated’ recordings in circulation.  [The author has, in fact, heard a ‘pirated’ recording of one of the Madrid concert performances that has both a finer, more realistic aural perspective and a less ‘produced’ dynamic spectrum, all to the good where the voices are concerned.]  There is a veritable plethora of extraneous noises to be heard, almost none of which originate with the capacity audience.  Creaking furniture and equipment, sloppy page-turns, and hosts of bumps and groans from the unseen orchestra and chorus are reproduced with startling clarity and prominence, even marring some of Mr. Flórez’s most beautiful passages.  One expects these sorts of flaws in the much-duplicated ‘private recordings’ that are traded by connoisseurs, but this is not the standard to which DECCA have aspired, nor indeed that which they achieved with their ‘live’ recording – based on staged performances, and less cluttered even so! – of Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran with Mr. Flórez and Annick Massis.  Recording the audience’s frenzied reaction to Mr. Flórez’s singing of ‘L’espoir renaît dans mon âme’ is understandable, as the enthusiasm is wholly justified and the ariette also ends the first act, but the inclusion of the ovation following ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’ impedes the emotional development of the final act and frankly seems gratuitous.  In fairness, the sonic blemishes in this recording only slightly distract the listener, but like a precious gem the superb performance by Mr. Flórez deserved a setting worthy of its brilliance.

The very difficulty of the music for Orphée in the 1774 Paris version of Gluck’s masterful opera makes it unlikely that the 1762 Vienna version will ever be supplanted in the international repertory, especially as there are now talented countertenors who can bring to the contralto vocal lines something at least theoretically like the impact that Guadagni had as Orfeo.  Nonetheless, only with this performance by Juan Diego Flórez has the 1774 version of the score gained a complete recording that can stand in the company of the timeless performances by Kathleen Ferrier and Dame Janet Baker.Madrid's Teatro Real [photo by the author, 10.2008]

22 March 2010

ARTIST PROFILE – Nelly Miricioiu, soprano

Soprano Nelly Miricioiu - 'La Unica' On 12 January 1844, the Teatro San Carlo in Naples presented the first performance of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro, its composer’s penultimate opera (his final piece, Ne m’oubliez pas, was never completed), written when Donizetti was succumbing to the disease that would prematurely end his life.  The title role was sung by Fanny Goldberg, about whom little is remembered other than her participation in the first production of Caterina Cornaro and the exasperation she inspired in Donizetti.  ‘I wrote for a soprano, and they give me a mezzo,’ the frustrated composer wrote to a relative before the Caterina Cornaro premiere.  Donizetti’s anxiety was ultimately proved to be justified: Caterina Cornaro pleased neither the Neapolitan audience nor critics and was withdrawn after six performances.  Revivals during the Twentieth Century – first with the fiery Leyla Gencer, again at the San Carlo in 1972 and then with the Opera Theatre of New Jersey at Carnegie Hall in 1973, with Montserrat Caballé in several European venues, with Brazilian soprano Auréa Gómez at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in 1982, with Matile Rowland (replacing Aprile Millo) for Opera Orchestra of New York in 1994, with Denia Mazzola-Gavazzeni at the Teatro Donizetti di Bergamo in 1995, and with Julia Migenes (conducted by Richard Bonynge) at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1998 – failed to fully reverse the opera’s fortunes, as did a 1974 RAI Torino broadcast (and recording) with the unjustly-neglected Italian soprano Margherita Rinaldi.  Despite passages of acknowledged musical distinction, the score was regarded largely as it was in 1844, as a failed effort by an important composer.  On 20 March 2010, however, in Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Donizetti’s opera seria swansong received the invaluable attention of a remarkable soprano whose career has contained many triumphant forays into rare bel canto repertory: Nelly Miricioiu.  Even the insights of this committed singer likely will not restore Caterina Cornaro to the repertory, where indeed it perhaps does not truly deserve to be, but her performance further secured her throne as Amsterdam’s Queen of Bel Canto.

Hailed by Italian audiences as ‘La Unica’ for her unique dramatic gifts and remarkable musical versatility, Nelly Miricioiu was born in Adjud, Romania, which is also the hometown of opera-singing sisters Elena Dan and Angela Gheorghiu.  Sadly, Ms. Miricioiu’s early life paralleled the history of her fatherland during the years of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s brutal Marxist regime: first enduring the persecution of her family by Ceauşescu’s government, she then fell victim herself to abuse and imprisonment by the fearsome Securitate, Romania’s Communist secret police.  Inevitably, the emotional scars of this existence affected Ms. Miricioiu’s development as an artist and as an individual.  ‘The main experience [from my early life] was the pain from being a sensitive child and having my dreams and individuality suppressed by the cruel regime who at that time controlled the lives of everyone in Romania,’ she recollects.  ‘To change this I needed to rework and find again the emotions and belief within myself in order to experience the freedom to explore what was possible in my greatest passion in life – music.’

A scene of Adjud, Romania, birthplace of Nelly Miricioiu Singing was the young Ms. Miricioiu’s connection with the happier life that she sensed could be hers.  ‘I lived for music because it connected me to Mother Nature and the love of trying to make people happy,’ she says.  In a sense, music was Ms. Miricioiu’s means of emotional escape.  Still, opportunities for honing her art under the tutelage of great artists of her own and other countries were limited by the repressive environment in which she came of age.  ‘I was not particularly influenced by opera singers in my youth,’ she remembers.  ‘Having said that, I always strongly recommend to young singers that they should take for inspiration what is best from artists and performances both past and present,’ she adds.  After having displayed prodigious talent for singing as a young girl and winning her first singing competition at the age of fourteen, Ms. Miricioiu studied in her native country at the Conservatory of Iaşi (now the George Enescu Universirty of Arts of Iaşi).  A string of victories in international singing competitions, including the inaugural Maria Callas Grand Prix in 1975, launched her career.  After making her main-stage debut as the Königin der Nacht in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Ms. Miricioiu was cast in leading roles in theatres throughout Romania.  The political atmosphere in Romania only continued to deteriorate in the decade prior to Ceauşescu’s ouster in 1989, however, and the world beyond Romania’s borders beckoned Ms. Miricioiu.

Still only in her late twenties, Ms. Miricioiu gave one of her first performances outside of Romania at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila in 1980.  Tumultuously cheered by the Filipino public, she was likewise lauded by the Philippines’ First Lady, Imelda Marcos.  The success of her performance in Manila inspired Ms. Miricioiu to the harrowing decision of affecting her defection from her homeland.  Unfortunately, the Marcos government maintained diplomatic ties with Ceauşescu’s Romania, and the Filipino government were compelled by protocol to reject Ms. Miricioiu’s request for political asylum.

Nelly Miricioiu (left), in the Philippines in 1980 In 1982, Ms. Miricioiu experienced a milestone in her fledgling international career when she made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as Nedda in a production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci opposite the Canio of Jon Vickers, the Tonio of Piero Cappuccilli, and the Silvio of Sir Thomas Allen.  A short time before, she had enjoyed another triumph in her debut with Scottish Opera in Glasgow as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, a role that became one of the most frequent in Ms. Miricioiu’s diary.  The beauty and dedication of her singing impressed the legendary patron of the arts Lord Harewood, who took up her cause.  She was granted asylum by the British government, and the United Kingdom became her new home.

Additional international successes followed Ms. Miricioiu’s Covent Garden debut in rapid succession.  In 1983, she was called upon to introduce herself to the legendarily demanding public at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala as Donizetti’s Lucia, replacing Luciana Serra.  Her magnificent performance was rapturously received by the often-merciless denizens of La Scala’s loggione.  Her success as Lucia was repeated two years later in Modena, when she sang the role alongside the Edgardo of celebrated tenor Carlo Bergonzi.  Ms. Miricioiu’s debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera followed four years later when, on 28 October 1989, she sang Mimì in Franco Zeffirelli’s famed production of Puccini’s La Bohème.  Further debuts and performances brought delight to audiences throughout Europe, the United States, and South America.

Nelly Miricioiu with Carlo Bergonzi during a 1985 performance of LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR in Modena, ItalyThe early years of Ms. Miricioiu’s international career were marked by her uncanny ability to adapt her technique to a wide array of repertory, ranging from Mozart to verismo, without compromising the quality of her singing.  In addition to roles such as Lucia and Violetta, she was praised for performances of Cio-Cio San and the soprano heroines of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann.  One of the most interesting aspects of Ms. Miricioiu’s artistry is the way in which she sang such a broad repertory without damaging her voice.  ‘In some ways, it’s not good to continue to sing operas that maybe stretch your possibilities too much, but by the same token I also needed to first push my limits in order to find out what I can do.  I also wanted in those early years to find out what my journey was supposed to be, and by allowing myself a little freedom to explore repertories from which I could learn, I always felt this would eventually help me to come closer to revealing my true dramatic possibilities,’ she says.  Recalling the roles that she was offered in the early years of her career, she adds, ‘Still, choice was not a luxury I always had available.’

These experiences shaped Ms. Miricioiu’s concepts of her own artistry and approach to singing.  She suggests that singing is a dual exercise for both body and soul.  ‘Technique being to the Body what musical expression is to the Soul, what else can there be?’ she asks.  ‘Above all, I need to make the art of singing part of my own spiritual life and experience.’  This centrality of singing in her emotional life is evident in the way in which Ms. Miricioiu approaches the roles that she sings.  ‘I am totally committed to the music, but in many ways what you see onstage is part of my personality, and I always need something through which I can channel my energy, my imagination, my need to work, my love for my fellow man, my curiosity, and my interest in diverse subjects.  Singing was always the center of my life and shaped the way I viewed art and humanity both on and off stage.’  Her vast repertory led her to believe that a singer’s trust in his or her own intuition is the key to pursuing a long and meaningful career.  ‘Be honest with yourself and [with the] music,’ she muses.  ‘Listen, learn, practice, test for yourself.  The single most important piece of advice for anyone with a passion to sing and a natural voice,’ she states, ‘is never to believe that there is only one possible journey for the voice; or to accept that any magic formula can replace the dedication needed to build and sustain a singing career.’

Despite the necessity of understanding and respecting one’s own abilities and limitations, opera is an essentially collaborative art, and Ms. Miricioiu has participated in one of the most significant artistic collaborations in operatic history.  Even considering the importance of Maria Callas to EMI/HMV/Angel and of Dame Joan Sutherland and Renata Tebaldi to DECCA/London, the fortunes of a recording venture have scarcely ever relied as prominently as have those of the Opera Rara label on the singing of Nelly Miricioiu.  Founded in 1970 by Americans Patric Schmid and Don White, Opera Rara began as an organization dedicated to giving performances of long-forgotten, lesser works of the bel canto period.  The Company gave their first concert, dedicated to the music of Saverio Mercadante in celebration of the centenary of his dCover of the Opera Rara recording of Mercadante's ORAZI E CURIAZIeath, on 17 December 1970, and their first performance of a complete opera – Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto – followed in 1972.  By the end of the decade, Opera Rara had brought out their first recording, an exciting account of Donizetti’s sprawling Ugo, Conte di Parigi.  With an ambitious desire to produce more recordings of overlooked bel canto works, Opera Rara needed a diva who could convincingly sing the roles created for some of the most renowned and musically adventurous sopranos of the Nineteenth Century.  In 1993, they planned a studio recording of Mercadante’s Orazi e Curiazi in which the role of Camilla would be sung by Ms. Miricioiu.  With this recording began a fruitful collaboration that continues more than a decade later.  The success of Ms. Miricioiu’s singing in the Orazi e Curiazi recording led to her singing of the barnstorming role of Eleonora in Opera Rara’s 1994 recording of Donizetti’s Rosmonda d’Inghilterra, in which the title role was sung by the young Renée Fleming.  When Ms. Miricioiu duplicated her superb performance in her first outing on the Opera Rara label both in Rosmonda and in the following year’s recording of Rossini’s Ricciardo e Zoraide, Patric Schmid knew that he had found his diva.

Nelly Miricioiu with Patric Schmid, co-founder of Opera Rara‘Patric once said to me that he [had] been waiting for thirty years to find the soprano who could sing some of the roles of operas he had been collecting over the years.  He gave me a “platform” and showed that he believed in me and loved my artistry and commitment,’ Ms. Miricioiu remembers wistfully.  ‘He inspired me with his own knowledge of those rare operas, and singing for him enriched my life in many ways.  I shall never forget this.’  Pursuing his passion to the last moment of his life, Mr. Schmid passed away suddenly on 6 November 2005, only a short time before a performance of Donizetti’s Il Diluvio Universale that followed recording sessions for Opera Rara.  ‘We shared tears and laughter,’ Ms. Miricioiu says, ‘and I miss him!’

Nelly Miricioiu as Elisabetta in Donizetti's ROBERTO DEVEREUX at the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Trieste, ItalyEven viewed in the context of her searing performances in Verdi roles and in operas such as Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (in the title role of which Ms. Miricioiu made her warmly-received return to Romania after an absence of nearly thirty years), Respighi’s La Fiamma and Marie Victoire, and Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, it is as an interpreter of bel canto roles that Ms. Miricioiu has achieved her greatest successes and assumed her place among the ranks of such legendary singers as Maria Malibran and Giuditta Pasta, Luisa Tetrazzini and Dame Nellie Melba, and Maria Callas and Dame Joan Sutherland.  Often compared to the great Callas, Ms. Miricioiu has displayed throughout her career a consistent affinity not only for the complex vocal requirements of bel canto but also for the dramatic intricacies – far too often disserved in the performances of lesser artists – of even the ignored operas by Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti.  Her performances of the title roles in Rossini’s Armida, Bellini’s Norma, and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia, and Maria Stuarda, as well as Amenaide in Rossini’s Tancredi and Imogene in Bellini’s Il Pirata, have electrified audiences at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, inspiring the typically subdued Dutch patrons to Italianate expressions of feverous appreciation.  The somewhat smaller scale of bel canto productions, and the theatres in which they are most often presented, contributes to Ms. Miricioiu’s effectiveness in this repertory.  ‘I am not truly comfortable in very large theatres,’ she states.  ‘I believe in the possibilities of expressing intimate emotions from the opera stage [just as they are] found in plays and cinema, and I particularly don’t like being presented on any stage in the sort of semi-obscurity that you find in some productions, which feels like an attempt to reduce and homogenize the individualities of artists.’  It is the communication that must develop between the artist and an audience that is vital to her singing, not only of bel canto roles.  ‘It’s only through connecting inner experiences with the music that an artist can truly convey any close-on emotions of opera to the audience – and certainly not through vocal technique alone,’ she continues.  ‘I suppose [that] in this respect the only real differences between bel canto and verismo repertories are the styles and periods of the orchestration, but generally my approach to both is the same whether the theatres are large or small.’  Bringing this dedication to connecting with her audience to her Amsterdam performance of Caterina Cornaro, she also recalls a similar artistic experience in a vastly different score.  ‘One recent great challenge was learning and performing on stage, from memory, Poulenc’s one-act, one-woman opera La Voix humaine, which lasts fifty minutes.  [Singing is] gratifying when I can make the composer happy, the public happy, and myself happy.’  With typical good humor, she adds, ‘and maybe some critics, too!  I have plenty more to keep me challenged, though, and to [help me] to remember always to have the humility to never stop learning.’

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Ms. Miricioiu’s artistry, not least in bel canto, is her ability, virtually absent from the world’s stages since the retirement of Maria Callas, to portray the often outrageous situations in which her characters find themselves with dramatic veracity that derives from organic responses to emotional stimuli.  This was memorably apparent even in a concert performance of Bellini’s Il Pirata for Washington Concert Opera that the present author attended.  Rather than seeking inspiration from external sources, Ms. Miricioiu looks to the music itself to find the cornerstones of her dramatic portraits.  ‘We should remember that without composers and librettists, particularly those of great genius, opera would have no stage on which to work,’ she insists.  ‘I feel [that artists] should therefore try as much as possible to find the humility and integrity to serve the music and drama in the manner in which [the composers and librettists] originally intended.  At least artistically, I believe [that] this is the only way that opera can really survive.  Although it may endure different forms in terms of exciting designs and lighting, dramatic settings, and theatrical movements, the emphasis on music must still always reign supreme.’  That musicality and innate respect for the endeavors of composers and librettists are vital to Ms. Miricioiu’s singing is obvious in any of her performances or recordings.  Perhaps what sets her apart from so many of her contemporaries who have sung a similar repertory is that deep concentration on the music and text are for her liberating rather than confining.

Above all, singing is for Ms. Miricioiu not a chore or merely a career, not a task undertaken out of the obligation created by the recognition of a genuine talent, but the fulfillment of dreams and bottomless founts of desire.  ‘I cannot just exist, as life for me is an active thing, not simply living without challenges,’ she says.  ‘I am an insatiable “doer” in music and in life, and only death will end my passion.’  Looking to the future, there is another seldom-heard Donizetti opera on her horizon – Belisario, which she will sing in February 2011 for London’s Chelsea Opera Group, an underappreciated staple of London’s operatic community for which she has already sung an assortment of roles including Rossini’s Ermione and Semiramide, Bellini’s  Beatrice di Tenda and Imogene (Il Pirata), Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia, Verdi’s Odabella (Attila) Lady Macbeth, and Violetta (La Traviata), and Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur.  She also returns to her native Romania again in April 2010 to sing Adriana Lecouvreur.

Many youngsters who faced the hardships that Nelly Miricioiu endured in her youth would have abandoned their dreams, succumbing to the routines that too readily absorbed them or simply fading into the oblivion of faceless existence.  From Providence Ms. Miricioiu received the gift of a sublimely beautiful voice, and from her own inner determination she drew the strength to carry on despite crushing adversity.  Her modesty permits only fleeting glimpses of this legacy of resilience, but it can be heard in each of her performances.  Belief in the power of music was the path that she followed to freedom from the oppression that imperiled not just her artistry but also her life, and the greatest single measure of her enduring accomplishments as a singer is the fact that, after years of happiness, safety, and success, she continues her journey along that path with untarnished conviction.

Nelly Miricioiu as Respighi's Marie Victoire in Rome, 2004

I am deeply indebted to Ms. Miricioiu for her exceptional candor and grace in responding to my questions and to her publicist, Ms. Maria Mot, for her kind and thorough assistance, as well as for permission to use the photographs included in this profile.

Click here to visit Nelly Miricioiu’s official website.  Her blog can be accessed by clicking here.

Nelly Miricioiu is represented in Europe by Camille De Rijck of Pelleas Artists and in North America by Zemsky/Green Artists Management.

20 March 2010

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Concert by Elizabeth Futral, soprano; Nancy Maultsby, mezzo-soprano; and Warren Jones, piano (Dana Auditorium, Greensboro, NC; 19 March 2010)

Dana Auditorium on the campus of Guilford College

Founded by renowned organist Dr. Henry Ingram and his wife Lucy, Greensboro’s Music for a Great Space series is a vital component of the Piedmont/Triad’s performing arts schedule, an engaging series that has brought many renowned organists and musical artists to Greensboro (this season’s scheduled artists include organists John Alexander, Rachel Laurin, and Stephen Tharp; clarinetist Jon Manasse with pianist Jon Nakamatsu; the Red Clay Saxophone Quartet with the ‘Tango Duo’ of soprano Lorena Guillén and pianist Alejandro Rutty; and the celebrated Ciompi Quartet).  The centerpiece of the series’ eighteenth season was a concert dedicated to the memory of Dr. Ingram, who passed away on 13 September 2008.  This concert, for which the artists donated their time and talents, brought together three internationally-acclaimed performers with ties to North Carolina: soprano Elizabeth Futral, who was born in North Carolina and presently resides in Roanoke, VA; mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, who is a native of Burlington; and pianist Warren Jones, who spent much of his childhood in North Carolina.  Celebrated tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, a native of High Point, was also to have participated but was indisposed.  Mr. Griffey’s absence was the only possible reason for regret, however, in what was a tremendously enjoyable evening.

With its title of ‘Great Music, Great Friends,’ the emphasis of this concert was decidedly musical camaraderie, both that among the artists performing and that fostered by the work of Dr. and Mrs. Ingram.  A largely informal affair, the concert’s programme featured many departures from the printed playbill that were only partially accounted for by Mr. Griffey’s absence.  With both singers and Mr. Jones bringing charm and affable stage personalities to their tasks, the concert indeed created an atmosphere of great music-making among friends.

Mr. Jones, a widely-lauded accompanist who has played for a number of the finest singers in recent memory (including Denyce Graves, Marilyn Horne, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Tatiana Troyanos), confirmed his reputation with sensitive but spirited playing that complemented the singing of his partners.  Mr. Jones displayed his gifts for evoking orchestral effects and instruments in numbers throughout the programme, especially in his beautiful playing of the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, prominently accompanied in the opera house by the harp, and the frenzied accompaniment to Ferran Obradors’ canción ‘El Vito,’ suggestive of flamenco guitar.  Mr. Jones likewise gave evidence of the masterful technical command and artistry of his playing in two solo numbers.  The first of these, Brahms’ G-minor Rhapsody (Op. 79, no. 2), drew from Mr. Jones a brilliant performance that explored the complex harmonic progressions and dynamic contrasts of the piece.  Even in this work, the rhapsodic nature of which would seem to defy form, it is possible to observe the supreme Pianist Warren Jonesparadox of Brahms’ music, that the composer found such musical liberation in relatively strict adherence to traditional forms.  Mr. Jones’ playing made this apparent, getting at the soul of the music.  With Brahms, the goal was ever to run to the boundaries of Romantic forms, to do all that could be done with the resources within those forms, and to gaze out at the wastelands beyond without wandering into the abyss.  It was possible to hear in Mr. Jones’ playing of the G-minor Rhapsody the ravaging winds of unfettered musical exploration, but the violence was tempered by serenity.  Mr. Jones’ second solo selection was the ‘Sposalizio’ from Franz Liszt’s Deuxième Année de Pèlerinage: Italie, a brilliant piece which is more lyrical than many of Liszt’s early works for solo piano.  Based on a campanella-like, pentatonic melodic phrase and heavily reliant (as is much of Liszt’s piano music) on playing in octaves, the piece was inspired by Liszt’s first viewing of Raffaello’s 1504 painting ‘The Marriage of the Virgin.’  Mr. Jones’ playing fully exploited both the grand wedding march and the delicate, pastoral depiction of the pealing of bells that frames the work, thoughtfully invoking the inspiration with which the young Liszt translated into tonal imagery the impact of Raffaello’s painting.  As both a collaborative and a solo pianist, Mr. Jones gave the Greensboro audience a rare opportunity to hear playing at the highest level of accomplishment.

In addition to having created the role of Princess Yueyang opposite Plácido Domingo in Tan Dun’s opera The First Emperor, coloratura soprano Elizabeth Futral has also sung Donizetti’s Lucia, Princesse Eudoxie in Halévy’s La Juive, and Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani at the Metropolitan Opera.  Also acclaimed for her creation of the role of Stella in Sir André Previn’s operatic setting of A Streetcar Named Desire, a portrayal available on both CD and DVD, Ms. Futral is well-known to opera lovers for her performances on several recordings of rarely-heard bel canto scores on the Opera Rara label.  She began her performance in Greensboro with a sterling presentation of her bel canto credentials in a performance of Norina’s aria ‘So anch’io la virtù magica’ from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.  Ms. Futral tossed off the climactic top notes and roulades, composed for Giulia Grisi, with nonchalant ease, the brightness of the voice conveying the vivacious coyness of the role.  Ms. Futral honored the long-established tradition for concert performances by renowned sopranos by singing a charming account of Lauretta’s ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, an aria that an honest music lover must admit that for all its over-familiarity is a beautiful melodic inspiration.  She brought theSoprano Elizabeth Futral first half of the concert to a close with performances of two songs by contemporary American composer Ricky Ian Gordon, ‘Will There Really Be a Morning?’ (a setting of a poem by Emily Dickinson) and ‘Joy’ (a setting of Langston Hughes’ ‘I went to look for Joy’).  Both of these songs received from Ms. Futral magnificent performances, the former in particular drawing from her astonishingly poised, emotionally-charged singing, the highest notes approached with rapt beauty and quietude.  Ms. Futral will sing in the New York premiere of the composer’s opera The Grapes of Wrath on Monday, 22 March, and her affinity for his music (he also composed his OBIE-winning opera Orpheus and Euridice for her) was palpable.  Ms. Futral’s final solo selection was the frequently-heard Vilja-Lied (sung in an excellent English translation) from Franz Léhar’s Die Lustige Witwe.  Singing the tale of a young man lamenting the loss of his beloved sprite, Ms. Futral worked magic, building to perfectly-placed, piano top notes that seemed the very epitome of the young lover’s sighs.  It was a performance that brought to mind the vocally very different but incomparably touching Ljuba Welitsch.  Ms. Futral’s performance was from start to finish not the work of an international-circuit singer ‘slumming it’ in the provinces but of a great artist inspired to give of her best.

Thinking of the name of the concert series founded by Dr. and Mrs. Ingram, what was immediately apparent when hearing mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby sing was that hers is a voice that thrives in grand spaces.  Dark, rich, and solid throughout her range like the great contraltos of previous generations, Ms. Maultsby’s voice is of course ideal for the mezzo-soprano warhorses, Bizet’s Carmen and Samson’s Dalila, and also for the heavier music of Wagner and Mahler.  The evenness of Ms. Maultsby’s voice can perhaps be attributed in part to her studies with the wonderful Margaret Harshaw, whose leading rMezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby [Photo by Lisa Kohler]oles at the MET ranged from the contralto role of La Cieca in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda to Wagner’s Brünnhilde and Isolde.  Having sung principal mezzo-soprano roles in opera houses throughout the world, Ms. Maultsby is one of those superbly-trained and splendidly-gifted but unpretentious artists who defeats the famous-name singers at their own game.  Ms. Maultsby paid tribute to her standard repertory with a subtle, sensual account of ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila and a feisty performance of Carmen’s Habañera.  Her final solo number of the first half of the concert was a stirring performance of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, the modulation in the closing refrain of which gave Ms. Maultsby the opportunity to cap the song with a ringing top note.  Perhaps most impressive among her solo numbers was the aforementioned ‘El Vito,’ a brief but intense canción that evokes the dusty, hot environs of Andalucía.  Even in the context of a concert, Ms. Maultsby revealed her welcome versatility, but it ultimately was the mere impact of the voice that made the most lasting impression.

Not surprisingly, especially considering the unfortunate absence of Mr. Griffey, the concert was built around a series of duets for both singers.  The first, the gorgeous and far too seldom-heard ‘Vous soupirez, madame?’ from Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, had in this performance all the qualities that Berlioz surely sought: the Classical line, inherited from his beloved Gluck, the delicacy of bel canto, and the harmonic invention that reveals the music’s stylistic kinship with Les Troyens.  Almost inevitable in the context of a concert with these particular artists was the inclusion of the ‘Flower Duet’ (‘Viens, Mallika, les lianes en fleurs’) from Delibes’ Lakmé.  In a true departure from traditions of recent concertizing, the performance of the duet by Ms. Futral and Ms. Maultsby fully justified its inclusion, however.  Equally beguiling was Aaron Copland’s arrangement of the hymn ‘Shall We Gather at the River?’  A piece that can seem slight if done without some degree of reverence but also lugubrious if allowed to wallow in sentimentality, the hymn received from Ms. Futral, Ms. Maultsby, and Mr. Jones a performance that achieved the needed balance between honest, open-hearted feeling and musicality.  The ladies’ final duet was Offenbach’s gossamer Barcarolle, given extra poignancy by being dedicated by the artists to Dr. Ingram’s memory.  The blend between Ms. Futral’s and Ms. Maultsby’s voices was exceptional, the product of a short-lived but obviously fruitful partnership.

Despite the proximity of universities with first-rate schools of music, Greensboro is not often the host of international-class musical artists.  In 1991, Dr. and Mrs. Ingram launched an endeavor that sought to contribute in a meaningful way to the improvement of Greensboro’s arts scene.  Eighteen years of achievement were honored with this benefit concert, organized to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Ingram and his work.  Under circumstances such as those, one is prepared to make allowances for inconsistencies of approach and vagaries in performance standards.  Rarely not only in a performance off the international circuit but, sadly, likewise among celebrated artists, no apologies were required for this concert.  Gifted with voices of the finest quality, both Elizabeth Futral and Nancy Maultsby sang with the same tonal allure and attention to nuance that they might have brought to first nights at a major opera house, and Warren Jones played with the easy brilliance and technical wizardry indicative of a consummate artist.  It was a memorable evening on which a trio of musical friends appropriately remembered one of Greensboro’s most devoted friends of the performing arts.

11 March 2010

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – MEZZO-SOPRANO OPERA ARIAS (Max Emanuel Cencic, I Barocchisti, Diego Fasolis; EMI/Virgin)

Händel: Opera Arias for Mezzo-Soprano - Max Emanuel Cencic [EMI/Virgin]

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759) – Mezzo-Soprano Opera Arias: Max Emanuel Cencic (countertenor); Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzera; I Barocchisti; Diego Fasolis [recorded in Auditorio ‘Stelio Molo,’ Lugano, Switzerland, 14 – 19 July 2009; EMI/Virgin Classics 50999 6945740 1]


  • ‘Sorge nell’alma mia’ from Imeneo, HWV 41 [Giovanni Battista Andreoni]
  • ‘Alma mia’ from Floridante, HWV 14 [Senesino]
  • ‘Salda quercia in erta balza’ [Giovanni Carestini] and
  • ‘Qual leon che fere irato’ [Margherita Durastanti] from Arianna in Creta, HWV 32
  • ‘Benché mi sprezzi’ from Tamerlano, HWV 18 [Senesino]
  • ‘Se bramate d’amar chi vi sdegna’ from Serse, HWV 40 [Caffarelli]
  • ‘Pena tiranna’ from Amadigi di Gaula, HWV 11 [Diana Vico]
  • ‘Non tardate Fauni ancora’ and
  • ‘Lunga serie d’altri eroi’ from Parnasso in festa, HWV 73 [Carestini]
  • ‘Come nube, che fugge dal vento’ from Agrippina, HWV 6 [Valeriano Pellegrini]
  • ‘Ombra cara’ from Radamisto, HWV 12a [Margherita Durastanti]
  • ‘Verdi allori’ from Orlando, HWV 31 [Francesca Bertolli]

Recital discs of Händel arias have hardly been rare during the past thirty years, with many celebrated and aspiring singers from Baroque specialists like Dame Emma Kirkby and Mark Padmore to ‘stars’ of mainstream repertory like Bryn Terfel and Rolando Villazón committing their interpretations of chestnuts from Händel’s Italian operas to disc.  Even during the past decade, when Händel singing has reached astonishing heights of virtuosity and expressivity at the hands of superb singers like Joyce DiDonato, few programmes of Händel arias have been as consistently exhilarating as this new disc from Croatian-born, Austria-based countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic.

Famous Castrati of the Eighteenth Century: [left to right] Giovanni Battista Andreoni, Cafferelli, and Senesino

It will be noted that each of the arias included in this recital is listed above, along with the name of the singer for whom Händel composed it, or at least the singer by whom it was first performed.  This will offer a glimpse of the variety of the music on this disc, the arias having been composed for some of the Eighteenth Century’s most famously talented singers: the castrato Giovanni Battista Andreoni, variously noted in contemporary sources as both an alto and a soprano; the contralto Francesca Bertolli, who specialized in trouser parts but was also appreciated as Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare; the high mezzo-soprano castrato Caffarelli, second in fame only to the adored Farinelli; Giovanni Carestini, another remarkable castrato whose voice transitioned during his career from soprano to alto tessitura; the soprano Margherita Durastanti, admired for the expressive power of her performances of Händel’s ‘pathetic’ arias; the soprano castrato Valeriano Pellegrini, twenty years Händel’s senior and a priest after losing his voice in 1728; the renowned alto castrato Senesino, for whom Händel composed a number of his primo uomo roles; and the contralto Diana Vico, about whose career little other than her association with Händel is known, though she also created the title role in Ottone in villa for Vivaldi in 1713.  Seemingly uncommonly varied in terms of vocal ranges, it is nonetheless apparent from the music created for them by Händel and other composers that these singers – both male and female – sang most comfortably within the tessitura of the modern mezzo-soprano voice, principally from b♭(b♭3) to f’’ (f5).  With ornamentation commonly thought to have been restricted in most instances (with Händel perhaps having been stricter in this regard than some of his contemporaries) to intervals of a third above the indicated melodic lines, the vocal register of this music effectively encompasses two octaves, the range of what is now essentially a lyric mezzo-soprano voice.

Their basic vocal ranges having been similar, the differences among these singers were surely in the colorations of their respective timbres, differences that Händel – one of the Baroque era’s most gifted composers in terms of musical characterization – exploited in the music that he wrote for them.  Ignoring for a moment the extraordinary musical demands (‘Come nube, che fugge dal vento’ from Agrippina, composed for Valeriano Pellegrini, is as fiendish a bravura aria as ever Händel composed, for instance), a recital of music composed for such a wide array of singers presents an exceptional challenge to the modern singer, that of honoring the tremendously varied interpretive nuances of the music.  Mr. Cencic sets for himself a perilous course, taking on not just the obvious virtuosic tests like the aforementioned coloratura showpiece from Agrippina but pensive pieces like Dardano’s deliciously melancholy sarabande aria from Amadigi di Gaula, ‘Pena tiranna.’  This ambitious programme demands technical mastery, timbral shading, and dramatic variety that elude most countertenors; indeed, if one is to be completely frank, qualities that elude all but the very best singers who attempt this repertory.

Mr. Cencic is supported in his venture by the excellent period-instrument ensemble I Barocchisti, under the direction of Diego Fasolis.  Also the conductor of the studio recording of Händel’s Faramondo in which Mr. Cencic sang the title role, Maestro Fasolis displays a graceful affinity for the Saxon master’s music, avoiding the excesses of other Baroque-specialist conductors in terms of tempi and dynamics but exploring every interpretive avenue that is inherent in the music.  It is a crucial distinction that Maestro Fasolis follows the emotional threads inherent in the music: he seems to understand that this music does not require idiosyncratic effects or cut-and-paste embellishments to convey the feelings expressed by the texts.  The choristers (in their sole appearances – luxury indeed! – in the selections from Parnasso in festa) and players of I Barocchisti are consummate professionals, singing and playing with well-blended tones that fall far more easily upon the ears than those of many period-practice choirs and orchestras.  The bassoon and oboe obligati in ‘Pena tiranna,’ played by Ruggero Vartolo and Alberto Guerra, are especially poignant, but the playing throughout is of great quality.  Dotted rhythms are observed with unforced precision, and the critical intervals of seconds – an expressive device that Händel used with unerring dramatic sense to portray heartbreak and uncertainty – are given full value without being exaggerated.  The absolute reliability of his personnel allows Maestro Fasolis to shape these arias with a natural flow that brings to the fore the qualities that reveal this music for what it truly is: the first blossoming of bel canto.

Though reservations persist about the suitability of this programme, drawn from virtually the entire span of Händel’s career as a composer of opera, for countertenors, any hesitation concerning the suitability of this countertenor for the programme vanishes as soon as Mr. Cencic starts to sing.  Mr. Cencic possesses a voice that avoids all hints of the hootiness that occurs in many countertenors (particularly those trained in the British tradition), as well as the brittle, glassy sound that affects the singing of many countertenors (especially in their upper registers) who sing similar repertory.  Mr. Cencic is decidedly more an opera singer in the traditional sense than a specialist period or liturgical singer, despite his renowned youthful tenure with the Wiener Sängerknaben.  This is rather like stating that Pablo Picasso was a serious artist rather than a housepainter, however: Mr. Cencic is not merely another countertenor who sings staged opera (he made his successful Wiener Staatsoper debut on 28 February 2010, in the role of the Herold in the world premiere of Aribert Reimann’s opera Medea).  Mr. Cencic is a rare countertenor whose voice possesses the range of colors and subtle dynamics that are genuinely suitable for opera, ranging from the earliest works of Monteverdi to Twenty-First-Century music.

Max Emanuel Cencic [right] as the Herold in the world premiere of Aribert Reimann's MEDEA at the Wiener Staatsoper, with soprano Marlis Petersen as Medea [left]

Händel is typical fare for countertenors and has been central to Mr. Cencic’s operatic repertory.  In addition to having sung Tamerlano for Scottish Opera and the Bayerische Staatsoper, he has sung numerous other Händel roles to great acclaim throughout Europe.  One of the foremost glories of this recital disc is Mr. Cencic’s complete avoidance of the appearance of routine: though unfailingly accurate, nothing in his singing of these arias seems calculated.  The poise that he brings to Floridante’s ‘Alma mia,’ Dardano’s ‘Pena tiranna,’ and Radamisto’s famous ‘Ombra cara’ does not mask the repressed passion, passion that bursts forth magnificently in the extroverted bravura arias.  The core of Mr. Cencic’s voice is slightly higher than that of most countertenors, enabling him to bring to this music the sort of top-to-bottom security that the music demands.  Unlike the performances of many singers in music of this technical difficulty, there is no sense in Mr. Cencic’s singing of this recital being a series of stunts, manipulated in the recording studio in order to achieve maximum impact.  The conviction and technique of a superb singer are evident in every aria on the disc.

There are often complaints among Baroque purists when singers approach Händel’s music with what might be termed a conventionally operatic technique in the modern sense (i.e. with prominent vibrato), and Mr. Cencic makes no concessions by attempting to sublimate the richness of his voice.  Stylistically, though, he shows complete mastery of Händel’s idiom, the divisions in the coloratura pieces brought off impeccably and largely without aspiration.  Low notes are rounded and walnut-hued, and top notes are bright and ringing without being strident.  The brilliance of his singing notwithstanding, perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Mr. Cencic’s performance is his audible enjoyment of these arias not as rediscovered gems, not as pieces of musical trivia or vocal showstoppers for the cognoscenti, but quite simply as music, as natural and ‘in the voice’ as any aria by Mozart, Verdi, or Puccini.  Whatever the specific questions of authentic period practice may be, and however vital they may be to a full appreciation of Händel’s achievements as a composer, the essence of singing was surely in Händel’s time just as it was in Mozart’s, Verdi’s, or Puccini’s: the art of producing with the human voice a line, varied by adornments and colored by the insights of the singer, that aims to be beautiful.  This essence is missing from far too many performances of Händel’s music, and this deficiency surely accounts for the boredom that claims many audiences of Händel’s operas.

A deficiency of vocal beauty is a charge that cannot be made against this disc.  One must look to the greatest modern singers of Händel’s primo uomo roles – Helen Watts, Dame Janet Baker, Joyce DiDonato, Ann Hallenberg – to find singing that rivals the sounds heard in this recital.  With all the innovations and fine recordings that have emerged during the past quarter-century, many music lovers and opera-goers must still be convinced that the operas of Händel deserve their attention.  It is difficult to imagine that this disc will not leave listeners wanting to hear much more of Händel and of Max Emanuel Cencic.

Portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel, circa 1736, from the Thomas Hudson school [Photo from the Foundling Museum, London]

10 March 2010

CD REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven – MISSA SOLEMNIS (Kölner Rundfunkchor, Chor des Norddeutschen Rundfunks, Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie Orchester, Otto Klemperer; Medici Arts)

Beethoven: MISSA SOLEMNIS (Otto Klemperer; Medici Arts MM015-2)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827) – Missa solemnis in D major, Op. 123: A. Kupper, S. Wagner, R. Schock, J. Greindl; Kölner Rundfunkchor, Chor des Norddeutschen Rundfunks; Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester; Otto Klemperer [recorded in Saal 1, Funkhaus, WDR Köln, on 6 June 1955; Medici Arts MM015-2]

Every perusal of the international classical CD catalogues seems to reveal another interesting and potentially revelatory performance salvaged from murky oblivion by the enterprising work of independent labels throughout the world.  The lightning-paced restoration of forgotten Baroque works to currency by the release of meticulously-prepared new recordings is finally giving way somewhat to the reissue of nearly-forgotten recordings of standard-repertory works.  This, in a way, is a more dangerous undertaking for a record label: every serious music lover already owns a personal favorite recording of any particular towering masterwork and very likely several more besides, and the novice is likely to be steered in a maiden voyage into a work’s discography by famous names and reputations.  A disc like Medici Arts’ current release of Otto Klemperer’s 1955 Kölner Rundfunk performance of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis faces stiff interrogation.  From connoisseurs, there inevitably is the question of whether one really needs another Klemperer Missa solemnis in one’s collection.  For the consumer coming to the work for the first time, there are at least a dozen more recent and more promoted recordings that say from their places on the store shelf, ‘Buy me.’

Nearly two centuries after its 1824 premiere, a measure of promotion is perhaps needed for Beethoven’s Missa solemnis itself, performances of which are sadly rare in the United States.  The score’s requirements are undeniably formidable, beyond the abilities of many amateur choral societies and soloists, but there are underlying issues that make the Missa what modern sensibilities might term a ‘difficult’ piece.  Theologically-minded critics argue that the Missa’s liturgical legitimacy is suspect, and musicians cringe at the demands made upon their talents by Beethoven’s score.  Performers who take on the challenge of the Missa are faced with the decision concerning whether it is essentially a work of faith to be approached with reverence or a concert piece to be given the no-holds-barred festival treatment.  Perhaps among Teutonic musical institutions the two concepts are not so inherently opposite as they appear to American ensembles.  Not unlike any of Händel’s finest oratorios or Bach’s Matthäus-Passion, the Missa in a committed performance evokes religious fervor solely through the grandeur of the music: it is impossible to avoid contemplating the sacred context of Beethoven’s work no matter how pedantically the performers strive at keeping the music earthbound and expressive of merely a secular achievement.  Beethoven himself considered the Missa solemnis the pinnacle of his art, and for that alone it is worthy of respect and study.  It is the score in which Beethoven’s symphonies, concerti, chamber music, and even Fidelio merge: for that, it is remarkable and, whatever the complications of its grand scale and dogmatic associations, indescribably important in both Beethoven’s development as a composer and the history of Western choral music.

It is foremost the majesty of the Missa solemnis that Otto Klemperer conveys so compellingly in this 1955 performance for broadcast over Kölner Rundfunk (later to become WDR), as well as the 1951 Vox recording with the Wiener Symphoniker and the widely-acclaimed 1965 studio recording for EMI.  His work becoming frequently-recorded only in the autumn of his career, when both age and illness affected his conducting, Maestro Klemperer has a far-reaching but not altogether fair reputation for unduly slow tempi that can, in the worst cases, undermine even his most profound intentions.  The famed studio recording of Messiah on EMI can, on first hearing, seem to take longer for Maestro Klemperer’s performance to play out than was required for Händel to compose the score, for instance.  Maestro Klemperer’s pacing of the Missa solemnis varied by some eight minutes from the time of his first recorded performance (the 1951 Vox recording; 72:00) to that of the EMI studio recording and the Royal Festival Hall performance that preceded it (available via the BBC broadcast on the Testament label; 80:00).  The 1955 Kölner Rundfunk performance requires slightly more than seventy-five minutes, a timing similar to those in extant performances conducted by Erich Kleiber, Eugene Ormandy, and Bruno Walter, and to the remarkable 1937 Leeds Town Hall performance conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.  The way in which Maestro Klemperer proves equal and in some cases superior to his most celebrated rivals is his affinity for not just preserving but lovingly highlighting the clarity of the inner voices in Beethoven’s dense writing, not least in the complex fugal passages.  Maestro Klemperer achieves this, perhaps most perceptibly in this 1955 performance, not by adopting the pinpoint articulation brought to the music by period-practice adherents like Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Nikolaus Harnoncourt but by employing tempi that enable realization of both the weight and the intricacy of Beethoven’s part-writing.

Throughout this performance, Maestro Klemperer’s approach is brought to life eloquently by the Köln singers and players.  Supplemented by the Chor des Norddeutschen Rundfunks, the Kölner Rundfunkchor – now the WDR Rundfunkchor Köln – sing with the security and tonal forthrightness that exemplify the Germanic choral tradition at its best.  The sopranos and tenors are especially fearless in the passages that take them into their highest registers, singing not just with poise but with passion like what the La Scala chorus of a similar time might have brought to the Verdi Requiem.  Latin pronunciation among both choristers and soloists is unabashedly Germanic as was common at that time, before the influx of Renaissance and Baroque works during the height of the period-practice movement pushed even German-speaking performers towards Italianate patterns of pronunciation.  The Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester (now the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln) play with imperturbable professionalism, occasionally yielding pride of place in terms of precision of ensemble to more famous orchestras but lacking nothing in spirit or the dedication with which they follow Maestro Klemperer’s direction.  The violinist who plays the breathtakingly beautiful solo in the Preludium to the Benedictus, Helmut Zernick (a gifted player who, in 1952, gave a beautiful performance of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with Arthur Rother and the Berlin Radio Orchestra), brings refreshing naturalness to his performance, which only threatens to become overly sentimental.  Choristers and players alike distinguish themselves with performances that are worthy of Beethoven’s music and Maestro Klemperer’s conducting of it.

Maestro Klemperer’s soloists for the 1955 performance are less obviously starry than those of the EMI studio recording (Elisabeth Söderström, Marga Höffgen, Waldemar Kmentt, and Martti Talvela) but are, in fact, more closely integrated as a quartet.  Soprano Annelies Kupper (1906 – 1987), like Maestro Klemperer born in Breslau (the capital of Lower Silesia that is now Wrocław, Poland), was admired for her work in Mozart, Wagner, and Strauss roles and was a celebrated Aida auf Deutsch (recorded opposite the Radamès of Max Lorenz for Kurt Schröder and Frankfurt Radio).  In this performance, Ms. Kupper effectively strives to sing purely, minimizing the edge her tone could have when singing dramatic operatic roles.  Her mastery of the role of the Contessa in Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro prepared her well for the occasionally florid demands of Beethoven’s music, and she is little strained by her ascent to top C on the phrase ‘Benedictus in qui venit nomine Domini’ in the Benedictus.  Contralto Sieglinde Wagner (1921 – 2003, and of no relation to Richard Wagner) was a fine singer whose concert repertory prominently featured both large- and small-scaled choral works by Johann Sebastian Bach, and her richness of voice serves her well in this performance.  There are moments of suspect pitch and sluggishness in Ms. Wagner’s performance, but it is refreshing to hear a true contralto in the music, which centers in the octave extending from c’ to c’’.  German tenor Rudolf Schock (1915 – 1986) is well-known for his many performances and recordings of light Heldentenor and operetta roles.  His performances of choral works were less frequent, and this performance of the Missa solemnis offers a rare opportunity to hear Mr. Schock in something other than the operatic repertory for which he was appreciated.  If the tone is less ingratiating in this performance than in his many operatic recordings, this could be attributed to Mr. Schock’s audible efforts at being a member of an ensemble, matching his utterances – especially his vital contributions to the opening Kyrie – to those of his colleagues.  Mr. Schock’s singing is unfailingly secure, a welcome quality in music that makes almost unrelenting demands on the tenor’s passaggio.  German bass Josef Greindl (1912 – 1993) was particularly celebrated, at Bayreuth and throughout Europe (on stage and on records), for his performances of Wagner’s principal bass roles.  Three years prior to this performance of Missa solemnis, he sang the role of Marke in Wilhelm Furtwängler’s legendary studio recording of Tristan und Isolde, and ‘live’ recordings from Bayreuth preserve virtually his entire Wagnerian repertory.  Unlike Rudolf Schock, however, performances of choral music figured prominently in Mr. Greindl’s career.  Mr. Greindl had an extensive range that enabled him to sing both low and high bass roles, but it was on the lower end of the spectrum that he largely focused.  In this performance, Mr. Greindl’s singing is rich but occasionally opaque, the tone taking on a pewter coloration that obstructs textual clarity.  The opening bars of the Agnus Dei, one of the greatest passages for a bass soloist in the choral repertory, are not as sublime or impactful in the lower register as they might have been with a singer of Mr. Greindl’s accomplishments, but the performance is sincere and heartfelt.  It is, as noted previously in the context of Mr. Schock’s performance, the ensemble singing of the solo quartet that is most impressive.  The considerable difficulties of Beethoven’s music dictate that rigorously-trained soloists with flexible, well-projected voices are required.  In practice, this almost invariably results in the quartet being populated with operatic voices, introducing the obstacle – detrimental to Beethoven’s music – of four famous singers giving their voices high-profile workouts at the expense of the Missa’s structure.  Maestro Klemperer and his quartet of operatic thoroughbreds are to be credited with minimizing this effect in this performance, in which no single soloist stands out but, more rarely, there are no disappointments.

Like the much-discussed 1965 EMI recording, this performance preserves one of Maestro Klemperer’s most controversial decisions.  The soloists are assigned by the composer the subdued opening of the Sanctus, extending through the first introduction of counterpoint at ‘Pleni sunt cœli et terra gloria tua,’ beginning with a line for the contralto that descends to a (a3).  After nineteen bars (including a full bar of pause, marked with a fermata), Beethoven opens the gates on a brief but exhilarating fugue on ‘Osanna in excelsis’ that resolves the Sanctus and leads into the Preludium of the Benedictus.  The ‘Osanna’ fugue, only twenty-six bars (plus an anacrusis) in duration, builds on the models of Bach and Händel (or, equally importantly, Johann Fux and Padre Martini, much respected in eighteenth-century Vienna for their command of counterpoint) but presents an interpretive stumbling block: though seemingly scored (with instrumental doubling of the vocal lines) as a choral fugue, there is no indication in Beethoven’s manuscript of the choir’s re-entry until the Benedictus.  Though debate continues among musicologists and Beethoven scholars, the academic consensus is that Beethoven merely failed to annotate his manuscript to indicate the choir’s resumption of duties at the beginning of the ‘Osanna’ fugue.  Maestro Klemperer held the opinion that Beethoven’s manuscript reflected the composer’s true intentions, however, with the ‘Osanna’ fugue being sung by the soloists rather than the choir.  The soloists in this performance articulate the subject of the fugue effectively, but their – and Maestro Klemperer’s – conviction does not obscure the fact that the music seems tailor-made for choral singing.

Along with the works of Brahms, Mahler, and Mozart, it was the music of Beethoven upon which Otto Klemperer’s fame as a conductor and impressive discography were built.  In any comprehensive discussion of the performance and recording histories of the Missa solemnis Maestro Klemperer’s legacy is omnipresent.  The EMI studio recording remains a cornerstone of interpretation of the Missa on records, but this 1955 Kölner Rundfunk performance is in several important ways an even more impressive presentation of Beethoven’s score.  With a well-integrated quartet of soloists, choristers, and orchestral players performing with intensity and uncompromising musicality, Maestro Klemperer manages the difficult task of balancing reverence and grandiosity.  The quality of the sound is not first-rate (but, for that matter, neither is that of the EMI studio recording), but this performance is second-rate neither among Maestro Klemperer’s recordings of the work nor those of other conductors.  Above all, this performance is among the recordings that most palpably convey both the monumental proportions and the solemn intimacy of Beethoven’s brilliant Missa.

Otto Klemperer conducting Beethoven's MISSA SOLEMNIS in London

03 March 2010

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Two-and-a-Half Nights at the MET – Donizetti’s FILLE DU RÉGIMENT (Damrau, Flórez), R. Strauss’ ARIADNE (Stemme, Ryan), & Puccini’s BOHÈME (Netrebko, Beczala); 19 – 20 February 2010

The Metropolitan Opera House [Photo by the author, 02.2010]

For an out-of-towner, the opportunity to attend a performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera is always a cherished boon, no matter the artistic quality of the performance at hand.  There is a charged atmosphere inherent in the ambience of any of the world’s most important opera houses even when the resident company is not at its best, and an assemblage of ‘star’ singers generally manages to raise the collective expectations of an audience.  Much has been made among opera aficionados (though, tellingly, not as much has been made in the musical press as should have been the case) about the steadily declining artistic standards at the MET, notably since the start of Peter Gelb’s management of the Company.  The Company may have lacked forward-looking artistic imagination during the administration of Mr. Gelb’s predecessor, Joseph Volpe, it is argued, but MET performances under Mr. Volpe’s watch rarely lacked precision, forthrightness, and adherence to a certain level of artistic grace.

The Metropolitan Opera and its dedicated audience are equal contributors to a growing conundrum.  Situated in one of the most vibrant, ever-changing cities in the world, the MET is nonetheless a bastion of musical conservatism by which allegedly ‘progressive’ production values with social agendas, applauded and even loved in Europe or San Francisco, are often received with scorn and suspicion.  What could be attributed to an imbalance in power between older and younger opera-goers at the MET is actually symptomatic of a more complex issue.  Increasingly, the MET is managed like a struggling Hollywood studio: artistic standards are discernibly sacrificed in pursuit of a bolstered bottom line.  Economic viability is absolutely necessary for any opera company that does not enjoy the government subsidization standard in Europe, but balance sheets now often seem more prevalent at the MET than scores.  This has led to productions that generate much-sought publicity in the New York and national press at the expense of waning audience support for expensive but cheap productions that, in a nod to the greatest debate about the art form, strive to make opera ‘relevant.’

It was disappointingly ironic, then, that the Laurent Pelly production of Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment – first seen at the Wiener Staatsoper and also put on at Covent Garden, en route to the MET – made every musical aspect of the performance (singers, chorus, conductor, orchestra, even Donizetti himself) irrelevant.  His countrymen’s contributions to literature, theatre, and opera being so influential, a Frenchman such as Monsieur Pelly should understand and respect that the distance between comedy and farce is measured not by laughter but by tears.  The essence of comedy is that all that goes wrong, and in going wrong amuses, is perched on the cusp of catastrophe.  Musically, it would be difficult to deny that, among Donizetti’s comedies, La Fille du régiment is a weaker score than L’Elisir d’Amore, but Pelly’s production so obscures the heart of Fille du régiment – another touching if tired story of lovers facing obstacles – that even the most expert cardiologist would be hard-pressed to discern its rhythm.  There is life in the piece, however, and in Marie’s ‘Il faut partir’ in the first act (in which, discovered by her presumed long-lost aunt and directed to rejoin her family, she bids farewell to her beloved regiment) and Tonio’s ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’ in the second act (in which he pleads with the Marquise, Marie’s would-be aunt but actually her mother, to grant him Marie’s hand in marriage) it possesses two of those glorious moments in frothy bel canto in which true, life-altering emotions break through the surface, moments like Nemorino’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ in L’Elisir d’Amore when even the casual listener, rather bored by all that has gone on thus far, suddenly realizes that all the silliness has masked a seriousness that threatens to upset the required happy ending.  To Pelly’s credit, he seemingly recognized the pathos at the core of Marie’s ‘Il faut partir,’ allowing Marie a pensive respite as she touchingly collects souvenirs from each of her regimental comrades, but the aria is so consumed by stage business (including Pelly’s fondness for portraying Marie as the mistress of dozens of undergarments on clotheslines) that Marie’s sorrow is only partially conveyed.  ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’ is treated more directly but is also played for laughs, Tonio seeming more pathetic than heartfelt.  Whatever criticisms Donizetti’s score invites and deserves, Fille du régiment is more than crumpled maps, laundry hung out to dry, potatoes needing peeling, and doors that lead nowhere.  Even a failsafe comedy cannot entertain when the element of danger is removed, and Pelly’s Fille du régiment suggested that the loves between Tonio and Marie and Marie and her regiment mattered not a jot.  How does an audience feel the pangs of an unexpected loss and take joy in a predictable but imperiled restoration when there is so obviously nothing of value to lose?

Diana Damrau as Marie, Juan Diego Flórez as Tonio, and Maurizio Muraro as Sulpice in Laurent Pelly's production of LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT [Photo by Ken Howard]

Musically, the performance [seen on the evening of Friday, 19 February] was on sound footing.  German soprano Diana Damrau, bringing to her task a beautiful and well-schooled coloratura voice, did with Marie everything that the production would allow.  Brilliant displays of vocal prowess were less than they might have been in a production that allowed her to focus on singing rather than acting her role, but Ms. Damrau proved an alert, willing participant.  In general, when anything even slightly moving happened in the performance, she was the source of it.  It was announced prior to the first curtain that Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez was suffering from a slight indisposition but had agreed to sing anyway.  Whether or not any malady jeopardized his vocal production, Mr. Flórez sang well.  Much as his many admirers wish to ignore or deny it, Mr. Flórez’s voice is small, somewhat nasal, and rather metallic, not unlike many Latin tenors who specialize in bel canto repertory (significantly, Mr. Flórez studied with his celebrated Peruvian predecessor, Ernesto Palacio).  This is not to imply that Mr. Flórez is not an excellent singer in possession of a beautiful voice.  In this performance, he was a very good Tonio who entered into the overwrought comedy handily enough.  Perhaps because of his indisposition, one of the famous top C’s in ‘Ah, mes amis’ was aborted, but the eight remaining C’s were produced firmly and with evident ease.  Mr. Flórez brought genuine eloquence to ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie,’ but even his impressive rendering of the aria’s cantilena could not overcome his surroundings.  Mezzo-soprano Meredith Arwady, a handsome young woman, managed despite the production’s best efforts at making the Marquise ridiculous to be both imperious and genuinely funny.  Bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro was vocally impressive as Sulpice though he, too, was disserved by the production.  Returning to the comprimario role of Hortentius that, remarkably, has been his only MET role to date and the vehicle of his 2008 house debut, Scottish baritone Donald Maxwell – director of the British Arts Council’s National Opera Studio – was charmingly bumbling.  Smaller roles were capably sung by Roger Andrews (Corporal) and Jeffrey Mosher (Peasant), but actor Jack Wetherall was over-the-top (but right in character with the production, it must be admitted) as the Notary.  Maestro Marco Armiliato conducted with idiomatic aplomb, and the chorus sang with chest-thumping vigor.  The MET Orchestra were slightly off form, however, with sloppy playing and wrong entrances.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as the Duchesse de Krakentorp in Laurent Pelly's production of LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT [Photo by Ken Howard]

The evening’s coup was the performance of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as the Duchesse de Krakentorp.  Devised by Donizetti and his librettists as a spoken role, Dame Kiri’s Duchesse made her entrance joining the orchestra in the melody of the annoying waltz that recurs throughout the second act.  In her subsequent scene, Dame Kiri anachronistically interpolated Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s ‘Canción al Árbol del Olvido,’ a charming song that Dame Kiri delivered delightfully.  She delivered her dialogue (in a mélange of Donizetti’s French and improvised English) with haughtiness worthy of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.  Obviously enjoying herself immensely, Dame Kiri held the audience in the palm of her hand and proved despite the production in which she appeared that nonsense is not required to inspire laughter.

The 20 February matinee performance of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, first seen at the MET in the 1992 – 93 season, could not have been more different.  Many Moshinsky productions are noted for their use of bold colors and striking geometrical patterns, and his Ariadne is no exception, but his approach contrasted tellingly with Pelly’s Fille du régiment.  Though seventeen years old, virtually every element of the Ariadne production seemed fresh, a quality that results only from the production having tapped the lifeblood of the opera.  Even the broad comedy of Zerbinetta’s troupe of commedia dell’arte players was more thoughtful than anything in Pelly’s Fille du régiment.  Not unlike its somewhat grander sister Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ariadne is an opera of which an ideal production is all but unimaginable, but the Moshinsky production knows where it wants to go and takes the audience there without overinflating or interfering with the drama.

It was immediately evident when Maestro Kirill Petrenko started to conduct that the MET Orchestra were returned to their usual excellent form.  The thirty-seven players required for Ariadne played superbly, both highlighting the gossamer, chamber-like textures of certain scenes and producing a gloriously full, Wagnerian sound during the closing duet for Ariadne and Bacchus.  More than a third of Maestro Petrenko’s MET appearances have been at the helm of Ariadne, and his conducting displayed complete mastery of the score.  ‘Purple’ passages were never allowed to wallow, and lines were sustained in ways that allowed the singers to reach impressive climaxes without strain.

Among singers in smaller roles, American tenor Sean Panikkar as Brighella (a member of Zerbinetta’s troupe) was a stand-out, singing with lovely, strong tone.  Altogether splendid were the Nymphs who attend to Ariadne in the opera-proper: soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird (Najade), mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford (Dryade), and soprano Erin Morley (Echo).  Bringing an uncommonly euphonious blend to their ensemble singing, this trio of ladies made unusually beautiful things of their important utterances.  Korean soprano Kathleen Kim encountered few difficulties in Zerbinetta’s complex coloratura, but she remains in the formative stages of developing as a stage creature.

Markus Werba as Harlekin in ARIADNE AUF NAXOS [Photo by Marty Sohl]

A pair of baritones, both making their MET debuts in this season’s Ariadne revival, contributed effectively to the performance.  Jochen Schmeckenbecher was a genial Music Master, by turns blustering and cajoling.  His efforts at reconciling the highly-strung Composer with the fate his opera was to suffer seemed genuinely kind, and Mr. Schmeckenbecher avoided caricature in portraying his much-put-upon role.  The young Austrian Markus Werba was perfect as the philandering but irrepressibly good-hearted Harlekin, the voice bright and on the breath like the best German baritones of previous generations (Hermann Prey comes to mind, particularly) but precisely projected into the cavernous auditorium.  Dramatically, Mr. Werba’s lithe antics and expressive face made the role seem far more than a coy comedian with a good top F: in Mr. Werba’s performance, Harlekin’s little aria that attempts to comfort the despondent Ariadne even managed to be touching, as was his calm resignation when his efforts failed to make an effect.  Both playful and sincere, Mr. Werba gave a memorable performance in a role that is all too often forgettable.

Lance Ryan as Bacchus in ARIADNE AUF NAXOS [Photo by Marty Sohl] Also introducing himself to MET audiences in this revival was Canadian tenor Lance Ryan, singing the notoriously difficult role of Bacchus.  As noted for its brevity as for its dangerously high tessitura, Bacchus is a role that has brought many excellent tenors to grief.  Mr. Ryan sang the arduous role admirably: there was enough effort evident in his singing to remind the audience of the treachery of the role but also enough sheen to dispel the hoary myth that Strauss hated the tenor voice.  If not a triumph of the standard upon which operatic legends are made, Mr. Ryan’s performance was satisfying in a role in which mere survival is appreciable.

Known in Europe and especially her native Britain for her sterling performances in the operas of Händel and Purcell (last year, for the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth, she both triumphed at Covent Garden and made a widely-acclaimed recording of Dido), mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, CBE, is expanding her repertory to include heavier, more dramatic roles.  Though first performed by Lotte Lehmann and most frequently sung until the middle of the Twentieth Century by sopranos (not least Irmgard Seefried and Sena Jurinac), the Composer is now most often sung by lyric mezzo-sopranos.  The danger in this is that the voice will lack the ease in the upper register, always important in the music of Strauss, Sarah Connolly, CBE, as the Composer in ARIADNE AUF NAXOS [Photo by Marty Sohl]to make an impact in large houses.  It is undeniable that Ms. Connolly’s voice is small for the Composer, especially in a house of the MET’s size, but like Mr. Werba she projected effectively without forcing.  The moving restraint that Ms. Connolly brings to a role like Purcell’s Dido could scarcely have even suggested the depths of passion that she brought to her performance as the Composer.  In her increasingly desperate paeans to the divine art of Music, her singing was compellingly nuanced, and Ms. Connolly made the Composer’s brief infatuation with Zerbinetta almost painfully real.  Her performance gaining strength from its dramatic vividness, it was nonetheless Ms. Connolly’s singing that was the true wonder.  Ascending to climactic top notes that rang out through the house, Ms. Connolly’s voice was under complete control and often ravishingly beautiful.  The extent to which Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannstahl, considered the Composer a study in parody is debatable, but Ms. Connolly took the Composer’s situation completely seriously and, with committed and subtly-hued singing, seemingly convinced the appreciative audience that her approach was correct.

Especially celebrated in Europe for her portrayal of Isolde, brilliantly performed at Glyndebourne and recorded for EMI opposite the Tristan of Plácido Domingo, Swedish soprano Nina Steeme returned to the MET for Ariadne after an absence of nine years (her house debut was on 24.11.2000, as Senta in Wagner’s Fliegende Holländer).  If not quite the Prima Donna she portrays in the Prologue of Ariadne, she is an important singer in what would seem to be the ‘primetime’ of a major career.  As the petty, preening Prima Donna in the Prologue, in which there are limited opportunities for vocal display, Ms. Stemme was every inch the diva, relishing her endless complaints aboNina Stemme as Ariadne in ARIADNE AUF NAXOS [Photo by Marty Sohl]ut every aspect of the shabby entertainment in which she was preparing to take part.  As Ariadne in the opera, however, Ms. Stemme was transformed: wallowing in her sorrow after having been cast off by Theseus, Ms. Stemme’s Ariadne welcomed death with exuberance.  Bacchus’ miraculous appearance and rescue of Ariadne from her own melancholy is one of those operatic denouements that must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt (it is, as Zerbinetta says, that we all are rather dumbstruck when a new god unexpectedly appears), but nothing had to be taken on faith in Ms. Stemme’s performance.  Her voice is one of the very few heard in recent years that is fully worthy of the house, the lower register as full and capable of carrying into the large space as the trumpeting upper register.  As the voice expanded into the high-lying climaxes of ‘Ein Schönes war,’ ‘Es gibt ein Reich,’ and the final duet with Bacchus, the visceral energy of Ms. Stemme’s singing was electrifying.  All told, Ms. Stemme’s dramatically spot-on and thrillingly-sung Ariadne was a performance of which even the MET’s first Ariadne, the great Leonie Rysanek, could have been proud.

The 20 February evening performance was the season’s first showing of the familiar Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s La Bohème.  Perhaps the MET’s most famous and frequently-performed production [the author attended another performance of the production on 28.12.2001, when Mimì was sung beautifully by American soprano Pamela Armstrong], the Zeffirelli Bohème has all the opulence (or, depending upon one’s point-of-view, decadence) one expects from a Zeffirelli production.  It is at times too much of a good thing: the split-level set and busy stage goings-on in the second act distract the audience from what, even amid the crowded streets of Paris on Christmas Eve, is essentially a very intimate drama, and the principal singers can be difficult to discern in such a tumult.  Still, few stage pictures are as lovely or suggestive of fragile tragedy as the opening of the third act, with snow falling on the gates of Paris.  What Zeffirelli does well he often does very well indeed, and even when its grand realism dwarfs the story it is meant to convey Zeffirelli’s Bohème, unveiled in December 1981, remains one of the truly great productions in the MET’s history.

The principal cast of LA BOHÈME [Photo by Corey Weaver]

This performance found the chorus and orchestra on representative form and again under the baton of Marco Armiliato, who conducted the score with idiomatic acquaintance.  Secondary roles were mostly in capable hands, with MET veteran Paul Plishka wobbling merrily as Benoit and Alcindoro.  Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang, winner of the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, was a suitably philosophical Colline who resisted the temptation to make ‘Vecchia zimarra’ something more than a farewell to an old coat.  Making his MET debut, Italian baritone Massimo Cavalletti sang well as Schaunard, recounting with glee his success in the arrangement with the English Milord.

His performance as Marcello marked a welcome return to a standard-repertory role by Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who was last heard at the MET in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic.  Mr. Finley is among the most gifted male singers of his generation, and he brought his characteristic dedication to his performance as Marcello.  Marcello is not a role that is thought of as a big sing for a ‘star’ baritone, but it is significant to note the extent to which a performance of Bohème can fall flat with an inattentive, uninvolved singer as Marcello.  Never needing to force his voice in an attempt to impress the audience, Mr. Finley presented Marcello as an opinionated but deeply loving man, and his easy camaraderie with his Rive Gauche brethren facilitated the development of a genuine ensemble.  In both Marcello’s scene with Mimì at the beginning of the third act and his duet with Rodolfo in the final act, Mr. Finley was quite touching.  His would-be consort, Musetta, was sung by American soprano Nicole Cabell, another Cardiff winner.  Musetta has been something of a calling-card role for Ms. Cabell since her success at Cardiff, and the role suits her better than several others that she regularly sings.  The famous Waltz was slightly too diffident, the effort at off-hand brilliance putting an edge on the voice.  Ms. Cabell is a lovely woman who seems completely comfortable on stage, but the voice seems smaller and less glamorous than the personality.  As a result, her Musetta was more than usually a part of the ensemble, which is thoroughly respectable in itself but not the mark for which Ms. Cabell aimed.  In time, and with caution in choices of repertory, perhaps the technique will grow to match the charisma.

As in virtually any performance of La Bohème, however, primary focus was on the central couple.  After all, everyone goes to a performance of Bohème in order to hear the tenor’s account of ‘Che gelida manina’ and to guiltily shed tears, thankfully hidden by the darkness of the house, for poor Mimì.  Rodolfo was sung in this performance – for the first time at the MET – by Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, an engaging young artist who has enjoyed warm receptions in many of the world’s most important opera houses.  His previous MET assignments were the Duca in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Lenski in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, but Rodolfo is a role in which any young tenor with serious ambitions of becoming an household name among opera cognoscenti feels that he must make his mark.  Unlike many ambitious young tenors, Mr. Beczala possesses the vocal richness to stake his claim to a prime spot among the ranks of today’s finest singers, and his performance as Rodolfo rivaled the best performances of the role heard in the house in recent years.  Bringing youthful exuberance to the conversational exchanges, Mr. Beczala’s Rodolfo was very much the down-on-his-luck poet, his faith in himself shaken by his lack of success.  With the entrance of Mimì, however, this Rodolfo was changed in an instant from a poet on paper to a poet in deeds.  Mr. Beczala’s performance of ‘Che gelida manina’ was ardent, the climax ringing but sweet if slightly rushed.  This Rodolfo was convincingly in love not merely with the notion of being in love but particularly, dotingly, with his Mimì.  There was devastation in the third act when he realized that Mimì had overheard him telling Marcello that she is dying, and his reunion with Mimì at the close of the third act was quietly comforting.  Mr. Beczala’s Rodolfo was the rare figure for whom tragedy, looming since Mimì’s first cough when she entered with her candle, was unexpected.  If Mr. Beczala offered nothing decidedly new from a dramatic perspective in one of the most frequently-sung roles in the tenor repertory, he gave a musical performance that left no doubt about the quality of his voice.

Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo and Anna Netrebko as Mimì in LA BOHÈME [Photo by Corey Weaver]

It was very interesting to hear the beautiful Russian soprano Anna Netrebko as Mimì, a role to which she returned after focusing much of her attention on forays into bel canto repertory.  Essentially a lyric soprano with a dark timbre, Ms. Netrebko’s voice has not always responded attractively to the pressure of bel canto, with its long lines, intricate technical requirements, and expected (though mostly interpolated) flights above top C.  The basic tonal quality is often lovely, however, and the role of Mimì provides a tessitura that is near-ideal for Ms. Netrebko’s natural abilities.  Ms. Netrebko’s tone sometimes takes on a dull quality that impedes enjoyment of her work, but this was largely absent from this performance.  Her first entrance, if not quite the ray of light into the darkness that Rodolfo’s poetic response suggests, was unpretentious and simple, a rather shy young woman in search of reassurance and refuge.  Ms. Netrebko’s performance of the aria ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ benefited from carefully-sculpted lines and ascents to piano top notes, rare for this singer.  As with Mr. Beczala, Ms. Netrebko brought no exceptional insights to her performance, but her sincerity in the encounters with Marcello and Rodolfo in the final acts counted for much.  This performance gave evidence of the fine singing of which Ms. Netrebko is so capable when allowed to pursue appropriate repertory.  Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Ms. Netrebko’s performance was seeing a celebrity singer set aside any attempt at having a star turn in order to become an integral part of a team dedicated to giving a moving account of Puccini’s evergreen score.

There are few movements more damaging to opera than that to somehow make the art form ‘relevant’ to contemporary audiences.  Opera is not relevant and was no more relevant to audiences of the time when Monteverdi composed L’Orfeo than when Donizetti composed La Fille du régiment.  As in literature, the visual arts, and cinema, relevance is determined by the observer.  Only one’s own perceptions shape the degree to which one responds to specific artistic stimuli, and vague attempts to alter a work’s basic structure or emotional core in order to bend its values to coincide with an audience’s presumed collective sensibilities not only damage the work but deny the audience the vital element of discovery.  The relevance of opera is in its power to appeal to individuals of different generations, different races, different creeds, different sexual preferences, and different social statuses, to tell implausible, even impossible stories about people whose struggles reach the hearts of those who hear them.  Young African-American men are moved to tears by the untimely death of an ordinary Parisian seamstress; blue-haired ladies who have heard her story a hundred times before weep anew for a former geisha betrayed by her own love; gay couples hold hands in the dark as they watch an unflappable wife disguise herself as a man in order to save her husband – and not because they have found themselves in similar situations or find these fairy-tale circumstances relevant to their own lives, but because there are singers giving of their lives in service to their art and convincing them that these strange, unlikely things are not just important but immortal.  Above all, there is music, and if music needs external assistance to be relevant much of nature collapses on itself: birdsong and ocean surf are merely noise, and those that hear them merely soulless organisms.  What is relevant is a night out with a loved one or sharing a heated discussion with a perfect stranger about whether this or that soprano was better.  It is discouraging to watch as an opera company as important to the cultural life of a nation as the MET loses sight of the infallible relevance of music and the relationships it builds among people.  Thankfully, even in these parlous times, there are singers who know that, whether or not their work is ‘relevant,’ they are meant to sing and let that stand on its own merits.  A string of eight top C’s, a pair of uniquely great performances, and an account of a warhorse opera that reminds one why it has been so popular for more than a century do not return an opera company to the right course.  But they are forever relevant to those who heard them.