26 November 2014

CD REVIEW: Michael Nyman – SYMPHONY NO. 11: HILLSBOROUGH MEMORIAL (K. Rudge; Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; MN Records MNRCD136)

CD REVIEW: Michael Nyman - SYMPHONY NO. 11: HILLSBOROUGH MEMORIAL (MN Records MNRCD136)MICHAEL NYMAN (born 1944): Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough MemorialKathryn Rudge, mezzo-soprano; Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Josep Vicent, conductor [Recorded at the Friary, Liverpool, England, on 10 and 11 May 2014 (Ms. Rudge and the Orchestra) and in the Lady Chapel of Liverpool Cathedral on 5 July 2014 (Choir); MN Records MNRCD136; 1 CD, 40:09; Available from MN Records, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

When the sun rose over Sheffield on Saturday, 15 April 1989, no one expected that by day’s end one of the most horrific disasters in the history of competitive sports would leave more than seven hundred English football fans injured and ninety-six fans of the Liverpool and Nottingham Forest Football Clubs dead. Seventy-eight of the dead had not yet reached the age of thirty. Likewise, few people might have imagined that the formal inquests into the catastrophe at Hillsborough Stadium would be obstructed by the ineptitude, corruption, and blatant dishonesty of the Thatcher government. Like the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the July 2005 London bombings, the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath forever altered perceptions of public safety and the responsibilities of individuals and institutions in preserving it. After twenty-three years, the devastation of the tragedy at Hillsborough Stadium was intensified by an independent investigatory panel’s statement in September 2012 that the lives of as many as forty-one of those who died in 1989 might have been saved had medical attention been managed properly. On 5 July 2014, Michael Nyman’s Symphony No. 11: Hillsborough Memorial was premièred at Liverpool Cathedral in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Hillsborough Stadium calamity. With any work composed for or ultimately identified with the celebration or memorialization of a specific event, there is the danger that its topicality will limit the endurance of its appeal. Though Mr. Nyman’s Symphony No. 11 owes it genesis to a singular cataclysmic day in the history of sport, the significance of the score that the composer’s recollections of that atrocity produced is not dependent upon the listener’s knowledge of the horrors of 15 April 1989. Mr. Nyman has crafted a work of imposing musical grandeur that is a monument to public and private grief: like Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Hillsborough Memorial transcends the circumstances of its creation. It is not surprising that Mr. Nyman composed meaningful, memorable music, but the phenomenal quality of this recording of his Symphony No. 11 is extraordinary in any context.

It is interesting to note that the first movement—the portion of the work that might be thought to most significantly impact its endurance beyond commemoration of the Hillsborough disaster—is one of the strongest components of the Symphony’s success. ‘The Singing of the Names’ is precisely what it purports to be, a musical setting of the full names of the ninety-six people who lost their lives at Hillsborough Stadium on 15 April 1989. Sung by Liverpudlian mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, Mr. Nyman’s music generates tremendous emotional impact, the simplicity of the gesture of incorporating the names of the fallen into the musical landscape proving extraordinarily poignant. Mr. Nyman’s familiar compositional idiom is evident, but the subtly shifting harmonies of his unabashed tonalism obliterate any suggestions of monotony. Ms. Rudge’s golden tones contribute memorably to the rapt sincerity of ‘The Singing of the Names,’ and she easily covers the full range of the vocal lines whilst phrasing with distinction.

The impressions made by the singing of the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir and the playing of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in the Symphony’s subsequent three movements—‘Family Reflections,’ ‘The 96,’ and ‘Memorial’—are deeply stimulating. Maestro Josep Vicent conducts the performance with compelling sense of occasion allied with meticulous control made all the more impressive by the chorus having been recorded separately. The angry climax to which the Symphony builds is stirringly realized by the musical personnel, but the contours of the music are not distorted in the interest of emphasizing the composer’s justifiably exasperated reaction to the gross mishandling of response to the Hillsborough tragedy by the Thatcher government. The Choir’s singing in ‘Family Reflections’ is wonderfully expressive even when the vocal lines tax the young choristers, and the Orchestra’s sonorous playing highlights the shimmering colors of Mr. Nyman’s melodic strands. The emotion conveyed by the choir’s singing is nothing short of remarkable, and the youngsters sing with a purity that in some ways seems to intensify the sting of the text. It is perhaps the juxtaposition of innocence with the terrible experience of tragedy that is the catalyst for this profundity, but Mr. Nyman’s music provides the elemental forces that interact with unstinting power. Though their styles are very different, there are echoes of Elgar, Finzi, Vaughan Williams, and Britten in Mr. Nyman’s way of constructing musical peaks that explore unexpected nuances of text—even when the text is a simple list of names. Mr. Nyman’s path is entirely his own, but by synthesizing the traditions of the most gifted of his countrymen into an individual voice in ‘Family Reflections’ and ‘The 96’ he weaves his very personal response to the events at Hillsborough Stadium into the bloodstained tapestry depicting England’s darkest hours.

‘Memorial’ is one of Mr. Nyman’s most beautiful inventions, and it finds an ideal new purpose as the closing movement of Symphony No. 11. This is not music of mourning but of laughing at embarrassing childhood photographs and remembering pints shared at neighborhood pubs in carefree hours after football matches won and lost. ‘Memorial’ draws from all of the musicians a performance of immense zeal that fully unfurls the threads of sorrow, strength, and transcendence that bind the ambivalent sentiments of Mr. Nyman’s musical ingenuity into an affectingly congruous entity.

Sir Winston Churchill wrote that ‘we shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.’ It is this philosophy of refining from the tumult of loss, controversy, and unanswered questions the spirits of recovery and rededication that reverberates in every bar of Michael Nyman’s Symphony No. 11. This superb recording preserves a heartfelt performance of a fitting and provocative commemoration of a tragedy that, both in honor of those who died and in recognition of the appalling lessons of that day in 1989, must not be forgotten.

CD REVIEW: Josef Mysliveček – L’OLIMPIADE (P. Chakar, E. Tanaka, M. T. Leva, C. Vistoli, Y. Watanabe, S. Akhmetova, P. Scircoli; Bongiovanni GB 2469/70-2)

CD REVIEW: Josef Mysliveček - L'OLIMPIADE (Bongiovanni GB 2469/70-2)JOSEF MYSLIVEČEK (1737 – 1781): L’OlimpiadePervin Chakar (Megacle), Erika Tanaka (Aristea), Maria Teresa Leva (Argene), Carlo Vistoli (Licida), Yasushi Watanabe (Clistene), Saltanat Akhmetova (Alcandro), Pasquale Scircoli (Aminta); Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna; Oliver von Dohnányi, conductor [Recorded in performance at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Italy, on 23 and 25 November 2012; Bongiovanni GB 2469/70-2; 2 CD, 145:13; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, and major music retailers]

During the past decade, a concerted campaign has been launched to restore the faded reputation of Josef Mysliveček to at least some degree of the splendor that it possessed in the Eighteenth Century. Born in Prague in 1737, Mysliveček was in his lifetime one of the brightest musical luminaries in Europe, his operas garnering accolades the continent over, especially at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, where he was essentially the composer in residence for opera seria for more than a decade. His dominance in Italian theatres was disturbed only by a single notable failure in Milan near the end of his career, and the enormity of his influence on operatic Europe in the second half of the Eighteenth Century is still only partially acknowledged. What is apparent is that, his importance to the younger composer’s development as a purveyor of opera notwithstanding, Mysliveček is far more significant even than his presence in the historical narrative of Mozart’s musical education suggests. He was probably never actually called ‘il divino boemo’ by his contemporaries, but the inspiration of his work was recognized by colleagues and connoisseurs throughout Europe. That later generations have remembered him primarily as a character in Mozart’s correspondence whose visage was disfigured by venereal disease is indicative of the shortsightedness of ill-informed observers rather than reflective of the quality of Mysliveček’s music. By the time of his death, after which he was succeeded at the Teatro San Carlo by the gifted and perhaps even less-remembered Giuseppe Gazzaniga​, the ‘divine Bohemian’ had earned the respect of many of Europe’s most important artists. Now, the time has come for reappraisal of his music to propel Mysliveček into the appreciation of Twenty-First-Century listeners, and Bongiovanni’s recording of L’Olimpiade is an intriguing introduction to one of the composer’s most successful works for the stage.

Premièred at the Teatro San Carlo on 4 November 1778, the feast day of the theatre’s namesake saint, L’Olimpiade was unveiled to the public by a truly extraordinary cast that included the celebrated castrato Luigi Marchesi as Megacle. The libretto, which drew from Metastasio’s most prolific well of inspiration, was anything but new: first set by Antonio Caldara in 1733 and later by, among others, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Leo, Galuppi, Hasse, Traetta, Jommelli, Piccinni, and Arne, the story was familiar to audiences in Naples and beyond. Even Mozart twice composed music for one of Clistene's arias. Composed near the end of his career, the score of L’Olimpiade contains some of Mysliveček’s finest music, his imagination clearly having been stoked by Metastasio’s text—and undoubtedly by the superlative team of singers at his disposal, as well. Bongiovanni’s recording of the opera comes tantalizingly close to achieving in Mysliveček’s music the thought-provoking results that have become commonplace in recent recordings of Mozart’s operas. Under the direction of Oliver von Dohnányi, the singers and musicians of the Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale perform expertly, executing every demand made by the composer with energy and excitement. Mysliveček was in some ways a more adventurous orchestrator than Mozart, and the coloristic effects in the music are shown to advantage by Maestro von Dohnányi and the orchestra. The realization of the continuo in secco recitatives is very literal, which ultimately is to be preferred to distractingly overwrought playing, but it is sometimes difficult to follow the drama and differentiate among the principals without consulting the libretto. Bongiovanni’s recordings of live performances have not always been commendable from a technical perspective, but this release is one of the label’s best. Stage noises are rarely obtrusive even during passages of secco recitative, and there is almost no audience participation. No apologies must be made for either the balances between stage and pit or Bongiovanni’s engineering, and it is enormously beneficial to hear L’Olimpiade in a natural acoustic that enables total appreciation of the fine work done by Maestro von Dohnányi and the Teatro Comunale Chorus and Orchestra.

​Italian tenor Pasquale Scircoli impersonates Aminta with charm and slender, well-projected tone, his singing of the aria ‘Siam navi all'onde algenti’ in Act Two distinguished by sensitive shaping of the vocal line and a native speaker’s way with the text. In Act Three, Mr. Scircoli sings the aria ‘Son qual per mare ignoto’ with equal accomplishment, the crispness of his diction bringing the cleverness of Mysliveček’s tone painting into sharp focus. In the travesti rôle of Alcandro, Kazak soprano Saltanat Akhmetova has only a single aria with which to contend, ‘Dimmi, qual è l'affanno​’ in Act Two, and she makes the most of it with nicely-judged, firm-toned vocalism.

Japanese tenor Yasushi Watanabe’s performance as Clistene is an unfulfilled promise. His lean, sinewy tone and reedy timbre qualify him for the range and basic demeanor of the part, but his command of the bravura style falls short of Mysliveček’s requirements. In Act One, Mr. Watanabe gives the aria ‘Del destin non vi lagnate’ a valiant effort, and he bravely confronts the difficulties of ‘So che il paterno impero,’ Clistene’s aria in Act Two. He is at his best in Act Three, both in the aria ‘Non so donde viene’ and especially in the accompanied recitative ‘O degli uomini padre e degli dei​,’ in which the dignity of the singer’s declamation is heard to greatest advantage. Despite his earnest endeavors and obvious good intentions, Clistene’s passagework often defeats Mr. Watanabe, and he does himself no favors with his stabs at interpolated top notes in cadenzas. He possesses a good lyric voice that in this music faces challenges too extravagant to be fully overcome.

Italian countertenor Carlo Vistoli sings Licida, a rôle created in the opera’s 1778 première by soprano castrato Pietro Muschietti, with excellent musicianship and lovely, solid tone. He displays consistent comfort with the style of Mysliveček’s music, and he has very little trouble mastering the tricky tessitura. A vivid presence in recitatives, he gives a hypnotically-phrased account of Licida’s aria in​ Act One, ‘Mentre dormi, amor fomenti.’ In Act Two, Mr. Vistoli delivers the accompanied recitative ‘Con questo ferro, indegno’ with resonant passion and brings down the curtain with a strong-willed performance of the aria ‘Gemo in un punto e fremo​.’ Mr. Vistoli’s refined technique and rounded tones give great pleasure, and he creates a character whose actions are credible and whose emotions are vibrant without being over the top.

Unfortunately, Argene’s music gives Italian soprano Maria Teresa Leva few opportunities to build upon the very favorable impression made by her singing of the canzonetta in Act One, ‘Qui se un piacer si gode,’ and the subsequent aria ‘Più non si trovano,’ to which she devotes considerable poise. In Act Two, she sings the aria ‘Che non mi disse un dì!’ with brio. As a technician, Ms. Leva is admirably versatile, and she seems to possess rare comprehension of her vocal strengths and weaknesses. She is an asset to this performance and is likely to prove an especially graceful Mozartean in seasons to come.

As sung by Japanese soprano Erika Tanaka,​ Aristea​ is a bold but disarmingly girlish character whose misfortunes are motivation for a calm refusal to accept defeat. Aristea’s aria in Act One, ‘Tu di saper procura,’ inspires Ms. Tanaka to expansively-conceived singing, and the accompanied recitative and duet with Megacle, ‘E mi lasci così?’ and ‘Ne' giorni tuoi felici,’ are given rousing performances. In Act Two, she sings ‘Tu me da me dividi’ with palpable feeling, and the aria in Act Three, ‘Caro, son tua così,’ is affectingly done. Ultimately, however, Ms. Tanaka’s technique is not yet completely equal to the demands of Aristea’s music. Though she manages the considerable range required, there is a disconcerting sense of the singer often being taken to the absolute limit of her abilities. Still, Ms. Tanaka gives an admirable performance of a very daunting rôle and copes gracefully with her character’s histrionic and musical tribulations.

Megacle, the rôle taken by Luigi Marchesi in the 1778 first production of L’Olimpiade, expectedly has the score’s most demanding and memorable music. In modern parlance, Marchesi was a soprano, and music written for him confirms that he must have been a prodigious singer in terms of range and technique. In her traversal of Mysliveček’s music for Megacle, Kurdish soprano Pervin Chakar does not prove to be a completely comfortable stand-in for Marchesi, but she sings capably and often impressively, revealing a bright, slightly metallic timbre and security up to D6. In the Act One aria ‘Superbo di me stesso,’ Ms. Chakar sings powerfully, and she accesses troves of concentration and intensity in the accompanied recitative and cavatina ‘Che intesi, eterni dei.’ She combines effectively with Ms. Tanaka in the accompanied recitative and duet with Aristea, ‘Ne' giorni tuoi felici,’ but the femininity of her timbre undermines the dramatic effectiveness of her portrayal. Ms. Chakar infuses the accompanied recitative in Act Two, ‘Misero me, che veggo,’ with undiluted emotion, and she gives an understated but compelling performance of ‘Se cerca, se dice,’ the opera’s most celebrated aria and, according to contemporary accounts and the castrato’s own affection for it, one of the best numbers in Marchesi’s repertoire. In Megacle’s aria in Act Three, ‘Lo seguitai felice,’ Ms. Chakar sings persuasively. Like her colleagues in this performance, Ms. Chakar faces perilous hurdles that her technique only partially equips her to clear, but she holds her own in coloratura passages. It is a lovely, potentially beautiful voice with an attractive timbre, and her performance shows evidence of a capacity for development into a fine artist.

It would surely be futile to hope that the music of Josef Mysliveček will ever be as familiar or frequently-performed as the works of Mozart, and it cannot be argued that L’Olimpiade is a masterpiece worthy of comparison with Così fan tutte or Die Zauberflöte. Judged on its own terms, L’Olimpiade is a fascinating work that provides a welcome example of Mysliveček’s exalted gifts as a composer of opera. This recording, a collaboration between the Teatro Comunale di Bologna and the Scuola dell’Opera italiana, is not the top-flight presentation that both the score and its composer deserve, but it is an appreciable venture that furthers the revitalization of Mysliveček’s standing among the most important composers of the Eighteenth Century.

14 November 2014

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – MESSIAH (L. Crowe, T. Mead, A. Staples, C. Purves; Le Concert d’Astrée Chœur et Orchestre; E. Haïm; ERATO 0825646240555)

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - MESSIAH (ERATO 0825646240555)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Messiah, HWV 56Lucy Crowe (soprano), Tim Mead (countertenor), Andrew Staples (tenor), Christopher Purves (bass); Le Concert d’Astrée Chœur et Orchestre; Emmanuelle Haïm, conductor [Recorded at the Opéra de Lille, France, 4 – 7 December 2013; ERATO/Warner Classics 0825646240555; 2 CD, 135:28; Available from Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

It is not without reason that Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah has maintained steady footholds in the repertories of Arts institutions and choral societies of every conceivable size, level of achievement, and depth of resources in the two-and-a-half centuries since the oratorio was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742​. The pages of Händel’s score certainly are not filled with uncomplicated music ideally suited to amateur performers: the bravura exertions required of the choristers are at least as daunting as those with which the soloists must contend, in fact. From a strictly musicological perspective, Messiah is neither Händel’s most adventurous nor his finest oratorio, but it possesses qualities not present in the composer’s other oratorios. Most notably, the drama in Messiah is spiritual rather than physical. There are no named characters, and the libretto compiled by Charles Jennens presents Scripture without commentary. Successive generations of varying approaches to performing Messiah have confirmed that the work can survive an extraordinary degree of editorializing, ranging from Mozart’s respectful enlargement of the orchestra to Twentieth-Century expansions of all aspects of the musical construction of the score. Defining a completely authoritative, historically-appropriate Messiah is virtually impossible, but this new ERATO recording makes an impressive effort at providing the listen with an experience similar to how a performance might have sounded in Händel’s lifetime. It is also a recording that appeals strongly to Twenty-First-Century sensibilities, however. Sadly, far too many performances convey a sense of Messiah being a work for which apologies should be made, a piece that is performed as a popular commercial exercise rather than an artistic endeavor. Messiah is popular, but people want to hear it because it is great music. The performance on these discs never loses sight of the fact that, considerations of dogma aside, Messiah is a work of accessible grandiloquence that satisfies on whichever level the listener chooses to accept.

Though her mastery of Baroque repertory and the music of Händel is undoubted, Messiah is perhaps not a score for which Emmanuelle Haïm might be thought to have special affinity. In hindsight, it can be argued that, despite the typically Baroque abundance of French dance rhythms in the music, Messiah is one of Händel’s most English works. The influences of German models of Schütz, Pachelbel, and Bach and even the Italian works to which Händel was exposed in his youth are less noticeable in Messiah than those of Blow and Purcell, to whose large-scale choral works Messiah is an obvious successor. Under Maestra Haïm’s direction, there is unmistakable emphasis on the French elements of Händel’s musical architecture. Unlike many of her historically-informed colleagues, Maestra Haïm seems to have no agenda other than performing the music in a way that would have been familiar to Händel. Articulations of cadences are occasionally rather abrupt, and the final bars of individual numbers are intermittently idiosyncratically handled. On the whole, though, Maestra Haïm preserves an unusually consistent progression of tempi that sets an engaging but never breathless dramatic pace. Solely among conductors presiding over period-instrument ensembles, she faces a field of justifiably lauded competitors, but Maestra Haïm triumphs over some of the most celebrated of her colleagues by making this Messiah one that, almost without exception, sounds like a genuine performance of Händel’s oratorio rather than a dryly academic treatise on period practice or a misguided attempt at assigning operatic pretensions to the music.

The instrumentalists of Le Concert d’Astrée play Händel’s music with consummate ability. Numbering twenty-five players including the continuo, the ensemble’s dimensions closely adhere to contemporary accounts and scholarly notions of Händel’s orchestras in Dublin and London. From the first bars of the Grave opening of the ​Sinfony, the sounds produced by the Concert d'Astrée players are perfectly-tuned and produced with warmth rare for period-instrument ensembles. The Sinfony’s fugal Allegro moderato is robustly done without seeming forced or hectic, and in both airs and choruses throughout the performance the musicians follow Maestra Haïm’s lead in crafting a performance that is delightfully free of blatant eccentricities. The Pifa, marked Larghetto e mezzo piano, is charmingly played, truly sounding like the plaintive song of shepherds’ pipes. The continuo is creatively but reservedly provided by cellist Felix Knecht, double bassist Nicola Dal Maso, harpsichordist Violaine Cochard, and organist Joseph McHardy, and the playing of violinist David Plantier and trumpeters Guy Ferber and Emmanuel Alemany​ is especially impressive. Doubling of vocal lines is discreetly managed, and not one of the Concert d'Astrée players proves anything but a reliably stylish Händelian.

Consisting in this performance of six sopranos, five altos, four tenors, and five basses, the personnel of the Chœur du Concert d'Astrée bring appreciable intimacy to the contemplative choruses but also conjure an imposingly weighty sound in the celebratory numbers. In Part One, the choristers’ singing of 'And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,’ 'And he shall purify,’ and 'O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion' is suitably brilliant, and their performance of 'For unto us a child is born' bristles with joyous anticipation. There is little suggestion of the distancing effect that Händel wanted in 'Glory to God in the highest,' but there is no doubt of the sincerity of the angels’ message. The histrionic power of their account of 'His yoke is easy, His burthen is light' is deeply moving. Part Two is launched with a magnificent performance of  'Behold the Lamb of God,' and the choristers sing 'Surely He hath borne our griefs,' 'And with His stripes we are healed,' and 'All we, like sheep, have gone astray' with incredible energy and focus. The sequence of 'He trusted in God,' the exultant 'Lift up your heads, O ye gates,' 'Let all the angels of God worship Him,' 'The Lord gave the word,' 'Their sound is gone out into all lands,' and 'Let us break their bonds asunder’ is shaped with faultless sensitivity to the dramatic progression of the music. The chorus’s voicing of the oft-abused 'Hallelujah!' possesses the sense of wonder that performances frequently lack, the security of the sopranos’ top As evoking reverent ecstasy. The choristers’ handling of the masterful 'Since by man came death' in Part Three is deft, the hushed opening phrases brilliantly juxtaposed with the exclamations of ‘by man came also the resurrection of the dead’ and ‘even so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ ‘But thanks be to God’ is affectionately sung, and the concluding ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain’ is begun with grandeur. The choristers are at their best in the Olympian fugue of the final ‘Amen,’ their august singing ending the performance with glorious conviction. Throughout the performance, individual voices intermittently stand out, undermining the homogeneity of ensemble, but the twenty singers are resoundingly successful in executing their parts with exactness in many instances obscured by the singing of larger ensembles.

Tenor Andrew Staples opens Part One with performances of the accompanied recitative 'Comfort ye my people​' and air 'Ev'ry valley shall be exalted' that exude confidence in both the difficult coloratura and in the challenging tessitura of the music. As written, the tenor solos do not make extravagant demands upon the singer’s upper register, but the center of vocal gravity is often high. Mr. Staples is unbothered by the range of the music, and his lovely, soft timbre is capable of taking on a surprising strength above the staff. In Part Two, his voicing of the string of accompanied recitatives—‘All they that see Him laugh Him to score,' 'Thy rebuke hath broken His heart,' and ‘He was cut off out of the land of the living’—evokes the sadness and shame of the texts, and his dolorous singing of the arioso 'Behold, and see, if there be any sorrow' is dramatically and musically apt. He lends both the air 'But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell' and the recitatives 'Unto which of the angels said He at any time' and 'He that dwelleth in heaven' elements of proud satisfaction. The sense of righteous vengeance in the air 'Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron' is muted in Mr. Staples’s performance, but he manages the difficult intervals and divisions with élan. He delivers his part in the deceptively simple duet in Part Three, 'O death, where is thy sting,’ with the sound of glee in his voice. Mr. Staples’s embellishments, though conservative on the whole, occasionally seem slightly haphazard, but he provides a technically first-rate and very tonally appealing demonstration of the tenor part.

Christopher Purves has to his credit considerable experience in the music of Händel, and his acquaintance with the composer’s operas and oratorios is put to splendid use in this performance of Messiah. He cheats in none of the divisions in the accompanied recitative 'Thus saith the Lord of Hosts,' and though his voice is stronger at the top than at the bottom of his range he infuses 'For behold, darkness shall cover the earth' with a resonant atmosphere of menace that is illuminated by his singing of the light that Christ’s coming will shine upon humanity. In his performance, the air 'The people that walked in darkness' sounds less awkward than it sometimes does, and he descends to the tonal depths without sacrificing vocal smoothness. In Part Two, the magisterial C-major aria 'Why do the nations so furiously rage together' receives from Mr. Purves a performance distinguished by the accuracy—in terms of pitch and rhythm—of the singer’s negotiations of the fast triplets. The accompanied recitative 'Behold, I tell you a mystery' and air 'The trumpet shall sound' in Part Three are sung unforgettably by Mr. Purves: it is indicative of the impression made by his sonorous vocalism that the superb trumpeting recedes into the background to an unusual degree. Mr. Purves is hardly in a crowded field when compared with other singers with similar distinction as a Händel bass, but his singing in this performance confirms that he continues to deserve every accolade he receives.

The alto solos in Messiah present challenges to modern singers of any register. First sung by a contralto but by the time of Händel’s death arranged, transposed, and in some cases reassigned to countertenor, castrato, and other soloists, the alto recitatives and airs in their most familiar forms are uncongenial even for many singers who specialize in Händel repertory. If the music that he sings in this performance is uncomfortable for countertenor Tim Mead, his subtle, quietly poignant singing offers no evidence of struggle. Employing the 1750 D-minor setting sung by Guadagni, Mr. Mead rips through the coloratura of the air 'But who may abide the day of His coming?' with complete ease, and he then sings the recitative 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive' with disarming simplicity. The low-lying lines of 'O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion' never upset his finely-wrought tonal production. His voicing of 'Then shall the eyes of the blind be open'd' and his half of the duet 'He shall feed His flock like a shepherd' is touchingly tranquil. In Part Two, Mr. Mead gives a solemn and serenely beautiful performance of ‘He was despised,’ one of Händel's finest inspirations. He complements this with a fiery account of the D-minor version of the air 'Thou art gone up on high,’ in which his highest notes glisten. There is a wide-eyed, almost boyish awe in his singing of the recitative 'Then shall be brought to pass the saying' and duet 'O death, where is thy sting?' in Part Three, his blending of his voice with Mr. Staples’s in the latter achieved with finesse. Mr. Mead sings all of his music without the vaguest hint of artifice, and solely as a stream of steady, alluring vocalism his contributions to this Messiah are invaluable.

Soprano Lucy Crowe makes her entrance in Part One with a radiant traversal of the Nativity narrative, building upon the recitative 'There were shepherds abiding in the field' and accompanied recitative 'And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them' with a raptly concentrated 'And the angel said unto them' and 'And suddenly there was with the angel,’ her voice rising to top A with truly angelic poise. Her bravura singing in the air 'Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion' is suitably jubilant, and her interpolated top B♭ is a gesture of festive joy rather than a shallow effort at showing off the voice. Ms. Crowe’s part in the duet with Mr. Mead, ‘Come unto Him all ye that labor,' is splendidly done, the firmness of her voice rendering the modulation from the F major of the alto section to the soprano’s B♭ major a stunning effect, and she crowns the duet with another interpolated top B♭. Her G-minor air in Part Two, 'How beautiful are the feet of them,' is sung with assurance that reflects the meaning of the text. The exquisite E-major air at the start of Part Three, 'I know that my Redeemer liveth,’ can seem an anticlimax after the ringing ‘Hallelujah!’ that closes Part Two, but Ms. Crowe restores to the music the extraordinary importance that Händel devoted to it. Her singing here and in the lovingly-crafted G-minor air 'If God be for us, who can be against us?' is studied without being precious, and the coolness of her timbre lends her performance an aura of sanctity. Her vibrato grows more pronounced at the top of her range, but she has both the sense and the technical wherewithal to maintain control of the voice at all tempi and dynamic levels. Like her colleagues in this performance, she is a laudably capable Händelian who sings her music not as a prima donna going through her motions but as an expert musician seeking grace rather than glamor.

There is no shortage of good recordings of Messiah, but as performances have moved closer to replicating the musical circumstances of performances of the oratorio in Händel’s lifetime they have seemed to drift further and further from the spirit of the music. There is no question that Händel was an opportunist, but it is unfortunate that a penchant for commercial success is habitually equated with a paucity of genius. Messiah is a work that has survived the meddling of fools and friends. It receives from Le Concert d'Astrée and Emmanuelle Haïm a performance that imposes nothing and exposes much. It is amazing to observe what excellence is possible when the primary goal of a performance is following the path that the composer prescribed.

12 November 2014

CD REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven – PIANO CONCERTO NO. 5 & SONATA OP. 111 (Nelson Freire, Gewandhausorchester, Riccardo Chailly; DECCA 478 6771)

CD REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven - PIANO CONCERT NO. 5 & SONATA NO. 32 (DECCA 478 6771)LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major (‘Emperor’), Opus 73 and Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Opus 111Nelson Freire, piano; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig; Riccardo Chailly, conductor [Recorded in Gewandhaus zu Leipzig, 5 – 8 March 2014 (Concerto), and Teldex Studio, Berlin, 21 – 23 February 2014 (Sonata); DECCA 478 6771; 1 CD, 61:58; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

The acquaintance of Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire with the work of Ludwig van Beethoven is one of the most fruitful familiarities in Classical Music. Mr. Freire, who celebrated his seventieth birthday in 2014, started playing Beethoven’s music when his age was measured in single digits, and he first performed the ‘Emperor’ Concerto at the age of twelve, when he played the piece in Rio de Janeiro. This new recording with Leipzig’s treasured Gewandhausorchester and Riccardo Chailly is the zenith of a lifetime’s affection: rather than being a reading of a musical masterpiece scaled to impress the listener with grandiose gestures, it is a performance shaped by intimate communication among music and musicians. It would be ridiculous to suggest that Mr. Freire ‘speaks’ with Beethoven, but his playing on this disc undeniably enables Beethoven to speak to the listener.

In this performance, Maestro Chailly and the gifted instrumentalists of the Gewandhausorchester, the ensemble by which the ‘Emperor’ Concerto was premièred in 1811, bring an astonishing consistency of approach to Beehoven’s music, creating a charged atmosphere in which Mr. Freire’s playing is like bursts of electricity. The performance of the Concerto as a whole is unexpectedly restrained, however. The formal grandeur of the opening Allegro movement quickly makes way for softer effects, and even when the solo lines are most unstintingly virtuosic Mr. Freire maintains a strong element of introspection that invites the listener into the music instead of engendering a respectful distance. Played with such uncompromising attention to subtleties, the Allegro discloses details seldom heard with such clarity. The inventiveness of Beethoven’s writing for woodwinds is particularly apparent, and the Gewandhaus players take great care to complement Mr. Freire’s touch with their own phrasing. The thematic links of the development of the opening movement with the second and third movements have almost never been so apparent as in this performance. Especially in the closing pages of the Allegro, pianist, orchestra, and conductor render the music with an alluring lightness that does not lessen its cumulative power.

The Adagio un poco mosso second movement is a piece of such unnerving serenity that many pianists and conductors are tempted to bury the simple beauty of the music beneath an avalanche of Freudian complications. Like Händel in ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ and Mozart in the slow movements of his Clarinet Concerto and Quintet, Beethoven employed a major key in the Andante to foster a piercing attitude of wistfulness, regret, and unanswerable longing. Maestro Chailly and the orchestra play the movement’s opening chords hypnotically, as though they are eavesdropping on a very private scene, and Mr. Freire’s delivery of the wide intervals and wandering figurations of the piano’s entrance seems engagingly rhapsodic but is governed by a very precise adherence to rhythm. Here as in the Concerto’s outer movements, Mr. Freire uses Beethoven’s ornaments—not least the distinctive turns—with wonderful expressivity, exploring the oft-ignored twinkles of humor in the music. Mr. Freire manages the transition from the Adagio un poco mosso to the Rondo with understated theatricality that maximizes the impact of the contrast between the tranquility of the final bars of the second movement and the thundering chords of the final movement.

With the repetitions of notes in the first statement of the primary theme in the concluding Rondo, Beethoven created an impression of exuberance so tremendous that it seems to flare up almost clumsily. Though at its core a relatively traditional seven-part concert rondo, the final movement of the ‘Emperor’ matches the first movement in originality, the dialogue between piano and orchestra shaped in the manner of a good-natured competition. In the Rondo, Mr. Freire’s technical prowess is at its most extroverted, put to use in muscular but sensitive executions of the boldly-drawn piano lines. The rhythmic accuracy of Mr. Freire’s trilling should be a model to all pianists, particularly in the sustained trill that ends the cadenza and ushers in the final statement of the majestic opening theme. Throughout the Rondo, Mr. Freire and Maestro Chailly construct a performance that combines the stylistic limpidity expected of a composer most influenced by Mozart with the characteristic volatility of Beethoven.

Composed in 1821 and 1822 and likely sketched in 1820, while the composer was completing his Missa solemnis, the Opus 111 Piano Sonata in C minor is the last of Beethoven’s sonatas for the instrument that his work substantially transformed. Intriguingly, however, thematic material ultimately developed in the Sonata dates as far back as the turn of the Nineteenth Century, offering invaluable insights into Beethoven’s compositional process. In the Maestoso first movement, Mr. Freire shortchanges none of the violence of the music with his innately lyrical playing. He realizes the full effect of the diminished-seventh chords without exaggerating their prominence, and the linearity of his playing reveals as complete an understanding of the intricacies of Beethoven’s unconventional harmonic progressions as any pianist has demonstrated on recordings in recent years. The Picardy third with which Beethoven achieved the modulation to C major for the Arietta second movement is in Mr. Freire’s performance a warming ray of sunlight. The imagination with which he plays the series of variations on the primary theme is compelling, but what is most gripping is Beethoven’s remarkable ingenuity. The pianist elucidates all of the futuristic elements of the music without adopting any anachronistic mannerisms. Appropriately, he plays the Sonata with a musical modus operandi that would serve equally well in sonatas by Haydn or Mozart. After six decades of experience with Beethoven’s music, Mr. Freire knows that a monumental work like the Opus 111 Piano Sonata needs only to be played well: every nuance of interpretation is already in the music.

With these recordings of the ‘Emperor’ Concerto and Piano Sonata No. 32, Nelson Freire encapsulates a career’s involvement with the music of Beethoven in an hour of unstinting grace. Preserved in sound that honors DECCA’s exalted tradition of sonic excellence, this disc is an invigorating traversal of two of Beethoven’s greatest works for the piano. It is also a lesson in the art of building a career that endures because love for music is its guiding principle.

09 November 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Richard Wagner – Prelude and Act Two from TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (H. Melton, J. Hunter Morris, E. Bishop, R. Wiegold, W. Henderson; North Carolina Opera – 9 November 2014)

IN PERFORMANCE: Prelude & Act Two from Richard Wagner's TRISTAN UND ISOLDE [19th-Century postcard depicting Tristan and Isolde]RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Prelude and Act Two from Tristan und IsoldeJay Hunter Morris (Tristan), Heidi Melton (Isolde), Elizabeth Bishop (Brangäne), Richard Wiegold (König Marke), Wade Henderson (Melot); North Carolina Opera Orchestra; Timothy Myers, conductor [North Carolina Opera; Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina; Sunday, 9 November 2014]

To the uninitiated, the basic plot of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde must seem one of the most improbable dramas in opera. En route to be presented to her new husband, girl encounters boy with whom she has a complex history, girl’s confidante attempts to save the day by substituting a love potion for the requested poison, girl and boy sing rapturous love duet, amorous bliss is complicated by envy, boy dies, and girl is transfixed, transfigured, or in some inexplicable manner transformed by the loss of her soul mate. In the course of the opera, several of the clichés often cited in the persecution of opera are perpetuated: the meddling but well-meaning seconda donna, the inevitable love triangle, the character who takes rather longer to expire than is physiologically credible. The listener fortunate enough to encounter a good performance of Tristan und Isolde is unlikely to be concerned about clichés and dramatic verisimilitude, however. Drawing inspiration from his own famously tempestuous life, particularly his idealized veneration of Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner injected his music for Tristan und Isolde with a hypnotic blend of sensuality, deeply personal betrayal, and pathos. It is a demon of an opera that crushes those who attempt it without the preparedness and respect that it merits. For reasons of expense, musical requirements, and sheer enormity, Wagner’s operas are beyond the purview of many of America’s regional opera companies. North Carolina Opera’s performance of the Prelude and Act Two of Tristan und Isolde in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall obliterated the idea that Wagner’s music belongs solely on the Green Hill or at Lincoln Center. In comparison with performances of Tristan und Isolde in recent reasons, in fact, both Bayreuth and the Metropolitan Opera could learn from North Carolina Opera’s casting, rehearsing, and performing even the most difficult scores with unaffected elegance and unyielding musicality.

Furthering the splendid impression made by his handling of the Wagnerian elements in Dvořák’s Rusalka in North Carolina Opera’s performance earlier this year, the company’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Timothy Myers presided over a compelling account of music from Tristan und Isolde. The ‘Tristan chord,’ after nearly 140 years still regarded as one of the most groundbreaking sounds in Western music, dispersed a mood of dramatic ambiguity throughout Meymandi Concert Hall, and the anxiety generated in the opening bars of the Prelude was maintained until the last note of Act Two. The concept of offering the opera’s Prelude and Act Two in concert is an excellent means of introducing an audience to Tristan und Isolde, particularly in consideration of the prohibitively extravagant resources required to produce a staging of the opera and the potential pitfalls of performing the complete score in concert. Approaching Act Two as a distinct narrative in its own context, Maestro Myers achieved the continuity and sense of fulfillment brought in past to similarly-conceived performances by conductors as diverse as Hans Weisbach, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and William Steinberg. Maestro Myers marshaled the forces of the North Carolina Opera Orchestra with acute awareness of the finely-wrought structures of Wagner’s scoring and motivic figurations. Dynamic contrasts were never exploited merely for easy effects: under Maestro Myer’s direction, the peaks of orchestral volume were organic manifestations of the passions evoked by the music. Tristan und Isolde is a monumentally daunting score for the orchestra: at least as much of the opera’s action is carried out in the pit as on the stage, and the tasks faced by the instrumentalists are hardly less exhausting than those endured by the singers. Like Maestro Myers, the NCO Orchestra players continued the legacy of excellence exemplified by their playing of Rusalka. The horns were formidably solid of intonation, a rarity complemented by woodwind playing that crackled with danger and eroticism. Very few sour notes were heard in exposed passages—or, indeed, in any passages. String textures were kept lean, but passages of lush Romanticism were granted luxurious floods of tone. Wagner’s music almost certainly is not prominent in the musicians’ repertories, but Maestro Myers led the orchestral players in a performance that articulated the textures of the score with clarity that was frequently astounding.

Hearing her music sung not only capably but attractively is an ironic reminder of how dispiriting a presence Brangäne is in many performances of Tristan und Isolde. Elizabeth Bishop’s Brangäne was a handmaiden worthy of her mistress, her vocalism full, steady, and wonderfully-projected. She and Heidi Melton’s Isolde made of their scene at the beginning of Act Two a credible exchange between a lovesick princess and the confidante who knows that deadly treachery is afoot. Ms. Melton sang Isolde’s opening 'Hörst du sie noch?' with girlish anticipation, responding to the wonderfully accurately-tuned offstage horns. Ms. Bishop replied with an urgent 'Noch sind sie nah’,’ and both ladies rose without strain to the G♭ and G on which their lines crested. Likewise, the repeated ascents to top G in her 'Dem Freund zu Lieb' erfand diese List aus Mitleid Melot, der Freund' gave Ms. Melton no problems. Ms. Bishop soared thrillingly to the top A on ‘Wehe!’ in 'O lass' die warnende Zünde!' Ms. Melton’s singing of 'Wie sie es wendet, wie sie es endet' was unanswerable: this Isolde’s desire to be united with her Tristan was not to be thwarted.

Compelled to rise to top A♭ on the second note of his first exclamation of ‘Isolde!’ in the second scene, Jay Hunter Morris immediately displayed his command of Tristan’s punishing tessitura. His strong, nasal timbre mostly successfully combatted the orchestra, but a measure of forcing was required in moments of greatest stress. He matched Ms. Melton well in the rapid-fire lines of their conversation. Her 'Tristan! Geliebter!' rang out with abandon, the top A and B♭ slightly pushed but perfectly steady. Then, she hurled the pair of top Cs in 'O Wonne der Seele' into the auditorium like rock-solid, pitch-perfect thunderbolts. Mr. Morris coped manfully with the assault on his passaggio in 'In deiner Hand den süssen Tod, als ich ihn erkannt, den sie mir bot,’ and his singing of ‘O Heil dem Tranke!’ was superb. His finest vocalism of the afternoon was devoted to his launching of the lyrical section of the celebrated love duet, 'O sink' hernieder, Nacht der Liebe.’ Ms. Melton joined him energetically, bringing unwavering intensity to 'Barg im Busen uns sich die Sonne,' and she and Mr. Morris lent their unison top A♭ on 'selbst dann bin ich die Welt' a cathartic charge.

Singing from the hall’s top tier, Ms. Bishop provided a gorgeous performance of Brangäne’s Watch, phrasing 'Einsam wachend in der Nacht' with imagination and supplying a stream of plush, intoxicatingly beautiful vocalism. Tristan’s 'Lass den Tag dem Tode weichen!' was shaped poetically by Mr. Morris, and he reacted to Ms. Melton’s radiantly-intoned 'Doch unsre Liebe, heisst sie nicht Tristan und Isolde?' with a touching voicing of 'So stürben wir, um ungetrennt, ewig einig, ohne End', ohn' Erwachen, ohn' Erbangen,’ the Liebestod motif caressed affectionately. Only fools would have failed to heed Ms. Brangäne’s interruption with cries of 'Habet Acht!' as sung by Ms. Bishop, but this Tristan and Isolde were too focused on their own love to allow the world beyond themselves to encroach upon their temporal happiness, their unison 'O ew'ge Nacht, süsse Nacht! Hehr erhab'ne Liebesnacht!' ardently rendered by Ms. Melton and Mr. Morris. The soprano’s phrasing of 'Ohne Nennen, ohne Trennen, neu Erkennen, neu Entbrennen' glowed with fervor, and Ms. Melton resolved the scene’s prolonged tension with her long-held top A and gloriously-sung climactic top B.

Tenor Wade Henderson made a rousing entrance with Melot’s 'Das sollst du, Herr, mir sagen,’ and though his rôle was brief his menace was pervasive. Many Melots are Monostatoses who struggle against the might of Wagner’s orchestra. Mr. Henderson did not have to resort to bellowing in order to be heard, and his virile singing made him a genuine threat to Tristan rather than a priggish weakling. That such a duplicitous man could serve a sovereign as distinguished as Richard Wiegold’s König Marke was a central component of the tragedy in this performance. The Welsh bass’s singing of 'Sieh' ihn dort, den Treu'sten aller Treuen' brimmed with shock and true sadness, prompting Mr. Morris to infuse Tristan’s defiant 'Tagsgespenster! Morgentraüme!’ with a suggestion of shame. In Mr. Wiegold’s performance, Marke’s 'Mir dies? Dies, Tristan, mir? Wohin nun Treue, da Tristan mich betrog?' was immensely moving, the security of his C and D at the top of the staff equaled by the firmness of his descent to low A on 'da Tristan mich verrieth?’ His tenderness in describing Isolde as 'Dies wundervolle Weib' was heartbreaking. The top Es in 'Nun, da durch solchen Besitz mein Herz du fühlsamer schufst als sonst dem Schmerz' troubled Mr. Wiegold no more than his resonant low A and G in 'Den unerforschlich tief geheimnissvollen Grund, wer macht der Welt ihn kund?’ Marke’s monologue often seems to stall the progress of the drama, but in Mr. Wiegold’s hands it was the emotional pinnacle of the performance. His vocalism was extraordinarily handsome, and the abiding decency of the character he created incited an inundation of sympathy for Marke’s despair.

In the final minutes of the performance, Mr. Morris’s dulcet voicing of 'Wohin nun Tristan scheidet, willst du, Isold', ihm folgen?' drew from Ms. Melton a sweetly determined statement of 'Als für ein fremdes Land der Freund sie einstens warb, dem Unholden treu und hold musst' Isolde folgen.' Mr. Henderson’s interjection of 'Verräther! Ha! Zur Rache, König! Duldest du diese Schmach?' seethed with contempt. As he raised his sword against the man who betrayed him to Marke by revealing his own betrayal, Tristan had the last word with ‘Wehr dich, Melot!’ The power unleashed by Mr. Morris on his final top A closed a performance notable for its energy and perceptiveness.

A concert performance seldom achieves dramatic potency as great as that possible in staged performances, but North Carolina Opera’s concert presentation of the Prelude and Act Two of Tristan und Isolde possessed wealths of intelligence, exuberance, and honest feeling. Wagner’s music is some of the most difficult in opera, but it is harder still for performers who do not comprehend the composer’s distinctive style. Every artist whose talents were engaged in this performance held nothing back. This Tristan und Isolde was not just the product of a team of musicians putting in a good afternoon’s work. It was an unwonted opportunity to hear Wagner’s music as it ought to be heard—no shouting, barking, or haphazard playing, no misguided efforts at adapting the opera to modern sensibilities, no compromises made in the interest of merely surviving the demands of the score. This was an afternoon of great voices and great musicians putting the efforts of many of the world’s most renowned Wagnerians to shame.

CD REVIEW: Prides of Parnassus – Franco Fagioli’s IL MAESTRO – PORPORA ARIAS (Naïve V 5369) & Xavier Sabata’s I DILETTANTI (Aparté AP093)

CD REVIEW: IL MAESTRO - PORPORA ARIAS (Naïve V 5369) & I DILETTANTI (Aparté AP093)1. NICOLA PORPORA (1686 – 1768): Il Maestro – Arias from Carlo il Calvo, Didone abbandonata, Ezio, Meride e Selinunte, Polifemo, Il ritiro, Semiramide riconosciuta, Il verbo in carne, and VulcanoFranco Fagioli, countertenor; Academia Montis Regalis; Alessandro De Marchi, conductor [Recorded in Sala di Santa Croce, Academia Montis Regalis, Mondovì, Italy, in June 2013; Naïve V 5369; 1 CD, 79:45; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

2. VINCENZO BENEDETTI (1683 – ?), DIOGENIO BIGAGLIA (1676 – 1745), EMANUELE D’ASTORGA (1680 – circa 1757), GIACOMO MACCARI (1700 – 1744), BENEDETTO MARCELLO (1686 – 1739), and GIOVANNI MARIA RUGGIERI (1665 – 1725): I Dilettanti – Baroque Cantatas and Arias—Xavier Sabata, countertenor; Latinitas Nostra; Markellos Chryssicos, harpsichord and musical direction [Recorded in l’Ateneu d’Avià, Barcelona, Spain, 12 – 15 August 2013; Aparté AP093; 1 CD, 58:22; Available from harmonia mundi USA, Amazon, jpc, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

From a psychological perspective, it is tremendously dangerous for an individual to be in love with memories. For artists and artistic institutions, it is equally parlous for those who love music to dwell among their recollections of musicians and performances of past generations. Many have been the singers whose feats before studio microphones, in an environment in which they controlled the music rather than the other way round, have instigated disappointment in the theatre, but the naysayer who despairs that there are no Flagstads, Melchiors, Scottos, or Bergonzis on the world’s stages today owes it to himself to hear Il Maestro and I Dilettanti. Every age has its great artists if audiences are prepared to search for them beyond the boundaries of outdated conventions. Today, there are perhaps no Isoldes to rival Flagstad, no Tannhäusers of Melchior’s security, no Lady Macbeths of Scotto’s fluency, and no Pinkertons of Bergonzi’s unaffected charm, but the first quarter of the Twenty-First Century has in Franco Fagioli and Xavier Sabata a pair of exceptional singers whose voices and artistic intelligence equal those of the finest singers of the past. These gentlemen do not sing Verdi and Wagner rôles, but it should not be forgotten that Kirsten Flagstad—in many estimations the most accomplished Senta, Elsa, Elisabeth, Brünnhilde, and Isolde of her time and perhaps of all of the Twentieth Century; and also a competitive Kundry—excelled as Händel’s Rodelinda. Great, important singing is not and should not be thought to be confined to particular repertories or styles of singing. The listener who denies himself the opportunity to hear the performances on these two discs because he is unacquainted with this repertory does a gross disservice to himself, to these singers, and to the composers whose music is performed. Is not singing of the quality offered on Il Maestro and I Dilettanti to be preferred to half-hearted, by-the-notes bungling through the scores of the handful of ‘popular’ composers who dominate the world’s stages?

Natives of Argentina and Spain, respectively, both Mr. Fagioli and Mr. Sabata are singers whose careers on stage and in studio have developed meteorically in recent seasons under the auspices of Parnassus Arts Productions. Unlike many such astronomically-routed artists, however, these gentlemen seem destined to persevere for years to come in the often disenfranchising domain of Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century. After taking the 2003 Bertelsmann ‘Neue Stimmen’ prize when he was only twenty-two years old, Mr. Fagioli’s début on disc was a superb but too-little-known recital of arias by Händel and Mozart. In the subsequent decade, he has given notice of his continually-expanding artistry with a progression of acclaimed recordings. Even among an impressively diverse and rich discography, Il Maestro preserves Mr. Fagioli’s finest singing in the recording studio to date. In addition to having tutored the young Franz Joseph Haydn, Nicola Porpora both taught and composed for several of the most lauded castrati of the Eighteenth Century, including Caffarelli, Farinelli, and his namesake, Porporino, and though his name is still not as familiar to modern audiences as those of Händel and Vivaldi his music deserves the star treatment that it receives here.

Fantastically supported by the stylish, unfailingly lovely playing of Academia ​Montis Regalis and the passionate but period-appropriate leadership of Alessandro De Marchi, Mr. Fagioli makes an indelible impression by refusing to tiptoe through Porpora’s music. Every ritornello, detail of instrumentation, and occurrence of word painting is exploited by the musicians of Academia Montis Regalis, and Mr. Fagioli and Maestro De Marchi communicate insightfully via performances that maintain dramatic vitality without dimming the rays of Italianate gioia that shine in the arias on Il Maestro. Special mention must be made of the plangent theorbo playing of Josep Maria Martì Duran and the delightful mastery of the wind machine by Giovanna Barbati and of the thunder machine by Alessandro Baudino and Giorgio Tabacco, but the level of musical achievement among all of the instrumentalists is consistently high.

The rôle of Valentiniano in Porpora’s opera Ezio was created in the opera’s 1728 Venetian première by soprano castrato Domenico Gizzi, and the tessitura of his aria ‘Se tu la reggi al volo’ is higher than would be comfortable for many countertenors, but it holds no terrors for Mr. Fagioli. The resilience of the singer’s bravura technique is immediately put to the test, but he affirms in every aria on this disc that his unflappable mastery of Baroque vocal effects is overwhelmed by none of Porpora’s demands. From Semiramide riconosciuta, also first performed in Venice in 1728 or perhaps 1729, Mr. Fagioli takes on another soprano aria, the title heroine’s ‘Il pastor se torna aprile,’ first sung by Lucia Faccinelli. This he sings with consummate grace, his timbre unmistakably masculine but allied with a regal demeanor befitting one of opera’s most iconic monarchs. The rôle of Scitalce in the same opera was originated by the castrato Nicolini, and Mr. Fagioli pays homage to what must have been a magnificent voice with a stunning account of the character’s aria ‘Vorrei spiegar l'affano.’ The growing evenness of Mr. Fagioli’s lower and upper registers is much in evidence, and his diction continues to become more refined with each subsequent recording despite lingering vestiges of the cadences of his native Spanish. Both arias from Semiramide riconosciuta occasionally find the voice sounding slightly hollow, particularly at range extremes, but Mr. Fagioli’s singing on this disc is generally characterized by an ingratiating tonal richness intermittently compromised by his pronounced vibrato.

With one legendary heroine rescued, another is abandoned, and Araspe’s barn-burning aria ‘Già si desta la tempesta’ from Didone abbandonata​, first performed in Reggio Emilia in 1725, draws from Mr. Fagioli especially bold, powerful singing. The fiery expressivity that he devotes to this aria is perpetuated in his traversals of a pair of arias from the 1727 Venetian opera Meride e Selinunte, Ericlea’s ‘Torbido intorno al core’ and Selinunte’s ‘Con alma intrepida.’ An intrepid soul is indeed at work in his singing of these arias, the powerful sentiments of both texts conveyed with impeccably accurate coloratura and colorful negotiations of register shifts. Adalgiso’s aria ‘Spesso di nubi cinto’ from the 1738 Roman opera Carlo Il Calvo is a similarly daunting piece that demands—and receives—complete concentration from the singer. Mr. Fagioli is the kind of singer capable of scoring dramatic points in music that other singers approach as unimaginative fodder for vocal display. The strength and security of Mr. Fagioli’s vocalism across more than two octaves are arresting, but it is the sensitivity of his singing that is most impressive. There has sometimes been a somewhat distant quality in his performances, but he here devotes himself to carefully but unobtrusively analyzing the emotional impetus of each aria. This enables him to perceive the purpose of every note and build his performance of each aria upon a foundation of poetic introspection.

His creation of Aci in Polifemo in London in 1735 was one of the most brilliant successes of Farinelli’s career, and perhaps because of its association with the celebrated castrato the aria ‘Alto giove’ was in the Eighteenth Century and is today Porpora’s most widely-known aria. In Porpora’s case, relative familiarity has not bred contempt. As Farinelli was a soprano castrato with a range extending at least to C6 and likely to D6 or even slightly higher, Aci’s arias are also high for a modern countertenor, but Mr. Fagioli emerges unscathed from the grueling vocal environs of both ‘Alto giove’ and the sublime ‘Nell'attendere il mio bene.’ His high notes are exciting, but the real fascination of Mr. Fagioli’s singing of this repertory is the integration of his registers. There are no perceptible breaks in the voice, and his singing of complex passagework is made all the more remarkable by the ease with which he transitions from one register to another.

Porpora’s endeavors beyond the operatic stage are represented by the inclusion of arias from two of his cantatas and the 1748 Dresden oratorio Il verbo in carne. Like Händel, Porpora lavished the same wealth of dramatic imagination on his cantatas that he devoted to his operas, and ‘Non lasciar chi t'ama tanto’ from the cantata Vulcano is a stirring piece that receives from Mr. Fagioli a performance of profound emotional engagement. ‘A voi ritorno campagne amene’ from the cantata Il ritiro is also music of great quality, and Mr. Fagioli sings it charismatically. Even amidst such strong performances, the finest of his artistry is reserved for ‘Distillatevi o cieli,’ an aria for Umanità from Il verbo in carne. Contrasting with his singing of the operatic arias on the disc, which sometimes seems a bit pompous, the lyricism of his voicing of ‘Distillatevi o cieli’ is wondrously effective. The depths of his musicality are seemingly boundless, and with this recital of arias by Porpora Mr. Fagioli asserts that his growth as an artist continues resplendently.

Born in Barcelona, Mr. Sabata shares elements of Mr. Fagioli’s artistic temperament, but his voice is very different from that of his Argentine colleague. Possessing a more sinewy timbre, Mr. Sabata has made a specialty in the world’s theatres of Baroque operatic villains. His quietly anguished singing of the Madre in Les Arts Florissants’ touring production of Stefano Landi’s Il Sant'Alessio disclosed the expressivity of which this gifted singer is capable, however, and the selections on I Dilettanti provide him with ideal contexts in which to display both the boldest and the subtlest hues of his musical palette. Founded by Greek harpsichordist Markellos Chryssicos, the ensemble Latinitas Nostra complements every nuance of Mr. Sabata’s interpretations, lautenist Theodoros Kitsos​ and cellist Iason Ioannou playing with virtuosity of incredible cumulative impact. This consort of Greek musicians unites with Mr. Sabata in creating performances that have replicate in sound the visual splendors of paintings by El Greco.

Giacomo Maccari’s cantata ‘Non mi si dica più’ is a work of superb quality that deserves a place among the better-known cantatas of Händel, Porpora, and Alessandro Scarlatti. The titular opening aria is sung with resonant feeling by Mr. Sabata, and the subsequent recitative, ‘Speranza, unico e solo,’ gains from the intensity of the singer’s delivery a sharply poignant edge. His singing of the aria ‘Ti sovveniste almeno’ is equally revealing, and his affinity for Maccari’s style transfers unabated to the idiom of Barone Emanuele d'Astorga’s cantata ‘In queste amene selve.’ The introductory recitative is nobly sung, and the dignity with which Mr. Sabata phrases the aria ‘Da voi lungi, pupille serene’ is fantastic without seeming stilted. There is a compelling simplicity to his utterance of the recitative ‘Senza di te, mio bene,’ and the naturalness of his diction in the aria ‘Quando a te tornar dovrò’ combines unforgettably with the striking solidity of his tone. Here and in Vincenzo Benedetti’s cantata ‘La Gelosia,’ Mr. Sabata’s technique is more than equal to the demands of the music, his accounts of the recitative ‘Son reo non mi difendo’ and aria ‘Giura il nocchier, che al mare’ paced with certain command of the sentimental implications of the words.

Diogenio Bigaglia’s cantata ‘Più ch'io cerco del mio bene’ is sung by Mr. Sabata with a rousing sincerity that lends the opening aria an unexpected modernity. The broad strokes of the composer’s melodic lines are traced by the singer with absolute conviction, and the stylized declamation of the recitative ‘Ma, che sordi a miei pianti’ inspires Mr. Sabata to recitation worthy of an adept actor of the Shakespearean stage. ‘Son come tortorella’ is a ‘simile’ aria typical of the High Baroque, but there is nothing metaphorical about the straightforward radiance of Mr. Sabata’s singing. Like Mr. Fagioli, he has honed his tonal production to an amazing degree of synthesis of the registers.

Two arias from Giovanni Maria Ruggieri’s 1707 Venetian opera Armida abbandonata provide the artistic zenith of I Dilettanti. ‘Deh m'adita, ò bella Dea’ prompts Mr. Sabata to singing of wonderful immediacy, but it is the exquisite beauty of ‘Vinto son della mia fede’—that of the music itself and of the singer’s vocalism—that enthralls and refuses to be disregarded. The sentimental effusions of Ruggieri’s unadorned melodic line calls upon the most sophisticated of Mr. Sabata’s abilities, and he rises to the occasion with singing of a caliber seldom heard now on stage or on recordings. His performance of this aria alone makes hearing I Dilettanti an astoundingly pleasing experience.

Benedetto Marcello’s cantata ‘Lucrezia’ is a piece that is largely defined by its fiendish coloratura, the astonishingly difficult passagework demanding unwavering focus and breath control that only a handful of singers in the world can provide. His performance permits no doubt of the fact that Mr. Sabata is one of those singers, but the descents into his baritonal chest register usher in harshness that, while justified by the fervency of the text, undermines appreciation of his formidable technical prowess. He sometimes indulges a tendency to sacrifice purity of line to his almost manic verve, and the excesses of Marcello’s musical demands in ‘Lucrezia’ encourage an overabundance of zeal. Still, the music and text are executed marvelously by Mr. Sabata, and every selection on I Dilettanti exposes the pulse-quickening exhilaration of his singing.

Some of the greatest singers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries first sang the music recorded on these discs by Franco Fagioli and Xavier Sabata. Simply put, after hearing Il Maestro and I Dilettanti who could deny that these two persuasive artists are among the greatest singers of the Twenty-First Century?

07 November 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana – THE SOUL OF FLAMENCO (McCrary Theatre, Elon University – 5 November 2014)

IN PERFORMANCE: EL ALMA DEL FLAMENCO - Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana [Photo by Bryan J. Smith, © by University of Notre Dame]El alma de flamenco: Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana in performance [Photo by Bryan J. Smith, © University of Notre Dame]

Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana presents ​The Soul of Flamenco—Antonio Hidalgo, Ángel Muñoz, Charo Espino, Leslie Roybal, Alice Blumenfeld, and María López, dancers; Gaspar Rodríguez, guitar; Pedro Medina, guitar; ‘Yiyi’ Francisco Orozco, singer and percussion; Félix de Lola, singer [Carlota Santana, Artistic Director; Antonio Hidalgo, Associate Artistic Director; Kia Rogers, Lighting; Marian Zennie, Stage Manager; McCrary Theatre, Elon University, Elon, North Carolina; Wednesday, 5 November 2014]

The origins of the defining music, dance, and even the nomenclature of flamenco are debated by scholars, but whether it is a legacy of few or many cultures the art of flamenco is now as emblematic of Spanish culture as tapas and bullfighting. In the years since the death of Francisco Franco, years during which Spaniards have reclaimed, rejuvenated, and shared their cultural identities with indomitable passion, flamenco has rivaled chorizo and manchego as Spain’s most embraced export: some sources suggest that there are now more escuelas de flamenco operating in Japan than in Spain! The popularity of flamenco outside of Spain cannot be fully explained by novelty or nostalgia, however. In the United States, at least, there is surely a strong element of envy at the core of interest in this art form that many Americans erroneously attribute solely to gypsy caravans and bandits’ dens. There is an incomparable richness to Spanish culture that transcends the compelling but simplistic depiction in Bizet’s Carmen—a richness that rightly fascinates denizens of a polyglot society without a strong central ethos. Beyond their roots in Andalucía, the cante, toque, baile, and palmas of flamenco embody an unique social awareness that encompasses not only the gitanos, Spain’s Romani population, but also generations of Basques, Jews, Moors and modern Muslims, and Christians of all ethnicities whose credos and traditions have assimilated into the extraordinary gazpacho of contemporary Spain. Like so much Art, flamenco is a celebration of humanity, of the joys and sorrows of love, loss, and carrying on. It is not a pseudo-philosophical exercise in forgetting or forgiving differences and wrongs, but it is a sterling example of using Art as a means of understanding the universality of strife and channeling dark emotions into meaningful, cathartic modes of expression. Even if it were not one of the world’s most technically-demanding, breathtakingly beautiful genres of music and dance, flamenco would be invaluable as an artistic celebration of diversity that also represents the troubled unity of a great nation.

Founded in 1983 by Carlota Santana and Roberto Lorca, Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana has for the past three decades shared the irrepressible spirit of flamenco with audiences throughout the world. Presented by Elon University’s Lyceum Series in the University’s McCrary Theatre, the company’s program The Soul of Flamenco took the audience on a captivating journey to the cafés cantantes of the Spain of Ernest Hemingway and Federico García Lorca. An exceptionally versatile performer whose credentials extend from theatrical and operatic productions to public-school and university classrooms, Ms. Santana has successfully built a thriving company that upholds the unwavering commitment to the preservation, exhibition, and perpetuation of flamenco that has guided her career. What Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana displayed on the McCrary Theatre stage was her vision realized on a grandiose but invitingly intimate scale. Most thrillingly, however, the performance was a fiesta de flamenco that engaged the Elon community in an unusually fulfilling cultural exchange.

In the opening number, Mujeres, the choreography by Antonio Hidalgo, a native of Lucena, Córdoba, Spain, provided a veritable masterclass in the intricacies of flamenco, combining classic elements of the genre’s formative years in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries with modern trends. Following an exhilarating display of fiery footwork against the backdrop of a dark stage by Ángel Muñoz, the full company presented an in-depth exploration of the representative uses of castanets, fans, shawls, and the beautiful dress with stylized train—the bata de cola—in contemporary flamenco. Perhaps the greatest ambiguity of flamenco is its mixture of formality and sensuality, and the dancers interacted with one another with suggestive elegance. Expectedly, the costumes by Immaculada Ortega, Enrique Arteaga, and Roberto Cartagena were gorgeous, as they were in each of the performance’s episodes. The good-natured one-upmanship of the dancers engendered masterful technical feats that combined with artistic grace as delicate as huesos de santo.

If the soul of flamenco is dance, its lifeblood is music, and the genre’s Moorish associations were especially apparent in Música flamenca, the interlude in which guitarists Gaspar Rodríguez and Pedro Medina, Barcelonan singer and percussionist ‘Yiyi’ Francisco Orozco, and Sevillano singer Félix de Lola were featured in a magnificently euphonious performance of mesmerizingly impassioned music typical of flamenco. Both Mr. Rodríguez, a native of Estepona, Málaga, and the Murcia-born Mr. Medina played rivetingly, the colorations that they drew from their guitars’ strings conjuring a quintessentially Spanish atmosphere. Mr. Orozco’s dizzying mastery of the cajón was matched by the sonorous soulfulness of his singing. His ethereal timbre was complemented by Mr. de Lola’s earthier tones, and their voices combined in harmony very effectively. The punishingly high tessitura of the vocal lines was dominated by Mr. Orozco’s and Mr. de Lola’s singing, and the sounds created by this quartet of superbly gifted musicians were electrifying.

Martinete-Seguiriya, danced by the company, offered a vignette of the martinete, the hammering of the forges also mimicked by Verdi in the familiar ‘Anvil Chorus’ in Il trovatore, followed by the dolorous weight of the seguiriya. Making use of the polarity of the two styles, the dancers and musicians insightfully highlighted the inherent ambivalence of flamenco, the close relationships between pleasure and pain. One of the most enduring styles in Classical flamenco, the seguiriya united the company in a concentrated examination of the darkest elements of the genre: the Arab and Sephardic influences in the vocal lines introduced a suggestion of desperation, and the increasingly incensed dancing reflected the life-or-death intensity of the music.

Charo Espino made the improvisational Cantiñas nothing less than a tour de force. A native of Sevilla, the principal city of Andalucía, Ms. Espino took the stage with the sort of confidence that only a Spanish woman—and a great artist—can possess, and her dancing was awe-inspiring. The arching of her back, the remarkable fluidity of movement of her hands, and her complete domination of the stage with even the most understated of gestures were exemplary, and she wove a convincing, discernible narrative despite the spontaneity of the dance. Ms. Espino’s performance was the kind of singular artistic experience that can never be duplicated and seemed to suspend time.

Las Fiestas, a variation of the company’s Navidad Flamenca depiction of a traditional Spanish Christmas celebrated through dance, was a masterpiece of charm, beauty, and unaffected sentimentality. A progression of gifts paved new avenues of adventure for dramatic expression by the full company. The present of a stunning embroidered shawl prompted a lyrical but lively duet for dancer and mantón from Alice Blumenfeld; gifts of castanets and a fan inspired an invigorating contest between Mr. Hidalgo and Leslie Roybal: both numbers were stylishly danced. Still, the central focus of Las Fiestas was young María López, whose dancing already demonstrated adult sensibilities but also beguiled the audience with girlish wonder and exuberance. Keeping pace with the full company, including Mr. Lola in a humorous battle of musical wills at the start of Las Fiestas, Ms. López was a brilliant example of the bright future of flamenco.

Choreographed by Mr. Hidalgo, Rodeña ebulliently blended his characterful dancing with that of Ms. Roybal, their techniques complementing one another in expositions of the lighthearted byplay of the male-female partnership in traditional flamenco. In the subsequent Flamenco puro, Mr. Muñoz returned to the stage to ignite a conflagration of lightning-fast footwork and authentically Latin temperament. A native of Córdoba, Mr. Muñoz championed the sportive prowess of legends of the genre such as Antonio Canales, Vicente Escudero, el Carrete, and el Farruco. Bestriding the empty stage like a matador in the ring, he gave a barnstorming performance of uncompromising technical sagacity and endless imagination.

A more enthralling finale to the performance than Fin de fiesta/Bulerías could hardly have been devised. Offering each member of the company a showcase for his or her signature steps, Fin de fiesta and Bulerías ended the show as it began, with fabulously persuasive manifestations of the best of flamenco past, present, and future. Despite the enduring popularity of flamenco, performances of the quality paraded by Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana across the stage of the McCrary Theatre are unusual. The world could learn much from flamenco, not least about the necessity of accepting differences in the quest for solidarity. Were all lessons as pleasurable as Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana’s The Soul of Flamenco, perhaps more individuals, institutions, and governments might espouse Art as a catalyst for peace and tolerance.

02 November 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini – LA BOHÈME (C. Winters, S. Pirgu, A. Cambridge, J. Chest, J. Bloom, S. LaBrie; Washington National Opera – 1 November 2014)

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano Corinne Winters as Mimì in Jo Davies's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME at Washington National Opera, November 2014 [Photo by Cade Martin, © 2014 by Washington National Opera]Sì, mi chiamano Mimì: Soprano Corinne Winters as Mimì in Jo Davies’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème at Washington National Opera, November 2014 [Photo by Cade Martin, © 2014 by Washington National Opera]

GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La bohèmeCorinne Winters (Mimì), Saimir Pirgu (Rodolfo), Alyson Cambridge (Musetta), John Chest (Marcello), Joshua Bloom (Colline), Steven LaBrie (Schaunard), Donato DiStefano (Benoît, Alcindoro), Adam Caughey (Parpignol), James Shaffran (Sergeant), Andrew McLaughlin (Customs Officer); Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Philippe Auguin, conductor [Production by Jo Davies; Sets by Lee Savage; Costumes by Jennifer Moeller; Lighting by Bruno Poet; Choreography by Ben Wright; Stage direction by Peter Kazaras; Washington National Opera, The Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.; Saturday, 1 November 2014]

When ​Henri Murger's Scènes de la vie de bohème was published in 1851, the author’s wildest hopes for the endurance of his innovative work cannot have encompassed the extraordinary and lasting impact that his sometimes comical, sometimes pathetic scenes of life in Paris’s Quartier latin would have on opera. The appeal of these tales of struggling bohemians was not lost on Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of Pagliacci, whose own La bohème is a pithier work in many ways more evocative of the bleakness of Murger’s stories, but it is Puccini's La bohème, premièred under Arturo Toscanini’s baton at the Teatro Regio di Torino on 1 February 1896, that seized audiences’ imaginations and has never relinquished its grasp. Now, 118 years after the opera’s first performance, it has become fashionable to dismiss Puccini’s music in general and La bohème in particular as emotionally-manipulative frivolity. The most recent performance of La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera was the company’s 1,263rd presentation of the opera, however, and this figure alone validates the continuing magnetism of Puccini’s score. In its purest essence, La bohème is opera at its most persuasive. Its melodies are those that audiences have hummed in spite of themselves for more than a century, and its characters are people, not archetypes; people whose fates matter whether or not it is acceptable to admit it.

Washington National Opera’s new production of La bohème by Jo Davies nods to recent trends of approaching opera from the perspective of cinema, casting the opera with attractive young singers who look as their characters are expected to look, but these pretty faces also offered well-sung, largely compellingly-acted portrayals of Puccini’s bohemians. Ms. Davies’s concept, Lee Savage’s sets, Jennifer Moeller’s costumes, and Bruno Poet’s lighting allowed Puccini’s score to work its magic, the imaginative details of the production never obscuring the wistful charm of the music, and Ben Wright’s choreography was vibrant and often genuinely funny without being condescending or foolish. The novelty of having dancers perform a tango at the Café Momus, followed by a waltz during Musetta’s aria, was delightful. The presence of a Chaplinesque figure in Act Two was slightly mystifying despite historical parallels, but the glimpses of Christmas Eve celebrants peering out of flats decorated with Christmas trees were charming. The stage tableaux were as visually stunning as those of the long-serving Franco Zeffirelli production at the Metropolitan Opera, but Washington National Opera’s production never distracted focus away from the principals as the Zeffirelli production does, especially in Act Two. The transformation of falling snow into spring blossoms cascading from the trees during ‘Addio senza rancor’ was a simple but strangely moving effect: the passage of time and the significance of its waning on Mimì’s and Rodolfo’s relationship were palpable. Both sets and costumes suggested the earnest efforts of struggling artists to make the best of what little they have. Despite their poverty, Puccini’s bohemians are basically happy people, after all. La bohème can survive a great deal of directorial tinkering, but the best productions are those that allow the drama to play out without striving to artificially universalize it. If an audience cannot relate to pinching pennies, recklessly blowing through an unexpected windfall, relationships tried by suffering, terminal illness, and the agony of saying final goodbyes, the failure is not Puccini’s. The greatest success of Ms. Davies’s vision is that, though unafraid of bold gestures, the production did not attempt to dictate why the audience should care about the people on stage: instead, it enabled those people to devote themselves to singing their parts memorably, and Puccini’s music provided all the relevance that was required.

Philippe Auguin led the WNO Orchestra in an uncommonly poetic account of Puccini’s score. Some of the conductor’s tempi were daringly slow, exemplified by his expansive pacing of the central cantabile section of ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì.’ The emotional concentration that he, the orchestra, and the cast summoned in this and similar passages fully justified his choices of speeds. The high string playing was not marred by excessive vibrato, and the woodwind playing was unusually prominent, with the dramatically vital clarinet writing particularly highlighted. The harp could always be heard, its harmonies lending plaintive qualities to even the most jovial of moments, and Maestro Auguin encouraged both instrumentalists and singers to follow Puccini’s markings with laudable fidelity. The variety of Puccini’s orchestrations is rarely as apparent as it was in this performance, and a few missteps in ensemble between stage and pit were unimportant on the whole. Notably, Maestro Auguin devoted close attention to the French influences on Puccini’s score, especially in the Impressionistic musical depictions of the bohemians’ pitiful fire and the romantic moonlight in Act One and the chilling dawn at the gates of Paris in Act Three. Occasionally, outpourings of emotion from the orchestra competed with the singers rather than supporting them, but Maestro Auguin was alert to the nuances of the soloists’ phrasing. Building on the strength of the orchestral execution of Puccini’s music, the stage band played wonderfully in Act Two, and a subtle but poignant detail of the production was the inclusion of wounded soldiers at the end of the procession, their limbs presumably sacrificed in the defense of France in World War I. The massive ensemble in Act Two was brought off thrillingly, the choristers convincing as holiday revelers, patrons of the Café Momus, and governesses annoyed by their charges’ begging for toys and goodies.

The anchor of the tenor section in the chorus in Washington Concert Opera’s recent performance of Bellini’s I Capuleti ed I Montecchi, Adam Caughey was a clarion-voiced Parpignol in Act Two of La bohème, delivering his exclamations of ‘Ecco i giocattoli di Parpignol!’ with brio. As the Sergente and Doganiere in Act Three, baritones James Shaffran and Andrew McLaughlin were appropriately stern of demeanor and strong of voice. It was surprising in a new production to see so many of the denizens of Ms. Davies’s Paris smoking cigarettes, but a recreation of WWI-era Paris without smokers would hardly be credible.

Many audiences must endure ridiculous antics and poor singing from the artist who performs the rôles of Benoît, the bohemians’ bumbling landlord in Act One, and Musetta’s deep-pocketed paramour in Act Two, Alcindoro. Italian basso buffo Donato DiStefano was a convincing cad who actually sang both parts rather than mugging and barking. Benoît’s ‘A lei ne vengo perchè il trimestre scorso mi promise’ in Act One and Alcindoro’s ‘Come un facchino correr di qua di là’ in Act Two were truly amusing. There is no doubt that both gentlemen have earned their comeuppance, but Mr. DiStefano made them atypically sympathetic.

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano Alyson Cambridge (center) as Musetta in Washington National Opera's new production of Puccini's LA BOHÈME, November 2014 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © 2014 by Washington National Opera]Quando m’en vo’: Alyson Cambridge (center) as Musetta in Washington National Opera’s new production of Puccini’s La bohème, November 2014 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © 2014 by Washington National Opera]

Depicting Schaunard as a matinée idol with uninhibited high spirits, baritone Steven LaBrie was as light on his feet as Errol Flynn and more handsome than the young Cary Grant. His entrance in Act One and narration of his good fortune in assisting an Englishman with his parrot problem, ‘La banca di Francia per voi si sbilancia,’ was great fun, but his annoyance at his friends’ neglect was noticeably sincere. All was forgiven, of course, and he went on to be slyly endearing in Act Two. In his entrance in Act Four, clad like a cross-dressing Norma Desmond, Mr. LaBrie’s Schaunard stole the show, but it was his interaction with the other bohemians and the dying Mimì that proved unforgettable. Hovering first at stage right and then at stage left, staring through the window at the rooftops of Paris, he could not bear to watch Mimì’s final moments, and when with his attempt to place her hands back into the muffler bought for her by Musetta he inadvertently discovered that Mimì was already dead the profundity of his sorrow swept through the theatre. Musically, every note that he sang was accurately-pitched and beautiful to hear, but Mr. LaBrie greatly enriched the performance by wearing Schaunard’s heart on his sleeve and making it obvious that the loss of Mimì was not solely Rodolfo’s tragedy. There was almost the sense that Schaunard’s was the greater pain, doubled by loving both Mimì and Rodolfo.

From Colline’s first line in Act One, Joshua Bloom’s firm, resonant singing was wonderful. His powerful declamation of ‘Già dell'Apocalisse appariscono i segni’ did not hide his abundant good humor, and he rose thrillingly to top F in unison with Marcello on ‘Abbasso, abbasso l'autor!’ He was the epitome of gruff philosophizing in Act Two, and his jocularity could not be disguised in his rough-housing with his friends in Act Four. Perhaps it was his tumble down the stairs in Act One that produced his limp and cane later in the opera, but Mr. Bloom’s Colline also seemed physically and emotionally aged in the opera’s final scenes. Mr. Bloom’s understated singing of ‘Vecchia zimarra, senti, io resto al pian, tua scendere il sacro monte or devi,’ a problematic spot in many productions, was a rare performance that justified the aria’s place in the opera and made dramatic sense: for the philosopher, whose mind is guided by logic, parting with a beloved tangible possession is symbolic of the loss of Mimì, a loss that his ordered conception of humanity cannot rationalize. Like Mr. LaBrie, Mr. Bloom created a character who was both an individual and an integral part of a true community and did so with singing of distinction.

With his mane of golden locks, John Chest was a boyish Marcello of irrepressible energy and vigor. His voicing of ‘Questo Mar Rosso mi ammollisce e assidera’ at the start of Act One was fantastically emphatic, and his untroubled ascent to the top F on ‘Faraon’ was pulse-quickening. Throughout the opera’s opening scenes, he sang with precision and acted with natural affability. When reunited with Musetta in Act Two, the spontaneous gaiety of Mr. Chest’s Marcello was changed in an instant to bitter impetuosity, but his best defenses proved no match for the wiles of this Musetta. His ardent reprise of the familiar theme of Musetta’s aria, ‘Gioventù mia, tu non sei morta,’ was fired into the house with the roar of a cannon. The physicality of his capitulation to Musetta left no doubt that, while Mimì’s and Rodolfo’s love was one of flowers and poems, his relationship with Musetta was defined by tantrums and burning passions. This contrasted meaningfully with his exchanges with Mimì at the beginning of Act Three: his tenderness was evidence of a deep affection, and there was surprising ferocity in his condemnation of Rodolfo’s jealousy and insincerity. When Rodolfo sang of Mimì’s illness, Mr. Chest’s Marcello seemed shocked to learn of her real condition, and the gentleness with which he comforted his friend was gripping. When Musetta’s laughter prompted the return of his tempestuousness, his anger was changed. Throwing his canvases at the tavern door after hurling insults at Musetta, the innocence of the happy-go-lucky Marcello of Act One was replaced by the insecurity of a young man who perceived that his world was deteriorating. Joining Rodolfo in Act Four in their pensive duet reminiscing about their absent lovers, Mr. Chest poured out a stream of dark, polished tone in ‘Io non so come sia che il mio pennello lavori.’ His forced joy was abandoned when Musetta brought news that the dying Mimì was too weak to climb the stairs to the garret, and he seemed lost in his own home as Mimì suffered before him. Mr. Chest’s singing of ‘Sei buona, o mia Musetta’ was unbearably lovely, and his pained utterance of ‘Coraggio’ was as much for himself as for Rodolfo. The machismo of the baritone’s portrayal of Marcello was tempered by a discernible vulnerability, and Mr. Chest brought to the rôle a voice of unyielding focus, evenness, and attractiveness.

Looking like a fusion of Josephine Baker and Vanessa Williams, native Washingtonian Alyson Cambridge was a vision of glamor as Musetta. Her easy top B♭ and admirably clean staccati served her well in Act Two, and she commanded the stage with unaffected star power. She phrased ’Quando me'n vo' soletta per la via la gente sosta e mia’ with aptly self-satisfied grandeur, her soaring top Bs slightly squally but secure. She was every inch a flirt, but there was no malice or cruelty in her dismissal of Alcindoro: footing the bill for the bohemians’ Christmas Eve feast was merely the price that he was expected to pay for having enjoyed her company. Though compelled to don a hat in Act Four that was more Grand Ole Opry than Grand Opera, Ms. Cambridge was again the embodiment of beyond-her-means fashion, but the facets of her acting were buffed to a bright glow in her selfless devotion to Mimì. Her prayer for her friend’s delivery from harm, ‘Madonna benedetta, fate la grazia a questa poveretta che non debba morire,’ was calmly and confidently sung—and made all the more tragic by its futility, Mimì having expired as Musetta’s voice lifted her plea to the Blessed Mother. Ms. Cambridge’s chic Musetta’s heartfelt embrace of the shattered, shabby Marcello as the curtain fell was one of the most touching actions in the performance. Ultimately, Ms. Cambridge was, both musically and dramatically, a legitimately ‘buona Musetta.’

After celebrating the Verdi Bicentennial with performances of that composer’s music in some of the world’s most important theatres, Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu returned to Puccini’s Rodolfo, a rôle that is virtually ideal for his lean, sunny lyric instrument and leading-man appearance. At once, his singing of ‘Nei cieli bigi guardo fumar dai mille comignoli Parigi' was filled with poetic wonder, his imagination burning with the heat that eluded his body. The pair of top As were negotiated with panache, and the surrender of Rodolfo’s manuscript to the flames was rousingly done, his rise to top B♭ on ‘fiamma’ exciting. He was pensive even in the horseplay with the other bohemians, and the lyricism of his singing of the andantino ‘Io resto per terminar l'articolo di fondo del Castoro’ was lovely. There was more than comedic feigned alarm in his singing of ‘Colline, sei morto?’ and a captivating suggestion of a sigh of relief when the ‘not yet’ reply came. The subtlety with which Mr. Pirgu exclaimed ‘Una donna!’ after hearing Mimì’s voice was fetching, and his unfettered enthusiasm in the business with the candles and mock search for the lost key lent his portrayal an engaging simplicity. In Rodolfo’s celebrated aria, ‘Che gelida manina, se la lasci riscaldar,’ Mr. Pirgu phrased with the elegance of a Tagliavini or Bergonzi and made light of the repeated assaults on his upper register. Here and in several other passages in the score, Maestro Auguin drove the orchestra to unrestrained dynamics that forced Mr. Pirgu to over-sing, and though his top notes were steady and accurately-pitched their quality was sometimes compromised by the necessity of producing them fortissimo. His phrasing was again a marvel in ‘O soave fanciulla, o dolce viso di mite circonfuso alba lunar in te,’ and the rise to the unison top A with Mimì was spectacular. The tranquil harmony of Puccini’s written ending to the duet is always to be preferred, but Mr. Pirgu’s top C was effective. Rodolfo can seem a prig in Act Two, cautioning Mimì that he would never tolerate coquettish behavior like Musetta’s, but the sweetness of Mr. Pirgu’s performance softened the sting of the text. It is unlikely that any Mimì could have failed to be beguiled by his singing of ‘Ho uno zio milionario,’ and the pride in his voicing of Rodolfo’s introduction of Mimì to his friends, ‘Questa è Mimì,’ was epitomized by his fervent delivery of the line ‘perchè son io il poeta essa la poesia.’ His interpolation of a top B in the ensemble coda of Musetta’s aria was further testimony to his amorous conviction. The ebullience of ‘Marcello. Finalmente!’ in Act Three quickly gave way to frustration in ‘Mimì è una civetta’ and then despair in ‘Invan, invan nascondo la mia vera tortura,’ his rise to top B♭ reflecting Rodolfo’s growing anguish. Mr. Pirgu’s Rodolfo seemed truly horrified to discern that Mimì overheard his admission to Marcello that she is dying. He began the great duet with Mimì as a man ashamed of his actions, and his serenity at the end of Act Three was darkened by his recognition of the fact that the days of his happiness were finitely numbered. In Act Four, his singing in the duet with Marcello, ‘O Mimì tu più non torni, o giorni bello,’ was loving, his and Mr. Chest’s voices blending appealingly. His heartbreak when reunited with the fading Mimì could not be hidden despite efforts at putting on a brave face for her sake. The greatest sadness of the performance was that Mimì died in the moment that Rodolfo turned away from her, overcome by emotion.   The weight of his love and grief lifted from her only for an instant, she quietly slipped away. His cry of ‘Che vuol dire quell'andare e venire...quel guardarmi così’ came from the soul of a man who knew the girl he loved was dying but was not ready to face her death. The top G♯s of his calling of Mimì’s name rang out with chilling force. The popularity of La bohème leads many listeners to the erroneous assumption that it is not a difficult opera to sing, but Rodolfo is a hugely demanding rôle for a thoughtful tenor. Mr. Pirgu possesses technique and reserves of vocal velvet sufficient to sail through Rodolfo’s music with relative ease, but his performance confirmed that he cares about his work, his colleagues, and the audience too much to coast. Most importantly, he was a Rodolfo whose every note resounded with love for Mimì and his friends, and the stage could not contain the intensity—or the beauty—of his sorrow.

Maryland native Corinne Winters is one of America’s most gifted young sopranos, and her singing of Mimì’s music offered tantalizing vistas of how her career promises to develop in seasons to come. The shyness of her opening ‘Scusi’ was prepossessing and set the tone for her performance as a whole. There was a disarming girlishness in her voicing of ‘Oh sventata, sventata! La chiave della stanza dove l'ho lasciata?’ that persisted in her broadly-phrased account of ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì ma il mio nome è Lucia.’ Her breath control was challenged by Maestro Auguin’s tempo in the aria, and, like Mr. Pirgu in his aria, she had to force in the ascent to the second of her climactic top As in order to be heard.  Both in her aria and in the subsequent duet with Rodolfo, coarseness occasionally crept into Ms. Winters’s tone, and though well-projected the top C at the duet’s end taxed her. In Act Two, her singing of ‘Una cuffietta a pizzi tutta rosa ricamata’ was alluring, her top A again a riveting tone. The demureness of her interactions with Rodolfo’s friends was absorbing, and she joined Musetta on the top line of the ensemble with unshakable security. The pallor of death was already in her voice when she sang ‘Sa dirmi, scusi, qual'è l'osteria dove un pittor lavora?’ at the start of Act Three, and the desperation of her ‘O buon Marcello, aiuto!’ was conveyed by her flights to the pair of top B♭s. The histrionic faculty of her voicing of ‘Donde lieta uscì al tuo grido d'amore’ was enhanced by the poise of her singing, and the gracefulness of her ‘Addio senza rancor’ was keenly emotive. Her chemistry with Mr. Pirgu was unmistakable, but her diminutive Mimì had rapport with all of her bohemian friends. There was a bizarre strength in her fragility in Act Four, her singing of ‘O mio Rodolfo! Mi vuoi qui con te?’ gleaming with distraught happiness and her dulcet ‘Buon giorno, Marcello, Schaunard, Colline, buon giorno’ seemingly intended to reassure her friends that all would be well. Her voice reduced to a thread, she serenaded Rodolfo with ‘Sono andati? Fingevo di dormire,’ remembering their first meeting in Act One with elation they both knew was fleeting. The bliss that Ms. Winters evinced in ‘La mia cuffietta,’ having realized that Rodolfo kept the hat that he bought her in Act Two, was wrenching. Even with the knell of death in her voice, she sought to comfort her lover and her friends, and the stillness of her passing was enormously affecting. Ms. Winters was not yet a perfect Mimì, but she exhibited refreshing respect for the rôle. She put moments of stress to use as affirmation of the ravages of Mimì’s illness—the mark of a skillful singer. Above all, she trusted Puccini’s music to sustain her. Placing her trust in Puccini, the audience trusted her, and she repaid that trust with a performance of delicacy and chaste tragic potency.

A new production of La bohème is rarely newsworthy, but Jo Davies’s production for Washington National Opera is a realization of initiatives and insights that mines the richest vein of Puccini’s timeless tragedy. As far too many recent productions have attested, however, initiatives and insights cannot compensate for ineffectual singing. In that respect, WNO’s Bohème is a triumph. Opera does not depend upon perfection: it depends upon zeal from those on the stage, in the orchestra pit, on the podium, behind the scenes, in the orchestra seats, and in the highest balcony. It is difficult to imagine anyone leaving the Kennedy Center after this performance not feeling devastated by the shared loss of a precious young girl and her embroidered flowers and rejuvenated by the future of an art form so mellifluously advocated by a cast of talented singers. If prevalent musicological opinion dictates that one should have been ashamed of shedding tears for these bohemians, conventions be damned.

IN PERFORMANCE: [from left to right] Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo, Corinne Winters as Mimì, Joshua Bloom as Colline, Steven LaBrie as Schaunard, and John Chest as Marcello in Washington National Opera's new production of Puccini's LA BOHÈME, November 2014 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © 2014 by Washington National Opera]La commedia è stupenda: (from left to right) Saimir Pirgu as Rodolfo, Corinne Winters as Mimì, Joshua Bloom as Colline, Steven LaBrie as Schaunard, and John Chest as Marcello in Act Two of Washington National Opera's new production of Puccini's La bohème, November 2014 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © 2014 by Washington National Opera]