31 December 2014

BEST ARTISTS OF 2014: Sarah Connolly, Ann Hallenberg, Heidi Melton, Michael Fabiano, Steven LaBrie, and David Pershall

YEAR IN REVIEW: The Best Artists of 2014

Whether one’s involvement in the Performing Arts is as an active participant, an observer, or, as in my case, a complex combination of both rôles, it is impossible to overlook the fact that great voices are not always possessed by great people. For so many singers, particularly those in the early years of major careers, the world’s stages collectively constitute a sadly hostile work environment. The camaraderies that existed among singers of previous generations, even those who competed for assignments in the same repertories, are now sparser, and the increasing emphasis on how singers look rather than how they sound has intensified the stress of making a career in opera. Unfortunately, tragically even, this lessens the appeal of opera both for those who perform it and for those who listen. I have been disheartened on a number of occasions by discovering that some of the voices I most admire belong to people with loathsome personalities. Nonetheless, I passionately reject the notion that there are no great voices among us today, and I rejoice in the fact that there are still among the rarefied ranks of those who make their artistic homes in the world’s opera houses genuinely kind people who take their craft very seriously and themselves somewhat less so. The six ladies and gentlemen selected as the Voix des Arts Best Artists of 2014 are singers who not only care deeply about their artistry but also infuse their work with palpable affection for music itself and commitment to the audiences who assemble to hear them. Individually, these six people are all artists of uncompromising preparedness and integrity: collectively, they are, in short, the finest essence of the present and future of opera.

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BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly [Photo by Peter Warren]BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly [Photo by Peter Warren]

In February 2010, I had the pleasure of attending a performance of the beautiful Elijah Moshinsky production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the Metropolitan Opera [reviewed here]. It was an auspicious occasion: in addition to being a Saturday matinée broadcast performance in which all participants were expected to give of their best, it was a then-rare appearance in the United States by soprano Nina Stemme. It was indeed a superb performance in which Ms. Stemme sang excellently, but the portrayal that remains engraved in my memory in finely-etched detail is the Komponist of British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly. This Komponist’s dedication to his craft was all-consuming, and his blossoming, touchingly desperate passion for Zerbinetta was more vividly but movingly, serenely conveyed than in any performance known to me, even those featuring the greatest Komponists of the past—Seefried, Jurinac, Stratas, Troyanos, and Żylis-Gara. Four years later, Händel’s Theodora—one of the composer’s most inspired scores—brought Ms. Connolly to Chapel Hill, where she sang the title heroine’s friend and confidante Irene with an unerring command of Händel’s style [reviewed here]. Many of today’s singers are undone by the requisite versatility of their repertories; not Ms. Connolly, who can limn the delicate vocal lines of an arioso by Monteverdi as impeccably as she can soar above the orchestra in Brangäne’s Watch or ​plumb the depths of a Mahler Lied or Symphony.​ Her singing of the Angel in the Chandos recording of Sir Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, as well as the accompanying performance of Sea Pictures [reviewed here], confirms that her exquisite vocalism is but one component of her compelling artistry. The most powerful weapon in her arsenal is the humanity that her performances exude, transforming her into a vessel for communication of the sentiments with which composers of all eras imbued their scores directly to the hearts and minds of Twenty-First-Century listeners. Whether one hears her as Nerone, Sesto, Fricka, or Octavian, one never hears Sarah Connolly’s ‘takes’ on these characters: one hears them as Monteverdi, Mozart, Wagner, and Strauss and their librettists imagined them.


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BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg [Photo by Nancy Glor]BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg [Photo by Nancy Glor]

Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg is a singers’ singer in the best sense. Were she not the guardian of one of the greatest voices in the world, she would still be one of the most special artists on the international scene. I have never encountered a fellow musician who has accompanied or shared the stage with her who does not adore Ms. Hallenberg as both a lady and an artist. In the eyes of her colleagues, she has perfected the art of living graciously on and off the stage. Beyond her personal warmth and kindness, however, there is that voice—that gorgeous timbre allied to technical prowess that defies belief in the explosive pyrotechnics of music ranging from the castrato repertory of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries to the force-of-nature coloratura of Rossini. As Ottavia in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, she takes her leave of Rome with the crushing despondency of a woman for whom the Eternal City represents security, happiness, and life itself. In the title rôle of Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans, she is a seductress to whom any hero might lose his head. As Teseo in Händel’s Arianna in Creta, she is a diverting hero who woos with bravura machismo. As Isabella in Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, she never relinquishes her grasp on her own fate. In sacred repertory, she is the rare singer who imparts the nuances of text without artifice. Rather than fabricating idiosyncratic concepts of the rôles that she sings and then adapting the music to conform with her creations, Ms. Hallenberg picks up a score, absorbs every note into her psyche, translates every word into emotions, and pours from her throat and her soul streams of tone that seem newly-minted even if the music was composed three hundred years ago. Nothing that she does is dryly academic, but her trills and gruppetti are the stuff of textbooks. It was as Händel’s Agrippina that I first heard Ms. Hallenberg, and so natural was her execution of even the composer’s most demanding passages that she might have been composing them herself as the performance progressed. Nevertheless, it was one of the most pin-point accurate performances of Händel that I have heard. Ms. Hallenberg is the kind of artist—the rarest kind, that is—whose performances are unforgettable in ways that can hardly be imagined. With most singers, one remembers either the details or the overall impression, what was there or what was not there. When hearing Ms. Hallenberg, every aspect of her performance captures the imagination. Years after an evening in her company, one might hear a fragment of a melody, a series of roulades, or a line of text and think, ‘Ah, yes, I remember how Ann Hallenberg sang that.’


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BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Soprano Heidi Melton [Photo by Simon Pauly, courtesy of CAMI]BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Soprano Heidi Melton [Photo by Simon Pauly, courtesy of CAMI]

So unexpected is the emergence of a legitimate Wagnerian today that, when it occurs, the marvel invites skepticism. How often are one’s first experiences with young singers disappointing because the voices one hears do not live up to the hype that precedes them? Having heard her first as the Foreign Princess in Dvořák’s Rusalka [reviewed here] and then as Isolde in Act Two of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde [reviewed here], both with North Carolina Opera in Raleigh, I no longer doubt the veracity of this phenomenon: soprano Heidi Melton is better than the best things that have been said about her. North Carolina Opera’s Rusalka was presented in semi-staged form, the Tristan und Isolde in concert, but Ms. Melton commanded the stage with the assurance of a veteran Broadway thespian. The haughtiness of her Foreign Princess leapt off the stage like a starved lion released from its cage, and it tormented her poor Rusalka mercilessly. Still, it was the ferocity of a threatened, vulnerable woman, and her sadness as she accepted that her Prince was lost to her was uncommonly sympathetic. Her Isolde, too, was a girl drowning in a sea of circumstances beyond her control. Upon the crests of the drama, her comet-like voice shone with penetrating brightness. The pair of top Cs in Isolde’s great love duet with Tristan streaked through the theatre with the gleam of shooting stars, and she achieved the force required by the music—Dvořák’s and Wagner’s—without pushing her natural instrument. When her Sieglinde in Die Walküre is heard soon in Toronto, Canadian ears will be greeted by the beguiling, entrancing sounds of a true dramatic voice. When she hurls out ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ into the Four Seasons Centre, she will be singing of Brünnhilde [aptly, as her Brünnhilde will be 2013’s Voix des Arts Best Artist, Christine Goerke], but the audience must be forgiven for hearing those words and assuming that Wagner presciently wrote them in description of Heidi Melton’s voice.


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BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Tenor Michael Fabiano [Photo by Arielle Doneson]BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Tenor Michael Fabiano [Photo by Arielle Doneson]

​The recipient of both the 2014 Richard Tucker Award and the 2014 Beverly Sills Artist Award, tenor ​Michael Fabiano—the first artist to earn both awards in a single year—needs no introduction. His 2010 début at the Metropolitan Opera as Raffaele in Verdi's Stiffelio heralded the arrival of a young artist who seemed to possess every quality needed to be one of the finest singers of his generation, not the least of which is a strong, Italianate voice​​ touched by ​rays of sweetness and sunshine. His Cassio in Otello in 2012 was the personification of youthful romanticism, and his lovesick, genuinely funny Alfred was rightly the ‘hit’ of the production of Johann Strauß II's Die Fledermaus that opened on New Year's Eve 2013. Just three weeks ago, on 10 December 2014, Mr. Fabiano sang his first MET performance of Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème, and by the conclusion of ‘Che gelida manina’ it was apparent that a star had become a supernova. In astronomy, a supernova is expected to burn itself out relatively quickly: in the case of Mr. Fabiano, the brilliant conflagration seems destined to continue for years to come. When I heard him as the title swashbuckler in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Verdi’s Il corsaro in March 2014 [reviewed here], his fire was burning resplendently. It consumed Glyndebourne’s production of La traviata, in which it was his Alfredo rather than Violetta who set the East Sussex air ablaze. His return to Glyndebourne in 2015 to sing the title rôle in Donizetti’s Poliuto is already the talk of Britain, and his poetic but ruggedly masculine account of Gounod’s Faust in Amsterdam ignited expectations for his forthcoming appearances in Faust in Sydney and Paris. Elegant in bel canto and heart-stopping in Verdi and Puccini, riotous in comedy and devastating in tragedy, he is an operatic Renaissance man. It is impossible to devise praise for Mr. Fabiano that has not already been granted him—far more eloquently—elsewhere, but he is an artist and a gentleman who inspires the invention of new ways to extol his gifts.


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BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Baritone Steven LaBrie [Photo by Devon Cass]BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Baritone Steven LaBrie [Photo by Devon Cass]

​It is not often that the Schaunard in a performance of Puccini’s La bohème commandeers an observer’s imagination in a way that heightens rather distracting from the bittersweet interactions between Mimì and Rodolfo, but it is not often that an artist sings Schaunard as well as baritone Steven LaBrie sang the part at Washington National Opera in November 2014 [reviewed here]. This was not only singing, though: Mr. LaBrie was Schaunard—happy-go-lucky but deadly serious, boisterous yet barely able to contain his sorrow. I have seen a number of performances of La bohème and in them some very fine singers in the rôle of Schaunard, but no singer drew me into Schaunard’s unique world as viscerally—or as movingly—as Mr. LaBrie managed to do. In 2013, his portrayal of Don Alvaro in Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims at Wolf Trap revealed a flair for comedy that served him well in WNO’s La bohème, but even in the most frolicsome stage business there is a tender heart that pulses unmistakably in his work. His singing of Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin in Jessica Lang Dance’s The Wanderer at Brooklyn Academy of Music conveyed more facets of Schubert’s music and Wilhelm Müller’s poetry than many singers disclose in a lifetime’s experience with the cycle. In March 2015, Mr. LaBrie returns to his native Dallas for La bohème with The Dallas Opera. The designation of ‘an artist to watch’ has become clichéd, but it is difficult to imagine looking away from a singer as mesmerizing as Steven LaBrie. By all means, watch him: a Schaunard who can expose the ethos of La bohème with the simplest of gestures and uncomplicated tonal beauty has the operatic world at his feet.


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BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Baritone David Pershall [Photo by Arthur Cohen]BEST ARTIST OF 2014: Baritone David Pershall [Photo by Arthur Cohen]

Those who lament the current state of Verdi baritone singing are certain to not yet have heard American baritone David Pershall. I made the acquaintance of his splendid voice with his surprisingly vibrant Manfredo in Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re [reviewed here], a Polskie Radio recording of a 2013 concert performance in Warsaw. From his first note, it was evident that this young man was not just a bar-raising Manfredo but, even more excitingly, one with the potential to rain down with biblical grandeur upon the drought in idiomatic Italian baritone singing. His Conte di Luna in Sarasota Opera’s Il trovatore was an early port of call in a journey through Verdi’s baritone rôles that is poised to restore to the Italian repertory the stylishness that has been been in danger of extinction since the glory days of Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes, and Giorgio Zancanaro. Like several of his most eminent predecessors in Verdi repertory, Mr. Pershall has built his technique upon a solid mastery of bel canto. In Opera Orchestra of New York’s June 2014 concert performance of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, he achieved with his singing of the Duke of Nottingham the extraordinary feat of holding his own opposite the legendary Mariella Devia on sparkling form. His Belcore in L’elisir d’amore at the Wiener Staatsoper exposed the informedly finicky Viennese to singing of a quality all too unfamiliar in the rôle: it was a start to a season that finds him singing Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Sebastian in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, in addition to covering several of the greatest baritone rôles in the Verdi and Wagner repertories. The 2015 – 2016 Season will take him to the Metropolitan Opera for La bohème and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda: where he will take audiences with his awe-inspiring singing in the years ahead is one of the most spectacular questions in opera. Ringing in a new year should be an occasion for remembering the best of the past and reveling in hope for the future. This is precisely the spirit that David Pershall’s singing evokes. Auld acquaintance should never be forgot, but the singing of artists like Sarah Connolly, Ann Hallenberg, Heidi Melton, Michael Fabiano, Steven LaBrie, and David Pershall brings such joy and anticipation of yet-to-be-discovered wonders to mind.


26 December 2014

BEST CONCERTO RECORDING OF 2014: Benjamin Britten and Mieczysław Weinberg – VIOLIN CONCERTOS (Linus Roth, violin; Challenge Classics CC72627)

BEST CONCERTO RECORDING OF 2014: Benjamin Britten & Mieczysław Weinberg - VIOLIN CONCERTOS (Challenge Classics CC72627)BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): Concerto for violin and orchestra, Op. 15 and MIECZYSŁAW WEINBERG (1919 – 1996): Concerto for violin, Op. 67Linus Roth, violin; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; Mihkel Kütson, conductor [Recorded at Jesus Christus Kirche Berlin – Dahlem, Germany, 26 – 29 August 2013; Challenge Classics CC72627; 1 CD, 62:50; Available from Challenge Classics, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

When writing about music, I am ever mindful of the words of Great War poet Robert Graves, published in his Fairies and Fusiliers: ‘Critic wears no smile of fun, / Speaks no word of blame nor praise, / Counts our kisses one by one, / Notes each gesture, every phrase.’ For me, Graves’s words are an ideal blueprint of how not to be a critic, for if I am not permitted to wear a ‘smile of fun’ whilst listening to the endeavors of an accomplished musician and then attempting to translate that sensation into words of praise it is not a worthwhile task. What makes certain artists and their work unique is their ability to transform a listener’s perceptions of a work of art, a fellow artist, or some facet of art itself. The performance by young violinist Linus Roth, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, and conductor Mihkel Kütson on Challenge Classics—magnificently committed to disc by the technical team of executive producers Anne de Jong and Marcel van den Broek, audio engineer Steven Maes, assistant engineer Sander Van Laere, and musical director Felicia Bockstael—was not my first acquaintance with Mieczysław Weinberg’s 1959 Opus 67 Violin Concerto, but it immediately changed not only my opinion of the Concerto but also greatly increased my esteem for the composer’s music in general. Most excitingly, noting ‘each gesture, every phrase’ of Mr. Roth’s playing, I deepened my acquaintance with one of the new century’s most inspiring violinists.

Born in Warsaw in 1919, Weinberg was the son of a family that maintained a prominent presence in the Yiddish theatres of Poland. Taking refuge in the Soviet Union as the destruction of World War II spread across​ Europe, the young composer lost much of his family to pogroms and death camps. Weinberg’s paths as a man and a composer were never to be easy, but his friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich was a defining influence in his life. Befriending the older composer gave him confidence both in his craft and in the value of his artistic vision, but stating that Shostakovich inspired and guided Weinberg is not to suggest ​that the latter’s originality was in any way lessened by exposure to his Russian colleague’s work. In fact, it was likely his interaction with Weinberg that prompted Shostakovich’s great interest in Jewish music in the latter half of his career. Without the intervention of Shostakovich, however, much of Weinberg’s music might have been lost or never composed at all. Whatever factors contributed to Weinberg’s artistic and personal resilience, hearing Mr. Roth’s playing of the Violin Concerto caused this listener to feel tremendously grateful for them.

Composed for Ukrainian violinist Leonid Kogan​, who shared the composer’s Jewish heritage, Weinberg’s Violin Concerto is a superbly-crafted piece that should be in the repertory of every violinist with sufficient technique to play it. Mr. Roth, who recently gave the first performance of the Concerto in his native Germany, might well have been the violinist for whom Weinberg conceived the work, so natural is his mastery of the music. His virtuosity is staggering, of course, but the true brilliance of his playing of Weinberg’s music is in his phrasing. Aided by the exceptionally responsive collaboration of Maestro Kütson and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Mr. Roth identifies and accentuates every melodic component of the opening Allegro molto movement, revealing the cleverness of Weinberg’s Classically-shaped but innovative thematic development. The boldness of the solo part receives from Mr. Roth warm-blooded treatment, both here and in the subsequent Allegretto and Allegro risoluto movements, in which the motivic links among the movements are tellingly explored. The violinist’s bowing is uncannily sensitive to the expressive as well as the technical demands of the music, and he exhibits sensibilities that bring to mind the luscious tones of Arthur Grumiaux and the poetic expression of Henryk Szeryng. The Adagio third movement is given a sense of wide-eyed wonder by Mr. Roth’s accurate, unexaggerated playing. This is the sort of music in which any manner of egotistical ‘interpretations’ might be cited as excuses for idiosyncratic playing, but Mr. Roth and Maestro Kütson derive the details of their performance solely from the score. Drawing from the ‘Dancla’ Stradivari—dated to 1703 and once owned by the French violinist and composer from whom it takes its epithet—in his hands sounds of both strength and tenderness, Mr. Roth lends the Weinberg Concerto an unmistakable air of novelty. That this performance caused me to feel as though I was hearing the Concerto for the first time is a testament both to the sagacity of violinist and conductor and to the quality of the music itself, revealed here as never before.

A far more familiar work, Benjamin Britten’s Opus 15​ Violin Concerto was composed in 1938 and 1939, after its creator’s arrival in the United States, and was premièred by Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa with Sir John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1940. Though a relatively early work, the Concerto remains one of the most frequently-played solo concerti of the Twentieth Century and a work by which Britten’s legacy is defined for many concert-goers. It is a fine piece, one that deserves its popularity, but it is not consistently representative of Britten at his best. Structurally, the Concerto is very much of its time, the touch of Prokofiev felt throughout, and Britten’s restless grappling with tonality has not yet achieved the individuality that it would assume in his later, gamelan-influenced instrumental music. Still, it is a rewarding, often powerful work, and Mr. Roth and his colleagues extract from the tonal subtleties of the opening​ Moderato con moto movement a compelling essence of Britten’s musical ambiguity. This is the sort of music that entices many violinists into embarrassing sawing, but Mr. Roth maintains an invigorating finesse that reveals the fluidity of even the most angular melodic lines. This is especially true in the Vivace second movement, in which Mr. Roth’s playing of the celebrated cadenza is incredible. The variations over ground bass in the closing Passacaglia​ movement evoke the music of Britten’s beloved forebear Purcell, but the shifting tonalities firmly center the work in the Twentieth-Century avant garde. Maestro Kütson and the DSO Berlin musicians retain a significant degree of spontaneity in their realization of the evolving ground bass, and Mr. Roth complements their efforts with playing that combines lightness of touch with robustness of tone. The emotional uncertainty in Britten’s music is exposed without being over-emphasized. Above all, Mr. Roth audibly embraces the Britten Concerto as a work to be respected, studied, and absorbed rather than merely ticked off as an addition to his repertory.

Like today’s young singers, violinists can hardly fashion lasting careers in the Twenty-First Century by specializing in particular niches of their instrument’s repertory, but the requisite versatility that facilitates a successful international career often occasions stylistically unspecific, complacent playing. Linus Roth is too insightful and caring a violinist to accept anything from himself but the best musicianship of which he is capable. In this recording of the Violin Concerti of Benjamin Britten and Mieczysław Weinberg, he confirms that this music can be as effective in performance as the frequently-played concerti of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. His example will hopefully lead to wider exposure for the Weinberg Concerto, but, in practical terms, the performance on this disc is unlikely to be challenged as the definitive interpretation of this marvelous score. How could anyone, critic or not, hear this disc without wearing a ‘smile of fun’?

21 December 2014

BEST NEW MUSIC RECORDING OF 2014: Charlotte Bray – AT THE SPEED OF STILLNESS (C. Booth, L. Schaufer; A. Matthews-Owen, H. Watkins; A. Wood; Aldeburgh World Orchestra, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group; NMC Recordings NMC D202)

CD REVIEW: Charlotte Bray - AT THE SPEED OF STILLNESS (NMC Recordings NMC D202)CHARLOTTE BRAY (born 1982): At the Speed of Stillness, Fire Burning in Snow, Oneiroi, Replay, Songs from Yellow Leaves, Caught in TreetopsClaire Booth, soprano (Songs), Lucy Schaufer, mezzo-soprano (Fire Burning in Snow); Alexandra Wood, violin (Caught in Treetops), Andrew Matthews-Owen, piano (Songs), Huw Watkins, piano (Fire Burning in Snow, Oneiroi, and Replay); Aldeburgh World Orchestra (At the Speed of Stillness), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (Fire Burning in Snow, Replay, and Caught in Treetops); Sir Mark Elder (At the Speed of Stillness) and Oliver Knussen (Caught in Treetops), conductors [Recorded at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Snape, Suffolk, UK, on 26 June 2011 (Caught in Treetops) and 18 July 2012 (At the Speed of Stillness) and at St Silas Church, Kentish Town, London, UK, 27 – 28 February 2014; NMC Recordings NMC D202; Available from NMC Recordings, Amazon, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Those who proclaim that Classical Music is a dead or dying art cannot have heard the music of Charlotte Bray; nor can those who lament the demise of the Classical recording industry have heard the superb performances on NMC’s expertly-presented At the Speed of Stillness. From the inception of music, its foremost function has been to communicate passions too complex—and also too simple—for words, and the pieces on this disc reveal that Charlotte Bray understands this as profoundly as Monteverdi, Mozart, or Mahler. That she is a talented composer is confirmed by the originality and technical acumen that resound in every selection on At the Speed of Stillness: that she is an important composer is disclosed by the emotional vibrancy of this music. Conservatories can teach eager aspiring composers to string notes together effectively, but only an artist with a grasp of the aspects of composition that cannot be taught in lecture halls is ultimately capable of creating music that engages the listener’s imagination.

​The disc's 'title track,' Ms. Bray's 2012 ​At the Speed of Stillness, was inspired by a surrealist poem by Dora Maar, and the scintillating, ever-changing colors of the composer's orchestration are an apposite homage to a fellow artist's singular worldview. The ways in which Ms. Bray manipulates instrumental timbres to create unique blends of sounds are indicative of the work of a composer who is not merely thinking outside of the proverbial box: she is dismantling the box and listening closely to the sound patterns made as its component parts separate and interact with the environment around them. The sound world of At the Speed of Stillness is one of things only partially heard, like the specific words in a conversation just beyond the range of perception, but the taut infrastructure of the music builds a skeleton upon which the strands of melody grow and mutate arrestingly. Performed by the talented musicians of the Aldeburgh World Orchestra, At the Speed of Stillness teases and thrills the listener’s perceptions, creating expectations only to defy them. A proven master of many niches of operatic and symphonic repertories, Sir Mark Elder here proves to also possess a natural affinity for pacing Ms. Bray’s music. Whether by instinct or by close study, he and the Aldeburgh World Orchestra players are sensitive to the complexities of the score​, and their ​traversal of At the Speed of Stillness revels in the inherent ambiguities in Ms. Bray's thematic treatment.

Composed in 2013, Fire Burning in Snow is a sequence of settings of poems by Nicki Jackowska that reveal the fascinating depth of the composer’s response to the musicality of text. In this regard, Ms. Bray is not unlike Mahler, whose reactions to the Wunderhorn poems and Goethe’s Faust significantly influenced his work. Mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer is an ideal interpreter for these songs, both musically and histrionically, her clear diction enhancing the impact of her appropriately-scaled tone in Ms. Bray’s vocal lines. She is supported with inviolable conviction by the players of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Melinda Maxwell on oboe and cor anglais, Katherine Lacy on clarinet and bass clarinet, violinist Alexandra Wood, violist Christopher Yates, and cellist Ulrich Heinen. The bleakness of ‘Moonlight’ is imparted by Ms. Schaufer without heaviness, and she and the musicians get right at the heart of the enigmas of loss and carrying on explored in ‘Loose Ends.’ The enchantment of Ms. Bray’s subdued optimism in her setting of ‘Occupations’ works its magic via Ms. Schaufer’s beautifully direct singing. Ms. Bray obviously possesses a rare talent for creating music that expands the interpretive implications of text, and Ms. Schaufer’s performances shine light into every corner of these engrossing songs.

Pianist Huw Watkins makes his performance of Oneiroi a journey that is both universal and deeply personal. The technical faculty with which he plays the piece is partnered with smart negotiations of the restless moods of the music. Joined by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in the 2011 piano quartet Replay, Mr. Watkins furthers the positive impression made by his solo playing with interaction with his colleagues of compelling collaborative strength. Ms. Bray’s capacity for superlative songwriting is complemented by a gift for gracefully commanding the instrumental voices of chamber music. The layering of harmonies in Replay is stunningly handled, and Ms. Bray’s music invents new sonic concoctions that the players mix and serve with audible delight.

In terms of concentrated expressivity, the most enthralling performances on the disc are those of soprano Claire Booth and pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen. This pair of insightful musicians have formed one of the world’s most successful partnerships for the exploration of Twenty-First-Century Art Song repertory, and they lend their intelligence, commitment, and unbending musicality to five songs from Ms. Bray’s 2011 Yellow Leaves, a mesmerizing cycle utilizing poet Caroline Thomas's haikus based upon Shakespeare's Sonnets. Beginning with a lusciously-voiced account of the hypnotic ‘Still Standing,’ Ms. Booth shapes each of the songs with uncanny connection with the ethos of the text. The detached, almost conspiratorial quality of her tones in ‘Collusion’ is unnerving, and the competing despair and sly charm of ‘While the bell tolls...’ and ‘Farewell’ are given equal weight in Ms. Booth’s cunning, unexaggerated singing. Avoiding both cheap gimmickry and the trap of making concerted efforts at giving ‘Old Tales’ artificial context, the soprano captures with her crystalline timbre the disturbing uncertainty that lingers in the music. These songs are like mirrors that offer distorted reflections of both the performers’ and the listener’s interpretations, and the evolving visages of Ms. Booth’s musical portraits are luxuriously framed by Mr. Matthews-Owen’s elegant pianism. As in their performances of songs by Jonathan Dove, Ms. Booth and Mr. Matthews-Owen master Ms. Bray’s style not with force but with finesse, and the infrangible communication that they share with one another enables Ms. Bray’s songs to communicate directly with the listener.

Caught in Treetops is essentially a concerto for solo violin and orchestral ensemble, a work that shares with Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto a formidable degree of virtuosity and an expressivity that elevates the piece far above the level of a joint exercise of the composer’s and soloists’ egos. Alexandra Wood is again the violinist, and in the ranks of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group Mr. Yates and Mr. Heinen are joined by Marie-Christine Zupancic on flute, alto flute, and piccolo, Victoria Brawn on oboe and cor anglais, Mark O'Brien on clarinet and bass clarinet, horn player Mark Phillips, trumpeter Jonathan Holland, trombonist Edward Jones, percussionist Julian Warburton, pianist Malcolm Wilson, and harpist Robert Johnston. Guided by the typically prescient conducting of Oliver Knussen, Ms. Wood’s playing perpetuates an environment of deep cooperation: this is not the sort of conversation between soloist and orchestra that occurs in a conventional concerto but an exchange of thematic development and tonal centers of gravity among all of the instruments. Still, Ms. Wood’s ravishing lines, never distorted by excessive vibrato, are the cornerstones of Caught in Treetops, and she is as inspiring a technician as she is a vessel of imagination. As in all of the works on this disc, contrasts are the prevailing quality in Caught in Treetops—rhythmic contrasts, the differences among instrumental timbres, and the disparities of complicated sentiments. Vitally, though, the quest to make music is never subjugated by either the composer or the performers to a desire to make effects.

From a technical perspective, NMC Recordings discs are reliable sources of industry-leading acoustical quality regardless of the provenances of the performances featured on any given release. Indeed, it seems that NMC’s engineers might record in Tube stations or airport terminals without compromising the impeccable standards of their results. Recording music by Charlotte Bray in the Underground or in a busy corridor at Heathrow would not be inappropriate. She is a composer on the move, as it were, and both the music on this disc and the performances that it inspires suggest that her ultimate destination is the zenith of the composition of serious music in the Twenty-First Century.

19 December 2014

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi from beginning to end - UN GIORNO DI REGNO (Tactus TC 812290) and OTELLO (NAXOS 8.660357-58)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - UN GIORNO DI REGNO (Tactus TC 812290) & OTELLO (NAXOS 8.660357-58)[1] GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Un giorno di regnoMikheil Kiria (il Cavaliere di Belfiore), Simone Alberti (il Barone di Kelbar), Alice Quintavalla (la Marchesa del Poggio), Angela Nisi (Giulietta di Kelbar), Marco Frusoni (Edoardo di Sanval), Dario Ciotoli (il Signor La Rocca), Roberto Jachini Virgili (il Conte di Ivrea), Marco Miglietta (Delmonte), Riccardo Certi (un servo); Belcanto Chorus; Diego Procoli, fortepiano; Roma Sinfonietta; Gabriele Bonolis, conductor [Recorded during live performances in Teatro Flavio Vespasiano, Rieti, Italy, in November 2013; Tactus TC 812290; 2 CD, 108:03; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

[2] GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): OtelloRobert Dean Smith (Otello), Raffaella Angeletti (Desdemona), Sebastian Catana (Jago), Luis Dámaso (Cassio), Vicenç Esteve (Roderigo), Marifé Nogales (Emilia), Kristjan Mõisnik (Lodovico), Michael Dries (Montano), Enrique Sánchez (Araldo); Orfeón Donostiarra, Los ‘Peques’ del León de Oro; Oviedo Filarmonía; Friedrich Haider, conductor [Recorded in Auditorio Príncipe Felipe, Oviedo, Spain, 22 August – 8 September 2007 and 18 – 26 August 2009; NAXOS 8.660357-58; 2 CD, 131:57; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Composed during one of the most difficult periods in its young creator’s life and unsuccessfully premièred at La Scala in 1840, Giuseppe Verdi’s Un giorno di regno is an opera that has frequently fallen victim to being condemned for what it is not rather than embraced for what it is. Verdi’s only comic opera until Falstaff, the valedictory score with which he triumphantly ended his career as a composer of opera more than a half-century later, Un giorno di regno is not is an unheralded masterpiece: as contemporary assessments suggested, Verdi’s opera fares badly in comparisons with Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Don Pasquale. A time in which he was mourning the losses of his children and first wife was not ideal for even a great artist’s inaugural effort at comedy, and the fact that he purported to have chosen what he deemed to be the least-stupid of the Felice Romani libretti placed at his disposal tacitly reveals Verdi’s level of enthusiasm for the project. Verdi at his most distracted was capable of crafting tuneful, well-constructed music, however, and Un giorno di regno is a score in which the composer’s authentic voice is distantly but distinctly heard. As a rival for the comic operas of Rossini and Donizetti, Un giorno di regno fails, but it is an invaluable glimpse of the craft of the composer of Falstaff in its infancy—and, under the right circumstances, it can be an enjoyable romp through false identities, amorous entanglements, and comedic conflicts between self and state.

​Recorded in November 2013 during Reate Festival performances in the Teatro Flavio Vespasiano in Rieti​, Italy, Tactus’s Un giorno di regno offers a lively account of the opera in the mode of the RAI Milano performance with Lina Pagliughi, Juan Oncina, Renato Capecchi, and Sesto Bruscantini given—and recorded by CETRA—in 1951 in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Verdi’s death. Supervised, mixed, and mastered by Giovanni and Andrea Caruso, the recording suggests the sonic perspective of a prime seat in the stalls, and the minimal stage noise contributes to the sense of enjoying a performance in the theatre. Directed by Martino Faggiani, the Belcanto Chorus singers make favorable impressions every time Verdi calls upon them, especially in the choruses that open each of the opera's two acts. Un giorno di regno is the only of Verdi's operas that makes use of secco recitative, but there is nothing 'dry' in the playing of Diego Procoli, whose fortepiano accompaniment of the recitatives is splendidly witty: thanks to his inventiveness, the passages of secco recitative in this performance can be enjoyed rather than dreaded. Conductor Gabriele Bonolis exhibits a strong grasp of the subtleties of the young Verdi's bel canto style, setting tempi that allow the comedy to progress at a natural, unforced pace. The musicians of the Roma Sinfonietta distinguish themselves with fine playing throughout the performance, beginning with a nimble account of the opera's Sinfonia. Maestro Bonolis keeps the performance moving without pushing the musicians or the singers beyond their abilities, and he wholly avoids the heavy-handedness with which many conductors approach early Verdi repertory.

After the choristers launch Act One with their lively singing of ‘​Mai non rise, non rise un più bel dì,’ baritones Simone Alberti and Dario Ciotoli duet rambunctiously as Barone di Kelbar and the Tesoriere, Signor La Rocca, in 'Tesoriere garbatissimo, una perla or tocca a voi.’ Both gentlemen possess solid, resonant voices, and they buzz through the duet winningly. Tenor Marco Miglietta shapes Delmonte’s ‘Sua Maestà, signori, è alzata, e qui s'invia’ and all of his lines in the opera with finesse.

The Cavaliere di Belfiore is formally introduced by his cavatina, ‘Compagnoni di Parigi, che sì matto mi tenete,’ which baritone Mikheil Kiria sings powerfully and with at least a suggestion of the elegance that the piece demands. The baritone from Western Georgia sails energetically through the Cavaliere’s cabaletta, ‘Verrà purtroppo il giorno de' miei pensier piu gravi,’ having no trouble with the repeated top Es. He is joined by tenor Marco Frusoni in the subsequent duet with Edoardo di Sanval, 'Proverò che degno io sono del favor che vi domando,’ a piece that subjects the tenor to frequent top Gs. The rollicking allegro marziale 'Infiammato da spirto guerriero’ keeps both gentlemen on their toes, and they interact with the flair of a comedic duo.

Parma-born soprano Alice Quintavalla makes her mark on the performance with a graceful account of the Marchesa del Poggio’s cavatina ‘Grave a core innamorato è frenare l'ardente affetto,’ reaching the top A♭s and B♭ in the cadenza with little evidence of stress. The Allegro cabaletta, 'Se dee, se dee cader la vedova non cada in peggio imbroglio’—with its trills, coloratura, and repeated high A♭s—is a greater challenge, but Ms. Quintavalla emerges unscathed. Giulietta di Kelbar also establishes herself in the opera with a cavatina, ‘Non san quant'io nel petto soffits mortal dolore,’ which soprano Angela Nisi executes elegantly. She, too, faces bravura demands in her allegretto cabaletta, ‘Non vo' quel vecchio, non son sì sciocca,’ in which she bravely confronts the trills and top B♭s.

Mr. Alberti and Mr. Ciotoli return to banter good-naturedly in the ‘duetto buffo’ for the Barone and Tesoriere, 'Diletto genero, a voi ne vengo,’ which the gentlemen perform with comic bluster. The subsequent sextet, begun by Edoardo with ‘Cara Giulia, alfin ti vedo,’ to which Mr. Frusoni gives a sweetly-phrased delivery, finds Giulietta, the Barone, the Cavaliere, Tesoriere, and the Marchese—and their respective portrayers—getting mired ever deeper in confusion, conveyed by the young Verdi in frenzied, fanciful music. The trio for the Marchesa, Giulietta, and Edoardo that follows, ‘Bella speranza in vero,’ is one of the finest numbers in the score, and Ms. Quintavalla, Ms. Nisi, and Mr. Frusoni sing it charmingly, the ladies displaying greater ease than the gentleman on their unison top A. Ignited by the fire of the composer’s budding genius, the ensemble finale brings Act One to a rousing close, capped by Ms. Quintavalla’s strong top B♭.

Edoardo launches Act Two with his largo cantabile aria 'Pietoso al lungo pianto alfin m'arride amore,’ which Mr. Frusoni sings competently despite omitting the written top C in the aria’s cadenza. The moderato cabaletta ‘Deh! lasciate a un'alma amante di speranza un solo istante’ is frankly a trial for both the singer and the listener, the strain at the top of the tenor’s range sometimes painful to hear. Mr. Alberti and Mr. Ciotoli again trade patter and top Es in the duet for the Barone and Tesoriere, ‘Tutte l'armi si può prendere de' due mondi e vecchio e nuovo.’ Mr. Kiria duets vigorously with Ms. Quintavalla in ‘Ch'io non possa il ver comprendere,’ but the Marchesa gains the upper hand thanks to the soprano’s shining top A.

The Marchesa’s andante cantabile aria, ‘Si mostri a chi l'adora,' is the musical apogee of Act Two, and Ms. Quintavalla masters all of its difficulties except for an untidily-sung descending chromatic scale. She fires off exciting top As and Bs in the allegro cabaletta, ‘Sì, scordar saprò l'infido, fuggirò la sua presenza.’ Ms. Nisi follows Ms. Quintavalla’s lead in Giulietta’s duet with Edoardo, ‘Giurai seguirlo in campo,’ rocketing to forceful top Bs in the allegro section, ‘Corro al re: saprò difendere i miei dritti in contro a' suoi.’ Verdi creates symmetry by complementing the sextet in Act One with a septet in Act Two, begun by the Marchesa with ‘A tal colpo preparata io non era, io non era, o Cavaliere.’ Tenor Roberto Jachini Virgili, a pupil of Renata Scotto, adds his vivid characterization of the Conte di Ivrea to his colleagues’ spirited singing, and the opera’s finale, ‘Sire, venne in quest'istante un corrierre della Corte,’ draws vehement singing from the cast. Their conflicting interests sorted out, ‘Eh! facciamo facciam da buoni amici’ takes Giulietta and the Marchesa to top B♭s. Mention must also be made of the firm vocalism of baritone Riccardo Certi in Verdi’s few lines for the Servo. Even when their singing is not first-rate, these young artists throw themselves into the performance with absolute commitment, and they fashion an involved, sometimes genuinely amusing Un giorno di regno—no magnum opus, to be sure, but an entertaining opera that repays honest endeavors to uncover the seeds of Verdi’s burgeoning theatrical savvy.

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At the opposite end of the spectrum from Un giorno di regno, artistically and chronologically, is Otello, the score with which Verdi said his final farewell to serious opera in 1887. Also premièred at La Scala, where the failure of his freshman attempt at comic opera nearly convinced him to abandon composition altogether, Otello was the culmination of a concerted campaign by the publisher Giulio Ricordi and the librettist and fellow composer Arrigo Boito to lure Verdi into setting an adaptation of Shakespeare’s tale of the Moor of Venice to music. Boito’s libretto—a rare example of a librettist equaling or even improving upon the Bard of Avon—was completed six years before Verdi’s opera reached the stage, but the success that greeted the work proved that it was worth the wait. Musically, Otello is a masterpiece of Verdi’s still-evolving late-career style. Dramatically, the opera is a marvel. The characterizations of Otello, Desdemona, and Jago are sharper in the four acts of Verdi’s opera than in the pages of Shakespeare’s play. In the playhouse, the tragedy is poignant: in the opera house, it is devastating. The aged Verdi clearly admitted Desdemona into his heart, and the score that resulted brims with the misadventures of young love despite the age of the hands that created it.

NAXOS’s Verdi escapades have mostly been successful, the label’s catalogue including enjoyable performances of Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La traviata, and Aida and a particularly competitive recording of Falstaff. This studio recording of Otello immediately rises to the top of the list of NAXOS’s best opera recordings in any repertory. NAXOS recordings almost never disappoint in terms of sound quality, but Otello is a score that can be suffocated in the recording studio: it is Verdi’s most extravagantly atmospheric opera, and a recording that lacks ample space into which the cacophonous climaxes can expand threatens to be uncomfortably claustrophobic. The basic acoustic in this recording is more evocative of the studio than of the theatre, but it is meticulously-balanced to avoid peaking when all of the musical forces are in full cry. The sterling achievements of producer Joachim Krist and engineer and editor Fernando Arias contribute superbly to the dramatic effectiveness of the performance. Only in Act Four of Aida had Verdi previously built tension as potently as in Otello, and indifferent sound can spoil the impact of the music, particularly in the opera’s final scene. The acoustical ambience of this recording never stands in the way of Verdi’s carefully-wrought musical and dramatic effects: that alone is a commendable attribute for a recording of Otello.

Still, the fearsome question of how to cast a performance of Otello, whether in the opera house or before microphones, surely haunts any production team planning to take Verdi’s penultimate opera into the studio. It is NAXOS’s answer to this question that is the most impressive element of this recording. Otello is more dependent upon the capabilities of its central characters than almost any of Verdi’s other operas, but this recording features a cast of strength from the smallest rôles to the three leads. Whether their voices are heard as those of the Cypriot populace or rabble-rousing soldiers, the choristers of Los 'Peques' del León de Oro and ​Orfeó​n Donostiarra bellow and sigh assertively. They open the opera with exclamations of ‘Una vela!’ that shudder with apprehension, and the sopranos and tenors seem little troubled by the fortissimo lines taking them to top A and B♭. Their utterances of ‘Fuoco di gioia!’ are stirring, and the choristers consistently sing with engagement that heightens their collective rôle as a sort of Greek chorus. Maestro Friedrich Haider’s vast experience in bel canto repertory is apparent in his conducting of Otello. Even in his last operas, Verdi never completely renounced the bel canto instincts that yielded the melodic prodigality of his music, and Maestro Haider’s intuitive handling of bel canto idioms gives the melodic lines in Otello special luminosity. Less expected is the mastery that Maestro Haider demonstrates in leading the admirable playing of the fiercely dramatic score by the Oviedo Filharmonía. The brass players give particularly commendable accounts of their difficult parts, but all of the orchestra’s musicians furnish imposing performances. Aided by NAXOS’s production team, Maestro Haider and the orchestra achieve epic dynamic contrasts that aptly evoke the polarized environments in which the fates of Otello, Desdemona, and Jago collide.

Led by Marifé Nogales’s shrewd Emilia, the singers in supporting rôles acquit themselves adroitly. Ms. Nogales sings her part in the quartet in Act Two with firm tone, and the terror and fear for her mistress that she exudes in Act Four are harrowing. As the Araldo, baritone Enrique Sánchez lends a resonant voice and noble phrasing to his pronouncements of ‘La vedetta del porto ha segnalato la veneta galea che a Cipro adduce gli ambasciatori’ in Act Three and ‘Signor mio...ven prego, lasciate ch'io vi parli’ in Act Four. Basses Michael Dries and Kristjan Mõisnik impress as Montano and Lodovico, the former’s singing of ‘È l'alato Leon!’ in Act One demanding attention. Tenors Vicenç Esteve as Roderigo and Luis Dámaso as Cassio give nuanced readings of their parts that benefit from their youthful vocalism. In Act One, Mr. Dámaso sings ‘Essa infiora questo lido’ commandingly, and he rises to the top As in ‘Questa del pampino verace’ and ‘Miracolo vago dell’aspo e dell’ago’ in Act Three with freedom. His etching of ‘Questo nome d'onor suona ancor vano per me’ is the finest moment in Mr. Dámaso’s wonderful performance.

​American baritone Sebastian Catana is one of the Twenty-First Century’s great hopes for authentic Verdi baritone singing [a review of his terrific performance of Pasha Seid in Washington Concert Opera’s March 2014 presentation of Il corsaro is available here]. As Jago in this performance, his outstanding singing and the suitability of the voice for the music usher him into the company of the finest recorded Jagos of the past. With his subtly-hued phrasing of ‘È infranto l'artimon!’ and ‘Roderigo, ebben che pensi,’ Mr. Catana personifies a dangerous, calculating character from the start, and his suggestive ‘Se un fragil voto di femmina non è tropp'arduo nodo pel genio mio nè per l'inferno’ is chilling. In ‘Ei favella già con troppo bollor,’ he nails the high F and G♭, and the high tessitura of ‘Inaffia l'ugola!’ is managed with thrilling punch. The famous ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’ in Act Two inspires Mr. Catana to a glorious display of Verdi singing, his negotiations of the punishing tessitura and climactic top Fs and F♯ marked by technical aplomb. His voice drips with venom in ‘Ciò m'accora...,’ his goading of the insecure Otello manifested by his almost violent attack on the trill on E♯. The pointed irony of his ‘Pace, signor’ is disquieting, and his false account of Cassio’s dream, ‘Era la notte, Cassio dormia, gli stavo accanto,’ his voice enveloped in chiaroscuro, borders on the pornographic. Mr. Catana matches his Otello decibel for decibel in duet, and his alertness to the moments of beauty in his music makes him an especially menacing figure. There is a deadened quality to his singing of ‘Vieni; l'aula è deserta’ in Act Three, and the viciousness of his elocution of ‘Questa è una ragna dove il tuo cuor casca, si lagna, s'impiglia e muor’ is terrifying. His villainy is so compelling because there are glimmers of humanity in his performance, moments in which his cold demeanor seems designed to conceal a pitiable vulnerability. There are no weaknesses in Mr. Catana’s vocalism, however, and he lurks in the shadows of Act Four like a cobra plotting its strike. That this Jago evades justice is maddening, but Mr. Catana portrays a character for whom escape is as natural as deception. His 107 appearances at the Metropolitan Opera to date have been in supporting rôles: hopefully, this recording will prompt the MET and opera houses throughout the world to bolster—and in some cases revive—their Verdi wings by giving their audiences opportunities to hear this phenomenal young singer in the leading rôles for which his burly, burnished voice qualifies him.

The list of memorable Desdemonas includes many of the greatest sopranos of the years since Otello’s première. On records, there are Maria Carbone, Renata Tebaldi, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Renata Scotto, and Mirella Freni. Additionally, in the world’s opera houses, Verdi’s exquisite music has received standard-bearing performances from Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Rethberg, Eleanor Steber, Licia Albanese, Victoria de los Ángeles, Montserrat Caballé, Ilva Ligabue, Raina Kabaivanska, Teresa Żylis-Gara, and Renée Fleming. Born in Torino, soprano Raffaella Angeletti is a Desdemona in the tradition of Mirella Freni, a warmly feminine, lushly Italianate young woman whose demure tranquility does not preclude flashes of temper. The amorous wonder of her exclamation of ‘Mio superbo guerrier!’ in Act One is epitomized by her sustained top A♭, and the solidity of the central octave of the voice is put to great use, musically and dramatically. Ms. Angeletti’s singing in the love duet maintains poise and laser-like focus: it is hardly surprising that she has been widely acclaimed in Europe for her portrayal of Puccini’s Cio-Cio San. In Act Two of Otello, she exudes purity in ‘Splende il cielo, danza l'aura, olezza il fior’ and soars to her stunning top B. Her plea for mercy for Cassio, ‘D'un uom che geme sotto il tuo disdegno la preghiera ti porto,’ would melt the heart of a sane man: it is obvious why it so unnerves Otello, already drowning in suspicion and paranoia. Ms. Angeletti palpably imparts the confusion of ‘Perchè torbida suona la voce tua?’ The sadness and supplication of her pained enunciation of ‘Se inconscia, contro te, sposo, ho peccato, dammi la dolce lieta parola del perdono,’ the line plunging to the bottom of the voice, are very moving, and her top B♭ in the dolcissimo ‘Vien ch'io t'allieti il core’ is a glistening tone. She trades full-throated forte top B♭s with Otello in the quartet, and she takes her leave with heartbreaking disillusionment. In Act Three, she seems barely able to utter her words in ‘Dio ti giocondi, o sposo dell'alma mia sovrano’ and ‘Tu di me ti fal gioco,’ and in ‘Mi guarda! il volto e l'anima ti svelo’ her lustrous top B♭ on the phrase ‘guarda le prime lagrime’ is a cry from the heart. Her despair is tinged with indignation in ‘A terra! sì...nel livido fango,’ and she soars over the ensemble to top C♭, on which Verdi cruelly requested that Emilia and Cassio join her. It is in Act Four that Desdemona has her most familiar music, and Ms. Angeletti manages to make the oft-abused willow aria, ‘Piangea cantando nell'erma landa,’ sound grippingly spontaneous. Her voice trembles with fear when she sings ‘Ah! Emilia, Emilia, addio.’ This singer’s account of 'Ave Maria, piena di grazia,’ the floated top A♭ emitted as though intended solely for God’s ears, is truly a despondent young woman’s prayer rather than a prima donna’s workaday traversal of a famous aria. The voice is choked with sadness and horror when she emotes, ‘Chi è là? Otello?’ These are rhetorical questions: this Desdemona already senses that it is Otello who approaches and that he comes to kill her. Ms. Angeletti takes an understated approach to Desdemona’s death throes. She loves Otello too much to struggle against his injustice. There is occasionally a slight dullness to the basic patina of her sound, but the technical surety with which Ms. Angeletti sings Desdemona is marvelous—and, in this sad time for Verdi singing, quite exceptional.

Unlike many modern exponents of the part, Kansas-born tenor Robert Dean Smith has the capacity as Otello to combine the heroic stamina of a Heldentenor with the pliancy of a more lyric voice. In this performance, he alternates a hectoring, brutal public persona with fleeting images of a withering, intensely-flawed introversion. Mr. Smith’s introductory ‘Esultate​! L'orgoglio musulmano sepolto è in mar’ is powerful without being unpleasantly brusque, and he ascends unhesitatingly to the top G♯ and A. His ‘Abbasso le spade!’ is a command that is not to be ignored. His is the passion of a Cavaradossi or Pinkerton rather than a Siegfried or Tristan in ‘Già nella notte densa s'estingue ogni clamor,’ and the ardor of his ‘Vien…Venere splende’ is touchingly sincere, his long-sustained top A♭ invoking the height of passion. As Otello’s stability deteriorates in Act Two, Mr. Smith’s singing grows more agitated. In the duet with Jago, ‘Pel cielo, tu sei l'eco dei detti miei,’ the tenor meaningfully juxtaposes the increasing disjointedness of Otello’s thoughts with the reliable steadiness of his vocalism. He lashes at the top B on ‘amore e gelosia vadan dispersi insieme,’ and the anguish of ‘Mi lascia! mi lascia!’ and ‘Desdemona rea!’ is crippling. There is a repulsive, almost puerile resolve in his singing of ‘Ora e per sempre addio,’ and he copes unflinchingly with the troublesome tessitura, centered in the passaggio, and the catapulting vocal lines that climb to ‘Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!’ Otello’s exchanges with Jago at the start of Act Three are given daunting significance by Mr. Smith’s performance, his singing of ‘Ancor l'ambascia del mio morbo m'assale’ a manifestation of the character’s desperation. His ill-tempered remarks to Desdemona, exemplified by ‘Datemi ancor l'eburnea mano, vo' fare ammenda’ are cutting, and he negotiates the rise to top C on ‘quella vil cortigian che è la sposa d'Otello’ far more easily than many Otellos. The mournful adagio, ‘Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali della miseria’ is sung with the delicacy of a love song, and Mr. Smith employs his ringing top B♭s as groans of dejection. ‘A terra! e piangi!’ and ‘Fuggirmi io sol non so!’ are tormented expressions of exasperation, and the rise to top A in ‘E il ciel non ha più fulmini’ is unanswerably emphatic. In Act Four, Otello is a broken man even before Jago’s treacherous manipulation is unveiled. Mr. Smith sings ‘Niun mi tema, s'anco armato mi vede’ with simplicity that proves far more persuasive than more ‘theatrical’ approaches to the passage. When Mr. Smith’s Otello sings of ‘un bacio...un bacio ancora,’ there is no question that his thoughts are as much of the next world as of this one. Mr. Smith does not always have at his disposal the sheer might that the part requires, but he sings the music captivatingly, and his performance preserves true beauty of tone in passages in which many singers sacrifice attractive vocalism in order to focus on survival. Moreoever, he, Ms. Angeletti, and Mr. Catana are an Otello, Desdemona, and Jago who sing with rather than at one another, and they expressively depict the sharpest pangs of Shakespeare’s, Boito’s, and Verdi’s tragedy.

That Otello remains one of Verdi’s most popular and frequently-performed operas is indicative of the quality of the music rather than that of most recent performances of the opera. It is a score that asks colossal things of those who perform it, and this new recording from NAXOS responds prodigiously. In colloquial terms, Otello is not an opera for weaklings: strength is the trademark of the efforts of NAXOS’s team of singers, musicians, and technical staff, and, perhaps most remarkably, they succeed in blending the necessary muscle with appeal. This is an Otello to be savored, not merely endured.

16 December 2014

CD REVIEW: Antonio Caldara – LA CONCORDIA DE’ PIANETI (V. Cangemi, R. Donose, F. Fagioli, D. Behle, D. Galou, C. Mena, L. Tittoto; DGG/Archiv Produktion 479 3356)

CD REVIEW: Antonio Caldara - LA CONCORDIA DE' PIANETI (DGG/Archiv Produktion 479 3356)ANTONIO CALDARA (1671 – 1736): La concordia de’ pianeti—Verónica Cangemi (Diana), Ruxandra Donose (Giove), Franco Fagioli (Apollo), Daniel Behle (Mercurio), Delphine Galou (Venere), Carlos Mena (Marte), Luca Tittoto (Saturno); La Cetra Vocalensemble Basel; La Cetra Barockorchester Basel; Andrea Marcon, conductor [Recorded in the Konzerthaus Dortmund, Germany, 13 – 19 January 2014, in conjunction with the work’s modern première on 18 January 2014; DGG/Archiv Produktion 479 3356; 2 CD, 108:07; Available from Amazon, jpc, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Despite the quality of his oeuvre, Antonio Caldara is a composer whose name remains more known than his music. A native Venetian whose turbulent career took him to Barcelona and Vienna via Mantua and Rome, Caldara was a prototypical son of a violinist who mastered several instruments and took up composition as a natural continuation of the family legacy. His liturgical music found favor at the Hapsburg court in Vienna, and he was likely the composer of the first Italian operas performed in Spain, but, beyond speculation and generalities, who was Antonio Caldara? Even the date of his birth is uncertain, and sadly little information of verifiable veracity about his life remains. What is known is that he was not altogether fortunate in his choices of employers: his tenure at the Mantua court of the Francophile Ferdinando Carlo Gonzaga was cut short by the expulsion of French interests from Italy, and his stay in Barcelona was relatively brief but seemingly remarkably productive. The extent to which his artistry was shaped by education and experience remains a matter of conjecture, but his surviving music affirms that he earned the right to be regarded both by his contemporaries and by posterity as one of the true masters of the Italian Baroque. By the time of his death in 1736, Caldara had assumed a vital position in the musical life of Hapsburg Vienna, and that his passing was mourned by the imperial court indicates the esteem in which he was held in Europe’s most musical city. That the man deserved such homage from his contemporaries must suggest that, in an age in which ambition and curiosity lead artists into the most neglected corners of Baroque repertory, his music merits the attention of the most inquisitive artists of the Twenty-First Century. Long an advocate for overlooked music of the Seventeeth and Eighteenth Centuries, the Archiv label here gives the music of Antonio Caldara an impeccable opportunity to lift the composer’s name out of decaying musicological tomes and thrust it into the global musical conversation.

First performed in 1723 in Znojmo in today’s Czech Republic, Caldara’s ‘componimento teatrale per musica,’ La concordia de’ pianeti, was created as a diversion for the Hapsburg Empress’s name day during a royal visit to Moravia. Details of the first performance are vague, but Znojmo had the distinction of being the base of operations for one of Caldara’s most intriguing contemporaries, Prokop Diviš, the inventor of a contraption known as the denis d’or, ostensibly the first ‘electronic’ musical instrument in the modern sense. Presumably, musical forces either existed or were assembled to suitably serenade sojourning crowned heads from Vienna, and the participation of several of the continent’s most celebrated singers—the castrati Carestini, Orsini, and Genovesi, who sang Apollo, Giove, and Diana, and tenor Gaetano Borghi as Mercurio—assured a regal ambience. Recorded in conjunction with a concert presentation in Dortmund, this performance has the advantage of the services of excellent singers and musicians of proven elegance in similar repertory. Aside from strangely artificial-sounding applause, the recording gives no indications of its live-performance provenance. The acoustic is slightly dry, which accentuates a few blemishes in the singers’ vocal productions, but the overall sonic atmosphere is pleasing to the ears. Though not Caldara’s best work even among the few scores known to Twenty-First Century listeners, La concordia de’ pianeti is an inventive score, and Archiv’s engineering allows Andrea Marcon and the instrumentalists of La Cetra Barockorchester Basel to exercise their gifts with great refinement but without fear of details being obscured by indifferent sound quality. The taut playing of the work’s Introduzione sets the stage for a thoughtful but unexaggerated performance, and the singing of La Cetra Vocalensemble Basel in the choruses ‘Oggie brillate e ardete,’ ‘Questo giorno celebrate,’ and ‘Tu sei cara in pari guisa’ further establishes the success of the performance as a whole. The choristers maintain close-knit ensemble without sounding inappropriately ecclesiastical, and their near-perfect diction gives their utterances heightened immediacy. Having dedicated much of his career to leading performances of music by Vivaldi, Maestro Marcon knows how this essentially Venetian score should go, and he and his team of continuo players, musicians, and singers give Caldara’s music a reading of tremendous energy and finesse.

As sung by bass Luca Tittoto, Saturno is a staunchly curmudgeonly presence, the character’s recitative with Giove, ‘Mercurio non risponde,’ receiving from the singer charismatically gruff enunciation. In the aria ‘Di quel bel nome al suono,’ Mr. Tittoto manages the wide range of the music capably, producing terrifically resonant low notes. There is a surprising vulnerability to Saturno’s ‘Mi piace, o dive, o numi,’ realized viscerally by Mr. Tittoto, and he channels considerable resources of tonal shading into his imaginative phrasing of the aria ‘Pari a quella il mondo vede.’ The basses in performances of Baroque vocal music are often whining, weak-voiced singers with grainy, featherweight timbres. Saturno demands a measure of true brawn, and Mr. Tittoto supplies it well within the boundaries of good taste.

Marte is sung by countertenor Carlos Mena with a blend of subtly-inflected diction and compact tone. Sparring with Apollo, Diana, and Venere in the recitative ‘Se tanto ottien laggiù,’ he matches the sheen of his timbre to the dramatic impetus of his words. He exhibits a fine bravura technique but intermittent weakness on sustained tones in the aria ‘Non v'è bella che non creda.’ Marte’s scene with Venere, ‘No, non è il solo,’ is rousingly done by Mr. Mena, who then sings the exhilarating aria with trumpets ‘Da mia tromba’ excitingly, as well. Mr. Mena’s dulcet but unmistakably masculine timbre is always heard with pleasure.

Delphine Galou is one of the few true contraltos singing today, and her performances invariably convey complete preparedness and concentration. As Venere in La concordia de’ pianeti, she contends with music that is almost perfectly-suited to her voice. In Venere’s exchange with Mercurio, ‘Qual fia costei,’ the burnished quality of her timbre lends her portrayal authority and sensuality appropriate for the character. Ms. Galou’s singing of the complex aria ‘Non si turba e non si duole,’ its deceptive cadences put to clever dramatic use, is distinguished by the fantastic strength of her sustained tones. To both the recitative with Giove, ‘Qual se improvvisa face,’ and the aria ‘Ad Elisa ancor d'intorno’ she devotes the best of her artistry, wrapping her voice around the words alluringly. In the symbolic Licenza, a flattering paean to the imperial birthday girl, Ms. Galou gets the last words with the recitative ‘Ecco, Elisa, gli applausi’ and aria ‘La concordia de' Pianeti,’ which she sings chicly. The sophistication for which Ms. Galou is renowned is evident in every note that she sings in this performance, and her sensitive, womanly Venere is rightly the musical and dramatic nucleus of the recording.

In the context of this recording, Daniel Behle further confirms that he is one of the Twenty-First Century’s most important singers with a performance of breathtaking bravura swagger. In Mercurio’s recitative with Venere, ‘Qual fia costei,’ the tenor tears into the words with a vengeance, the innate refinement of his basic vocal production not inhibiting his carefully-honed dramatic instincts. Mr. Behle dispatches the fiery coloratura passagework in the aria ‘Tal se gemma e rara e bella’ with incredible gusto. He joins delightfully with Saturno and Giove in the recitative ‘Più belle sempre furo,’ and his singing of the aria ‘Madre d'Amor tu sei’ is characterized by exemplary breath control and keen phrasing. Mr. Behle creates an aptly aristocratic Mercurio with Puckish charm, and the voice is, as ever, an exceptionally secure, beautiful instrument.

To the ranks of several outstanding recent recordings countertenor Franco Fagioli adds a performance of Apollo in La concordia de’ pianeti that reaches very high levels of expressive, lovely singing. In ‘Mal crede il dio guerrier,’ his recitative with Mercurio and Giove, Mr. Fagioli seems to truly listen and react to his colleagues. His broadly-phrased singing of the aria ‘So ch'io dal suolo alzai’ is crowned with extraordinary high notes. Later, he lavishes great nobility and tonal luster on Apollo’s recitative ‘Ben cedi, o Cintia’ and aria ‘Questo dì così giocondo.’ There are a few ungainly moments in Mr. Fagioli’s negotiations of pyrotechnics, but he is a shrewd, uncompromising singer who excels in almost every musical task that he undertakes. This recording finds him very near to being on his best form, which is to say that he sings magnificently.

Rugged machismo is not the hallmark of mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose’s Giove, but he is a willful, virile god with a voice that sounds as though it holds thunderbolts in reserve. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that a singer’s vocalism is too beautiful, but Ms. Donose’s opulent vocalism is a bounty that is almost richer than Giove’s music justifies. In the recitative ‘Mal discerni a i grandi’ and aria ‘Alla bontade e al merto,’ Ms. Donose displays impressive poise, and her bravura technique is never less than equal to Caldara’s requirements. Similarly, her voice flows through the recitative ‘Il giusto augurio accetto’ and aria ‘Goda il mondo’ with the sheen of liquid gold. Ms. Donose is an astonishingly versatile singer, and this recording documents her artistry at its peak.

Soprano Verónica Cangemi is the kind of singer who can uplift or break a listener’s heart with something as simple as the resolution of a cadence. As the chaste Diana in La concordia de’ pianeti, she enchants with the magic of a great actress. In Diana’s recitative with Mercurio and Venere, ‘Di Mercurio è costume,’ and the encounter with Giove, Venere, and Mercurio, ‘Ben sovente più bella,’ she communicates with both her colleagues and the listener with insightful use of text, shading her tone to reflect the shifting emotions of the words. Her traversal of the aria ‘Ad essa io cederò’ is a lesson in historically-informed singing allied with a poet’s caressing of nuances in the text. Even in the recitative with Giove, ‘Poiché tanto prometti,’ her phrasing is endearingly pensive. Ms. Cangemi provides the emotional zenith of the performance with her serene, heartfelt singing of the aria ‘Voti amanti ch’il chiedete.’ The voice is no longer produced with the obvious ease that her singing demonstrated in years past, and there are passages in which the velvet has worn off, revealing the sturdy hardwood core. Ms. Cangemi nonetheless remains a Baroque stylist of the first rank, ornamenting her arias with great creativity, and her coolly engaging Diana proves an ideal foil to Ms. Galou’s fervid Venere.

Like many of his contemporaries, Antonio Caldara is only just beginning to emerge from the long shadows of Händel and Vivaldi. The small group of stylistically authentic recordings of Caldara’s music represents a still-inadequate reflection of what history suggests that the composer’s significance in the artistic milieu of the first half of the Eighteenth Century warrants. La concordia de’ pianeti is not a masterpiece worthy of comparison with Händel’s Tamerlano or Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso, but its quality suggests that the next Caldara manuscript to emerge from a dark library may well be. Performed as well as La concordia de’ pianeti is on this recording, almost any piece might seem a valuable discovery.

15 December 2014

IN MEMORIAM: American mezzo-soprano IRENE DALIS, 1925 – 2014

IN MEMORIAM: American mezzo-soprano IRENE DALIS (1925 - 2014) as Fricka in Richard Wagner's DIE WALKÜRE at the Metropolitan Opera in 1965 [Photo © by The Metropolitan Opera Guild]So ist es denn aus mit den ewigen Göttern: American mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis as Fricka in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera, 1965 [Photo © by The Metropolitan Opera Guild]

Irene Dalis

8 October 1925 – 14 December 2014

On 18 December 1959, Birgit Nilsson made her Metropolitan Opera début in a rôle that remains associated with her, the titular Irish princess in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Ten days later, she reprised her Isolde in one of the most famous performances in MET history, the night on which the ravages of illness paired her with no fewer than three Tristans. The winter of 1960 – 1961 saw the MET débuts of Hermann Prey and Sir Georg Solti in Wagner’s Tannhäuser in December, the spectacular joint débuts of Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli in Verdi’s Il trovatore in January, and Ms. Price’s first MET Aida in February. In January 1962, the underappreciated Anita Välkki bowed as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, followed in March 1964 by the first MET appearance of the equally undervalued Nicolae Herlea as Rodrigo in Don Carlo. In October 1966, Karl Böhm and a fantastic cast introduced MET audiences to Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, and a highlight of the Spring 1967 Tour was the début in Boston of Elisabeth Grümmer as Elsa in Lohengrin. The 28 September 1968 performance of Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur partnered Renata Tebaldi with a young tenor making his first journey across Lincoln Center Plaza from New York City Opera to the MET, Plácido Domingo. August Everding’s new production of Tristan und Isolde, uniting Ms. Nilsson’s Isolde with Jess Thomas’s Tristan, was one of the greatest triumphs of the 1971 – 1972 Season, and the artistic sensation of the 1976 MET Tour was Renata Scotto’s portrayal of the soprano heroines in Puccini’s Il trittico. The common denominator in these performances, the witness to all of these watershed moments in the history of the Metropolitan Opera, is mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis, one of America’s finest, most unforgettable singers. A thrilling creature of the stage whose artistry was matched by her humanity, Ms. Dalis’s legacy in American opera is one of integrity, humility, and dedication to making her own career one of unerring dignity and affectionately nurturing the careers of young singers.

Following an instructive tenure in German opera houses, Ms. Dalis made her own MET début as Eboli in Don Carlo on 16 March 1957, in a performance in which her colleagues were Jussi Björling, Delia Rigal, Ettore Bastianini, Cesare Siepi, and Hermann Uhde. Critic Raymond A. Erickson wrote in Musical America that she ‘met the exacting demands of the part of Eboli with such vocal and dramatic authority as to make her debut one of the most exciting in recent seasons.’ Her prowess in Verdi repertory was confirmed in subsequent seasons by the fact that neither her Azucena nor her Amneris was eclipsed by her high-wattage colleagues. The histrionic intensity of her Azucena and the nobility of her Amneris were combined in Ms. Dalis’s magnificently-sung Lady Macbeth, and she was a hair-raising but unfailingly musical Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera. In Verdi repertory, as Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, as the Principessa di Bouillon in Adriana Lecouvreur, and as the Zia Principessa in Suor Angelica, she was America’s only true rival for the incomparable Giulietta Simionato.

Though she brought an element of authentic Gallic hauteur to her characterization of the Principessa di Bouillon, Ms. Dalis’s only French rôle at the MET was the Biblical seductress in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, but her expertise in Italian repertory was paralleled by her superb singing of German rôles. Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde was her fourth part at the MET, and her level of achievement was such that Birgit Nilsson, frequently her Isolde, regarded her not as a rival but as an equal. Whether her Brünnhilde was Nilsson, Välkki, Martha Mödl, or Margaret Harshaw, she was a commanding Fricka in Die Walküre and a compelling Waltraute in Götterdämmerung, as well as a powerful Fricka in Das Rheingold. She was an Ortrud and a Venus who could hold her own against the very different Elsas of Régine Crespin, Ingrid Bjoner, and Elisabeth Grümmer and Elisabeths of Victoria de los Ángeles and Leonie Rysanek. Ms. Dalis’s sole Klytämnestra in Richard Strauss’s Elektra was a tour performance in Atlanta, but her Herodias in Salome took New York by storm. The standard that she set with her singing of the Amme in Die Frau ohne Schatten has never been surpassed.

One of Ms. Dalis’s most memorable portrayals, Kundry in Parsifal, was heard at the MET only eight times, but she was the first American artist to sing the rôle at Bayreuth, where she appeared in Wieland Wagner’s controversial production of the opera in 1961, 1962, and 1963. Her performances in the 1962 Bayreuther Festspiele Parsifal were preserved on a recording that is embraced by many Wagnerians as one of the finest accounts of the troublesome opera. She also alternated with Astrid Varnay and Elisabeth Schärtel as Ortrud in the 1962 Bayreuth Lohengrin.

A native of San Jose, California, Ms. Dalis returned to her hometown after retiring from the MET stage, accepting a professorship and establishing an opera workshop program at her alma mater, San Jose State University. Recalling her own experiences as a young singer with German regional companies, she founded Opera San Jose in 1984, focusing on cultivating a true repertory company in the now-rare traditional sense. The launching of her Vocal Competition in 2007 furthered her aim of supporting and encouraging young singers and working towards the broadening of opera’s appeal in the United States.

Irene Dalis is one of many great singers whose voices I sadly know only from recordings, but her recordings offer evidence of a truly sublime talent. In truth, if her discography were confined only to the 1962 Bayreuth Parsifal, her reputation as a Wagnerian of legendary status would be assured. Thankfully, many of her MET broadcasts are in circulation in unofficial channels, and none is more impressive than the 1971 Die Frau ohne Schatten in which her Amme nearly steals the laurels from Leonie Rysanek’s typically resplendent Kaiserin, Christa Ludwig’s inspiring Färberin, and Walter Berry’s moving Barak. When I want to surrender myself completely to this fantastic singer’s beautiful tones and emotional directness, however, I turn to the 1962 broadcast of Cavalleria rusticana. To the New York operagoer of that era, the performance must have seemed unexceptional, with Ms. Dalis surrounded by Barry Morell’s Turiddu, Rosalind Elias’s Lola, Walter Cassel’s Alfio, and Lili Chookasian’s Mamma Lucia, and it is not a performance that redefines the opera or its impact. Still, it is a performance that possesses legitimate impact, and the source of that energy—a palpable electricity that, after fifty-two years, is undiminished—is the unique Irene Dalis.

IN MEMORIAM: American mezzo-soprano IRENE DALIS as Kundry in Richard Wagner's PARSIAL at the Bayreuther Festspiele, 1961 [Photo © by the Bayreuther Festspiele]Seit Ewigkeiten harre ich diener: American mezzo-soprano Irene Dalis as Kundry in Wieland Wagner’s production of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal at the 1961 Bayreuther Festspiele [Photo © by the Bayreuther Festspiele]