31 January 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – THEODORA (D. Röschmann, S. Connolly, D. Daniels, K. Streit, N. Davies; Carolina Performing Arts; Chapel Hill, NC; 30.01.2014)

 IN REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel's THEODORA (UNC Performing Arts, 30.01.2014)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Theodora, HWV 68—D. Röschmann (Theodora), S. Connolly (Irene), D. Daniels (Didymus), K. Streit (Septimius), N. Davies (Valens); The Trinity Choir of New York’s Trinity Wall Street Church; The English Concert; Harry Bicket, conductor and harpsichord [Carolina Performing Arts; Memorial Hall, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Thursday, 30 January 2014]

It is flabbergasting to consider in this age in which audiences eager for legitimate theatrical experiences are subjected to so much worthless music that, at its London première in March 1750, Händel’s masterful oratorio Theodora was a resounding failure; and this despite a first-night cast that featured three of the most acclaimed singers in Britain, soprano Giulia Frasi in the title rôle, mezzo-soprano Caterina Galli as Irene, and castrato Gaetano Guadagni as Didymus!  Revived only once before Händel’s death in 1759, it was left to subsequent generations to acclaim Theodora as one of the greatest works from a composer whose genius produced a dizzying succession of fine scores.  Thomas Morell, the librettist who intelligently distilled ideas drawn from source materials by Robert Boyle and Pierre Corneille into the dramatically cogent text set by Händel, famously recorded an anecdote, likely apocryphal, that has the composer attributing the poor showing of the inaugural performances of Theodora to the work’s denominational affiliations and depiction of goodness, saying that London’s music-loving Jewish population were put off by a Christian subject and that ladies could not bear the story’s virtue.  In the same way that, owing to the novel’s turbulent genesis, Dickens named David Copperfield as the favorite among all his children, Händel cherished Theodora as the best of his oratorios.  The penchant in the 20th and 21st Centuries for staging Theodora in an operatic manner has proved Händel right: the landmark 1996 Glyndebourne production by Peter Sellars explored the extravagant dramatic possibilities of the score and prompted a full-scale reevaluation not only of Theodora but of Händel’s oratorios in general.  Fortunately, modern audiences have discovered what Händel’s contemporaries failed to grasp—that Theodora is one of the most dramatically powerful and musically distinguished works in Western music.

Anyone who heard the performance by Harry Bicket and the English Concert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall cannot have failed to appreciate either the unique expressivity of Theodora or the breadth of Händel’s genius.  Perhaps the most arresting aspect of Theodora is that, like the composer’s opera Tamerlano, so much of the music is in a contemplative vein: there are extroverted bravura passages aplenty, of course, but the prevailing mood is one of imminent tragedy.  This was palpably but never oppressively conveyed by the playing of the English Concert, led with eloquent virtuosity by concertmistress Nadja Zwiener.  The execution of historically-informed performance practices has advanced almost unrecognizably beyond the rough beginnings of a half-century ago.  The playing of the valveless natural horns, formerly often a source of cringe-inducing din, was excellent, and all the wind parts—including the lovely recorder obbligato in the ‘Symphony’ that precedes Theodora’s ‘O thou bright sun!’ in Act Two—were beautifully delivered.  String timbres were equally pleasing to the ears, with none of the gratingly acerbic sounds of violins’ highest tones that mar many performances.  The continuo was superbly realized by Maestro Bicket at the harpsichord, principal cellist Joseph Crouch, and Florida-born William Carter on theorbo.  Mr. Carter’s wonderful playing of his fearsomely difficult instrument contributed considerably to the musical elegance and even more meaningfully to the emotional impact of the performance.  Beginning with a spirited account of the Overture, Maestro Bicket consistently adopted tempi that were inherently right for the music and for the singers.  More than many of his colleagues who specialize in Baroque repertory, he displayed a natural affinity for collaboration with vocalists, and his shaping of scenes disclosed a deep understanding of Händel’s dramatic structures, which are crafted with as sure a hand as in any of the composer’s operas.  Fine as the solo numbers were, it was in the choruses that Maestro Bicket achieved his finest results.  ‘Go, gen’rous, pious youth’ was paced with ideal gravity, as was the closing ‘O love divine, thou source of fame,’ and every chorus resounded with perfect balance.

The singing of the Trinity Choir of New York’s Trinity Wall Street Church was, in a word, exquisite.  An ensemble of twenty-four voices, the Trinity Choir offered both the delicate sounds of a chamber choir where appropriate and the robust tones that Händel’s music occasionally demands.  In their opening ‘And draw a blessing down,’ they were a credibly raucous bunch of heathens, and the vigor of their singing in ‘Venus laughing from the skies’ left none of the bawdy implications of the text unexplored.  In Christian garb, ‘Come, mighty Father, mighty Lord’ was radiant, but the Choir’s singing of ‘Go, gen’rous, pious youth’ was truly astonishing: the manner in which the hushed repetitions of ‘in glory, peace and rest’ hung on the air at the chorus’s close was unforgettable.  ‘He saw the lovely youth, death’s early prey’ drew from the Choir singing of sympathetic grace, and their performance of ‘Blest be the hand, and blest the pow’r’ was stirring.  The final chorus, ‘O love divine, thou source of fame,’ brought the performance to a close with an evocation of the redeeming power of love as moving as that of the depiction of the Resurrection in Messiah; and perhaps even more musically fulfilling.  The Choir’s singing was remarkable for its tonal security and precision of ensemble, with even the most challenging fugal passages enjoying complete mastery.  Moreover, the blend of voices was exemplary, every part audible but none over-prominent.  The altos and basses, often the weak links in American choirs, sang with heartening richness, and the sopranos and tenors sustained tones in their upper registers unfalteringly.  Steven Caldicott Wilson, a tenor in the Choir, lent his firm, ingratiating voice to the Messenger’s recitatives, further exhibiting the quality of the Choir’s voices.  Hearing such glorious sounds from a choir of the size Händel intended for Theodora, it is difficult to imagine why subsequent generations of performers determined that larger ensembles were required.  Hearing a performance like that given by the Trinity Choir, one that mined each emotion in Händel’s music, enveloped it in tones that seemed stolen from heaven, and gave it to the audience in golden song, it is impossible to imagine the famously meticulous composer himself having been anything but transfixed.

As Valens, the unyielding President of Antioch, Welsh bass-baritone Neal Davies sang strongly but sometimes employed an over-emphatic delivery that, though clearly rooted in a thoughtful pursuit of drama, distracted attention from the fine quality of his voice.  From his first aria, ‘Go, my faithful soldier, go,’ Valens is a character of unchanging cruelty and single-mindedness, traits aptly conveyed by Händel in music of bravura grandstanding.  Mr. Davies’s singing of ‘Racks, gibbets, sword and fire’ was fiery, and his account of ‘Wide spread his name’ was winsome.  Mr. Davies’s finest singing was done in ‘Ye ministers of justice, lead them hence,’ Valens’s final aria in which both Theodora and Didymus are sent to their deaths.  Mr. Davies is the rare bass-baritone whose voice has no difficulties with either extremity of the range, and the evenness of the timbre throughout the tessitura demanded by Händel’s music was an impressive hallmark of Mr. Davies’s performance.  He faced no coloratura challenges with which he could not cope smashingly, and he was a commanding presence in the drama.

Septimius is introduced by ‘Descend, kind pity, heav’nly guest,’ one of Händel’s most absorbing arias for the tenor voice.  The poise, delicate phrasing, and dulcet tone that Kurt Streit brought to the aria were spellbinding, and this was but the beginning of an uncommonly assured, beautifully-conceived performance.  The descending phrases in his opening aria brought ever-increasing vigor and expanding tonal sheen from Mr. Streit, his upper register bright but capable of profound expression.  Both ‘Dread the fruits of Christian folly’ and ‘Tho’ the honours that Flora and Venus receive’ were charmingly sung.  The divisions in ‘From virtue springs each gen’rous deed’ were dispatched with ease, and Mr. Streit’s technique made a tremendous impression throughout the performance.  What proved most memorable was the sheer beauty of his voice, however, and his singing of ‘Descend, kind pity, heav’nly guest’ was an example of the highest standard of Händel singing.

Händel composed for Irene one of the greatest concentrations of his art, ‘As with rosy steps the morn.’  In this aria, and, indeed, in every note that she sang, the versatile mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly gave a masterclass in the art of unobtrusively considerate phrasing.  As with Mr. Streit, however, the principal pleasure to be had from Ms. Connolly’s singing was in the unmistakable quality of the voice.  ‘Bane of virtue, nurse of passions’ was splendidly sung, the statements of ‘such is, Prosperity, the name’ voiced with beguiling intensity.  The outpouring of expressive tone in ‘As with rosy steps the morn’ was awe-inspiring, the depths of emotion all the more touching for the subtlety and calm reserve of Ms. Connolly’s singing.  ‘Defend her, Heav’n,’ Irene’s prayer for the preservation of Theodora’s maidenhood, seemed even finer in Ms. Connolly’s performance than it appears on the page, and the extended melodies of ‘Lord, to thee, each night and day’ were unfurled with poetic elegance.  Ms. Connolly’s lines in the brief duet with Theodora, ‘Whither, Princess, do you fly,’ trembled with concern for her friend, and she cloaked ‘New scenes of joy come crowding on’ with an unsettling sense of uncertainty and trepidation.  Having Irene sing the final recitative, ‘Ere this, their doom is past and they are gone,’ from the side of the stage heightened the sense of loss, with Irene now distanced from Theodora and Didymus by death.  This, too, Ms. Connolly sang with sorrow made more piercing by the handsomeness of her tone.  In phrasing, in tasteful ornamentation, and in finding in text the impetus for the nuances of her performance, Ms. Connolly confirmed her reputation as one of the most important Händel singers of her generation.

South Carolina-born countertenor David Daniels, whose career has done more than that of any other artist to popularize the work of countertenors in the United States, was on something near best form, his singing of Didymus reaching towering heights of musical excellence.  His singing of ‘The raptur’d soul defies the sword’ was energetic, and ‘Kind Heav’n, if virtue be thy care’ provided opportunities for deployment of his celebrated bravura technique.  Mr. Daniels’s exuberant singing of ‘Deeds of kindness to display,’ crowned with stunning high notes, soared, and his performance of ‘Sweet rose and lily, flow’ry form’ was as entrancing a serenade as any damsel in distress might desire.  The first of his duets with Theodora, ‘To thee, thou glorious son of worth,’ was captivatingly done.  The pinnacle of Mr. Daniels’s performance—and, indeed, of the performance as a whole—was ‘Streams of pleasure ever flowing,’ which was phrased with an abundance of sensitivity that emphasized Händel’s inspired setting of the text.  In the subsequent duet with Theodora, ‘Thither let our hearts aspire,’ Mr. Daniels’s tone took on an ethereal quality that aptly conveyed the transfiguration of Didymus’s martyrdom.  It is hardly surprising that Händel lavished majestic music on a rôle composed for Guadagni, but hearing it so lushly sung, even by a singer with an acclaimed history in Händel’s music, was a spectacular surprise.  The art of countertenor singing may never be universally admired, but the listener who did not surrender to the virtuosity, sumptuousness, and emotional directness of Mr. Daniels’s singing is little affected by the potency of music.

The performance of the title rôle by soprano Dorothea Röschmann was a monumental achievement.  ‘Fond, flatt’ring world, adieu’ had the quiet gravitas of a great tragedienne but also a lightness that suggested that, to Theodora, the weight of earthly cares is easily borne when one’s faith promises heavenly reward, but the terror and indignation in the accompagnato ‘Oh, worse than death, indeed’—sung with passion worthy of Rodelinda—and the sincerity of the plea for deliverance in ‘Angels, ever bright and fair’ were indicative of a tangible humanity.  Ms. Röschmann’s dignified voicing of ‘With darkness deep, as is my woe’ also confirmed that, for this Theodora, life is as precious as death in the exercise of her faith.  ‘Oh, that I on wings could rise’ was similarly evocative, the freedom with which Ms. Röschmann ascended into her rich upper register credibly capturing the note of determination in the music.  ‘The pilgrim’s home, the sick man’s health,’ the least troubled of Theodora’s arias, was brightly but meaningfully sung, setting the tone for the gorgeous duet, ‘To thee, thou glorious son of worth,’ in which Ms. Röschmann and Mr. Daniels blended their voices with the finesse of silk threads intertwining.  In Act Three, Ms. Röschmann brought to ‘When sunk in anguish and despair’ an air of muted ecstasy, and the dramatic intent of her accompagnato ‘O my Irene, Heav’n is kind’ was startling.  ‘Lost in anguish quite despairing’ was not so much a resignation to her impending martyrdom as an embrace of her quest to repay Didymus’s love through sacrifice.  When, in the penultimate scene, Ms. Röschmann joined Mr. Daniels in ‘Thither let our hearts aspire,’ the cataclysm of their shared martyrdom was transformed into an act of insurmountable human connection as overwhelming—and as musically satisfying—as Isolde’s Liebestod or Brünnhilde’s Immolation.  Matching her colleagues with impeccable phrasing and natural English diction, Ms. Röschmann placed her top notes unerringly, floating tones in both duets with Mr. Daniels to achingly beautiful effect.  Theodora is a woman who, in the course of Händel’s score, never enjoys a truly carefree moment, but Ms. Röschmann’s performance enabled the listener to see Theodora as a woman, not an archetype; and a woman for whom love and faith render the greatest tortures mere tests of her soul.

It is almost certain that the music of Händel had never been so graciously performed in North Carolina as in this performance of Theodora, but even now, when Händel’s operas and oratorios are cast with far greater strength than scores by Verdi or Wagner, this performance was something special.  That such a group of artists was assembled in Chapel Hill is remarkable, but that they collaborated to create such a magical performance is virtually unbelievable, no matter the venue.  The three-and-a-quarter hours of Händel’s score rushed by in a flash, and the endeavors of this outstanding ensemble—Dorothea Röschmann a Theodora of uncompromising virtue and even surer musicality; David Daniels a meltingly lyrical Didymus metamorphosed by love; Sarah Connolly an Irene of columnar dignity and tones like finest marble; Kurt Streit a Septimius of unbending devotion and amber voice; Neal Davies a vigorously menacing Valens; the simply superlative Trinity Choir and English Concert; and the dedicated, fastidiously-prepared Harry Bicket—engendered a performance that, as a presentation of Händel’s Theodora and a musical experience, can never be duplicated.


The English Concert’s 2 February performance of Theodora in Carnegie Hall (New York) will be recorded for broadcast on WQXR on Sunday, 16 March 2014, at 7:00 PM EST.

29 January 2014

ARTIST PROFILE: New Diva for a New Year – Soprano JOYCE EL-KHOURY

Soprano JOYCE EL-KHOURY [Photo © Kristin Hoebermann]

‘She is almost equal to an imagination.’  This was notorious British actress Fanny Kemble’s assessment of the legendary Italian soprano Giuditta Pasta, the Queen of Bel Canto who in the course of a remarkable career created the title rôles in Bellini’s La sonnambula, Beatrice di Tenda, and Norma and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.  Contemporary accounts of Pasta’s singing seemingly describe a hundred different voices, and this is illustrative of the delightfully confounding businesses of analyzing and classifying voices.  If singers’ voices are imprecise, kaleidoscopic instruments, listeners’ ears are equally imperfect, changeable organs that react to the endlessly-varied stimuli of music in unique, often unexpected ways.  In the sense that words are inadequate to convey the impact of a truly great singer’s artistry, Fanny Kemble may have provided history with the most apt description of the histrionic power of Giuditta Pasta as both a singer and an actress: Pasta’s was the sort of genius that communicated directly with listeners’ hearts, and her operatic portrayals were celebrated as fusions of her own insights with the imaginations of the composers and the characters she portrayed.  The spirit of Pasta haunted the 20th Century in the singing of Maria Callas and Leyla Gencer, artists whose performances sought in the mists of time the fire that flickered in Pasta’s legacy.  In the first years of the 21st Century, the examples of Pasta, Callas, Gencer, and all those artists who strove to reach the supreme heights of lyrical expression have grown ever colder.  While wars rage among those who claim to love opera about whether this or that production is ‘relevant’ and whether this or that singer is fit, handsome, and young enough for a given rôle, the essential profundity of opera, the collective experience of emotions too grandiose for words alone, struggles for survival in a community in which singers are increasingly judged by how they look rather than how they sound.  Quietly but with a voice that can set off avalanches of glistening musical passions, a beautiful lady from Canada has found in the depths of her talents a thrillingly individual understanding of bel canto, not merely as a particular style of singing but as a means of shaping—and enduring—a career in an industry in which failure is publicized with far greater zeal than success elicits.  Whether traversing the pages of opera’s most familiar scores or reviving long-silent heroines, soprano Joyce El-Khoury is an artist in whom the core values of the great divas of yesteryear blossom anew.  Not another pretty face attempting to mask a second-rate voice with prima donna attitudes, she is an artist of uncompromising integrity who is already proving ‘equal to an imagination.’

Much is revealed about the fact that, for Ms. El-Khoury, bel canto is a journey rather a destination by her saying from the very start that her principal goal as an artist is to unite music and characterization in ways that meaningfully engage audiences.  ‘I always strive for emotional connection,’ she says.  Unlike many young singers, Ms. El-Khoury displays an instinctive comprehension of the fact that, in order to create portraits of characters that will resonate with audiences and remain in their collective memories, the impetus for this emotional connection must be sought first and foremost in the music.  ‘Many of the characters I play have forced me to examine the human condition,’ she intimates.  ‘Women like Violetta [in Verdi’s La traviata], Magda [in Puccini’s La rondine], or even Antonina [in Donizetti’s Belisario], for example, try to improve their lots and redeem themselves.  Getting to know these women has made me realize that all of us as human beings are simply doing the best we can in any given moment.  Taking [into] account our personal histories, flaws, and limitations, we are all doing our best to be happy.’  It is this universal effort at self-improvement as the only route to true happiness that is, for Ms. El-Khoury, the most essential component of portraying characters who are more than costumes, words, and strings of notes.  ‘We are all after the same thing, ultimately,’ she says.  ‘I think this is why people find comfort in music and theatre and especially opera, which combines the two: comfort in knowing we are not alone.’

Joyce El-Khoury as Violetta in Verdi's LA TRAVIATA at De Nederlandse Opera, May 2013 [Photo by Hans van den Bogaard, © De Nederlandse Opera] Joyce El-Khoury as Violetta in Willy Decker’s production of Verdi’s La traviata at De Nederlandse Opera, May 2013 [Photo by Hans van den Bogaard, © De Nederlandse Opera]

It is interesting that a singer with such sure senses of herself and the place of her artistry in the storied traditions of opera came to the genre along an unusual path.  ‘During my early teens,’ Ms. El-Khoury recalls, ‘I wanted to be a pop singer, and opera was nowhere to be found on my playlist.  I loved listening to Michael Jackson.  His music, use of gesture, and theatrical concepts were very inspiring to me.  Years later, I realized that they were very operatic!’  Even in the formative years of her exposure to music, Ms. El-Khoury had an appreciation for melody and vocal styling.  ‘I also loved the Bee Gees for the beauty of their songs,’ she recollects.  ‘I often sang Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey ballads for events such as Ottawa’s Lebanese Festival’—a nod to the heritage of the nation of her birth.  ‘I decided to begin taking singing lessons with a Classically-trained teacher, hoping it would improve my singing technique for my pop career.  Little did I know [that] these lessons would lead me to studying music at the University of Ottawa and subsequently falling in love with and wanting to serve this magical art form that is Opera.’  Ms. El-Khoury the opera singer has not buried her aspiring-pop-star roots, though: ‘I still have Michael Jackson and the Bee Gees on my “Running” playlist, right next to Verdi’s ‘Dies irae,’ which can make a champion out of anybody!’

Maintaining a balanced understanding of one’s history and one’s future is, in Ms. El-Khoury’s view, critical to enjoying lasting success on the operatic stage.  ‘It is imperative for a singer to know his or her own strengths, whether young or experienced,’ she says.  ‘Luckily, I knew early on that Italian and bel canto repertoires were well-suited to my voice and my temperament.’  A special quality of Ms. El-Khoury’s singing is that, like Callas, she approaches every rôle that she sings with a technique grounded in bel canto, enabling her to discern and display the melodic center of any phrase.  ‘In my view,’ she confides, ‘bel canto technique applies to all repertoire.  This is something that I quickly learned while studying at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.  Not one note, word, or phrase can be taken for granted in any type of repertoire.  The only things that vary with each different rôle are the combinations of notes, rhythms, and text.’  To illustrate her point, Ms. El-Khoury describes the method by which she approaches a new rôle.  ‘My preparation process is always the same: I begin with study of the text, then the music follows.  During this study process, I am looking for the humanity in the combination of the two—and this is what I thrive on.’  Indeed, discovering the timeless emotions in a score is a vital component of her artistry that inspires Ms. El-Khoury’s love for her vocation.  ‘Of course, the most gratifying aspect of pursuing a career as a singer is standing on a stage and sharing with an audience something which somehow feels extremely private and personal.  I think of performing as not only something [in which] I can implement my years of vocal training but [also] as a means of expressing my life experiences.  It is a true privilege.’  It is a privilege that comes with challenges, however, and Ms. El-Khoury is keenly aware of the impact that these challenges can have on her personal and professional lives.  ‘The greatest challenges [are] being away from loved ones for long periods of time and maintaining meaningful relationships,’ she indicates.  ‘It is a lonely life at times because, more often than not, I am in a strange city where I don’t know anyone.  I have had to turn down social events countless times in order to protect the quality of upcoming performances.  Because of this, I am left with many hours open for reflection, contemplation, and study.  It is in these hours [that] I do my most concentrated and inspired work.  Luckily, studying provides me with such a joy that I don’t mind the solitude which accompanies it.’

Joyce El-Khoury sings Lauretta's aria 'O mio babbino caro' in the Castleton Festival's 2010 production of Puccini's IL TRITTICO [Photo by Leslie Maazel, © Castleton Festival] Joyce El-Khoury sings Lauretta’s aria ‘O mio babbino caro’ (Gianni Schicchi) in the Castleton Festival’s 2010 production of Puccini’s Il trittico [Photo by Leslie Maazel, © Castleton Festival]

A special triumph in Ms. El-Khoury’s career to date came in an unlikely rôle: Antonina in Donizetti’s rarely-heard Belisario, recorded in studio for Opera Rara [reviewed on Voix des Arts] and performed in concert at the Barbican in October 2012, a performance of which Rupert Christiansen wrote in The Telegraph that Ms. El-Khoury’s singing impressed with ‘fluent coloratura and viperish intensity.’  Created in the opera’s 1836 Venetian première by Caroline Ungher, Antonina is anything but a conventional bel canto heroine, a fact that is not lost on Ms. El-Khoury.  ‘Her character is not easily liked,’ she states.  ‘She believes her husband has had their son killed and is plotting his downfall.  It was a new experience for me to play a vengeful character with such fiery music.  Interestingly, I was singing Antonina in London and then flew to Munich two weeks later to sing Beethoven’s Missa solemnis with Maestro Lorin Maazel and the Münchner Philharmonker—both soprano parts which were written for Caroline Ungher!’  Collaborations with Lorin Maazel have proved wonderfully rewarding for the young soprano, not least in performances at the Castleton Festival, the enterprising event on Maestro Maazel’s Virginia estate at which Ms. El-Khoury gave critically-acclaimed performances of Suor Angelica and Lauretta in Puccini’s Il trittico in 2010 and Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello in 2013.

Another part in which the full spectrum of Ms. El-Khoury’s artistry shines alluringly is Violetta in La traviata.  It is a rôle for which her well-honed technique and emotional sincerity are ideal, as superb performances at Welsh National Opera, Palm Beach Opera, De Nederlandse Opera, and elsewhere have confirmed.  ‘Generally, when I prepare a rôle that highlights my vocal strengths,’ she says, ‘I am significantly more confident in my approach to serve the music to the best of my ability whilst bringing a character and her emotional complexity to life.’  This is a response that has developed as her career has progressed.  ‘It may take some time for a young performer to know his or her own strengths—as well as weaknesses—and understand the impact they may have on his or her trajectory.’  Ms. El-Khoury acknowledges that this is not a road that an intelligent singer travels alone, however.  ‘I have always had a handful of mentors (coaches, conductors, voice teachers, and friends) with whom I can have an honest discussion.  I often ask for advice on repertoire from those who know my voice best.  Once I’ve compiled all the information from the various sources, I am much better equipped to make an informed decision.  At times, it isn’t easy to decide…so I rely on instinct, which is usually always right.’

Joyce El-Khoury as Violetta in Verdi's LA TRAVIATA at Opéra Théâtre de Saint-Etienne in March 2013 [Photo by Cyrille Cauvet, © Opéra Théâtre de Saint-Etienne] Joyce El-Khoury as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata at Opéra Théâtre de Saint-Etienne, March 2013 [Photo by Cyrille Cauvet, © Opéra Théâtre de Saint-Etienne]

Ms. El-Khoury’s Amsterdam Violetta came to life in the setting of Willy Decker’s much-discussed production of La traviata, also seen at the Salzburger Festspiele and the Metropolitan Opera.  ‘It is a modern take on this beloved classic,’ she says, ‘and all details are well thought-out and tastefully executed, bringing to the audience a very exciting experience.’  This raises one of the most controversial topics in opera today, that of the ‘revision’ of standard-repertory operas in the pursuit of increased appeal to 21st-Century audiences.  ‘I don’t see anything wrong with “updating” well-known works in order to give a fresh perspective on the pieces and offer audiences different theatrical experiences than they have previously had,’ Ms. El-Khoury suggests.  ‘I do, however, insist that this “update” be well thought-out and respectful of the work at hand.  It must adhere to the synopsis and the libretto set to music by the composer.  Most often, we are dealing with masterpieces, which stand on their own and do not need updating.’  She concedes that determining whether directors’ efforts at rendering opera more palatable for current and future audiences is a tricky proposition.  ‘I do not know what the most critical means of ensuring the survival of opera for centuries to come is,’ she says, quickly adding, ‘but I do know what will kill it: “dumbing down” opera for the masses and misrepresenting it in mainstream media is counterproductive and will not bring new audiences to the theatre—or help cultivate new opera lovers.  Education for the young and old is key.  We must introduce people to opera as it is performed at the highest level possible.  This will give them a real chance at truly understanding this art form and falling in love with it as I did several years ago.’

In addition to seeking to contribute palpably to the future of opera, Ms. El-Khoury looks to her own future.  Viewing her current successes from the perspective of her experiences as a student and a fledgling singer new to staged opera, she has excellent advice for other young sopranos still finding their way.  ‘I would advise any young soprano to always have self-awareness,’ she shares.  ‘This applies to her technique, stagecraft, and physical health; and to always looking for ways to improve them.  She must know exactly where she stands and be honest with herself about her abilities.  Self-awareness also pertains to how she conducts herself professionally: “Respect yourself, and you will be respected.”’  Cognizance of her own abilities influences Ms. El-Khoury’s current choices of repertory, but she is also mindful of the twists and turns that the maturation of a voice can impose on the progress of a career.  ‘There is no real way of telling which direction my voice will take in the next ten to fifteen years, so, who knows?’ she says with typical good humor.  ‘I think it’s safe to say that Brünnhilde and Isolde will remain unfulfilled fantasies, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Sieglinde!’

Soprano Joyce El-Khoury [Photo by Dario Acosta]

The first half of 2014 sees Ms. El-Khoury taking on an exciting new part, the title rôle in Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka.  Two performances in San Antonio (31 January and 1 February) are followed on 30 March by a much-anticipated semi-staged performance with North Carolina Opera in Raleigh.  ‘These being my first times singing Rusalka,’ Ms. El-Khoury opines, ‘I am looking forward to discovering a character who is essentially non-human.  Dvořák’s music’—including the instantly familiar ‘Song to the Moon,’ in which Ms. El-Khoury’s gorgeous upper register will be put to excellent use—‘is sublime, and I am honored to be singing it.  I am sure I will have more to say once I have been living with the rôle for a longer time.  Rusalka reminds me of myself as a teenaged girl, however.  It will be interesting to revisit this time of my life.’  On 17 May, Ms. El-Khoury’s Rusalka will be heard at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, in one of that venue’s famed Saturday broadcast performances.  The stage is set for one of the most promising operatic rôle débuts in recent years to take the world by storm.

At some point in the past quarter-century, the term ‘traditional’ has taken on an inexplicably negative connotation in the Arts world.  Nevertheless, Joyce El-Khoury is a traditional prima donna; not in the modern traditions of arrogance, self-righteousness, and ill-preparedness, but in the Grand Tradition of Pasta, Malibran, Callas, and Gencer.  With a vocal compass that ranges over two-and-a-half octaves with every appearance of ease and a smoky timbre that enables overtones of authentically Italianate morbidezza with no impact on the fleetness of her coloratura, she combines the incendiary stylistic prowess of a 19th-Century sfogato with the technical security of a perfectly-schooled modern singer.  Giving performances that honor the past with the best qualities of the present, Joyce El-Khoury embodies the enthralling future of opera.

Joyce El-Khoury during recording sessions for Opera Rara's recording of Donizetti's BELISARIO [Photo © Opera Rara] Joyce El-Khoury during studio sessions for Opera Rara’s recording of Donizetti’s Belisario, October 2012 [Photo © Opera Rara]


Sincerest thanks are extended to Ms. El-Khoury for her time and uncommon thoughtfulness in responding to questions for this article.  Many thanks are also offered to Mindi Rayner for her great assistance and patience in facilitating the interview with Ms. El-Khoury.

To learn more about Joyce El-Khoury, visit her Official Website and follow her Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Ms. El-Khoury is represented by William Guerri of Columbia Artists Management.  Her press representatives are Mindi Rayner of Mindi Rayner Public Relations (USA, Europe, Asia) and Elizabeth Bowman of Bowman Media (Canada, Europe, Asia).

28 January 2014

ART OVER THE AIRWAVES: Harpsichordist Jory Vinikour to perform on Chicago’s 98.7 WFMT

Hear internationally-renowned harpsichordist and conductor JORY VINIKOUR on 98.7 WFMT's 'Live From WFMT' [Photo by Annastina Ciup]

Internationally-renowned harpsichordist and conductor—and Chicago native—Jory Vinikour will join host Kerry Frumkin in WFMT’s Chicago studios at 8:00 PM CST on Monday, 3 February, for a live broadcast in the station’s ‘Live From WFMT’ series.  Long resident in France, where he studied with Huguette Dreyfus and Kenneth Gilbert as a Fulbright scholar, his remarkable career has included fruitful collaborations with many of the world’s finest orchestras, period-instrument ensembles, and conductors.  Mr. Vinikour has coached and accompanied—not only in concerts and recitals but also in his rôles as continuo harpsichordist and répétiteur in acclaimed opera productions—a staggering array of talented singers including sopranos Annick Massis and Dorothea Röschmann, mezzo-sopranos Vivica Genaux, Magdalena Kožená, and Anne Sofie von Otter, countertenor David Daniels, and tenor Rolando Villazón.  Celebrating his return to Chicago, Mr. Vinikour will also lend his superb artistry to two performances of an exciting programme of music by Johann Christian Bach, Riccardo Broschi (brother of legendary castrato Farinelli), Händel, Hasse, Haydn, Porpora, and Vivaldi with Vivica Genaux, Nicholas McGegan, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on 13 and 18 February.

In his performance for ‘Live From WFMT,’ Mr. Vinikour will present a programme including music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Mel Powell, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Domenico Scarlatti.  Excited to share his passion for the harpsichord with listeners in the city of his birth and beyond, Mr. Vinikour hints at intriguing additions to the announced programme.  ‘There may be one or two surprises,’ he says mysteriously.

Mr. Vinikour’s uncommonly diverse discography as a solo harpsichordist extends from brilliant accounts of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Händel’s 1720 Harpsichord Suites to a GRAMMY®-nominated recording of the complete harpsichord music of Jean-Philippe Rameau and Toccatas, his recent disc of music by contemporary American composers.  Highlights of his recordings as a collaborative artist include two critically-lauded discs of Bach’s Flute Sonatas with Joshua Smith, principal flautist of the Cleveland Orchestra, and Music for a While, a programme of 17th-Century Italian music with Anne Sofie von Otter.


Visit WFMT’s website for more information about ‘Live From WFMT’ and all of this wonderful station’s programming.  Click here to listen online.

To learn more about Jory Vinikour, visit his Official Website and Facebook page.

98.7 WFMT - Chicago's Classical and Folk Radio Streaming Online

27 January 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini – LA BOHÈME (A. Fout, E. Barry, J. Echols, T. Cook; North Carolina Opera; Raleigh, NC; 26.01.2014)

Giacomo Puccini - LA BOHÈME (North Carolina Opera - 26.01.2014)

GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La bohème—A. Fout (Mimì), E. Barry (Rodolfo), J. Echols (Musetta), T. Cook (Marcello), S. Howard (Colline), J. Orduña (Schaunard), K. Melges (Benoît, Alcindoro), W. Henderson (Parpignol), S. Currlin (Sergeant), T. Keefe (Customs Officer); Chorus and Orchestra of North Carolina Opera; Robert Moody, conductor [Directed by Crystal Manich; Dr. Scott R. MacLeod, Chorus Director; Frances Page, Children’s Chorus Director; Lighting by Tlaloc Lopez-Watermann; Costumes by Malabar, Ltd; Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, NC; Sunday, 26 January 2014]

​Virtually every singer with a shard of voice and even a half-hearted appreciation for opera has been involved in some way with a performance of Giacomo Puccini's La bohème, and the opera is as much a communal rite of passage for audiences as for aspiring Tebaldis and Pavarottis.  From the ranks of seasoned opera-goers who strive to ensure that their tears are dried before the house lights come up lest they be mistaken for sentimental Philistines to the neophytes who regard the opera as a backdrop for amorous intrigues involving Cher and Nicolas Cage, audiences rely upon La bohème for the refulgent melodies and unapologetically facile emotional catharses for which they must work harder in performances of 'heavier,' more ostentatiously intellectual scores.  This contributes mightily to both the opera's and the composer's popularities, yet it does Puccini a profound, albeit profitable disservice.  Never included by the cognoscenti among the ranks of truly great composers of opera and indeed dismissed by many critics and 'serious' musicians as an overrated tunesmith with an embarrassing fancy for tear-jerking melodrama, Puccini has seldom been recognized for the inventiveness of his orchestrations and unerring if slightly formulaic theatrical instincts.  The Puccini apologist might argue that, while audiences and critics north of the Alps were scratching their heads over post-Romantic and increasingly Impressionistic musical monstrosities, the operatic Everyman from Lucca was triumphantly buying expensive automobiles and lakeside villas, but even this panders to the notion that Puccini was a craftsman, not an artist; to use Musetta's inflammatory assessment of Marcello, a house-painter, not a Picasso.  As surely as any work of art in history, though, La bohème has been damned by its own popularity.  Those personages who inhabit ivory towers suggest that Puccini is a Dittersdorf rather than a Mozart, but more than a century of prominence in the repertories of nearly every opera company in the world surely establishes that La bohème is a Nozze di Figaro rather than a Doktor und Apotheker.  A sincere, unhackneyed performance of La bohème can strip away much of the accumulated muck from Puccini's reputation as a composer and dramatist, and North Carolina Opera provided nothing less.

More noticeably than with many performances of La bohème in houses large and small, this performance was a decidedly collaborative affair, with superb coordination between stage and pit.  Conductor Robert Moody, Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony, maintained impressive tightness of ensemble throughout the performance: even the intrusion of ill-timed applause did not jeopardize the controlled momentum of the famed concertato in Act Two.  The fantastic impact of the whole of Act Two was due in no small part to the wondrously vibrant singing of the North Carolina Opera Chorus.  Prepared by Dr. Scott R. MacLeod to a level of excellence that exceeded the work of the choruses of much larger opera companies, the NCO Chorus sang with charming brio and crispness of diction and ensemble, evoking a genuine sense of the joy of Christmas Eve in Act Two.  The Children’s Chorus, trained by Frances Page, also sang wonderfully, their enthusiasm filling every corner of the auditorium and their sure intonation contributing significantly to the frisson of the ensemble.  Maestro Moody’s conducting drew from the NCO Orchestra playing of great accuracy and poise.  The intelligence of Puccini’s orchestration was revealed in passage after passage of deftly-blended timbres, and both solo instruments and the full orchestra phrased in tandem with the principals to hypnotic effect.  Harpist Laura Byrne gave an especially lovely account of her part, enabling the delicate harmonies introduced by the harp in the last bars of Act One to resound particularly meaningfully.  Maestro Moody ensured that textures were transparent even when Puccini’s orchestration was at its most robust, and in climaxes he shaped waves of sound upon which the principals could sail rather walls of din against which they must compete.  At the start of Act Three, Maestro Moody’s chosen tempi seemed too slow to sustain the volatile dramatic progression of the act, but the atypical honesty with which the passions interplayed, particularly in Mimì’s ‘Addio senza rancor,’ ultimately justified the conductor’s speeds.  There were countless moments of eloquence in Maestro Moody’s leadership and no traces of routine.  Of how many conductors’ performances of La bohème anywhere in the world can that be said?

Insightfully directed by Crystal Manich, the production—on loan from Charlotte’s Opera Carolina—has much in common with the Metropolitan Opera’s legendary Franco Zeffirelli Bohème: realized on a considerably smaller scale, of course, NCO’s production highlighted several specific details but never lost its focus on the essential elements of the plot as Zeffirelli’s production does, especially in the famously gargantuan presentation of Act Two.  The most touching element of the production was having Marcello remain on stage alone as the curtain fell on Act Three, clutching one of Musetta’s discarded gloves after she has rushed off in a fury.  It was a simple action but a moving choice that intensified the heartbreak of the scene and the sense of loss that hovers over La bohème even in lighthearted moments.  Sets, costumes, and lighting all placed the action precisely where Puccini’s imagination intended, and fine acting by every individual on the stage crafted a performance that honored traditions without being mindlessly adherent to them.  However, it was somewhat strange that Mimì entered in Act Three from without rather than within the Barrière d’Enfer and that she and Rodolfo departed via a similar route at the act’s end: perhaps they followed Violetta’s and Alfredo’s example and rented a love nest in the suburbs.

Tenor Wade Henderson was a charming Parpignol, the voice slender but distinct.  It was regrettable, even with the mostly unobtrusive and well-managed amplification (achieved via microphones placed on the lip of the stage), that Parpignol’s first lines were delivered when Mr. Henderson was so far from the microphones’ reach.  Sean Currlin and Tom Keefe did well by their duties as the Sergeant and Customs Officer.  Kurt Melges differentiated his Benoît and Alcindoro handily; so handily, in fact, that the parts seemed to be taken by different singers.  Mr. Melges sang strongly in both rôles.

Audiences are often willing to forgive poor singing of Schaunard’s and Colline’s music if Mimì and Rodolfo are capably sung, but this performance fielded a phenomenal pair of singers as the musician and the philosopher.  An amiable presence from his first entrance, John Orduña’s account of Schaunard’s unique manner of earning money for his Christmas Eve revelries was genuinely funny.  His high spirits were infectious, and the warm glow of his voice shone in every scene in which he appeared.  The breathless sorrow and shock with which Mr. Orduña’s Schaunard realized that Mimì was dead were wrenching.  Colline was sung by Soloman Howard with a superbly solid, velvety bass voice.  He looked the ‘bear’ who has never visited a barber to the life, and his philosophical musings were uttered with perfect comedic timing and smooth, rolling tone.  Colline’s farewell to his coat in Act Four, ‘Vecchia zimarra,’ two minutes that cannot pass quickly enough in many performances of La bohème, was sung so beautifully and sincerely that it became one of the emotional zeniths of the performance.  For once, Puccini’s reprise of the principal theme from ‘Vecchia zimarra’ in the opera’s final moments did not seem quite so bizarre.

The ringing masculinity of Troy Cook’s baritone voice was nothing short of ideal for Marcello’s music.  From his ‘Questo mar rosso’ to his ‘Coraggio,’ this was an unusually thoughtful Marcello, one whose capitulation to Musetta’s seduction in Act Two actually managed to be touching and whose entreaty to Mimì to not make a public scene before the tavern in Act Three was born of concern for her rather than any calculated effort at keeping up appearances.  The duet with Mimì in Act Three was phrased with finesse, and the quiet melancholy of Mr. Cook’s reaction to Musetta’s departure in the final moments of the act was intensely moving.  So, too, was this Marcello’s response to Mimì’s death: it was obvious that he loved Mimì nearly as much as Rodolfo loved her, and the pain of his sadness leapt from the stage into the hearts of the audience.  Having the full tessitura of the rôle in his voice, Mr. Cook never faltered, musically or dramatically, and he was an elegant, effortless Marcello who inspired affection and provided total satisfaction without ever seeming to consciously try to do so.  His Musetta, soprano Jacqueline Echols, partnered him with exquisite qualities of her own.  Vocal beauty in Musetta’s music has become rare, but Ms. Echols’s voice shimmered.  Never harsh or brassy, her timbre was plush and attractive, and she, too, was in absolute possession of every note required by her music.  Ms. Echols’s ‘Quando me’n vo’’ was as much a colorful statement of Musetta’s free-willed credo as a concerted showpiece, and she proved the rare waltzing Musetta who charmed rather than annoyed in the number.  Her decision to leave Marcello in Act Three was reached in exasperation rather than true discontent, and the very subtle subtext of her reunion with Marcello in Act Four, tragically facilitated by the dying Mimì, was artfully wrought by both Ms. Echols and Mr. Cook: the desperate joy of their reconnection made the sting of Rodolfo’s imminent loss of Mimì all the more devastating.  Musetta’s prayer for Mimì to recover from her illness was raptly sung, and the outpouring of sisterly concern for Mimì confirmed that the consumptive girl’s silk flowers had also taken root in Musetta’s heart.  Like Carmen, Musetta is too frequently played as either a slut or a saint when, at her core, she is neither.  She is a spirited girl who prefers diamonds and silk to rhinestones and cotton, but there is abundant goodness in her, no matter how diligently she tries to mask it with coquetry.  Musetta’s goodness took flight in Ms. Echols’s performance, which benefitted from vocalism as assured, glamorous, and alluring as could be hoped for in the part, and she and Mr. Cook made a pair of lovers secondary only in the sense that the composer gave them less to sing.

Eric Barry’s Rodolfo was a disarmingly playful bohemian, an easygoing but openhearted poet.  The mock seriousness with which he sacrificed his newly-written play to the flames elicited well-earned laughter from the audience, and the moonlit wonderment with which he greeted Mimì was endearing.  Mr. Barry’s sunny, admirably even voice was occasionally difficult to hear in Acts One and Two, but there were no impediments to hearing and appreciating his singing of ‘Che gelida manina,’ which he caressed with poetic phrasing, vowel sounds placed ideally on the breath, and crowned with an exciting sustained top note.  He rightly preferred the harmony of Puccini’s written E-natural at the end of Act One, resisting the frequently-indulged temptation to interpolate a top C in unison with Mimì.  Mr. Barry came into his own in a stirringly-sung account of Act Three, his feigned jealousy as transparent as Marcello declares it to be, but the vocal pinnacle of his performance was the duet with Marcello in Act Four, ‘O Mimì, tu più non torni.’  He and Mr. Cook exuded loneliness and regret without seeming like manic-depressive saps, and their mutual revelations of their secret souvenirs of Mimì and Musetta were sweetly bashful.  Mr. Barry’s Rodolfo seemed actually to believe that Mimì would recover from her illness, and the spontaneity of his realization that she was dead was gripping.  Throughout the performance, Mr. Barry’s secure, slightly nasal singing gave great pleasure, his top As and B-flats firm and ringing.  He had in Angela Fout’s Mimì an uncomplicated but thoughtful girl with whom any poet might fall in love.  Her first entrance was slightly aloof, and in ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ the lovely soprano could not quite manage the top notes with the softness and tenderness requested by Puccini, but the prevailing security of her intonation was rewarding.  Ms. Fout’s singing was impressive in Mimì’s contributions to Act Two, including a ravishing top A in the ‘Quando me’n vo’’ ensemble.  After the interval, however, Ms. Fout seemed transformed: entering in Act Three with the sound of death already in her voice, she sang arrestingly, the pair of top B-flats in the scene with Marcello flung out with abandon.  Her ‘Addio senza rancor’ was shaped with the certain hand of a master sculptor, with the climactic top B-flat again a gleaming starburst of sound.  Here and in Act Four, Ms. Fout’s piano singing took wing.  At her entrance in Act Four, vitality was already drained from her timbre, and she was obviously a Mimì more cognizant than most of her impending death.  This was a woman come to die among those she loved, and her heartfelt recollections of happy memories seemed intended more to comfort Rodolfo than to revive her own failing spirits.  She was a Mimì who, rather than dying the agonized death of a consumptive, simply ceased to live, her very modest life having been spent and ultimately fulfilled by having loved.  What so many performances fail to portray is that, for all that one is a poet and the other poetry, Rodolfo and Mimì are profoundly simple people, worrying not about literary conceits or fashion trends but about paying the rent, surviving the cold, and having food on the table.  Singing with palpable youth and freshness, Mr. Barry and Ms. Fout created a couple too much in love to notice tragedy until it had claimed them.

Opera in Raleigh is hardly expected to equal the standards encountered in New York, Chicago, or Houston, but how magnificent it is when such expectations are confounded!  Virtually every opera company in the world has a memorable production of La bohème in its history, through which great singers have come and gone.  Adapting Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on government, it can be argued that the best Bohèmes are those that endeavor least to be innovative or searching.  The emotions depicted in La bohème are not new: they are those of Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Ilia and Idamante, Tristan and Isolde.  The best Bohèmes are those in which conductors and singers find in Puccini’s score every component needed to construct a memorable performance, without idiosyncrasies, impositions, and extrapolations; in short, a Bohème like this one.  In this age of eroding civic support for the Performing Arts and deteriorating Arts education, North Carolina Opera achieved the extraordinary—beating the bigger opera companies at their own game by producing in Raleigh a production of La bohème that would gladden hearts in London, Vienna, or Milan.

Scene from the North Carolina Opera production of Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photo by Curtis Brown Photography, © Curtis Brown Photography/North Carolina Opera] (left to right) Tenor Eric Barry as Rodolfo, soprano Angela Fout as Mimì, and baritone Troy Cook as Marcello in Act Three of Giacomo Puccini’s evergreen La bohème at North Carolina Opera [Photo by Curtis Brown Photography, © Curtis Brown Photography/North Carolina Opera]

25 January 2014

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten – THE TURN OF THE SCREW (A. Kennedy, S. Matthews, C. Wyn-Rogers, K. Broderick; LSO Live LSO0749)

Benjamin Britten - THE TURN OF THE SCREW (LSO Live LSO0749)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): The Turn of the Screw, Op. 54—A. Kennedy (Prologue, Peter Quint), S. Matthews (Governess), M. Clayton-Jolly (Miles), L. Hall (Flora), C. Wyn-Rogers (Mrs. Grose), K. Broderick (Miss Jessel); London Symphony Orchestra; Richard Farnes [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances at the Barbican, London, on 16 and 18 April 2013; LSO Live LSO0749; 2 SACD, 110:32; Available from LSO, Presto Classical, Amazon, and major music retailers]

With the publication of his novella The Turn of the Screw in 1898, Henry James sent shockwaves through the literary establishments in both Britain and the United States.  Reared on the Gothic tales of interaction between the natural and the supernatural epitomized by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley, readers on both shores of the Atlantic were little prepared for the enticing psychological complexities of The Turn of the Screw, their meanings elusive but the story’s sickly anxiety inescapably familiar.  Now, more than a century after the first publication of the novella, the implications of James’s uncanny gift for luring the reader into worlds both alien and immediately recognizable remain rewardingly enigmatic.  Rarely in the complementary histories of literature and music have the paths of a work of fiction and the career of an important composer crossed more fortuitously than in the case of James’s The Turn of the Screw and Benjamin Britten.  The composer had been intrigued by James’s story since hearing a radio adaptation as a young man, and a commission from the Venice Biennale for a new opera and an inspiring artistic partnership with Myfanwy Piper compelled Britten to revisit The Turn of the Screw.  However its ambiguities are interpreted, The Turn of the Screw presented Britten with precisely the intellectual setting by which his imagination was most ignited: whether the supernatural forces by which she is assailed exist in a sort of parallel reality or are her own inventions, James’s nameless Governess is in confrontation with society, implicitly ostracized by her employer’s prohibition of contact and her newness at Bly, the Wuthering Heights-type country house at which she plies her trade.  Like Peter Grimes, she has in her care a boy both completely under her control and beyond her reach, a boy in whose ultimate fate both she and the boy himself are complicit and innocent in shifting measures: like Captain Vere in Billy Budd, she is powerful and powerless at once.  Not unlike the Färberin in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, she is defined by her circumstances rather than by her own identity, but unlike Strauss’s dyer’s wife there is no obvious resolution for the Governess.  Monster, murderess, mystic, or magnanimous but misguided mother figure, hers is the kind of personality in conflict with itself and its environment that elicited Britten’s most original operatic portraits.  Eminent conductor James Conlon, who led a much-discussed 2011 reincarnation of the Glyndebourne production of The Turn of the Screw at Los Angeles Opera, wrote in The Hudson Review that ‘Britten succeed[ed] not only in perfectly transforming this novel into theatrical form, but also in maintaining the emblematic ambiguity of Henry James.’  This recording by the London Symphony Orchestra, taken from a pair of concert performances at the Barbican, revels in James’s ‘emblematic ambiguity’ and the sublime genius of Britten’s musical metamorphosis of ephemeral atmospheres into striking aural tableaux.

A blessing and a curse with Britten’s operas is that, with the exception of Death in Venice, they were recorded under the composer’s direction, in most cases with the casts for whom Britten composed them.  This is especially true of The Turn of the Screw, which Britten and his English Opera Group recorded in January 1955—only four months after the opera’s première in Venice—with the original cast: Jennifer Vyvyan as the Governess, Sir Peter Pears as the Prologue and Peter Quint, Joan Cross as Mrs. Grose, Arda Mandikian as Miss Jessel, Olive Dyer as Flora, and David Hemmings as Miles.  Subsequent recordings have matched but never exceeded the quality of Britten’s own account of the opera, but this performance, taking a different approach than those followed by the composer and successive interpreters, equals the inaugural DECCA recording by examining the score from an alternative perspective.  The Turn of the Screw was Britten’s final ‘chamber opera,’ and the London Symphony Orchestra musicians who participated in the pair of performances that produced this recording—violinists Roman Simovic and David Alberman, violist Paul Silverthorne, cellist Tim Hugh, double bassist Colin Paris, flautist Adam Walker, Sharon Williams on piccolo, oboist Christopher Cowie, Christine Pendrill on cor anglais, clarinetist Chris Richards, bass clarinetist Lorenzo Iosco, bassoonist Rachel Gough, horn player Timothy Jones, timpanist Nigel Thomas, percussionist Neil Percy, harpist Bryn Lewis, and Susanna Stranders on piano and celesta—luxuriate in the innovative, often erotic textures of Britten’s part-writing.  Each player faces an intimidating task, and each player delivers a performance of distinction.  The concerts were originally planned as a vehicle for the return of Sir Colin Davis to a score that he conducted for an arresting Czech film production, the soundtrack of which was recorded in studio by Philips, as well as the opera’s 1997 Covent Garden première, presented in Deborah Warner’s production at the Barbican during the Royal Opera House’s closure for renovations.  After Maestro Davis’s passing, the Turn of the Screw performances were entrusted to Richard Farnes, Music Director of Opera North, and the investment yielded brilliant dividends in a reading of intense focus and unrelenting tension.  Vitally, Maestro Farnes does not view the opera’s chamber-music dimensions as inhibitions to expressions of passion on a grand scale, and he conducts the score with the kind of expansiveness and drive for cumulative impact that he might devote to the operas of Verdi and Wagner.  What is surprising is the facility with which this course leads to an intoxicatingly portentous performance of an episodic score like The Turn of the Screw.  Rather than robbing the opera of its uniquely oppressive atmosphere, Maestro Farnes’s conducting—followed to the letter by the instrumentalists and singers—heightens the Gothic spookiness of Britten’s score in unexpectedly illuminating ways.  Indeed, a splash of Romanticism added to the dry gin of the composer’s carefully-considered musical and dramatic structures makes a dangerously appealing cocktail.

The cast by whom The Turn of the Screw was first performed and recorded set standards that must seem impossibly high to singers coming to the opera today.  If any of the principals in this performance was intimidated by the examples of his or her forebears, there is no evidence of it to be heard.  For a litany of reasons both musical and dramatic, the rôles in The Turn of the Screw that are most difficult to cast are the children, Flora and Miles.  Britten’s musical requirements are quite specific, and while the engagement of adolescent singers is preferable for the sake of dramatic verisimilitude there are often lamentable trade-offs in terms of uncontrolled vocalism and imperfect intonation.  In this performance, no compromises are necessary.  Singing Flora, young soprano Lucy Hall is believably girlish but also a commendably finished singer, the slight maturity of her timbre lending her characterization a bracing haughtiness that gives her lashing out at the Governess the legitimacy of a spoiled child accustomed to being indulged.  Most importantly, Ms. Hall does not condescend to the notion of portraying a young girl, and her singing in Act One’s Scene VII (‘The Lake’) is attractively light-hearted and unnervingly ominous.  In Act Two, as Flora’s disposition sours, Ms. Hall spits out lines like ‘Cruel, horrible, hateful, nasty, we don’t want you!’ with the venom of a provoked viper.  The tonal security of Ms. Hall’s singing makes Flora a much more potent force in the drama, and her performance bristles with burgeoning sensuality.  Treble Michael Clayton-Jolly’s strongly-defined dramatic instincts belie his youth, and his singing also exhibits a maturity beyond his years.  The erotic charge of his singing of the famed ‘Malo’ is startling for such a young singer, but it is the musical assurance of his singing that is the most enjoyable aspect of his performance.  All while singing with firm tone and accuracy of intonation rare for a treble in an operatic rôle, Mr. Clayton-Jolly interacts with his colleagues with the surety of a veteran actor.  This Miles’s exchanges with the Governess are tinged almost from the start with suggestions of impropriety, and the heady emotional engagement of Mr. Clayton-Jolly’s performance provides countless moments of rather smug duplicity.  This Miles has the capacity to be an enemy to every other character in the opera, in fact, and the faculty with which Mr. Clayton-Jolly alternates between puerile wonder and very adult disingenuousness is virtually unprecedented in recorded performances of The Turn of the Screw.  Not even the unforgettable David Hemmings, hand-picked by Britten to create Miles, sang the part so well.

Like their younger cast mates, mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers and soprano Katherine Broderick give towering performances as Mrs. Grose, Bly’s hard-nosed but sympathetic housekeeper, and Miss Jessel, the apparition of the children’s former governess.  Widely-acclaimed for her work in concert, recital, and opera, Ms. Wyn-Rogers is audibly a younger Mrs. Grose than those in many performances, and this fits perfectly with the overall concept of this production.  Singing strongly and securely throughout the performance, Ms. Wyn-Rogers cleverly maximizes the importance of her rôle by altering the colorations of her voice depending upon whether she is in the company of the children or with the Governess alone.  As the performance progresses and Mrs. Grose warms to the Governess, Ms. Wyn-Rogers softens her timbre, but the edge of barely-concealed disquietude remains.  Ms. Broderick’s Miss Jessel is an unsettling creation, a spirit of earth and fire rather than of air and mist.  In order to be completely successful, a portrayal of Miss Jessel must have at least a modicum of attractiveness.  Ms. Broderick’s singing lends the part considerably more than that, the natural pulchritude of her voice counting for much in Miss Jessel’s come-hither blandishments to Quint.  The tingling timbre of her calling to Flora is marvelously sultry, further distilling the uncertainty of the opera’s symbolism.  Like Ms. Wyn-Rogers, Ms. Broderick sings powerfully and voluptuously.

After singing the Prologue with disturbing calmness, setting the stage for the drama to follow as though collisions of the real and surreal were as ordinary as tea and scones, tenor Andrew Kennedy gives a performance of Peter Quint that stays in the mind long after the music has ended.  Disturbing, maddening, and vehemently sexy, his singing streaks through the performance with white-hot ferocity and the unrelenting attention of a hunter with his eyes on his mark.  Mr. Kennedy’s singing of passages such as ‘I am the smooth world’s double face, Mercury’s heels feathered with mischief and a God’s deceit’ is indescribably beautiful, his tone flashing like polished gold and his phrasing otherworldly but totally logical.  The part’s famous melismatic passages, so singularly sung by Sir Peter Pears, are spun by Mr. Kennedy with bel canto poise, the elongated vowels benefiting from the singer’s superb breath control.  The coy familiarity of this Quint’s dealings with Miss Jessel leaves little doubt that there was fraternization among Bly’s below-stairs denizens.  Simultaneously disgusting and intriguing, Mr. Kennedy’s Quint’s toying with Miles is almost obscene in its latent sexuality, but the honeyed comeliness of Mr. Kennedy’s singing transforms Quint’s insinuated pederasty into something shockingly touching: the sense of longing in Quint’s exchanges with Miles exudes connection beyond carnal desire and the thrill of possession.  The combination of Mr. Kennedy’s dulcet tones with Mr. Clayton-Jolly’s sweet sounds makes the scenes for Quint and Miles seem like conventional operatic love duets rather than unsavory games of cat and mouse.  Most surprisingly, there is a subtle hint of redemption in Mr. Kennedy’s Quint, shaped by the radiance of his upper register.  Quint is a rôle that provides countless interpretive possibilities to thoughtful artists, but few tenors have crafted a portrait of the character as awe-inspiring as Mr. Kennedy manages in this performance.  As so often in opera of any era, the most crucial aspect of this mammoth achievement is the simple splendor of the singing.

The simmering hysteria that lies at the core of Sally Matthews’s Governess is the impetus for a performance of gradual emotional collapse that is an apposite foil to Mr. Kennedy’s Quint.  A Governess who arrives at Bly already in the apparent clutches of psychosis risks upsetting the balance of the drama’s development, and Ms. Matthews’s Governess seems at her first appearance to accept responsibility for Flora and Miles little more than a child herself.  The rapidity with which this Governess’s consciousness expands and unravels is the principal dramatic distinction of Ms. Matthews’s performance.  The fire that flickers in Ms. Matthews’s voice when the Governess sings of Mrs. Grose’s perceived betrayal suggests that this is a young lady who forms unnaturally dependent relationships, and the manner in which Ms. Matthews caresses vocal lines introduces intimations of bizarre, perhaps inappropriate affections for both Miles and Quint.  In a sense, Miles’s death is the consummation of a grotesque ménage à trois, a psychosexual climax for both Quint and the Governess, who seems almost to have taken comfort in Quint’s presence.  Ms. Matthews encounters no difficulties with the tessitura of the Governess’s music, and the wholesome handsomeness of her voice is especially welcome in music that is as frequently screeched as sung.  Like Mr. Kennedy, Ms. Matthews is content to sing passages that other singers have endeavored to ‘interpret,’ and her performance is all the more unique and emotionally splintering for it.

The best operatic performances raise as many questions as they answer, and this performance of The Turn of the Screw—recorded in spacious sound that allows the voices to bloom in a flattering acoustic without permitting the inevitable noises of live performances to intrude into the claustrophobic environs of Bly—succeeds in that regard like no other recording of this chameleonic score.  Richard Farnes proves an enlightened interpreter of Britten’s music by making the deliberate choice to perform this opera like any other and inspiring the London Symphony Orchestra players and singers to do likewise.  Vocally, there is no other Peter Quint quite like Andrew Kennedy, musically or dramatically, and the lyrical effusiveness of his performance prompts an unmistakable unanimity of conviction that elevates a great performance to the sort of theatrical experience that redefines a listener’s perceptions of the music at hand.  A more resplendent memorial to Benjamin Britten on the occasion of his centennial and to the legacy of Sir Colin Davis is impossible to imagine.

24 January 2014

CD REVIEW: Franz Schubert – WINTERREISE (J. Kobow, C. Hammer; ATMA Classique ACD2 2536)

Franz Schubert - WINTERREISE (ATMA Classique ACD2 2536)

FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): Winterreise, D. 911—Jan Kobow, tenor; Christoph Hammer, fortepiano [Recorded at Schloss Seehaus, Markt Nordheim, Germany, in July 2011; ATMA Classique ACD2 2536; 1CD, 63:30; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, and major music retailers]

Winterreise, Franz Schubert’s second cycle of Lieder settings of the poems of Wilhelm Müller, forever changed the arts of both composing and singing Lieder, advancing the form from Beethoven’s example to the heights of Romantic expression that would gestate the Lieder of Brahms, Mahler, and Richard Strauss.  In the intensity of emotion, contrasting moods, and eloquent melancholy, Winterreise is as powerful a work as La forza del destino, Das Lied von der Erde, or Vier letzte Lieder.  The challenge to the singer who takes on Winterreise is to realize in musical terms both the unique microcosm of each song and the abiding dramatic progression of the cycle as a whole.  On disc, there is also the challenge of comparison with nearly a century of recorded performances of the cycle by some of the greatest Lieder singers of the 20th and 21st Centuries.  Just in the first quarter of 2014, German tenor Jan Kobow faces competition in the Winterreise discography from fellow German tenor Jonas Kaufmann and Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, both esteemed interpreters of Schubert’s Lieder, but the display of artistry on offer from Jan Kobow in this traversal of Schubert’s perennially fascinating cycle confirms that this remarkable singer has nothing to fear from competing releases.

Playing a six-octave Joseph Brodmann fortepiano built in Vienna circa 1810, expertly prepared for the recording by Georg Ott, Christoph Hammer explores every tonal and dramatic possibility of employing a period instrument in Schubert’s accompaniments.  Schubert took the art of writing Lieder accompaniment that he learned from Beethoven’s 1816 An die ferne Geliebte to new levels of independence and broadly-conceived expressivity, the accompaniments in Winterreise echoing the sentiments expressed by the voice and unforgettably illustrating the physical and psychological settings.  Mr. Hammer takes great care to differentiate repeated statements of thematic material, following the lead of dramatic progression in the texts.  The light touch employed by Mr. Hammer in songs like the opening ‘Gute Nacht’ is refreshing and allows perfect synchronization with the rise and fall of Mr. Kobow’s interpretations, which are founded upon obviously deep understandings of Müller’s verses rather than impersonal traditions.  In lyrical songs like ‘Der Lindenbaum,’ Mr. Hammer’s caressing of the musical lines is particularly effective, especially considering that he achieves such gossamer effects without the sostenuto powers of a modern piano.  In the craggy, often sweepingly dramatic songs of the Second Part, Mr. Hammer’s accompaniment matches every nuance of Schubert’s ever-changing music and of Mr. Kobow’s hauntingly perceptive singing.  ‘Im Dorfe’ and ‘Der stürmische Morgen,’ two of the most demanding songs in the cycle, reveal the depths of Mr. Hammer’s technique, his playing soaring through Schubert’s most difficult passages with confidence.  It is often suggested, based upon contemporary evidence and the composer’s own correspondence, that Schubert was a moderately-capable pianist at best: perhaps that is true, but his writing for the piano in Winterreise is nothing short of perfection, and Mr. Hammer’s articulation and phrasing consistently highlight the composer’s musical wit and sheer genius.  The depths of emotion evoked by the accompaniment in this performance are a testament to the quality and meticulous preservation of the robust but sweet-toned fortepiano and to its player’s consummate musicality.

Mr. Kobow’s presiding concept of Winterreise is uncommonly poetic, words being central to his interpretive choices, but, most importantly, it is the glorious art of song that blossoms hypnotically in his performance.  Acclaimed as an interpreter of Baroque repertory, Mr. Kobow carries the mantle of Helmut Krebs and Ernst Haefliger, not least in the music of Bach.  If this suggests a slimness of timbre, it should not be forgotten that Haefliger sang rôles as diverse—and demanding—as Beethoven’s Florestan and Debussy’s Pelléas with great success, and in this versatility, too, Mr. Kobow is a natural successor to the wonderful Swiss tenor.  Haefliger was also a celebrated interpreter of Winterreise, his Claves recording of the cycle made when he was sixty-one years old capturing a still-vibrant voice in a memorable performance.  Not least in the polished beauty of his voice, Mr. Kobow proves superior even to Haefliger in this performance.  The sensitivity of Mr. Kobow’s artistry extends to an instinctual understanding of the capabilities of his own voice.  Every voice has inherent limitations, but few singers seem to possess the wisdom necessary to prevent them from forcing their natural instruments beyond the boundaries of good taste and vocal comfort.  Mr. Kobow is too shrewd a singer to risk distorting Schubert’s melodic lines by pushing his voice, but this is anything but a ‘safe’ performance.  Rather than evoking the poet’s angst via vocal distress, Mr. Kobow conveys anguish through pointed delivery of text allied with glowing tonal loveliness.  His resignation in ‘Gute Nacht’ is gently, even dreamily expressed, and both the chill of the wind in ‘Die Wetterfahne’ and the garish sting of ice and snow in ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ are all the more intense because of the firm, gleaming tone with which they are given life.  The top A-flats in ‘Erstarrung’ do not trouble Mr. Kobow as they do many tenors who sing Winterreise in Schubert’s original keys, and the singer’s phrasing in ‘Der Lindenbaum’ is broad but precise, the E-naturals that crown each statement of the principal theme integrated into the line rather than accentuated unnaturally.  Memories of happiness permeate Mr. Kobow’s singing of ‘Frühlingstraum,’ but already the strangely alluring spectre of death has crept in.  The succession of mundane images transformed into symbolic representations of the disintegration of mind and body in Part Two inspires Mr. Kobow to singing of exceptional emotional directness, his dramatic gifts enabling him to decry the sorrows of life and love with the power of a Siegfried or Tristan but the refined voice of an Orfeo or Renaud.  The grace notes and triplet figurations in ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ are like daggers tearing the flesh of a man clinging to life, and the top notes at zeniths of phrases—intuitively supported by Mr. Hammer—ring out appealingly.  There are so many instances of stylish, enlightened interpretation and simply gorgeous singing that hearing Mr. Kobow’s performance is like hearing Winterreise for the first time; or, for ears as acquainted with the cycle as with a beloved friend’s voice, like hearing it as it demands and deserves to be sung.

In the history of Winterreise on records, an astounding array of singers have succeeded in committing memorable performances of Schubert’s immortal music to disc: rotund low voices like those of Hans Hotter, Kurt Moll, and Martti Talvela; noble baritones like Sir Thomas Allen and Hermann Prey; and tenors as diverse as Ronald Dowd, René Kollo, Ian Partridge, and Sir Peter Pears.  Perhaps the greatest marvel of Schubert’s creativity in Winterreise is that there are in the recesses of the cycle’s exasperation, heartbreak, and starkness as many facets of interpretation as there are singers who accept the task of singing it.  No singer could hope to illuminate every niche of Winterreise, but by providing almost unbearably ravishing glimpses of the joy that is the only true impetus for such despair Jan Kobow gives as eloquent a performance of the cycle as has ever been recorded.  This wonderful singer feels every step of this Winter’s Journey with the tortured heart of a poet, and it is impossible to look away from even the cruelest vistas he creates in sound.

CD REVIEW: Alessandro Scarlatti – CARLO, RE D’ALEMAGNA (R. Basso, R. Invernizzi, M. de Liso, M. Beate Kielland, C. Allemano, J. M. Lo Monaco D. Pinti, R. Abbondanza; agOgique AGO015)

Alessandro Scarlatti - CARLO, RE D'ALEMAGNA (agOgique AGO015)

ALESSANDRO SCARLATTI (1660 – 1725): Carlo, Re d’Alemagna (Naples, 1716) – R. Basso (Lotario), R. Invernizzi (Giuditta), M. de Liso (Gildippe), M. Beate Kielland (Adalgiso), C. Allemano (Berardo), J. M. Lo Monaco (Asprando), D. Pinti (Armilla), R. Abbondanza (Bleso); Stavanger Symphony Orchestra; Fabio Biondi [Recorded in Stavanger Konserthus, Bjergsted, Stavanger, Norway, 30 November – 4 December 2009; 3CD, 169:20; agOgique AGO015; Available from fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

During four decades of creative activity spanning the turn of the 18th Century, Alessandro Scarlatti composed dozens of operas—an impressive but hardly extraordinary (or, among composers of his generation, unusual) prodigality.  What is remarkable, however, is that, unlike the works of most of his contemporaries, a number of Scarlatti’s operas survive in more or less complete form, enabling greater comprehensions both of the development of Scarlatti’s compositional style and of the tremendous significance of his music in the transition from the 17th-Century models of Cavalli and his disciples to the High Baroque forms epitomized to 21st-Century observers by the operas of Händel and Vivaldi.  With ‘O cessate di piagarmi’ from his 1683 opera Il Pompeo, Scarlatti gained a permanent place in the lives of voice students, regardless of any enthusiasm for Baroque music, but only his Griselda managed to maintain a small presence into the 21st Century, thanks first to the unlikely but beautifully stylish espousal of Mirella Freni and later to a justifiably acclaimed touring production and recording conducted by René Jacobs.  A 1956 performance at La Piccola Scala with Victoria de los Ángeles and Giulietta Simonato, a London performance in 1957 with the young Dame Joan Sutherland, and a French radio concert in 1967 featuring Janine Micheau were insufficient to inspire more than a half-dozen performances of Il Mitridate Eupatore, generally acknowledged as Scarlatti’s operatic masterpiece, in the wake of the global revival of interest in Baroque repertory.  Premièred at Naples’s Teatro San Bartolomeo in January 1716 with the celebrated Margherita Durastanti as Giuditta and Senesino as Lotario, Carlo, Re d’Alemagna—its composer’s seventy-ninth opera—is an intriguing ‘hybrid’ work typical of Neapolitan opera in the early 18th Century, serious and comic elements blended in a semiseria format that would remain popular in Naples well into the 19th Century.  The musicologist Paul Henry Lang wrote in Music in Western Civilization that opera in its modern form began with Scarlatti: this is perhaps something of a generalization, but there are in Carlo, Re d’Alemagna all of the musical paving stones with which the road to Le nozze di Figaro, Tancredi, Falstaff, and La fanciulla del West was painstakingly constructed.

A decade ago, a particular highlight of the 2003 Festival Scarlatti di Palermo was a concert performance of Carlo, Re d’Alemagna by Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante and several of the singers who also participated in the 2009 performance by Maestro Biondi and the Stavanger Symphony that was given in conjunction with the making of this studio recording.  There can be no doubting Maestro Biondi’s dedication to Carlo, Re d’Alemagna, then, but the performance preserved on this recording confirms that his mastery of Scarlatti’s unique idiom is absolute.  The compositional style of each truly important composer has characteristics that set his music apart, and Maestro Biondi’s comprehension of the defining qualities in Scarlatti’s music—concerted lyricism, sophisticated management of chromatic harmonies, and dramatically effective setting of text even in complex bravura or contrapuntal passages—is apparent in every moment of this performance.  Carlo, Re d’Alemagna is not without challenges for the conductor: it is an opera in which the title character inspires all of the conspiracies that unfold in the course of the action without singing a note, after all.  The flexibility with which Maestro Biondi manages the transitions among scenes, maintaining cumulative momentum without damaging each scene’s unique structure, is indicative of an exceptional degree of comfort with Scarlatti’s music.  Maestro Biondi’s complete immersion in the musical idioms of Carlo, Re d’Alemagna is complemented by the remarkable affinity for Scarlatti’s music displayed by the players of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, over whose excursions into Baroque repertory Maestro Biondi has presided since 2006.  Founded in 1938 under the auspices of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, SSO’s successive generations of first-rank players have built a legacy of superb musicianship and versatility, and these qualities contribute to playing of Scarlatti’s score that rivals the best work of Early Music specialist ensembles.  Every detail of Scarlatti’s orchestration is aired with expert timing and perfect intonation, and the SSO’s playing falls victim to none of the preciousness or over-articulation that afflict many performances of Baroque music.  Each section of the orchestra is given music of formidable technical difficulty, and the SSO players respond with unfettered virtuosity.  With such vibrant playing combined with ideal conducting, the stage is set for a performance that unearths for 21st-Century listeners a hidden treasure of 18th-Century opera.

Far too many operatic performances in the past quarter-century have neglected the seemingly obvious fact that, in opera, singing is the most important factor in the success of a performance.  A wonderfully-played ‘Rhine Journey’ is splendid, but a Götterdämmerung with a poor Brünnhilde or Siegfried makes for an unbearably long evening.  With their action typically conveyed in secco recitative and pauses for emotive commentary in da capo arias, Baroque operas can also be dull affairs if indifferently performed, and one of the most immediately noticeable achievements of this recording of Carlo, Re d’Alemagna is that the minutes dart by without even the slightest suggestion of heaviness or boredom.  This is thanks, in part, to the prevalence of Italian singers in the cast, a boon in Italian opera that is only rarely encountered now in a score of any vintage.  In fact, this performance brings together as satisfactory a cast as could be assembled today for any opera.  Contralto Damiana Pinti and bass Roberto Abbondanza make a wonderfully appealing couple as the buffo lovers.  As Armilla, Giuditta’s maidservant, Ms. Pinti sings richly, using the text imaginatively and with humor that never descends into farce.  Bleso, Lotario’s master of arms, is charmingly sung by Mr. Abbondanza, who meets every challenge of Scarlatti’s music without indulging in mugging in the pursuit of comedy.  Armilla’s only aria, ‘Consoliamoci o signora,’ is very brief but is delivered by Ms. Pinti with brilliance.  Bleso, too, has only one aria, ‘Con le zitelle,’ which Mr. Abbondanza sings winningly, but Scarlatti gave these characters four intriguing duets in which to leave their marks on the drama.  Responding to one another with perfect timing and shared musicality, Ms. Pinti and Mr. Abbondanza sparkle in each duet, especially the lilting ‘Senti, Bleso caro / Parla, Armilla cara’ that ends Act Two and ‘Lo vedrem’ in Act Three.

Mezzo-soprano Josè Maria Lo Monaco, a true connoisseur’s artist in Baroque repertory, brings the best of her formidable technique and plush vocalism to her performance as Asprando.  From her first aria, ‘Il destin ver noi clemente,’ Ms. Lo Monaco displays complete mastery of Scarlatti’s music, taking every roulade in stride.  Asprando’s arias in Act Two, ‘Già il mio cor’ and ‘Per te ho in seno un cor,’ are commandingly sung, and Ms. Lo Monaco’s dramatic instincts are appreciably at play in every scene in which the treacherous Asprando appears.  Tenor Carlo Allemano is also a skilled performer of Baroque music, and his Berardo is a prominent presence throughout the performance.  Each of Berardo’s three arias—‘Tutta fede ho l’alma in petto’ and ‘Il giglio nel prato’ in Act One and ‘Par che godo’ in Act Three—draws from Mr. Allemano an impressive display of singing.  Occasionally, Scarlatti’s bravura demands come close to overwhelming Mr. Allemano, but he copes manfully, putting bouts of effort to insightful dramatic use and phrasing so artfully that his slightly dry timbre shimmers in moments of repose.

Evenly matched in terms of technical acumen and vocal prowess are mezzo-sopranos Marina de Liso and Marianne Beate Kielland—the sole non-Italian in the cast, a fact that could never be discerned from her idiomatic diction—in the rôles of the thwarted lovers Gildippe and Adalgiso.  Considering her importance to the drama, Gildippe has surprisingly little to do, with only single, brief arias in Acts One and Three, but her aria ‘La barbara mia sorte’ in Act Two is one of the musical and dramatic climaxes of the opera.  Ms. de Liso sings excellently throughout the performance, but her singing of ‘La barbara mia sorte’ is stunning, the bitterness of Gildippe’s contemplation of her lot palpably conveyed.  Ms. Kielland’s Adalgiso is an apt partner, the singer’s fiery performance perfectly complementing Ms. de Liso’s Gildippe.  The quality of his music for Adalgiso leaves no doubt that the prince’s situation engaged Scarlatti’s imagination: among several fine arias, ‘Labri cari’ in Act One and ‘Se la bella tortorella’ in Act Two are fantastic examples of the composer’s art at its finest, and Ms. Kielland’s singing reveals every glimmering nuance of Scarlatti’s genius.  It also gets at the heart of the character in a way that elucidates Scarlatti’s gifts as a dramatist.  Both Ms. de Liso and Ms. Kielland sing with indomitable technical skill and beguiling dramatic involvement, striking sparks in their recitatives.

The dowager empress Giuditta is sung by soprano Roberta Invernizzi, one of the leading ladies of the historically-informed Baroque practice movement.  Though she has given innumerable wonderful performances and participated in scores of standard-setting recordings, Ms. Invernizzi finds in Giuditta a rôle that seemingly captivates and inspires her to singing that surpasses even her own best work.  Giuditta is a woman whose honor is imperiled in the midst of a political power struggle, and beginning with her first aria in Act One—‘Illustre il sangue mio’—Ms. Invernizzi sings with impeccable style and the emotional intensity that a gifted singing actress might devote to Lulu or Tosca.  Ms. Invernizzi’s gift for delving into the dramatic complexities of a rôle while maintaining extraordinary fidelity to the vocal lines produces stirring accounts of all of Giuditta’s arias, not least ‘Ti sovvenga’ in Act One and ‘L’innocenza in te vegg’io’ in Act Two.  ‘Sono in mar con ria procella’ is a typically demanding ‘simile’ aria of the type so beloved by Baroque composers, and Ms. Invernizzi delivers the coloratura astoundingly and consistently sounds dignified and meltingly feminine.  The integrity of Ms. Invernizzi’s singing leaves no doubt that Giuditta is innocent of the indiscretions of which she is accused.  The delicacy with which Ms. Invernizzi deploys her silvery voice enables subtle inflections of even the most extroverted passages of Giuditta’s music.  Many singers are content merely to sing a rôle: Ms. Invernizzi embodies Giuditta completely and does so with unstinting intelligence, infusing her performance with power that never overextends her voice.

Perhaps it is a good thing that Carlo, still a boy, is never heard as it is unlikely that he could have held his own—at any age—against the Lotario of contralto Romina Basso.  From her first entrance with the aria ‘Del ciel su i giri,’ Ms. Basso brings easy grandeur to her performance, the darkness of her timbre lending a very credible suggestion of masculinity to her portrayal of Lotario.  Scarlatti gave two of the score’s most remarkable arias—‘Aure voi’ at the start of Act Two and ‘Riede quest’alma in calma’ in Act Three—to Lotario, and Ms. Basso sings both numbers sublimely.  Any listener who approaches this recording of Carlo, Re d’Alemagna with any doubt about Ms. Basso’s place among the ranks of the world’s best mezzo-sopranos should rejoice in having those questions answered by her radiant, virtuosic singing in this performance.  To the aria ‘Tiranno, sì, sarò’ in Act Three she brings blistering vitriol and biting irony, unleashing her imposing technique in a display of pyrotechnics that perfectly conveys Lotario’s pride and indignation.  Like Ms. Invernizzi, Ms. Basso does not build her performance solely from notes: she digs deeply into the text, which she sings with diction so natural that even the most demanding bravura passages retain the cadence of speech, and she finds in Lotario’s character both duplicity and nobility.  What evil there is in Ms. Basso’s Lotario is merely a reflection of the circumstances in which he finds himself.  As has already been suggested, however, the proof in the operatic pudding must ultimately be the singing, and such singing as Ms. Basso provides in this performance produces a most delectable dish indeed.

The 350th anniversary of Alessandro Scarlatti’s birth came and went in 2010 with little fanfare; certainly with nothing like the enthusiasm and global prominence with which the bicentennials of Verdi and Wagner were celebrated in 2013.  The significance of Verdi and Wagner in the history of opera is undisputed, but how is the neglect of Scarlatti, the composer with whom at least one musicologist believed that opera in its modern form began, explained?  There is no accounting for taste, it is said with regrettable veracity, but the best arguments for revivals of interest in music by overlooked composers are made by great performances.  This recording of Carlo, Re d’Alemagna unmistakably proclaims that Scarlatti’s score is no less gripping now than when it was first heard 298 years ago.  This is not a performance that treats the score like a relic that must be protected beneath glass and lead: guided by Fabio Biondi and recorded by agOgique in warmly ambient sound, the cast assembled for this account of Carlo, Re d’Alemagna collectively offer the listener a performance of beauty, passion, and sincerity and a reintroduction to the operatic endeavors of a composer whose influence far outlived his popularity.