29 July 2013

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini—SEMIRAMIDE (A. Penda, M. Pizzolato, L. Ragazzo, J. Osborn; NAXOS 8.660340-42)

Gioachino Rossini: SEMIRAMIDE (NAXOS 8.660340-42)

GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Semiramide—A. Penda (Semiramide), M. Pizzolato (Arsace), L. Ragazzo (Assur), J. Osborn (Idreno), A. Mastroni (Oroe), M. Jokovic (Azema), V. Kavayas (Mitrane), R. Facciolà (L’ombra di Nino); Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani [Recorded ‘live’ at the Trinkhalle, Bad Wildbad, Germany, during the XXIV ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival; 18, 19, 22 July 2012; NAXOS 8.660340-42; 3CD, 3:41:44]

While most opera companies and record labels celebrate the Bicentennials of Verdi and Wagner and the Centennial of Britten, the reliably adventurous NAXOS label is offering lovers of bel canto a veritable Rossini Extravaganza with the recently-released recording of Le siège de Corinthe and this new recording of the Sage of Pesaro’s final opera in Italian, Semiramide.  Even in comparison with the high standards of Rossini’s other serious operas, Semiramide is a remarkable work.  It is particularly astonishing to recall that, when Semiramide—as noted, his last new opera in Italian—was first performed in Venice in February 1823, the composer had not yet reached his thirty-first birthday.  Creativity and depth of musical characterization of the sort displayed in Semiramide belie the composer’s youth but are hardly surprising in the work of the mind that, at the age of twenty-two, produced Il barbiere di Siviglia.  Like most of Rossini’s operas, interest in Semiramide waned as the age of bel canto ended.  Rare performances of the opera like those at the Metropolitan Opera in 1892, 1894, and 1895, starring Adelina Patti and Dame Nellie Melba, confirmed that the opera’s fortunes desperately rely upon the presence of singers with the requisite techniques to command the music.  The great Semiramide of the 20th Century, Dame Joan Sutherland, recorded the rôle at the peak of her career and enjoyed triumphs in the opera in Europe but never in New York: after 1895, Semiramide was absent from the MET stage until 1990, when a new production mounted as a showcase for the Arsace of Marilyn Horne featured June Anderson and Lella Cuberli in the name part.  Though the operas of Rossini have enjoyed a Renaissance during the past quarter-century, the extraordinary technical demands of the music in Semiramide have limited opportunities for new productions and revivals.  Befitting its special place in Rossini’s œuvre, good performances of Semiramide are legitimate occasions that deserve to be recorded for posterity.  Continuing the path charted with top-quality recordings of Il barbiere di Siviglia, La Cenerentola, La donna del lago, L’Italiana in Algeri, Otello, Le siège de Corinthe, and Tancredi, NAXOS’s executives and engineers honor Rossini by preserving this superb production, a presentation by the ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival based upon the critical edition of the opera prepared by Philip Gossett and Alberto Zedda.

Though recorded during three performances in Bad Wildbad’s Trinkhalle, the sound quality of this recording is excellent, producer Siegbert Ernest, engineers Norbert Vossen and Siggi Mehne, and editor Dr. Annette Sidhu-Ingenhoff having captured the vibrancy of the hall’s acoustics and successfully minimized the intrusions of stage and audience noises.  The choristers of the Camerata Bach Choir, Poznań, sing with blessedly sure intonation and careful blending of timbres, but the sounds that they produce are sometimes too reticent for the pseudo-Gothic melodrama of Semiramide.  Though the singing of the ladies in the scene in the Hanging Gardens during which Semiramide sings the opera’s most famous aria, ‘Bel raggio lusinghier,’ is very beautiful, it is the sound of a church choir singing Lutheran hymns rather than that of a group of ladies-in-waiting attempting to raise their mistress’s spirits.  There are plentiful moments in which the understated singing of the chorus produces arresting effects, however.  The players of the Virtuosi Brunensis have presented their impressive credentials on several of NAXOS’s bel canto recordings, and they again prove both individually and collectively to be sensitive, idiomatic interpreters of the music of Rossini.  Maestro Antonino Fogliani builds upon the reputation he has fostered through previous Rossini recordings for NAXOS with alert, assertive, but never disruptive leadership of this performance of Semiramide.  The soloists receive from Maestro Fogliani ideal support, and his attention to the niceties of Rossini’s orchestration and often inspired phrasing is engaging.  Semiramide is a long opera that benefits greatly from Maestro Fogliani’s propulsive but unhurried pacing.

Singers of secondary rôles in Rossini operas often face first-rate challenges, and poor singing among their ranks can undermine the effectiveness of a performance.  In this performance, there are no disappointments.  Baritone Raffaele Facciolà is nicely other-worldly in the dramatically critical rôle of the ghost of Nino, his voice conveying the authority that his appearance conjures.  Bass Andrea Mastroni also impresses as Oroe, the High Priest of the Magi who has the misfortune of knowing the will of the gods.  Soprano Marija Jokovic sings beautifully as the princess Azema, relishing every opportunity that Rossini granted her to unfurl ribbons of silvery sound.  An emerging talent with gifts of ingratiating tone and strong dramatic instincts that mark him as an artist to watch, tenor Vassilis Kavayas sings boldly as Mitrane, captain of the Royal Guard, his honeyed timbre making his every utterance in the opera enjoyable.

Rossini composed the rôle of Assur for Filippo Galli, the celebrated singer who created several of Rossini’s most dramatically compelling bass rôles in addition to having been the first Enrico in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.  Unusually, Rossini composed for Assur what is essentially a bel canto mad scene of the type familiar from Lucia di Lammermoor, and though conceived along traditional lines the scene remains one of Rossini’s most grippingly original creations.  Unhinged but eloquent even in madness, bass Lorenzo Ragazzo once again triumphantly defends his title as one of today’s most capable Rossini singers.  As his career progresses, Mr. Ragazzo’s tone seems to deepen and darken without any loss of power in the upper register or damage to his florid technique.  The arrogance in Mr. Ragazzo’s voicing of Assur’s lines in his duet with Arsace, ‘D’un tenero amore,’ is palpable, and his oiliness in the duet in which he attempts to bend Semiramide to his will through blackmail—‘Se la vita ancor t’è cara’—is marvelously conveyed.  The dissolution of Assur’s mental capacities when he is confronted by the ghost of Nino is hauntingly portrayed by Mr. Ragazzo, whose draining of color from his voice imparts the character’s terror.  Throughout the performance, Mr. Ragazzo meets every demand of his music with absolute confidence, rising to the coloratura challenges unhesitatingly, and he creates a character who is ultimately a towering force in the drama rather than merely a nasty stock villain.

The Indian king Idreno has a less significant part in the drama than tenors play in many of Rossini’s operas, but he has in ‘Ah dov’è, dov’è il cimento’ one of the most staggeringly difficult arias in the Rossini canon.  The ease with which American tenor John Osborn scales the heights of the aria’s terrifyingly stratospheric tessitura seems almost insouciant.  The brilliance of his coloratura is fantastic, but there is an element of caution in his performance that suggests that he may not have been on his best form during this production.  Mr. Osborn nonetheless turns in a performance of wondrous virtuosity.  The astonishing breadth of his technique enables him to venture some very ambitious ornamentation which occasionally distorts the shape of Rossini’s carefully-considered melodic lines.  His singing of Idreno’s ‘La speranza più soave’ is both extremely lovely and thoroughly stylish, however, and his contributions to ensembles are unfailingly sovereign in security, intonation, and dramatic attitude.  Mr. Osborn’s basic timbre is warmer, darker, and less metallic than the voices of several of the current generation’s most celebrated Rossini tenors, uniquely qualifying him for the notoriously difficult rôles that Rossini composed for Andrea Nozzari.  Idreno was first sung by John Sinclair, about whom little is known, but Rossini’s music for the part discloses that he was an exceptionally accomplished singer.  Rossini himself may not have imagined that Idreno’s music could be sung as well as Mr. Osborn sings it on this recording.  There is no dearth of exciting Rossini tenor singing today, but Mr. Osborn on slightly less than optimal form is superior to many of his colleagues.  His ringingly confident performance of Idreno on this recording is rivaled only by the wonderful account of the rôle by Frank Lopardo on the earlier Deutsche Grammophon recording, and Mr. Osborn is by a considerable margin the more authentically stylish vocalist.

Arsace is perhaps Rossini’s most daunting contralto travesti rôle.  In the 20th Century, the rôle was veritably ‘owned’ by Marilyn Horne, who recorded the part opposite Dame Joan Sutherland for DECCA and appeared in almost every production of the opera mounted between 1960 and the time of her retirement from the stage.  In recent years, Jennifer Larmore, Daniela Barcellona, Ewa Podleś, and Vivica Genaux have staked claims to the part, and in this recording Marianna Pizzolato emphatically announces her candidacy.  An impeccably-prepared singer for whom the art of bel canto is second nature, Ms. Pizzolato is blessed with a voice with which it seems that she can accomplish anything on which she focuses her attention.  It was as Rossini’s Tancredi that Ms. Pizzolato made her operatic début, so the composer’s music has been integral to her career since its inception.  That experience is evident in every note that she sings in this performance of Semiramide.  Arsace’s opening cavatina, ‘Ah! quel giorno,’ inspires Ms. Pizzolato to rapturously beautiful singing, the shading of tone adapted to the heartfelt emotions expressed by the text.  Arsace’s aria ‘In sì barbara sciagura’ reveals Rossini’s genius at its most inspired, the drama of the scene enhanced by the opportunities for vocal display.  Arsace’s music is centered on ensembles: duets with Assur (‘D’un tenero amore’) and Semiramide (‘Serbami ognor sì fido’ and ‘Giordo d’orror!…e di contento’) and the Act finales, the crowning glory of the second of which is the trio ‘L’usato ardir’ for Arsace, Assur, and Semiramide.  All of the ensembles in Semiramide are of markedly high quality, and Ms. Pizzolato’s singing in those ensembles in which she participates elevates the performance to a striking level of achievement.  The walnut colorations of Ms. Pizzolato’s lower register make her portrayal of a male character quite credible, and she sings with the assurance and dignity of a warrior prince.  Her delivery of coloratura passages, some of which border on the torturous, is astonishingly accurate, but she succeeds in making even the showiest passagework dramatically viable.  Ms. Pizzolato is neither as bold in her ornamentation nor as liberal with interpolated top notes as was Marilyn Horne, but it is the younger singer whose voice is likely of dimensions that are closest to what Rossini intended for Arsace’s music.  Ms. Pizzolato is a fine singer with a number of successful recordings to her credit, but her Arsace in this recording is the sort of performance that sets standards for generations to come.

Bulgarian soprano Alex Penda—née Alexandrina Pendatchanska—is a musical and dramatic firebrand whose performances almost never leave neutral impressions.  Like Ms. Pizzolato, Ms. Penda is a seasoned bel canto singer, her experience with Semiramide including a much-lauded assumption of the title rôle in Paris in 2006.  It has been suggested that appreciation of Ms. Penda’s vocalism is an acquired taste, but her singing in this performance confirms that it is a taste that any lover of Rossini’s operas should pursue.  It can hardly be surprising that Rossini’s music for the title character in Semiramide is sublime when it is recalled that the part was written for Isabella Colbran, who assured her top billing and musical prominence by marrying the composer.  There is still debate about the nature of Colbran’s voice and her true Fach, with most modern scholars at least tenuously agreeing that she was likely a soprano sfogato; in short, a mezzo-soprano with a meticulously-refined technique and an upper register with greater power than a lyric soprano but a shorter range than a coloratura soprano.  It is impossible to conjecture how Ms. Penda’s voice might actually compare to Colbran’s, but there is no doubt that she is a natural successor to a rôle like Semiramide.  The slight ‘shudder’ in Ms. Penda’s vibrato as recorded lends the sound of her voice an immediacy that serves the drama hardily.  Dramatically, Ms. Penda thrusts herself into the performance with an appetite for fire that makes her colleagues seem somewhat tame by comparison.  If her account of the familiar ‘Bel raggio lusinghier’—the aria for which most of the audience are waiting in any performance of Semiramide—is not as poised or clean of line as it could be, it wants for nothing in terms of passion.  Ms. Penda is a monumental presence in the opera, often burning and melting within the space of a single phrase and making bold choices with employment of chest resonance.  The buzzing strength of the singer’s lower register is put to great use, and excursions to and above top C are accomplished with panache.  Ms. Penda’s individual articulation of coloratura occasionally brings to mind the vocal method of Cristina Deutkom; so, too, does the fearlessness with which Ms. Penda approaches Semiramide’s music.  In many performances, Semiramide ultimately seems to be a game girl who sings some smashing tunes and otherwise is merely along for the ride, so to speak.  Ms. Penda’s performance leaves no doubt that Semiramide is the opera’s title character by right.  The glowing zeal of her singing makes the opera’s dénouement plausibly moving, and her ardor shapes a Semiramide who is a credible tragic heroine.

A performance of Rossini’s Semiramide is an experience that many singers might well be content merely to survive.  Rossini bade farewell to the Italian stage when his inspiration remained prodigious with a score that made use of the full arsenal of musical and dramatic weapons that he had amassed during his triumphant career as the world’s most celebrated opera composer.  Thankfully, attitudes towards Semiramide have changed drastically since 1894, when an unidentified critic wrote of the opera in the New York Times that ‘it is a string of display pieces which give the singers abundant opportunity to exhibit the agility of their vocal organs.  The music has no connection with the plot, which is very imperfectly explained even by the libretto, and which, indeed, is better left unexplained.’  After hearing this vivacious performance recorded by NAXOS, it seems impossible that any listener could regard Semiramide as anything other than a milestone in the ever-changing evolution of Italian opera.

28 July 2013

CD REVIEW: Italo Montemezzi—L’AMORE DEI TRE RE (N. Didenko, S. Jakubiak, E. Barry, D. Pershall; Polskie Radio PRCD 1562-1563)

Italo Montemezzi - L'AMORE DEI TRE RE (Polskie Radio PRCD 1562-1563)

ITALO MONTEMEZZI (1875 – 1952): L’amore dei tre re—N. Didenko (Archibaldo), S. Jakubiak (Fiora), E. Barry (Avito), D. Pershall (Manfredo), J. Prego (Flaminio), J. Gontarz (Handmaiden), M. Dobrowolska (Young Woman), A. Fijałkowska (Old Woman), T. Warmijak (Youth), P. Ronek (Offstage Voice); Chór Filharmonii Narodowej; Polska Orkiestra Radiowa; Łukasz Borowicz [Recorded ‘live’ during a concert performance in the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall on 2 April 2013; Polskie Radio PRCD 1562-1563; 2CD, 94:38]

In the thirty-five years immediately following its American première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1914, Italo Montemezzi’s ‘Tragic Poem in Three Acts’ L’amore dei tre re was performed in New York on sixty-six occasions.  The first performance, conducted by Arturo Toscanini and featuring Lucrezia Bori as Fiora, was acclaimed by both audience and critics, the opera widely acknowledged as an important addition to the MET’s repertory.  Subsequent seasons found Toscanini and Bori returning to the piece, along with performances conducted by Tullio Serafin with Rosa Ponselle as Fiora and Ezio Pinza as Archibaldo.  The opera was selected to open the MET’s forty-fourth season in 1928, and the composer himself conducted the score in New York in 1941, when the glamorous Grace Moore brought her Fiora to the MET.  Fiora was sung by the marvelous but too-little-remembered Dorothy Kirsten in the 1948 – 49 season, and thereafter L’amore dei tre re disappeared from the MET stage.  Sixty-four years later, the opera still awaits its sixty-seventh performance at the MET.

One of the underappreciated gems of contemporary European music is Warsaw’s Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival, an ambitious project that has granted welcome focus to underappreciated operas.  A particular highlight of previous Festivals was a concert performance—also recorded and commercially released by Polish Radio—of Donizetti’s rarely-heard Maria Padilla with Nelly Miricioiu, and the centerpiece of the 2012 Festival was Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re.  Musically, the quality of Montemezzi’s score offers unique rewards to dedicated performers, its combination of elements of Italian verismo with Wagnerian influences creating an unique sound that is duplicated in the music of no other composer.  Precisely why popularity has eluded L’amore dei tre re since the middle of the 20th Century is an enigma.  The opera has virtually every quality that endears a score to audiences: brevity, passion, betrayal, violence, and music that challenges all of the principal singers.  What the opera might be said to lack is true melodic distinction, but the repertories of many of the world’s important opera companies include frequently-performed works without a single melody—or any of originality or true quality—to be heard.  L’amore dei tre re, regarded a century ago as one of the finest operas of its generation, deserves reassessment, and a more compelling argument in its favor than this performance by Maestro Łukasz Borowicz and a distinguished cast can hardly be imagined.

Since the erosion of Communism throughout Eastern Europe, the musical world has been greatly enriched by the emergence of excellent artists and institutions whose work was largely hidden from the West by the Iron Curtain.  The history of the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra began before World War II, but the devastation suffered by Poland during the War and five subsequent decades of Communist rule sadly limited the Orchestra’s reach beyond Poland’s borders.  The fall of Communism in Poland in 1989 opened the way for Polish artists to share their cultural wealth with the wider world, and the launching of the Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival in 1997 brought together many of Poland’s finest artists for a musical celebration of the resilience and artistic survival of the Polish people.  The Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra has been central to the success of the Ludwig van Beethoven Eastern Festival, and the Orchestra’s playing in this performance of L’amore dei tre re confirms the extraordinary quality of the ensemble.  Montemezzi’s score presents many challenges to all sections of the orchestra, and the brass players offer performances that rival the best playing of their colleagues in Berlin and Vienna.  String tone is consistently robust and beautifully-sustained, the players’ intonation never faltering.  The singers of the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir, prepared by Henryk Wojnarowski, perform with laudable fervor, their singing contributing effectively to the mystery and menace of the opera’s final Act.  The efforts of both Choir and Orchestra are aided immeasurably by the assured, idiomatic conducting of Łukasz Borowicz, principal conductor of the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra since 2007.  Maestro Borowicz has vast experience in conducting opera, but his work in this performance surpasses the efforts of many of the most famous conductors active today.  It seems that Italian opera, encompassing styles as divergent as bel canto and verismo, is in his blood.  In terms of pacing the performance and highlighting phrasing in dramatically-crucial passages, Maestro Borowicz’s approach resembles that of the opera’s composer as preserved in the 1941 MET radio broadcast.  In a score in which many conductors would be lured into frenetic pursuit of melodrama, Maestro Borowicz allows climaxes to occur naturally, as the composer intended.  The inventiveness and marvelous spookiness of the score are manifested without being unduly emphasized, and the soloists receive the support needed to deliver their parts with maximum musical integrity and emotional impact.  Worries about the survival of opera in general would be far fewer if more performances benefited from the immediacy and commitment brought to this performance by Maestro Borowicz and the choristers and orchestral players over whom he presides.

Secondary characters in L’amore dei tre re are given limited opportunities to make impressions, but each of the singers engaged for this performance makes the most of every bar of his or her part.  In the rôles of a handmaiden, a young girl, and an old woman, sopranos Joanna Gontarz and Magdalena Dobrowolska and mezzo-soprano Anna Fijałkowska offer voices of greater quality than their parts require, each lady singing excellently.  Also impressive is treble Tomasz Warmijak in the few lines of a youth.

Spanish tenor Jorge Prego sings Flaminio with vocal freshness and genuine emotional involvement.  His voice has a lovely timbre, and only a pair of his highest notes are slightly troublesome.  It is to Flaminio that the unenviable task of attempting to preserve semblances of honor and order falls, and the anguish with which Mr. Prego sings as he guides the blinded Archibaldo—knowing well that the old king eerily perceives what he cannot see—is touching.  Mr. Prego delivers the texts that he sings with the insightfulness of an accomplished Lieder singer, and a sense of Flaminio’s symbolic service as Archibaldo’s eyes is aptly conveyed by Mr. Prego’s performance.

Avito, to whom the beautiful Fiora was betrothed before the kingdom of Altura was conquered by Archibaldo, is sung by Spanish-American tenor Eric Barry, an engaging young singer who has been acclaimed in rôles as varied as Arbace in Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia and Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème.  Lyricism never persists for more than a few bars in the tense world of L’amore dei tre re, but Mr. Barry’s fluid lyric tenor fills his musical lines expressively.  The voice is perhaps somewhat small for a rôle sung at the MET by Enrico Caruso and Giovanni Martinelli and recorded by Plácido Domingo, but the appeal of Mr. Barry’s voice in Avito’s music is undeniable.  Ascents into the upper register are not always completely comfortable, with occasional pinching of the tone intruding into the singer’s otherwise unimpeachable command of line, but he avoids forcing the voice even in moments of greatest passion.  Lyric tenors with voices of quality who do not squander their gifts in pursuit of major careers are rare: this performance increases the hope that Mr. Barry will achieve the prominence that his talent deserves without being tempted to damage the voice.

American baritone David Pershall discloses a vibrant, ringing voice in his performance as Manfredo, Archibaldo’s son and Fiora’s husband.  Considering that, for all of its composer’s musical inventiveness, L’amore dei tre re is an Italian opera and that Fiora’s hand was formerly promised to Avito, it likely does not need to be stated that Manfredo’s deep love for his wife is unrequited.  Perhaps the most dramatically significant element of the opera’s plot is Manfredo’s near-success in inspiring his wife to an act of affection towards him: touched by his sincerity and obvious devotion, she agrees to wave goodbye to him as he departs for battle but is ultimately intercepted and convinced to abandon her goodwill mission by Avito.  Concerned by Fiora’s failure to appear upon the parapet, Manfredo returns to the castle to find that in the interim his father has discovered his wife with her lover and strangled her.  Dutiful husbands rarely receive the most glorious music in an opera, but Montemezzi gave Manfredo impassioned, pained music that demands both nobility and raw emotion.  The rôle receives from Mr. Pershall a performance of tremendous strength.  Mr. Pershall’s voice is a beautiful, well-knit instrument that sounds particularly impressive in moments of repose.  The subtlety of Mr. Pershall’s performance suggests that suspicion does not come naturally to Manfredo, making the character’s plight all the more wrenching.  Mr. Pershall’s diction is very good, with vowels attractively on the breath, and the allure of his tone in Manfredo’s exchanges with Fiora make the character far more than a dullard from whom any wife might seek refuge.  The manly high spirits with which he greets his father and the tenderness with which he returns to his wife’s side, failing to notice the coldness of her welcome that is so obvious to his blind father, are eloquently conveyed by Mr. Pershall’s singing.  His most impressive singing, both musically and dramatically, is accomplished in the scene in which, having confronted his dead wife’s lover, he purposefully kisses Fiora’s poisoned lips in order to join her in death.  Not unlike Mr. Barry, Mr. Pershall may not possess the sheer weight of tone brought to Manfredo’s music by his illustrious predecessors in the part, who include Carlo Galeffi, Pasquale Amato, and Lawrence Tibbett: on his own terms, however, he is a thrilling Manfredo who inspires great sympathy.

Like many operatic heroines, Fiora is a complex woman, neither wholly condemnable nor free from blame for her actions.  The biting cruelty of her exchanges with Archibaldo portray her as a calculating vamp determined to enjoy her assignations with her lover at any cost, but the reluctant grace with which she agrees to grant her husband’s simple wish of waving goodbye as he returns to battle at least suggests that a certain softness resides in her heart.  Musically and dramatically, Fiora is a distant relative of both Debussy’s Mélisande and Puccini’s Tosca.  Ambiguity is her only consistent trait, and Montemezzi painted her musical portrait in muted tones occasionally splashed with explosions of color.  American soprano Sara Jakubiak, successful in an uncommonly eclectic repertory ranging from Mozart to Philip Glass, throws herself into Fiora’s music with abandon and gives a performance of spine-tingling power.  Montemezzi hinted that Archibaldo’s loathing of Fiora and tireless pursuit of proof of her infidelity were derived from the old king’s latent lust for his daughter-in-law.  Indeed, modern psychologists might suggest that Archibaldo’s very physical act of strangling Fiora is a manifestation of sexual sadism, his sole opportunity at possessing her body.  The disgust in Ms. Jakubiak’s voice in Fiora’s exchanges with Archibaldo suggests that she is all too aware of the intentions that lurk in the recesses of the blind king’s mind.  The deadened tone with which she sings in response to Manfredo depicts boredom and exasperation more than genuine hatred.  When in Avito’s company, however, Ms. Jakubiak’s tone expands gloriously, her blossoming femininity and eroticism bringing to mind Nedda’s meeting with Silvio in Pagliacci.  Ms. Jakubiak makes of Fiora’s defiance of Archibaldo as he closes in on her a scorching catharsis, her voice slashing through the orchestra.  When she sings that her lover’s name is ‘dolce morte’ (‘sweet death’), Ms. Jakubiak seems already in transition to another plane of existence.  The soprano’s wide-ranging musical experience notwithstanding, Fiora is a rôle that might have been composed specially for Ms. Jakubiak: she possesses the vocal opulence of Lucrezia Bori, the glamor of Grace Moore, and the earthy appeal of Dorothy Kirsten.  The genius of Montemezzi is revealed by the way in which he shaped a formidable operatic femme fatale with declamatory music that offers few opportunities for the sort of unfettered vocal display that makes so many Italian soprano rôles memorable.  The histrionic prowess of Ms. Jakubiak is confirmed by the fact that her Fiora is a portrayal that is not likely to be forgotten.

Archibaldo is a magnificently complicated amalgamation of several of opera’s flintiest bass rôles.  With Wagner’s Alberich, he shares unfulfilled carnal desires.  From Verdi’s Jacopo Fiesco, he takes a revisionist approach to his own history.  From Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, he receives the burden of being a troubled monarch whose past is almost certainly reflected in his present.  From Debussy’s Arkel, he inherits the curse of seeing more in blindness than in sight.  Musically, he is a sort of Wagnerian in translation, complete with his own Leitmotif, and like Wotan he is the master of a social order that is crumbling around him.  Into this microcosm of moral duality, Russian bass Nikolay Didenko enters with a dark, firm voice that moves through Montemezzi’s music with consummate ease.  A few of his lowest notes lack absolute authority, but Mr. Didenko produces stunning top notes.  The paternal warmth with which Mr. Didenko’s Archibaldo awaits his son’s return from battle is quite moving and superbly contrasted with the chilling nastiness with which he addresses Fiora.  Responding to Ms. Jakubiak, Mr. Didenko audibly portrays a man whose motives for violence are as much inspired by thwarted desires as by righteous indignation.  There is also an element of calmness in Mr. Didenko’s singing in scenes with Ms. Jakubiak that suggests that Archibaldo is aware of having found in Fiora a worthy adversary.  The basic timbre of Mr. Didenko’s voice is tinged with the black rotundity that is his legitimate heritage as a Russian bass, but his delivery of text is untroubled by any heaviness of approach.  He is, in fact, a more effective villain for displaying very welcome verbal and tonal dexterity.  He is occasionally inclined to shout at climaxes, but his understanding of his rôle is never in doubt.  If Mr. Didenko lacks the vocal charisma of an Ezio Pinza or Cesare Siepi, he carefully avoids making Archibaldo a base thug.  He portrays Archibaldo as a man whose own neurotic system of morality justifies his actions.  After so much rage and snarling violence, there is in Mr. Didenko’s singing in the final scene a true sense of heartbreak and regret: through the efforts of the singer, the character ultimately evokes empathy for his self-imposed tragedy.

This sensationally enjoyable recording of L’amore dei tre re offers the attentive listener several important lessons about both the art and the business of opera in the 21st Century.  There are in so many cities throughout the world, and especially in Eastern Europe, under-explored troves of outstanding musical talent.  In that vein, prohibitively expensive assemblages of ‘star’ singers are not necessary to reveal the finest qualities of a musical score.  There are in the cast of this deliciously persuasive performance of L’amore dei tre re no household names, but there are many moments in the ninety-four minutes of this recording that dazzle with star quality.  Good musicians have the ability to make even bad music sound appealing, but no apologies need to be made for the quality of Montemezzi’s music.  This recording is a demonstrable boon to those who treasure the opera despite its unmerited absence from the world’s stages, and little doubt can remain after hearing this performance that a fresh outing of L’amore dei tre re is inarguably preferable to another poorly-sung Bohème.


This recording of L’amore dei tre re is available from the online shop of Polish Radio.  Please click here to view the entry from the recording on the Polish Radio website.

25 July 2013

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—COSÌ FAN TUTTE (M. Persson, A. Brower, R. Villazón, A. Plachetka, M. Erdmann, A. Corbelli; DGG 479 0641)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: COSÌ FAN TUTTE (DGG 479 0641)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola deglia amanti, K. 588—M. Persson (Fiordiligi), A. Brower (Dorabella), M. Erdmann (Despina), R. Villazón (Ferrando), A. Plachetka (Guglielmo), A. Corbelli (Don Alfonso); Vocalensemble Rastatt; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances, July 2012, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany; Deutsche Grammophon 479 0641; 3CD, 178:10]

Few operas inspire the kind of competing affection and controversy that have surrounded Mozart’s Così fan tutte almost since its first performance in Vienna in 1790.  The première production was interrupted by the death of Emperor Joseph II and the subsequent period of mourning that closed Viennese theatres.  Not long thereafter, Mozart’s own death was nigh, and the increasingly ill and paranoid young composer was hard at work on both La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte.  As a result of this redistribution of resources relatively soon after its première, Così was less subject to revisions than either of Mozart’s other operas set to libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte, Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni.  There are considerations of which passages, if any, are to be cut, but the primary complication of Così concerns its plot and the implications thereof.  Da Ponte’s examination of the supposition that absolute fidelity among amorous partners is a state that is contrary to human nature was considered insightful and entertaining by the Viennese in 1790, but later generations—even extending well into the 20th Century—found the story considerably less palatable, deeming it immoral, uncouth, and unworthy of Mozart’s genius, many of the few performances between Mozart’s lifetime and the revival of interest in the opera in the mid-20th Century even substituting ‘improved’ libretti that softened or wholly eliminated the sting of da Ponte’s social criticism.  Virtually from the time of its first performance, the looming question has concerned to what extent the opera is to be taken seriously.  Whatever the social implications of da Ponte’s libretto, neither the significance nor the quality of Mozart’s contributions to Così fan tutte can be doubted: the composer lavished on the score some of his most inspired music for the stage, and despite the complexities of its dramaturgy the musical legacy of Così fan tutte is one of true genius.

Recorded during concert performances in Baden-Baden, this Così benefits from the wonderful sound quality for which Deutsche Grammophon recordings are justifiably legendary.  There are only the faintest hints of audience noises in the form of laughter during recitatives, and these enhance the listening experience rather than in any way detracting from one’s enjoyment of the performance.  DGG’s engineers have carefully recreated a natural theatrical ambiance in which the performance plays out without ever sounding artificial.  Critical to the success of passages of secco recitative is the accompaniment of fortepianist Benjamin Bayl and ‘cellist Richard Lester.  Rather than seeming to inhibit the progress of the performance, the secco recitatives in this recording flow with the semblance of spontaneity.  Though their opportunities are few, the choristers of Vocalensemble Rastatt sing with fine tone and winning involvement.  The players of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe again prove themselves to be worthy of comparison with the most celebrated of their colleagues.  Anyone who feels that the demands on orchestral players in Mozart’s operas are less daunting than those of later repertory has never played any of Mozart’s scores; or has not played any of them as well as the instrumentalists of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe play Così fan tutte, at least.

Perhaps more so than in any other of Mozart’s mature Italian operas, Così cannot be successful when it is conducted indifferently.  With a charismatic singer in the title rôle and a trio of ladies who are sensitive to the musical and dramatic pitfalls of their parts, Don Giovanni can easily survive wayward conducting, and Le nozze di Figaro has proved almost immune to poor conducting and pedestrian singing.  Perhaps because of the complicated psychology of da Ponte’s libretto and the brilliance with which Mozart depicted the ambiguities in his score, Così is a different matter entirely.  Pacing of the opera is crucial to the ability of the singers to both deliver the music correctly and connect with the audience effectively.  From the first bars of the Overture, Yannick Nézet-Séguin displays complete affinity for Così, his choices of tempo unfailingly reflecting an insightful perception of the opera’s dramatic progress and an alertness to the needs of the cast.  Even the most accomplished Fiordiligi needs the absolute support of her conductor in order to meet the formidable demands of ‘Come scoglio immoto resta’ and ‘Per pietà, ben mio, perdona,’ two of the most fearsome arias in the soprano repertory.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin proves a master of dramatic timing within the confines of good taste, shaping the performance with the sure hand of a practiced Mozartean.  It has become fashionable to entrust Così to conductors—and casts—that specialize in historically-informed performance practices, and while ‘period’ performance ideals yield valuable results in Mozart’s operas, not least among which is clarity of ensemble that can reveal Mozart’s extraordinary gifts for counterpoint and orchestration, conductors with experience in later music can bring to Così a welcome sense of the opera’s importance in the development of the genre.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin, whose repertory is quite vast despite his youth, synthesizes elements of historically-appropriate practices with broader sensibilities born of acquaintance with operatic and symphonic repertories of the 19th and 20th Centuries.  Phrasing is adapted to the needs of the singers, who, having the support from the podium that allows them to focus on the details of what Mozart asked of them, avoid the willful distortions of line that mar so many performances.  Maestro Nézet-Séguin exhibited great promise with his leadership of the performance of Don Giovanni that launched DGG’s series of recordings of Mozart’s mature operas: that promise is fully realized in this performance of Così fan tutte.  Few conductors have achieved the balance of lightness and seriousness that elucidates the description of Così as a dramma giocoso.  Supporting his cast with dedication both to their success and to Mozart’s music, Maestro Nézet-Séguin makes it unusually clear that there are very serious, perhaps even life-altering emotions hiding behind the smiles and laughter of Così.

Mozart created in Despina and Don Alfonso two of opera’s most enigmatic but endearing schemers.  The impetus for Despina’s all-too-willing participation in Don Alfonso’s plot to embarrass his friends’ blind faith in their paramours is made most clear: ‘è l’oro il mio giulebbe,’ she sings—‘gold is my weakness.’  Don Alfonso’s deep pockets facilitate Despina’s complicity in deception, but precisely what inspires Don Alfonso’s duplicity is never revealed.  In this performance, Alessandro Corbelli’s Don Alfonso sounds too good-natured to intend any serious damage to his friends’ happiness, but the conspiratorial relish with which he sets his business in motion is unmistakable.  Traditions gleaned from 19th-Century opera dictate that lovers should be baritones and world-wise roués basses, and many productions of Così adopt this arrangement.  Mozart’s music for Don Alfonso has a slightly higher tessitura than that for Guglielmo, however, and the casting of this performance tellingly contrasts the timbres of Mr. Corbelli’s baritone and a bass-baritone Guglielmo.  A veteran of Italian opera buffa, Mr. Corbelli knows his way round a part like Don Alfonso, and the wry humor that he brings to his performance is delightful.  He never pursues laughs at the expense of musical integrity, however, and his contributions to ensembles—whether comedic or more serious in tone—are adroit and carefully judged.  Don Alfonso is given only one aria, ‘Vorrei dir e cor non ho,’ which Mr. Corbelli sings well, but it is the ensembles in which his finest work is done.  Mr. Corbelli’s voice is no longer as firm or as smooth as it was earlier in his career, but the skill with which he uses his voice is unimpaired.  Indeed, the artistry with which he builds performances around articulation of text has only become more pointed with time, and in this performance the rare moments in which the security of the voice falters slightly are put to touching use by Mr. Corbelli.  The Despina of Mojca Erdmann is rather more daft than cunning or charming.  The brightness of Ms. Erdmann’s timbre gives both the voice and the character decidedly hard edges, and the excursions into the vocal stratosphere that the singer employs whilst disguised as the mesmerist and the notary are not improvements on more conventional performances of the music.  Ms. Erdmann’s command of Despina’s notes is never in doubt, but her understanding of Mozartean style is seemingly a work in progress.  Both of Despina’s arias are delivered capably but without the elegance that shapes performances by the most accomplished Mozart singers, even in broadly comic rôles.  Like Mr. Corbelli, Ms. Erdmann is at her best in ensembles, in which she responds to her colleagues with increased sensitivity and vocal warmth.  She possesses a good natural voice and a technique capable of meeting the challenges of virtually any rôle within the scope of her voice type: as her career as a Mozartean develops, she will hopefully learn to place more of her trust in the composer and his music.

Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka brings to Guglielmo’s music more voice than the rôle has enjoyed in many performances.  Mr. Plachetka has no problems with the lower reaches of Guglielmo’s tessitura, and the darkness of his timbre lends his performance compelling seriousness.  ‘Non siate ritrosi’ and ‘Donne mie, la fate a tanti,’ Guglielmo’s arias, receive from Mr. Plachetka assured performances, the former in particular benefiting from the virility of the singer’s timbre.  In turn bemused, beguiling, and exasperated in ensembles, Mr. Plachetka responds to his colleagues with finely-judged singing.  The brawny masculinity of his singing makes his perceived betrayal and despair all the more touching, and the depths of emotion with which Mr. Plachetka shapes his performance are consistently apt to the texts that he sings.  His singing in the duet with Dorabella, ‘Il core vi dono,’ is a model of Mozartean grace.  Occasional hints of bluntness intrude into Mr. Plachetka’s delivery of secco recitatives, but his excellent diction contributes meaningfully to the overall success of his performance.  Guglielmo is the sort of rôle that proves more complicated in performance than it seems in a glance at the score, and admittedly the Così discography is not brimming with great performances of the part: Mr. Plachetka brings Guglielmo to life with greater animation and musicality than most of his recorded rivals, and ultimately his is an uncommonly satisfying performance of this deceptively nuanced character.

In such an ambitious, well-prepared performance, it is disappointing that the tradition of cutting Ferrando’s aria ‘Ah, lo veggio’ is perpetuated, not least because this recording’s Ferrando could likely have given a credible account of it.  The aria is not truly comfortable for any tenor, with its cascades of coloratura and high tessitura centered in the tenor’s passaggio (demanding more than a dozen top B-flats), and would not have been easy territory for Rolando Villazón, but the winning fortitude with which the Mexican tenor approaches Ferrando’s other challenges suggests that, at least in the context of concert performances being recorded for commercial release, he might have attempted the aria.  The presence of Mr. Villazón in this performance of Così is perhaps even more surprising than was his appearance as Don Ottavio in the recording of Don Giovanni that launched this DGG series.  As he did as Don Ottavio, Mr. Villazón approaches Ferrando’s music with energy, dedication, and legitimate attempts at achieving and preserving Mozartean lines.  The singer’s natural good humor is evident throughout the performance, especially in ensembles, and the sparkle that he brings to secco recitatives is invaluable.  When the emotions darken, the bronzed, slightly nasal timbre of Mr. Villazón’s voice combines with a seriousness of approach to infuse the performance with airs of genuine heartbreak and life-or-death intensity.  ‘Un’aura amorosa del nostro tesoro,’ one of the most exquisitely beautiful and technically demanding arias in the tenor repertory, receives from Mr. Villazón a lovely, refined performance.  Though his approach to the upper register is cautious, he avoids resorting to falsetto in high lines.  Bravura passages are capably, even confidently handled, and he makes an appreciable attempt at trilling.  ‘Tradito, schernito dal perfido cor’ is a brief cavatina in which, like Händel, Mozart stopped time with an outpouring of undiluted emotion.  The directness with which Mr. Villazón sings of his lover’s betrayal is tremendously effective.  His Ferrando is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and the authentically Latin passion that Mr. Villazón brings to his performance, though atypical for a Mozart rôle, is superb.  It is clear in this performance that, at least to Mr. Villazón’s Ferrando, the things that transpire in Così are of dire significance, and though his is not the sort of voice that comes to mind as an ideal Mozart instrument Mr. Villazón proves to be an exceptionally musical and uncommonly moving Ferrando.

Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower is a Dorabella who walks at the edge of peril with every appearance of carefree glee.  Accomplished both as Dorabella and as Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Ms. Brower is no stranger to Mozart repertory, and her experience complements her natural abilities to produce a most enjoyable Dorabella in this recording.  The voice has an attractively rounded quality and evenness of tone that portend future success in heavier repertory.  In this performance, Ms. Brower sings with great charm, particularly in Dorabella’s first aria, ‘Smanie implacabili.’  Dorabella is without question the more free-spirited of the sisters, and the smile in Ms. Brower’s tone as she flirts and cajoles is captivating.  Like Ferrando, her beloved, Dorabella’s high spirits also conceal a core of seriousness, and Ms. Brower’s singing in the Quintet in which she and her sister bid their lovers farewell and, especially, in the sublime ‘Soave il vento’ is poised and tinged with sadness.  Dorabella proves less resilient than Fiordiligi when under siege by the faux Albanians and expresses her philosophy of the transient, tricky nature of love in the wonderful aria ‘È amore un ladroncello,’ which Ms. Brower sings brightly.  Like the other characters in Così, Dorabella faces her greatest challenges in ensembles, and Ms. Brower meets every demand unflinchingly.  To her credit, Ms. Brower creates a more three-dimensional Dorabella than many performances enjoy, and such is the youthful accomplishment of her technique that she needs to employ none of the compromises that many singers must make in singing Dorabella’s music.

Soprano Miah Persson is also an acclaimed Mozart singer, and her performance as Fiordiligi in this recording verifies the legitimacy of the esteem in which she is held.  From Hyacinthus and Melia in Apollo et Hyacinthus—composed for trebles—to Pamina and the Königin der Nacht in Die Zauberflöte, none of Mozart’s operatic soprano rôles is without musical difficulties.  Comparing Fiordiligi to her sisters in the other da Ponte operas, she might be said to be a fusion of the Contessa in Le nozze di Figaro and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni: possessing both the aloofness and repose of the Contessa and the fire of Donna Anna, Fiordiligi has music that requires both long-breathed lyricism and command of rapid-fire coloratura and wide intervals.  The soprano who created the part, Adriana Ferrarese, was appreciated by contemporary critics for both her powerful lower register and her reliably steady upper extension, both of which were exploited by Mozart in his music for Fiordiligi.  Taking the high lines in ensembles demands of the singer great breath control, which Ms. Persson displays impressively.  Though the voice occasionally sounds slightly ungainly, the daunting slopes of both arias are successfully scaled.  ‘Come scoglio immoto resta,’ an aria that rivals Konstanze’s arias in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Donna Anna’s ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ and ‘Non mi dir’ in Don Giovanni in difficulty, inspires Ms. Persson to splendidly alert, shapely singing.  The Rondò ‘Per pietà, ben mio, perdona’ draws from Ms. Persson a very personal, introverted performance that explores the conflicting emotions that Fiordiligi feels as her resolve begins to crumble.  Ms. Persson’s voice is completely secure throughout the wide range required by Fiordiligi’s music, and her technique—honed through performances of Händel rôles—encompasses every musical weapon deployed by Mozart.  Only a few of the lowest notes lack resonance and bloom.  Comparing their timbres in their respective rôles in this performance, it would be interesting to hear Ms. Persson and Ms. Brower exchange parts.  This is indicative of the levels of excellence that both ladies achieve in their music, and Ms. Persson is an impeccably stylish Fiordiligi who clears every one of Mozart’s hurdles with the skill of an Olympian.

It was not so long ago that death knells were rung for the Classical Music recording industry.  Thankfully, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of the demise of high-quality recordings of Classical and operatic repertory were greatly exaggerated.  Deutsche Grammophon’s series of recordings of Mozart’s mature operas began auspiciously with an excellent Don Giovanni: this recording of Così fan tutte raises the bar for the series to an even higher rung of achievement.  Superbly played, intelligently conducted, and expertly sung, this is a Così fan tutte that ravishes the ears and touches the heart.

12 July 2013

CD REVIEW: Franz Schubert—WINTERREISE (José Manuel Montero, tenor; Verso VRS 2104)

Franz Schubert: WINTERREISE (Verso VRS 2104)

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): Winterreise, D. 911—José Manuel Montero, tenor; Juan Antonio Álvarez Parejo, piano [Recorded in the Conservatorio Profesional de Música de Getafe, Madrid, on 5 and 8 July 2010; Verso VRS 2104; 1CD, 70:57]

When Franz Schubert completed his settings of twenty-four poems by Wilhelm Müller in 1827, it is unlikely that even the famously sensitive composer, who was cognizant of the quality of these songs, suspected that the Cycle would remain the universally-acknowledged soul of the Lieder repertory nearly two centuries later.  Since the publication of the songs in 1828, Winterreise has proved irresistible to hundreds of the finest Lieder artists and has inspired many of them to their best singing, ranging from the dulcet tones of lyric tenors like Ernst Haefliger and Fritz Wunderlich, the impeccable phrasing of baritone Hermann Prey, and the inimitable artistry of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to the restrained grandeur of bass-baritone Hans Hotter and the sepulchral bass tones of Kurt Moll.  Countertenors, male sopranos, and female singers of all persuasions have sung the Cycle, too, some of them—Christa Ludwig, for instance—illuminating the music with fresh insights.  Not the earliest, the most poetically distinguished, or the most stylistically coherent Lieder cycle, Winterreise nonetheless possesses special magic.  Perhaps because he was working with the simpler, less ostentatiously ‘artistic’ poetry of Müller rather than with verses by Goethe, Heine, or even Grillparzer, Schubert was free to allow his imagination to be engaged by the texts without restraint.  The resulting music is stunning in its cohesion, the series of very different songs combining to offer an intimately-conceived depiction of an artist’s journey that is unique in its cumulative power.

As in many of Schubert’s Lieder, the songs of Winterreise scintillate with the sensations of Nature.  There are, of course, the famous passages of Schubert’s clever tone painting: the whirl of the wind in ‘Die Wetterfahne,’ the falling of the narrator’s icy tears in ‘Gefror’ne Tränen,’ the flow of water masked by ice in ‘Auf dem Flusse,’ the mischievous crows’ calls in ‘Rückblick,’ the will-o’-the-wisp in ‘Irrlicht,’ the post-horn in ‘Die Post,’ the barking dogs in ‘Im Dorfe,’ the raging storm in ‘Der stürmische Morgen,’ the stinging snowstorm in ‘Mut,’ and the grating hurdy-gurdy in ‘Der Leiermann.’  As one sinks deeper into Winterreise, the ears discover a thousand more examples as meaningful as these, some of them obvious and some almost imperceptibly subtle.  This is indicative both of Schubert’s genius and of the immense challenges the performer of Winterreise faces.  Vocally, none of the songs in Winterreise is especially difficult, at least on the surface: demands of tessitura are modest for the most part, and the technical requirements of the songs pose only limited challenges for trained singers.  It is in the interpretation of the Cycle that the pitfalls lay concealed.  Though Winterreise wears its heart on its sleeve, the singer who overplays his hand risks pushing the sentimentality in the songs beyond its breaking point.  Interestingly, several of the most eloquent recorded performances of Winterreise are those by artists who were not the most prodigiously-gifted vocalists.  The most successful performances of Winterreise are those in which the singers are able to convey both the human emotions and the responses to nature with immediacy, without taking the sense of melancholy too far into the realm of abject psychosis.

It is well documented that Schubert’s skills for composing music for the piano considerably outweighed his skills for playing the instrument.  Nevertheless, the accompaniments in Winterreise look simpler on paper than they prove to be in execution.  The demands of technique are perhaps secondary to those of flexibility, though, the need for absolute precision of rhythmic synchronization with the singer ultimately trumping even perfect pianism.  The accompanist in this performance, recorded by Verso in a natural acoustic that allows an excellent balance between piano and voice while also reproducing the piano tone with exceptional clarity, offers playing that is both technically adroit and beautifully matched to the singing of the soloist.  Spanish pianist Juan Antonio Álvarez Parejo offers playing of great power and imagination that also perfectly supports the soloist.  Mr. Álvarez Parejo shapes the verses of strophic songs with verve, carefully following the nuances of the text and imposing nothing onto the music.  The virtuosity with which Mr. Álvarez Parejo plays passages that invoke natural phenomena highlight the Impressionistic palette of Schubert’s writing.  In a song like ‘Der Lindenbaum,’ in which far too many pianists make the accompaniment a deadened, plodding sound, Mr. Álvarez Parejo delivers his part with a vitality that lends the song new poignancy.  Throughout the performance, the alertness with which Mr. Álvarez Parejo plays is wonderfully rewarding, and the complete ease of the partnership between vocalist and accompanist is a trait displayed only by very accomplished Lieder accompanists.

Spanish tenor José Manuel Montero, a native Madrileño, has sung an impressive array of operatic rôles ranging from bel canto parts to performances of Erik in Wagner’s Fliegende Holländer and Narraboth in Richard Strauss’s Salome.  These experiences serve him well in this performance of Winterreise, in which he shapes lines with the expansiveness of an talented bel canto singer and also benefits from near-native pronunciation and phrasing of the German texts.  In the opening bars of ‘Gute Nacht,’ Mr. Montero’s voice sounds slightly gravelly, as though the registers are not ideally integrated.  This impression quickly fades as Mr. Montero’s performance progresses, however.  The vividness of his vocal depiction of icy tears in ‘Gefror’ne Tränen’ is matched by the warmth that infuses the voice as he sings of his passion melting winter’s ice.  A starkness invades Mr. Montero’s tone as he sings of the linden tree’s invitation to suicide in ‘Der Lindenbaum,’ but the prevailing tone is one of comforting familiarity.  The rushing uncertainty of the river is heard in ‘Auf dem Flusse,’ and the notes fall one over the other as if spontaneously as Mr. Montero sings of stumbling over stones in ‘Rückblick.’  A restless intensity in ‘Irrlicht’ is compellingly contrasted with stillness and simplicity in ‘Rast.’  ‘Frühlingstraum’ and ‘Einsamkeit’ possess an understated element of boyish wonder, touchingly evoked as a fleeting peace envelops the music.  Mr. Montero responds excitedly to the sounding of the post-horn, but hope turns to disappointment as it becomes apparent in ‘Die Post’ that there is no letter from his beloved.  The irony of ‘Der Greise Kopf’ and ‘Die Krähe’ is put forth sharply, and the menace and building tragedy are voiced with an avoidance of forcing in ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ and ‘Im Dorfe.’  There is an exhausted exasperation in ‘Täuschung,’ the almost childlike expression of betrayal drawing from Mr. Montero sounds drained of the fire of belief in humanity.  ‘Der Wegweiser’ is suitably bleak in tone, the determination to take the path from which no one has ever returned bringing a temporary return of resolve.  ‘Mut,’ with its proclamation that men must become gods themselves when the presence of God is not felt on earth, is sung with ringing brilliance, Mr. Montero meaningfully injecting the full power of his voice into the final two lines of the text.  He brings a credible ambiguity and mystery to ‘Der Leiermann,’ ultimately making the poet’s contemplation of the desolate, ignored old man deeply moving.  There are in the sound of Mr. Montero’s voice in his singing of ‘Der Leiermann’ senses of both resignation and rebirth.  More than many performances, Mr. Montero’s singing of the Cycle as a whole conveys a legitimate psychological journey, and his singing improves with each successive song to build a performance of great beauty and interpretive depth.

There is something peculiarly effective in this performance by Latin artists of music that relies so much upon imagery native to northern climes.  Schubert conjures environments that are as much psychological as physical, and both Juan Antonio Álvarez Parejo and José Manuel Montero dig into the psychiatric implications of Schubert’s music with tremendous energy, technical acumen, and brilliance of ensemble.  The best Lieder performances share with chamber music the sense of artists living, breathing, and performing together as one instrument.  In the best moments of this Winterreise, the singing and accompaniment dissolve into a single thread of sound that shimmers through Schubert’s music.  There are as many different interpretations of Winterreise as there are singers who perform the Cycle, and there is always room even in a crowded discography for performances by singers like José Manuel Montero who approach the music not as an important work to be added to their repertories but as a provocative, necessarily individual journey.

CD REVIEW: Gordon Getty—USHER HOUSE (C. Elsner, É. Dupuis, P. Ens, L. Delan, B. Cumberbatch; PentaTone PTC 5186 451)

Gordon Getty: USHER HOUSE [PentaTone PTC 5186 451]

GORDON GETTY (b. 1933): Usher House—C. Elsner (Edgar Allan Poe), É. Dupuis (Roderick Usher), P. Ens (Doctor Primus), L. Delan (Madeline Usher), B. Cumberbatch (the Attendant – spoken rôle); Orquestra Gulbenkian; Lawrence Foster [Recorded in the Grande Auditório of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, Portugal, during September 2011; PentaTone PTC 5186 451; 1CD, 67:00]

For better or worse, art and wealth are inextricably linked, the former more often than not relying upon the latter for its preservation.  Perhaps the most famous instance of a fortuitous intersection between wealth and artistic ambition is Sir Thomas Beecham: using his family’s considerable assets and influence both to stage operas and to present concert performances of symphonic repertory, Beecham built a remarkable career as a conductor; a career for which he was qualified by enthusiasm, discipline, and great natural talent if not by education.  More recent is the case of Gilbert Kaplan, the millionaire who abandoned his profitable career as a publisher in order to pursue a career as a conductor of Mahler’s Second Symphony and a would-be Mahler scholar.  Gordon Getty, one of the heirs to the sizeable Getty petroleum fortune, has also been successful in utilizing the resources at his disposal to establish for himself a considerable presence in contemporary Classical music.  However, any suggestion of dilettantism is contradicted by Mr. Getty’s legitimate musical studies as both a singer and a conductor.  Mr. Getty’s finances undoubtedly facilitate his music’s journey from creation to publication and performance, but it should not be assumed that the richness of a composer somehow cheapens his music.

As the composer himself acknowledges in his brief remarks printed in PentaTone’s liner notes for this recording, Mr. Getty set the essence rather than the letter of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’  Poe’s story is one of the earliest and most influential works of Gothic fiction in American literature, and many sources cite ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ as Poe’s most widely-read creation.  Poe was even more successful in ‘Fall of the House of Usher’ than in any of his other works in creating an omnipresent atmosphere of menace that pervades every sentence.  One of the most remarkable aspects of the story is the way in which a layered, intricately-detailed drama plays out so completely in a work of such brevity, Poe’s clever invocations of the Usher family legacy implicitly imparting a background to the story over which other writers would have spent scores of pages.  Poe’s work is sometimes criticized for the author’s extraordinary inventiveness being lost in streams of the extravagant, archaic language for which he had such as passion, but Poe’s verbosity in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is vital to the dank environment of the story’s setting.  Music figures prominently in the story, of course, not least in Poe’s descriptions of Roderick Usher’s frenzied guitar playing and his mention of the ‘last Waltz of Von Weber’ as the most frequent choice—and perhaps the only recognizable one—in Usher’s repertoire.  Conjuring a sense of the darkness and unalleviated mystery in Poe’s story is critical to the success of a musical setting of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ and Mr. Getty’s music, though not arrestingly original or melodically memorable, evokes both an apt element of peril and a disturbing but effective suggestion of the inevitability of the destruction of the Usher line.  The story’s unnamed narrator is made Poe himself by Mr. Getty, and the strangely unnerving physician encountered by Poe’s narrator when he first arrives at the Usher mansion is given an increased profile.  Musically, Mr. Getty’s idiom is predominantly tonal but accessibly modern: there are passages that are reminiscent of the Bartók of Bluebeard’s Castle, and the sparseness of the sound and the depictions of emotional and social isolation and their effects upon men’s psyches recall the mature vocal works of Britten.  If this is not the sort of music that is likely to forever remain in a listener’s memory, it is mostly successful in capturing and retaining the listener’s attention.

The Attendant’s few lines are spoken by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, star of BBC’s smash Sherlock and the internationally-acclaimed film Warhorse, an instance of allying phenomenal talent with a paucity of material matched in the operatic discography only by the engagement of Prunella Scales for the cawing of the magpie on the Chandos recording of Rossini’s La gazza ladra.  Mr. Cumberbatch’s mellifluous voice is put to imaginative use despite the small task before him, his accents chilling but unfailingly beguiling.  How wonderful it would be to hear him as the Narrators in Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden, and Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex.

Mr. Getty sought to transform Madeline Usher into a sort of proto-Wagnerian heroine, an aspiring Brünnhilde who strives to be an agent of redemption rather than a victim of relentless fate.  The evil Doctor Primus becomes the orchestrator of Madeline’s destruction, his knowingly false pronouncement of her death rather than her brother’s mental instability leading to her presumed commitment to the tomb whilst she still lives.  She is tormented by ancestors among whom she is out of place, emotionally and spiritually.  American soprano Lisa Delan, a frequent collaborator in Mr. Getty’s projects, sings with an unflinching dedication that reveals the justification of the composer’s appreciation for her artistry.  Like Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Madeline is the central figure in the opera though her part in it is comparatively small.  Indeed, Mr. Getty, who also wrote the libretto for Usher House, essentially employs Madeline solely as a ‘sound effect,’ a wordless voice.  Ms. Delan acts convincingly with her voice, however, and it is through the conviction of her performance that Mr. Getty’s stated aim of making Madeline ‘endearing, not threatening’ is realized.

The unremittingly nasty Doctor Primus is sung with impressive depth of tone by Canadian bass Phillip Ens.  Doctor Primus and his importance in the drama are entirely Mr. Getty’s inventions, and in Usher House Primus is a sort of conflation of Offenbach’s Coppélius and Docteur Miracle.  Mr. Ens’s excellent diction makes Primus an impressively frightening character, his utterances dripping with venomous insinuations.  The precise nature of Primus’s relationship to the Usher family is unspecified, but the intimate knowledge that he displays of the family’s history and lineage in his interview with Poe in the mansion’s observatory in Scene Four—after which, significantly, he disappears from the opera—suggests a deep and decidedly sinister involvement with the family.  In the previous scene, in which Madeline is laid to rest in the family crypt, Poe discovers a tomb inscribed with ‘Lord Primus Usher, mortuit anno 474,’ which introduces the possibility that Primus is himself an ‘undead’ member of the ill-fated clan.  Mr. Ens sings securely and with an intelligent depiction of evil that avoids falling into the clichés of a stock operatic villain.

Roderick Usher is movingly portrayed by Québécois baritone Étienne Dupuis [why he is denied the accent aigu in his name in the print materials accompanying the recording is a mystery], whose firm, resonant voice makes of Roderick a warmer, less obviously neurotic figure than he is in Poe’s story.  There are in Mr. Dupuis’s performance far greater affection and tenderness than Roderick displays in Poe’s depiction of him, though it can be argued that these qualities are implicit in the increasingly unsettling effect that Madeline’s seeming deterioration and demise have on Roderick’s psyche.  Mr. Dupuis also sings with excellent diction, taking advantage of Mr. Getty’s elimination of several of Roderick’s idiosyncrasies—absent are the hypersensitivities to light and sound, as well as the unrelieved paranoia and despair that unsettle Poe’s narrator—to create an amiable, approachable character who is more the doting brother, grown-up frat boy, and conventional operatic hero—Valentin in Gounod’s Faust, to compare him to one rôle in Mr. Dupuis’s repertory—than the troubled, unapologetically weird protagonist in a Gothic horror story.  Roderick in Poe’s story is not so much a tragic figure as one on whom the effects of tragedy are enacted, but Mr. Getty’s Roderick aims at achieving a very personal tragic dénouement.  Above all, what Mr. Dupuis’s Roderick possesses that is alien to the character in Poe is charm: Mr. Dupuis’s uncomplicated, superbly-sung performance leaves an impression of Roderick as a good man overcome by the powerful legacy and manifest calamity of his genetics.

Mr. Getty’s transformation of the story’s narrator into Poe himself is not entirely successful from a dramatic perspective.  Whereas the narrator in the story is a terror-stricken observer, Poe in Usher House emerges as a well-meaning but ultimately somewhat creepy voyeur whose participation in the drama seems slightly exploitative.  These importance of these reservations is lessened by the performance of German tenor Christian Elsner, an accomplished artist whose performances of Mozart and Wagner rôles have won special praise.  Compared with his typical operatic fare, Mr. Getty’s music for Poe is an easy task for Mr. Elsner, but the rôle contains rhythms that must be difficult for a singer whose first language is not English.  Mr. Elsner proves consistently eloquent and idiomatic, however, even channeling a certain poetic ardor for his delivery of Poe’s recitation of his poem describing Madeline, ‘Where is my lady, O where has she gone.’  [Mr. Getty’s mere suggestion that Poe, admittedly not the most innovative or inspired of poets, could have written lines as trite as ‘Follow her easterly, follow the trace / Of her toe on the wind; she has run to the place / Where the morning begins, and the sea, and the sky. / Beauty and grace she is; beauty and grace / Hang in the air like chimes where she goes by’ is appalling.  It must be hoped that no listener mistakes this for genuine Poe.]  Mr. Elsner is a forthright participant in the drama, the lean sound of his voice making Poe’s engagement in the story as obviously intellectual as emotional.  Where Mr. Getty scores over Poe is in his depiction of Poe as a man who is honestly concerned for his friend, though Roderick addressing Poe as ‘Eddie’ is an inauthentic appeal to modern sensibilities (even in correspondence with his wife and closest family and friends, Poe signed himself as either E.A.P. or Edgar, and in her famous acrostic Valentine poem to Poe his wife used his full name as the foundation).  Mr. Elsner’s poised, responsive singing creates a sympathetic Poe whose affection for Roderick makes the brief Prologue and Poe’s brief closing lines seem perfunctory and unnecessary but otherwise intensifies the opera’s impact as a compelling human drama rather than a literary abstraction or curiosity.

Considering the respect with which his works are regarded throughout the world, it is surprising that the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe have inspired so few musical settings of quality.  Unlike the similar but larger-scaled Gothic works of Sir Walter Scott, perhaps Poe’s works present insurmountable challenges to composers and librettists, the peculiar skill with which Poe created very specific settings and characters for his works proving prohibitive to artists who generally wish to maintain careful control of these aspects of their own work.  Extracting details and ideas from Poe’s stories is difficult because his works are meticulously-woven tapestries that threaten to unravel when particular threads are molested.  ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is remarkable in the way that it poses far more questions than it answers, and the reader ultimately knows everything and nothing about Roderick Usher all at once.  These are qualities that are difficult to duplicate in an opera, in which even the most imaginative composer must deal with certain finite elements of space and time.  Usher House plays out like one of the radio plays that were popular in the decades before the development of television, all of the seeds of Poe’s story in place but germinating rather differently within the confines of the opera.  Mr. Getty’s work receives top-quality treatment from an excellent cast, an orchestra on excellent form, and an expressive, musical conductor with extensive experience in modern opera, all recorded by PentaTone in sound of fantastic clarity.  In this regard, it might be truthfully but slightly uncharitably suggested that the recording is better than the opera itself.  Mr. Getty is an insightful, learned composer who has here produced an atmospheric, enjoyable opera.  It is no disrespect to Usher House to state that Mr. Getty’s opera inspires thought about what Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the vein of Die Frau ohne Schatten might have done with the odd situations and bewildering people of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’

07 July 2013

CD REVIEW: Jean-Philippe Rameau—LES AMANTS TRAHIS & OTHER CANTATAS (H. Guilmette, P. Sly; Analekta AN 2 9991)

Jean-Philippe Rameau: LES AMANTS TRAHIS (Analekta AN 2 9991)

JEAN-PHILIPPE RAMEAU (1683 – 1764): Thétis; Les amants trahis; Aquilon et Orithie; Le berger fidèle (Cantatas)—H. Guilmette, soprano; P. Sly, bass-baritone; Clavecin en concert; Luc Beauséjour [Recorded in Église St-Augustin de Mirabel, Québec, Canada, during October 2012; Analekta AN 2 9991; 1CD, 62:47]

When Hippolyte et Aricie, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s first tragédie en musique, was premièred in 1733, its composer was approaching his fiftieth birthday; rather late in life to begin a career as a revolutionary, it might be thought.  Rameau was already famous as a theorist and a composer of music for the harpsichord, but his embarking on a career in opera stirred passions in the French musical establishment, traditionalists recoiling in horror at Rameau’s perceived treading upon the feet of Jean-Baptiste Lully—a serious offense considering that Lully succumbed to an infection resulting from a self-inflicted foot wound—and exponents of the avant garde like André Campra extolling the innovative genius of Rameau’s music for the theatre.  History sides with those who viewed Rameau’s music as a refreshing zephyr blowing away the cobwebs of convention, with operas like Castor et Pollux and Dardanus now regarded as milestones in the development of the distinctively French opéra.  Interestingly, the last years of Rameau’s life and career as an opera composer found him embroiled in heated contests with proponents of the Italian style that had crossed the Alps like an invading Hun and besieged French theatres, but it was Rameau more than any of his contemporaries who incorporated elements of the Italian Baroque into his scores.  Furthermore, it was to the models of Rameau’s operas that Italian composers of opera seria in the mid-18th Century turned for inspiration, particularly in the sublimation of secco recitative to more emotionally-charged accompagnato and arioso.  Little is known about the origins of the impetus that spurred Rameau’s interest in opera.  In the decade or so prior to the genesis of Hippolyte et Aricie, Rameau composed at least six secular cantatas, four of which are offered by Analekta on this recording.  It would not be hyperbole to suggest that these cantatas are masterpieces on a small scale, and they reveal unmistakable hallmarks of the enlightened sensibilities and musical novelty that would blossom so influentially in Rameau’s operas.

A considerable element of the success of this disc is the scintillating sonic atmosphere conjured by the playing of Clavecin en concert, the authentic but never acerbic sounds of period instruments transporting the listener to the 18th-Century salons of Paris.  Under the direction of renowned harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour, Clavecin en concert consists of Adrian Butterfield and Chloe Meyers on violin, Grégoire Jeay on flute, and Mélisande Corriveau on viola da gamba.  The playing of these superb artists, both individually and in ensemble, reveals the often subtle manner in which Rameau shaped musical progression in these cantatas.

Fortunately, this is an age in which singers with voices of the highest quality sing Baroque repertory not as experiments or self-conscious efforts at diversifying their repertories but as legitimate expressions of artistic curiosity and commitment.  This recording features performances by two tremendously gifted artists, soprano Hélène Guilmette and bass-baritone Philippe Sly.  A veteran of acclaimed projects in the realm of Baroque music alongside Andreas Scholl, Les Violons du Roy, and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Ms. Guilmette has also garnered praise in an array of ‘conventional’ operatic rôles including Constance in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites and Mélisande in Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue.  A first-prize winner in the 2012 Concours Musical International de Montréal and winner of the grand prize in the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Mr. Sly has been honored by Radio Canada in addition to his participation in the Young Artists Project of the Salzburger Festspiele and the Adler Fellowship Program at San Francisco Opera.  These are immensely talented singers in their early primes for whom Baroque repertory is natural, delightfully comfortable territory.

The disc opens with Thétis, a ‘cantate à une voix avec symphonie’ that imagines an intense dialogue between Jupiter and Neptune about the amorous attachments of Thetis, a legendarily attractive sea nymph.  Stylistically, Thétis represents the zenith of Rameau’s synthesis of the musical traditions familiar in Europe during his lifetime.  The beautiful, pensive Prélude and opening recitative (‘Muses, dans vos divins concerts’) and air (‘Volez, tyrans des airs’) possess the essence of the French style popularized by Lully.  The second air, ‘Partez, volez, brillants éclairs,’ conjures the stile galante of Corelli and Vivaldi, a vocal line peppered with wide intervals contrasted with a virtuosic perpetuum mobile accompaniment.  ‘Beautés qu’un sort heureux destine,’ the final air—marked by Rameau as an ‘Air Gracieux, sans lenteur’—occupies the world of the arias in Bach’s and Telemann’s Passions, the vocal line complemented by a lovely instrumental obbligato.  Mr. Sly sings the cantata powerfully, his voice adapting seamlessly to the disparate styles of the music.  The frequent ascents to top E are managed with absolute ease, and the ringing brilliance of his vocal presence makes him credible as both Jupiter and Neptune.

Les amants trahis (the Betrayed Lovers) could justifiably be described as an opera in miniature, its centerpiece being ‘Du dieu d’amour,’ an extended air for Damon that rivals the most luxuriantly gorgeous music that Rameau ever composed.  A dialogue between Tircis, portrayed by Ms. Guilmette, and Damon, Mr. Sly’s part, Les amants trahis is an example of emotional directness that Rameau would explore so memorably in his operas.  The first line of Damon’s recitative (‘Moi, j’y viens rire!’) takes Mr. Sly to low G, a note to which he returns on several occasions throughout the cantata.  Stylistically, Les amants trahis is in the same vein as Castor et Pollux, the theme of love’s complications considered with refinement and a touching element of melancholy.  Both Ms. Guilmette and Mr. Sly sing beguilingly, their command of Rameau’s frequently-deployed upper mordent consistently evident.  Both singers venture some very understated ornamentation, Ms. Guilmette’s embellishments allowing occasion forays into her sparkling upper register.  The resonance of Mr. Sly’s lowest notes is slightly surprising for such a young singer, but he is entirely successful at avoiding even the slightest hint of forcing the tone.  His and Ms. Guilmette’s voices combine in duet like silk draping over the smoothest marble.

Aquilon et Orithie, or Enlèvement d’Orithie (The Abduction of Orithyia), is a vigorous piece in which the soloist’s bravura technique is again put to the test.  The first air, ‘Un amant tel que moi doit-il prouver sa flamme,’ demands flexibility, rhythmic precision, and a trill, all of which Mr. Sly provides with boundless energy and concentration.  ‘Servez mes feux à votre tour,’ the cantata’s second air, resembles the type of aria that Händel composed in his London operas for Giuseppe Maria Boschi: a piece in the Italianate da capo style, its particular challenges include a descent to low F-sharp and a pair of long-sustained top Es.  Mr. Sly avoids the low F-sharp but accepts Rameau’s offer of an optional top F-sharp.  Trilling on the repeat of the sustained top E and using embellishments that raise the tessitura in the second statement of the ‘A’ section, Mr. Sly comfortably traverses the cantata’s two octaves even without the low F-sharp.  The air that closes the cantata, ‘On peut toujours dans l’amoureux mystère,’ again displays Rameau’s genius at its most inspired, the vocal line graceful but restless as the singer expresses frustration with the confounding ambiguities of love.  Mr. Sly conveys this exasperation credibly but also creates a sense of resignation to a lover’s fate that introduces a touching suggestion of wistful regret.  Another low F-sharp is omitted, and Mr. Sly prefers to remain on the higher notes of penultimate phrases when Rameau asks for octave drops—from the B a semi-tone below middle C to the B an octave down, for instance—that create upward resolutions of cadences.  Mr. Sly’s reshaping of the phrases as descents from dominant to tonic is effective, however, and enables the singer’s focus to be on both musical and dramatic resolution of phrases rather than placement of the lower register.

Ms. Guilmette closes the disc with an especially lovely performance of Le Berger Fidèle (The Faithful Shepherd), a sterling example of the Arcadian cantata that was so popular during the High Baroque among composers on all sides of the Alps.  Following the brief opening recitative, an ‘air plaintif,’ ‘Faut-il qu’Amarillis périsse,’ sets the mood of Le Berger Fidèle.  Ms. Guilmette sings with a voice that seems carried by bucolic zephyrs.  In the ‘air gai,’ ‘L’Amour qui règne dans votre âme,’ Ms. Guilmette makes enchanting use of the dramatic slowing of tempo that Rameau stipulates at the words, ‘Vous montrez comme il faut aimer.’  The voice shimmers attractively in the upper register, displaying an exceptionally lovely top A-flat.  In the final air, ‘Charmant Amour, sous ta puissance,’ the soprano receives an Händelian aria of the type that the Saxon composer wrote for Francesca Cuzzoni.  The soprano has a delicate melodic line stretched like a strand of pearls over an accompaniment busy with triplet figurations, and Ms. Guilmette’s timbre glows with opalescence.  She takes advantage of every opportunity given to her by the composer to combine beautiful singing with heartfelt interpretation, making of this cantata an impeccably stylish piece of singing but also a deeply personal experience.

With the increased attention that the cantate da camera of Italian Baroque composers have received in recent years, it seems inexplicably unjust that the exquisite cantatas of Jean-Philippe Rameau have continued to be relatively obscure.  They have been recorded on a few occasions in past, of course, and the brilliant British baritone Sir Thomas Allen enjoyed great success with his espousal of Thétis, albeit in a manner that did not take full advantage of scholarship concerning period-appropriate performances of French Baroque music.  In terms of historically-informed style, this recording leaves nothing to be desired.  With instrumentalists who share the singers’ dedication to performing the music at a level that the composer’s genius deserves, all of the elements are in place to enable the construction of a magnificent musical structure, and those elements are here arranged with unique harmony.  What so many recordings of French Baroque repertory lack is, for want of a better term, heart: Hélène Guilmette and and Philippe Sly ensure that no such deficiency afflicts this disc.  In short, this recording sets a standard that is unlikely to ever be surpassed.

06 July 2013

CD REVIEW: Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel—LIEDER, Volume 2 (Dorothea Craxton, soprano; NAXOS 8.572781)

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel: LIEDER, Volume 2 (NAXOS 8.572781)

FANNY MENDELSSOHN-HENSEL (1805 – 1847): Lieder, Volume 2—Dorothea Craxton, soprano; Babette Dorn, piano [Recorded in the Hans Rosbaud Studio, Baden-Baden, Germany, 28 – 31 October 2010; NAXOS 8.572781; 1CD, 62:27; World première recordings (10 Lieder)]

Despite the best efforts of esteemed performers and enterprising record labels, the music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel remains too little explored by today’s artists, especially Lieder singers.  Unlike many female composers, Mendelssohn-Hensel was surrounded by family who encouraged her compositional ambitions if not her aspirations to see her music in print: she not only received the same musical education that was lavished on her famous brother Felix but was for a time considered the superior pupil.  Her work as a composer had the support of her husband, painter Wilhelm Hensel, something that as gifted an artist as Alma Mahler lacked, and though it may seem to have perpetuated the latent sexism in the Arts environment of the Nineteenth Century, her brother’s publication of a number of her songs under his own name is indicative of his ambivalent appreciation of his sister’s talent.  There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, which suggests that Mendelssohn embarrassedly confessed to Queen Victoria when she cited ‘Italien,’ published in his Opus 8 collection of Lieder, as her favorite song that it was, in fact, the work of his sister.  After her marriage, some of Mendelssohn-Hensel’s works were published, but few records of contemporary critical response survive.  Re-evaluation of her music in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, spurred by the increasing interest in the music of female composers, reveals that Mendelssohn-Hensel was capable of creating works of great charm, beauty, and unabashed sentimentality.

When selecting texts for her Lieder, Mendelssohn-Hensel displayed considerable insightfulness.  Included in this recital, the second Volume in NAXOS’s ongoing devoir to Mendelssohn-Hensel’s Lieder, are songs set to verses by, among others, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine, and Friedrich Rückert.  The gracefulness with which Mendelssohn-Hensel set words to music is evident in all of the songs on this disc.  Though her melodies are not as memorable as Schubert’s, she shares many of the Austrian composer’s gifts for conveying the emotional essence of a poem by combining eloquent vocal lines with direct, unadorned accompaniments.  Mendelssohn-Hensel was an accomplished pianist, though her talents were mostly confined to her family’s salons: what is believed to have been her only public performance was of her brother’s First Piano Concerto.  Her own talents for the keyboard undoubtedly contributed to the skillfulness of her writing of the piano accompaniments to her Lieder.  The music to which Mendelssohn-Hensel set the songs performed on this disc is of unfailingly excellent quality.  There are the expected echoes of her brother’s style but also discernible influences of Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart, and even Bach and Händel.  The Mendelssohn family were exceptionally important in the revival of interest in Baroque music, after all, and bravura passages and trills that one might expect to hear in the Passions of Bach or German arias of Händel are put to sparingly effective use by Mendelssohn-Hensel in a pair of songs recorded here.  One peril of projects that aim at recording all of a lesser-known composer’s Lieder is that such attention often discloses pieces that merit the obscurity the decades have granted them.  There are no such disappointments among the songs on this disc.

Pianist Babette Dorn is a sensitive accompanist who encounters nothing in Mendelssohn-Hensel’s music that she is not eminently capable of executing with poise and superb musicality.  Ms. Dorn’s playing honors the composer by being so consistently attuned to the subtlety and almost imperceptible shifts in moods.  Furthermore, Ms. Dorn displays a true affinity for matching her own phrasing to that of the singer she is accompanying, as well as for setting the pace of each song without imposing tempi on the singer or exploiting the music in the interest of displaying her talents.

In addition to having sung the Lieder included in NAXOS’s first Volume of Mendelssohn-Hensel’s Lieder, German soprano Dorothea Craxton has also recorded Lieder by Clara Schumann and an impressive catalogue of Baroque repertory, all of which ideally prepared her for performing the Lieder included on this disc.  Ms. Craxton’s voice has a lovely, alluringly feminine timbre that shines in this music.  Mendelssohn-Hensel’s vocal demands are not slight, with several of the songs taking the singer near to the top of the lyric soprano range, and Ms. Craxton responds with secure intonation and laudable placement of the voice.  Ms. Craxton explores the emotional depths of the Goethe and Heine songs with intelligence, conveying darker sentiments without clouding her sound or distorting the purity of her phrasing.  Mendelssohn-Hensel’s setting of Justinus Kerner’s ‘Totenklage’ (‘Lament for the Dead’) draws from Ms. Craxton great focus of feeling.  The Byron settings are suitably warm-blooded pieces, and Ms. Craxton sings them delightfully.  ‘Fichtenbaum und Palme,’ its text by Heine, is one of Mendelssohn-Hensel’s best songs, and Ms. Craxton delivers it with emotional honesty and radiant tone.  Throughout the performance, Ms. Craxton sings winningly.  The only flaw in Ms. Craxton’s performance is her diction: clear enough in German texts, her enunciation of the English texts is virtually unintelligible, detracting from her accomplishment in the performance of the Byron songs.  This is a recital that is easily enjoyed nonetheless; and, furthermore, one that is a finer performance than several recent recital discs featuring very famous singers.

With so many fine Lieder singers sharing their artistry in the world’s concert halls today, it is regrettable that so few of them look beyond the boundaries of the standard Lieder repertory to the songs of underappreciated composers such as Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel.  As so often in recent years, a NAXOS project fills a gap in the repertory most handsomely.  Dorothea Craxton and Babette Dorn give of their best in this recital of Mendelsson-Hensel Lieder that, more than many ‘unearthed’ works, deserve to be heard.

04 July 2013

ARTIST PROFILE: Saimir Pirgu, tenor

Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu [Photo by Fadil Berisha; used with permission] Tenor Saimir Pirgu [Photo by Fadil Berisha; used with permission]

Albania in the 1980s was a nation stirring with desire to emerge from the shadows of the Iron Curtain.  A turning point came in 1985 with the death of Enver Hoxha, the Stalinist leader of Albania since the nation’s liberation from Fascist control in 1944.  Hoxha’s hand-picked successor, Ramiz Alia, held the reins of power for only six years before the Democratic Party of Albania prevailed in general elections, ending Communist rule in Albania and beginning a period of transition that would produce today’s Republic of Albania, a dynamic, fast-changing nation that joined NATO in 2009.  Albania’s five decades of Communist rule brought untold atrocities to the people of the nation, however, forming a legacy that haunts the collective conscience of the nation and its Diaspora.  Hoxha declared Albania an atheist state in 1967, the culmination of an assault on organized religion that disbanded religious communities, closed mosques and other houses of worship, and saw many clerics imprisoned, tortured, and executed.  Albanians were subject to the terror of the Sigurimi, the State’s secret police force that enacted tactics similar to those employed in Stalin’s USSR and Tito’s Yugoslavia.  This was an environment in which the endeavors of artists were dangerous, but perhaps the most astonishing wonder of Art is its ability to endure hardships and, to give a new context to the famous sentiment of William Faulkner, not merely to survive but to prevail.  From this nation of contrasts, of timeless cultures and new horizons darkened by clouds of past tribulations, emerged a young artist who is poised to become one of the most important singers of the Twenty-First Century: tenor Saimir Pirgu.

Born in the last decade of Communist rule in Albania, Mr. Pirgu fell victim to the efforts of the Communist regime to dictate career paths to the nation’s young people.  ‘It was my fortune and misfortune,’ he recollects, ‘that in the years 1989 and 1990, the last years of Communism, a representative of the Communist government came to my school, looking for young talents.  It was in this way that I was ‘discovered’ and forced—and here I truly mean that it was misfortune—to study the violin.’  Mr. Pirgu displayed distinct musical sensibilities at a very young age, as he recalls.  ‘I began to love music as a young child,’ he says.  ‘At the age of three, I was already imitating and singing all the songs that I liked.’  Though learning to play the violin was not his choice, he recognizes that the experience had advantages that have become more apparent as his career as a singer has developed.  ‘Over time, the violin proved to be a real stroke of good fortune,’ he intimates.  ‘Studying the violin sharpened my musical ear and made possible the rapid growth of musical talent that has been very useful to me in singing.’

Saimir Pirgu (left) as Alfredo in Verdi's LA TRAVIATA at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky (right) [Photo by Johan Persson; used with permission] Saimir Pirgu (left) as Alfredo in Verdi’s La traviata at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky (right) as Giorgio Germont, 2010 [Photo by Johan Persson; used with permission]

It was a television broadcast that altered Mr. Pirgu’s musical perceptions and set him on a new course.  ‘When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, Albanian TV was broadcasting a Three Tenors concert.  From the moment when I saw that concert, I decided that singing would become my path.  Gradually, I abandoned the violin and dedicated myself entirely to singing.’  This rededication of his musical pursuits led him across the Adriatic to Italy, the birthplace of opera.  ‘I arrived in Italy in 2000,’ he says, ‘and I began to study singing at the Conservatorio Claudio Monteverdi di Bolzano.  There, I entered another world that was completely different from Albania.’  In Bolzano, Mr. Pirgu met Maestro Vito Brunetti, with whom he began his formal vocal studies and with whom he continues to study today.  ‘Under Maestro Brunetti’s tutelage, I read books, listened to CDs, and I began to become acquainted with the names and artistries of the great artists of the past and the present—and especially the great tenors.’  Among those great tenors of the past, Mr. Pirgu mentions Enrico Caruso, Giuseppe di Stefano, Gianni Raimondi, and Nicolai Gedda as singers he ‘loved and still loves.’  This immersion in the traditions of opera was a means of ‘slowly developing [his] arts and music education,’ he suggests.  ‘I have always believed that it is essential to know the art of the past in order to better understand the art of the present.’  The progress of Mr. Pirgu’s education was rapid.  ‘After less than two years, I advanced to participating in singing competitions, and I won my first Tito Schipa and Enrico Caruso competitions.  I started to enter the wonderful world of opera so young!’

Mr. Pirgu remains a very young artist, but his cognizance of the development of his voice is reflected in the trajectory of his career.  In a rôle like Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which he has sung in several productions, the sweetness of Mr. Pirgu’s timbre is immediately evident, as is the maturity of his technique.  ‘Maybe you are right to say that Don Giovanni is right for my voice,’ Mr. Pirgu responds to this statement.  The intelligence of his approach to singing becomes even more evident as he continues.  ‘My concern is always to be ready for the new frontiers of my career.  You cannot always specialize in a single repertoire, especially as the voice develops and changes constantly.  The skill of a singer, in my opinion, lies in understanding the development of the voice and constantly adapting the repertoire to suit it.’  Saimir Pirgu (right) as Rodolfo in Puccini's LA BOHÈME at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, with Angela Gheorghiu as Mimì, 2012 [Photo by Irina Stanescu; used with permission] Though his voice remains in the early blossoming of a full lyric tenor, Mr. Pirgu is keenly aware of the ways in which many of the finest tenor voices of the past century have grown and darkened as the singers’ careers progressed.  He has clear goals for his own growth as an artist, but he is cautious about the pressures of expectations and expanding his repertory too quickly.  ‘As a young singer, it is perhaps too early to begin drawing conclusions [about the course of the career],’ Mr. Pirgu says.  ‘My belief is this: the responsibility for an artist’s career lies with the artist and only the artist.  We live in a very fast-paced world in which image has almost become the most important thing, often at the expense of quality.  I have realized that this is a job for only a few people: you not only need to understand the singularity of your own voice, but you must have the ability to control and plan your own career and refuse rôles that do not fit the voice, though this can be very difficult.’  Mr. Pirgu also exhibits rare insight into the ways in which seemingly different repertories intersect.  ‘For me,’ he states, ‘I am now singing Rigoletto and Traviata in addition to the Mozart rôles and the bel canto.  What is critical is ensuring that every rôle is suitable both for my voice and for my current state of artistic development.  Mozart, Donizetti, and Verdi can all be sung with the same vocal style, with the colors, musicality, and rules of bel canto.  This was the way of the great artists of the past.’

Even in this age in which, as he suggested, image is in many instances winning precedence over musicality, Mr. Pirgu maintains his dedication to refining his technique.  ‘I consider myself fortunate,’ he confides, ‘for being able to read and understand music.  A career as a singer is full of sacrifices, but the sacrifices are worth it when there is passion.’  The strongest passion for singing does not mitigate the challenges that an artist faces.  ‘My biggest challenge lies in trying to bring my art to the audience as much as possible through interpretation of the music,’ Mr. Pirgu says.  A focus on interpretation of the rôles that he sings is central to Mr. Pirgu’s performance philosophy, and considerations of interpretive depth join those of vocal suitability as he looks to the future.  ‘Everything that I have sung thus far will also be ideal for me over the next decade of my career,’ he says.  As he expands his repertory, he plans to continue his explorations of French repertory, selecting those rôles that both fit his voice and allow him to add new nuances to his skills as an actor.  ‘For my future, I will add some rôles from the French repertory like des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon and Roméo in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.  These rôles will likely pave the way for Faust later.’

Saimir Pirgu in the title rôle of Mozart's IDOMENEO at Opernhaus Zürich, 2010 [Photo by Susanne Schwiez; used with permission] Saimir Pirgu in the title rôle of Mozart’s Idomeneo at Opernhaus Zürich, 2010 [Photo by Susanne Schwierz; used with permission]

The debate rages about the need to make or keep opera ‘relevant’ to modern audiences in order to ensure the survival of the genre in the Twenty-First Century.  Mr. Pirgu views the efforts of directors to make an opera ‘relevant’ to a particular audience as beside the point, musically and artistically.  ‘In my opinion, there are no true modern or classic,’ he explains.  ‘There are winning or not winning, good or bad, success or failure, intelligent or stupid, and all of these qualities exist regardless of whether a production is modern or traditional.’  Having worked with some of the most renowned directors in opera, Mr. Pirgu has participated in several notably controversial productions.  ‘For me, a director must work first and foremost with the artists, to ensure that they understand his ideas.  When they understand the director’s ideas, the artists can make the staging work.’  Mr. Pirgu cites Willy Decker, in whose production of La traviata he sang at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year, as an example of a director who successfully communicates his interpretive points to the artists with whom he works.  ‘In most cases, contemporary, non-traditional productions require more heightened acting skills and greater concentration on the part of the singers,’ Mr. Pirgu says.  ‘Often, however, the result of attempting to be extravagant or innovative is to end up with an abstraction that is incomprehensible even to the singers, who know the music.  The singer’s responsibility is sometimes to save a show, even if he is not always successful.’

His Albanian origins notwithstanding, to hear Mr. Pirgu sing bel canto repertory is to be transported back to the era of Tito Schipa, when breath control and placement of tone were paramount and artists relied upon proper projection rather than volume to fill theatres with golden, Italianate sounds.  Mr. Pirgu shares that ‘the correct position of the sound of the voice and musicianship’ are the most critical elements of his method of singing, regardless of which rôle he is performing.  As Alfredo in La traviata, Mr. Pirgu upholds the tradition of an artist like Cesare Valletti, an uncompromising lyric tenor who excelled in the part by avoiding forcing the voice beyond its natural dimensions.  Mr. Pirgu improves upon the singing of both of these illustrious forbears by possessing a broader, more reliable range than Schipa and a richer palette of vocal colors than Valletti.  Like these artists, however, Mr. Pirgu displays a refreshing understanding of the fact that, if one’s voice is to support a long career in the most important opera houses, it is the dimensions of the interpretation and the comfort of the tessitura rather than the size of the voice that determine the singer’s suitability for a rôle.

Just as his personality and artistic credo were influenced but not defined by the hardships that he experienced as a boy in his native Albania, Saimir Pirgu is dedicated to the art of song but not lost in an abyss of notes and ledger lines.  He treasures the days when, rather than being one of the new millennium’s most exceptional young tenors, he is a thoughtful, dashingly handsome, but uncomplicated young man.  ‘Once the curtain closes, I become a person like everyone else,’ he says.  ‘I try to live my life away from the theatre with great simplicity.’  There is an element of that simplicity in his artistry, too: hearing his voice in the pensive music of Don Ottavio, in Alfredo’s ardent outpourings of love and bitterness, in the lovesick cantilena of Nemorino, or in the charmingly duplicitous phrases of the Duca di Mantova is one of the simple pleasures in an opera lover’s life.

Saimir Pirgu (right) in rehearsal for Puccini's GIANNI SCHICCHI at Los Angeles Opera, with director Woody Allen (left) and conductor James Conlon (center) [Photo by Robert Millard; used with permission] Saimir Pirgu (right) in rehearsal for his performances as Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi at Los Angeles Opera, with director Woody Allen (left) and conductor James Conlon (center); 21 August 2008 [Photo by Robert Millard for Los Angeles Opera; used with permission]

The author’s sincerest thanks are extended to Mr. Pirgu and to his Personal Press Representative, Karen Kriendler Nelson, for their kindness in facilitating the writing of this profile.  To learn more about Saimir Pirgu’s artistry and upcoming performances, please visit his Official Website, follow his official Fan Page on Facebook, and subscribe to his feed on Twitter.