25 June 2013

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Tucker Triumphant—Celebrating Richard Tucker’s Centennial

Richard Tucker as Pinkerton in Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY at the Metropolitan Opera [Photo uncredited] Richard Tucker as Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Metropolitan Opera [Photo uncredited].  Tucker sang five performances of Pinkerton for the MET, in New York and on tour.  His Cio-Cio-Sans were Dorothy Kirsten and Daniza Ilitsch.

On 28 August 1913, the Tickers—a family of Jewish immigrants from Bessarabia—welcomed a son whom they called Rubin.  Slightly more than thirty-one years later, on January 25, 1945, the Metropolitan Opera welcomed a new artist, débuting on the stage of the storied Old MET as Enzo Grimaldo in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda opposite Stella Roman.  Of that début, Noel Straus wrote in the New York Times that the tenor ‘sang Enzo’s music with poise and assurance.  His tones were steady and of pleasing quality, boasting special richness and resonance above the staff.’  Two years later, the young tenor reprised the role of Enzo in a production of La Gioconda at the fabled Arena di Verona that also introduced the discriminating Veronese to another young American-born singer, Maria Callas.  These were auspicious first steps on the world’s opera stages by Richard Tucker, the tenor whose thirty-year career would span a remarkable journey from humble beginnings in New York Synagogues to a public funeral on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, an act of affection and respect performed for no other artist in the Company’s history.

I first heard the voice of Richard Tucker via the 1952 Columbia recording of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, an abridged performance sung in the surprisingly charming English translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin, whose efforts at translating Italian libretti into English often produced the results of making even very serious dramatic scenes sound like bad verses by W.S. Gilbert.  In December 1951, the Metropolitan Opera launched a new production of Così fan tutte directed by Broadway genius Alfred Lunt and designed by Rolf Gérard, sung in English by a cast of American singers that included Eleanor Steber as Fiordiligi, Blanche Thebom as Dorabella, Patrice Munsel as Despina, Frank Guarrera as Guglielmo, and Richard Tucker as Ferrando.  The Metropolitan Opera Association deemed the production worthy of preservation on records, so the cast—with Roberta Peters substituting for Patrice Munsel—assembled in June 1952, following the annual MET tour, in Columbia’s 30th Street studios in Manhattan.  Mozart’s blossoming score was mercilessly pruned, leaving little more than a stalk: of Ferrando’s three arias, only ‘Un’aura amorosa’ remained, translated as ‘My love is a flower.’  Mr. Tucker was a buoyant presence in ensembles, but the poise, elegance, and technical mastery displayed in the aria were arresting.  Many voices of quality have been recorded in Ferrando’s music, but Mr. Tucker’s voice was of a size and weight rarely heard in Mozart.  [It will be interesting to compare Rolando Villazón’s performance of Ferrando in the forthcoming Deutsche Grammophon recording of Così fan tutte to Mr. Tucker’s performance.]  Among recorded Ferrandos, only George Shirley rivals Mr. Tucker’s successful combination of a robust timbre with pliant lyricism.  Mr. Tucker was perhaps an unexpected choice for Così fan tutte, but his singing of Ferrando was an apt introduction to his artistry.  Mozart demands all of the qualities that made Mr. Tucker such a consistently delightful singer, and it remains a tremendous pleasure to hear Ferrando’s music—what was left of it—sung so expansively.  It should also be noted that Mr. Tucker also sang seven performances of Tamino in Die Zauberflöte in Herbert Graf’s English-language production during the 1950 – 51 season.  The music of Mozart occupied a small place in Mr. Tucker’s repertory, but the dedication with which he approached it is refreshing.

Frank Guarrera as Guglielmo (left) and Richard Tucker as Ferrando (right) in Mozart's COSÌ FAN TUTTE [Photo by Mark Hagmann] Frank Guarrera as Guglielmo (left) and Richard Tucker as Ferrando (right) in a performance of the MET production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte in Philadelphia, 27 January 1953 [Photo by Mark Hagmann]

Two of the most exasperating statements that I have encountered in musical criticism refer to Richard Tucker.  The first was an expression of regret that, in her 1955 recording of Aida, Maria Callas’s partner in espionage by the Nile was Richard Tucker rather than Franco Corelli.  Mr. Tucker did not sing Radamès at the MET until January 1965, but by the time of the Milan recording sessions for Aida Mr. Tucker had already garnered praise in New York as Alfredo in La Traviata, Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera, the Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto, Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra, the title character in Don Carlo, and Don Alvaro in La forza del destino—impressive Verdian credentials by any standard.  Furthermore, Mr. Tucker’s Radamès was one of the strongest performances in Arturo Toscanini’s 1949 NBC Symphony concert broadcasts of Aida.  Corelli was an indisputably exciting singer and a dynamic Radamès whose mastery of the role is documented in two commercial recordings—an early effort opposite Mary Curtis-Verna for CETRA and a famous Rome recording with Birgit Nilsson—and numerous ‘pirated’ recordings, but the confident, idiomatic singing offered by Mr. Tucker under Tullio Serafin’s baton excellently complements Callas’s poetic reading of Aida.  A year earlier, in 1954, Mr. Tucker had joined Maestro Serafin and Callas in an engaging recording of La forza del destino.  Maddening as it is as a slight to Mr. Tucker’s artistry, the suggestion that Corelli might have been a preferable partner to Callas in Aida is indicative of the rivalries among tenors that were promulgated—and tirelessly perpetuated—by the press and proponents of the singers during the MET’s ‘Golden Age’ of Italian tenor singing in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.  Mr. Tucker had been on the MET roster for nearly a decade when Carlo Bergonzi débuted there in 1956—as Radamès, ironically—and for almost fifteen years when Corelli first bowed on the MET stage in 1961 as Manrico in Il trovatore.  One of the most exceptional achievements of Mr. Tucker’s career is the way in which he so often managed to beat the Italians at their own game, so to speak.  Few if any tenors possessed greater lyricism than Bergonzi, but Mr. Tucker could command greater power and ‘ping’ in the upper register.  Corelli possessed a kind of primeval power that electrified audiences, but Mr. Tucker was the more consistent, more reliable artist, and his learned Italian diction was superior to Corelli’s native command of the language.  Judged solely on its own terms, Mr. Tucker’s Radamès in the EMI recording is a superb performance, ‘Celeste Aida’ confidently if slightly muscularly managed, and the singing only continues to impress thereafter.  The top As with which Radamès closes Act Three are brilliant, and Mr. Tucker responds with equal affinity to his exchanges with both Fedora Barbieri’s Amneris and Callas’ Aida in Act Four.  In 1955, Corelli was still sorting out the slight flutter in his vibrato that is heard in his earliest recordings and was perfecting the placement of his upper register.  This is not to suggest that he would not have been a capable Radamès opposite Callas, but the casting of Mr. Tucker, already a finished artist, was an inspired—and inspiring—choice.

The second undeservedly critical observation concerning Mr. Tucker is that his success at the MET was primarily based on the fact that, as a Jewish artist, Mr. Tucker would not sing on High Holy Days but had no such objections to singing on Christian holidays.  Thus, he was a singer who could be relied upon to fill the house in Christmas-season performances, when out-of-towners flooded Manhattan and snapped up tickets left unsold by New Yorkers taking holiday elsewhere.  Opera is a business, and few businesses have been managed by overseers more attuned to the particular natures of their operations than Sir Rudolf Bing was to the presentation of opera at the MET.  Bing’s managerial skills were honed in Europe, where opera houses still largely operated with standing companies of singers and musicians, and though he was eager to import the most important European singers to New York he was keenly aware of the musical value and box-office usefulness of a native-born singer like Mr. Tucker.  The breadth of Mr. Tucker’s assignments at the MET confirms the esteem in which he was held by Bing, the MET Board of Directors, the artistic staff, and New York audiences.  He sang in the performances that introduced MET audiences to Robert Merrill, Jerome Hines, Hilde Güden, Josef Metternich, Ettore Bastianini, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Gilda Cruz-Romo.  He was Don José to the Carmen of Risë Stevens in the 1952 première of the legendary production by Tyrone Guthrie.  He sang Riccardo in the 1955 performance of Un ballo in maschera in which Marian Anderson became the first African-American artist to sing a role at the MET.  He was Cavaradossi to Renata Tebaldi’s first MET Tosca and was Don Alvaro to Tebaldi’s Leonora in the 1960 performance of La forza del destino during which Leonard Warren died on the MET stage.  He sang the title role in the 1966 performance of Andrea Chénier in which Zinka Milanov bade farewell to the MET, and three days later, on 16 April 1966, he sang Rodolfo in the Saturday matinee performance of La bohème that was the last performance of a complete opera in the original house at Broadway and 39th Street.  In April 1970, the Metropolitan Opera Guild sponsored a gala in celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Mr. Tucker’s company début, a performance in which he partnered Sutherland in Act One of La Traviata, Tebaldi in Act Two of La Gioconda, and Leontyne Price in Act Three of Aida.  Mr. Tucker’s final performance at the MET was as Canio in Pagliacci, opposite Anna Moffo’s Nedda, on 3 December 1974: slightly more than a month later, on 10 January 1975, the Metropolitan Opera bestowed upon Mr. Tucker the honor of a funeral held on the stage of the theatre he had so often filled with golden sound.  These are not the accomplishments of a singer who was integral to an opera company principally because of his fiscally-significant willingness to sing when the absence of other artists might render full houses unlikely.  Mr. Tucker was a godsend for the MET in the years after World War II: he was a sort of ‘house brand’ who could not only hold his own among the best European singers but, in many instances, proved superior to them in preparation, dependability, and undaunted musicality.

Richard Tucker as Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini's TOSCA at the Metropolitan Opera, 1955 [Photo by Louis Mélançon] Richard Tucker as Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, Metropolitan Opera]

Vocally, Mr. Tucker sang every role that he undertook well, with equal success in lyric and dramatic roles, so assigning a particular Fach to his voice is difficult.  It is interesting to compare his singing in different performances of the same roles.  As Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, for instance, he carefully adapted the scale of his singing to the fragile orchid of Lily Pons’s Lucia in the Columbia studio recording and to the hardy redwood Lucia of Dame Joan Sutherland in the December 1961 MET broadcast.  [It is also interesting to note that, in her first seasons at the MET, Sutherland’s Lucia was paired with the Edgardos of Mr. Tucker, Jan Peerce, Barry Morell, and Sándor Kónya, none of whom would now be likely to be considered for the part.]  With Pons, Mr. Tucker was cautious to avoid overpowering his Lucia in their duets, surely a difficult task considering that Pons’s razor’s-edge tone had thinned markedly by 1954, when the Metropolitan Opera Association funded the Lucia recording.  Opposite Sutherland, whose sheer grandeur of voice was unusual in Lucia’s music and required no efforts at scaling-back vocal resources on the part of her tenor, Mr. Tucker produced floods of focused tone, matching Sutherland’s opulence.  Similarly, the delicacy of Mr. Tucker’s singing of Rodolfo in the 1947 Columbia recording of Puccini’s La bohème opposite Bidù Sayão’s Mimì contrasts tellingly with his broad joie de vivre in his later RCA recording with Anna Moffo.  A notable aspect of Mr. Tucker’s career at the MET was the longevity of his versatility: while many tenors sing a wide variety of roles, most move into a certain part of the repertory while phasing out appearances in other roles.  Mr. Tucker retained virtually all of the roles that he sang in his active repertory throughout his career, however.  For instance, he first sang the role of Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra at the MET in 1949, opposite Leonard Warren and Astrid Varnay: thereafter, he sang the role in 1950, 1960, 1961, 1965, 1968, 1973, and 1974, last singing the role in New York in January 1974, opposite Ingvar Wixell and Adriana Maliponte.  Don José in Carmen was the only French role that remained in Mr. Tucker’s repertory throughout his career at the MET.  None of his five MET performances of Gounod’s Faust was a broadcast, but a recording of a 1953 New Orleans performance confirms that he sang the role impeccably.  Unfortunately, there also was not a broadcast of any of the four performances of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila that Mr. Tucker sang in December 1971, though critic George Movshon deemed Samson ‘one of his best roles.’  Two of Mr. Tucker’s nineteen MET performances of the title role in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann were broadcasts, though, and recordings of the broadcasts validate the opinion expressed by esteemed critic Irving Kolodin, who wrote that his Hoffmann ‘suggested, rather conclusively, that his destiny, really, is to be a French tenor in the heroic style.’  Mr. Tucker’s voice might best be described as a spinto instrument, but in many ways it was a voice that could only be classified accurately as fantastic.

Despite his devotion to the company throughout his career, the Metropolitan Opera failed Mr. Tucker by denying him the opportunity to sing Eléazar in Halévy’s La Juive on the stage that was, for three decades, his artistic home.  Until revived in 2003 for Neil Shicoff, La Juive had not been performance at the MET since 1936, when Eléazar was sung by Giovanni Martinelli.  Eléazar is a musical tour de force and a role that holds special significance for Jewish artists because of its powerful but stereotypical depiction of a strong Jewish protagonist at odds with an oppressive Christian establishment.  Fortunately, in addition to a 1964 Carnegie Hall concert performance organized by the Friends of French Opera, productions of La Juive were organized for Mr. Tucker in New Orleans in 1973 and at the Gran Teatro del Liceo in Barcelona in 1974, and a 1973 concert performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall yielded a recording that reveals both the histrionic power of Mr. Tucker’s characterization of Eléazar and the marvelous condition of his voice as he approached his sixtieth birthday.  Leontyne Price remarked that she ‘could never get over how fantastically [Mr. Tucker] sustained his vocal powers; how indeed they seemed to grow as time went on.’  Eléazar was first sung by Adolphe Nourrit, the tenor who also created the role of Arnold in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, and this alone is an indication of the difficulty of the role.  Unlike many tenors, Mr. Tucker embraced the role of Eléazar completely, fully ‘living’ the part even in the context of a concert performance rather than regarding it merely as an opportunity to sing the famous aria ‘Rachel, quand du seigneur.’  Hearing the recording of the London concert performance of La Juive is one of the best ways to become acquainted with Mr. Tucker’s artistry.  Still in control of one of the greatest tenor voices of the Twentieth Century, he got at the heart of Eléazar with an eloquence and dramatic involvement that were not always evident in his singing.

Montserrat Caballé in the title role (left) and Richard Tucker as Rodolfo (right) in Verdi's LUISA MILLER at the Metropolitan Opera, 1968 [Photo by Louis Mélançon] Montserrat Caballé in the title role (left) and Richard Tucker as Rodolfo (right) in Verdi’s Luisa Miller at the Metropolitan Opera in 1968 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, Metropolitan Opera]

The criticism most frequently leveled at Mr. Tucker’s performances concerned a lack of dramatic verisimilitude.  Virgil Thomson, never shy about expressing even his harshest opinions, wrote of a 1952 performance of La Bohème that the cast needed, ‘in [his] opinion, only one major change.  That is the substitution for Mr. Tucker of a tenor somewhat more sensitive both musically and dramatically.’  Conversely, many contemporary critics wrote of the effectiveness of Mr. Tucker’s characterizations, but it is the perception of him as an indifferent, stand-and-deliver singer that has persisted.  The 1970 première of a new Franco Zeffirelli production of the double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci marked a milestone in Mr. Tucker’s career.  Singing Canio on stage for the first time despite having recorded the role for Columbia in 1951, Mr. Tucker was widely acknowledged to have achieved a new, substantially intensified level of dramatic engagement.  The sparks that flew when Mr. Tucker’s Canio was paired with the Nedda of Teresa Stratas were so white-hot that observers with overactive imaginations whispered that the relationship between the singers was rather more than professional.  In general, Mr. Tucker’s performances during the last several seasons of his career revealed a renewed commitment to his art that galvanized audiences and further secured his legacy as one of America’s best singers.  In 1971, twenty-six years after his MET début, Collins George wrote in the Detroit Free Press of a MET tour Carmen that Mr. Tucker’s voice ‘scarcely [betrayed] his age’ and that, as an actor, he was still ‘able to give the illusion in his dramatic tenor of the youthful heroes he is constantly called upon to play.’  Recordings of MET broadcasts after 1970 reveal that Mr. Tucker’s tone had dried and hardened slightly and that basic production of the voice and projection of the upper register no longer came as easily to him as they had when he was in his prime.  They also confirm that, whatever the extent of the inevitable ravages of time and near-constant singing of leading roles across three decades may have been, Mr. Tucker’s voice remained at the end of his career an instrument of extraordinary quality.

As an opera lover, a musician, a writer, and a collector of recordings, I am intrigued by comparing the performances of many singers in music that I love.  One of the best illustrations of this, and of the importance of Mr. Tucker to me as a listener, is the role of Manrico in Il trovatore.  When I want to hear Manrico’s music caressed with the velvet-toned finesse of a credible Spanish lover, I listen to Carlo Bergonzi.  When it is a rabble-rousing performance by a tenor who sounds as equipped to raise an army and route an enemy on the battlefield as to woo a noblewoman with song, I turn to Aureliano Pertile.  When I wish to encounter a chest-pounding performance of legitimately Italianate virility, I seek out Mario del Monaco.  When my ears long to hear shamelessly indulgent but pulse-quickeningly refulgent high notes, I choose Franco Corelli.  When I simply want to hear Manrico as Verdi wrote him, every note in place and in tune, every vowel idiomatically shaped, even consonant enunciated on the beat, the trills in place in ‘Ah si, ben mio coll’essere,’ the top notes ringing and secure, I listen to Richard Tucker.  His legacy in American music is enormously important as a lesson in the achievement of a great career through kindness, preparedness, sureness of technique, and understanding of one’s own voice.  To me, a listener who was born too late to hear him in the opera house, Richard Tucker’s legacy is being the only tenor who has never disappointed me.  For this, he is truly the unchallenged Rabbi of American opera.

Richard Tucker as Rodolfo in Puccini's LA BOHÈME at the Metropolitan Opera, 1952 [Photo by Sedge LeBlang] Richard Tucker as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera in 1952 [Photo by Sedge LeBlang, Metropolitan Opera]


  • 1950  Giuseppe Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra with Leonard Warren, Astrid Varnay, Mihály Székely, and Giuseppe Valdengo; Tucker sings Gabriele Adorno—Metropolitan Opera performance of 28 January 1950 [available on multiple labels; best sound quality on Myto]
  • 1955  Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo with Eleanor Steber, Blanche Thebom, Ettore Bastianini, and Jerome Hines; Tucker sings the title role—Metropolitan Opera performance of 5 March 1955 [available on multiple labels]
  • 1962  Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West with Dorothy Kirsten, Anselmo Colzani, Paul Franke, Norman Scott, and Ezio Flagello; Tucker sings Dick Johnson—Metropolitan Opera performance of 6 January 1992 [Myto 052 307]
  • 1962  Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with Leontyne Price, Philip Maero, and Rosalind Elias; Tucker sings the role of Pinkerton—Studio recording [RCA, various releases]
  • 1968  Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller with Montserrat Caballé, Sherrill Milnes, Giorgio Tozzi, and Louise Pearl; Tucker sings the role of Rodolfo—Metropolitan Opera performance of 17 February 1968 [available on multiple labels; official MET release available on Sony]
  • 1973  Fromental Halévy’s La Juive with Yasuko Hayashi, Michèl Le Bris, and Juan Sabaté; Tucker sings the role of Eléazar—Concert performance at Royal Festival Hall, London, on 4 March 1973 [available on multiple labels; best sound quality on Myto]
  • 1973  Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore with Gilda Cruz-Romo, Mignon Dunn, and Siegmund Nimsgern; Tucker sings the role of Manrico; Concert performance in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 1973 [Gala GL 100 760]

22 June 2013

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini—LE SIÈGE DE CORINTHE (L. Regazzo, M. Cullagh, M. Sala, M. Spyres; NAXOS 8.660329-30)

Gioachino Rossini: LE SIÈGE DE CORINTHE [NAXOS 8.660329-30]

GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Le siège de Corinthe—L. Regazzo (Mahomet II), M. Cullagh (Pamyra), M. Sala (Cléomène), M. Spyres (Néoclès), M. Lécroart (Hiéros), G. Quaresma Ramos (Adraste), M. F. Romano (Omar), S. Beltrami (Ismène); Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań; Virtuosi Brunensis; Jean-Luc Tingaud [Recorded ‘live’ at the Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany, during the XXII ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival; 18, 20, and 23 July 2010; NAXOS 8.660329-30; 2CD, 2:32:19]

Few shifts of focus in operatic history have been as significant to the development of the genre as Gioachino Rossini’s relocation to France and his subsequent writing for Parisian stages that produced Guillaume Tell, with which he concluded his career as a composer of operas.  The first staging of Guillaume Tell in 1829 initiated a Golden Age of Grand Opera that, in France, would culminate in the spectacular works of Auber, Halévy, and Meyerbeer and, farther afield, cultivated the fields of creativity that would produce the operas of Verdi and Wagner.  Three years before the première of Guillaume Tell, Rossini offered Paris his first opera in French, Le siège de Corinthe, a thorough reworking of his 1820 Maometto secondo.  Surprisingly for a score by the doyen of Italian opera in his prime, Maometto secondo—now acknowledged as one of Rossini’s most inventive works—was largely unsuccessful at its Naples première.  Taking advantage of the vogue for all things Greek that swept Europe in the wake of the 1821 – 1829 Greek War for Independence, Rossini uprooted Maometto secondo from its original setting in the Venetian colony of Negroponte and grafted all the fittings of an authentic Parisian opéra with a new setting in Greece onto the musical trunk as Le siège de Corinthe.  Substantially augmented with newly-composed music and the obligatory ballet sequences, Le siège de Corinthe enjoyed in Paris the success that eluded Maometto secondo in Italy.  Ironically, the French opera, translated back into Italian as L’assedio di Corinto, won the appreciation of Italian audiences and critics.  It is a disservice to Rossini to suggest, as many writers have done, that Le siège de Corinthe is merely the ‘French version’ of Maometto secondo: despite sharing music and the same principal characters, they are vastly different operas.  Benefiting from the scholarship of the conductor, Jean-Luc Tingaud, and a new edition prepared especially for the ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival by Florian Bauer, this NAXOS recording offers the listener an opportunity to assess Le siège di Corinthe on its own terms, without transpositions, interpolations, or condescension to its Grand Opera aspirations.

As in most of their recordings of Rossini operas from Wildbad, the NAXOS engineers—Norbert Vossen and Siggi Mehn for this recording—have done the composer proud.  Some of Rossini’s most innovative orchestration is lavished on the score of Le siège de Corinthe, which continues the imaginative use of woodwinds so eloquently begun in La donna del lago.  The recorded sound possesses depth and clarity atypical of performances recorded under ‘live’ conditions, the myriad colorations of Rossini’s orchestration given prominence without disturbing the balance between stage and pit or overwhelming the soloists.  The harp accompaniments of the choral ‘Prière’ and Pamyra’s aria in Act Three are particularly well-recorded.  The sound produced by the Camerata Bach Choir is perhaps slightly ‘ecclesiastical,’ but the rounded tone and commitment of their singing is persuasive, their performance shaped by the careful preparation of Chorus Master and Assistant Conductor Iñaki Encina Oyón.  The playing of the Virtuosi Brunensis is indeed virtuosic, the critical obbligato parts played superbly.  Rossini employs the orchestra for far more than mere accompaniment in Le siège de Corinthe, and the Virtuosi Brunensis collectively rise to every challenge with boundless energy and technical mastery.  The famous Overture receives a bracingly martial, authentically Rossinian performance.  Maestro Jean-Luc Tingaud’s command of the dramatic undulations of Rossini’s score is impressive, his taut conducting ensuring precision in the rapid-fire music of the opera’s more extroverted passages but also allowing lovely expansion in moments of repose.  The tempo adopted for the Act Three trio for Pamyra, Cléomène, and Néoclès is an excellent example of Maestro Tingaud’s well-judged pacing of the performance as a whole: seeming slow at first, the inherent rightness of Maestro Tingaud’s choice becomes apparent as the dramatic import of the scene unfolds and the singers have the time required to shape their passages of filigree, place the critical top notes, and genuinely respond to one another.  In this last consideration, this recording is a splendid example of the gains in dramatic impact that can be achieved from recording live performances, even those given in concert: the emotional directness and responsiveness with which the ensemble—soloists, chorus, orchestra, and conductor—deliver the music are dazzling.

Vocally, this recording of Le siège de Corinthe is the most consistently and excitingly cast of any of NAXOS’s recordings of Rossini repertory, with even secondary roles filled by excellent artists.  Ismène, Pamyra’s confidante (every bel canto heroine requires a confidante, after all), is sung vivaciously by mezzo-soprano Silvia Beltrami, whose fruity voice perfectly complements that of her mistress and produces a fine account of her Ballade, ‘L’hymen lui donne une couronne.’  Omar, Mahomet’s confidant (villains, too, need someone to share their secrets), receives from baritone Marco Filippo Romano a suitably manly, ringing performance.  Adraste, companion of Cléomène, is sung with bright, attractive tone by young Brazilian tenor Gustavo Quaresma Ramos.  Bass Matthieu Lécroart is enjoyably resonant as Hiéros, the custodian of the catacombs, his pronouncement of the final stand of the Corinthians against the Turks resoundingly sung and only his lowest notes lacking power.

Cléomène, the embattled Governor of Corinth, is sung by Catalonian tenor Marc Sala, an engaging young artist with a voice possessing a flickering vibrato that is somewhat reminiscent of his fellow Spaniard Miguel Fleta.  Though he displays an awareness from the start of the almost certain futility of the Corinthian resistance against the Turkish invaders, Cléomène valiantly rallies the Greeks while also sorting out his ambitions for his daughter’s marriage and responding to her perceived betrayal.  Mr. Sala copes excellently with an expectedly high tessitura, Cléomène having been composed for Louis Nourrit, an acclaimed tenor in his own right and the father of the celebrated Adolphe Nourrit.  Both the timbre and vibrato of Mr. Sala’s voice make him immediately distinguishable and lend his lines an exhilarating vibrancy.  Mr. Sala’s is the first solo voice heard, and he launches the opera awesomely.  Thereafter, his every contribution to the performance is marked by singing of distinction.

Néoclès, perhaps most familiar to listeners in his reincarnation as a mezzo-soprano travesti role in L’assedio di Corinto famously ‘owned’ in the Twentieth Century by the incomparable Shirley Verrett but also sensationally sung in a Baltimore Opera production by Vivica Genaux, was created by Adolphe Nourrit, whose working range in chest voice is known to have extended to top D.  Rossini made full use of Nourrit’s wide tessitura in his music for Néoclès, which is magnificently sung in this performance by Missouri-born tenor Michael Spyres.  Already having sung a very fine account of Rossini’s Otello on a NAXOS recording from Wildbad, Mr. Spyres here proves himself a Rossini tenor worthy of comparison with Juan Diego Flórez, Lawrence Brownlee, and Colin Lee, the lean, sappy timbre of his voice and his world-class bravura technique making easy work of Rossini’s most demanding passages.  Mr. Spyres is at his dramatic best in the trios with Cléomène and Pamyra in Acts One and Three, Néoclès’s emotions convincingly conveyed by Mr. Spyres’s poised, lyrically luxurious singing.  Néoclès’s Act Thee aria, ‘Grand Dieu, faut-il qu’un peuple’ is a daunting number in the vein of Arnold’s ‘Asile héréditaire’ in Guillaume Tell, the Rossini tenor’s equivalent of Manrico’s ‘Di quella pira.’  Mr. Spyres sings the aria with a stimulating combination of lovely tone and formidable technique, his top Cs and Ds secure, unerringly on pitch, and fired off like rockets.  Throughout the performance, Mr. Spyres’s singing offers a masterclass in the art of Rossini singing.

It is welcome to have the excellent bass Lorenzo Regazzo in a serious role.  The most surprising aspect of Mr. Regazzo’s performance as Mahomet is how uncannily his voice resembles that of the young Samuel Ramey, especially in coloratura passages.  Mr. Ramey was a towering presence in the Rossini revival, of course, and the title role in Maometto secondo was a part in which he triumphed.  The success of Mr. Regazzo’s singing in this performance of Le siège de Corinthe rivals Mr. Ramey’s portrayal of Maometto.  Mahomet’s entrance aria, ‘Chef d’un peuple indomptable,’ receives from Mr. Regazzo a performance of tremendous energy and cavernous tone.  Mahomet is one of Rossini’s most complex, fully human bass roles, his dramatic profile torn between that of a conventional operatic villain—the invading foreigner—and a more nuanced man who is unlucky in love.  Mr. Regazzo rages compellingly, but the warmth and compassion that he brings to Mahomet’s scenes with Pamyra are charming.  Mr. Regazzo sings boldly but stylishly, his voice taking on the honeyed radiance of a bassoon in his lower register.  There is at the heart of Mr. Regazzo’s performance a sense of Mahomet’s ultimate victory over the Corinthians coming at too great a cost, and rather than imposing on the character any modern sensibilities related to the conflicts between East and West he fully explores the emotional subtexts with which Rossini lined his score.

Pamyra, the role that—in its Italian incarnation—introduced Beverly Sills to La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera, is sung in this performance by Irish soprano Majella Cullagh, the belle of several recorded Opera Rara bel canto balls.  Singing the part without Ms. Sills’s legendary interpolations and embellishments, Ms. Cullagh allows the listener to appreciate the often extraordinary quality of Rossini’s invention.  There are cantilena passages in both trios in which she participates, in her Act Two aria and duet with Mahomet, and in all three finales that rival the music of Bellini in sheer beauty.  It is in these passages, in which both orchestration and dramatic situations require less pressure on the voice, that Ms. Cullagh’s singing is at its most exquisite.  Instances of coloratura display are somewhat less in Le siège de Corinthe and Rossini’s other French operas, Le comte Ory excepted, than in his Italian scores, but Ms. Cullagh nonetheless has ample opportunities for whizzing up and down the two octaves of her music’s tessitura.  Ms. Cullagh’s voice occasionally turns shrill in the most difficult passages and in ascents into the extreme upper register that do not offer adequate time for placement of the tone, but her intonation is faultless and her timbre attractive even when under attack by Rossini’s most stringent demands.  Above all, Ms. Cullagh’s performance meaningfully embodies the character of a noble young woman, her loyalties torn by dedication to her father and home and her love for a man who is revealed to be the enemy of her people.  Why Ms. Cullagh remains a stranger to many of the world’s most important opera houses is a mystery only further confounded by the quality of her singing on this recording of Le siège de Corinthe.  Beverly Sills’s MET début as Pamira earned her an eighteen-minute ovation from the audience: Ms. Cullagh here gives a performances that deserves equal adulation.

With the dearth of voices suitable for the operas of Verdi and Wagner, the operas of Rossini have increasingly crept to the center of many opera companies’ repertories.  Armida and Le comte Ory have recently joined Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola in the MET repertory, and a production of La donna del lago that promises to be a display of great Rossini singing will grace the MET’s 2014 – 2015 season.  When Beverly Sills débuted at the MET as Pamira in 1975, Le siège de Corinthe was a virtually unknown piece, regarded by many critics as a vehicle selected for Ms. Sills’s La Scala and MET débuts in order to avoid comparison and conflict with Dame Joan Sutherland as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani, long discussed as the role for Ms. Sills’s introduction to the MET.  In 2013, Le siège de Corinthe remains on the fringe of the Rossini canon.  Perhaps this NAXOS recording will convince the intendants of some of the world’s important opera houses that the opera deserves performances beyond Pesaro and Wildbad.  If opera composers of old had distributed ‘concept albums’ to the managers of opera companies in the way that composers of musical theatre pieces peddled their works in the past half-century, Rossini might well have selected this recording to advocate for his Le siège de Corinthe.  This is among the handful of recordings of Rossini operas that leave absolutely nothing to be desired.

21 June 2013

CD REVIEW: Louis Théodore Gouvy—OEDIPE À COLONE (V. Haab, C. Ratzenböck, S. Roberts, J. Cornwell; cpo 777 825-2)

Louis Théodore Gouvy: OEDIPE À COLONE [cpo 777 825-2]

LOUIS THÉODORE GOUVY (1819 – 1898): Oedipe à Colone, Op. 75 (Dramatic Oratorio, 1880)—V. Haab (Oedipus), C. Ratzenböck (Antigone), S. Roberts (Theseus), J. Cornwell (Polyneikes); Les Choeurs de La Grand Société Philharmonique, Kantorei Saarlouis; La Grande Société Philharmonique; Joachim Fontaine [Recorded in on 14 – 16 October 2012; cpo 777 825-2; 2CD, 93:05]

The British novelist George Eliot wrote that ‘music sweeps by me as a messenger carrying a message that is not for me.’  Its context changed, the sentiment might be an apt assessment of the career of Louis Théodore Gouvy, a composer whose sad lot it was to be appreciated by his most refined colleagues and contemporaries but to subsequently be forgotten for nearly a century after his death and for three decades of his life to essentially be a man without a country: born in the Sarre, a much-disputed départment of the Napoleonic Empire, just after the region was placed under Prussian rule by the Congress of Vienna, he was denied French citizenship for the first thirty-two years of his life.  A contemporary of Verdi and Wagner, Gouvy’s primary musical interests were centered in the concert hall rather than the opera house, his imagination notably fired by the efforts of Mendelssohn and Schumann to resurrect the oratorio traditions of Bach and Händel.  Interestingly, Gouvy was most influenced in his composition of Oedipe à Colone not by his contemporaries but by the Sophocles-inspired operas of Gluck and Sacchini.  One lesson learned in the 20th-Century revivals of interest in Baroque and bel canto operas is that the obscurity to which music has been subjected is not necessarily indicative of its quality.  Still, it is unexpected to encounter in the music of Gouvy, particularly in Oedipe à Colone, a compositional voice of such originality.  The lack of appreciation for Gouvy’s music thus seems all the more cruel and the endeavors of cpo to rectify this collective act of cultural ignorance especially praiseworthy.

Musically, Oedipe à Colone is a distinguished work of multi-layered sophistication and beauty.  The opening Introduction, essentially an operatic overture in all but name, is faintly reminiscent of Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, Gouvy’s orchestration both making use of the structured elegance of Classical models and displaying complete understanding of the development of orchestras during the 19th Century.  Gouvy’s writing for brass instruments invites comparisons with Brahms, and choral episodes show a comprehensive absorption of traditions old and new.  The choruses in the operas of Gounod are close cousins to choruses in Oedipe à Colone, but the musical environment of Mendelssohn’s Elias is also close at hand.  The interplay of voices with strings in the first choral section of the Part One Finale, ‘Vous que l’innocence même,’ recalls the ‘Lacrymosa’ of Mozart’s Requiem, and the spirit of Mozart’s 25th Symphony appears in Gouvy’s orchestration of the concluding pages of the Part One Finale.  Throughout the oratorio, Gouvy’s vocal writing rivals the melodic fecundity of Gounod and Ambroise Thomas.  The style of recitative that develops into arioso is appropriately derived from Gluck but also recognizes the ancestry of French dramatic music from models by Lully and Rameau.  Gouvy’s music is at its most inspired in the exchanges between Oedipe and Antigone in Part Two.  Like Verdi, Gouvy’s sensibilities as a composer and dramatist were obviously powerfully engaged by the dynamics of the relationship between father and daughter.  The faithfulness of Antigone to her blinded, tormented father brings to mind the fidelity of Cordelia to Shakespeare’s King Lear, and the beauty and distinction of Gouvy’s music are comparable to the sublime scenes for father and daughter in Verdi’s aborted opera on the subject of Lear that found their way into Rigoletto.  There are also parallels with Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra in Part Three, Oedipe’s death ending unendurable suffering and restoring an uneasy sense of order to the lives of those affected by his tragedy, both publicly and privately.  Though unconvinced by the composer’s vocal writing, Gouvy acknowledged the unavoidable influence of Wagner’s orchestration, and while there is no single passage in Oedipe à Colone that bears the clear stamp of Wagnerian influence, there is an unmistakable expansiveness in Gouvy’s orchestration that would scarcely have been possible for a composer unfamiliar with Wagner’s music.  In a work populated by characters whose psyches are so shaped by rage, resentment, and violence, it is the tenderness expressed in Gouvy’s music that is most striking: each of the four characters is blessed by the composer with music of exceptional beauty.  Foreshadowing the power of Elektra’s recognition of her brother Orest in Strauss’s Elektra, the scene in which Antigone is reunited with her brother Polynice in Oedipe à Colone pulses with joy tempered by tragedy.  The ecstatic duet for Antigone and Polynice in Part Three, ‘Antigone, ma sœur,’ would not be out of place in any of the better operas of Gounod or Massenet.

Conducted by Joachim Fontaine, the players of La Grande Société Philharmonique meet all of Gouvy’s considerable demands with playing of power and secure intonation.  The brass players face particular challenges, all of which are confidently overcome.  Articulation of rapid string passages is occasionally undermined by the vibrancy of the acoustic of the recording venue, ever a danger of recording in a church sanctuary, but the natural ‘bloom’ in the sound is very pleasing.  The choristers of Kantorei Saarlouis face tremendously daunting music, the requirements of tessitura and precision of ensemble as great as those in any of the oratorios of Bach and Händel.  Hearing the accomplishment with which they sing Gouvy’s music, it is not surprising that the Kantorei Saarlouis singers are acclaimed for their performances of Baroque choral music.  Here taking the role of the Chorus familiar from Greek tragedies of Antiquity, the choristers are unfailingly convincing whether expressing triumph, paralyzing fear, or pleas for mercy.  A few passages requiring the sopranos to soar to the tops of their ranges strain the singers, but their performance is one of the foremost glories of this recording.

British baritone Stephen Roberts, a familiar presence in Early Music performances, takes the role of Thésée, the legendary slayer of the Minotaur who, in his capacity as king, magnanimously grants the hounded Oedipe asylum.  Gouvy gives Thésée music of nobility and regal profile, which Mr. Roberts sings strongly.  After a long and successful career, Mr. Roberts’s voice is no longer as firm as it once was, the tone spreading when pressure is applied, but his excellent musical and dramatic instincts are untouched by time.  Mr. Roberts’s singing of Thésée’s lines in ‘Vous que l’innocence même’ is wonderful, befitting the utterances of a mythological hero.

Capable of bringing off almost unbelievable feats of bravura singing, tenor Joseph Cornwell has contributed memorably to many recordings of Baroque repertory.  Gouvy’s music for Polynice, Oedipe’s estranged son, nods to the esteemed haute-contre tradition of French opera but adheres to the somewhat less altitudinous tessitura of modern tenor writing.  Mr. Cornwell’s singing of Polynice suggests that, in addition to his accomplishments in the music of Händel and Vivaldi, he might prove an excellent interpreter of roles in French Baroque operas, as well as the ‘reform’ operas of Gluck.  After the manner of many of the finest tenor roles in French opera, Polynice does not make extravagant demands on the tenor’s extreme upper register but has a tessitura that is consistently high and punishingly centered around a lyric tenor’s passaggio.  Except in a single moment in Part One when he cannot quite summon the power required to soar at the top of his range over the chorus in full cry, Mr. Cornwell sings with an ideal combination of muscle and dulcet tones.  The crise de conscience that Polynice experiences, his determined rejection of his father giving way to guilt and pangs of filial duty at the sight of the tortured old man, is heartbreakingly conveyed by Mr. Cornwell via subtle shading of his tone.  The rapture that Mr. Cornwell brings to Polynice’s reunion with his sister is fetching, and both his seemingly limitless breath control and plangent upper register make his singing in ‘Antigone, ma sœur’ richly rewarding.  A more persuasive performance of Polynice’s music, which combines the necessity of a simplicity of approach with the requirement of technical prowess sufficient to command a challenging tessitura over a large-scaled orchestra, than Mr. Cornwell achieves in this recording is difficult to imagine.

As in many of Wagner’s operas in which archetypes of femininity triumph over the foibles of patriarchal society, the role that Antigone plays in Gouvy’s Oedipe à Colone is one of unbending devotion to her father that inspires her to acts of defiance of the fate that plagues him.  In a sense, it is his presumed worthiness of Antigone’s love that is Oedipe’s most redeeming quality.  Tenderness and an element of panic in the face of unrelentingly punishing destiny are central to soprano Christa Ratzenböck’s performance.  Like Polynice, Antigone is also conceived along Gluckian musical lines but accompanied by an orchestra related more closely to those that accompany Wagner’s Elsa or Verdi’s Elisabetta di Valois.  Ms. Ratzenböck displays a very attractive tone and a freedom in the upper register that is tested but never broken by Gouvy’s music.  Only a few moments of rapid ascents above the ledger lines find Ms. Ratzenböck grasping at pitches, and her intonation is delightfully secure throughout her performance.  Among many passages of great quality, Antigone’s ‘Mon sort, je le préfère’ in Part Two is particularly gorgeous, and the expressivity with which Ms. Ratzenböck sings it is ravishing.  Like Mr. Cornwell, Ms. Ratzenböck is at her best in Antigone’s duet with Polynice in Part Three, her voice growing more rounded and her delivery of text more heated as the emotional intensity of the scene increases.  The sorrow that Ms. Ratzenböck conveys in the scene in which Oedipe denies her the opportunity to accompany him on his final journey towards death is wrenching yet voiced with unaffected sweetness.  Ms. Ratzenböck’s French diction is not consistently idiomatic, with a Teutonic accent occasionally distorting the unique French vowels, but she shapes phrases with instinctive grasp of the patterns of the language as set in Gouvy’s score.  Ms. Ratzenböck creates a compelling character with singing that surpasses the achievements of many of the more famous sopranos heard in the world’s opera houses today.

Sophocles’s Oedipus is one of the most flawed but embraceable characters in Greek theatre, his misdeeds unpardonable and his remorse unforgettable.  Gouvy succeeds in translating much of the dignified tragedy inherent in Sophocles’s portrait of Oedipus into musical terms, his Oedipe rightly emerging as the central figure in Oedipe à Colone.  Bass-baritone Vinzenz Haab sings Oedipe’s music with expert control, shading his tone to meaningfully depict all of the nuances of the part.  The world-weariness that Mr. Haab communicates is stirring.  There are infrequent moments in which it is apparent that Mr. Haab is a bass-baritone in a true bass role, the line occasionally going beyond the lower extremity of Mr. Haab’s vocal comfort zone.  Mr. Haab avoids forcing the voice, however, instead darkening the tone to increase the resonance of his lowest notes.  Oedipe requires the widest range of emotions of any of the roles in Oedipe à Colone, and Mr. Haab responds with an engaging array of feelings expressed through his singing.  Gentle and sensitive in his exchanges with Antigone and seething with anger and disappointment in his dealings with Polynice, Mr. Haab’s Oedipe assumes the stature of a tragic hero by expressing all of Oedipe’s emotions in a vocal performance of majestic profundity, taking advantage of every weapon in his considerable musical arsenal.

Oedipe à Colone is unquestionably a dramatic oratorio as designated by its composer, but in this age in which oratorios are frequently given dramatized stagings by major opera companies Gouvy’s score would likely prove a worthwhile addition to the repertory of an enterprising opera house.  This recording proves Gouvy’s score to be the work of a first-rate musical mind, its dramatic contrasts explored through the craftsmanship of a master composer with thorough understanding of the musical styles of the past and more than a passing notion of what lay in the future.  Far more than a piece of musical esoterica, Oedipe à Colone receives from four talented singers, an excellent chorus, a well-rehearsed orchestra, and a dedicated conductor a performance that reveals both its creativity and its dramatic effectiveness.  Music is a sometimes maddening, always captivating journey from timeless traditions to new ways of exploring humanity in sound: few vessels that convey eager-eared passengers along that journey are as interesting, commendable, or undeservedly overlooked as Gouvy’s Oedipe à Colone.

Louis Théodore Gouvy (1819 - 1898) Louis Théodore Gouvy (1819 – 1898)

11 June 2013

CD REVIEW: Joseph Phibbs—THE CANTICLE OF THE ROSE and Other Works (H.-J. Howells, M. Chance, B. Alden, Navarra String Quartet; NMC D191)


JOSEPH PHIBBS (b. 1974): The Canticle of the Rose (H.-J. Howells, soprano; Navarra String Quartet); Flea (A. Firsova, piano; J. Shaw, flute; M. Ploemacher, violin; B. O’Kane, ‘cello); Two Songs from ‘Shades of Night’ (B. Alden, tenor; A. Plant, piano); From Shore to Shore (M. Chance, countertenor; J. Boyd, guitar); Agea (Navarra String Quartet); The Moon’s Funeral (M. Chance, countertenor; A. Plant, piano) [Recorded at the Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Surrey, UK, on 7 – 8 January 2013 and 9 February 2013 (Two Songs from ‘Shades of Night,’ From Shore to Shore, and The Moon’s Funeral); NMC D191; 1 CD, 73:46]

Music is one of life’s most sublime voyages of discovery, and the least curious traveler cannot avoid an awareness of the fact that the road is always under construction, new destinations continually being built upon the creative geniuses of emerging composers.  If advances in musical cartography do not always keep pace with the development of new routes into the unknown, it is exhilarating to unexpectedly come upon a vista so stunningly unspoiled that one feels that no other eyes have yet beheld it.  Hearing the music of young British composer Joseph Phibbs is like seeing for the first time in one’s life the sun rising over the sea: untold depths, churning with all the perils of eternity, are suddenly illuminated and changed in an instant from the black scowl of past to the shining smile of limitless hope.  Educated at the Purcell School, King’s College London, and Cornell University, Mr. Phibbs has amassed an array of credentials unusual for a composer who is not yet forty: having studied with, among others, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, he is a director of the Britten Estate Ltd and has enjoyed the distinction of being an Artist in Residence at Aldeburgh, the ‘Britten Bayreuth.’  Britons have rightly recognized such an important native artist, but Mr. Phibbs’s artistry transcends any contexts of nationality: like the music of Sir Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, or Benjamin Britten, there is an identifiably British sensibility in Mr. Phibbs’s music, but the language of his work is universal.  This groundbreaking recording from NMC—the most recent entry in the ‘Debut Discs’ series—is the first disc devoted solely to Mr. Phibbs’s music, and it is from the first note to the last a true revelation.

Mr. Phibbs is very open about the tremendous importance of the music of Benjamin Britten to both his development as a composer and his career as a practicing artist.  There is in his music an aura of Britten, but Mr. Phibbs’s compositional voice is entirely his own.  As surely as there are echoes of Britten at his most progressive, there are also spirits of composers from the ‘ancient’ past—Monteverdi, Purcell, and Bach, for example—lurking in Mr. Phibbs’s scores, particularly in Flex, the first piece on this disc.  Composed for flute, piano, violin, and ‘cello, Flex nods to the Sonatas for flute and basso continuo popular during the High Baroque, but the originality of Mr. Phibbs’s writing for this complement of instruments is striking.  The four instruments are only occasionally employed in full quartet, the bulk of the piece exploring the unique timbres possible when the instruments are variously combined.  The soul of the piece being a metaphysical examination of human movement, Flex draws upon dance rhythms with the charm and intensity of the great Suites of the French Baroque.  Nothing less than absolute virtuosity is demanded of the musicians, and those engaged in this performance—flautist Joanna Shaw, pianist Alissa Firsova, violinist Marije Ploemacher, and ‘cellist Brian O’Kane—never disappoint.  Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Mr. Phibbs’s music is that, despite its dissonance and the adventurousness of its harmonies, even the harshest explosions of sound never sever the thread of musicality.  Mr. Phibbs is not so dedicated to the pursuit of academic notions of contemporary composition that he avoids unabashed beauty: there are passages in Flex of lyrical beauty that rival the most gorgeous moments in masterworks of conventional tonality.  The inventiveness with which Mr. Phibbs manipulates the instrumental textures is arresting, and the tautness of his rhythmic construction is ably conveyed by the virile playing of the instrumentalists.

It is very welcome to have Mr. Phibbs’s settings of Two Songs from Shades of Night sung in this recording by the artist by whom they were commissioned and first performed, young tenor Ben Alden.  The characters of these songs are very different, ‘Sleep, my body, sleep, my ghost’ a setting of a passage from Louis MacNiece’s 1939 Autumn Journal and ‘Hush-a-ba, birdie’ a traditional Scottish lullaby.  Song-writing is at the heart of Mr. Phibbs’s creative prowess, and his sagacity in selecting texts is unquestionable.  The intelligence with which he marries graceful, often hauntingly beautiful vocal lines with sinewy accompaniments is rivaled by few if any other composers active today.  ‘Sleep, my body, sleep, my ghost’ is a commentary on the growing menace of the 20th Century, the uneasy happiness of the Entre-Guerres years giving way to mounting anxiety in the months before Europe would again be ravaged by war.  Uncertainty and fear course through the accompaniment, played with great skill and poetic nuance by pianist Andrew Plant.  In both songs, Mr. Alden sings with poise and terrific diction, his voicing of Mr. Phibbs’s phrases confident and perceptive.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’s operatic setting of John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea enshrined in music the essence of the centrality of the sea to British and Irish cultures; a theme to which Benjamin Britten also turned on many occasions, none more monumental than Peter Grimes.  There is perhaps something enigmatically important in the collective psychologically of islanders—among whom, in consideration of Mr. Phibbs’s musical milieu, both Britons and Manhattanites are included—that rises from proximity to the sea, and this is explored insightfully in From Shore to Shore, a song cycle composed to texts by American poet Sara Teasdale and young British writer Nicholas Heiney, both of whose lives were ended by suicide.  Composed for countertenor Michael Chance and guitarist James Boyd, who perform them on this recording, the songs offer musical settings of textual adroitness that call to mind the uncommon fidelity to text of the Lieder of Hugo Wolf.  Teasdale’s poetry evokes the artistic atmosphere of a work like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, the heroine of which dies by giving herself to the sea, and Mr. Phibbs’s music suggests the inevitability of the return of man to the primordial sea from which he emerged.  It is perhaps impossible to ignore imposing upon the poetry of Nicholas Heiney a dolorous sense of regret for the life of so gifted a young man to have ended at the age of twenty-three.  It is to Mr. Phibbs’s credit that his settings of Heiney’s texts are free from saccharine sentimentality, their emotional cores derived solely from the texts themselves.  Mr. Chance, one of the best countertenors in the world and one of the few for whom song repertory is utterly natural territory, sings with undiminished eloquence and beauty of tone.  The ethereal quality of his voice is ideal for Mr. Phibbs’s music, both in From Shore to Shore—in which he is accompanied with perfect alertness by Mr. Boyd—and in The Moon’s Funeral, a setting of lines by Hilaire Belloc.  Mr. Chance’s effervescent portrait of Nature perverted and discarded is ably accompanied in The Moon’s Funeral by Mr. Plant’s pianism.

Playing with the letters in the name of George Vass, in celebration of whose fiftieth birthday it was commissioned, Agea is a challenging piece for string quartet, its melodic writing spiky but deeply effective.  With its shimmering opening leading to an expressive violin solo that dissolves into tremulous recapitulation of the first theme before fading into silence recalls the traditional recitative – aria – cabaletta structure of bel canto opera.  The cleverness of Mr. Phibbs’s ideas is made apparent by the rhapsodic playing of the Navarra String Quartet.

The centerpiece of this disc is The Canticle of the Rose, an extended song cycle for soprano and string quartet set to verses by Dame Edith Sitwell.  With this challenging, visionary work, Mr. Phibbs joins the ranks of the greatest composers of songs.  Premièred by Lisa Milne in 2005, The Canticle of the Rose is a demanding cycle for the singer, the tessitura taking the soprano soloist to the top of her range.  The music for the instrumentalists is no less daunting, the richness of a full orchestra being distilled into unapologetically complex contrapuntal writing for the string quartet.  The way in which the soprano’s voice emerges from the instrumental texture in ‘We are the darkness in the heat of the day’ is magical, the sudden juxtaposition of vocal and instrumental sounds as jarring as the image of the fully-formed Venus emerging from the sea in Botticelli’s la Nascita di Venere.  Mr. Phibbs’s meticulous replication of the particular cadences of rhythm in ‘Through gilded trellises’ is wonderful, his mastery of the nuances of the text disclosing a literary sensitivity rare in composers of any era.  Throughout The Canticle of the Rose, Mr. Phibbs’s music brims with the mysteries of Nature and humanity, the almost Existential relationships between the two states inherent in Sitwell’s poetry audible in every bar of Mr. Phibbs’s score.  The music for string quartet in The Canticle of the Rose is as compelling as any ever composed for such an ensemble, and the players of the Navarra String Quartet respond with playing of towering accomplishment: nothing in the powerhouse String Quartets of Beethoven would challenge or reward the players more, and this is a performance that reveals both the extroverted weight and the intimacy possible with chamber ensembles.  Soprano Helen-Jane Howells, an intrepid young singer whose engagements during Summer 2013 include performances of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem and music by Purcell and Vivaldi, sings with sweetness and steel in The Canticle of the Rose, taking the ascents above the staff in stride and trusting her technique to enable her to successfully negotiate the labyrinthine twists of Mr. Phibbs’s formidable musical architecture.  The purity of Ms. Howells’s tone introduces a suggestion of playful innocence into the dark world of Sitwell’s texts, and the array of emotions that she delivers reveals the subtleties of Mr. Phibbs’s music.  The Canticle of the Rose is music of the consistently high quality that demands the best of the artists who perform it: the performance on this recording is nothing short of definitive.

It is intriguing to contemplate what choices the great composers of the past might have made had they been fortunate enough to select the works with which to make their recorded débuts and the artists by whom those works would be performed.  The staff and benefactors of NMC Recordings have rendered an invaluable service to music lovers—and especially to those who believe that the composition of exquisite, meaningful, beautiful music died with the likes of Britten, Tippett, and Walton—with the release of this recording of The Canticle of the Rose and other works by Joseph Phibbs.  Few works of new music enjoy recordings of this quality, but few composers offer new music as vibrantly original and emotionally sincere as that by Joseph Phibbs.  With an already-expansive body of work to this composer’s credit and the blessing of youth still his to enjoy, there are certain to be unimagined wonders along the musical journey that begins with this prestigious disc.

To learn more about Joseph Phibbs’s work, please visit his website and view his profile on the NMC Recordings website.  In conjunction with the release of this disc, NMC Recordings conducted an interview with Mr. Phibbs, in which he discusses the genesis of The Canticle of the Rose.  Click here to watch this enlightening interview.  Please also consider supporting the efforts of NMC to encourage the work of contemporary composers by responding to the NMC Opera Appeal.

10 June 2013

CD REVIEW: Otto Nicolai—MESSE in D & Sacred Choral Music (S. Schnier, A. Thomas, W. Klose, L. Singer; Carus CV 83.341)

Otto Nicolai: MESSE IN D (Carus 83341)

OTTO NICOLAI (1810 – 1849): Messe in D; Die deutsche Liturgie No. 2 in E-flat; ‘Herr, wie lange willst’ (Psalm 13); Pater Noster; ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (Psalm 84); ‘Ecce enim Deus’ (Psalm 54 – fragment)—S. Schnier (soprano), A. Thomas (contralto), W. Klose (tenor), L. Singer (bass); Kammerchor CONSONO; Folkwang Kammerorchester Essen; Harald Jers [Recorded at the Philharmonie Essen, Germany, 28 – 29 April 2012; Carus CV 83.341]

To many music lovers, even those who are exceptionally well informed, the name Otto Nicolai brings to mind only an assemblage of rollicking ladies with certain Shakespearean associations and the organization of concerts dedicated to Beethoven’s Symphonies that were the de facto first performances of the fledgling Wiener Philharmoniker.  Thankfully, the enterprising people who manage the cpo label recorded an Oper Chemnitz production of Il templario, a delightfully Italianate adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe that offers enjoyable proof that Nicolai’s talents extended beyond Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor.  Like Mozart and Mendelssohn, Nicolai was a child prodigy who was destined to have a short life, and though he is far less celebrated in the 21st Century than either of his fellow Wunderkinder his gifts for composition were widely acknowledged during his lifetime.  It may be surprising to those who know Nicolai only as the composer of a popular comic opera to consider that he was offered the position of Kapellmeister to the Berliner Dom in 1844, the post having been vacated by Mendelssohn’s return to Leipzig.  Unfortunately, few accounts of Nicolai’s personality and spirituality survive, so it cannot be ascertained with any degree of legitimacy whether opportunity, religious fervor, or fortuitous combinations of those factors prompted the young composer to supplement his operatic endeavors with expertly-crafted liturgical music.  Nicolai’s large-scale Messe in D was recorded three decades ago by Norddeutscher Rundfunk: a fine effort, the Koch Schwann CD release of the performance is now out of print.  The time was therefore right for a new recording of the Messe, and it is rewarding to make the acquaintance of the fascinating smaller-scaled choral pieces that fill out Nicolai’s body of liturgical work.  On the whole, this recording by Carus-Verlag is perhaps the most compelling account of Nicolai’s extra-operatic achievements yet recorded.

The Psalm settings recorded here reflect the influence of Mendelssohn, Nicolai allying melodic inspiration with an elegant shaping of the Psalmist’s texts that harkens back to Baroque models, many of which were being rediscovered during Nicolai’s lifetime.  Following the example of Mendelssohn’s setting of Psalm 55, containing the famously exultant ‘O for the wings of a dove,’ Nicolai’s settings of Psalms 13, 84, and—in fragmentary form—54 are lovely, mostly strophic pieces that enable clear delivery of the texts.  Psalm 13—‘Herr, wie lange willst’ or ‘How long wilt thou forget me, o Lord?’—is a simple but intensely beautiful piece for soloists, choir, and piano, and it receives on this recording a performance that conveys its emotional directness.  In addition to kinship with similar music by Mendelssohn, there are echoes in Nicolai’s setting of Psalm 13 of the Beethoven of the Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II (WoO 87), Mass in C (Opus 86), and Christus am Ölberge (Opus 85) and even the Händel of the Chandos and Coronation Anthems.  The recorded fragment of Nicolai’s setting of Psalm 54, ‘Ecce enim Deus adiuvat me’ (‘Behold, God is mine helper’), reveals an exquisite homage to Renaissance polyphony, the part writing recalling the music of Allegri (similar lines, beginning with ‘Ecce enim',’ occur in Psalm 51, set in Allegri’s famed ‘Miserere mei’) and Gabrieli.  The highly chromatic harmonic patterns frequently employ the dominant seventh on the cadence and subsequent resolution to the tonic familiar from many masterworks of Renaissance choral music, and—in the spirit of the [likely inauthentic] ascents to top C in Allegri’s ‘Miserere mei’—the descant takes the sopranos to the very tops of their ranges.  Psalm 84—‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ or ‘How amiable are Thy tabernacles, o Lord of Hosts!’—is scored for soloists, choir, trumpet, trombone, and organ.  Musically, this piece is a fascinating hybrid: the ensemble passages for the soloists might come from Mendelssohn’s Elias or Paulus, but the music for choir and instruments evokes the unique worlds of Bach’s Passions and the music of Praetorius.  The five brief movements of the second Deutsche Liturgie, their combined duration only extending to slightly more than five minutes, both draw on Renaissance models and subtly nod in their understated sincerity towards Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem.  Nicolai’s setting of the ‘Pater noster’ is also rooted in the polyphonic music of the Italian Renaissance, the harmonies reminiscent of the motets of Palestrina.  It is a testament to the excellent preparation and consummate musicality of the Kammerchor CONSONO singers that they so successfully sing in all of the styles adapted by Nicolai in these pieces, the blend of voices always carefully but unobtrusively managed.  The sorely-tested sopranos are particularly impressive, taking their exposed top lines with the bright sound of boy sopranos but the breath control and certain intonation of adult singers.

Conducted by Harald Jers, an esteemed choral scholar and prominent participant in the musical life of Essen, the players of the Folkwang Kammerorchester Essen accompany the soloists and choir with complete dedication.  Nicolai’s orchestrations in the Messe are mostly typical of the composer’s work, founded upon an expansive understanding of the principles of Viennese Classicism.  Strings, woodwinds, and brass instruments dominate, with many small points of orchestration and harmonic development that bring the Masses of Mozart to mind.  String figurations that alternate with brass passages, especially in the minor-key development, shape the ‘Kyrie’ with accents of Mozart’s Requiem.  Deployment of horns and timpani give the ‘Gloria’ a martial air, and the hushed choral statements of ‘In terra pax’ combine with the soloists’ lines to suggest uneasiness that is ultimately quieted by a return of the primary theme.  The ‘Credo’ is supported by enthusiastic music for the strings in the vein of similar passages in the Masses of Schubert.  The ‘Sanctus,’ also somewhat martial in tone, quickly gives way to a brief but effective fugue on ‘Osanna in excelsis.’  The particularly lovely ‘Benedictus’ begins with effective writing for horns, to which the plaintive sounds of a solo violin—reminiscent of the corresponding section in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis—are added before strings, brass, and timpani launch a restatement of the ‘Osanna in excelsis’ fugue.  The ‘Agnus Dei’ begins with the most original music in the Messe, an attractive melody for the clarinet over a dark-hued string accompaniment that conjures the atmosphere of the first bars of Bach’s Matthäus-Passion.  Unlike many settings, Nicolai’s music for the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ is muted rather than celebratory, sounding as a result like a genuine and very heartfelt prayer for peace.

The quartet of soloists includes soprano Sarah Schnier, contralto Alexandra Thomas, tenor Wolfgang Klose, and bass Lucas Singer.  Ms. Schnier possesses a light but obviously well-schooled voice, her security in the high tessitura of her music little troubled by a slight edginess to the sound.  Ms. Thomas also possesses a voice of quality, which shimmers with lovely colorations in her lower register.  Mr. Klose’s singing discloses a slender tenor voice with a pretty timbre, the kind of sound that seems tailor-made for singing the Evangelists in Bach’s Passions.  Mr. Singer, seemingly more baritone than bass, displays expert musicality, his singing in the ‘Agnus dei’ especially refined and lovingly-phrased.  All four singers are winningly attentive in ensemble passages, their voices combining very naturally.

In many ways, this is a surprising and enlightening disc.  Though his Messe in D is not revealed to be a masterpiece of startling individuality, it is a tuneful, expressive piece that adds considerably to an understanding of its composer.  All of the pieces on this recording suggest that Nicolai was a sensitive and sophisticated composer whose knowledge of liturgical music was comprehensive.  Obviously influenced by his contemporaries and his most gifted musical ancestors from both north and south of the Alps, Nicolai absorbed the finest qualities of many styles, ultimately synthesizing an approach to choral writing that produced music of distinguished eloquence.  All of the Psalm settings, the ‘Pater noster,’ and the Deutsche Liturgie are pensive, musically evocative miniatures, and the Messe in D is a work that, like Franz von Suppé’s Requiem, is overshadowed by its composer’s operatic success but emphatically deserves to be heard.  Above all, this disc inspires a quixotic wish that all recordings of little-known music could be so convincing.

08 June 2013

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti—CATERINA CORNARO (C. Giannattasio, C. Lee, T. Cook, V. Mlinde, L. Félix; Opera Rara ORC48)

Gaetano Donizetti: CATERINA CORNARO [Opera Rara ORC48]

GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Caterina Cornaro—C. Giannattasio (Caterina Cornaro), C. Lee (Gerardo), T. Cook (Lusignano), G. Broadbent (Andrea Cornaro), V. Mlinde (Mocenigo), L. Félix (Strozzi, a Knight of the King), S. Bevan (Matilde); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; David Parry [Recorded in BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, November – December 2011; Opera Rara ORC48]

First performed under the supervision of Saverio Mercadante in Naples in January 1844, Caterina Cornaro was composed in 1842 and the summer of 1843, as the illness that would ultimately end Gaetano Donizetti’s life entered its final phase.  Whereas his Dom Sébastien had opened to near-universal acclaim in Paris two months earlier, Caterina Cornaro was hissed by the first-night audience, its melodramatic account of sensationalized events in the life of an historical queen of Cyprus having failed to engage the Neapolitan sensibilities that previously had embraced Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux.  Donizetti himself, absent from rehearsals for the first production due to illness and other commitments, famously predicted the misfortune of Caterina Cornaro’s lack-luster reception, his misgivings about the cast and musical preparation inspiring a complete absence of confidence in the assembled participants’ ability to realize his intentions.  Like any score by the mature Donizetti, Caterina Cornaro contains much fine music, and it should not be overlooked that the score was composed, at least in part, between Linda di Chamounix and Don Pasquale, two of the composer’s most successful and melodically rich operas.  Since its founding in the early 1970s, no institution has been more instrumental in the bel canto revival than Opera Rara, upon whose founders and artists opera lovers have relied for the past forty years for impeccably-researched and fastidiously-prepared performances and recordings of forgotten or underappreciated operas by the best composers of bel canto.  This recording of Caterina Cornaro—the first studio recording of the opera—enters a sparse discography containing only unauthorized releases of recordings of live performances featuring Montserrat Caballé and Leyla Gencer and a commercial recording of a 1974 RAI broadcast with the under-recorded Margherita Rinaldi.  It is especially gratifying to hear the opera performed with the zeal for which Opera Rara recordings are celebrated, and both the recorded sound—engineered by Simon Hancock and Chris Rouse and edited by Michael Haas and Simon Hancock—and Jeremy Commons’s extensive introductory notes adhere to the standards of excellence consumers have come to expect from Opera Rara.

Composed over an uncharacteristically long period that contained bouts of work in 1842, when Donizetti hoped that the opera would follow the success of Linda di Chamounix at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, and in 1843, Caterina Cornaro’s complicated gestation was essentially a voyage without a destination.  Donizetti ultimately fulfilled his Viennese commission with Maria di Rohan, the subject of Caterina Cornaro having already received an outing in Vienna in a setting by another composer, and placed Caterina in the presumably capable custody of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples.  The extent to which Donizetti himself orchestrated the opera is uncertain, some of this work perhaps left to Mercadante, and it is known that particularly harsh actions by the Neapolitan censors necessitated revisions before the first night that almost certainly weakened Donizetti’s dramatic concept.  The final results are nonetheless unquestionably Donizettian and of excellent quality.  The BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra respond to the score with singing and playing of wondrous vitality.  The talented choristers are little bothered by the demands of Donizetti’s music, which takes them to the extremes of their ranges, and they sing with gusto whether portraying noblemen, ladies in waiting, commoners, or ‘cut-throat ruffians.’  The instrumentalists of the BBC Symphony offer playing both en masse and in solo passages that shames the efforts of many opera house pit bands, rising to the occasions of Donizetti’s musical climaxes with legitimately Italianate slancio.  Under the baton of David Parry, the performance plays out with unforced theatricality.  As in so many of Opera Rara’s productions, Maestro Parry conducts with ideal command of the Donizetti idiom, his instinctive understanding of the way in which the composer employs rhythmic patterns as the skeleton of his corpus musicæ shaping his approach to conducting Caterina CornaroTempi are carefully selected to ensure both maximum rhythmic precision and greatest possible comfort for the singers, and the fact that the tinta of the recording enables the listener to believe that the performance was given in an Italian opera house rather than a recording studio in Paddington is testimony to the idiomatic familiarity Maestro Parry has achieved in bel canto repertory and to his success in imparting this enthusiasm to the musicians and singers at hand.

It is doubtful that anyone has ever condemned a Lucia di Lammermoor because of a poor Alisa or Normanno, but it is remarkable to note how greatly fine singing of comprimario rôles can influence the overall impression made by a performance.  Bel canto scores abound with confidantes, courtiers, and the like, and Opera Rara recordings have consistently featured promising young singers in secondary rôles.  This Caterina Cornaro continues that trend, with the part of Caterina’s confidante Matilde sung with lovely tone and obvious concern for her mistress by British soprano Sophie Bevan.  Gratefully heard as both Strozzi, the leader of a band of mercenaries, and the Knight of the King, tenor Loïc Félix sings delightfully, his light voice flowing like sunshine through his music.  South African bass-baritone Vuyani Mlinde exudes menace as Mocenigo, the erstwhile villain in an opera with characters whose loyalties are moving targets.  Mr. Mlinde’s dark, slightly coarse tone rings out impressively, especially in declamatory passages: he is an artist to watch.  Bass Graeme Broadbent, a veteran of several Opera Rara productions, bracingly applies his resonant voice to Donizetti’s limited opportunities for Andrea, Caterina’s father.

Lusignano, the embattled King of Cyprus, is sung by American baritone Troy Cook.  Lusignano is one of those lovably quintessential operatic characters who is cruel enough to have married Caterina against her will but has the good manners to conveniently and nobly die when she is reunited with the man she truly loves.  Mr. Cook possesses a strong, manly voice that he unleashes with wonderful relish in this performance, but he also displays an ability to maintain a tremendously effective bel canto line in Lusignano’s beautiful death scene in the second version of the Act Two finale, ‘Piangi, sì, piangi, o misera.’  [As in previous recordings, Opera Rara’s performance provides both versions of the opera’s final scene.]  This is perhaps Lusignano’s only moment of genuine tenderness, and Mr. Cook takes full advantage of it, giving the hardened warrior an unexpectedly soft heart.  His somewhat abrupt phrasing suggests that Mr. Cook is happiest in later repertory, but it is good to hear a baritone with such a fine, well-constructed voice who does not tip-toe through bel canto music.

The rôle of Gerardo is surprisingly small for that of a lover and, more significantly, a tenor in a bel canto opera.  Nevertheless, he contributes vitally to three important duets, and Act Two is launched by an aria and cabaletta that are the Donizettian equivalents of Manrico’s ‘Ah sì, ben mio coll’essere’ and ‘Di quella pira’ in Verdi’s Il trovatore.  South African tenor Colin Lee, a frequent but still under-appreciated presence in the ranks of the world’s finest bel canto singers, provides a masterclass in the art of bel canto singing with every note that he sings in this recording.  Mr. Lee’s voice is not of grandiose proportions, and his singing of a rôle originated by the tenor who first sang the title rôle in Verdi’s Stiffelio and Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera might be viewed as a cause for concern.  Like Carlo Bergonzi, however, Mr. Lee proves that, among the most talented and well-trained singers, the amplitude of a voice is not as important as the skill with which it is produced and projected.  The complete lack of strain with which Mr. Lee ascends into his upper register is exceptional, and he achieves a clutch of top notes in this performance that would be the envy of the best tenors in the world, past and present.  Indeed, his excursion above top C in the coda of the aforementioned cabaletta in Act Two, ‘Morte, morte! Fur troppi gl’insulti,’ has to be heard to be believed.  More impressive still is the way in which Mr. Lee manages to be very moving in a rôle that, despite certain felicities, is neither in music nor in drama a particular credit to its composer.  The depth of feeling that Mr. Lee evokes in Gerardo’s interactions with Caterina is touching, and the melting lyricism of his singing of the extended melodic lines Gerardo is given in duets utterly overwhelms any qualms about their musical distinction.  This performance inspires a longing to hear Mr. Lee in rôles that give him opportunities to fully explore the obviously rich trove of nuances in his artistry and engage his compact, exquisitely-supported voice on the highest possible level.  It is remarkable that, as Gerardo, Mr. Lee does so much with so little.  This is, in short, the finest bel canto tenor singing committed to disc in many years.

Donizetti unsparingly expressed his dismay about Fanny Goldberg, the singer to whom the title rôle was entrusted in the première of Caterina Cornaro, writing to his brother-in-law that he composed the part for a soprano but was given a mezzo-soprano by the Teatro San Carlo.  It would be enlightening to have Donizetti’s thoughts on Carmen Giannattasio, the Italian soprano who sings Caterina in this performance.  What is evident from her first note is that Ms. Giannattasio’s voice is infused with genuine Italian morbidezza, a quality that can be described but not taught: it is the sort of trait that is either in a voice or is not.  Ms. Giannattasio is certainly a soprano rather than a mezzo-soprano, but the voice is slightly ungainly throughout her range: the highest notes are not graceful but generally have considerable impact.  It is likely that the close recording of studio microphones accentuates a slight beat in the voice that would be less or not at all evident in the more expansive sonic space of an opera house.  As recorded, Ms. Giannattasio’s voice is powerful and handsome but not beautiful.  She is an artful singer, however, and in an instance in which a singer with native Italian diction is cast as a bel canto heroine the battle for respectable phrasing is half-won before it is begun.  Ms. Giannattasio’s Caterina is a tough lady, as history suggests the real Caterina was as well, the character’s determination meaningfully depicted in an almost ferocious delivery of the words in recitatives.  There is an audible shift in Ms. Giannattasio’s approach from detachment with Lusignano to passion with Gerardo, and Caterina’s horror at Mocenigo’s unfettered villainy is palpable.  Ms. Giannattasio is at her best in the duets with Mr. Lee’s Gerardo, in which the cooperation and vocal shading between the two singers is incendiary.  Her singing of Caterina’s cavatina in the Prologue is shapely but slightly lacking in ardor.  Surprisingly, this is Caterina’s only concerted solo number in the opera, and this is perhaps to Ms. Giannattasio’s benefit: she is at her best when interactions with her colleagues in ensembles inspire her to dramatically taut singing.  When the emotional temperature of her singing rises, so does the level of her musicality.  Caterina is a more static character than many of Donizetti’s heroines, but Ms. Giannattasio gives the part a distinct dramatic profile.  Hers is not a flawless performance, but it is an effective, satisfying account of a very challenging rôle.

Caterina Cornaro is the sort of opera that is not the equal of its composer’s best work but is nonetheless a far better score than its obscurity might suggest.  The music of Caterina Cornaro does not represent Donizetti at his most inspired, and even the nature of the plot and the composer’s setting of it reflect the uncertainty that troubled its creation.  Opera Rara recordings have an uncanny tendency to make lesser works sound like smashing artistic triumphs, however, and this recording is no exception.  This performance is a gallant reintroduction to Caterina Cornaro and—perhaps most rewardingly—an opportunity to hear stupendous singing from one of opera’s greatest tenor voices.

For the first three months of its international release, this recording of Caterina Cornaro will be available exclusively for order directly from Opera Rara.  Please support the dedicated people of Opera Rara and the fantastic work that they do by clicking here to visit the Opera Rara website to purchase Caterina Cornaro on CD or in digital download format.

DVD REVIEW: Claudio Monteverdi—L’INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA (S. Yoncheva, M. E. Cencic, A. Hallenberg, T. Mead, P. Whelan; Virgin Classics 9289919)

Claudio Monteverdi: L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA [Virgin Classics DVD 9289919]

CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643): L’Incoronazione di Poppea—S. Yoncheva (Poppea), M. E. Cencic (Nerone), A. Hallenberg (Ottavia), T. Mead (Ottone), P. Whelan (Seneca), A. Brahim-Djelloul (Drusilla), R. Ben Abdeslam (Nutrice, un famigliare di Seneca), E. Gonzalez Toro (Arnalta), A. Wall (Fortuna, Venere, Pallade), K. Gadelia (Virtù, Valletto), Camille Poul (Amore, Damigella), A. Lefèvre (Mercurio, Console), P. Schramm (un famigliare di Seneca, Littore), M. Vidal (Soldato, un famigliare di Seneca, Lucano), N. Mulroy (Soldato, Liberto capitano, Tribuno); Le Concert d’Astrée; Emmanuelle Haïm [Recorded in March 2012 during performances at the Opéra de Lille; Virgin Classics 9289919; NSTC, Region Code 0]

Since its first performance at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo during Venice’s 1643 Carnevale, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been one of the most important milestones in the genesis of modern opera despite its 250 years of unmerited obscurity.  Upon its rediscovery near the end of the 19th Century, Monteverdi’s score fell victim to ‘improvements’ by many hands, the efforts of which were mostly inspired by recognition of the quality of the score to endeavor to span the chasm separating modern musical values from the performance practices of the mid-17th Century.  Esteemed composers Vincent d’Indy, Ernst Krenek, Carl Orff, and Gian Francesco Malipiero prepared editions of the opera, and Sir Michael Tippett presided over a scholarly effort at editing the score at Morley College.  It was the 1962 production prepared by Raymond Leppard for the Glyndebourne Festival that reintroduced L’Incoronazione di Poppea to 20th-Century music lovers, its accomplished cast—including Richard Lewis, Magda László, Frances Bible, Walter Alberti, Carlo Cava, Lydia Marimpieri, Oralia Dominguez, John Shirley-Quirk, and Hugues Cuénod—recorded for posterity by EMI.  Leppard’s edition of the score arranged Monteverdi’s delicate instrumentation, ever subject to debate owing to lingering uncertainty about the precise complement of instruments for which Monteverdi’s score was written, for a large modern symphony orchestra; at Glyndebourne and on EMI’s recording the Royal Philharmonic under the baton of Sir John Pritchard.  Like most of its few contemporaries, the Glyndebourne production also transposed several important rôles for singers whose genders matched those of their characters rather than the vocal ranges indicated in Monteverdi’s score.  Nerone, likely first sung by a soprano castrato, thus became a tenor, and the alto rôle of Ottone was reassigned to a baritone.  Though musically far removed from any notion of authenticity, the Glyndebourne recording offered several exceptional performances that revealed the great beauty, variety, and dramatic vitality of Monteverdi’s music: the tonal allure and sensuality of Magda László’s Poppea, the dignity of Carlo Cava’s Seneca (in what may be the finest recording of his career), the histrionic power of Frances Bible’s Ottavia, and the standard-setting Lucano of Hugues Cuénod all contributed to a considerably abridged recording that now sounds like a bloated fossil from an operatic Stone Age but remains an enjoyable example of legitimate efforts to marry good voices with great music.  It was not until Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s pioneering 1974 recording that a credible attempt was made at restoring L’Incoronazione di Poppea to something resembling what Monteverdi’s audiences might have heard in Venice in 1643 or in Naples in 1651, during what is believed to have been the only revival of the opera until the early 20th Century.  Staged productions of the opera—notably the 1963 performances at the Wiener Staatsoper conducted by Herbert von Karajan, benefiting from the radiant Poppea of Sena Jurinac—were slow to follow Harnoncourt’s example until the historically-informed performance practice movement was firmly established throughout Europe.  After the publication of American conductor Alan Curtis’s edition of the score, which sought to preserve fidelity to the surviving Venice and Naples manuscripts to the greatest extent possible, productions have increasingly utilized versions of the opera that honor musicological concepts of period-appropriate performance values in terms of instrumentation and vocal styles.  If some early efforts at presenting L’Incoronazione di Poppea in an historically-sensitive manner resulted in fragile musical qualities that seemed effective only in the settings of small Baroque theatres, this production by Jean-François Sivadier—taped by Virgin Classics during performances at the Opéra de Lille in March 2012—proves that Monteverdi’s opera, even when performed on period instruments, is the equal of the greatest masterpieces in the operatic repertory and is capable of being produced effectively in any theatre in the world.

Mr. Sivadier’s production plants L’Incoronazione di Poppea firmly in a world of decadence, aestheticism, casual morals, and recreational sex used as a weapon in political turf wars.  Superbly enhanced by scenic designs by Alexandre de Dardel, lighting by Philippe Berthomé, and gorgeous costumes by Virginie Gervaise (not to be confused with French adult film star Virginie Gervais, whose presence would be strangely appropriate in this deliciously sexy production), Mr. Sivadier refines his extensive experience in French lyric theatre and opera—including a psychologically thrilling production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck—into an organized but enthrallingly ambiguous account of Monteverdi’s score.  Perhaps the most intriguing dramatic aspect of the opera is the composer’s portrait of his title character: one of the most duplicitous figures in Roman history, as ruthless in pursuit of her ambitions as any Emperor or Senator, Poppea is shaped by Monteverdi with music of almost ethereal beauty.  No other operatic heroine of such cruelty conducts her conspiracies more attractively.  The nastiest sentiments in Giovanni Francesco Busenello’s libretto are set by the composer to the most extraordinarily captivating music.  Mr. Sivadier’s production explores this dichotomy entrancingly, portraying Poppea as a sociopathic manipulator who calculatingly exploits every tic of Nerone’s neuroses.  Considering the opera merely as a series of emotional exchanges removed from their specific historical context, L’Incoronazione di Poppea is—like the plays of Shakespeare—surprisingly modern.  Paranoia, cheating spouses, rampant narcissism, and obsession are all as central to Monteverdi’s opera as to any 21st-Century novel or film.  Mr. Sivadier explores all of these elements in his production without in any way distorting Monteverdi’s finely-crafted drama, sharpening the opera’s edge while avoiding damaging its 17th-Century patina.  There are manic moments in the production, but it cannot be denied that L’Incoronazione di Poppea is not populated by completely sane people.  Mr. Sivadier’s gifts for creating edge-of-the-seat, meaningful theatrical experiences are validated in this production, in which there are strokes of genius.

As too many performances in the past half-century have proved, even the most innovative production falls flat when musical values do not keep pace with the dramatic ventures.  Having gone all in with Mr. Sivadier’s production, Opéra de Lille matched the magnificent dramatic qualities with the trend-setting musical values of Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d’Astrée.  An acknowledged mistress of Early Music and Baroque opera, Maestra Haïm brings dynamic instincts for thoughtful shaping of Monteverdi’s music to this production of L’Incoronazione di Poppea, her fidelity to presumed notions of authentic instrumentation never standing in the way of adroit exploration of the textures of sound possible with period instruments.  None of the players in Le Concert d’Astrée displays anything less than absolute virtuosity, and the musical quality of the recorded production is nothing short of incredible.  Thankfully, Virgin Classics’s engineers, guided by Philippe Béziat, have avoided problems of balance that can imperil the distinctive sounds of period instruments, placing the performance within a recorded acoustic that suggests a natural theatrical space but also fosters an exemplary blend between stage and pit.  L’Incoronazione di Poppea is a long night at the theatre, but Maestra Haïm keeps the performance moving without rushing or adopting tempi that are quick solely for the sake of brevity.  Joining with Mr. Sivadier and the production team, Maestra Haïm and Le Concert d’Astrée lay a foundation upon which a talented cast can build a memorable L’Incoronazione di Poppea.

With singers as gifted as musicians and actors as Nicholas Mulroy, Mathias Vidal, Patrick Schramm, Aimery Lefèvre, Camille Poul, Khatouna Gadelia, and Anna Wall in secondary rôles, this production immediately offers a richness of casting that is virtually impossible in a production of any Verdi, Wagner, Strauss, or Puccini opera today.  An artist of proven excellence, Mr. Mulroy brings his engagingly plangent tenor voice to all of the parts that he sings in this performance.  His unerring dramatic instincts and superb musicality are matched by the fantastic tenor Mathias Vidal, whose bravura Lucano is a worthy successor to the legacy of Hugues Cuénod, and promising young bass Patrick Schramm.  Baritone Aimery Lefèvre joins rambunctiously into the spirit of the production, his singing as Mercurio especially animated.  Soprano Camille Poul sings attractively as Amore and the Damigella.  The exotic young soprano Khatouna Gadelia makes the most of every line she sings as la Virtù and the Valletto.  Fortuna, Venere, and Pallade benefit from the lovely voice and lively stage presence of mezzo-soprano Anna Wall.

Moroccan countertenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam, whose Metropolitan Opera début as Nireno in the Company’s first presentation of the celebrated David McVicar production of Händel’s Giulio Cesare garnered praise from both audiences and critics, is in this production of L’Incoronazione di Poppea a commanding presence as the Nutrice, the elderly nursemaid of the rightful Empress Octavia.  The voice is a vibrant instrument, and Mr. Ben Abdeslam brings unexpected depths of feeling to the Nutrice’s words of comfort to the disenfranchised Ottavia.  Equally impressive as one of the followers of Seneca, he is a consistently gripping actor and energetic singer in this performance.  Another singer of North African extraction contributes beguilingly to the production: Algeria-born soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloul offers an intriguingly wide array of emotions in her performance as Drusilla, her trials endured with dignity and a sense of dedication to making the most of her destiny.  A very attractive young woman with an endearingly expressive command of stage motion, Ms. Brahim-Djelloul bears Drusilla’s betrayal with integrity, the voice poised and freely-produced even in moments of greatest emotional stress.

The Swiss-born son of Chilean parents, tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro is an accomplished performer of the unique haute-contre rôles in Baroque opera.  Possessing a technique that enables him to sing even the most demanding music without worry, Mr. Gonzalez Toro has carefully honed his skills as an actor.  The humor that he brings to his performance as Arnalta, Poppea’s nurse, is broad but understated: without conveying condescension to the spirit of his travesti rôle, Mr. Gonzalez Toro reveals the innate absurdity of having an older woman sung by a male singer.  This respects Monteverdi’s handling of this convention of his time, of course, and Mr. Gonzalez Toro is a pleasingly shy presence as the wilting nurse.  Surprisingly, Arnalta was blessed by her composer with one of Monteverdi’s most enchantingly comely melodic inspirations, ‘Oblivion soave,’ the so-called lullaby sung to the uneasy Poppea.  The passage is no easy sing for a tenor, the artist’s command of the tessitura notwithstanding, but Mr. Gonzalez Toro sings it winningly.

It is easy to understand the mindsets of editors of L’Incoronazione di Poppea who transposed the rôle of Ottone from Monteverdi’s original contralto register to baritone range.  In addition to making the opera more palatable for modern audiences by having characters sing with voices that adhere to conventions of how they should sound, with male characters having men’s voices, making Ottone—and Nerone, for that matter—a rôle for an ‘ordinary’ male voice mitigates a preponderance of high voices in the opera.  There can be little doubt that Monteverdi created a sound world in which Seneca was the only deep-voiced principal character with very deliberate intentions, however, and musicians who approached L’Incoronazione di Poppea in the early years of its renaissance did not have today’s crop of good countertenors at their disposal.  Few performances of the opera have enjoyed an Ottone as fine as British countertenor Tim Mead, whose centered, focused voice aligns with acting that gets at the heart of the character.  Facing misfortune and rejection, Ottone’s character is not entirely unblemished: he, too, engages in artifice, all too willingly accepting Drusilla’s affection for his own benefit when he is keenly aware that his heart pines only for Poppea.  Mr. Mead reflects this duality convincingly in his performance, coloring the voice intelligently and summoning dulcet tones for Ottone’s most heartfelt utterances, not least in his first scene.  A lithe, handsome performer, Mr. Mead interacts with his colleagues fascinatingly, his Ottone generating great chemistry with Ms. Brahim-Djelloul’s Drusilla.  Mr. Mead’s voice is genuinely beautiful, and the sincerity of his performance makes Ottone an unusually looming presence in the opera.

Youth is not a quality that is typically associated with Seneca, the legendary philosopher and tutor having been in his mid-sixties at the time of his death.  New Zealand-born bass-baritone Paul Whelan is a young singer, but he wisely allows the low tessitura of Monteverdi’s music for Seneca to depict the character’s age and wisdom rather than adopting any sort of embarrassing attempts at aged frailty.  History suggests that Seneca was likely innocent of Nero’s charges of complicity in an assassination plot, but Monteverdi’s point in giving Seneca’s forced suicide such a prominent place in the drama—and in having the dazzlingly difficult coloratura duet of celebration for the drunken Nerone and Lucano follow hard on its heels—is that morality cannot survive in a world such as that inhabited by Nerone and his court.  Mr. Whelan plausibly enacts this sense of Seneca against the World, and the gravitas with which he sings Seneca’s death scene is commanding but not unduly heavy.  While other, older, darker-voiced singers have conveyed greater mystery and hoary unflappability in the rôle, Mr. Whelan’s performance—unimpeded by unnecessary posturing, creatively-phrased, and firmly-voiced—is completely successful on its own terms.

The technique of Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg is a wonder of nature, her mastery of even the most dizzying coloratura equaled by her ability to project long arcs of lustrous tone in cantilena.  In her performance of Ottavia in this production, she also proves to be a tragedienne of unimpeachable serenity.  The daughter of the Emperor Claudius, a cousin of Caligula, and a descendent of Tiberius, Claudia Octavia was the first wife of Nero and the rightful Empress regnant: unsettled by her inevitable involvement in the power struggles between Nero and his mother, Agrippina, she was an upright, moral woman.  It is not surprising that Nero quickly tired of her.  If Poppea was the Wallace Simpson of Imperial Rome, Ottavia was its Queen Mother: unbending and courageous even in the face of great adversity and danger, she won the hearts of Romans and was passionately mourned when she, too, was forced to ritualistic suicide.  Ms. Hallenberg’s singing wins the hearts of the Lille audience, the stylishness of her execution of Monteverdi’s music providing moment after moment of fire and tenderness.  The passion of her reaction to Nero’s rejection brings to mind the intensity of Maria Callas and Leyla Gencer in the scene in which Henry VIII orders the rightful Queen’s imprisonment and trial in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.  Ms. Hallenberg’s Ottavia is deflated but audibly never defeated by the machinations that deprive her of her throne, and any sense of bitterness or contempt is dispelled by her heartbreakingly beautiful performance of ‘Addio, Roma,’ the scene in which she laments her impending exile from her beloved Eternal City.  Knowing that she is capable of almost unbelievable feats of vocal virtuosity, Ms. Hallenberg touches the heart most viscerally in this performance with her moments of lyrical quietude.  Her music leaves no doubt that Ottavia engaged Monteverdi’s sympathy: Ms. Hallenberg’s performance permits no question of the importance of Ottavia as a musical ancestor of the most affecting tragic heroines in opera.

Nero has one of the most unflattering and contentious legacies in history.  Maligned by many historians, some of whom have suggested that Rome collectively rejoiced in his death, other scholars—both ancient and modern—argue that Nero has been unfairly criticized and made a scapegoat for the unsavory politics that festered in Rome during his reign.  Mostly overlooking his less attractive qualities, Monteverdi portrays Nerone as a lover whose sense of morality is secondary to his chasing of carnal pleasure.  Unbecomingly bewigged but a swaggeringly masculine, libidinous participant in the drama, countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic is the arrogant, hormonal Emperor to the life.  The boundless energy with which Mr. Cencic portrays Nerone admits no doubt that his thinking is mostly done in his trousers, but the glorious singing makes it clear that this Emperor’s richest treasures are in his throat.  Mr. Cencic’s voice is unlike those of many countertenors, his timbre deep and more conventionally operatic: completely absent are the hootiness familiar from the singing of many countertenors and the clumsy register breaks that undermine the best efforts of even very good falsettists.  There are occasional moments of concern when it seems that Mr. Cencic pushes his upper register hard, but the results are unfailingly exciting and put to vivacious dramatic use.  Like Ms. Hallenberg, Mr. Cencic is a celebrated practitioner of bravura singing, and his delivery of the coloratura in Nerone’s duet with Lucano—‘Hor che Seneca è morte, cantiam’—is breathtaking.  His come-hither tones lend his performance a steamy eroticism that is complemented by his frenetic acting, his Nerone slinking through the performance with the sleazy charm of a playboy known in every house of ill repute in Rome.  The tessitura of Nerone is high for a countertenor, but Mr. Cencic, whose voice has a slightly higher center of vocal gravity than those of many of his counterparts, has all of the notes comfortably in the voice.  There are moments of luminously beautiful and restrained singing even in this impetuous performance, and Mr. Cencic makes Monteverdi’s ornaments sound completely natural.  With a DECCA recording of the rôle of Andronico in Händel’s Tamerlano scheduled for release in October, 2013 is poised to be another year of tremendous success for Mr. Cencic.  Based solely on his singing of Nerone in this performance of L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Mr. Cencic’s importance as a singer is indisputable.

Supported by a cast of such distinction, young Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva more than holds her own as a determined, irresistibly tantalizing Poppea.  A woman with Hollywood starlet looks and curves, Ms. Yoncheva has engagements as Donizetti’s Lucia and Verdi’s Violetta on her horizon, and her Poppea might be viewed as a study for both rôles.  Spinning out golden tones from start to finish, it is hardly astonishing that her Poppea should so captivate Ottone or so arouse Nerone.  Costumed like a Jean Harlow vixen, Ms. Yoncheva exudes sex appeal, her hold on Nerone developing as surely as though she were Salomé performing the Dance of the Seven Veils before Herod.  Physical beauty, alert acting, and capable singing are rarely as absorbingly combined in a single performance as in Ms. Yoncheva’s Poppea.  Perhaps Monteverdi intended his portrait of Poppea as a sly commentary on the power of a pretty seductress to triumph over goodness, her misdeeds forgiven and forgotten as soon as she smiles.  In Poppea’s toying with Nerone and Ottone, her triumph might also be interpreted as a victory of lust over love, though here, too, a musical problem is encountered: ‘Pur ti miro, pur ti godo,’ the concluding duet for Poppea and Nerone, though almost certainly not the work of Monteverdi (modern scholarship suggests the little-remembered Benedetto Ferrari as the most likely candidate for having composed both the music and the text), is unabashedly beautiful.  If truly not the work of Monteverdi, it was almost certainly appended to L’Incoronazione di Poppea either by the composer himself or with his blessing [the duet is present in autograph materials of both the Venice and Naples versions of the opera], so it is possible that the apparent celebration of the triumph of scheming, the text of the duet ripe with subtle sexual undertones, was at least partially intentional.  Ms. Yoncheva’s and Mr. Cencic’s voices intertwine like a lovers’ embrace in the duet, closing the opera in an atmosphere of relative dramatic calm and sensual release.  Visually and musically, Ms. Yoncheva leaves nothing to be desired, her performance as Poppea the proper centerpiece of a potent account of Monteverdi’s opera.

With its complex relationships, destructive sexual politics, and crumbling social orders, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea is as psychologically momentous as any of Wagner’s operas.  Nerone shares with Wotan the dubious distinction of being a man of absolute but dwindling power with both a strong wife of noble birth and a roving eye.  Like all the best works of art, Monteverdi’s opera is both decidedly of its specific time and place and definitively universal.  Recordings of L’Incoronazione di Poppea on DVD are no longer rare, but this version from Virgin Classics—a record of what is without question one of the best-sung productions of the opera in its history—can be jubilantly crowned the best of the lot.

a scene from Jean-François Sivadier's production of Monteverdi's L'INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA at the Opéra de Lille [Photo by Frédéric Lovino, Opéra de Lille] a scene from Jean-François Sivadier’s production of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea at the Opéra de Lille, with Ann Hallenberg as Ottavia, Max Emanuel Cencic as Nerone, and Sonya Yoncheva as Poppea [Photo by Frédéric Lovino for Opéra de Lille]