30 April 2015

CD REVIEW: AGRIPPINA – Baroque Opera Arias (Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano; deutsche harmonia mundi 88875055982)

CD REVIEW: AGRIPPINA - Baroque Opera Arias (deutsche harmonia mundi 88875055982)CARL HEINRICH GRAUN (1704 – 1759), GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759), GIOVANNI BATTISTA LEGRENZI (1626 – 1690), PAOLO GIUSEPPE MAGNI (circa 1650 – 1737), JOHANN MATTHESON (1681 – 1764), GIUSEPPE MARIA ORLANDINI (1676 – 1760), GIACOMO ANTONIO PERTI (1661 – 1756), NICOLA ANTONIO PORPORA (1686 – 1768), GIOVANNI BATTISTA SAMMARTINI (1701 – 1775), and GEORG PHILIPP TELEMANN (1681 – 1767): Agrippina – Baroque Opera AriasAnn Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano; Il Pomo d’Oro; Riccardo Minasi, conductor [Recorded in the Orangerie of Kasteel ‘s-Gravenwezel, ‘s-Gravenwezel, Belgium, April – May 2013; deutsche harmonia mundi 88875055982; 1 CD, 74:54; Available from Amazon, fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

If the anecdotes preserved in the writings of Romans of the ilk of Pliny the Elder and Tacitus are to be believed, the historical Agrippina the Younger, also known as Agrippinilla, was perhaps​ even more​ duplicitous than her most famous operatic incarnation as the title character in Georg Friedrich Händel’s Agrippina. To the Twenty-First-Century observer, it might seem remarkable that the libretto for Händel’s tale of the scheming machinations of Agrippina was penned by a cleric, but Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani—who, in addition to his archiepiscopal and poetic duties, owned the theatre in which Händel’s Agrippina premièred—was a politicized prelate with much to say about his ecclesiastical and worldly adversaries. In that regard, he was the perfect man for the job of crafting a libretto about one of the most powerful women in the annals of imperial Rome. It is hardly surprising that history should attribute a litany of nefarious deeds to the mother of Nero: how might such a son have been the issue of any but a venomous mother? Furthermore, she was the sister of Caligula, with whose reign modern observers equate every imaginable debauchery—and with whom, true to the spirit of his court, she was alleged to have had incestuous relations. It is unlikely that almost any historical figure about whom contemporary evidence is sparse was either as good or as evil as commentators would have her or him to be, but there is sufficient evidence to support the notion that Agrippina was a woman of cunning, conniving, and intellectual guerrilla warfare. That she plotted to ensure that her son Nero would become emperor upon the death of her fourth husband, the emperor Claudius, is virtually certain, though the suggestion that she poisoned Claudius was based upon fantasy more than fact. Exhibiting strangely modern sensibilities, she is known to have increased her visibility and gained support among the Roman populace by writing a widely-read book about the tribulations that she endured. As empress, she wielded enormous power, Claudius elevating her not to importance secondary to his own but to equal status. From a Twenty-First-Century perspective, it seems inevitable that personalities as flamboyant as Agrippina’s and Nero’s would come into conflict. It is likely that Nero, whose reign as emperor she ultimately conspired to end, had a hand in her death. Hers was an operatic life, and composers and librettists in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries recognized the potential of such a woman to exercise upon the stage a measure of the authority that she possessed in life. Nearly two thousand years after Agrippina’s death in AD 59, enter phenomenal Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg. Temperamentally, the baser elements of Agrippina’s character could not be more foreign to this wonderful lady, but as a creature of the stage she can spew venom like a threatened cobra. More importantly, she possesses the technical prowess, the stylistic affinity, and the vocal resources needed to sing Baroque repertory authoritatively.​ Even in portraying characters as morally corrupt as Händel’s Agrippina, she invests her portrayals with veins of free-flowing humanity. After all, what is more dangerous than a stunningly attractive, charming villainess?

Magnificently accompanied on her journey through the musical legacies of no fewer than three ladies who bore the name Agrippina by the period-instrument ensemble ​Il Pomo d'Oro and Riccardo Minasi, Ms. Hallenberg, an artist of uncompromising integrity, has never sounded better on disc. Her voice, equally comfortable in Baroque repertory, Rossini, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, or any music to which she dedicates her awe-inspiring powers of musical concentration and communication, makes of the most throat-stressing challenges among the arias on Agrippina expressions of timeless emotions. She and her husband, musicologist Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg, are a musical team par excellence. In addition to understanding the capabilities of her voice, Mr. Schmitt-Hallenberg knows every element of his wife’s stage comportment. Together, they find music that aligns ideally with Ms. Hallenberg’s prodigious gifts. The selections on Agrippina are anything but safe, comfortable vocal territory for any singer, but this artist approaches them with confidence that never deserts her, no matter how fiendish the bravura writing. Maestro Minassi is not just a willing collaborator but an enthusiastic co-conspirator in this exhumation of the incorruptible corpses of musical Agrippinas, pacing each selection with attention to music, text, and Ms. Hallenberg’s formidable breath control. In both individual obbligati and ensemble, the virtuosi of Il Pomo d'Oro contribute far more than accompaniment to the dramatic profile of each aria, their phrasing matched to the singer’s with flawless precision. To the credit of everyone involved, each number in succession has its own atmosphere in which a very specific portrait is created.

First performed in 1676, Giovanni Legrenzi’s Germanico sul reno is the earliest score sampled on this enlightening disc, but the Agrippina represented in Legrenzi’s opera is not Händel’s femme fatale but Julia Agrippina, sometimes styled Agrippina the Elder, the wife of the prominent Roman general Germanicus and the mother of Emperor Caligula and the infamous Agrippina. Reportedly a woman of great virtue whose marriage was a happy one, Julia Agrippina’s example was seemingly ignored by her most upwardly-mobile pair of offspring. Ms. Hallenberg sings the aria ‘O soavi tormenti dell'alma’ with ravishingly lovely tone and poise worthy of a Roman lady of exalted birth. Few singers before the public today can equal Ms. Hallenberg’s phrasing, which she puts to profoundly expressive use in this music. Dating from 1692, Giacomo Antonio Perti’s Nerone fatto Cesare is also a transitional work of the generation that linked the Early Baroque of Cavalli and his contemporaries to the more familiar operas of Händel and Vivaldi. Hearing the arias from Nerone fatto Cesare included on this disc awakens curiosity about the composer’s still-undiscovered scores. The impassioned ‘Date all'armi, o spirti fieri!’ receives from Ms. Hallenberg a performance of unrelenting intensity, the solidity of tone conveying a captivating singularity of dramatic purpose. Relegated to a ‘bonus track’ after it was discovered in manuscript sources that it was originally sung not by Agrippina but by Tigrane, ‘Questo brando, questo folgore’ partners the mezzo-soprano’s tornadic singing with a masterfully-played violin obbligato to dazzling effect. Ms. Hallenberg slices through the music with vocal swordplay, the rhythmic sharpness of her singing gratifyingly unperturbed from first note to last and her ornamentation exciting but flawlessly tasteful.

Not least because of his tutelage of Caffarelli and Farinelli, two of the most acclaimed castrati of the first half of the Eighteenth Century, Nicola Antonio Porpora was among the most influential musicians of his generation. He is now perhaps better remembered as a pedagogue than as a composer, though espousal of his music by several notable singers has increased the visibility of his operas and cantatas in recent years. Composed for Naples in 1708, L'Agrippina was Porpora’s first opera, and a more persuasive advocate for its revival than Ms. Hallenberg cannot be imagined. Porpora, too, depicted Julia Agrippina, and this lady could hope for no more sensitive musical tribute than ‘Mormorando anch'io ruscello.’ Ms. Hallenberg sings the piece exquisitely, the lilting melodic line caressed by her warm-brandy timbre. The contrast with the concentrated feeling of ‘Con troppo fieri immagini’ is immediately apparent, but Ms. Hallenberg sings both arias with panache. In his 1704 Leipzig opera Germanicus, Georg Philipp Telemann also set his sights on the virtuous Julia Agrippina, and the aria ‘Rimembranza crudel’ from his 1710 adaptation of the score provides the character with a powerful scene of doubt and regret. Ms. Hallenberg is here aided exceptionally by Il Pomo d'Oro and Maestro Minassi, the strings driving the music without jeopardizing the forthrightness of her phrasing.

‘Tutta furie e tutta sdegno’ from Giuseppe Maria Orlandini’s 1721 Nerone is an eruption of rage of which Mozart’s Königin der Nacht would be proud, and Ms. Hallenberg’s singing of the aria is a bravura tour de force that any coloratura soprano would gladly claim as her own. The sheer brilliance of her negotiations of the divisions, not only in Orlandini’s music but in all of the arias on this disc, is incredibly impressive. The success of the Venetian première of Orlandini’s Nerone was considerable enough to prompt Johann Mattheson to produce his own adaptation of the opera, styled Nero, in Hamburg in 1723. Exercising almost total control of operatic life in Hamburg, where the dominance of star castrati never took hold, Mattheson frequently produced editions of other composers’ scores, often with newly-composed music of his own creation. The aria ‘Già tutto valore’ was written for his Nero, and Ms. Hallenberg’s performance of it reveals the breadth of Mattheson’s ingenuity. Hers is the sort of artistry that is always at the service of the music, and even the sentimental largesse of ‘Già tutto valore’ receives from her a traversal in which technical acumen combines with an attractive suggestion of emotional vulnerability.

Georg Friedrich Hä​ndel’s Agrippina (HWV 6), premièred in Venice in 1709, is one of the young composer’s most intriguing concoctions, its profusion of relatively brief arias in the Venetian style virtually unique in his operas: only in Serse and Teseo is material of such brevity employed with equal impact. Ms. Hallenberg cites singing Händel’s Agrippina as one of her favorite musical experiences, and her performances of three of the character’s arias on this disc leave no doubt about the sincerity of her assertion. The poignant lines of ‘Pensieri, voi mi tormentate’ are sung with boundless eloquence and imagination, and the imagery of ‘Ogni vento ch'al porto lo spinga’ is vividly conveyed by Ms. Hallenberg’s idiomatic diction. Her singing of the incendiary ‘L'alma mia fra le tempeste’ is one of the pinnacles of the disc: hearing the music sung as Ms. Hallenberg sings it, it is apparent that it is not just Händel’s greater fame that makes his Agrippina the best-known of the operatic portraits excerpted here.

Paolo Giuseppe Magni’s 1703 reworking of Perti’s Nerone fatto Cesare, entitled Agrippina, madre di Nerone, produced another setting of the electrifying ‘Date all'armi o spirti fieri!’ Ms. Hallenberg sings this version no less expertly than Perti’s, her delivery of fiorature astonishingly precise but never mechanical. It was Vipsania Agrippina, the wife of Tiberius, who inspired Giovanni Battista Sammartini’s Agrippina, moglie di Tiberio, premièred in Milan in 1743, and her ‘Non ho più vele, non ho più sarte’ is impeccably sung by Ms. Hallenberg, whose subsequent account of ‘Deh, lasciami in pace’ is a glowingly heartfelt plea rather than a one-dimensional operatic gesture.

Carl Heinrich Graun’s 1751 Britannico is perhaps the most ‘modern’ of the scores revived for Agrippina, its gallant style spanning the divide between late Baroque and the Viennese Classicism of Haydn, Salieri, and Mozart—a divide populated by a generation of composers whose music is still far too inadequately explored. The aria ‘Se la mia vita, o figlio’ is a wonderful piece, its nuances highlighted by Ms. Hallenberg’s imaginative, aristocratically-phrased singing. Even this pales in comparison with her take-no-prisoners performance of ‘Mi paventi il figlio indegno,’ quite simply one of the most demanding arias composed in the Eighteenth Century—one so extraordinary that it survived well into the Nineteenth Century in the repertory of Pauline Viardot. The braying horn parts are played raucously by Il Pomo d'Oro’s skilled musicians, but not even their musical wizardry distracts from Ms. Hallenberg’s spirited singing. A performance as confident as this one is achieved only with meticulous study and rehearsal, but the spontaneity of her singing disguises her fastidious preparation. Not one roulade, trill, or interval flusters her. In the history of sound recording, there are some few performances that are rightly considered legendary: among the classic recordings of Claudia Muzio, Rosa Ponselle, Conchita Supervía, Kirsten Flagstad, and Giulietta Simionato, Ms. Hallenberg’s interpretation of ‘Mi paventi il figlio indegno’ is destined for immortality.

Surveying the history of recorded ventures similar to Agrippina limns a cautionary tale of the uncertain interactions of ambition, ego, and musicality. The guiding spirit of a disc of this nature should always be—but so rarely is—the marriage of music with the unique qualities of an individual artist. Too often, projects are founded upon what an artist can gain rather than what she can give. In the sixteen arias on Agrippina, Ann Hallenberg gives very generously. The gifts that she shares with listeners are those of musical discovery, mind-boggling technical daring, and the pleasure of hearing a great voice in its prime. In truth, though, the greatest demonstration of technique will be forgotten if it is not borne upon a tide of beauty. Above all, Agrippina is a surpassingly beautiful disc.

26 April 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: J.S. Bach, G.F. Händel, J.-P. Rameau, & D. Scarlatti – HARPSICHORD RECITAL by JORY VINIKOUR (Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; 25 April 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Harpsichordist JORY VINIKOUR (Photo by Hermman Rosso, © by Jory Vinikour)Harpsichord Hero: Harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour, recitalist in Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, 25 April 2015 [Photo by Hermman Rosso, © by Jory Vinikour]

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750), GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759), JEAN-PHILIPPE RAMEAU (1683 – 1764), and DOMENICO SCARLATTI (1685 – 1757): Music for HarpsichordJory Vinikour, harpsichord [Coolidge Auditorium, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Saturday, 25 April 2015]

There is something magical about the infrequent unions of great music, great musicians, and great spaces. These marvels of musical serendipity are sometimes far from the eyes and ears of spectators, as it surely was when Bach sequestered himself in the Thomaskirche organ loft and played his music solely for God’s ears. More often, these events are all the more extraordinary for playing out before astonished audiences, some of whom do not appreciate in the moment the significance of what they are witnessing. Imagine seeing the deaf Beethoven presiding over the 1824 première of his Ninth Symphony in Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor or Geraldine Farrar portraying the despondent nun in the first performance of Puccini’s Suor Angelica at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918. To those who love Baroque repertory, internationally-renowned harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour’s début at the Library of Congress with a recital of music by Bach and Händel, plus encores by Rameau and Domenico Scarlatti, was such an occasion. Born in Chicago but long resident in France, this exceptionally gifted artist is now devoting more time to his native country, where, despite recent engagements with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Haymarket Opera, Pegasus Early Music, and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, his work remains far too infrequently heard and inconsistently appreciated. This marvelous Library of Congress recital, very warmly received by the capacity audience, and a Carnegie Hall performance in December should do much to rectify this neglect of one of America’s artistic treasures. Playing such as Mr. Vinikour achieved in the Library of Congress’s Coolidge Auditorium is rare on any instrument and in any context: at his fingertips, three centuries no longer separated masterpieces of the Baroque from today’s listeners.

In the Eighteenth Century, Georg Friedrich Händel’s eight suites of pieces for harpsichord published in 1720 were justifiably regarded as some of the most important works for the instrument. Not surprisingly, the suites fell into neglect in the second half of the century, as the harpsichord increasingly became a fugitive from obsoleteness hiding in the orchestra pits of Europe’s opera houses, but revival of interest in Baroque repertory in the second half of the Twentieth Century restored to the suites a measure of their original prestige. Mr. Vinikour is a model of all that is right with the historically-informed performance practice movement. His technique is centered in fingering and phrasing appropriate to the instruments of the early Eighteenth Century and the music written for them, but in this performance the music never sounded as though it was extracted from a dusty tome found in some dark recess of the Library’s collection. Perhaps his extensive work with singers—he travelled to Washington for this recital in a brief respite from his participation in the Salzburg Whitsun Festival production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride with Cecilia Bartoli—contributes to his unerring projection of principal subjects even in the most complex contrapuntal music. Opening his recital with Händel’s Suite in A major (HWV 426), Mr. Vinikour immediately provided evidence of his prowess both for playing such technically-demanding music and for exposing the full spectrum of the timbral and dynamic possibilities of the instrument at his disposal, in this case a beautiful—and beautiful-sounding—double-manual harpsichord built by Thomas and Barbara Wolf in the style of a 1738 instrument by Christian Vater. [In the interest of full disclosure, it should be admitted that Mr. Vinikour’s performance of HWV 426 was observed via video feed from the auditorium, snarled traffic in northern Virginia regrettably having delayed the author’s arrival.] The Prä​ludium was played with care for its sharply-defined rhythms and taut harmonies, and the vivid Allemande received from Mr. Vinikour a traversal that accentuates its quirky charm—perhaps Germans of Händel’s time were rather livelier than they are given credit for having been. The stately Courante was phrased with considerable eloquence, the principal theme finessed with unforced grace. The formidable strength of Mr. Vinikour’s left hand provided a firm foundation for the Gigue​​, upon which an ornate but substantial edifice was built from the raw materials provided by Händel.

Not solely because of its key, the Suite in ​F-​sharp minor (HWV 431​) is a darker, more nuanced work than the A-major Suite. The Präludium would not sound out of place in several of Händel’s London operas: played by Mr. Vinikour, it was a mercurial, stirring number that exploited the wonderful evenness of tone throughout the instrument’s compass. No emotional subtext was forced onto the Largo, the sentiments already in the music allowed to make their own effects without interference. This was also true of the fugal Allegro, its divisions delivered with awe-inspiring ease. Like that of HWV 426, the Gigue of HWV 431 is an aptly impressive finale to the Suite, and Mr. Vinikour played it commandingly. Unfeigned connection with the music at hand is ever a telltale hallmark of Mr. Vinikour’s artistry, and the expressivity that he manifested in Händel’s music—often unaccountably deemed superficial, particularly when compared with Bach’s works for the keyboard—held the audience in unusually respectful silence as he played.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s grandiloquent ​Ouvertüre nach Franzö​sischer Art in B minor (BWV 831) is the composer’s longest piece for the keyboard, one specially-crafted to take advantage of the full panoply of capabilities of the double-manual harpsichord—and, indeed, of the harpsichordist. Playing the complete recital from memory, Mr. Vinikour took all repeats in the Ouvertüre except for that of the 6/8 fugue in the first of the piece’s eleven movements. Opening with an expansively-phrased account of the Overture and Fugue, he paced a performance of the work that was remarkable for both its abiding cohesiveness and the differentiation of the distinctive moods and rhythms of each successive movement. The ​Courante revealed unexpected depths of emotion in Mr. Vinikour’s hands, and the pairs of both Gavottes and Passepieds were played with uniquely complementary energy and subtlety. The sentimental heart of the Ouvertüre, the Sarabande, both glowingly romantic and intriguingly melancholic, was shaped with incredible fluidity, the elasticity of the melodic line belying the rhythmic precision of the playing. The Bourrées and Gigue danced from Mr. Vinikour’s fingers with infectious brio. The ingenuity of the Echo drew from the poet at the keyboard playing of equal wit, the opulent timbre of the harpsichord making Bach’s invention more obvious than in many performances of the piece. Perhaps the greatest pleasure of hearing Mr. Vinikour play Bach, whether on his own or in ensemble, is discerning the depth of feeling that he devotes to performances of the composer’s music: stylish as his playing is, there is nothing academic or pedantic in his approach to Bach’s scores.

Mr. Vinikour offered as encores Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D major (K96) and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s A-minor Gavotte with Six Doubles. The martial spirit of Scarlatti’s celebrated Allegrissimo Sonata was rousingly evoked by Mr. Vinikour’s powerful delivery of the fanfare-like figurations, and metronomes could be calibrated by comparison with his trills. His cross-hand technique, recreating the ‘trois mains’ of Eighteenth-Century playing, was a marvel throughout the recital. Influenced, as was Bach’s Ouvertüre, by the harpsichord works of François Couperin, Rameau’s Gavotte and variations provided Mr. Vinikour with a vehicle for a barnstorming finale to his recital. Rameau’s pyrotechnics were ignited with consummate authority and apparent enjoyment.

There were a few missed notes in the course of the recital, it is true, and a handful of passages in which Mr. Vinikour’s concentration seemed momentarily disturbed. There are many, many more mistakes in the famous radio recordings of Richard Strauss Lieder in which the composer himself accompanied sings such as Anton Demota, Hilde Konetzni, and Maria Reining, but do these flaws lessen the importance of the performances? The conscientious artist expects perfection of himself, but the great artist gives to every performance the kinds of passion and abandon that are the natural enemies of clinical perfection. Some of Maria Callas’s most beautiful performances of Tosca’s ‘Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore’ were those in which the top B♭ wobbled perilously. She was an artist who truly lived for her art, however. Jory Vinikour is another. This was a recital in which the music of Bach, Händel, Rameau, and Domenico Scarlatti came to life like figures stepping out of a painting before the audiences’ eyes. Amidst a lifetime of unimaginative, artificial, insignificant perfection, this was the sort of recital that a listener never forgets.

25 April 2015

CD REVIEW: Sergei Rachmaninov – PIANO CONCERTI NOS. 2 & 3 (Stewart Goodyear, piano; Steinway & Sons Steinway30047)

CD REVIEW: Sergei Rachmaninov - PIANO CONCERTI NOS. 2 & 3 (Steinway & Sons Steinway30047)SERGEI RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943): Piano Concerti No. 2 in C minor (Opus 18) and No. 3 in D minor (Opus 30)—Stewart Goodyear, piano; Czech National Symphony; Heiko Mathias Förster, conductor [Recorded at CNSO Studio No. 1, Prague, Czech Republic, 15 – 18 October 2014; Steinway & Sons Steinway30047; 1 CD, 76:06; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnlineHD, and major music retailers]

Whether one is a pianist or a poet, practitioner or pretender, it is easier to concur with the allegations that the significance of Classical Music in the still-new century is undermined by a lack of significant artists than to prove them wrong. Perhaps this also seemed true of his own time to Sergei Rachmaninov, whose career as a pianist and composer spanned an era of unprecedented cultural and social transition and upheaval. Born in 1873 into the class of gentry that would be all but annihilated by the political turmoil that gripped Russia during the final decades of the Romanov dynasty, Rachmaninov was himself the inheritor of an imperiled artistic lineage. In an environment in which musical conversation was increasingly dominated by atonality, his mother tongue was unabashed Romanticism, an idiom to which he clung not as a safety net but as a source of inspiration and direct connection with traditions extending back to Haydn and Mozart. Like Brahms, Rachmaninov was inspired rather than confined by the legacies of his musical predecessors, and the importance of his Piano Concerti to the grand tradition of the Romantic concerto is tremendous. With acclaimed recordings of music by Beethoven, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky already to his credit, Canadian-born pianist Stewart Goodyear also communicates in the language of Romanticism with fluency that Rachmaninov could have appreciated. It is hardly remarkable that a gifted young pianist should play Rachmaninov’s concerti, but the performances of the Second and Third Concerti recorded by Mr. Goodyear for Steinway and Sons are exceptional for an artist of any age. Many pianists, especially younger ones, find in Rachmaninov’s concerti vehicles for the sort of empty virtuosic posturing that inspires the suggestions of Classical Music’s eroding significance. At its core, this disc preserves conversations between two artists, composer and pianist, not about the ways in which musical tastes evolve but about the fact that the interactions among great music and great musicians are virtually unchanged since man first committed music notes to paper.

This disc is the culmination of a long period of intensive study in which Mr. Goodyear clearly approached these concerti both with the traditions of pianists like Vladimir Horowitz and Van Cliburn in mind and from a completely fresh, individual perspective. In part, Mr. Goodyear’s playing in general combines Horowitz’s sensitivity and noble phrasing with Cliburn’s explosive power, but the performances on this disc confirm that he is very much his own artist. Nothing in his interpretations of these concerti is borrowed from great performances or recordings of past generations, but there is much that pianists of the future could learn from Mr. Goodyear’s playing as recorded here. Playing a Hamburg Steinway Model C and recorded with near-ideal clarity and balance by producer Keith Horner and engineer Jan Kotzmann, this gifted young artist makes the music of Rachmaninov his own without ever making the performances more about himself than about the composer.

Written between autumn 1900 and April 1901 and premièred in complete form with the composer at the keyboard in November 1901, Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor (Opus 18) is among Rachmaninov’s most familiar works though the composer himself deemed it a difficult, troubled piece. In his Piano Concerti, Rachmaninov adhered at least in most basic construction to the sonata form that had been the skeletal foundation for concerti since the pioneering efforts of Haydn and Mozart, but Mr. Goodyear’s imaginative yet astonishingly precise playing illuminates the ways in which Rachmaninov manipulated structures, harmonic progressions, and thematic development in distinct demonstrations of imagination. Under the direction of conductor Heiko Mathias Förster, the musicians of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra play capably, the rich string timbre matched by sonorous wind playing with little of the tartness familiar from many vintage recordings by Eastern European ensembles. In the opening Moderato movement, Mr. Goodyear and the Symphony musicians seem to actually listen to one another, their shaping of key phrases conspicuously symmetrical. The Adagio sostenuto second movement is very eloquently done, both pianist and conductor limning the significance of the Più animato transition from C minor to E major and the critical recapitulation of the movement’s principal theme. Mr. Goodyear emphasizes the cumulative impact of the music rather than focusing on particular details and thereby risking distortion of the composer’s meticulously-conceived musical architecture. Intelligent negotiation of the modulations from E major to the root C minor and then to the terminal C major is integral to Mr. Goodyear’s playing of the Allegro scherzando final movement. He eschews none of the music’s latent Indian-summer Romanticism, but the abiding sensibility is a very modern one. Though lacking nothing in energy or primal brawn, Mr. Goodyear’s playing of the Allegro scherzando is characterized by an avoidance of cheap posturing. Textures are kept lean even when the music it at its most robust, revealing Rachmaninov’s very logical solutions to musical problems—solutions that in many performances are hidden beneath waves of egotistical pounding of the keys.

Popularized beyond the ranks of Classical Music enthusiasts by the 1996 feature film Shine, which used it prominently in depicting Australian pianist David Helfgott's struggles, the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor (Opus 30) was completed in 1909. Rachmaninov dedicated the Concerto to the celebrated pianist Josef Hofmann, who never attained a level of comfort with the piece that would have enabled him to perform it publicly. The Concerto was premièred in New York with the composer at the piano and Walter Damrosch on the podium and was later conducted, much to Rachmaninov's satisfaction, by Gustav Mahler. The monumental scale of the music that likely contributed to Mahler’s appreciation and mastery of it seems also to inspire Mr. Goodyear, who plays the epic score with the eagerness of a youngster playing it for the first time and the confidence of a veteran who has played it a hundred times before. The grand diatonic subject of the opening Allegro ma non tanto movement is sculpted with tremendous surety of rhythm, and Maestro Förster and the orchestra exchange ideas with Mr. Goodyear with rousing musicality. The pianist employs Rachmaninov’s first, chordal ossia cadenza and delivers it with perfectly-timed aplomb. The central Intermezzo: Adagio movement, bridging a modulation from F-sharp minor to D-flat major, is one of Rachmaninov’s most radiantly beautiful creations, and Mr. Goodyear plays it not as a languorous, sentimental tour de force but as a profoundly personal, poignant exploration of musical light and shadows. Maestro Förster maintains a consistent level of tension in the orchestra, preparing climaxes that are resolved by Mr. Goodyear’s entrancingly poetic cadences. If the Concerto’s second movement is some of Rachmaninov’s most soulful music, the third movement—Finale: Alla breve—is some of his most exuberantly virtuosic. The pianist’s technique is here at its most dizzying, his playing of the grandiose chords and melodic figurations distinguished by assured navigation of the difficult intervals. As with similar metamorphoses in the preceding movements, the transition from D minor to D major in the Finale receives deft handling from both Mr. Goodyear and Maestro Förster. Duplicating the gesture in the final movement of the Second Concerto, Rachmaninov’s unique four-note musical signature is integrated into the closing of the Third Concerto: this performance discloses its presence without over-accentuating it. Most refreshingly, Mr. Goodyear does not play these Concerti as tired warhorses that require suitably martial pomposity or as stepping stones along a young musicians path to the pianistic Pantheon. Rather, he plays them with the affection of a communicative, open-hearted pianist who has gotten to know these scores through fastidious examination and now considers them friends.

William Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 116 that ‘Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds,’ and this sentiment is especially appropriate to music. Too many musicians pervert the necessity of finding one’s own way of interpreting pieces into an excuse for wrong-headed forays into idiosyncratic execution that push listeners away from composers and their scores rather than being the catalyst for their fusion. Ultimately, great works of art need only to be seen or heard, and these performances by Stewart Goodyear allow the listener to hear Sergei Rachmaninov’s Second and Third Piano Concerti without distractions. He reminds the listener that an accomplished pianist can wrap his heart, mind, and fingers around any score, but only an accomplished artist trusts himself and the music enough to allow composers’ voices to sing through his own.

24 April 2015

CD REVIEW: Hugh Wood – WILD CYCLAMEN (C. McCaldin, J. Gilchrist, R. Williams; I. Burnside, S. Lepper; NMC Recordings NMC D201)

CD REVIEW: Hugh Wood - WILD CYCLAMEN (NMC Recordings NMC D201)HUGH WOOD (born 1932): Wild Cyclamen – Art SongsClare McCaldin, soprano; James Gilchrist, tenor; Roderick Williams, baritone; Iain Burnside and Simon Lepper, piano [Recorded at Michael Tippett Centre, Bath Spa University, UK, on 8 February 2014 (The Isles of Greece), and All Saints Church, East Finchley, London, UK, on 17 June 2014 (Laurie Lee Songs) and 17 – 18 November 2014 (DH Lawrence Songs and Wild Cyclamen); NMC Recordings NMC D201; 1 CD, 63:48; Available from NMC Recordings, Amazon (USA), Amazon (UK), jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Any admirer of Art Song, whether within or beyond England’s borders, who is not familiar with the songs of Hugh Wood does himself, the composer, and the genre he claims to appreciate a gross disservice. Born in Lancashire in 1932 and educated in the art of composition by luminaries including William Lloyd Webber—whose own songs are woefully neglected, particularly in the United States—and Iain Hamilton, Wood is in many ways the quintessential British composer: gifted, raised in a musical household, and impeccably trained, he seems to have fulfilled an inevitable destiny. There is nothing ordinary or expected in the sixty-four minutes of Wild Cyclamen, this latest treasure from NMC Recordings, however. Representing a wide swath of Wood’s compositional career, the songs on Wild Cyclamen disclose the voice of a creative spirit clearly acquainted with the songs of Finzi, Quilter, Britten, and Tippett, influenced and perhaps even inspired by them, but compellingly individual. These are songs by a composer with profound understanding of and response to words: in the best of the songs offered here, the texts are set not syllabically but conceptually—indeed, often sensually, the relationships among words and music throbbing with intimacy and the sort of connection that transcends conventional modes of communication. In its purest form, song is the medium via which composers, performers, and listeners can converse in language too delicate for handling except in music. Hugh Wood’s songs are that medium, and what wondrous things they say in the performances on this disc!

In her singing of the Laurie Lee Songs, composed between 1956 and 1958 whilst Wood was studying with Hamilton and Mátyás Seiber, mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin allies a strong, luxurious timbre and an incredible upper register that would be the envy of many dramatic sopranos with an accomplished actress’s sensitivity to both the sounds and the significance of words. Accompanied with ideal musical and interpretive synchronicity by Iain Burnside, she establishes unique moods in each song with an economy of means: not one phrase is sung with accents bolder than the music allows. She and Mr. Burnside distill the drama of ‘Boy in Ice’ into an exceptionally potent elixir, the intoxicating spirit of which is drawn from the text. The ethos of ‘The Edge of Day’ is unexpectedly enigmatic, and Ms. McCaldin uses her upper register as an interpretive device by punctuating her carefully-formed phrases with notes at the top of the staff that articulate the elevating sentiments of both music and text. The influence of Stravinsky permeates ‘The Easter Green,’ which Ms. McCaldin and Mr. Burnside approach with unbreakable concentration. The deceptive simplicity of ‘Town Owl’ is strangely unsettling, particularly when the vocal line is delivered as enchantingly as Ms. McCaldin sings it, and her account of ‘April Rise’ mines the expressivity of the composer’s diatonic structure of the song. Ms. McCaldin sang the Laurie Lee Songs in recital in the Royal Opera House’s Crush Room in 2013, and her experience with them is evident in her definitive performances on this disc. Stridency and a very slight loosening of the vibrato fleetingly affect her singing as recorded here, but neither her musicality nor the integrity of her profitable partnership with Mr. Burnside is compromised.

The DH Lawrence Songs, published in 1998 but the fruits of many years’ labors, receive from tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Simon Lepper performances of unhesitating attack and splendid imagination. As he is among the most successful Evangelists in Bach’s Passions of his and any generation, it is not surprising that Mr. Gilchrist exhibits such unshakable confidence in the high tessitura of Wood’s music, nor is the unaffected clarity with which he sings English texts unexpected. He and Mr. Lepper collaborate on an insightful account of the jarring ‘Dog-tired,’ which they follow with ardent, touching performances of ‘Kisses in the Train’ and ‘Roses on the breakfast table,’ two of Lawrence’s most evocative texts. The histrionic power of Mr. Gilchrist’s singing of ‘Gloire de Dijon’ is echoed by the unpretentious mastery of Mr. Lepper’s playing, though here and in isolated passages in other songs—and in his performance of Wild Cyclamen—the tenor’s emphatic singing occasionally threatens to overwhelm the music. The poetic grace that radiates from his shaping of ‘River Roses,’ supported by Mr. Lepper’s playing, is very effective, however, both singer and pianist phrasing with unsentimental expressivity.

Every opportunity to hear the fantastic voice of baritone Roderick Williams is a gift, but his singing of the five songs of Wood’s The Isles of Greece on this disc is truly extraordinary. One can only imagine hearing Vogl sing Schubert Lieder or experiencing the magic that Giuditta Pasta brought to the rôles composed for her by Bellini and Donizetti, but NMC’s endeavor here allows an opportunity to enjoy an equal pleasure, that of hearing Mr. Williams sing music by a living composer for which his voice is as perfectly-suited as Vogl’s and Pasta’s must have been for Winterreise and Norma. As he was for Ms. McCaldin in the Laurie Lee settings, Mr. Burnside is an ideal partner for Mr. Williams’s traversal of The Isles of Greece. Both gentlemen give to their performances of ‘Delos,’ ‘Nemea,’ and ‘Bitter Lemons,’ settings of texts by Lawrence Durrell, close attention to detail that is thorough without being pedantic. Wood’s handling of Robert Graves’s ‘Ouzo Unclouded’ is masterful, the composer’s melodic fragments unleashing the full impact of the poet’s sparse imagery. Mr. Burnside’s rhythmically rapier’s-point playing is here an especially vital asset, bolstering Mr. Williams’s bold, imaginative singing. The baritone’s and pianist’s performance of ‘In the sea caves,’ a treatment of Edmund Keeley's and Philip Sherrard's translation of a text by George Seferis, is frankly one of the most gorgeous recordings of song in the English language: reducing the voice to a ribbon of tone, Mr. Williams envelops the music with a delicate shroud of crystalline beauty. The words of the short-lived Demetrios Capetanakis in ‘The Isles of Greece’ could hope for no more eloquent articulation than they receive from Mr. Williams, whose every interpretive impulse is sensed and seconded by Mr. Burnside.

Mr. Lepper accompanied tenor Andrew Kennedy in the world première of Wild Cyclamen in Manchester in 2006, and he partners Mr. Gilchrist in an emotionally raw but musically polished performance on this disc. Though the author of the poems set by Wood, Robert Graves, did not group these texts as a cohesive narrative, Wild Cyclamen was conceived by the composer as a song cycle in the tradition of Schubert and Schumann. Starting the cycle’s examination of the development of a love affair, ‘A Dream of Frances Speedwell’ is sung by Mr. Gilchrist with the smiling insouciance of a man in the grip of burgeoning passion. The sentiments of ‘Wild Cyclamen’ are self-explanatory, and neither singer nor pianist overreaches in his execution of Wood’s musical gestures. Likewise, the atmosphere of ‘Beatrice and Dante’ is charged but never caricatured. Musically, Wood’s inspiration is at its most memorable in ‘The Garden’ and ‘The Leap,’ which are etched with silvery sincerity by Mr. Gilchrist and Mr. Lepper. The disquiet of ‘Not to Sleep’ is powerfully evinced, and the tartness of ‘The Crab-Tree’ is sharply portrayed. The ambiguity of ‘Bites and Kisses’ is knowingly conveyed by Mr. Gilchrist, the irony keenly drawn but unexaggerated. The final quartet of songs, beginning with the stark ‘Horizon,’ recount the deterioration of love, and Mr. Gilchrist proves a noble but wrenching interpreter of these songs. ‘The Window Sill’ draws from him singing of incredible concentration, the voice used as a weapon against the increasing menace of the text. Then, in ‘A Lost Jewel,’ he and Mr. Lepper conjure an air of restless uncertainty. ‘Hedges Freaked with Snow’ is a creation of which Mahler would have been proud, the near-perfect marriage of music and words symbolically contrasting with the spirit of the text: similarly, the refinement of Mr. Gilchrist’s singing and Mr. Lepper’s playing highlights the volatility of the music. Throughout their performance of Wild Cyclamen, Mr. Gilchrist and Mr. Lepper offer instance after instance of intuitive phrasing and dramatic intelligence.

Every nation should have a record label as committed to preserving the work of its composers, singers, and musicians as NMC Recordings is to documenting the best contemporary Classical Music of the British Isles. Fortunately for listeners throughout the world, the decision makers at NMC have adopted as a guiding principal the notion that anything worth doing is worth doing well. That presiding philosophy has never been more apparent than on this disc. Even in 2015, so much time is wasted with discussion of the differences that divide nations, cultures, and peoples when every nation, culture, and people can solve problems through music. A listener need not be British in order to enjoy the terrific performances of Clare McCaldin, James Gilchrist, Roderick Williams, Iain Burnside, and Simon Lepper on Wild Cyclamen. Good music and good music-making need no translation.

23 April 2015

ARTIST PROFILE: Dynamic Diva from Down Under – mezzo-soprano DEBORAH HUMBLE

DYNAMIC DIVA FROM DOWN UNDER: Australian mezzo-soprano DEBORAH HUMBLE [Photo by Andrew Keshan, © by Deborah Humble]Dynamic Diva from Down Under: Australian mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble [Photo by Andrew Keshan, © by Deborah Humble]

Like Music itself, both what it takes and what it means to be an important singer are criteria that are perennially evolving. In this age in which a gifted singer can toil for years without receiving the attention that the voice deserves but in which a hard-won career can be ended by a single poorly-judged ‘tweet,’ the parameters by which a singer’s success are now measured might seem arbitrary and bewildering to singers of the past, singers who expected to be judged primarily for how they sang. Without question, there are now more well-trained singers before the public than at any other time in the four-century history of opera, but there now are also more obstacles to making a career as a singer. However vociferously their perceived absence is lamented, there are still great voices to be heard, though one must perhaps listen more diligently to hear them. When Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra closes the 2014 – 2015 Season with a concert performance of Act Three of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried on 26 April, among a quartet of esteemed Wagnerians will be heard one of the Twenty-First Century’s great voices, that of mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble. Born in Bangor, New South Wales, but raised in the South Australian capital of Adelaide, she embodies a tradition that in years past brought Australian artists like Dame Joan Sutherland and Dame Joan Carden to international prominence. Her studies at the University of Adelaide and Australian Catholic University of Melbourne complemented by receipt of the 2004 Dame Joan Sutherland Scholarship and being chosen as a finalist in the 2008 Seattle International Wagner Competition, she was a principal mezzo-soprano first with Opera Australia and then with Hamburgische Staatsoper. Singing an exceptionally varied repertory including rôles in operas as diverse as Händel’s Alcina and Janáček’s Jenůfa prepared her to accept one of the greatest challenges in opera: interpreting parts in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. As the Oehms Classics recordings of Der Ring, compiled from live performances conducted by fellow Aussie Simone Young confirm, Ms. Humble’s singing as Erda in Das Rheingold and Siegfried, Schwertleite in Die Walküre, and the First Norn and Waltraute in Götterdämmerung in Hamburg proclaimed the presence of a world-class Wagnerian on the international scene. Continuing the legacies of eminent Australian mezzo-sopranos like Margreta Elkins, Lauris Elms, and Yvonne Minton, this impeccably-trained, unfailingly-prepared artist is a dynamic Australian diva for the Twenty-First Century. In truth, though, excellent training and consistent preparation are insignificant if the quality of the voice does not match the care expended in cultivating it. Deborah Humble’s voice is like the spirit of her native Australia: fearless, indomitable, and beautiful in ways that words can only imperfectly and inadequately describe.

A delightfully intelligent, shrewd artist with complete cognizance of her musical roots, Ms. Humble is awed by the musical colossuses to whom she is often compared. ‘Margreta Elkins, Yvonne Minton, and Lauris Elms are three of Australia’s greatest-ever singers, and I am humbled to be considered to be upholding and expanding their legacy,’ she says. ‘Indeed, I had the great good fortune to learn with both Lauris in Australia when I was a beginning student and later with Yvonne in London. I learnt a great deal from these ladies, not only about the art of singing, interpretation, and technique but also about the personal values that they believed were important in a successful career: integrity, perseverance and patience, and an intuitive understanding of one’s own instrument. One of the nicest compliments I was ever paid in an Australian review said, “Deborah Humble surely evoked Elms and Elkins.” It was referring to my performance of Pauline in a concert version of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, and I still think there could really be no greater compliment for an Australian mezzo-soprano.’ Ms. Humble is also aware that the first fifteen years of the Twenty-First Century have been an amazing time for Australian artists, both at home and abroad. ‘Australian opera singers are visible all over the world right now, so the education and training in Australia must be said to be doing something right,’ she suggests. ‘I think Australian artists are aware of how lucky they are to get any opportunity overseas, perhaps more so than [those] who have lived in Europe, the UK, or America all their lives. This awareness makes them work especially hard, embrace learning opportunities, and take advantage of every professional and training situation. Having said that, they also have to demonstrate an even greater tenacity for new experiences than the average artist: new cultures, new languages, a totally different operatic system to what they are used to, suddenly having to understand their position on a world stage. Australia is geographically an isolated place, and pursuing a singing career abroad means being far away from family, friends—indeed, everything that has always been familiar. It can be a huge and daunting assimilation process, and it is not necessarily for everyone. I think that, whilst Australia can be confident of its developing culture in the present and future, there will always be more opportunities away from home for Australian artists.’

The sacrifices required of singers pursuing international careers are, as Ms. Humble intimates, intensified for Australians, for whom the geographical divides among artists and their ancestral homes are greater than for singers from almost anywhere else in the world. She is uncommonly clear-sighted about the unique circumstances that Australian musicians encounter when they pursue opportunities beyond their native shores. ‘The concept of “cultural-cringe” is not yet something that is entirely in the past,’ she shares. ‘That’s not a criticism,’ she quickly adds. ‘It’s just a fact—and something that we have to keep working towards together. It is also worth reminding Australians that everything that happens “overseas” is not necessarily always better. Perhaps the best quality of most Australians I know is their open-mindedness and ability to get along with people, an important quality for operatic teamwork’—a quality that, though she is too considerate a colleague to say so, too many singers—especially younger singers—lack.

DYNAMIC DIVA FROM DOWN UNDER: Mezzo-soprano DEBORAH HUMBLE as the title heroine in Henry Purcell's DIDO AND AENEAS at Opera Australia in 2004 [Photo © by Opera Australia]No forgetting this lady’s fate: Mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble as the title heroine in Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Opera Australia, 2004 [Photo © by Opera Australia]

Before diving into the Wagnerian waters that she now navigates so assuredly, Ms. Humble honed her craft by charting the very different seas of Baroque repertory. ‘The exposure to Early Music that I gained in Paris was extremely informative,’ she recalls. ‘First of all, I was passionate about Baroque music at the time, having completed a Master’s Degree in Oration and Gesture in Baroque Opera only a couple of years before arriving in France.’ In Ms. Humble’s view, this experience with Early Music was primarily a tutorial in stagecraft and, from her individual musical perspective, an instance of right place, right time. ‘I wouldn’t say that singing that repertoire shaped my future approach to Romantic music,’ she confides, ‘but I would say that it was very much the right music for me to be singing at the very earliest stages of a career. I still sing Händel and Monteverdi and Bach. It’s not easy, so it provides a challenge, but I also find [that] it keeps the voice fresh, versatile, and flexible. Working with Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre also meant that I was exposed to great artists like Anne Sofie von Otter and David Daniels (both of whom I understudied), Dame Felicity Lott, Richard Croft, Gidon Saks, and Ewa Podleś and got to go on tour to the best concert halls and opera houses in Europe. It was an incredible and exciting education for a young Australian singer. We did a large amount of recording, so I also learnt something about that side of the music industry, and I still have lifetime contracts with Deutsche Grammophon and EMI and the royalties that those recordings earn.’ In addition to these benefits, Ms. Humble also fondly recollects interactions with fellow musicians that enriched her formative years in the business—musicians like renowned harpsichordist Jory Vinikour. ‘Yes, coaching with somebody as talented as Jory was an opportunity not to be underestimated,’ she says. ‘I remember going to his apartment in Paris for sessions. There were so many keyboards of various varieties in the living room: one could hardly find a place to stand for the lesson! I am very pleased for his enormous success and international reputation.’

Having sung rôles in operas by composers as varied as Purcell, Händel, Mozart, Donizetti, Mascagni, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich, and Henze in addition to the Wagner ladies in her repertory, Ms. Humble is a model of the constructive effects of the versatility demanded of today’s young singers. ‘When one has a fixed contract at a German repertoire house, it is guaranteed that you will be required to sing a wide variety of rôles both large and small,’ she states. ‘For me, this was a very positive experience as I was never asked to undertake anything that wasn’t appropriate. I was not only able to continue developing my technique during my five years at the Hamburgische Staatsoper but I also learnt a lot about stagecraft and the art of rehearsing things in a very short period of time. I had exposure to great coaches who influenced my musical interpretations and language development.’ This exposure aided her in refining her sensibilities as an artist and determining the course that she would pursue in her career. ‘Since becoming a freelance artist four years ago, I have much more choice in the repertoire I would like to sing. One of the most positive things about being a dramatic mezzo-soprano is the fact that the voice develops later than some other voice types, and that means that new repertoire is always opening up. With every note added to the range, that means another rôle becomes possible.’ With her solid technical foundation and stylistic adaptability, future opportunities are virtually limitless, she feels. ‘I can’t think of a rôle in my Fach which would never be possible for me to sing—assuming that I continue to develop in the next few years.’

After singing Erda in Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s concert performance of Act Three of Siegfried on 26 April, Ms. Humble’s performance diary includes her inaugural interpretation of Brangäne in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which she will sing in Mexico City under the direction of Jan Latham-König, followed by Judit in Béla Bartók’s A kékszakállú herceg vára (Bluebeard’s Castle) in Melbourne. These are two of the most daunting rôles in the repertory, but Ms. Humble imparts that, in her opinion, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. ‘I often think that the real demands of a particular rôle are not totally evident until after you have performed it for the first time,’ she indicates. ‘Singing something through in a practice room or in rehearsals is very different from doing it on stage in front of an audience. Only when you have done that do you know where the inherent difficulties really lie; where greater breath control might be required, where greater nuance and color would be of benefit, where to conserve, where to give a bit more. Brangäne is quite a physically- and emotionally-demanding rôle. So far, I have really been studying the opera as a whole from a historical perspective. It is certainly difficult to overstate the importance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in the operatic repertoire. His use of chromatisicm and uninhibited dissonances challenged the accepted idea of tonality and contributed to the belief that this was the beginning of modern music. The idea of human love that goes beyond emotion into a metaphysical world needs to be understood via an understanding of the libretto, the orchestral music, and, eventually, by the staging. Last year, when I performed my first Wesendonck Lieder, I began looking at the ideas of Schopenhauer and how Wagner was influenced and attracted by concepts such as death and night, dreams and ecstasy, and unattainable worldly love. These themes are also relevant in Tristan since Wagner was in the middle of his love affair with Mathilde Wesendonck during its composition. All of these things help to put a new rôle into context whilst undertaking the technical and musical study required.’

DYNAMIC DIVA FROM DOWN UNDER: Mezzo-soprano DEBORAH HUMBLE as Amneris in Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA at Opera Australia, 2013 [Photo by Jeff Busby, © by Opera Australia]Don’t judge me: Mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble as Amneris in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at Opera Australia, 2013 [Photo by Jeff Busby, © by Opera Australia]

Highlights of the past few seasons in Ms. Humble’s career include her first Amneris in Verdi’s Aida with Opera Australia and singing Catherine in Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher. Her commitment to singing not just familiar music like Verdi’s but also less-known works is indicative of the affection and respect that this singer has for her vocation. ‘It is a great privilege to be able to do the thing that you love most for a job,’ she muses. ‘If your work is something you enjoy doing, then it never really feels like work. That is the best thing about my career. I enjoy the ongoing challenges, and as I get better and better at what I do it becomes even more enjoyable. I am very grateful for how things have worked out for me because I had to do a lot of things I didn’t enjoy in order to get where I am today. That makes me more appreciative for every contract, every performance. We never know when the work will stop coming in, so it is important to treat every opportunity with 100% commitment. I have always tried to do that. The ability and opportunity to express oneself through music really is a great gift. Dealing with the insecurity of the profession, the traveling, the stress of staying in good vocal health, living in hotels, and being away from family and friends are some of the inconveniences of the profession. Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for. But there is nothing else I would rather do.’ If she were starting her career now, with the knowledge that she has acquired through her studies and engagements, what would she do differently? ‘I went to university when I was seventeen, so I really didn’t know anything about the world of music outside of a structured school setting,’ she reflects. ‘I knew I wanted to be a singer, but I had absolutely no clue what that entailed or how to go about getting to the next step. When I graduated with a Bachelor of Music Performance three years later, I still didn’t really understand anything about the nature of my chosen career, and, to be honest, I couldn’t really sing very well, either! I had a limited repertoire of songs and oratorio pieces, and, since I couldn’t sing above the stave, I knew only three or four arias. I knew I had to leave Adelaide, but where to go and what to do next were a bit of a mystery. I was very determined, although it is true to say I had no idea how hard a career in singing was going to be. Having gone to an all-girls’ school for seventeen years, that time at university was probably more about learning on a social level than a musical one. I don’t think I have changed all that much over the years. I still enjoy doing the same things now as I did then. I don’t think I would tell my seventeen-year-old self to do much differently. I might tell her to worry less about what other people think or to have greater self-confidence. Otherwise, I think I am lucky to look back and feel that there is very little I would alter.’

Returning to the theme of her place in the lineage of great Australian mezzo-sopranos, Ms. Humble is attentive to the remarkable ways in which the narratives of the careers of Twenty-First-Century singers can be shaped by circumstances beyond their control. As she suggested in her comment about advising her younger self to worry less about others’ opinions, her energy is focused on connecting with audiences directly, one on one, as is only possible through music. First and foremost, the aspect of her artistry that facilitates those connections is the voice itself, and, when asked which impressions she hopes to leave with audiences, she responds contemplatively. ‘That’s a very difficult question! I suppose what most people comment on when they talk about my voice is its color and quality. They talk of warmth and depth, carrying power, chocolate, honey, and red wine! I would like to be remembered as an artist who committed to everything [she] did, someone with a compelling stage presence, someone who could help people escape from the reality of their lives for a moment in time and to dream about something else. At the end of the day, my voice is only one part of me. It would also be nice to be thought of as someone people were happy to work with, a generous colleague with a good sense of humor.’ Her performances reveal all of these qualities, but it is this last statement that discloses the heart of Ms. Humble’s artistry: a desire to be a great singer who, off the stage, is equally a great person.

Few singers invite or deserve comparison with the legendary Marian Anderson. The obstacles that she overcame made her a legend, but it was her voice that made her a legendary artist. With its satiny texture, reserves of steely power and molten-lava sensuality, earthy lower register, and lightning-bolt top notes, Deborah Humble’s voice is the rare instrument that warrants comparison with that of Marian Anderson. Sadly, the Wagnerian credentials of many of Australia’s most important mezzo-sopranos remain too little appreciated beyond Oz’s shores, but Margreta Elkins and Lauris Elms were integral to the musical and dramatic triumphs of Sir Charles Mackerras’s Australian concert performances of Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, and Götterdämmerung with Rita Hunter in the 1980s. Though her Wagnerian journeys are only one facet of her sparkling artistry, Deborah Humble is what her countrymen might term a ridgy-didge talent—in short, the genuine article. In her, today’s Brünnhildes and Isoldes have a platinum-voiced confidante and a splendidly worthy adversary.

DYNAMIC DIVA FROM DOWN UNDER: Mezzo-soprano DEBORAH HUMBLE as Erda in Richard Wagner's SIEGFRIED at Oper Halle, 2013 [Photo © by Oper Halle]Earth Day: Mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble as Erda in Richard Wagner’s Siegfried at Oper Halle, 2013 [Photo © by Oper Halle]


To learn more about Deborah Humble and her upcoming engagements, please visit her Official Website.

Ms. Humble is represented in Australia and Asia by Patrick Togher Artists’ Management; in the UK by James Black Management; and in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland by Kunstleragentur Wrage. Her Press and Public Relations Representative is Tim Weiler of O-PR Communications.

Sincerest thanks to Ms. Humble for her time and extraordinary candor in responding to questions for this profile and to Tim Weiler for facilitating the interview.

20 April 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Philip Glass – GALILEO GALILEI (D. Jackenheimer, D. Goodman, A. Leggett, L. Pion, H. Curtis, D. Gracey, M. Reese, J. Kato, W. McCleary-Small; UNCG Opera Theatre, 19 April 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: (left to right) Jacob Kato, Wesley McCleary-Small, and Matthew Reese as the Cardinals, Deon'te Goodman as Pope Urban VIII (rear), and Derek Jackenheimer as Old Galileo (front) in Philip Glass's GALILEO GALILEI at UNCG Opera Theatre, April 2015 [Photo by Amy Holroyd, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Recantation: (left to right) Baritones Jacob Kato and Wesley McCleary-Small and countertenor Matthew Reese as the Cardinals, bass-baritone Deon’te Goodman as Pope Urban VIII (rear), and tenor Derek Jackenheimer as Old Galileo (front) in Scene Two of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei, April 2015 [Photo by Amy Holroyd, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

PHILIP GLASS (born 1937): Galileo Galilei—Derek Jackenheimer (Old Galileo), Deon’te Goodman (Pope Urban VIII, Simplico, Cardinal Barberini), Matthew Reese (Cardinal 1, Father Sinceri, Oracle 1), Jacob Kato (Cardinal 2, Father Maculano, Servant, Oracle 2), Wesley McCleary-Small (Cardinal 3, Priest), Adrienne Leggett (Maria Celeste, Merope), Natalie Rose Havens (Scribe, Maria Maddalena), Lydia Pion (Sagredo, Marie de Medici, Eos), Derek Gracey (Salviati, Young Galileo), Holly Curtis (Duchess Christina), Evan Reich (Galileo as a child), Sarah Geraldi (Duchess Christina as a child), Brent Byhre (Orion), Baker Lawrimore (Oenopian); UNCG Opera Orchestra; Kevin Geraldi, conductor [David Holley, Stage Director and Producer; Randall McMullen, Scenic Designer; Trent Pcenicni, Costume Designer; Ken White, Lighting Designer; David Wagner, Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master; Chip Haas, Technical Director; UNCG Opera Theatre – Aycock Auditorium, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 19 April 2015]

In his 1869 travelogue The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote that ‘travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.’ So, too, is travel through the musical landscapes of four centuries of operatic repertory. One often finds in unexplored music new horizons that expand one’s personal universe. The most prevalent notion in my individual understanding of opera is that the performance of all repertory, from Monteverdi to Muhly, is or should be governed by the essential tenets of bel canto. Whether one sings the ariosi of Cavalli, the ‘pathetic airs’ of Händel, the grandiose declamations of Wagner, or the thorny lines of Reimann, the poise, placement, and projection of basic bel canto are the technical foundation upon which an impressive edifice of any style can be constructed. Hearing Richard Croft’s dulcet bel canto singing in the Metropolitan Opera production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha lent legitimacy to my belief: even the complex, minimalist music of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries profits as greatly from investment in the art of bel canto as do the operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Glass’s Galileo Galilei confirmed that the foremost responsibility of any singer is not to know how to sing this or that piece stylishly but simply to know how to sing. Student productions often offer fascinating glimpses of the processes by which operas are brought to life, but UNCG Opera Theatre’s Galileo Galilei was a far more enlightening experience. Here, it was not isolated details that proved most involving but the totality of the production. The unmistakable core of the performance was beautiful singing, and Glass’s music responded to this handling as memorably as Verdi’s or Puccini’s.

With a libretto by Mary Zimmerman to which the composer and Arnold Weinstein​ made additions, Galileo Galilei is a sympathetic but unsentimental examination of the betrayal, disappointment, and necessity of self-preservation to which genius is subjected. Though the opera’s historicity is far more accurate than those of many period epics in the international repertory, the characters are also archetypes, a condition made particularly apparent by UNCG Opera Theatre’s casting. The conflicts among faith, authority, and science are no less prominent in the Twenty-First Century than in Galileo’s time; nor are the transient politics of church and state inventions of modern times. Directed and produced by UNCG's Director of Opera David Holley, the production made extraordinary use of every spatial, technical, and musical resource at the company's disposal. Randall McMullen's scenic designs would have been a credit to theatrical productions in any of the world's opera houses or musical theatre venues. The centerpiece of the set was a grand wooden staircase, the balustrades of which ingeniously served as Galileo's inclined plane and telescope. Revolving in a full circle, the staircase was also suggestive of a sundial and effectively framed the action of the opera. Trent Pcenicni's eye-pleasing, historically-correct costumes combined with the set, Ken White's expertly-managed lighting designs, and Chip Haas’s technical direction to evoke both the physical and emotional dimensions of each of the opera's ten scenes. In the opening scene, the blind Galileo's desolation was movingly depicted, and the claustrophobic oppression of the Inquisition was omnipresent. The projections of light passing through stained-glass windows conjured an imposing cathedral more credibly than the expensive sets seen in many opera productions. Projections of celestial bodies transformed the elegant interior of Aycock Auditorium into a planetarium that reflected the heavens revealed to man by Galileo’s invention of the telescope. In every scene, the production meaningfully mirrored the flow of Glass’s music, making the reverse chronology of the opera’s structure seem not only sensible but inevitable. Observed at the start of the opera, the doubt and loneliness that darkened the last years of Galileo’s life rendered the flowering of his genius and the sweet simplicity of his childhood all the more moving.

IN PERFORMANCE: (left to right) Jacob Kato as Father Maculano, Derek Jackenheimer as Old Galileo, Adrienne Leggett as Maria Celeste, and Matthew Reese as Father Sinceri in UNCG Opera Theatre's production of Philip Glass's GALILEO GALILEI, April 2015 [Photo by Amy Holroyd, © UNCG Opera Theatre]The Trial: (left to right) Baritone Jacob Kato as Father Maculano, tenor Derek Jackenheimer as Old Galileo, mezzo-soprano Natalie Rose Havens as the Scribe, and countertenor Matthew Reese as Father Sinceri in Scene Four of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei, April 2015 [Photo by Amy Holroyd, © UNCG Opera Theatre]

Conducted by​ Kevin Geraldi​, the UNCG Opera Orchestra excelled in playing a score that, in its difficulty and requirements of absolute precision of ensemble, spares not one musician. Though Glass’s familiar serialist idiom provides the basic structure of Galileo Galilei, the score is one of the composer’s most alluring. Any listener who alleges that Twenty-First-Century opera is not straightforwardly beautiful should hear this score. The melodic lines are often exquisitely attractive, and Glass’s writing for the elderly Galileo is as forceful and memorable as Gounod’s music for the aged Faust. The repetitive figurations that are a defining component of Glass’s singular style were executed by Maestro Geraldi and the orchestra with an engaging variety that was evidence of close and thoughtful study of the score. Serialism might seem an almost arbitrary means of crafting melodies and harmonic progressions, but there is in Galileo Galilei an expressivity that owes its poignancy to the contrasts created by the repeated musical fragments. Every member of the orchestra was an asset, a collective appreciation of the music emanating from the pit. Colin McDearman’s playing of the celesta was magical, and whether impersonating a cathedral organ or a synthesizer Rachel AuBuchon brought unerring precision to her negotiation of the pulse-like keyboard part. The alert, able string playing was complemented by uncommonly secure work from the wind instruments, exemplified by the performances of horn player Corinne Policriti and trumpeter Donnie McEwan. Maestro Geraldi’s tempi were unfailingly well-judged: the performance surged forward arrestingly without ever seeming rushed. Every phrase that emerged from the pit was aimed at the audience’s hearts, and the response to the opera confirmed that both the musicians’ efforts and Glass’s music found their target.

Towering both figuratively and literally over the opera’s first scene, ‘Opening Song,’ tenor Derek Jackenheimer was an Old Galileo so convincing that one’s knees ached in empathy as he struggled to navigate his reduced world. Tormented by blindness and memories of his beloved daughter and, a man of science to the last, desperate to justify the circumstances of his dotage with logic, he was a caged lion, exhausted and despairing but still hungry for understanding. The sting of the character’s plight was heightened by the singer’s exemplary diction: rarely is English text sung so clearly even by singers whose native language is English. Vocally, his performance was still more impressive. Possessing a strong voice over which he exercised near-perfect control, Mr. Jackenheimer projected superbly. The timbre is one of burly beauty, and his sure intonation throughout the range required by his music enabled emotionally direct portrayal of Galileo’s clashing sentiments. Set in June 1633, ‘Recantation,’ the second scene, introduced a quartet of excellent singing actors: bass-baritone Deon’te Goodman as Pope Urban VIII and countertenor Matthew Reese and baritones Jacob Kato and Wesley McCleary-Small as the interrogating Cardinals. Mr. Goodman’s firm, resonant voice lent gravity to the Pontiff’s proclamations, and the contrasting voices of Mr. Reese, Mr. Kato, and Mr. McCleary-Small blended in columnar articulations of archiepiscopal prerogative.

The mood of the performance transitioned from menace to dolorous nostalgia in the third scene, ‘Pears.’ Soprano Adrienne Leggett gave stirring accounts of selections from letters written to Galileo by his beloved daughter Maria Celeste. Her security above the staff proved vital in her assured jaunt through the punishing intervals of her part. Transporting the drama to April 1633, the fourth scene, ‘The Trial,’ pitted Mr. Jackenheimer’s Galileo against the Inquisition. Mr. Reese’s ethereal but iron-cored singing as Father Sinceri was matched with uncanny cohesion by Mr. Kato’s earthier tones. Their rejection of Cardinal Barberini’s letter of support for the scientist’s theories fell like the blow of an axe upon Galileo’s neck, and Mr. Jackenheimer evinced great consternation in his singing of Galileo’s self-defense. The fifth scene’s philosophical discussion of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World, the book that led to the allegations of heresy that complicated the last decade of Galileo’s life, united soprano Lydia Pion as Sagredo with baritone Derek Gracey as Salviati and Mr. Goodman as Simplico. Slight weakness at the lower end of her range did not compromise the integrity of Ms. Pion’s performance, and Mr. Gracey enunciated Salviati’s arguments with focused tone. Costumed in garb similar to that of a Commedia dell'arte Arlecchino, Mr. Goodman’s Simplico was a personification of the good-natured Everyman, his voice caressing the phrases in which he sang of the human mind being one of God’s most wondrous creations.

IN PERFORMANCE: (left to right) Deon'te Goodman as Simplico, Lydia Pion as Sagredo, and Derek Gracey as Salviati in Scene 5 of Philip Glass's GALILEO GALILEI at UNCG Opera Theatre in April 2015 [Photo by Amy Holroyd, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World: (left to right) Bass-baritone Deon’te Goodman as Simplico, soprano Lydia Pion as Sagredo, and baritone Derek Gracey as Salviati in Scene Five of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei, April 2015 [Photo by Amy Holroyd, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

Scene Six, ‘Incline Plane,’ was in UNCG Opera Theatre’s production one of the most viscerally exciting sequences in the opera, its visual recreation of Galileo’s experiments with inclined plane that engendered his early postulation of the equation of falling bodies exhibiting great shrewdness. Eavesdropping on a conversation between Cardinal Barberini—later elected Pope Urban VIII—and Galileo in the Cardinal’s garden circa 1620, the seventh scene, ‘A Walk in the Garden,’ paired Mr. Goodman’s amiable but already nervous Cardinal with Mr. Gracey’s Young Galileo, a characterization so synchronized with Mr. Jackenheimer’s that the change of personnel was hardly noticeable despite the physical and vocal differences. The unease lurking beneath the surface of the gentlemen’s conversation was unnerving, but there was also an obvious affection between the cleric and the intellectual. ‘Lamps,’ the eighth scene, dramatized the epiphany of Galileo’s observation of pendular motion, he and his daughter conducting their scientific discourse over the ostinato of Mr. McCleary-Small’s intoning of the Priest’s Latin text. The trio of mezzo-soprano Natalie Rose Havens as Maria Maddalena, Ms. Pion as Marie de Medici, and soprano Holly Curtis as Duchess Christina produced streams of mellifluous sound in Scene Nine, ‘Presentation of the Telescope.’ Ms. Curtis and Mr. Gracey interacted with the aristocratic intimacy of Shakespearean lovers.

‘Opera within Opera,’ the tenth and final scene, depicted Galileo and Duchess Christina as children, endearingly portrayed by Evan Reich and Sarah Geraldi, watching the opera of Galileo’s father—a still-legendary lutenist and composer widely cited as a pioneer of monody and perhaps the inventor of recitative in the modern sense—mentioned by the adult Duchess in the preceding scene. Mr. Reich and Ms. Geraldi acted with maturity despite their youth, and their brief interactions with Mr. Jackenheimer and Ms. Curtis—their older selves—were unaffectedly profound. Returning as the Oracles, Mr. Reese and Mr. Kato were again sources of strength. The pantomime enactment of the mythological entanglement of Orion (Brent Byhre), Merope (Ms. Leggett), her father Oenopian (Baker Lawrimore), and the goddess Eos (Ms. Pion) was, in effect, a symbolic retelling of Galileo’s own story: blinded by the Holy Father’s suppression of knowledge, he achieved a kind of immortality by bringing mankind nearer to the eternal dawn of self-cognizance. The closing chorus rang through the theatre like thunder, the singers’ voices soaring in homage to the perseverance of genius.

Mark Twain’s suggestion that the truth should never be shared with anyone unworthy of it is an aphorism that is starkly relevant to Galileo Galilei’s suffering and the central precept of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei. Glass’s opera is a work of absorbing musical appeal and dramatic sensitivity—in combination, the only truth needed in opera. In this appreciatively-conceived, outstandingly-rendered production, UNCG Opera Theatre proved conspicuously worthy of it.

IN PERFORMANCE: (left to right) Brent Byhre as Orion and Lydia Pion as Eos in UNCG Opera Theatre's production of Philip Glass's GALILEO GALILEI, April 2015 [Photo by Amy Holroyd, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Opera within Opera: Brent Byhre as Orion (left) and soprano Lydia Pion as Eos (right) in Scene Ten of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei, April 2015 [Photo by Amy Holroyd, © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

19 April 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – DON GIOVANNI (J.C. Cha, A. Lau, A. Loutsion, H. Clark, D. Blalock, J. Cherest, D. Weigel, B. LeClair; North Carolina Opera, 18 April 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's DON GIOVANNI at North Carolina Opera, April 2015 [Photo © by North Carolina Opera]WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Don Giovanni, K. 527J.C. Cha (Don Giovanni), Adam Lau (Leporello), Alexandra Loutsion (Donna Anna), Hailey Clark (Donna Elvira), David Blalock (Don Ottavio), Jennifer Cherest (Zerlina), David Weigel (Masetto), Benjamin LeClair (Commendatore); Chorus and Orchestra of North Carolina Opera; Timothy Myers, conductor [Crystal Manich, Stage Director; Lighting Design by Tláloc López-Watermann; A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina; Saturday, 18 April 2015]

It is difficult to imagine the impression that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s and Lorenzo da Ponte’s Don Giovanni must have made on audiences who witnessed its first performances in Prague in 1787. In this remarkable score, Mozart not only created a psychologically-nuanced context for a cultural icon—one that remains compelling even after 228 years—but also facilitated in a single work the musical transition from the Eighteenth Century to the Nineteenth. In Don Giovanni, the very modern concepts of condemnation and redemption collide frighteningly, the ramifications of one man’s machinations upsetting a chivalrous social order in ways both tangible and barely perceptible. Dramatically, the great marvel of Don Giovanni is that every character in the opera is an enigma. Is the title character an unrepentant lecher with one foot over the threshold of hell from the start or an inexplicably complex antihero who merely plays the rôle dictated to him by the society in which he participates? Are Anna, Elvira, and Zerlina his victims or his partners in a complicated dance that blurs the boundaries of morality? Is Leporello a willing accessory to his master's nefarious activities or a guileless servant following orders? These are questions with which any production of Don Giovanni must contend, and successful performances convey to the audience discernible aspects of the enigmatic metaphysical dimension of the opera that inspired E.T.A. Hoffmann to write in his Don Juan of 'the conflict of human nature with those unknown diabolical forces that, in surrounding it, ultimately spell its ruin.' Staged in the intimate space of the 600-seat A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, North Carolina Opera's Don Giovanni peered very deeply into the tantalizing abyss of the opera's dramatic confrontations without being lost in the vortex of well-intentioned but misguided efforts at giving the characters recognizably modern sensibilities. Perhaps no other composer and librettist in operatic history more memorably and meaningfully gave characters in extremis sympathetic humanity than Mozart and da Ponte, and North Carolina Opera's production facilitated unprejudiced interaction with the characters and their motivations. Thoughtful and detailed, the performance nonetheless invited the involvement of the observer's imagination. Don Giovanni is a more known quantity to the people of Raleigh in 2015 than it was to the music-loving citizens of Prague in 1787, but North Carolina Opera's production enabled the genius and erudition of Mozart's and da Ponte's creation to illuminate the auditorium as though the ink were still wet on Mozart’s manuscript.

In her management of North Carolina Opera’s 2014 semi-staged performance of Dvořák’s Rusalka, Stage Director Crystal Manich revealed herself to be an innovative director of opera for whom invention does not equate with intrusion. Her direction of Don Giovanni was bold, sometimes daringly so, but always respectful of both composer and librettist. Even at its most fanciful, Ms. Manich’s concept of the opera was undeviatingly anchored in Mozart’s music and da Ponte’s words. The interplay among characters, enhanced by Tláloc López-Watermann’s wonderfully focused, natural lighting designs, was insightfully presented as the impetus for the text rather than a reaction to it, and stage action never impeded or distracted from singing. The rich hues and whimsical but flattering costume designs, originally created for Michigan Opera Theatre and adapted for North Carolina Opera's performances by Denise Schumaker, conjured an atmosphere of Wildean decadence that was bizarrely compatible with the opera’s sultry suggestiveness, and the set designs of Erhard Rom aptly placed the action in an idealized Eighteenth Century. Sondra Nottingham's wigs and makeup were stars of the production in their own right. Though the audience reveled in the production’s humor, much of which was genuinely funny [the pantomimic representation of the nationalities of Giovanni's conquests as cataloged by Leporello was hilarious, the Turkish stand-in donning a turban, and the fabulously buxom German lass munching on a pretzel], the comedy did not compromise the impact of the opera's fiery denouement. Many far more lavish productions of Don Giovanni have failed to serve the opera as well as North Carolina Opera's presentation: in this performance, Mozart's and da Ponte's description of the opera as a 'dramma giocoso' was reflected in all that transpired on stage.

The music of Don Giovanni challenges every singer and musician assembled to perform it, and a particular delight of North Carolina Opera’s performance was the strength of the foundation provided by the NCO Orchestra and Chorus. Mozart made great demands on the brasses and woodwinds, not least in his proto-Wagnerian music for the spectral Commendatore in Act Two, and the NCO players delivered their parts with stirring brio. String textures were occasionally less than ideally clean, but the mercurial writing in the Overture and ensembles was mostly brought off winningly. With Timothy Myers in the pit, the deftly-sprung rhythms of the playing were not surprising. The conductor’s understanding of Mozart repertory is instinctive, and he paced Don Giovanni with the authority of one who knows not only every note of the score but also the meaning of every word of the libretto. The cleverness of Ms. Manich’s direction was heightened by Maestro Myers’s witty accompaniment of secco recitatives, his extraordinary musicality shining in every passage and exuberantly-resolved cadence. He had no fear of grand Romantic gestures in scenes like Donna Anna’s accompagnato and aria ‘Or sai chi l'onore,’ and under his baton the poised, quintessentially Classical pages of the score never seemed coy or saccharine. Directed by Ben Blozan, the choristers also contributed positively to the performance, singing lustily but accurately. Primarily decorative until the opera’s penultimate scene, the chorus's singing as Don Giovanni was dragged to his infernal reward was rightfully commanding. In his work with North Carolina Opera, Maestro Myers has garnered a reputation for mastery of a broad repertory, but even among great achievements his conducting of Don Giovanni was especially successful.

It is unfortunate that in recent years the notion has developed that Mozart’s operas require a singular style of singing. Compared to the operas of Haydn, Mysliveček, Salieri, Dittersdorf, Holzbauer and other relative contemporaries, Mozart’s operas are unquestionably unique in terms of instrumental support of vocal lines, harmonic progression, and melodic distinction, but it is illustrative to note the numbers of singers of generations past who, despite being remembered as masters of other repertory, excelled in Mozart rôles. There is no finer Don Giovanni on records than Giuseppi Taddei, a singer who would now be unlikely to be assigned the part. Birgit Nilsson was a Donna Anna who could not be ignored, and both Dame Joan Sutherland and Leontyne Price were unforgettable in the rôle. Two of the Twentieth Century’s greatest Mozarteans, Elisabeth Grümmer and Edith Mathis, ladies so different in timbre and vocal production, epitomized the best tradition of Mozart singing, one embodied by a commitment to singing the music full-on. Eschewing the small-scaled, period-practice vocalism that has become fashionable in Mozart repertory, North Carolina Opera’s production honored the legacies of Mozart singers of bygone eras by allowing the well-chosen cast to sing their parts without self-conscious efforts at conforming to some arbitrary notion of how a Mozart singer ought to sound.

Anchoring the young, attractive cast, bass Benjamin LeClair was a Commendatore of dignity and power whose voice seethed with shock and anger in the Act One scene 'Lasciala, indegno, batiti meco!' Effective enough when the Commendatore’s voice was heard from off stage, the echo-chamber resonance applied to Mr. LeClair’s singing of 'Don Giovanni! a cenar teco m'invitasti' in the Act Two finale obscured the singer’s pitch, but he was a robust presence in the drama. As Masetto, Asheville-bred baritone David Weigel was appropriately giddy in his Act One duet with Zerlina, 'Giovinette, che fate all'amore,' but his high spirits quickly crashed back down to earth when Don Giovanni’s designs on Zerlina became obvious. Mr. Weigel sang Masetto’s aria 'Ho capito, Signor, sì,’ passionately, and he launched the Act One Finale with a steely account of 'Presto, presto, pria ch'ei venga.' He manfully suffered abuse from Don Giovanni in Act Two, and his vocalism, sometimes blunt and forceful rather than polished, was unfailingly effective. A tall, brawny fellow with a contagious smile, Mr. Weigel was perfectly matched with soprano Jennifer Cherest, whose perky, petite Zerlina was charm personified. In the first phrases of 'Giovinette, che fate all'amore,' Ms. Cherest’s intonation sounded uncertain, but her singing quickly took on the warmth, elation, and specificity of her acting. She joined with Giovanni in a seductive account of the famous duettino 'Là ci darem la mano,’ and she was the rare Zerlina who made something both touching and amusing of the aria 'Batti, batti, o bel Masetto,' her technique little challenged by the coloratura and ascent to top B. In Act Two, Ms. Cherest impressed both in ensembles and in her bright-toned singing of 'Vedrai, carino.' Her chemistry with Mr. Weigel was endearing, and it was fantastic to hear a voice more substantial than the usual airy (and air-headed) soubrette in Zerlina’s music.

The ardent, euphonious singing of North Carolina-born tenor David Blalock made the omission of Don Ottavio's sublime aria 'Dalla sua pace la mia dipende,' composed for renowned tenor Francesco Morella for the 1788 Viennese première of Don Giovanni, particularly regrettable despite its textual legitimacy. A handsome man whose face can convey a broad spectrum of emotions, Mr. Blalock made Ottavio a man of action who viewed Giovanni as a dangerous rival. In the Act One scene and duet with Donna Anna, his voice rang out confidently in the almost Verdian pledges of vengeance that crown 'Che giuramento, oh terror!’ Then, in the masqueraders' trio in the Act One finale, 'Protegga il giusto cielo,' he lovingly blended his voice with those of Anna and Elvria. In Act Two, many tenors are grateful merely to survive the aria 'Il mio tesoro intanto,' its punishing tessitura centered in the passaggio and repeated Fs at the top of the staff stretching their techniques to the breaking point, but Mr. Blalock excelled: phrasing with elegance, he was an Ottavio in whom poetry and heroism were combined in equal measure.

Hailey Clark, another native North Carolinian, portrayed a Donna Elvira at her wits’ end and, as Don Black and Christopher Hampton wrote in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, ‘too much in love to care.’ Making her entrance in Act One with an entourage, this Donna Elvira was slightly ridiculous but engrossingly touching. Ms. Clark used the roulades and climactic top As in 'Ah! fuggi il traditor!' as springboards for launching Elvira’s emotions into the laps of listeners, and the security of her singing of 'Non ti fidar, o misera' provided the energy that made the quartet a highlight of the performance. In both 'Bisogna aver coraggio, o cari amici miei!' and the masqueraders' trio, 'Protegga il giusto cielo,' in the Act One finale, Ms. Clark sang stunningly, the voice soaring above the turbulent orchestrations. In Act Two, she shone in the trio with Giovanni and Leporello, 'Ah! chi mi dice mai, quel barbaro dov'è,’ and the wonderful sextet, 'Sola, sola in bujo loco palpitar il cor mi sento.’ In the scene written for Caterina Cavalieri for the opera’s first production in Vienna, Ms. Clark unleashed a tsunami of emotions in the recitative 'In quali eccessi, o Numi.' Then, her traversal of the aria 'Mi tradì quell'alma ingrata' was like a bolt of lightning: suddenly, the clouds parted, and Elvira’s innate goodness was apparent. Bursting in on Giovanni’s gluttonous feast in the opera’s finale, Ms. Clark’s voicing of 'L'ultima prova dell'amor mio' was heartfelt and direct. A charge of dramatic electricity coursed through the auditorium whenever Ms. Clark was on stage, but the true glory of her Elvira was musical. She had every note of the part in her voice and knew how to place and project every tone with ideal impact. Hers was an Elvira to be loved, not pitied: whatever trouble partnering such a firebrand might cost him, Giovanni seemed a fool for having discarded such a woman as Ms. Clark portrayed.

The Donna Anna of Alexandra Loutsion was very much a lady of noble bearing, one whose grief and indignation were expressed in outpourings of darkly beautiful singing. In her opening scene in Act One, her singing of 'Non sperar, se non m'uccidi, ch'io ti laschi fuggir mai' was like flood waters tumbling over the top of a dam, her unflappability in rising repeatedly to top G signaling her suitability for the rôle. Duetting with Don Ottavio in 'Che giuramento, oh terror!' inspired Ms. Loutsion to singing of momentous intensity that grew even more compelling in the soprano’s singing of the accompagnato 'Don Ottavio, son morta!' and aria 'Or sai, chi l'onore rapire a me volse.' The aria’s repeated top As held no terrors for Ms. Loutsion: like Ms. Clark, she had all of her part’s notes in the voice and knew it. Her vocal line in the masqueraders' trio took her to glistening top B♭s, and her flinty solidity on high lent her singing in the Act One finale formidable histrionic thrust. ‘Crudele? Ah no, mio bene!’ and ‘Non mi dir, bell'idol mio,’ Anna’s accompagnato and aria in Act Two, are feared by sopranos—or, rather, by sopranos who, unlike Ms. Loutsion, are not completely capable of singing them. The aria’s coloratura is difficult even for a singer of Ms. Loutsion’s gifts, but she conquered both the bravura writing and the profusion of top As and B♭s. Dramatically, the sincerity of the soprano’s acting was refreshing. Greater variety of dynamics would occasionally have been welcome, but there are few pleasures in opera greater than hearing a sizable voice like Ms. Loutsion’s in full cry in music as enthralling as Donna Anna’s.

From the first notes of ‘Notte e giorno faticar, per chi nulla sa gradir’ in Act One, Adam Lau was a Leporello who had the audience in the palms of his hands. More impish opportunist than partner in crime, Mr. Lau’s Leporello was an ideal foil for Don Giovanni. There were both great fun and a suggestion of a tender effort at dissuading Elvira from pursuing Giovanni in his performance of the aria 'Madamina! il catalogo è questo.’ He caressed the melody of the andante con moto, 'Nella bionda egli ha l'usanza di lodarla la gentilezza,' gently flattering Ms. Clark’s becomingly blonde Elvira. His patter in ensembles was barnstorming, and every vocal gesture was matched by physical comedy worthy of Buster Keaton. In Leporello’s Act Two duet with Giovanni, 'Eh via, buffone, eh via, non mi seccar,' Mr. Lau sang splendidly, and his mimicry of Giovanni in serenading Donna Elvira was sidesplitting. His voicing of the aria 'Ah, pietà! Signori miei!’ crackled with fear and frustration, and his address to the Commendatore’s monument in 'O statua gentilissima' was artfully-phrased. Mozart and da Ponte wrote the rôle of Leporello so magically that a good singer can easily walk away with the laurels in a performance of Don Giovanni. The high quality of his colleagues’ portrayals meant that Mr. Lau shared the laurels, but in both voice and demeanor he was a world-class Leporello.

Jeongcheol Cha’s Don Giovanni dominated the performance as any Giovanni should but so few manage to do. In the opera’s opening scene, Giovanni’s carnal appetite was apparent in his pursuit of Anna, but there was a hint of genuine remorse in response to his slaying of the Commendatore. So different was the man who wooed Zerlina in 'Là ci darem la mano' that this Giovanni might have been thought to be bipolar. Mr. Cha beguiled and deceived with consummate arrogance in the quartet with Anna, Elvira, and Ottavio, and his singing of the quicksilver aria 'Fin ch'han dal vino calda la testa' was a model of dramatic bluster tempered by vocal control. His voicing of 'Riposate, vezzose ragazze!' in the Act One finale was similarly governed by absolute vocal surety. Mr. Cha’s account of 'Eh via, buffone, eh via, non mi seccar!' at the start of Act Two was bracing, the singer’s crisp diction—a trait that all of his colleagues shared, much to the benefit of the performance—increasing the vibrancy of his vocalism. The celebrated canzonetta 'Deh vieni alla finestra, o mio tesoro' simply could not have been more wonderfully sung. As Giovanni’s destiny began to unravel, Mr. Cha’s singing only grew more granitic. In the aria 'Metà di voi quà vadano' and the sublime sextet, his voice radiated unwavering determination. Still, in 'Già la mensa è preparata' in the penultimate scene, his defiance and self-satisfaction were boundless. Projecting tones like missiles, this Giovanni battled supernatural retribution for his misdeeds to the very end: this was a man so accomplished at escaping justice that it seemed that even the flames of hell might be unable to grasp him. A few moments of struggle in rapid passagework were easily forgiven, and Mr. Cha must be congratulated for having recovered from a hard fall without missing a note. It is inexplicable that many of the world’s most renowned opera houses cast Don Giovanni with singers with familiar names who muddle the music embarrassingly when a singer like Mr. Cha sings the rôle so ingratiatingly.

Every production of Don Giovanni must choose a path to follow into the thicket of interpretation that has grown on the fertile ground of the score since its first performance in 1787. North Carolina Opera’s production traveled a route that started and ended where any operatic journey should logically remain: in the composer’s music and the librettist’s words. The audience learned from North Carolina Opera’s Don Giovanni that Eighteenth-Century Spain was an environment in which one’s honor had to be guarded more closely than any fiscal treasure, but the music-making was certainly magnificent!