31 December 2012

Celebrating 200 Years of VERDI and WAGNER

Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi

The bicentennials of the births of both Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner will be celebrated in 2013.  One way in which Voix des Arts will mark these milestones will be with lists of various individuals’—artists', critics, and laypeople—personal selections of the finest recordings of these remarkable composers’ operas.  This inaugural list presents the author’s selections, which are based upon personal, occasionally idiosyncratic, ideals of Verdi and Wagner performance.  Ordering is random rather than indicative of any ranking or preference.


(10.10.1813 – 27.01.1901)

Maria Callas as Violetta in Verdi's LA TRAVIATA

  1. La Traviata – Maria Callas, Cesare Valletti, Mario Zanasi; Nicola Rescigno [Live performance, Covent Garden, 20.06.1958; various labels]  This Covent Garden Traviata is, in so many ways, the quintessential Verdi recording.  At its center is the Violetta of Maria Callas, one of the most compelling creations of one of the 20th Century’s greatest artists.  Cesare Valletti, a tenor of uncompromising elegance, perhaps possessed a voice somewhat small for singing Verdi roles in a large house.  Mario Zanasi, too, was not endowed by nature with the vocal amplitude typically heard in Verdi baritone roles.  Alongside Callas, however, both gentlemen give performances that have never been surpassed.  The scene in which Mr. Zanasi’s Germont pleas with Ms. Callas’s Violetta for her to abandon Alfredo for the good of her lover’s sister’s good name is in this author’s opinion the single greatest recorded example of Verdi’s art.
  2. Aida – Giannina Arangi-Lombardi, Aroldo Lindi, Maria Capuana, Armando Borgioli, Tancredi Pasero, Salvatore Baccaloni; Lorenzo Molajoli [Studio recording made at La Scala, 1928; various labels]  Remarkably, two recordings of Aida were made at La Scala in 1928 (as was also the case in 1930 with Il Trovatore: see below), documenting that house’s desire to capitalize upon electrical recording technology to record the age’s great Verdi singers—and the desires of competing record labels to stock their archives with the sounds of idiomatic Italian singing.  Among several fine performances, it is the Aida of Giannina Arangi-Lombardi that is the legendary performance in this recording.  The beauty, power, and absolute security of her voice, allied with straightforward but never simplistic dramatic instincts, make Ms. Arangi-Lombardi an ideal Aida; and one who deserves to be better remembered.
  3. Simon Boccanegra – Lawrence Tibbett, Elisabeth Rethberg, Giovanni Martinelli, Ezio Pinza, Leonard Warren; Ettore Panizza [Live performance, Metropolitan Opera, 21.01.1939; various labels]  Boccanegra has been well served in New York, at least until recent years, and this 1939 broadcast represents the Metropolitan’s standards at their highest.  Few baritones have shown the affinity for Verdi’s music displayed by Lawrence Tibbett at his best, and his Boccanegra is a complicated, vocally sumptuous portrait.  Ms. Rethberg, effective in a wide repertory, is a poised Maria.  Mr. Martinelli, stirring in this performance, was the Adorno of choice for a generation of opera-goers.  Mr. Pinza as Fiesco and the young Mr. Warren as Paolo are paragons of Verdi singing.
  4. Il Trovatore – Carlo Bergonzi, Leontyne Price, Fiorenza Cossotto, Piero Cappuccilli, Ivo Vinco; Oliviero de Fabritiis [Live performance, Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, 06.1969; various labels]  Few sopranos have been more naturally suited to the music of Verdi than Leontyne Price.  It was as Leonora in Il Trovatore that she made her debut at the Metropolitan, and when she retired from its stage more than two decades later, her Aida remained a performance of considerable power.  This Trovatore from Buenos Aires finds Ms. Price at the height of her powers, taking every challenge in stride.  Mr. Bergonzi does not storm the heavens like Merli, Pertile, or Corelli, but he effectively reminds the listener that Leonora says that Manrico has descended from heaven.  Ms. Cossotto, Mr. Cappuccilli, and Mr. Vinco are captured at their best in a performance that quickens the pulse and touches the heart.
  5. Il Trovatore – Francesco Merli, Bianca Scacciati, Giuseppina Zinetti, Enrico Molinari, Corrado Zambelli; Lorenzo Molajoli [Studio recording made at La Scala, 10.1930; various labels]  Two recordings of Trovatore were made at La Scala within the space of a few days in October 1930.  This performance preserves the Manrico of Francesco Merli, one of Italy’s greatest dramatic tenors and the first Calaf in Puccini’s Turandot to be heard in Britain and Australia.  His Manrico is a dramatic firebrand, the voice ringing out impressively across the years.  His colleagues do not quite reach his level of accomplishment, though Ms. Scacciati is one of the most interesting Leonoras on records.
  6. Il Trovatore – Aureliano Pertile, Maria Carena, Irene Minghini-Cattaneo, Apollo Granforte, Bruno Carmassi; Carlo Sabajno [Studio recording made at La Scala, 10.1930; various labels]  The raison d’être for La Scala’s second 1930 Trovatore recording was Aureliano Pertile, and his Manrico deserved to be recorded for posterity.  The uniquely bronzed timbre is evident in every phrase.  Ms. Minghini-Cattaneo’s Azucena is a justifiably famous performance, a stinging portrait of an unhinged woman seeking revenge.  Phenomenal, too, is Apollo Granforte’s Conte di Luna, a credibly duplicitous and serenely-sung performance by one of the greatest Italian baritones of the 20th Century. 
  7. Falstaff – Giuseppe Valdengo, Herva Nelli, Teresa Stich-Randall, Antonio Madasi, Frank Guarrera, Nan Merriman, Cloë Elmo; Arturo Toscanini [Compendium of NBC broadcast performances of 01 and 04.04.1950; Sony/BMG/RCA]  Arturo Toscanini’s series of Verdi broadcasts for NBC shaped Americans’ perceptions of Verdi’s operas throughout the 1940s and ‘50s.  This Falstaff is one of the most consistently delightful performances among Toscanini’s NBC broadcasts.  None of the singers is among the greatest Verdi singers of the era, but as an ensemble they achieve precisely the comic timing and emotional bite that Verdi’s valedictory masterpiece requires.
  8. La Forza del Destino – Maria Caniglia, Galliano Masini, Carlo Tagliabue, Ebe Stignani, Saturno Meletti, Tancredi Pasero; Gino Marinuzzi [EIAR Torino studio recording, 1941; Warner/Fonit Cetra]  Few performances of La Forza del Destino convey the force of destiny as grippingly as this recording.  Ms. Caniglia was an inconsistent singer, but her Leonora is vastly more interesting and moving than many better-sung performances.  Mr. Masini, Mr. Tagliabue, Ms. Stignani, and Mr. Meletti are found at their best.  Tancredi Pasero, rivaled as an idiomatic singer of Verdi bass roles only by Ezio Pinza, is the definitive Guardiano.
  9. Simon Boccanegra – Tito Gobbi, Victoria de los Ángeles, Giuseppe Campora, Boris Christoff, Walter Monachesi; Gabriele Santini [Studio recording, Rome, 1957; EMI]  Never admired for its engineering or sound quality, this Boccanegra is nevertheless a legitimate benchmark both in the history of the opera and in the Verdi discography.  Tito Gobbi lacked the prodigious vocal resources of Tibbett or Warren, but the sensitivity and ambiguity that he brings to his depiction of the delicate balance between Boccanegra’s public and private personas is magnificent.  It is, furthermore, an important, extraordinary piece of singing.  Ms. de los Ángeles is perhaps not as well remembered as a Verdian as she deserves to be: no other Maria on records achieves the focus, dramatic perfection, technical command, and sheer beauty exhibited by Ms. de los Ángeles.  Mr. Campora is lightweight for Adorno but sings with absolute commitment.  As recorded, Mr. Christoff sometimes sounds as though he is singing through gauze.  He is the finest Fiesco on records by a considerable margin, however, his singing of ‘Il lacerato spirito’ crowning a superb performance.
  10. Don Carlo – Bruno Prevedi, Leyla Gencer, Fiorenza Cossotto, Sesto Bruscantini, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Luigi Roni; Fernando Previtali [Live performance, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, 24.04.1968; various labels]  This is an overlooked gem in the Don Carlo[s] discography.  Not included among the ranks of the greatest tenors, Mr. Prevedi was an unfailingly musical singer and, in this performance, is a fine Don Carlo.  Ms. Cossotto, Mr. Ghiaurov, and Mr. Roni give enjoyable performances, and it is wonderful to hear Mr. Bruscantini in a ‘substantial,’ serious role.  It is the Elisabetta of Leyla Gencer that should be heard by every admirer of Verdi’s music, however.  This is a woman—every inch a queen—whose passions boil.  Her performance of ‘Tu che la vanità’ is an example of Verdi singing of the highest order.



(22.05.1813 – 13.02.1883)

Birgit Nilsson as Wagner's Isolde

  1. Tristan und Isolde – Jon Vickers, Birgit Nilsson, Ruth Hesse, Bengt Rundgren, Walter Berry; Karl Böhm [Live performance, Chorégies d’Orange, 07.07.1973; various labels]  There are rare occasions in opera on which the stars, celestial and musical, align in perfect arrangement, and this Orange Tristan und Isolde is one of those occasions.  Ms. Nilsson and Mr. Vickers did not often encounter one another as Isolde and Tristan, and this is arguably the finest document of that infrequent union.  Ms. Hesse is an unsung heroine of Wagner singing in the 20th Century, her ironclad technique and beautiful voice having contributed to many great performances.  Mr. Rundgren and Mr. Berry offer alert, involved performances.  Maestro Böhm was an undoubted master of this score, and this performance finds him near his best.  It is a pity about the Mistral, but it was perhaps inevitable that even Nature would be swept along by this performance.
  2. Götterdämmerung – Kirsten Flagstad, Max Lorenz, Ludwig Weber, Alois Pernerstorfer, Josef Herrmann, Hilde Konetzni, Elisabeth Hönger; Wilhelm Furtwängler [Live performance, Teatro alla Scala, 04.04.1950; various labels]  Ms. Flagstad may have been past her best at the time of this final installment of the celebrated 1950 La Scala Ring, but the grandeur of the voice was untouched by the years.  With an uncommonly distinguished cast, Maestro Furtwängler presides over a performance that, according to his correspondence with his wife, he considered one of the pinnacles of his career.
  3. Die Walküre – Helen Traubel, Astrid Varnay, Friedrich Schorr, Lauritz Melchior, Kerstin Thorborg, Alexander Kipnis; Erich Leinsdorf [Live performance, Metropolitan Opera, 06.12.1941; various labels]  One of the most famous broadcasts in Metropolitan Opera history, this performance introduced the world to Astrid Varnay, whose Brünnhildes at Bayreuth a decade later would usher in a new age of Wagner singing.  Here singing Sieglinde, Ms. Varnay gives a glorious performance.  Ms. Traubel was the Metropolitan’s homegrown stand-in after Kirsten Flagstad returned to Norway when World War II threatened to separate her from her husband indefinitely.  She was an important singer and a great Brünnhilde in her own right, and the beauty of her Wagner singing is often revelatory.  Otherwise, this performance displays the strength of the Metropolitan’s Wagner wing during Edward Johnson’s administration.
  4. Tannhäuser – Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Kerstin Thorborg, Herbert Janssen, Emanuel List; Erich Leinsdorf [Live performance, Metropolitan Opera, 04.01.1941; various labels]  Mr. Melchior was a near-continuous presence in the Metropolitan’s Wagner productions from his debut (as Tannhäuser) in 1926 until his final performance (as Lohengrin) in 1950.  The high tessitura of Tannhäuser’s music has defeated many Heldentenors, but Mr. Melchior encounters few difficulties in this performance—a remarkable feat considering that, within six weeks, he sang Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Tristan, Siegmund, and both Siegfrieds at the Metropolitan!  It was Ms. Flagstad who ‘carried the honors’ in this performance according to Musical America, however, and her singing of Elisabeth’s Prayer is ravishing.  No one disappoints.  Of how many Tannhäuser performances can that be said?
  5. Lohengrin – Lauritz Melchior, Lotte Lehmann, Marjorie Lawrence, Friedrich Schorr, Emanuel List, Julius Huehn; Artur Bodanzky [Live performance, Metropolitan Opera, 21.12.1935; various labels]  Mr. Melchior’s Lohengrin was a celebrated portrayal, and he is at his best in this broadcast.  The other male cast members hold up their ends of the musical bargain, but the incomparable qualities of this performance are found in the exquisite singing and dramatic encounters of Ms. Lehmann’s Elsa and Ms. Lawrence’s Ortrud.
  6. Siegfried – Lauritz Melchior, Kirsten Flagstad, Friedrich Schorr, Karl Laufkötter, Eduard Habich, Kerstin Thorborg, Emanuel List; Artur Bodanzky [Live performance, Metropolitan Opera, 30.01.1937; various labels]  This performance, too, finds Mr. Melchior at his best, voicing Siegfried with sterling technique and a voice of near-ideal proportions for the role.  Mr. Laufkötter and Mr. Habich offer appropriately oily characterizations.  Mr. Schorr, never heard in America on the form that electrified Europe, is nonetheless a bracingly eloquent Wanderer.  Brünnhilde has less to do in Siegfried than in Walküre or Götterdämmerung, but no Brünnhilde on records awakens more thrillingly than Ms. Flagstad, who greets her conqueror with opulence worthy of a daughter of Wotan.
  7. Siegfried – Ludwig Suthaus, Martha Mödl, Ferdinand Frantz, Julius Patzak, Alois Pernerstorfer, Margarete Klose, Josef Greindl; Wilhelm Furtwängler [Live performances, RAI Roma, 10 – 11.1953; EMI]  Three years after his pioneering Ring at La Scala, Maestro Furtwängler returned to Italy to present the Cycle in concert performances recorded for broadcast by Italian radio.  This Siegfried preserves a rare performance of the title role by Mr. Suthaus, perhaps best remembered as a Wagnerian for his Tristan opposite Ms. Flagstad’s Isolde in her landmark studio recording.  Siegfried was not an especially congenial part for Mr. Suthaus, but the level of accomplishment that he achieves is a testament to his abilities.  All the cast rise to the occasion, but Martha Mödl’s Brünnhilde is a rightfully acclaimed performance, a worthy record of the work of a true mistress of Wagner’s music.
  8. Parsifal – Günther Treptow, Anny Konetzni, Ludwig Weber, Paul Schöffler, Hans Braun, Adolf Vogel; Rudolf Moralt [Live performance, Vienna Radio, 01.10.1948; various labels]  Maestro Moralt presided over this Parsifal and an interesting Ring for Vienna radio in the days before the Wiener Staatsoper reopened after World War II.  In this performance, some of the most celebrated Wagner singers of the post-War years are heard at their peaks, not least Ludwig Weber and Paul Schöffler.  Ms. Konetzni’s wild, searching Kundry is fascinating, and Mr. Treptow’s Parsifal has the security that so many Parsifals lack.  Maestro Moralt, a nephew of Richard Strauss, is an impressive, insightful, and undervalued conductor who knows and avoids the pitfalls of Parsifal.
  9. Das Rheingold – George London, Kirsten Flagstad, Set Svanholm, Paul Kuen, Gustav Neidlinger, Claire Watson, Waldemar Kmentt, Eberhard Wächter, Jean Madeira, Walter Kreppel, Kurt Böhme; Sir Georg Solti [Studio recording, 1958; DECCA]  Sir Georg Solti, John Culshaw, and an unmatched cast launched DECCA’s ambitious project of recording Wagner’s Ring in studio with this Rheingold, the trump card of which was the luring of Kirsten Flagstad to sing Fricka.  Whatever reservations she and her colleagues may have had are erased by the results that she achieved.  The voice is diminished even from the form of her final Metropolitan performances as Gluck’s Alceste six years earlier, but Ms. Flagstad intones a towering, magisterial Fricka whose blandishments to Wotan cannot be ignored.  Mr. London sings exhilaratingly, greeting Walhalla with ripping panache.  All the cast perform their tasks with relish.  Whatever the virtues of the Solti Ring as a whole, this Rheingold is a superb achievement.
  10. Die Walküre – Gertrude Grob-Prandl, Helene Werth, Ludwig Hofmann, Torsten Ralf, Georgine von Milinkovic, Herbert Alsen; Robert E. Denzler [Live performance, Victoria Hall, Geneva, 04.05.1951; various labels]  This Walküre was planned as a staged performance, but the destruction by fire of the theatre in which it was to be played necessitated a change of venue and conversion to a concert performance.  Misfortune thus produced a fantastic recording of Walküre, a performance built around the stunning Brünnhilde of Gertrude Grob-Prandl.  Ms. Grob-Prandl produces a wall of sound that surprises with its security, accuracy, and brilliance at the extreme top.  Ms. Werth contributes a refreshingly forthright Sieglinde, voiced with considerable beauty.  Mr. Ralf, criticized in New York for lacking the easy upper register for roles like Tannhäuser and Walther von Stolzing, finds a comfortable tessitura in Siegmund’s music and sings manfully.  Mr. Hofmann, Ms. von Milinkovic, and Mr. Alsen are familiar from Wagner performances throughout German-speaking Europe, and they contribute meaningfully to this Walküre.  Maestro Denzler, who conducted at Bayreuth and led the first performance of Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler, proves a very gifted leader of Walküre, presiding over a performance that gives far more pleasure than many performances featuring more famous casts.

The best of both worlds: Kirsten Flagstad as Verdi's Aida

24 December 2012

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel—GIULIO CESARE (M. N. Lemieux, K. Gauvin, R. Basso, E. Baráth, F. Mineccia; Naïve OP 30536)

Georg Friedrich Händel: GIULIO CESARE - Alan Curtis, Naïve OP 30536

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17—M.-N. Lemieux (Giulio Cesare), K. Gauvin (Cleopatra), R. Basso (Cornelia), E. Baráth (Sesto), F. Mineccia (Tolomeo), J. Weisser (Achilla), M. Storti (Nireno), G. Buratto (Curio); Il Complesso Barocco; Alan Curtis [recorded in Lonigo, Italy, during November 2011; Naïve OP 30536]

It was not so long ago that a curious listener who wished to hear a recording of Händel’s Giulio Cesare with all roles sung in their original registers, as Händel intended when composing the opera, could but dream.  The earliest modern performances—and it is worth noting that, during the first decades of the Twentieth Century, productions of the opera were conducted by such acclaimed conductors (and Wagnerians) as Böhm, von Karajan, and Knappertsbusch—and recordings of Giulio Cesare—including a German radio production with the great Hans Hotter in the title role and the famously pioneering New York City Opera recording that helped to make Beverly Sills an American sensation—employed stringently-cut, bowdlerized editions of Händel’s score that transposed roles to different vocal registers and took considerable liberties with da capo repeats, rhythms, and tempi.  With the advent of the historically-informed performance practice movement came a revitalization of interest in hearing vocal music sung in the closest possible approximations of how it would have been performed when new, and with this came a wave of opera recordings with all roles sung at their original pitches.  Not surprisingly considering its popularity among both Händel’s oeuvre and Eighteenth Century opera in general, Giulio Cesare was among the first scores to receive a recorded outing with increased fidelity to its composer’s intentions.  Like several of the greatest operas in the standard repertory, Giulio Cesare cannot be said to exist in a single, definitive edition, but the complete recordings, abridged performances, and excerpts included on recital discs during the past thirty years have allowed the modern listener to at least come nearer to enjoying Giulio Cesare as it might have been performed when it was premiered in London in 1724.

The advocacy of American-born conductor Alan Curtis for the operas of Händel has been a mixed blessing.  To his credit are recorded documents of some of the current generation’s finest singers in Händel roles that inspire them to great performances, not least Joyce DiDonato in the title roles of Alcina and Radamisto.  This is offset, at least in part, by an inconsistency of approach that finds Maestro Curtis bold and imaginative in one moment and dull and mannered in another.  It must be admitted that, even by standards influenced by Wagner and Richard Strauss, Giulio Cesare is a long opera, and a firm hand wielding the baton is required if it is not to seem bloated, especially in extended passages of secco recitative.  In that regard, this recording cannot be considered a complete success, for there are moments in which tension and dramatic momentum are allowed to droop, causing the performance to hang fire and threaten to bore.  Fortunately, these moments do not occur in the most important scenes of the opera, but there is a sense of Maestro Curtis having been most fully engaged only in the most celebrated or dramatically crucial scenes.

A considerable virtue of Maestro Curtis’s scholarship is his founding of Il Complesso Barocco, a period instrument ensemble whose musical integrity has grown more impressive with each recording.  Giulio Cesare makes considerable demands upon an orchestra, and Il Complesso Barocco meet those demands with verve and virtuosity to spare.  The continuo ensemble is varied and effective, maintaining sufficient dramatic contrast in recitative without crossing over into the fussiness familiar from many recent performances of Baroque repertory.  The score’s few choral contributions are sung by the principal singers.  This is historically appropriate, of course, but in this case there is slightly too great a sense of soloists singing in coro: the choral passages, though impeccably delivered, sound more like chorales from Bach Cantatas than choruses of massed citizens along the Nile.  Unlike some of Maestro Curtis’s recordings, which have been negatively impacted by their recording venues, this performance benefits from a natural acoustic that is especially kind to woodwinds and grants to the upper voices a particular immediacy.

Few performances of Giulio Cesare are as fortuitously cast with low male voices as is this recording.  The praetor Curio is sung by Italian bass Gianluca Buratto, a valuable artist whose repertory ranges from Monteverdi to Massenet.  As Curio, Mr. Buratto seizes every opportunity to impress by combining the resonance and robust timbre of his voice with a pointed delivery of the text.  Achilla is sung by Norwegian baritone Johannes Weisser, a very promising young singer already familiar to period practice aficionados as the title philanderer in René Jacobs’s recording (and DVD production) of Don Giovanni.  In many ways, Achilla is an ancestor of Don Giovanni, though the charm that the latter should possess is absent in the former.  Achilla was first performed by Giuseppe Maria Boschi, perhaps the most famous bass of the first half of the Eighteenth Century.  Careful examination of the tessiture of the roles that he created suggests that Boschi would today be considered a baritone, so the casting of Mr. Weisser is a nod to historical correctness.  It is also a considerable gain in dramatic verisimilitude: possessing a very fine voice of dark color, Mr. Weisser sings imposingly, putting considerable bite into his recitatives and delivering his arias with stinging precision.  Mr. Weisser’s performance suggests that Achilla is a secondary role only when sung by second-rate singers.

While stating that ‘a really good countertenor appeals’ to him, Maestro Curtis argued in a 2004 interview that he strives to ‘do what Händel did: if he didn’t have a good castrato or contralto, then he would use a falsettist, but only if he had to.’  In the first performance of Giulio Cesare, Tolomeo was sung by the alto castrato Gaetano Berenstadt, who also created the title role in Flavio and Adelberto in Ottone for Händel.  Whether or not a good contralto might have been found to sing Tolomeo, the young Italian artist Filippo Mineccia is surely one of the really good countertenors who appeal to Maestro Curtis.  Tolomeo is a nasty piece of work, as vile as any character in opera, but villainy is most convincing—and treacherous—when beguilingly enacted.  Mr. Mineccia’s performance never allows any doubt about Tolomeo’s motives, but lechery has rarely been more entrancing or unfailingly musical.  Mr. Mineccia’s supple, innately attractive voice practically slithers through his recitatives, and he delivers a dazzling account of ‘L’empio, sleale, indegno,’ Tolomeo’s bravura aria in Act One.  Musically, Mr. Mineccia’s performance is impressively accurate and stylish: dramatically, he creates a character that one definitely would not want to encounter in an alley on a dark night in Egypt.

In the bad old days of tessitura realignment, the role of Nireno—Cleopatra’s eunuch servant—was often assigned to baritones or basses, an unintentional touch of comedy.  Nireno, too, was originated by an alto castrato and is now often sung by a countertenor.  The role is sung in this performance by a female singer, however; the dynamic Italian contralto Milena Storti.  Nireno admittedly does not provide a singer with a lot of meat into which to sink the teeth, but Ms. Storti—revealing a characterful, strong voice—sings appealingly, demanding that the listener take note of her every appearance.

Sesto presents special challenges to any production of Giulio Cesare, whether for the stage or for records.  It is a male role composed for a relatively high voice, as was Baroque custom, but Sesto is a young man, indeed only a teenager.  The castrati with whom Händel and his contemporaries worked were grown men, after all, some of them rather corpulent and decidedly ill-suited to portraying teenaged boys.  Perhaps also taking into account the tradition in British theatre since Elizabethan times of casting female artists as young men and boys, Händel composed Sesto for Margherita Durastanti, a singer with whom the composer enjoyed a long-standing collaboration and whose tessitura underwent a gradual downward shift from soprano to mezzo-soprano.  Despite unflattering descriptions of her physical appearance and figure, Durastanti was widely acclaimed as a fine singing actress, and Händel composed both male and female roles for her.  Among these, Sesto is perhaps something of an anomaly, musically: dramatically, it is precisely the sort of prevaricating, fluid role at which Durastanti apparently excelled.  The role is sung in this performance by young Hungarian soprano Emőke Baráth, winner of the 2011 Cesti Competition.  Born in 1985, Ms. Baráth sounds slightly ‘green’ in this performance, but her technical command of Händel’s difficult music is apparent.  Obvious, too, is her commitment to her craft and to drawing musical inspiration from the text.  Sesto’s famous aria ‘Svegliatevi nel core’ is sung with passion and intriguing ornamentation of the da capo, and the gorgeous ‘L’aure che spira’ lacks nothing in terms of poise and ardor.  What is lacking is an audible sense of the androgynous nature of Sesto: one does not hear in Ms. Baráth’s performance the essence of a boy thrust into inconceivable circumstances but nonetheless not quite a man.  Ms. Baráth’s voice is very feminine, and despite being very lovely as singing per se her performance is not altogether effective.  To her credit, Ms. Baráth is at her best in ‘Cara speme, questo core’ and ‘Son nata a lagrimar,’ the pieces in which Sesto’s music is at its most sublime.

For a generation of opera lovers, Beverly Sills made Cleopatra the center of attention in any performance or recording of Giulio Cesare, and it might be argued that, even now, a singer like Cecilia Bartoli can tip the balance away from the title role.  The strong ensemble of this recording manages to avoid the focus being unduly centered for too long on one singer, but Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin—one of the most renowned Händel singers of the current generation—seeks to remind the listener that, while Caesar was a military power unto himself and a master statesman, Cleopatra was a genuine ‘star.’  Listening to the music that he composed for her reveals that Händel understood this, and Ms. Gauvin’s performance leaves no doubt that she knows it, too, but the performance does not always prove as glorious as the promise.  Extraordinary musicality and a grasp of the Händel idiom that seems as natural as breathing are hallmarks of Ms. Gauvin’s singing, but here the voice sounds darker and slightly less malleable than in previous recordings.  Largely absent in the context of this recording is complete mastery of the role—not just the music—of Cleopatra.  Cleopatra is a dichotomous figure, displaying the sort of contrasting public and private personas encountered in Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra.  If this implies a certain duplicity, it must be remembered that Cleopatra is a woman in a very dangerous man’s world of Roman conquerors and a pernicious brother who wishes to usurp her power.  Typically, a Cleopatra, even if very accomplished at performing the music, will fully encompass only one aspect of Cleopatra’s complicated dramatic presence, proving either a convincing lover or a practiced politician.  It is only very rarely that a singer manages to convey both sides of Cleopatra with equal conviction.  Beverly Sills did so with graceful lyricism combined with arresting command of coloratura (along with interpolations and embellishments that would likely have dismayed Händel).  In that her performance is beautifully proportioned within the boundaries of period-appropriate good taste, Ms. Gauvin might be said to have improved even upon what Sills achieved as Cleopatra.  Considered in the context of vocalism, this is an accomplished piece of singing.  The playful, scheming Cleopatra—expressed in her arias ‘Non disperar, chi sa,’ ‘Tu la mia stella sei,’ and ‘V’adoro pupille’—inspires Ms. Gauvin to fine displays of virtuosity.  Ms. Gauvin dazzles with coloratura of brilliance and precision but avoids the kind of mad ornamentation that mars too many performances of Händel’s operas.  In Cleopatra’s ‘pathetic’ arias, especially ‘Piangerò la sorte mia,’ Ms. Gauvin’s voice is typically poised, but she mostly fails to reach the greatest depths of emotion.  Singing Händel, particularly Cleopatra, requires much more than a beautiful voice, which Ms. Gauvin certainly possesses, and in this performance her control over the voice seems imperfect.  Arguably, Cleopatra is Händel’s most fully-developed, intriguing operatic character, and Ms. Gauvin might reasonably have been expected to deliver the most fully-developed, intriguing performance of the role yet recorded.  Neither the condition of the voice nor the dramatic use to which it is put warrants that accolade, but it is nonetheless a performance of distinction.  Ms. Gauvin is a performer of the calibre who disappoints by falling short of her own irreproachable standards.

In the same way that Azucena proves the most compelling character in many performances of Il Trovatore, Cornelia often emerges as the ‘heart’ of a production of Giulio Cesare.  Unthinkably wronged within minutes of the opening curtain by Tolomeo’s treacherous engineering of her husband’s murder, Cornelia’s plight is expressed with crushing gravity and pathos in her first aria, ‘Priva son d’ogni conforto,’ one of those time-stopping pieces for which Händel had such an easy faculty.  Composed for the English singer Anastasia Robinson, Cornelia pursues her vengeance dolorously, battling unwelcome amorous advances and only relishing her ultimate victory in productions that include the scene in which her son Sesto kills Tolomeo on stage.  In this recording, Cornelia receives a performance from Italian mezzo-soprano Romina Basso that is worthy of a Roman consul’s daughter described by Plutarch as one of the most beautiful, intelligent, and dutiful women of her age.  Possessing a voice that is dark and imposing without being heavy or unwieldy, Ms. Basso sings with unflappable conviction and virtuosity, bringing complete tonal steadiness and heart-stopping but stylish intensity to ‘Priva son d’ogni conforto.’  The bite of Ms. Basso’s native Italian in secco recitative is wonderfully gripping, giving Cornelia a sharper dramatic profile than she attains in many performances.  Though she is often the emotional center of Giulio Cesare, Cornelia can seem a static character, but Ms. Basso brings uncommon depth and development to her performance.  There is an audible shift from wronged widow to exasperated object of unrequited desires and frightened mother in Ms. Basso’s performance, employing a dramatic sensibility that surely reveals how Händel may have intended his operas to be performed.  Ms. Basso’s performance completely frees Händel’s music for Cornelia, even secco recitative, from charges of boredom.  Ms. Basso joins Ms. Baráth for a very beautiful account of their duet, ‘Son nata a lagrimar,’ and she brings to each of Cornelia’s arias precisely the correct combination of technique, fire, and tasteful ornamentation.  Ms. Basso also sang Tolomeo on the studio recording of Giulio Cesare conducted by George Petrou, and it is indicative of her artistic integrity and versatility that the same voice can so effectively breathe life into two characters that are so different.

The title role in Giulio Cesare was first sung by Senesino, one of the most renowned castrati of the Eighteenth Century, and ironically it is often the eponymous Roman conqueror himself who disappoints in modern performances of Händel’s opera.  Taking into account its considerable demands and the particular musical elements that were tailored to Senesino’s legendary vocal prowess, Cesare is one of the most difficult roles in the repertory to cast.  Few countertenors can muster the power in the lower register and the command of fiorature in all parts of the voice required by Cesare’s music, but few mezzo-sopranos are able to summon and convincingly maintain the swaggering masculinity required for Cesare to be a credible warrior and ladies’ man.  Vocally, Canadian mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux proves one of the most successful performers of Cesare on records, building upon the revelatory performance by Jennifer Larmore on René Jacobs’s harmonia mundi recording.  From the character’s first entrance, Händel lines Cesare’s vocal path with hurdles, most of which Ms. Lemieux clears with panache.  A noble but aggressive presence is established with ‘Empio, dirò, tu sei’ and maintained throughout the opera, the tone at once attractive and powerful as the voice of such a man should be.  Ms. Lemieux occasionally overdoes the histrionics, especially in plunging into her baritonal chest register, but her singing throughout the performance is informed by strong musical instincts.  Her command of Händel’s tricky coloratura is masterful, as is the concentration that she brings to secco recitative.  Responding to Ms. Gauvin’s Cleopatra, though, Ms. Lemieux does not explore all of the dramatic possibilities of Cesare, which ideally lead to creating a figure as adept at strategizing on the battlefield as in the boudoir.  Her singing of ‘Aure, deh, per pietà’ is the zenith of her performance, the voice luxuriating in Händel’s melodic inspiration, but there is a disconcerting sameness to Ms. Lemieux’s singing of Cesare’s wonderfully varied arias.  Still, it is a performance that leaves little to be desired from a musical perspective.  It is impossible to know how Senesino’s voice sounded in any of the roles composed for him by Händel, but Ms. Lemieux’s performance confirms that with Cesare Händel created one of the earliest great roles in the alto range.

It is illustrative of the difficulty of making an opera ‘work’ on a recording that Alan Curtis, with what seems an ideal cast, ultimately cannot boast of having recorded an ideal Giulio Cesare.  This recording is a potent reminder of one of the greatest qualities of opera, however: an honorable effort that misses its mark can be extremely enjoyable.  Heard as a performance of Händel’s superb music, this Giulio Cesare is delightful, but a Giulio Cesare in which Cornelia is both the emotional and dramatic core of the performance is not quite right.

Mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Cesare) [Photo by Denis Rouvre]

11 December 2012

IN MEMORIAM: Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, 1926 - 2012

Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, 1926 - 2012


25 October 1926 – 11 December 2012

Say the words ‘Russian repertory’ to almost any music lover born in the second half of the Twentieth Century, and the name Galina Vishnevskaya is certain to occupy a prominent position in the thoughts that follow.  It was Galina Vishnevskaya who introduced many Western listeners to the complexities and glories of the Russian soprano repertory, and for this alone she would be remembered as one of the most dynamic artists of the Twentieth Century.

Born in Leningrad in 1926, Ms. Vishnevskaya’s talents were soon recognized and rewarded in her native country, where she became a member of the esteemed Bolshoi company in 1953.  In addition to Russian roles, Ms. Vishnevskaya’s early career encompassed acclaimed performances of operas by Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi.  A recording of Beethoven’s Fidelio—sung in Russian—documents the vibrancy of Ms. Vishnevskaya’s voice in the first decade of her career, along with the dramatic vitality that was an unmistakable hallmark of Ms. Vishnevskaya’s singing throughout her life.  A 1961 Bolshoi broadcast of Aida reveals Ms. Vishnevskaya’s prowess in the Italian repertory, the attention to phrasing exquisite even when the text is sung in Russian translation.  It was for Ms. Vishnevskaya that Benjamin Britten composed the soprano solos in his War Requiem, and her performance on the DECCA recording of that work is a classic of the gramophone.

It was as Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin that Ms. Vishnevskaya conquered the world beyond Russia, however.  Recording the role for Melodiya in 1956, she created a performance that remains as fresh, revelatory, and dramatically arresting today as when it was recorded.  Indeed, many stage performances are not as compelling as Ms. Vishnevskaya’s recorded Tatyana, which benefits from a voice of ideal proportions and colors for the role.  Charged with the tension of a deeply intelligent and self-aware young woman experiencing a transforming romantic and sexual awakening, Ms. Vishnevskaya’s performance set standards that have never been surpassed.  The performance leaps out of the sound waves and directly into one’s imagination, and once the Melodiya performance has been heard it is impossible to hear another singer as Tatyana without comparing her to Ms. Vishnevskaya.  It is a performance that forever changed perceptions of Tchaikovsky’s most chameleonic heroine.

Ms. Vishnevskaya made her La Scala début as Liù in Puccini’s Turandot in 1966, opposite the Turandot of Birgit Nilsson and the Calaf of Franco Corelli.  Nilsson and Corelli were one of opera’s rare ‘dream teams’ in 1966, and holding one’s own opposite such a legendary pair in signature roles might have been considered virtually impossible.  By some accounts, Ms. Vishnevskaya walked away with the laurels, however, and a recording of the opening night performance recently reissued by La Scala confirms that Ms. Vishnevskaya’s Liù was a towering performance, little troubled by the inevitable nerves of a La Scala début.

In 1955, Ms. Vishnevskaya married the legendary ‘cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, with whom she shared a partnership in life and art until his death in 2007.  During the last decade of Ms. Vishnevskaya’s career, Mr. Rostropovich frequently accompanied his wife in recital, and it was in these recitals that audiences became truly acquainted with the heart of Ms. Vishnevskaya’s artistry.  After defecting to the West in 1974, advocacy for Russian repertory became an important aspect of Ms. Vishnevskaya’s artistic journey.  Songs of composers such as Mussorgsky, little known outside of Russia, gained from Ms. Vishnevskaya’s espousal the admiration of Western audiences and critics.  Even when musical values were not as uncompromising as they had been earlier in her career, the connection and sense of complete collaboration inherent in Ms. Vishnevskaya’s recitals with her husband in the last few seasons of her performing career remained astounding and extremely touching.

Few artists earn the unwavering adoration of audiences.  Galina Vishnevskaya achieved this with grace and dramatic intensity.  Her voice was perhaps imperfect, but she was a shrewd, thoughtful artist who understood instinctively that she impersonated imperfect characters.  In a sense, she shared an artistic identity with Tchaikovsky’s Tatyana: she gave of herself to a degree that revealed the raw, smoldering core of her soul, and she pursued what she perceived as her artistic duty to the end of her career.  Unlike Tatyana, Galina Vishnevskaya was accepted by a musical world hungry for her unique brilliance.

the young Galina Vishnevskaya as Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's YEVGENY ONEGIN at the Bolshoi

05 December 2012

CD REVIEW: THIS LITTLE LIGHT—A. D. Griffey, tenor, & J. Pecoraro, guitar (CGS Enterprises 80547 27318)

THIS LITTLE LIGHT - Holiday Music performed by Anthony Dean Griffey and Joseph Pecoraro

Various Composers: THIS LITTLE LIGHT—Music for the Holidays performed by Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor, and Joseph Pecoraro, guitar [recorded in Watson Chamber Hall, UNC School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, NC, 2012; CGS Enterprises 80547 27318]

For better or worse, discs of holiday standards are virtually inevitable fare for singers of all genres.  The ‘better’ is that listeners sometimes gain opportunities to hear favorite artists in unlikely contexts and on ‘lighter’ forms than are typical: the ‘worse’ is that, in addition to entering an extraordinarily crowded field in which almost every listener already holds treasured performances close to his or her heart, many holiday discs are made-on-the-fly affairs with little artistic merit.  For the most part, gone are the days when an artist of the merit of Leontyne Price might collaborate with colleagues like Herbert von Karajan and the Wiener Philharmoniker to record an holiday-themed disc that genuinely—and attractively—supplements her discography and expands her artistic legacy.  Too many holiday discs are commercial enterprises with only tenuous attachments to the holidays they purport to celebrate.  Refreshingly, this is not the case with This Little Light, a new recording of holiday favorites by High Point-born tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and guitarist Joseph Pecoraro.  Benefitting North Carolina charities that aid the displaced and mentally ill, This Little Light is audibly a tremendously meaningful project for both artists, and in recording this disc they have given listeners the incomparable gift of an holiday disc that returns to the exalted standards of previous generations of artists and offers stirring performances of some of the most popular songs of the season.

Mr. Griffey, familiar to North Carolina audiences as a treasured native son and a beloved presence at the Eastern Music Festival, is one of the most gifted tenors heard on the world’s stages during the past fifteen years.  Since his 1995 début at the Metropolitan Opera in Wagner’s Parsifal (in the performance in which Stephanie Blythe also made her MET début), Mr. Griffey has earned the affection of the New York public.  His performances of the name part in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes revealed not merely an uncommon artistic sensibility but a voice ideal for the rôle, a voice in which beauty and power are blended in perfect balance.  In this recital of holiday music, as much as in Peter Grimes or the music of Mendelssohn or Weill, Mr. Griffey sings with a voice that seems drenched with starlight, the timbre both brightly ethereal and warmly resonant.  Nonetheless, so sure are Mr. Griffey’s interpretive choices that he never risks overwhelming the music or over-singing in the manner familiar from many opera singers’ holiday outings on records.

Credit for the high quality of this disc is also due to guitarist Joseph Pecoraro, whose guitar arrangements are used for the recording.  Each song is arranged to fit Mr. Griffey’s voice to perfection, and Mr. Pecoraro’s guitar accompaniments are unfailingly gorgeous.  It is a testament to Mr. Pecoraro’s skills as an arranger that there is not one song on the disc that is not impeccably tasteful.  A member of the faculty of the UNC School of the Arts, Mr. Pecoraro is another North Carolina treasure whose music-making is a great gift to the State and to all who are privileged to hear it.

Every song on The Little Light receives a memorable performance, but even amid such excellence there are particularly sublime moments.  Mr. Griffey and Mr. Pecoraro touch the heart with the title track and a poignant performance of ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy,’ Robert MacGinsey’s classic song that is often mistaken for an African-American Spiritual.  The legitimate Spiritual ‘Go, Tell It on the Mountain’ is shaped with attention to its narrative, its musical structure emerging with a simple eloquence akin to the Lieder of Franz Schubert.  ‘Mary, Did You Know’ receives from Mr. Griffey and Mr. Pecoraro a performance of great emotional immediacy, confirming its stature as one of the finest holiday songs of recent years.  Classics of the holiday repertory sound newly-minted in this performance, but especially impressive is Mr. Griffey’s singing of ‘O Holy Night,’ Adolph Adam’s ‘Cantique de Noël’ that has been a favorite of opera singers since the dawn of recording technology.  Mr. Griffey’s performance of this song, elegantly arranged and accompanied by Mr. Pecoraro, is nothing short of remarkable, worthy of comparison with the greatest accounts by opera stars past and present—and superior to many of the finest performances on records.

For many people, the holiday season is a time of wonder, joy, and hope for the future, and hearing this disc of holiday music performed by Anthony Dean Griffey and Joseph Pecoraro inspires these feelings in the listener.  There is the wonder expressed so innocently but effectively through these songs.  There is the joy of hearing the music performed so magnificently.  There is the hope for the future, that much more will be heard from these great artists.  This Little Light shines very brightly indeed.

Joseph Pecoraro, guitarist, and Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor

Please click here to purchase a copy—or several copies—of This Little Light.  In addition to its superb musical quality, proceeds from the sale of this disc benefit charities that assist the homeless and mentally ill.  Thank you.