29 February 2016

CD REVIEW: Franz Schubert — WINTERREISE (Dimitris Tiliakos, baritone; Vassilis Varvaresos, piano; Navis Classics NC16008)

IN REVIEW: Franz Schubert - WINTERREISE (Navis Classics NC16008)FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): Winterreise, D911Dimitris Tiliakos, baritone; Vassilis Varvaresos, piano [Recorded in Stichting Westvest 90, Schiedam, Netherlands, 21 – 25 July 2015; Navis Classics NC16008; 1 CD, 76:27; Available from Navis Classics, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In the wondrously discombobulating realm of music written for the human voice, there are works that artists with sufficient good sense to safeguard their vocal endowments and respect their places in the distinguished history of song approach—or should approach—with healthy reverence. The soprano who regards Norma’s ‘Casta diva,’ Isolde’s Liebestod, or Brünnhilde’s Immolation as mere intersections of notes and words is unlikely to find lasting success singing any of these epic pieces. The violinist who perceives in the scores of the Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruch concerti only opportunities for technical peacocking is not worthy of the music. For the conscientious Lieder singer, Franz Schubert’s genre-defining Winterreise is a work of similar significance, one that must be studied, absorbed, felt, even loved before it can be satisfactorily sung. In this music, it is not enough to master the notes and correctly pronounce the words. Unsurprisingly, the Schubert discography is littered with merely competent recordings of Winterreise, many of which sound beautiful to the ears but communicate nothing to the heart. For those who cherish the Art of Song, the release of a new recording of Winterreise is cause for equal excitement and trepidation. Recorded with great skill and obvious affection by the label’s manager, Daan van Aalst, with the ideal natural acoustical balance between voice and piano for which all labels recording Lieder repertory should strive, Navis Classics’ Winterreise is a traversal of this epic cycle that is truly a journey, one that takes the listener into ominous, uncomfortable recesses of the psyche with the emotional directness and collaborative musicality missing from so many performances and recordings of Winterreise. Most crucially, the heart that beats tumultuously at the core of this Winterreise is Schubert’s, an attribute that has eluded the endeavors many of the most famous names in the cycle’s storied history on records.

Born on the picturesque island of Rhodes, situated just off the southwest coast of Turkey but one of Greece’s Dodecanese islands, baritone Dimitri Tiliakos brings to his work an artistry steeped in the millennia of history and traditions of his homeland. Following study of the viola, he honed his vocal technique under the tutelage of his illustrious countryman, the still-too-little-appreciated baritone Kostas Paskalis. Upon that foundation, he has built an impressive international career that, to date, has taken him to many of the world’s important opera houses, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where he débuted as Schaunard in Puccini’s La bohème in 2010. His resonantly masculine but sympathetic Aeneas opposite Simone Kermes’s Dido on Teodor Currentzis’s fascinating recording of Purcell’s operatic magnum opus will soon be joined by his performance of the title rôle in the conductor’s Sony recording of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, recorded in Perm in December 2015. His partner in this Winterreise, prize-winning pianist Vassilis Varvaresos, is also a native of Greece, born in Thessaloniki, the capital of Greek Macedonia. Having been heard in prestigious venues including New York’s Carnegie Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Paris’s Salle Gaveau, and The White House, where he played at the invitation of President Barack Obama, Varvaresos has garnered a reputation as an exceptional interpreter of a wide repertory that includes his own compositions. It is fanciful to suggest that the baritone’s and pianist’s common nationality engenders heightened artistic accord, but the synergy that this pair of artists bring to their performance of Winterreise is incredible. The songs, first published in 1828, here sound as though they are being extemporized by a single artist before the studio microphones. Tiliakos and Varvaresos phrase in tandem with the synchronicity of dance partners, the baritone’s voice and the pianist’s fingers executing an eloquent pas de deux that bridges the two centuries between Schubert’s composition of the Lieder and today with startling immediacy. This is a reading of Winterreise that does not shrink from extremes of dynamics and tempo and is all the better for it. Winterreise is not a dainty odyssey: why do so many performers fidget with the music as though it were?

From the start of ‘Gute Nacht,’ it is apparent that this will be no ordinary, ‘safe’ Winterreise. Tiliakos’s mezza voce is wonderful, sustained and projected by his exemplary breath control, and his soft singing is often mesmerizing. He touches notes above the stave gently but without resorting to falsetto, and he shares with Hermann Prey and Heinrich Schlusnus the ability to sing piano without crooning or condescending. The modulation to the major for the last stanza of ‘Gute Nacht’ is cathartic as Tiliakos sings it, the tension unostentatiously resolved. Varvaresos executes the trills in the opening bars of ‘Die Wetterfahne’ with uncommon rhythmic crispness, the ornaments for once bring perfectly in time with the melodic line as they should be but seldom are, and Tiliakos displays the strength of his voice, slight hints of unsteadiness at the top of the range showing themselves when the volume increases. However, the baritone does not use Schubert’s most animated passages as an opportunity to overwhelm the music with pseudo-operatic grandstanding. Varvaresos’s playing of the restless accompaniment of ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ complements Tiliakos’s listless, almost embarrassed interpretation of the song, and their sensitive but unsentimental ‘Erstarrung,’ a song that goes for nothing in many performances of Winterreise, is unexpectedly one of the most vivid numbers in their cycle. ‘Der Lindenbaum’ is justifiably among Schubert’s most admired Lieder, and the delicacy of singing and pianism with which it is shaped here is very effective, disclosing the inherent rightness of handling the song with simplicity. The effortlessness with which Tiliakos braves Schubert’s awkward intervals in ‘Wasserflut’ lends the song eerie charm.

The enigmatic atmosphere of ‘Auf dem Flusse’ is conjured by the pianist and deepened by the singer, their work highlighting the haunting power of the song. The rumbling accompaniment of ‘Rückblick’ is played by Varvaresos with pinpoint accuracy and Stravinskian buoyancy. Tiliakos traces the uncertain, somewhat disjointed vocal line with the kind of technical security that enables searching dramatic introspection. Their ‘Irrlicht,’ too, possesses an unnerving charisma that permeates the performance: the song’s essence is both chilling and comforting. With its suspended resolutions of cadences and ritornello-like piano part, ‘Rast’ is a link with the Baroque, its dialogue between voice and instrument reminiscent of music like the Largo ma non tanto movement of Bach’s D-minor Concerto for Two Violins (BWV 1043). Tiliakos and Varvaresos duet with the sacrosanct trust of chamber musicians. Echoes of Haydn resound in ‘Frühlingstraum,’ translated by both singer and pianist into statements in Schubert’s most concentrated Romantic language. In a sense, the first strains of ‘Einsamkeit’ are like a fun-house mirror reflection of ‘Der Lindenbaum,’ but Tiliakos sings it so unaffectedly that the song’s latent spiritual grotesqueries seem less like torments and more like much-needed companions.

‘Die Post’ is an example of the breadth of Schubert’s talent for cinematic use of the piano, the unmistakable sounds of galloping post carriage horses and the post horn in the song’s accompaniment contrasting with the unperturbed stasis of the vocal line. Varvaresos and Tiliakos present the song straightforwardly, completely avoiding some performances’ intimation that it is a piano recital into which a singer wanders. There is a vein of affection in ‘Der greise Kopf’ that many artists do not bother to tap, but Tiliakos and Varvaresos extract the plasma from the piece and transfuse it into their musical veins, portentously imparting the text’s ambivalence about growing old. The inquisitive crow that appears in ‘Die Krähe’ is welcomed as a comrade by Tikiakos’s narrator rather than being dismissed as an intruder, and he and Varvaresos give the song a gentle humor. ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ is not as bleak as its title suggests, and this performance focuses on an unexaggerated articulation of the text, eschewing the melodramatic wailing in which some performers mire the song. As sung here, ‘Im Dorfe’ is an unusually clear-sighted examination of the perceived manifestations of human emotions in their physical surroundings, an exploration furthered in ‘Der stürmische Morgen,’ imaginatively played and sung. Throughout his survey of the Lieder in Winterreise, Tiliakos exhibits propitious confidence in the full range demanded by the music, rising without strain to notes above the stave and descending with similar assurance to the bottom of the compass. His diction is clear without seeming stilted or artificial, and so well-matched is Varvaresos’s phrasing, even when piano and voice pursue divergent paths, that it would be easy to erroneously regard this Winterreise as the product of a single musician.

The unique sensibilities of Tiliakos’s and Varvaresos’s explication of the psychological intricacies of Winterreise are distilled into a laser-like focus in the sequence of the final six songs of the cycle. The subtleties of ‘Täuschung’ are insightfully differentiated from the prevailingly desolate mood of ‘Der Wegweiser,’ and the hymn-like ‘Das Wirtshaus’ is expansively phrased, giving the song’s ethos a proto-Wagnerian depth. The dramatically alert elocution of ‘Mut!’ takes its strength from the performers’ organic musicality, the song’s expressive potency—undermined by many artists’ over-emphatic approaches—intensified by the singular metaphysical sagacity with which Tiliakos and Varvaresos convert the meaning of the text into sound. The stark imagery of ‘Die Nebensonnen’ is brought to disconcerting life by the baritone’s visceral singing: one practically squints at the blinding glare of the fraudulent suns of which he sings. In this performance, the hurdy-gurdy man of ‘Der Leiermann’ is not a terrestrial Charon demanding remuneration for passage to another plane of existence but a Delphic harbinger of a new reality. As elucidated by Tiliakos and Varvaresos, the narrator’s journey does not reach a tragic terminus: here, Winterreise is truly a cycle, an orbit through an ever-changing landscape scarred but not obliterated by loss and disillusionment.

Perhaps the most telling ambiguity in Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century is the contrast between the disheartening lack of civility among artists and the damning politeness of their work upon the world’s stages. When Giulietta Simionato’s Santuzza hurled tidings for a ‘mala pasqua’ in Turiddu’s face, the audience, whether in the theatre or listening at home, felt the blow down to the marrow of their bones. When Maria Callas’s Anna Bolena demanded justification of ‘giudici—ad Anna?’ from the hypocritical Enrico, she for a moment wore not costumes and rhinestone jewels but the martyr’s crown of the unjustly accused. When the Busch Quartet played the music of Beethoven, one listened not for particular notes or phrases but for whispered messages from the composer. Schubert’s Winterreise deserves this same level of commitment from those who perform it—and from those who hear it. The performance by Dimitris Tiliakos and Vassilis Varvaresos allows the listener to genuinely experience Winterreise. If the sonnets of Shakespeare, the canvases of El Greco, and the novels of Zora Neale Hurston could be condensed into seventy minutes of song, this Winterreise might be the result, but this Winterreise is a compelling work of art all on its own, a vision of humanity shared by three artists—Franz Schubert, Dimitris Tiliakos, and Vassilis Varvaresos—courageous enough to look beyond the façades of pretty fusions of music and text.

27 February 2016

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — LE DUC D’ALBE (L. Naouri, A. Meade, M. Spyres, G. Buratto, D. Stout, T. Llŷr Griffiths, R. Tritschler, D. Kimberg; Opera Rara ORC54)

IN REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti - LE DUC D'ALBE (Opera Rara ORC54)GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Le duc d’Albe—Laurent Naouri (Le duc d’Albe), Angela Meade (Hélène d’Egmont), Michael Spyres (Henri de Bruges), Gianluca Buratto (Daniel Brauer), David Stout (Sandoval), Trystan Llŷr Griffiths (Carlos), Robin Tritschler (Balbuena), Dawid Kimberg (Un tavernier); Opera Rara Chorus; Hallé; Sir Mark Elder, conductor [Recorded at Hallé St Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester, England, in June 2015; Opera Rara ORC54; 2 CDs, 93:22; Available from Opera Rara, Amazon (USA – CD | mp3), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

One of the most confounding dilemmas in opera is the question of what to do with scores that were left incomplete by their composers or exist in multiple forms. There are instances in which the decisions are easy, of course: though her earlier guise is not without obvious assets, Beethoven’s Fidelio is almost universally preferred over her younger self, Leonore, and the version of Massenet’s Werther adapted to accommodate a baritone protagonist for the benefit of Mattia Battistini is very rarely heard in comparison with the performance diary of the canonical version with a tenor protagonist. Händel’s Radamisto, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice/Orphée et Eurydice, Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, and Verdi’s La forza del destino and Don Carlos all present riddles that are not easily solved. In the nearly 230 years since the opera’s première, conductors, opera house managers, and impresarios have debated whether to perform the Prague or Vienna version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Should both of Don Ottavio’s arias be included, or must fidelity to the letter of one of the versions be preserved; and what of Donna Elvira’s ‘Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata’? Is Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer to be staged in a single act or in three acts, set in Scotland or Norway? Should a performance of Puccini’s Turandot end at the point at which the composer’s death halted his work on the score, employ the sanctioned completion by Franco Alfano, or devise another option? There are as many possible solutions as there are people to ponder the questions, but the very notion of a single right answer is as fanciful as the ‘chimere’ and ‘castelli in aria’ of which Rodolfo sings in La bohème.

In a sense, the death of Gaetano Donizetti in 1848 was a merciful release, the last three years of the composer’s life having subjected him to the agonies of disease, deterioration, and institutionalization. Particularly in his final year, bouts of lucidity and work alternated with periods during which it was reported that he had virtually no sensory engagement with his surroundings. Perhaps he retreated in those distant moments into the theatre within him, where new works continued to take shape. The deaths of his parents, his wife, and all three of his children by the autumn of 1837 undoubtedly made his fifth decade a lonely time when the characters to whom he gave life in his scores were his closest companions. Though such projects were rarely without plentiful headaches, the prospect of writing a new score for the Paris Opéra must have at least given Donizetti a welcome outlet into which his energy could be channeled. When the composer abandoned Naples after the censors denied his Poliuto a première on the stage of the Teatro di San Carlo and relocated to Paris in October 1838, he was hardly a stranger in the French capital, where his Anna Bolena, Lucia di Lammermoor, and other scores had attained popularity in the repertories of several theatres, most notably the Théâtre-Italien, performances under the auspices of which—a momentous example being the 1835 première of Donizetti’s Marino Faliero, commissioned by the company and first performed not long after the première of Bellini’s similarly-conceived I puritani—bounced during Donizetti’s residencies in the city among four venues including the famed Salle Favart. After Salvadore Cammarano’s Poliuto underwent redressing by Eugène Scribe as Les martyrs and the resulting opera received its first production at the Opéra in April 1840, Donizetti turned his attention back to fulfilling the second of his two commissions from the Opéra, a setting of a libretto by Scribe and Charles Duveyrier: Le duc d’Albe.

By the time that Les martyrs reached the stage, the score of Le duc d’Albe, begun in 1839, was half-completed, vocal lines for the incomplete portions, mostly Acts Three and Four, already substantially sketched. The real impetus for the regrettable ultimate abandonment of Le duc d’Albe will now likely never be known. The oft-repeated story, worthy of Gaston Leroux’s Le fantôme de l’Opéra, of the Opéra’s manager’s dismissal of Le duc d’Albe because its heroine, written with tessitura similar to that of the title rôle in Anna Bolena, was not congenial for the company’s—and his—leading lady, mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz, may be wholly or partially apocryphal, but, if not on Stoltz’s behalf surely to her benefit, Hélène in Le duc d’Albe was cast aside in favor of Léonor in La favorite, a reworking of Donizetti’s 1839 score L’ange de Nisida, recently announced as a future Opera Rara recording project. Rather than employing the completion of the score fashioned by Donizetti’s pupil Matteo Salvi and first performed using an Italian translation [Scribe’s libretto did not languish in neglect, eventually being recalled to duty for Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes] in Rome in 1882 or exploring other avenues like the jarringly divergent completion by Giorgio Battistelli staged by Vlaamse Opera in 2012, this Opera Rara release presents Roger Parker’s critical edition of only the music completed by Donizetti, augmented by a handful of newly-composed passages, the work of Martin Fitzpatrick, necessary for the continuity of the existing material. True to the label’s mission of ensuring that ‘operas once threatened with extinction [are] now brought vividly back to life,’ this recording enables Twenty-First-Century listeners to hear Le duc d’Albe as it was bequeathed to posterity by its composer in a performance that would have caused the Opéra to reconsider its rejection, Rosine Stoltz and her admirers be damned.

Their work having been featured on previous Opera Rara recordings, the excellent playing of the Hallé musicians and the vigorous but stylish conducting of Sir Mark Elder are not surprising, but they here surpass their own high standards. The orchestra’s crackling account of the opera’s atmospheric Prélude launches a performance in which every Hallé member uses his or her instrument not as an impersonal conduit for sound but as a participant in the drama. As in their acclaimed performances and recordings of Wagner’s Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, the Hallé players excel in the construction of a sonic profile consistent in its brilliance but adaptable in scope to the needs of the score. Donizetti’s skill as an orchestrator became ever more refined as his career progressed, and his writing for strings in Le duc d’Albe has a Mozartean elegance that dovetails very effectively with his bold, Verdian music for brasses and woodwinds. Elder’s ear for individual instrumental timbres and the ways in which Donizetti manages and manipulates them is invaluable in this score, and his trust in his Hallé colleagues’ impeccable musical integrity frees him to focus on presiding over a performance that balances brawn and bel canto. Central to the preservation of that balance is the singing of the Opera Rara Chorus. At the start of Act One, the choristers’ exclamations of ‘Espagne! Espagne! Espagne!’ immediately elevate the temperature of the performance to a feverish level, and the force with which they declaim ‘Honneur à lui! Ce guerrier notre idole’ later in the act is breaktaking. In Act Two, their caroling of ‘Liqueur traîtresse’ introduces wry humor into the otherwise deadly serious circumstances. Then, their ominous ‘Les derniers feux meurent dans l’ombre’ establishes the dangerous tension of the act’s final minutes. The sincere religiosity of their intoning of ‘Liberté! ... Liberté chérie!’ makes Donizetti’s depiction of the Flemings’ quest for freedom from their Hapsburg overlords a relative of the struggles against oppression in Verdi’s Nabucco, I Lombardi alla prima crociata, Attila, and Macbeth. Had Le duc d’Albe been completed, it might well have proved as galvanizing a work of musical politics as Verdi’s Risorgimento operas and Auber’s La muette de Portici. Nevertheless, the most appreciable accomplishment of Elder’s conducting is that nothing about this performance of Le duc d’Albe sounds incomplete.

Another expectation of Opera Rara recordings is casting of supporting rôles with artists of markedly higher quality than many opera companies and record labels have sufficient resources or vision to engage. In this regard, too, this Le duc d’Albe is a particular triumph for Opera Rara. Heard in Act One, South African baritone Dawid Kimberg as the Tavernier and Welsh tenor Trystan Llŷr Griffiths as Carlos sing attractively and securely. One of today’s most communicative Lieder singers, Irish tenor Robin Tritschler voices Balbuena’s intoxicated haranguing of Hélène in Act One, ‘Pourquoi dans cette foule heureuse et satisfaite,’ with appropriate swagger, his light but plush voice filling his character’s lines with greater beauty than their coarseness merits. Appearing in both acts, the captain of the Spanish garrison, Sandoval, is portrayed with fittingly martial fortitude by bronze-timbred baritone David Stout, a former head chorister at Westminster Abbey. There is smarmy self-satisfaction in his delivery of ‘Par Saint-Jacques, messieurs, on ne boit qu’à Bruxelles,’ and he chants ‘Voyez donc cette belle’ repulsively—perfectly in character, that is. His mettlesome study of Sandoval continues to gain stature in Act Two. Donizetti deserves no less than Kimberg, Griffiths, Tritschler, and Stout contribute to this Le duc d’Albe, but how many performances or recordings of any repertory enjoy the participation of artists of their calibre?

The aptly-named Daniel Brauer is brewed into a potent figure by Italian bass Gianluca Buratto. An uncompromising Flemish patriot, Daniel occasionally seems like a refugee from Meyerbeer’s Less Huguenots, premièred in Paris in 1836. [Incidentally, Scribe also collaborated on the libretto for Les Huguenots.] Buratto detonates ‘Quelle horreur m’environne’ in Act One with dark implications, but he interacts with Hélène with affection and restraint. In the fast-paced second act, the bass takes care to highlight the emotional chasm that opens between ‘Ici l’on travaille et l’on chante!’ and ‘Mais j’entends battre la retraite.’ Buratto’s voice and demeanor are perhaps slightly too refined for the heroic but pragmatic Daniel, but the singer’s performance validates the realization that being a man of action and a man of thought are not mutually-exclusive concepts. Most importantly, he sings Daniel’s music capably and handsomely.

The rôle of the enigmatic Duc d’Albe, the Spanish viceroy of Flanders, likely suffers more than any of the other principal characters from the truncated form in which the opera survives, the beginning of Act Three having been planned as a solo scene for the Duc, but French baritone Laurent Naouri takes full advantage of every opportunity given to him and succeeds in creating a remarkably three-dimensional figure whose presence in the drama is considerably greater than the sum of its relatively few musical parts. In Act One, Naouri voices ‘Race faible et poltronne’ powerfully, the character’s ambivalence obvious from the start. The singer’s native French diction is a definite advantage, but the worst French among the cast is very good. The baritone phrases ‘J’aime son audace’ with toughness that does not impede the suggestion of warmth towards his rediscovered son. Absent from Act Two, the Duc’s shadow is perceived nevertheless, largely owing to Naouri’s incendiary portrayal. Along with some splendid high notes, Naouri produces sporadic patches of strenuous, unsteady singing. His reading of the troubled Duc embodies dramatic and musical authority, however, and, solely on vocal terms, he is a legitimate successor to Louis Quilico and Silvano Carroli in the character’s draconian music.

The notion that Missouri-born tenor Michael Spyres could sing more excitingly than in his assumption of the rôle of Polyeucte in Opera Rara’s 2014 concert performance and studio recording of Donizetti’s Les martyrs might seem ridiculous to listeners who have not heard this recording of Le duc d’Albe. As the colloquialism promises, though, hearing is believing, and there are sensational things to be heard in Spyres’s singing of Donizetti’s music for Henri de Bruges. In Henri’s exchanges with Hélène, Daniel, and the Duc in Act One, Spyres adopts a lover’s, a fellow patriot’s, and a defiant freedom fighter’s inflections, all while singing magnificently. The tenacity of Spyres’s articulation of ‘Punis mon audace!’—reminiscent of the title character’s ‘Giudici...ad Anna!’ in the Act One finale of Anna Bolena—is thrilling, and his virile ‘Non, non, point de grâce’ transforms the final scene of Act One of Le duc d’Albe from a standard-issue operatic clash into a life-or-death campaign against despotism. His excursions into the vocal stratosphere in the finales of both acts are as invigorating as they are secure. Duetting with his beloved and pursuing his determination to terminate the incumbency of the tyrant who is actually his father, Spyres provides the stimulus that propels Act Two to its electrifying conclusion. In the duet with Hélène, he vocalizes ‘Ah! Oui, longtemps en silence’ with fearlessness and sophistication. These qualities define Spyres’s singing in every scene in which he appears in Le duc d’Albe. The celebrated tenor Gilbert Duprez created the rôles of Polyeucte in Les martyrs and Fernand in La favorite, and it is feasible that it was for Duprez that Donizetti intended the rôle of Henri in Le duc d’Albe. If Duprez was capable of singing Henri’s music half as well as Spyres sings it on this recording, Parisians having been deprived of hearing his interpretation of the part was one of the foremost musical misfortunes of the Nineteenth Century.

Spyres’s Henri warrants a first-rate leading lady, and soprano Angela Meade, hailing from Centralia, Washington, and here making her Opera Rara début, fits the bill spectacularly. With a repertoire including lauded outings in rôles as diverse as the Contessa in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda and Norma, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Lucrezia Borgia, Verdi’s Elvira in Ernani, Leonora in Il trovatore, and Alice Ford in Falstaff, and Fidelia in Puccini’s Edgar, Meade is one of today’s most intrepid singers. Vocal dauntlessness is best justified by technical confidence, and Meade’s singing on this recording exudes mastery of red-blooded bel canto. From her first appearance in Act One, she personifies an Hélène whose resilience is nearly as impressive as her vocal resources. Donizetti’s opera essentially enacts upon the stage the events represented in Beethoven’s familiar Egmont Overture, the opera’s plot beginning on the day after Hélène’s father, the Count of Egmont, was executed under orders from the Duke of Alba. With her impassioned singing of ‘Au sein des mers et battu par l’orage,’ Meade confirms that her Hélène is a daughter in whom the spirit of her father lives. The causticity of ‘A quoi bon des prières vaines’ is mirrored in the icy glint that the soprano’s singing takes on, but the lady’s comportment softens with Meade’s lusciously-phrased ‘Ah! Que du ciel descende.’ Then, the aristocratic bearing with which she voices ‘Moi-même je frissonne’ discloses Hélène’s innate nobility of heart. The ease with which Meade rises to the challenges of Act Two is staggering, her utterance of ‘Henri! Noble jeune homme! Ah, j’ai lu dans son âme’ amazing with its blend of technical aptitude and histrionic panache. Equally gripping is her expressive ‘Ton ombre murmure, o mon père!’ In the duet with Henri, she sculpts the line in ‘Oui, longtemps en silence’ with the unerring hand of a Rodin, capturing in sound the souls of both the text and the woman she portrays. Meade’s jaunts above the stave are fantastic, not least the extraordinary top E♭ in unison with Spyres in Act Two, but it is the solidity of the sound throughout the wide compass of her music that is so gratifying. With her performance in Le duc d’Albe, Meade affirms that in her Opera Rara’s discerning decision makers have found a prima donna who earns a place alongside Nelly Miricioiu, Majella Cullagh, and Annick Massis.

Opera Rara’s commitment to recording ignored treasures of Nineteenth-Century opera—or, as in the case of the label’s planned studio recording of Rossini’s Semiramide, recording these treasures as they ought to be but are so rarely performed—sometimes leads into musical territory that Alexander Pope might have described as ground ‘where angels fear to tread,’ but no fools rushing in are Opera Rara and the artists who take part in the label’s projects! The Opera Rara catalogue is a lavish collection of performances that allow scores to exhibit their efficacy as their composers intended, but even among many gems this Le duc d’Albe sparkles very brightly.

24 February 2016

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel — ACIS AND GALATEA and SAREI TROPPO FELICE (A. Sheehan, T. Wakim, D. Williams, J. McStoots, Z. Wilder, A. Forsythe; cpo 777 877-2)

IN REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - ACIS AND GALATEA (cpo 777 877-2)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Acis and Galatea, HWV 49a [original chamber version of 1718] and Sarei troppo felice, HWV 157Aaron Sheehan (Acis), Teresa Wakim (Galatea), Douglas Williams (Polyphemus), Jason McStoots (Damon), Zachary Wilder (Coridon); Amanda Forsythe (soprano – HWV 157); Vocal and Chamber Ensembles of Boston Early Music Festival; Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, leaders [Recorded in the Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany, 27 June – 1 July 2013; cpo 777 877-2; 2 CDs, 107:18; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD (Download | Streaming), jpc (Germany), Amazon (USA), fnac (France), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Whether the medium at hand is literary, musical, political, or visual, the Zeitgeist of an age is of necessity manifested in the creative energy of its artists. There are of course Existentialist ties among artists, their work, and their communities, but the bonds that unite a work of art with its physical, social, and temporal environments are often as unglamorous as financing and fortuitous intersections of space and supplies. From the relatively broad perspective facilitated by the Twenty-First Century’s unprecedented access to information, it seems extraordinary that a society that, if accounts by writers of the ilk of Lytton Strachey are to be trusted, so dismayed Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, with its paucities of discipline, imagination, and integrity should a century before Victoria’s ascension in 1837 have inspired Georg Friedrich Händel to create for its entertainment some of the finest music produced in the first half of the Eighteenth Century. It has sometimes been suggested by observers for whom art begins and ends with money changing hands that Händel was essentially an opportunist: with a new, friendly dynasty upon the throne, Britain was a singer in search of a song, and Händel marketed himself as just the man to write it. He faced obstacles and suffered losses in the capital along the Thames that would have sent opportunists scurrying back to the Continent, however, and in the last fifteen years of his life he gave Britain several of his greatest scores, gifts that musical Britons did very little to deserve. It cannot have solely been opportunism that compelled the stern composer to permanently trade Halle for Mayfair, but there is no question that Händel and the English musical establishment enjoyed a mutually-beneficial relationship that continues to pay lavish returns.

Before permanently throwing his lot in with that of the English in 1712, Händel followed the tide of his burgeoning interest in opera, ignited in Hamburg, to the land of the genre’s birth. Continuing the serendipitous pattern of recording studio-made souvenirs of lauded Boston Early Music Festival performances, this cpo release unites Händel’s early Italian cantata ‘Sarei troppo felice’ (HWV 157) with the 1718 Cannons edition of the pastoral masque Acis and Galatea. Composed in September 1707 during the young Händel’s fruitful time in Rome and contemporaneously with Rodrigo, his first opera wholly in Italian, ‘Sarei troppo felice’ uses a text wholly or partially by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphilj. Unfortunately, the full manuscript of the cantata is not known to survive, but despite its early date—Händel was twenty-two years old when it was completed—the score often reveals the composer’s fledgling ingenuity at its most expressive. Sung for cpo by soprano Amanda Forsythe and accompanied in part by gambist Laura Jeppesen, ‘Sarei troppo felice’ proves to be an intriguing companion for Acis and Galatea. One of today’s most impressive singers in any repertory, Forsythe here makes much of little, heightening the emotional significance of each repetition of the opening line, ‘Sarei troppo felice.’ She phrases the Largo ‘Se al pensier dar mai potrò’ with great feeling, her use of text enabling the listener to sense the words’ meaning without comprehending a single syllable of Italian. The disquietude that floods her voice when she sings ’Clori, schernita Clori’ seems to flow from the most intimate recesses of her soul, and the emotive power of her traversals of ’Giusto Ciel se non ho sorte’ and ’Ah! che un cieco ho per guida’ is, on a scale appropriate to Händel’s music, no less than that borne by the utterances of an insightful Fiordiligi or Gilda. That Forsythe is an important singer is a fact acknowledged by virtually every listener fortunate enough to have heard her, and her singing of ‘Sarei troppo felice’ here confirms that she is an artist with the rare capacities to discern in any music a journey of the heart and to guide the listener in discerning—and exploring—it, too.

It was during his residency at Cannons, the Middlesex seat of the eventual Duke of Chandos [prior to 1719, when his Marquessate and Dukedom were created by the Crown, His Grace was but a lowly Baron, Viscount, and Earl], that Händel composed Acis and Galatea, the twelve Chandos Anthems, and the earliest of his pioneering English oratorios, Esther. Using as his libretto an adaptation of John Dryden’s translations of Ovid on which John Gay, John Hughes, and other writers, perhaps even Alexander Pope, likely collaborated, Acis and Galatea in its Purcellian masque form was completed in 1718. The circumstances of its first performance are unknown, but it is logically conjectured that a masque in which the hero is granted riparian immortality was conceived for al fresco performance, Cannons boasting of greatly-admired waterworks in its gardens. BEMF’s 2009 production sought to restore to Händel’s 1718 pastoral masque the authentic provenance of its birth, and this recording offers felicitous proof of the Festival’s success. Dismissive critical assessments of the scale of the performance—and the singers’ individual performances—on these discs, some authored by generally respected advocates for Baroque repertory, are mystifying. It is important that the 1718 Acis and Galatea not be confused with its brethren in the Händel catalogue, the 1708 Neapolitan serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, the three-act 1732 score premièred by Anna Maria Strada del Pò, Senesino, and Antonio Montagnana, and the 1739 two-act English adaptation. Measured against the proper standard, that of the known and probable contexts of the first performance of the Cannons version, the performance spurred by the bar-raising work of the BEMF Vocal and Chamber Ensembles exemplifies the best fusion of scholarship and timeless musicality.

The tuneful Sinfonia introduces Acis and Galatea with aptly Arcadian grace, and the playing of BEMF’s team of peerless Händel stylists—violinist and leader Robert Mealy, violinist Cynthia Roberts, cellist Phoebe Carrai, Rob Nairn on double bass, Gonzalo X. Ruiz playing solo oboe and recorder, oboist and recorder soloist Kathryn Montoya, bassoonist Dominic Teresi, harpsichordist Avi Stein, and musical directors Paul O’Dette on archlute and Stephen Stubbs on Baroque guitar and theorbo—sets the stage for a performance in which Händel’s music sounds newly-minted. Each of the musicians is an undoubted virtuoso, but the most remarkable aspect of their playing is the skill with which they furnish precisely the magnitude of sound that each number requires. As at Cannons in 1718, the vocal soloists also serve as the choristers, and the integration of their voices in the opening chorus, ‘O the Pleasure of the Plains,’ is superb. They seem an altogether different ensemble in the anguished pronouncements of ‘Wretched Lovers! Fate has past this sad decree, no joy shall last’ and ‘Mourn, all ye Muses, weep, all ye Swains.’ Comforting the despondent Galatea and then entreating her, ‘Galatea, dry thy Tears,’ their sound is again transformed, now glowing with melodious optimism. Under O’Dette’s and Stubbs’s direction, the decorous drama plays out plaintively, every embellishment enacted by singers and instrumentalists displaying absolute refinement.

Blame for the principal and, fundamentally, only flaw in the performance of Acis and Galatea on cpo’s discs must be laid at Händel’s feet. It is unpardonable that the shepherd Coridon has so little to do when he is given life by the hypnotic tones of tenor Zachary Wilder. His performance of Coridon’s air ‘Would you gain the tender Creature’ is exquisite, his timbre suiting the music as though Händel composed the piece with it in mind. The Polyphemus who could ignore this Coridon’s earnest effort at calming his ire must be audiologically as well as visually limited. In the history of recorded opera, there are moments that can never be replicated or forgotten: Pagliughi’s ‘Regnava nel silenzio,’ Flagstad’s Liebestod, Callas’s ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,’ Mödl’s Todesverkündigung, Björling’s ‘Donna non vidi mai.’ To these must be added Wilder’s ‘Would you gain the tender Creature.’ A performance such as this makes the dearth of memorable Isoldes and Toscas far easier to bear.

Equally effective is tenor Jason McStoots’s sweetly-vocalized portrayal of Acis’s confidant and fellow shepherd Damon. The sincerity that shapes his singing of the recitative ‘Stay, shepherd, stay!’ is mirrored in the confidence of his vocalism, and his performance of the air ‘Shepherd, what are thou pursuing?’ exudes concern for the course upon which Acis has set himself. Still more affecting is McStoots’s voicing of the air ‘Consider, fond Shepherd.’ His technique equal to every difficulty of his part, McStoot depicts an urbane but gratifyingly frank Damon. Like Wilder’s, his voice sounds tailor-made for the music.

Bass-baritone Douglas Williams creates within the boundaries of Händel’s music a multi-dimensional Polyphemus who manages to be strangely sympathetic even when crushing shepherds under boulders. His strapping tones, stronger at the top than at the bottom of his character’s range, give the one-eyed giant an atypical depth, this Polyphemus unapologetically wearing the scars of a continually-scorned lover. Williams surges through the accompanied recitative ‘I rage, I melt, I burn’ with the unstoppable force of an avalanche, but his is the voice of a creature consumed by love, not that of a schoolyard bully. Not unlike Jean-Philippe Rameau’s merciless mocking of the title character’s would-be lovemaking in his Platée, there is an unmistakable vein of humor in the famous air ‘O ruddier than the Cherry!’ Williams’s Polyphemus sounds as though he truly knows no other way of wooing than ham-fisted blustering, but he blusters most musically, jigging through the divisions rather than shouting them into submission as many of his fellow cyclopses have done. In the recitative with Galatea, the object of his unsubtle desire, he phrases ‘Whither, Fairest, art thou running’ with a concerted effort at artless charm, but his frustration erupts anew in his air ‘Cease to Beauty to be suing.’ In the fateful trio with Galatea and Acis, Williams’s voice throbs with fury that does not disguise accents of sorrow: no mindless brute, he knows on some level, like Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana when she reveals Turiddu’s affair with Lola to Alfio, that his actions have neutralized his rival but also deprived him of any possibility of winning his beloved’s affection. Williams makes Polyphemus a wounded beast whose shortcomings are all too human but whose voice is as dangerous a weapon as the stone with which he seals his fate.

By contrast, soprano Teresa Wakim’s Galatea is the personification of delicate femininity. The gleaming tone with which she illuminates the words in the accompanied recitative ‘Ye verdant Plains and woody Mountains’ is followed by an outpouring of concentrated bel canto in the air ‘Hush, ye pretty warbling Quire!’ Both the recitative ‘Oh, did’st thou know the Pains of absent Love’ and the air ‘As when the Dove’ are sung with rapt probity, and the moonstruck fervor of her delivery of Galatea’s words in the duet ‘Happy We!’ is both touching and tasteful. The soprano articulates the recitative ‘Cease, o Cease, thou gentle youth’ poignantly. Her terror in the trio with Acis and Polyphemus is as gripping as her grief in ‘Must I my Acis still bemoan’ and ‘’Tis done’ is heartbreaking. Wakim ends the masque with a rapturous performance of the air ‘Heart, the Seat of soft Delight,’ her voice soaring with renewed ardor. How could any Acis and Polyphemus not lose their hearts to this Galatea?

There is a sort of clairvoyance at the core of tenor Aaron Sheehan’s portrayal of Acis that ushers the listener into the character’s very private, endearingly uncomplicated world from the first golden notes of the singer’s performance of the air ‘Where shall I seek the charming Fair?’ Clairvoyance is not the correct term, really, for Sheehan’s conveyance of Acis’s introverted but all-consuming passion transcends sensory perception. Sheehan’s lean, agile voice moves gorgeously through the airs ‘Lo, here my Love, turn, Galatea, hither turn thy Eyes’ and ‘Love in her Eyes sits playing,’ his handling of fiorature as natural as his eloquent diction. He joins Wakim in the duet ‘Happy We!’ with beaming devotion. The titanium core of Sheehan’s voice lends his singing of the recitative ‘His hideous Love provokes my rage’ and air ‘Love sounds th’Alarm and Fear is a-flying!’ smoldering masculinity, and he fights fearlessly in the trio ‘The Flocks shall leave the Mountains’ for the love that has changed Acis’s life. Death is as innate a part of opera as of life, but few operatic deaths are as profoundly stirring as Sheehan makes Acis’s demise in the accompanied recitative ‘Help, Galatea, help, ye Parent Gods!’ The singer’s quiet, almost serene realization of the extinguishing of Acis’s life brings to mind the bittersweet death of Mr. Barkis in David Copperfield, in which Dickens wrote that, ‘it being low water,’ the noble-hearted, seafaring fellow ‘went out with the tide.’ His plangent vocalism having engendered a captivating character, Sheehan is an Acis whose destiny reaches the loftiest heights of tragedy.

Anyone approaching this recording of Acis and Galatea expecting Siegmund, Sieglinde, and Hunding speaking the language of Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda is destined for self-imposed disappointment. After his immigration to London, when his life became fodder for the diary-keeping gossips of English society, Händel may well have lacked the virtues of carefully-honed diplomacy and tactfulness, but his music suggests that his thorny manner defended a sensitive spirit. The cantata ‘Sarei troppo felice’ and the 1718 Cannons incarnation of Acis and Galatea are not the works of a curmudgeon, no matter how fiercely their creator guarded his most personal emotions. There is no hiding the tenderheartedness of the man who composed music that inspires performances like this ‘Sarei troppo felice’ and Acis and Galatea.

23 February 2016

CD REVIEW: Maurice Ravel — L’HEURE ESPAGNOLE and DON QUICHOTTE À DULCINÉE (I. Druet, L. Lombardo, F. Antoun, M. Barrard, N. Courjal, F. Le Roux; NAXOS 8.660337)

IN REVIEW: Maurice Ravel - L'HEURE ESPAGNOLE and DON QUICHOTTE À DULCINÉE (NAXOS 8.660337)MAURICE RAVEL (1875 – 1937): L’heure espagnole, M. 52 and Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, M. 84Isabelle Druet (Concepción), Luca Lombardo (Torquemada), Frédéric Antoun (Gonzalve), Marc Barrard (Ramiro), Nicolas Courjal (Don Iñigo Gomez); François Le Roux (Don Quichotte); Orchestre National de Lyon; Leonard Slatkin, conductor [Recorded at the Auditorium Maurice-Ravel, Lyon, France, 22 – 26 January 2013 (L’heure espagnole) and 18 – 20 September 2013 (Don Quichotte à Dulcinée); NAXOS 8.660337; 1 CD, 55:42; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD (Download | Streaming), Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

There are magical qualities in the music of Maurice Ravel that are found in the work of no other composer. The son of a father raised near Genève and a Basque mother whose childhood was spent in Madrid, Ravel was born in the small commune of Ciboure in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department of France, near the Golfe de Gascogne. The Ravel household was a nurturing environment for the young composer and his brother Édouard, one in which matters mechanical and musical were discussed with equal enthusiasm and Madame Ravel serenaded her sons with Basque folk songs recalled from her own youth. His engineer father’s scientific inclinations and his mother’s Basque libertarianism undoubtedly exerted powerful influences on Ravel’s artistic development. This is perhaps more evident in none of his works than in his ‘comédie musicale’ L’heure espagnole, first performed at the Opéra-Comique on 19 May 1911, when Ravel’s score shared the evening with Jules Massenet’s now-little-remembered Thérèse. An adaptation of the like-titled 1908 ‘comédie bouffe’ by Franc-Nohain (né Maurice Étienne Legrand, 1872 – 1934), L’heure espagnole was the first of Ravel’s two one-act operas, the only works in the genre that he completed despite having worked with varying degrees of diligence on three further operatic projects, and in its twenty-one scenes he created as entrancing a work as graced the French lyric stage in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century. Olin Downes wrote in The New York Times after L’heure espagnole’s Metropolitan Opera première in 1925, when Concepción and Ramiro were sung by luminaries of the era Lucrezia Bori and Lawrence Tibbett, that ‘there is not a measure that fails to tell its tale; not an innuendo of a racy text which fails to find its echo in the score.’ The text likely seemed racier to audiences ninety years ago than to today’s listeners, but Downes’s assessment struck the L’heure espagnole nail on the proverbial head: there is not in the opera’s fifty-minute duration a single bar that misses its musical and dramatic marks. The same can be said of the performance recorded by NAXOS in Lyon’s Auditorium Maurice-Ravel—as fitting a venue for L’heure espagnole as exists—in 2013 and now released in spacious, atmospheric sound produced, edited, and engineered by the team of Hugues Deschaux, Quentin Hindley, and Daniel Zalay: from the playing of the Orchestre National de Lyon to Leonard Slatkin’s conducting and the singing of a first-rate cast, this is a L’heure espagnole that bedazzles with the precision of a fine Swiss—make that a Spanish—timepiece.

Reusing the template that partnered Slatkin’s excellent Naxos recording of L’enfant et les sortilèges with a delightful account of Ma mère l’Oye [reviewed here], the label here pairs L’heure espagnole with the last of Ravel’s musical Iberian sojourns, his setting of three songs with texts by Paul Morrand (1888 – 1976), Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. Since the first publication in 1605 of Book One of Miguel de Cervantes’s El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, Don Quixote has been as ubiquitous a figure in Spanish literature as Sir John Falstaff and Tartuffe are in English and French literary traditions. Sentimentally, there are definite parallels between Massenet’s valedictory opera Don Quichotte and Ravel’s Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, heightened in provenance if not in practice by both works having been conceived for Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin [owing to illness, Ravel’s music for the film starring Chaliapin, the source for what became Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, was not completed, and the film score was ultimately supplied by Jacques Ibert]. Unlike the earlier L’heure espagnole and Massenet’s wistful but ultimately cathartic opera, the clamor of the approaching catastrophe typical of the entre-deux-guerres years resounds in Don Quichotte à Dulcinée. Backed by the Orchestre National de Lyon’s affectionately virtuosic accompaniment and refreshingly straightforward conducting by Slatkin, French bass François Le Roux highlights the music in Morrand’s words and the poetry in Ravel’s music. Morrand’s and Ravel’s Don Quichotte is a man wearied by his much-tested chivalry but unwilling to accept or admit his decline. The sharp quajira of the opening Chanson romanesque, ‘Si vous me dissiez que la terre,’ is shaped by Le Roux and Slatkin with unflagging energy, the dance of a man no longer light on his feet but still upright, still forging his own choreography. The subsequent Chanson épique, ‘Bon Saint Michel qui me donnez loisir,’ undulates with the feverish intensity of the zortzico, tempered by a softening of the hard textures of the music when the beloved Dulcinée is conjured. The vibrant jota of Chanson à boire, ‘Foin du bâtard, illustre Dame,’ fizzes with inebriated high spirits, but Le Roux’s vocalism remains focused and uncaricatured. Only a few minuscule instances of unsteadiness betray the singer’s years of service, the voice on the whole remaining a solid, well-trained instrument with a timbre like best-vintage cognac. Hearing Le Roux as Massenet’s Don Quichotte—or as Sancio Pancia in Giovanni Paisiello’s 1769 opera Don Chisciotte della Mancia, for that matter—would be most welcome, so complete is his characterization even in the seven minutes of Ravel’s portrait of the crestfallen knight errant, and his performance joins those by Camille Maurane, Max von Egmond, and José van Dam as one of the recorded accounts of Don Quichotte à Dulcinée to be cherished.

With orchestrations that, in addition to full complements of strings, brasses, woodwinds, celesta, and a pair of harps, call for a percussion section including timpani, three clock pendulums (for which Ravel specified metronome speeds), bass drum, bells, castanets, cymbals, glockenspiel, sleigh bells, spring, ratchet, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle, whip, and xylophone, L’heure espagnole is a score distinguished by an early flowering of the imaginative instrumentation of which Ravel was a consummate master. From the opening bars of the orchestral introduction, the Lyon musicians play with fervor and finesse. No section of the orchestra is less than excellent, but the low brasses and woodwinds are often spectacular, this disc featuring some of the best bassoon playing ever committed to disc. [Whether the Orchestre National de Lyon employs the sarrusophone requested by Ravel or substitutes contrabassoon is not indicated in the liner notes: the latter seems—and sounds—more likely.] In all of the opera’s twenty-one scenes, Slatkin adopts tempi that closely adhere to Ravel’s markings without causing the performance to seem like a pre-fabricated, paint-by-the-numbers run-through. Effective as Slatkin’s conducting of the Naxos L’enfant et les sortilèges was, his pacing of L’heure espagnole is even better.

In the opera’s opening scene, Ramiro, the muleteer arriving to submit his watch for repair, and Torquemada, the dully industrious clockmaker, are introduced with extraordinary wit, their voices differentiated by far more than range. Ravel intended for Ramiro to be sung by a baryton-martin, a Fach of which there are scarcely more modern representatives than of the near-mythical Falcon. Pursuant to his intention, Ravel gave Ramiro a punishingly high tessitura, with which baritone Marc Barrard contends with formidable assurance in this performance. Beginning with his titanium-cored voicing of ‘Señor Torquemada, horloger de Tolède?’ and ‘Or je suis – à votre service,’ he vaults through Ramiro’s music—and hauls those clocks and their clandestine cargo to and fro—with ease that appeals as much to the listener’s ears as to Concepción’s eager eyes.

Concepción’s dullard of a husband Torquemada—yes, one almost expects a Monty Python trouper to suddenly exclaim (en français, bien sûr), ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’—responds, ‘Torquemada, c'est moi, Monsieur,’ in the firm tones of tenor Luca Lombardo. Though he apparently is not overly proficient in cleaning his wife’s clock, literally or figuratively, there is no reason that he should sound like a superannuated geezer, and this performance is all the more amusing for having in Lombardo a Torquemada who is not a whining marionette.

In Scene Two, Concepción joins her husband and his customer Ramiro with a typically unsubtle exclamation of ‘Totor!’ Assigned by Ravel to a soprano, Concepción is sung in this performance by mezzo-soprano Isabelle Druet with the velvet-throated sass of the young Giulietta Simionato. [Did someone mention Falcons?] She toys with Ramiro with her Carmen-esque ‘Il reste, voilà bien ma chance!’ in Scene Three, but her seductive greeting to the poetry-spouting student Gonzalve in Scene Four, ‘Il était temps, voici Gonzalve,’ falls on deaf-by-distraction ears: dulcetly sung by tenor Frédéric Antoun, who veritably sighs ‘Enfin revient le jour si doux,’ this is a Gonzalve whose head is quite happily in his clouds of verse.

Exchanging fire with Concepción and Gonzalve in Scene Five, Barrard delivers Ramiro’s ‘C’est fait! l’horloge est à sa place’ rousingly. In the subsequent scene, Concepción continues her assault on the hapless Gonzalve, Druet dispatching ‘Maintenant, pas de temps à perdre!’ and ‘Oui, c’est fou, je te le concède’ with marvelous insouciance. In the opera’s early scenes, Concepción’s music rarely departs from the lower octave of the soprano range, and the richness of Druet’s tones in this part of the voice lends her Concepción an alluring voluptuousness. As a matter of convenience, she shifts her amorous attentions in Scene Seven to the banker Don Iñigo Gomez, who greets her as he enters through a window with ‘Salut à la belle horlogère!’ in the clarion tones of bass Nicolas Courjal, leading to an uncomfortably close encounter with Ramiro, whose ‘Voilà ... Et maintenant à l’autre!’ Barrard predictably sings vigorously.

Scenes Nine and Ten give first Iñigo and then Ramiro rare chances to have the stage to themselves, variously disappearing into and emerging from clocks, and the interpreters of both rôles seize their opportunities with glee. Singing with suavity that recalls recorded souvenirs of the vocalism of Ravel’s first Iñigo, Hector Dufranne (also Debussy's first Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande), Courjal makes Iñigo’s ‘Evidemment, elle me congédie’ a most entertaining interlude. The level-headed machismo of Barrard’s recitation of Ramiro’s ‘Voilà ce que j appelle une femme charmante’ is comparably droll. Both gentlemen bring their rôles to life with the authentic Gallic magnetism often lamented as extinct among today’s artists.

With her ‘Monsieur, ah! Monsieur! Dans ma gorge, les mots s arrêtent de dépit!’ in Scene Eleven with Ramiro, the tessitura of Concepción’s music climbs as the comedy escalates, Druet’s top G rocketing above the masculine grumblings with the force of the Mistral. Courjal’s Iñigo launches Scene Twelve with a riotous ‘Enfin, il part! Dieu! que ces muletiers sont de fâcheux bavards!’ that Barrard’s Ramiro answers with a galvanizing ‘Que faut-il que j’en fasse?’ in Scene Thirteen. Scene Fourteen reunites Concepción with Gonzalve, and the sting of Druet’s enunciation of ‘Ah! vous n’est-ce pas, preste! leste!’ is more piquant owing to the attractiveness of the sound. This is also true of Antoun’s singing of Gonzalve’s ‘En dépit de cette inhumaine’ in the next scene. How much more poignant many performances of Puccini’s La bohème might be were they populated by Rodolfos who sound as legitimately poetic as Antoun’s Gonzalve!

The sextet of scenes that proceed from Ramiro’s and Concepción’s return to the opera’s end, set in motion by Barrard’s stirringly-vocalized ‘Voilà ce que j’appelle une femme charmante,’ constitute one of the most purely fun sequences in opera, Ravel’s invention growing more exuberant with every subsequent phrase. The vocal potency and wily femininity of Druet’s handling of Concepción’s descent from F at the top of the stave to the D just below it on ‘Oh! la pitoyable aventure!’ and its repetition later in Scene Seventeen, as well as her fortissimo top As, bring to mind the similar qualities of Renata Tebaldi’s Gioconda, Tosca, and Wally. Indeed, Druet has at her disposal complete security throughout the full compass of the voice of which many spintos and dramatic sopranos should rightly be envious. All of the players trade barbs in the opera’s final minutes, Barrard discharging Ramiro’s ‘Voilà! ... Et maintenant, Señora, je suis prêt’ like a firecracker and Courjal’s burly elocution of Iñigo’s ‘Mon œil anxieux interroge’ giving way to Antoun’s heralding Gonzalve’s awakening of sorts with his sustained fortissimo top A♯. Torquemada gets a last word in before the vaudevillian finale with ‘Il n’est, pour l’horloger, de joie égale à celle,’ sung by Lombardo with the exasperation of a cuckolded husband and long-abused civil servant. The twisted ‘moral’ of L’heure espagnole is intoned by the cast with good-natured satisfaction in ‘Pardieu, déménageur, vous venez à propos!’ They all make credible efforts at producing the trills devilishly demanded by Ravel, and Druet confirms with her incandescent top B that, in the wake of so much mayhem, Concepción retains the upper hand over her band of hombres.

The first recording of L’heure espagnole was made under Ravel’s supervision in 1929, and that performance, now available in restored form, established a benchmark that has survived the test of the subsequent eighty-seven years. Per capita, recordings of L’heure espagnole have maintained a higher standard of artistry than those of many—most, in truth—operas, so the competition faced by this new NAXOS recording is fierce. Pas de souci! Featuring expertly-sung, brilliantly idiomatic performances of both Don Quichotte à Dulcinée and L’heure espagnole, this is one of the most enjoyable discs in the NAXOS catalogue. Give this L’heure espagnole an hour wherever you happen to be, and Ravel’s musical sorcery will transform your surroundings into the bustling Alcázar.

22 February 2016

CD REVIEW: A. Hollins, H. Howells, E. MacMillan, R. Manari, F. Morel, C. Saint-Saëns, L. Vierne, P. Whitlock, H. Willan — MUSIC FOR ORGAN (David Baskeyfield, organ; ATMA Classique ACD2 2719)

IN REVIEW: MUSIC FOR ORGAN (David Baskeyfield, organ; ATMA Classique ACD2 2719)ALFRED HOLLINS (1865 – 1942), HERBERT HOWELLS (1892 – 1983), SIR ERNEST MACMILLAN (1893 – 1973), RAFFAELE MANARI (1887 – 1933), FRANÇOIS MOREL (born 1926), CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921), LOUIS VIERNE (1870 – 1927), PERCY WHITLOCK (1903 – 1946), and HEALEY WILLAN (1880 – 1968): Music for OrganDavid Baskeyfield, organ [Recorded in St. Paul’s, Bloor Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 19 – 21 May 2015; ATMA Classique ACD2 2719; 1 CD, 80:07; Available from ATMA Classique, ClassicsOnlineHD (Download | Streaming), Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Whether a teeming metropolis or a sleepy crossroads, a community is defined in part by its musical footprint. By harnessing the powers of music to unite and uplift, locales as diverse as muddy fields in the Catskills and the ancient Terme di Caracalla have altered both musical and human histories, witnessing phenomena that transcended the simple acts of producing sounds. In generations past, academic, civic, and ecclesiastical communities often rightly venerated the organists who served them as . In German-speaking Europe, the names of Heinrich Schütz, Dieterich Buxtehude, Johann Jakob Froberger, and Johann Pachelbel became virtually synonymous with those of the towns in which they were master organists, and Pachelbel's son Karl Theodor perpetuated that association in the New World when he became organist at St. Philip's Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Even Johann Sebastian Bach was primarily celebrated as an organist rather than as a composer by many of his contemporaries and his own children. Disrupting the French traditions of organ playing and composition shaped by César Franck, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Charles-Marie Widor, the death of Jehan Alain was one of the foremost musical tragedies of World War II. In North America, the contrasting styles of E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox lent the organ greater interest and prominence than it might otherwise have enjoyed in the increasingly frenetic Twentieth Century.

Becoming an institution’s designated organist no longer depends as it sometimes did in Bach's time upon meeting conditions like marrying a predecessor's daughter, but the emergence of a new organist in the exalted tradition of Buxtehude, Bach, Franck, and Widor remains an important milestone in the global musical community. Completed in 1914, the Casavant Frères Opus 550 organ in the imposing Anglican church of St. Paul’s, Bloor Street, in Toronto is a magnificent instrument, its 106 stops, 137 ranks, and four-manual console rivaling in quality the organs that Bach played in Arnstadt and Weimar and the famous organ in Stift Sankt Florian so loved by Anton Bruckner. Moreover, the sonically grandiloquent St. Paul’s instrument, which celebrated its centennial—sadly not honored with a much-deserved restoration—with the planning and release of this disc, is likely the fifth largest organ of its kind in the world, an astounding achievement of musical craftsmanship. A young musician at the start of what promises to be a career to recall those of Twentieth-Century titans of the instrument like Biggs, Fox, and Marie-Claire Alain might dream of introducing his work to the public at the command of such an organ, and British-born organist David Baskeyfield, winner of the 2014 Canadian International Organ Competition, provides with this ATMA Classique disc, masterfully engineered and edited by Carlos Prieto with aural clarity that honors the enormity of the instrument’s sound without sacrificing the intimacy of some of the music, an introduction wholly worthy of his substantial talent.

Currently serving as Director of Music at Christ Episcopal Church in Pittsford, New York, near his alma mater, the prestigious Eastman School of Music, Baskeyfield was an organ scholar at St. John’s College, Oxford, simultaneously reading law during his tenure there, and at Dublin’s Christ Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedrals. In addition to his victory in the Canadian International Organ Competition, 2014 also witnessed the awarding of his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Eastman School. Highly-educated musicians are now nearly as prevalent as poorly-trained ones, but Baskeyfield is clearly an artist whose gifts warrant the plaudits he has received to date. In the performances on this disc, he discloses an affinity for drawing out the inner voices of both the instrument at his disposal and the music before him by making full use of the organ’s timbres. This quality is vital in all of the selections on the disc, and its significance is established immediately in Baskeyfield’s playing of the opening selection, Canadian composer and organist Sir Ernest MacMillan’s 1953 Cortège académique. The young organist’s performance of the piece succeeds in sounding anything but academic, the sentimental scope of the music receiving an exceptionally penetrating examination. Depth of feeling also characterizes Baskeyfield’s playing of Québécois composer François Morel’s 1954 Prière, a piece that benefits from the unaffected lyricism with which it is handled here. Both Herbert Howells’s 1918 Rhapsody No. 2 in E♭ major (Op. 17, No. 2) and Alfred Hollins’s 1917 Scherzo are products of the demoralizing era of the Great War, but they could hardly be more different, musically and emotionally. Howells’s work in general is colored by an ineradicable melancholy, and the Rhapsody, though a youthful work in a major key composed less than a decade after his auspicious first meeting with Ralph Vaughan Williams, exhibits suggestions of the composer’s mature idiom. Baskeyfield is careful to play the Rhapsody on its own terms, however, avoiding even the slightest hint of anachronistic bleakness by viewing the piece from the perspective of Howells’s 1932 Requiem and his powerful Hymnus Paradisi. By contrast, the prevailing mood of Hollins’s Scherzo is, as its title suggests, far lighter, but Baskeyfield’s playing is no less expert at conveying the irrepressible good humor of this work of a musician who managed to impress as prickly a critic as Queen Victoria.

The five movements of Percy Whitlock’s Plymouth Suite are individually and collectively tests of the player’s capacity for nuanced interpretation of musical subtleties. Baskeyfield unleashes an athletic robustness in the Allegro risoluto first movement, followed by a restrained, almost mysterious atmosphere in Lantana. The lilting Chanty has a rollicking, rustic charm in Baskeyfield’s performance, and his faculty for emphasizing the consequence of specific notes, especially in resolving cadences, without negatively impacting the integrity of broader phrases is inestimably valuable in Whitlock’s music. The sonic landscapes of Salix and Toccata are evoked with undaunted musicality, the capabilities of the organ mined for every nugget of sparkling interpretive depth. Inspired by mythological accounts of water nymphs, Louis Vierne’s Naïades (Pièces de fantaisie pour orgue, Op. 55, No. 4) wields an ethereal allure not unlike the music for the trio of nymphs in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, and Baskeyfield phrases Vierne’s impressionistic lines with grace and delicacy to which ladies who sing Strauss’s Naiad, Dryad, and Echo should aspire.

Beyond the milieux of organists and listeners who love music for the instrument, Camille Saint-Saëns is likely the most widely-known of the composers represented on this disc, but, aside from his famous Symphony No. 3 in C minor that prominently features organ, his works for the instrument of which he was the revered master at the Madeleine for nearly twenty years are not as familiar to many listeners as his orchestral music and the opera Samson et Dalila. His Prélude et Fugue in G major (Op. 109, No. 2) was dedicated to fellow composer and organist Albert Périlhou, an homage from the man proclaimed by Franz Liszt to be the best organist in the world to a respected colleague. The second of the three similarly-conceived pieces that constitute Saint-Saëns’s Opus 109, the G-major Prélude et Fugue is a work in which the wit of the creator of Le carnaval des animaux is apparent, and Baskeyfield’s traversal of the music insightfully explores its ceremony and its cleverness. Italian organ pedagogue Raffaele Manari in many ways occupies the opposite end of the artistic spectrum from Saint-Saëns, his sporadic compositions inhabiting an environment of liturgical austerity. Nevertheless, his Studio da concerto “Salve Regina” is a bold work, and Baskeyfield delivers it with virtuosity that encompasses simplicity and complexity equally, his approach lending the piece the effect of plainchant resounding in an ornate cathedral.

Born in London but resident during much of his career in Toronto, Healey Willan was organist at St. Paul's, Bloor Street, in which he capacity he was among the first organists to play the instrument heard on this disc. Composed in 1916, three years after his immigration to Canada, Willan’s Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue possesses fanfare sufficient to inaugurate a majestic instrument and the career of its custodian. It is natural that composers who were themselves renowned organists should write for the instrument with special skill, but Baskeyfield’s performance of Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue makes the music sound as though Willan composed it exclusively for him. The youthful energy with which Baskeyfield negotiates the transitions is complemented by expressive maturity which, frankly, many musicians with considerably more years to their credit do not exhibit. In particular, the perspicuity with which Baskeyfield articulates individual voices in Willan’s contrapuntal writing marks his playing as the work of a commendably intuitive musical mind.

An organist’s technique can be difficult to assess based solely upon audio recordings, but bad playing asserts itself to the ears of even the most casual of listeners. Like the large voices that have become an endangered commodity in opera due to inept training and misuse, potentially brilliant organists now often grapple with indifference and ignorance in pursuit of the nurturing and support that their development requires. With his playing on this disc, dedicated to captivating repertory overlooked by many, less-adventurous organists and record labels, David Baskeyfield announces his prominence among the superior organists of the still-nascent Twenty-First Century. In the case of this young artist, jurisprudence’s loss is emphatically music’s gain.

21 February 2016

ARTS IN ACTION: Washington Concert Opera resurrects Donizetti's rarely-performed La favorite — et en français!

ARTS IN ACTION: Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE resurrected by Washington Concert Opera, 4 March 2016 [Image of a scene from LA FAVORITE by Lee Woodward Zeigler, © 1899]Le roi, l’amant, et la favorite: Scene from Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite, to be performed in concert in Lisner Auditorium by Washington Concert Opera on 4 March 2016, by artist Lee Woodward Zeigler [Image © 1899 by the artist; public domain]

Many events in the life of Gaetano Donizetti would not seem out of place in the plots of his operas. Born in the town of Bergamo in Lombardia in 1797, Donizetti was only five years younger than Gioachino Rossini but is often regarded by modern observers as belonging to a markedly different generation of bel canto. Rather than an elder statesman and a younger protégé of sorts, Rossini and Donizetti were for a decade of their respective careers rivals on Italy’s stages. Though he retired from the composition of opera after the première of Guillaume Tell in 1829, before the scores for which Donizetti is most remembered—Anna Bolena (1830), L’elisir d’amore (1832), Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Maria Stuarda (1835), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), La fille du régiment (1840), and Don Pasquale (1843)—were first performed, Rossini outlived Donizetti by twenty years, after all. In the half-century of his life, Donizetti endured crippling hardships on and off the stage, many of which inevitably exerted indelible influences on his artistic development. Unlike many of his contemporaries who were born into musical lineages, Donizetti’s very humble beginnings did not afford him the luxury of an established artistic pedigree. Enrolled by his father in a school for choirboys in his native city, his prodigious musical gifts were soon discovered and cultivated by Johann Simon Mayr, the Bavarian maestro di capella at the Duomo di Bergamo throughout most of Donizetti’s life. None of Donizetti’s three children survived infancy, and the death of his young wife Virginia in 1837, less than a year after the deaths of both his parents, left him a lonely widower whose two brothers were seldom in proximity. Battered by failures and legal entanglements, clashes with theatres’ managers and impresarios, the underhanded machinations of rivals and their cabals, the damaging work of censors, and decades-long effects of ailments ultimately diagnosed as symptoms of syphilis, the final years of the composer’s life were a dispiriting maelstrom of depression, mental and physical decline, and dedicated but increasingly desperate work. It was in the midst of what must have been near-constant struggles to meet his professional commitments whilst confronting the tribulations of his life beyond Europe’s opera houses that La favorite clawed its way to life in the autumn of 1840. Now rarely heard, La favorite will receive from Washington Concert Opera on 4 March not only the gift of being performed by an exceptionally well-chosen cast with the technical dexterity that the music requires but also the great benefit of being sung in the original French rather than the more familiar but largely ineffectual Italian translation.

​A setting of an adaptation by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz of François-Thomas-Marie de Baculard d’Arnaud’s play Les Amants malheureux, ou le Comte de Comminges, La favorite was composed to order for the Paris Opéra, Donizetti’s initial subject for his second commission from that venerable institution, his never-completed Le duc d’Albe, having reputedly fallen victim to a force far more insurmountable than government censorship—the objection of a theatre manager to a score without an appropriately significant rôle for his paramour, in this case the renowned mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz. [Scholarship in the Twenty-First Century has called this theory into question, citing Nineteenth-Century accounts that repudiate the allegation, hinted at in Donizetti’s correspondence, that the lack of a choice part for Stoltz begat Le duc d’Albe’s doom. Whether or not the prima donna’s pride was truly the cause of Le duc losing his title, it certainly makes for a delectably operatic story!] Repurposing his music for an opera entitled L’ange de Nisida, composed in 1839 [and itself a reworking of an earlier score that was never performed, 1834’s Adelaide] but never performed first because of anticipation of the Italian censors’ rejection of the subject matter and then owing to the French institution contracted for the work’s première crumbling into insolvency, Donizetti followed the example of his first opera for Salle Le Peletier, Les martyrs, a French adaptation of Poliuto. For Rosine Stoltz, the soprano rôle of Comtesse Sylvia de Linares was transformed into the mezzo-soprano Léonor de Guzman, and the action was transplanted from the original Naples to Fourteenth-Century Castile. Examining an opera through the lens of its composer’s life is often a dangerous business, but it is difficult to imagine that Donizetti was not affected by the intrinsic sentimental parallels among the situations in La favorite and his own experiences. To the extent of the knowledge that history permits, Donizetti never suffered the misfortune of falling in love with a royal personage’s mistress, but, by the time that La favorite was premièred at the Académie Royale de Musique on 2 December 1840, he surely knew all too well the agonies of loss and isolation. Musically, La favorite is by no means an inadequate companion for the scores upon the virtues of which Donizetti’s enduring popularity rests, so why is it performed so infrequently when Lucia di Lammermoor and L’elisir d’amore remain in regular rotation in the repertories of virtually every major opera house?

Such a question is never answered easily. With the Metropolitan Opera’s 2015 – 2016 Season including the company’s first performances of Roberto Devereux, alongside revivals of Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda as components of the so-called Tudor Trilogy, the mounting of which is also a first in MET history, a lauded production of Poliuto having been one of the triumphs of Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s 2015 offerings, and revivals and new productions of a number of Donizetti operas occupying prominent places in many opera company’s current and future seasons, the neglect of La favorite seems perplexing, at least on the surface. In truth, however, wholly satisfying performances of Anna Bolena, Lucia di Lammermoor, La fille du régiment, or any of Donizetti’s operas—performances, that is, in which every musical element fully meets the composer’s demands—are no more common than flawless stagings of Tristan und Isolde and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Perhaps, then, familiar imperfections are more palatable to Twenty-First-Century tastes than unfamiliar ones. The four acts of La favorite, the last of which was reputedly composed in less than four hours (an accomplishment of which Rossini would have been proud), contain music of consistently high quality that necessitates the participation of singers possessing bel canto techniques of the highest order in each of the principal rôles. By heeding this necessity with the engagement of a cast distinguished by the presence of a singer as gifted as tenor Rolando Sanz in the supporting rôle of Don Gaspar, as well as liberating the cast, all singing their rôles for the first time, from the worries of stage action by presenting the opera in concert under the baton of Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker, Washington Concert Opera’s performance advances a singular opportunity to make the acquaintance of La favorite as Donizetti intended.

CONFIDENT CONFIDANTE: Soprano JOÉLLE HARVEY, Inès in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Arielle Doneson, © by Joélle Harvey]Confident confidante: Soprano Joélle Harvey, Inès in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's La favorite, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Arielle Doneson, © by Joélle Harvey]

Hailing from Bolivar, New York, soprano ​​Joé​lle Harvey​​ comes to Washington, where her Sophie in Washington Concert Opera’s 2011 performance of Massenet’s Werther was delightful, to portray Inès in La favorite with an impressive array of operatic portraits already on display in her musical gallery. Among interpretations of music from many niches of the repertoire, her performances of the music of Georg Friedrich Händel, not least in radiant accounts of the soprano arias in Messiah with the Indianapolis and Virginia Symphonies, have been particularly memorable. Though her technique easily encompasses period-appropriate handling of Händelian filigree, Harvey belongs to a rare class of singers for whom mastery of Baroque repertory is not a specialized undertaking but a vital element of the healthiest, most organic method of true bel canto singing. ‘I love singing Händel,’ she recently commented, ‘and find that doing so has allowed me to develop a palette of colors that serves me well in the other repertoire that I sing. Händel requires the musician to be able to open up the voice (or instrument) fully and also to be able to pare it down to a simple and honest sound.’ In preparing her depiction of Inès, whose arrest before she can reach Fernand with Léonor’s confessional message precipitates the ultimate tragedy of La favorite, she has focused first and foremost on preserving that ‘simple and honest sound.’ ‘I think that it would be easy to over-sing a rôle like Inès simply to make an impression due to the relative brevity of the rôle,’ Harvey confided. ‘However, understanding that making music isn’t about being the loudest—or lengthiest [in terms of duration of one’s music]—on stage is a very important step. As with the smaller rôle of Giannetta in L’elisir d’amore, I believe that Inès’s purpose is to bring some levity to the proceedings.’ With this singer in command of her music, her purpose is also to markedly enhance the beauty of the performance.

MAN OF THE CLOTH: Bass JOHN REYLEA, Balthazar in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Shirley Suarez, © by John Relyea]Man of the cloth: Bass John Relyea, Balthazar in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Shirley Suarez, © by John Relyea]

To the rôle of Balthazar, Supérieur of the monastery of the Orden de Santiago de Compostela and father of Alphonse XI’s queen consort, Toronto-born bass John Relyea brings an astonishingly wide spectrum of experience exemplified by his appearances at the Metropolitan Opera, where his assignments have included Garibaldo in Händel’s Rodelinda, the Voce dell’oracolo di Nettuno, Figaro, and Masetto in Mozart’s Idomeneo, re di Creta, Le nozze di Figaro, and Don Giovanni, bel canto parts like Rossini’s Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Alidoro in La Cenerentola (the rôle of his MET début in 2000), Giorgio in Bellini’s I puritani, and Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor, and later repertory such as Banco in Verdi’s Macbeth, Méphistophélès in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust and Gounod’s Faust, Colline in Puccini’s La bohème, and Vodník in Dvořák’s Rusalka. One of the finest Verdi singers of his generation, Relyea is acutely attentive to the strong link between Donizetti’s Balthazar and the bass rôles in several of Verdi’s greatest scores. ‘Balthazar’s character is set in a similar position to the Monk in Don Carlo,’ Relyea remarked. ‘Both have broad, stentorian, declamato passages in the music.’ Even the oft-analyzed suspicion of ecclesiastical authority that pervades Verdi’s mature operas is suggested in the interactions of Balthazar and Alphonse in La favorite. ‘The aspect of the church’s power over the crown is evident, similar to Don Carlo’s Inquisitor,’ Relyea observed, ‘but Balthazar is a much more sympathetic, less fiery character, dramatically and musically, as shown in some rather flowing lyrical lines, especially in the final scenes with chorus—a rôle best suited to a true basso cantante.’​ In the twenty-five MET performances, in New York and on tour, of La favoriteLa favorita, actually, as all performances were sung in Italian—between its 1895 company première and its most recent outing at Virginia’s Wolf Trap in 1978, Balthazar’s habit has been donned by only three singers: Pol Plançon, Bonaldo Giaiotti, and James Morris. In voice and appreciation of Balthazar’s significance in both La favorite and the broader context of the development of rôles for bass in the course of Nineteenth-Century opera, Relyea is a sensationally worthy successor to these very different but imposing artists.

IN PERFORMANCE: Baritone JAVIER ARREY, Alphonse XI in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE, 4 March 2016 [Photo © by Javier Arrey / Harrison Parrott]Un jour de règne: Baritone Javier Arrey, Alphonse XI in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite, 4 March 2016 [Photo © by Javier Arrey / Harrison Parrott]

The singing of ​Chilean baritone ​Javier Arrey​​ portends a welcome restoration to Donizetti’s troubled King of Castile, Alphonse XI, like Balthazar an ancestor of dynamic figures in the Verdi canon (in Alphonse’s case, Don Carlo in Ernani, Conte di Luna in Il trovatore, and Anckarström/Renato in Un ballo in maschera, primarily), of the regal profile that he enjoyed when sung in years past by Louis Quilico and Sherrill Milnes. Combining the rugged vocal strength of Paolo Silveri with the insightfulness of Rolando Panerai, Arrey constructs his interpretation of Alphonse upon the foundation of the confounding ambiguity of the king’s predicament. ‘One of the most interesting and difficult things about Alphonse is the contrast that takes place in this character, the mix as a powerful king and also a vulnerable man in love capable of [doing] everything for the love of his life,’ he shared. This critical duality is, Arrey maintains, the heart of Alphonse. ‘For me,’ he went on, ‘one of the more complex things in the interpretation of this rôle is to be able to maintain his core temperament—as a king—alongside the shades of the man in love, vulnerable and betrayed.’ Arrey cited as an ideal example of this dichotomy Alphonse’s aria in Act Three, ‘Pour tant d’amour.’ Here, the king’s public persona and private emotions come into open conflict, passion warring against decorum. Baritones losing their lovers to tenors is as essential a part of opera as costumes and scenery, but in La favorite the stakes are higher than in many operatic amorous intrigues. The opera’s outcome is determined, of course, but Arrey is a singer adept at credibly giving Alphonse the strength of a king and the suavity of a lover.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor RANDALL BILLS, Fernand in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Crystal Pridmore, © by Randall Bills]O mon Fernand: Tenor Randall Bills, Fernand in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Crystal Pridmore, © by Randall Bills]

The ranks of tenors with the vocal wherewithal needed to sing Fernand are hardly over-populated, but even fewer are those singers whose work induces one to truly want to hear them sing the character’s ​difficult, high-flying music. Celebrated for his performances of bel canto heroes including Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola, Elvino in Bellini s La sonnambula, and Ernesto in Don Pasquale, native Californian tenor ​Randall Bills​​ is a Fernand with the skill set needed to soar, not solely survive, in the part. Like his colleagues in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of La favorite, Bills approaches his rôle as both a musical and an histrionic challenge. ‘I think Fernand and La favorite as a whole [have] a lot of ideas and issues relevant to today, perhaps dressed up in some fancy French (and later Italian),’ he opined. Likewise, he views Fernand not solely as a standard-issue operatic swain but also as a study in the delicate balance between desire and duty. ‘As tenors, we are always in love, it’s part of our territory,’ Bills stated, ‘but I feel [that], throughout the piece, Fernand is trying to put together this idea of being in love versus the religious [and] social constraints he’s accustomed to—something that’s not far removed from today. The ideal of “honor” prevents him from accepting his true feelings of love towards Léonor, but only after he discovers her status! Fortunately, in the end, love wins out: “Mon amour est plus fort,” but that resolution comes with a price. On top of all this, there’s the non-stop beautiful music propelling these dramatic life moments forward before our very eyes and ears. That’s why people go to experience opera!’ The collisions of life-or-death situations with exquisite music are indeed among the most spellbinding attractions of opera, but how much more attractive they are when they are sung with the savvy of an artist like Bills.

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano KATE LINDSEY, Léonor de Guzmán in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Rosetta Greek, © by Kate Lindsey]La belle favorite: Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, Léonor de Guzmán in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Rosetta Greek, © by Kate Lindsey]

​​In the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, what interest La favorite has garnered has been sustained by a​ procession of eminent mezzo-sopranos who have sung the central rôle of Léonor, an honorable sorority including Ebe Stignani, Giuseppina Corbelli, Fedora Barbieri, Giulietta Simionato, Fiorenza Cossotto, Shirley Verrett, Dolora Zajick, Daniela Barcellona, Elīna Garanča, and Alice Coote​​​. Returning to Lisner Auditorium, where she sang Romeo in Washington Concert Opera’s 2014 performance of Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi [reviewed here], to sing Léonor in La favorite, ​mezzo-soprano ​Kate Lindsey​​ is uniquely qualified to chisel her name among those of the superlative Léonors past and present. In the seasons since her company début as Javotte in Massenet’s Manon in 2005, Richmonder Lindsey has been heard at the MET as one of the Three Ladies in Die Zauberflöte, a Wagnerian Norn and Rhinemaiden, and a wood sprite in Rusalka, but her artistic flair has shone most compellingly in travesti rôles like Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Siébel in Faust, Stéphano in Roméo et Juliette, Nicklausse and the Muse in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, Tebaldo in Don Carlo, and Hänsel in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. Surveying her rightly-applauded turns in trousers, especially her Romeo for Washington Concert Opera, Lindsey ponders the contrasting responsibilities of portraying operatic heroes and heroines. ‘Well, as I’ve been preparing Léonor, I must be honest in saying that I haven’t considered the idea of singing the rôle any differently than I would have sung Romeo, outside of the fact that I have to remind myself to take some time to go through my closet and find a gown to wear before I depart for DC!’ she quipped. She then added, ‘I think if I considered this more closely, I would probably notice that I do make alterations in the way that I might approach a portamento or how I might consider my approach to the expression of the text. However, I am not conscious of the “gender” within that approach, truthfully, just as I’m really not conscious of trying to be more “manly” when I sing or play trouser rôles. I know I do make adjustments based on the gender of the character, but I don’t consider it on a conscious level, if that makes any sense.’ It is indicative of Lindsey’s commitment to her craft that she not only thinks deeply about creating individual characters but also expresses a wish that her thoughts about doing so are intelligible! ‘Rather than think in terms of gender,’ she continued, ‘I tend to prefer to think in terms of what is honest within the emotion of the text, along with, certainly, the musical intentions. For me, the music always signifies the heartbeat and subtext for the character, and I find the deepest expression emerges from this source. That being said, after ten months playing trouser rôles, it will be nice to wear a dress on stage again!’ The adage that the clothes make the man was likely no less applicable at the Fourteenth-Century Castilian court than it is today, but it is the voices that make Donizetti’s La favorite: with Kate Lindsey, whichever frock she selects from her closet, at the center of a cast of singers for whom bel canto is not a chapter in a vocal primer but a way of life, these voices promise to make this La favorite an event that, 175 years ago, would have brought comfort and sadly uncommon happiness to its disconsolate composer.


Washington Concert Opera’s performance of La favorite begins at 7:00 PM on Friday, 4 March 2016, at Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st Street NW, on the campus of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. To purchase tickets for the performance, please visit Washington Concert Opera’s ticketing website or phone the Box Office at 202.364.5826.