GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901), AMILCARE PONCHIELLI (1834 – 1886), GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924), FRANCESCO CILÈA (1866 – 1950), & UMBERTO GIORDANO (1867 – 1948): Amore e Tormento – Arias from Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra, La Gioconda, Le Villi, Manon Lescaut, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Turandot, L’Arlesiana, Adriana Lecouvreur, Andrea Chénier, Fedora, and Marcella—Massimo Giordano, tenor; Ensemble del Maggio Musicale Fiortentino; Carlo Goldstein [Recorded ‘live’ in the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Florence, Italy, in 2012; BMG 53800781 2]
Alfredo Kraus, one of the most astute artists in operatic history in terms of careful management of technique and vocal resources, once said in an interview that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing and decide whether you want to service the music, and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’ Kraus was perhaps the last of the truly great tenors to enjoy a tremendous career in a repertory that was by the standards of most of his contemporaries quite small: Kraus’s understanding of the capabilities of his own voice was legendary, and he maintained the fluidity of his upper register and the agility of his voice to the end of his career by only singing rôles that were within his technical comfort zone. In this age in which operatic productions are conceived along cinematic lines, when the attractiveness of faces and figures sometimes take precedence over the quality of voices and techniques, versatility is perhaps the primary requirement for making a significant career in the world’s major opera houses. Too many of today’s promising young singers are squandering their natural gifts in pursuit of the sorts of fame and celebrity that are, except in the rarest of instances, elusive to opera singers, stretching their voices to fit whichever rôles they are told that they need to sing in order to achieve a well-publicized television appearance, a cover story, or that next high-profile engagement. Among all of this arrogance and cut-throat competiveness, it is gratifying to encounter a young tenor whose versatility is genuine, a product of artistic curiosity and exploration of the capabilities of his voice rather than an exercise in commercialism. The singing of Massimo Giordano recalls the open-throated, heart-on-the-sleeve style of previous generations, and his artistic versatility—a choice informed by his adherence to his own artistic standards rather than an act of necessity—is a refreshing recollection of great singers of the past who expanded the boundaries of their artistries without overextending their vocal endowments. Amore e Tormento, Mr. Giordano’s début recital disc, alluring explores nearly seven decades of Italian tenor repertory, ranging from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra to Puccini’s Turandot. It is not uncommon for a modern tenor’s active repertory to include both Gabriele Adorno and Calàf, along with many of the rôles that were created between them, but it is rare for performances of the arias from many of these parts to be sung as beautifully as Mr. Giordano sings them on this disc.
Born in Pompei, Mr. Giordano has already lent his talents to performances in many of the world’s major opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, where he débuted as des Grieux opposite Renée Fleming in Massenet’s Manon in 2006. In subsequent MET seasons, he has sung Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore (in which rôle he had the unenviable task of replacing the indisposed Rolando Villazón, a favorite of New York audiences), Alfredo in La Traviata, Rodolfo in La bohème, and Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi. These assignments reveal the variety that has shaped the first decade of Mr. Giordano’s career. This variety is also in evidence in this recital, but few other performances of these arias have displayed the unbroken musical lineage among the works of Verdi, Ponchielli, Puccini, Cilèa, and Giordani with such clarity. Particularly in Europe, Mr. Giordano is celebrated for his portrayals of bel canto heroes, and he has been acclaimed in Europe and America in lighter Verdi rôles: Edoardo in Un giorno di regno, Alfredo in La Traviata, the Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto, and Fenton in Falstaff. In this recital, he takes on arias from heavier rôles; rôles that he is perhaps wisely reserving for later in his career or will ultimately forgo altogether. All of these arias are ‘chestnuts,’ but they offer tantalizing glimpses at how Mr. Giordano’s career may progress as his voice expands and darkens.
This disc was recorded in live takes, and Mr. Giordano’s performances of the arias benefit excitingly from the immediacy of these circumstances. The acoustic in which the voice is recorded is natural and avoids the closeness which inaccurately reproduces the voices of many singers and mars their recordings. The players of the Ensemble del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, instrumentalists associated with one of Italy’s most venerable musical institutions, have this music in their blood, and it shows in their spirited, idiomatic playing. The demands of the accompaniments of these arias are quite different, but the members of the Ensemble adapt their playing to every style. Also advantageous is the insightful leadership of young conductor Carlo Goldstein. With successes in Boris Godunov in Valencia and Carmen at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice to his credit, Maestro Goldstein is one of the most promising conductors to have emerged onto the musical scene in recent seasons, and his sensitive support of Mr. Giordano’s performances on this disc portends a notable career in opera.
Mr. Giordano pays homage to Verdi with performances of arias from Don Carlo and Simon Boccanegra. In Carlo’s aria ‘Io la vidi,’ Mr. Giordano finds especially congenial vocal territory, Verdi’s melodic line recalling the bel canto models of earlier generations. Mr. Giordano’s diction in his native language is excellent, and his phrasing is unfailingly musical. There is an audible element of aristocratic grace in his singing of ‘Io la vidi,’ but there is also a bracing dose of Italianate passion. Gabriele Adorno’s aria ‘Sento avvampar nell’anima’ from Simon Boccanegra is an explosion of fury that punishes the tenor with tessitura that centers in the passaggio. Traditionally, the rôle has attracted dramatic voices, but Mr. Giordano’s more lyric tone fills the vocal lines gorgeously. Mr. Giordano’s vibrato and method of producing an even, balanced tone across his range recall the singing of Giuseppe Campora, who successfully took on a carefully-selected handful of dramatic rôles with his essentially lyric voice.
Francesco Cilèa undeservedly remains in the shadow of Puccini, and aside from productions of Adriana Lecouvreur mounted for self-indulgent divas his operas are now seldom performed. Perhaps surprisingly considering the esteem in which he was held in Italy in the first decades of the 20th Century, Cilèa completed only five operas, two of which are represented on Amore e Tormento. Adriana Lecouvreur is Cilèa’s most popular opera and arguably his best: its synthesis of Italian verismo with elements of French Impressionism conjures a decadent musical setting in which an ambitious soprano can chew the scenery like a genuine luminary of the Comédie-Française. The tenor rôle of Maurizio, created by Caruso, received from Cilèa a number of pages of fine music, and Mr. Giordano here sings ‘La dolcissima effigie,’ an impassioned outpouring of Maurizio’s love for Adriana. The urgency of Mr. Giordano’s vocal expression is invigorating, and the spin of his tone is magical. The ‘Lamento di Federico’ (‘È la solita storia del pastore’) from L’Arlesiana receives from Mr. Giordano a similarly ardent performance.
The operas of Umberto Giordano, like those of Cilèa, are infrequently performed—with the exception of Andrea Chénier, of course. Few operas in the Italian repertory are more obvious vehicles for tenors than Andrea Chénier, but few performances in recent years have justified the faith shown in the drivers of this vehicle. His singing of ‘Come un bel dì di maggio’ suggests that Mr. Giordano’s Chénier will be unusually poetic. His phrasing of the aria displays a mastery of the text, and his placement of the tone as the vocal line builds to the climactic top B-flat is authoritative. Loris’s brief aria ‘Amor ti vieta’ from Fedora is a favorite number in many tenors’ recital and concert repertories. Like Adriana Lecouvreur, Fedora occasionally turns up on the boards when there is a soprano—a soprano of a certain age, in most cases—on hand who wishes to show off her histrionic command of the verismo repertory. It is a score with many felicities, however, and ‘Amor ti vieta’ is a refulgent eruption of Italianate melody. Mr. Giordano sings the aria spaciously, rising with fervor to the top A. Marcella is a veritable operatic ghost town: long uninhabited, it awaits a repopulation by singers capable of revealing its unique charms. Giorgio’s aria ‘Dolce notte misteriosa’ is included on Amore e Tormento as a ‘bonus track,’ and it receives the finest performance of any of the arias on the disc, Mr. Giordano’s voice glowing with subtle inflections inspired by the text.
Not unexpectedly for a recording by an Italian tenor, the music of Puccini is at the core of this disc. The arias that Mr. Giordano selected cover the entire span of Puccini’s creative activity, from Le Villi, the composer’s first opera, to Turandot, the final masterpiece of his maturity. Mr. Giordano opens the disc with ‘Donna non vidi mai’ from Manon Lescaut, the sort of flowing, melodic aria that seems so easy until one actually attempts to sing it. Mr. Giordani’s attempt is a triumphant one, his phrasing of the aria long-breathed and evocative of young love. Both of Cavaradossi’s arias from Tosca are included. ‘Recondita armonita’ is particularly successful: so artful is Mr. Giordano’s depiction of Cavaradossi’s hymn to picturesque beauty that the listener can practically smell the drying paint on his portrait of the Maddalena. The top B-flat is ringing but not over-emphasized, the note serving as the natural climax of the phrase rather than being sustained merely for show. The singer’s voicing of ‘E lucevan le stelle’ is moving, the sound of death in the voice even as recollections of Tosca’s love warm the vocal line. ‘Torna ai felici dì’ from Le Villi is, despite its early place in the composer’s output, a quintessentially Puccinian tenor aria: Mr. Giordano sings it broadly but with with rhythmic vitality. Pinkerton’s ‘Addio fiorito assil,’ added to the score to give the rôle greater balance when Puccini revised Madama Butterfly after its lackluster première, is another aria that is typical of its composer, but the emotional directness that Mr. Giordano lends the number in this performance is very moving. Mr. Giordano is to be congratulated for preferring Calàf’s ‘Non piangere Liù’ to the over-familiar ‘Nessun dorma’ for his selection from Turandot. ‘Nessun dorma’ is a fine aria, undone to an extent by its popularity: musically, ‘Non piangere Liù’ is the superior number. Calàf might prove a perilous rôle for Mr. Giordano, especially in larger theatres, but his singing of ‘Non piangere Liù’ is gorgeous, the tone at once robust and carried on the breath. Dramatically, Mr. Giordano seems to connect with the sentiments of the aria on a very personal level, and he gives a scintillating performance with an unaffected morbidezza that often eludes larger-voiced tenors who sing Calàf.
Enzo’s ‘Cielo e mar’ from Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is also a gem of the repertory that is often included by tenors in their concerts and recitals. The irony is that, for so popular and musically straightforward a piece, it is frequently poorly sung. In this performance, the aria is anything but poorly sung, Mr. Giordano bringing rare mastery to the music and singing the aria as though it has been in his voice since birth. Something in the phrasing of the aria seems to unnerve many tenors, but its unhurried climax and ascent to an exposed top B-flat make it irresistible. While the aria is often the least successful portion of many tenors’ performances of the rôle of Enzo, Mr. Giordano’s singing of the aria constitutes several of the finest minutes on this disc. As in ‘Recondita armonia,’ the top B-flat crowns the aria not as an act of tenorial showboating but as an inevitable resolution of the penultimate phrase. Mr. Giordano encounters no difficulties with phrasing, and his timbre provides intriguing layers of richness to the performance.
In both the basic sound of his voice and the way in which he sings, Massimo Giordano is a welcome reminder of the tradition of Italian tenors that developed with Caruso and Gigli and has been lamentably endangered since the retirement of Ferruccio Tagliavini. There are minor imperfections in Mr. Giordano’s singing in this recital, but he shows the same wisdom and cognizance of his vocal abilities in his selections of the arias on this disc that he has thus far exhibited in his career in the world’s opera houses. Amore e Tormento offers an ambitious programme, and Mr. Giordano explores every vocal and dramatic nuance of the ‘amore’ and ‘tormento’ expressed in these arias with virility and sensitivity. Ample torment there is in these songs of men bolstered and betrayed by love, but no torment is there to be had from hearing Mr. Giordano’s singing. His is the sort of voice, and this the sort of singing, that is balm to wounded hearts and ears offended by the vacuous performances of singers pursuing acclaim rather than art.