28 November 2016

BEST CONTEMPORARY MUSIC RECORDING OF 2016: Jeffrey Roden — THEADS OF A PRAYER, volume one (Solaire Records SOL1003-2)

BEST CONTEMPORARY MUSIC RECORDING OF 2016: Jeffrey Roden - THREADS OF A PRAYER, volume one (Solaire Records SOL1003-2)JEFFREY RODEN: threads of a prayer, volume oneSandro Ivo Bartoli, piano; Bennewitz Quartet; Szymon Marciniak, double bass; Wolfgang Fischer, timpani; Johannes Kronfeld, trombone [Recorded in Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany, 20 – 22 May 2016; Solaire Records SOL1003-2; 2 CDs, 140:50; Available from Solaire Records and major music retailers]

Casting aside semantics and etymology, how does one really define music? It seems obvious enough: combinations of melody and harmony manipulated in specific ways produce music. What, though, does this truly mean? Patterns of notes, rests, dynamics, tempi, and key signatures make music of arbitrary lines and scribblings on a page, of course, but what makes music significant in an artistic sense is the way in which sounds transcend the mechanics of physics to become audible emotions. To hear sound is one of the most basic functions of being human, but to hear emotions is an essential tenet of humanity, one not possessed by all members of the species. Hearing threads of a prayer – volume one, Solaire Records’ new release dedicated to music by American composer Jeffrey Roden [volume two will be forthcoming in 2017], adds dimensions to the meaning of music in the simplest but most profound ways, asking each listener not to observe and react but to participate, to discern within his own experience the origins of each note, the places in the psyche from which the notes are ripped, still pulsating with life. This is music that speaks not in individual chords, bars, or phrases but in extended paragraphs, in great swaths of thought that seem neither to begin nor to end, and it cannot be played or discussed in conventional ways. As acknowledged in Tobias Fischer’s wondrously literate liner notes [his essay in lieu of a dates-and-facts biography of the composer is fantastic] and by Dirk Fischer’s immaculately-engineered acoustics, this is also music that must not be presented to the listener with the modern recording industry’s slick, assembly-line indifference. Like Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony and Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht, the works on this first volume of threads of a prayer redefine music with insights as illuminating but ungraspable as sunlight. Like the touch of the summer sun upon one’s face, Roden’s music is as much felt as heard.

From the opening bars of the first of the twelve prayers that begin disc one, it is apparent that Roden is as gifted and communicative a composer for piano as Chopin was and that Italian pianist Sandro Ivo Bartoli is as keenly insightful an interpreter of Roden’s work as Artur Rubinstein was of Chopin’s. The splendors of Bartoli’s technique are never doubted, but spiritual virtuosity is the hallmark of his playing here. The rhythmic precision of his executions of Roden’s pieces is no less impressive or vital than in his previous Solaire recording of music by Franz Liszt, but, unlike the heartbeats that propel Liszt’s melodic lines, Roden’s rhythms are footsteps, cautiously placed but ambivalent. Are they the performer’s own steps, or is he retracing someone else’s? The prayers need no programmatic context, but they might be interpreted as abstract portraits of Christ’s apostles, each man in his turn revealed as a crumbling façade of ceremonial—and sometimes sanctimonious—faith behind which humor, doubt, anger, and pride lurk. Perhaps they are representatives of the dodecagonal tone row or the artificial calendrical divisions of a year. Subtly but slyly contrasted, the prayers are at once appeals to all and to no deities: nothing is either as pure or as putrid as it first seems, in life or in music, and these pieces sputter and sigh with half-told truths. Bartoli understands that striving to impose finite interpretations on the prayers would be to obstruct the connection between composer and listener.

The untitled 10 pieces that follow the twelve prayers are of a vastly different character but exhibit the same devotion to giving emotions audible essences that can be molded according to performers’ and listeners’ unique psychological identities. Bartoli’s pianism is here like a microscope, examining the individual particles of Roden’s musical molecules and revealing the stunningly beautiful landscapes within the stark tonal topography. Each of the ten pieces is its own microcosm, but they collectively function as a compelling entity, lodestars within a galaxy near enough to be perceived but too distant to be wholly scrutinized. Bartoli again fuses rhythmic tautness with elasticity of phrasing, maximizing the impact of each melodic unit without jeopardizing each piece’s structural integrity. There are very discreet allusions to sonata form in the interplay of principal subjects within and among the pieces. Bartoli is alert to every motivic device, emphasizing even the relationships intimated by measured silence. To assert that these pieces are not bountifully tuneful in the manner of music by Brahms or Dvořák is to overlook their greatest achievement: rather than overtly stated, their wealths of melody are suggested, cunningly inspired in the listener’s mind and therefore different for every pair of ears. Indeed, the pieces as recorded here seem to change with every hearing, a powerful testament to both Bartoli’s astonishingly skills as a musical storyteller and Roden’s creation of a musical language that is comprehensible regardless of the dialect with which it is delivered.

Conceived in homage to the late B.B. King, the passing of a king is equals parts elegy, raucous New Orleans jazz funeral, dialogue with a silenced voice, and coming to terms with an altered reality. It is said that imitation is the highest form of flattery, but Roden disavows that platitude with a tribute to a musical legend shaped not by quotations from his works but by reminiscences of the feelings evoked by King’s music. Whether or not his style is one’s proverbial cup of tea, it is impossible to steep in B.B. King’s music without surrendering to its propulsive energy. The same can be said of Roden’s the passing of a king and Bartoli’s playing of it. The pianist’s performance draws the listener into the embrace of the music, and the unaffected sincerity of the composer’s writing fills the listener with wistful recollections. Any musician should be honored to be so lovingly remembered by a colleague. This music reveals that the most exalted mode of flattery for an artist is serving as the foundation upon which other artists erect their own monumental works.

Composed for an octet comprised of two violins, viola, cello, double bass, piano, trombone, and timpani, the many latitudes of grief is a work of such deeply-considered emotional honesty that it sometimes seems too intimate for public performance, as though an exchange between confessor and sinner were conducted in music. Joined by Bartoli, double bass player Szymon Marciniak, trombonist Johannes Kronfeld, and timpanist Wolfgang Fischer, the musicians of Bennewitz Quartet—violinists Jakub Fišer and Štěpán Ježek, violist Jiří Pinkas, and cellist Štěpán Doležal—engage with Roden’s music not merely as professionals realizing their parts but as fellow travelers on the journey of coping with loss. There is perhaps no greater fallacy in modern psychology, especially in America, than the concept of closure. For all of society’s efforts at compartmentalization, life is not a book in which grief is written upon a page that is subsequently turned and forgotten. Just as the abundance or absence of water sculpts physical landscapes, torrents of grief carve recesses in human hearts, canyons that resound with reminders of voices that can only be heard in the memory—or, Roden discloses, in music. Wielded by Kronfeld with piercingly accurate intonation, the trombone startles, mourns, and consoles with equal force, and the piano and timpani form an unlikely confederation of safety and insecurity. Like the grieving process, nothing in the many latitudes of grief is predictable. Relative tranquility is interrupted by unexpected, unstoppable agony, and the paralysis of uncertainty suddenly gives way to the sure footing of even-measured acceptance. Like all of the pieces included on this pair of discs, this is groundbreaking, fresh music that nonetheless immediately sounds familiar. John Milton and William Styron wrote of ‘darkness visible’: in the many latitudes of grief, Jeffrey Roden wrote of darkness audible.

The differences between the untitled quintets #2 and #3 are as significant as they are understated, but Roden’s craft in the works on these discs is guided by making bold statements with delicate expressions. As performed here, the quintets capture the fleeting effervescence of champagne: they sparkle alluringly, ignite the senses, and are rapidly but satisfyingly consumed. Unlike many composers past and present, Roden was endowed with intelligence and sagacity that prevent him from lingering over even the most fecund of ideas. Not one concept is extended beyond the music’s inherent ability to sustain it. The quintets are Existential pieces, however. Each note has its own importance, and each note contributes to the cumulative impact of the music. The musicians comprehend and highlight this, often playing as though they were a single organism. Likewise, leaves for string quartet is magically played by the Bennewitz Quartet, the shifting textural profiles of the music given unanticipated dimensions that expose the skillfulness of Roden’s part writing like complex stitchwork held under a magnifying glass. Listening, one feels the pierce of the needle, the pull of the thread, and the exhilaration of gaps closing. These are not works to be heard passively: like the heroine’s ribbon in Claude Berri’s film Manon des Sources, these works become affixed to the listener, not like garments slipped on but like appendages that grow with every subsequent sound.

When writing about a composer’s work, especially that of one whose compositions are not yet familiar like Beethoven’s symphonies and Chopin’s nocturnes to virtually every listener apt to be interested in them, comparisons with other composers are tempting and sometimes helpfully informative. To state that a Vivaldi opera is like a Händel opera without the flashes of emotional insight is to provide the curious reader with a point of reference from which to launch an exploration of his own. The composer who denies having been influenced by fellow tunesmiths cannot be trusted, but comparing Jeffrey Roden’s music to that of any other composer in any genre would be a disservice to this artist and the originality of his work. Composition cannot be a vocation for Roden, something that he pursues at certain hours and in certain places, jotting down notes like the minutes of a meeting between himself and his muse. No, music must be second nature for Roden, an alternate comfort zone in which he contemplates, reasons, and dreams. As our world continually invents new means of communicating, we forget how to listen, how to truly hear and absorb the confounding cacophony that engulfs us. With the pieces on this first volume of threads of a prayer, all superbly performed, Jeffrey Roden reminds us that there is music even in our most unassuming thoughts and actions. We need only switch off our devices, silence our tongues, and let music happen.

25 November 2016


BEST ARTISTS OF 2016: Tenors STEPHEN COSTELLO (left) and ZACHARY WILDER (right) [Photos © by Merri Cyr/Askonas Holt (Costello) and Teddie Hwang/Hazard Chase (Wilder)]Tenori trionfanti: Tenors Stephen Costello (left) and Zachary Wilder (right)
[Photos © by Merri Cyr/Askonas Holt (Costello) & Teddie Hwang/Hazard Chase (Wilder)]

In 1996, I waltzed at the age of eighteen into a well-meaning university professor’s voice studio, armed with every quality necessary to prepare for and pursue a successful career as an opera singer—every quality, that is, except for those two most vital ones, talent and ambition. Like F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri in Miloš Forman’s film adaptation of Amadeus, the passion was abundantly present, the discipline was a work in progress but steadily progressing, and the thirst for knowledge was all-consuming. Ultimately, though, the acquired craftsmanship was of far greater value than the raw materials bestowed by nature. I have sung and occasionally might even have sung well, but there is no musical alchemy capable of transforming vocal lead into platinum. No lesson is more difficult to impart to the sort of stubborn young singer that I was (and sometimes still am, fleeting youth notwithstanding) than that which conveys the plain truth that he is a pretender, no golden-throated Duke of York but a tuneless Perkin Warbeck. It is a lesson that I have been slow to learn and even slower to fully accept, but the most precious gift of mediocrity is the ability to appreciate greatness on a profoundly intimate level. In that regard, two of America’s most talented singers have been especially influential teachers. With very different voices and careers similar only in their conscientiousness and significance in their respective repertories, tenors Stephen Costello and Zachary Wilder are the practitioners of the philosophy that led me to the door of that voice studio twenty years ago. Artists of once-in-a-generation distinction, they are something considerably more personal for me: they are artists who epitomize the singer that I can never be.



Neither Stephen Costello nor Zachary Wilder is as extensively represented on disc as he deserves to be. In truth, though, despite their considerable merits, neither gentleman’s recordings fully convey the broad spectrum of vocal colors with which their live performances are illuminated. Nonetheless, their recordings are excellent introductions to their work.

Documenting both Costello’s beautiful handling of bel canto repertory and his début at London’s Royal Opera House, Opera Rara’s ‘live’ recording of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix [ORC43] preserves the tenor’s exquisitely-phrased account of Carlo’s romanza ‘Se tanto in ira agl’uomini.’ His native Philadelphia’s spirit of brotherly love permeates his performance of Jake Heggie’s Friendly Persuasions: Homage to Poulenc on Pentatone’s disc Here/After, Songs of Lost Voices [PTC 5186 515], but the most persuasive of the qualities evident in his singing of the Persuasions is the voice’s beauty. Costello created the rôle of Greenhorn in Heggie’s Moby-Dick in the opera’s 2010 première at The Dallas Opera, and his reprisal of the part in San Francisco was filmed and released on DVD and Blu-ray by EuroArts: see it to experience a remarkable fusion of sublime singing and intensely moving characterization. Among performances not currently available on disc, seek recordings of the Wiener Staatsoper broadcast of Puccini’s La bohème dating from 6 September 2010, in which Costello’s heart-wrenching Rodolfo partners the poetic Mimì of Krassimira Stoyanova, and Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2016 concert presentation of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, in which his singing of the Sänger’s ‘Di rigori armato il seno’ was mesmerizing.

Stephen Costello on disc: Gaetano Donizetti's LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX (Opera Rara ORC43) and Jake Heggie's (Pentatone PTC 5186 515)

One of his generation’s finest exponents of Baroque repertory, Wilder is heard at his estimable best in the recently-released ATMA Classique recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat (BWV 243) and Johann Kuhnau’s Cantata ‘Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern’ [ACD22727]. His singing of Bach’s ‘Et misericordia’ (with countertenor James Laing) and ‘Deposuit potentes’ and Kuhnau’s ‘Ich huld’ge dir, grossmächt’ger Prinz’ exudes confidence and absolute comfort with both composers’ idioms. Simply put, his performance of ‘Would you gain the tender Creature’ in Händel’s Acis and Galatea [cpo 777 877-2] is one of the most sublime pieces of singing ever committed to disc. In recordings of music by composers as diverse as Giosotto Zamponi, John Blow, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Félicien David, Wilder’s voice flows like molten silver. Poised to conquer bel canto repertory with the same grace and elegance that he brings to his Baroque performances, Wilder’s recordings to date chronicle a compelling, uncompromisingly musical journey.

Zachary Wilder on disc: Johann Sebastian Bach's MAGNIFICAT (ATMA Classique ACD22727) and Georg Friedrich Händel's ACIS AND GALATEA (cpo 777 877-2)

19 November 2016

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — ROBERTO DEVEREUX (Ş. Pop, M. Devia, S. Ganassi, M. Kim, A. Fantoni, C. Ottino, M. Armanino, L. Purpura; Dynamic CDS7755.02)

IN REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti - ROBERTO DEVEREUX (Dynamic CDS7755.02)GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Roberto DevereuxŞtefan Pop (Roberto Devereux, conte di Essex), Mariella Devia (Elisabetta I, regina d’Inghiterra), Sonia Ganassi (Sara, duchessa di Nottingham), Mansoo Kim (Il duca di Nottingham), Alessandro Fantoni (Lord Cecil), Claudio Ottino (Sir Gualtiero Raleigh), Matteo Armanino (Un paggio), Loris Purpura (Un familiare di Nottingham); Coro ed Orchestra del Teatro Carlo Felice; Francesco Lanzillotta, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at Teatro Carlo Felice, Genova, Italy, on 20 and 24 March 2016; Dynamic CDS7755.02; 2 CDs, 130:51; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

One of the most-discussed operatic events in America in recent years was Opera Orchestra of New York’s 2014 concert performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. OONY’s relationship with the third of the operas that comprise the so-called ‘Tudor Trilogy,’ a designation not conceived by Donizetti [his seldom-performed Elisabetta al castelo di Kenilworth expands the trilogy to a tetralogy—L’annello dei Tudori?], began with a 1991 performance featuring Martile Rowland, Fernando de la Mora, and Stella Zambalis, enriching the long drought between the score’s first outings in New York, the still-revered 1965 American Opera Society concert performance with Montserrat Caballé as Elisabetta and the New York City Opera production mounted for Beverly Sills, and NYCO’s revival with Lauren Flanigan and the opera’s Metropolitan Opera première in 2016 with Sondra Radvanovsky. More so than the opera’s relative rarity in the international repertory, a neglect that has recently abated to some extent, what made OONY’s 2014 performance a genuine event was the participation of Italian soprano Mariella Devia. Despite having been heard at The Metropolitan Opera as Konstanze and Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Così fan tutte, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Gilda and Nannetta in Verdi’s Rigoletto and Falstaff in a career with the company sporadically spanning fifteen years, Devia has been an exasperatingly infrequent visitor to North America, a scarcity mirrored by the soprano’s unaccountably sparse commercial discography. ​Now, bel canto lovers are simultaneously treated to two recordings of Roberto Devereux featuring Devia, a filmed souvenir of an acclaimed Madrid production with Gregory Kunde in the title rôle and the present aural and visual mementos of two March 2016 performances in Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice. Dynamic’s engineers clearly appreciated the significance of this project, producing one of the label’s finest releases. Neither stage noises nor audience disruptions come between the listener and the thrilling performance of Roberto Devereux that plays out on these discs. Its strong cast notwithstanding, this release is undeniably an instance of unabashed diva worship. In this opera in which the Earl of Essex claims the title but it is Elisabetta who ultimately sears her name into the listener’s psyche, is that not as it should be?

Under the baton of conductor Francesco Lanzillotta, the Teatro Carlo Felice choral and orchestral forces acquit themselves professionally and idiomatically. The opera’s programmatic Sinfonia, popularized in concert repertory by its quoting of ‘God Save the Queen,’ is buoyantly played by the orchestra and confidently paced by the conductor. With its extended melodic lines and quicksilver rhythms, Roberto Devereux is an opera that—in good performances, at least—sounds easier than it is for all of the musicians in the pit. Even so, very few of the inevitable mistakes that give live performances their unique frisson intrude in this recording. The balance between stage and pit achieved by Lanzillotta is commendable, and Dynamic’s flattering acoustics permit appreciation of the cleverness of Donizetti’s orchestrations. After laudable work in Act One, the choral singing in ‘L’ore trascorrono’ at the start of Act Two is disappointingly ragged in both tone and ensemble, though the hushed final chord is managed well. Granting the principals relative interpretive license, Lanzillotta maintains tighter control of the performance than many conductors who approach bel canto repertory with greater rigidity. Roberto Devereux is a momentous destination along the route from the quintessential bel canto of Bellini to the dramatic Romanticism of Verdi, but Lanzillotta is careful to avoid letting lyricism or bombast dominate this performance. The dominant force in this recording is Donizetti. Here, too, is this not as it should be?

Represented by the appealing singing of Matteo Armanino as the page and Loris Purpura as Nottingham's servant, care was taken in the casting of supporting rôles. Relative to their historical importance in the political milieux of Elizabethan England, Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Cecil were marginalized by Donizetti and his librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, serving their sovereign in Roberto Devereux more as scene setters than as ambitious courtiers. Claudio Ottino voices Gualtiero’s lines robustly, and Alessandro Fantoni makes the most of every note that Donizetti allotted to Cecil. Bad singing in any of these rôles is not an insurmountable disaster, but far more enjoyable is the Roberto Devereux that, like this one, needs to make no apologies for the performances of its secondary players.

The Duca di Nottingham of South Korean baritone Mansoo Kim is an unsubtle but not unfeeling man in possession of a voice of good quality. Occasionally recalling the bel canto singing of Renato Bruson, Kim’s performance fuses unimpeachable musicality with well-honed dramatic instincts. In Act One, Kim gives ably-sung, dramatically urgent accounts of ‘Forse in quel cor sensible’ and ‘Qui ribelle ognum ti chiama,’ his upper register focused and projected impressively. As the Duca pleads in Act Two for the queen to spare Roberto’s life, Kim duets with Devia’s Elisabetta excitingly, his lines in ‘Non venni mai si mesto’ delivered with conviction, and the baritone sings commandingly in the trio with Elisabetta and Roberto, ‘Ecco l'indegno.’ Reading the fateful letter that his wife receives from Roberto in Act Three, Kim partners Ganassi’s Sara powerfully in ‘Non sai che un nume vindice.’ The knots that bound the characters’ allegiances loosed by the revelation that Sara, compelled by the queen’s prerogative to marry Nottingham, is the unnamed rival for Roberto’s love, Nottingham exacts vengeance with cataclysmic results. Kim’s final utterances are as crushing as the blows of the axe that claim Roberto’s head. Kim’s vocalism is sometimes short on bel canto elegance, but he brings the conflict-hardened duke to life with style and bravado.

Italian mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi has devoted much of her career to service to the bel canto muse, and her portrayal of Sara, the reluctant Duchess of Nottingham, in this performance of Roberto Devereux provides ample evidence of why, even after she has expanded her repertoire to include heavier rôles, she continues to be in demand for bel canto performances. Making her entrance in Act One recounting the tale of fair Rosamund, mistress of Henry II and the eponymous heroine of Donizetti’s 1834 opera Rosmonda d’Inghilterra, Ganassi sounds marginally unsteady, her top notes effortful and off-pitch. She settles the voice for a flawed but refined traversal of the melodious romanza ‘All’afflitto è dolce il pianto.’ Sara brings the curtain down on Act One with the pulse-quickening duet with Roberto, ‘Dacchè tornasti, ahi misera.’ Here, Ganassi takes charge like the consummate mistress of bel canto that she is, producing centered, impactful tones and hurling out notes above the stave with complete control and spot-on intonation. The Act Three duet with Nottingham, ‘Non sai che un nume vindice,’ inspires the mezzo-soprano to her finest singing of the performance. Her every note in the opera’s final act draws its impetus from the text, and her Sara is ultimately as much a tragic heroine as Elisabetta. In this setting, Ganassi is a seconda donna upon whose music a prima donna voice is lavished.

Singing the title rôle with bright, secure tone, Romanian tenor Ştefan Pop furnishes this recording with what many performances of Roberto Devereux lack: a Roberto worthy of his top billing. The gravity of the earl’s predicament in Act One never weighs down Pop’s vocalism, but he meaningfully conveys the inner anguish that afflicts Roberto. Denying his illicit love for the now-married Sara when confronted by the queen, whose advisors press her to grant the royal assent to Roberto’s death warrant, Pop voices ‘Nascondi, frena i palpiti’ vividly, endeavoring to maintain a proper bel canto line even when plumbing the depths of the character’s emotions. Benefiting from his partnership with the experienced Ganassi, he fearlessly scales the vocal and expressive heights of the duet with Sara, ‘Dacchè tornasti, ahi misera,’ ending Act One with a pyrotechnical display of electrically-charged singing and unison top notes. In the Act Two trio with Elisabetta and Nottingham, ‘Ecco l’indegno,’ Pop fires cannonades of heated responses to Devia’s and Kim’s impassioned discourse. Imprisoned and awaiting execution, Roberto’s beautifully-written scene in Act Three is tastefully handled by the young tenor. His breath control in the aria ‘Come uno spirto angelico’ is admirable, and the integration of his upper and lower registers also earns praise. Pop manages the difficult cabaletta ‘Bagnato il sen di lagrime’ better than any other Roberto on disc: concentrating on phrasing rather than individual notes, he reveals the integrity of music that can seem banal. Among Donizetti’s rôles for tenor, Roberto is one of the most difficult to cast. With Pop, this production got it right.

It is apparent from the first familiar strains of ‘God Save the Queen’ in the Sinfonia that, no matter whose name is on the score’s cover, Elisabetta is the opera’s protagonist. The Sinfonia invokes Providential blessing, but Devia is a queen who needs no divine intervention. Returning to this daunting rôle on her home turf, sixty miles from her native city of Chiusavecchia, and less than a month before celebrating her sixty-eighth birthday, Devia is an astonishingly assured presence at the center of the drama. The voice is drier, harder-edged, and less pliant than in years past, but the voice’s basic timbre has ever been a potent cocktail with a splash of tart limoncello. In this performance, Devia takes more time in executing fiorature than she might have done a decade ago, but she and Lanzillotta never allow momentum to be adversely affected. Still, like Sutherland in the seasons just before her retirement, Devia’s agility remains incredible. In Elisabetta’s Act One cavatina, ‘L’amor suo mi fe’ beata,’ it is immediately obvious that Devia is in excellent voice, and she utilizes her still-miraculous technique to accomplish feat after feat of superb singing. She spins the cavatina’s melodic lines like vocal silk, the thread of sound never in danger of breaking. In the Act Two duet with Nottingham, ‘Non venni mai si mesto,’ the soprano’s vocalism is at once wondrously steely and hauntingly ethereal, and Devia leaves no doubt in the trio with Nottingham and Roberto, ‘Ecco l’indegno,’ that Elisabetta is wounded to the core of her soul. Discovering too late that Sara is her rival and that even she, the most powerful woman on earth, is powerless to save Roberto from the death that she sanctioned, Elisabetta’s scene at the close of Act Three contains the opera’s most visceral music. Devia voices the poignant aria ‘Vivi ingrato, a lei d’accanto’ with intense emotional involvement, imparting the extent to which the aging queen’s happiness is dependent upon the crumbling relationships that have sustained her in the lonely years of her virginal reign. Vocally and histrionically, she remains the reigning monarch of this music. The maestoso cabaletta ‘Quel sangue versato al cielo s’innalza’ is the outward culmination of Elisabetta’s inner turmoil and one of the true peaks of dramatic bel canto. After a first statement of the cabaletta’s theme that is wracked with pain, Devia’s voice takes on an air of serenity in the repeat, the crown already lifted from her mind if not from her head. This phenomenal music needs no interpolated high notes in order to make an indelible impression, but the easy, defiant top D with which Devia concludes her performance is the ecstatic cry of a woman reclaiming her freedom. This is, after all, the heir of Henry VIII, the diminutive figure with the soaring spirit who proudly declared herself to be to the marrow of her bones the issue of her legendary sire. History relays that Henry VIII was an uncommonly accomplished singer: in that regard, Devia’s Elisabetta is indeed very much her father’s daughter.

The collector in search of good-quality recordings of Devia in her best rôles has before him difficult sleuthing. Fortunately, enthusiasts with technological ingenuity like that of Australia-based Celestial Audio have made in-house and broadcast recordings of some of Devia’s most memorable performances available to her admirers. [Celestial Audio’s newest Devia release, catalogue number CA1888, preserves an excellent 2006 La Scala-in-Tokyo performance of Verdi’s La traviata in which Devia’s Violetta was paired with Giuseppe Filianoti’s handsome, handsomely-sung Alfredo.] This Dynamic recording of Teatro Carlo Felice’s production of Roberto Devereux gratifyingly fills a lamentable gap in the documentation of one of the most remarkable careers in opera. Better late than never, it is tempting to say; but in this case, in some ways better now than ever.

IN REVIEW: Soprano MARIELLA DEVIA as Elisabetta I in Teatro Carlo Felice's March 2016 production of Gaetano Donizetti's ROBERTO DEVEREUX [Photo by Marcello Orselli, © by Teatro Carlo Felice]La regina del bel canto: Soprano Mariella Devia as Elisabetta I in Teatro Carlo Felice’s March 2016 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux
[Photo by Marcello Orselli, © by Teatro Carlo Felice]

17 November 2016

BEST BAROQUE RECORDING OF 2016: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi — ADRIANO IN SIRIA (Y. Mynenko, R. Basso, F. Fagioli, D. Idrisova, J. Sancho, Ç. Soyarslan; DECCA 483 0004)

BEST BAROQUE RECORDING OF 2016: Giovanni Battista Pergolesi - ADRIANO IN SIRIA (DECCA 483 0004)GIOVANNI BATTISTA PERGOLESI (1710 – 1736): Adriano in SiriaYuriy Mynenko (Adriano), Romina Basso (Emirena), Franco Fagioli (Farnaspe), Dilyara Idrisova (Sabina), Juan Sancho (Osroe), Çiğdem Soyarslan (Aquilio); Capella Cracoviensis; Jan Tomasz Adamus, conductor [Recorded in the studios of Radio Kraków, Kraków, Poland, 19 – 26 August 2015; DECCA 483 0004; 3 CDs, 177:59; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

It could not have been surmised at the time at which the infant’s first cries resounded in Rome in 1698 how indelibly the course of opera was altered by the birth into a grocer’s family of Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi. A boy with precocious gifts for poetic improvisation and the artful use of words as an expressive device, the young Trapassi was ceded to the custody of an aristocrat who recognized and wished to further cultivate the lad’s talents. It was from his noble patron that Trapassi received the nom de plume that appeared more frequently than any other on opera playbills in the Eighteenth Century: Metastasio. Inheriting and mostly squandering a substantial fortune before he reached the age of twenty-five, the handsome, enterprising Metastasio tried his hand at writing libretti with a flattering text for a serenata celebrating a royal birthday. The first performance of the serenata, set to music by Nicola Porpora, was distinguished by the participation of two of the greatest singers of the age, the castrato Farinelli and soprano Marianna Bulgarelli, both of whom were impressed by the poet’s work. With Bulgarelli’s unstinting advocacy, Metastasio was launched on the path that led to his eventual succession of Apostolo Zeno as imperial court poet to the Austrian Habsburgs. In 1730, the thirty-two-year-old Metastasio settled in Vienna, his name already associated with operas by several of Europe’s most respected composers.

Among Metastasio’s many libretti, his text for Adriano in Siria, a dramatization of episodes in the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian, was one of the most successful, its appeal to composers continuing well into the Nineteenth Century. First set to music by Antonio Caldara in 1732, the libretto was taken up by Geminiano Giacomelli, Francesco Maria Veracini, Riccardo Broschi (brother of Farinelli), Baldasdare Galuppi (twice), Carl Heinrich Graun, Johann Adolf Hasse, Johann Christian Bach, Josef Mysliveček, Pasquale Anfossi, Luigi Cherubini, Johann Simon Mayr, and hosts of other composers in the century before its last use by a well-known composer, Saverio Mercadante, in 1828. The typically convoluted plot concerning the amorous and political intrigues among Hadrian, the Parthian king Osroa and prince Farnaspe, and the ladies Emirena and Sabina clearly seized composers’ imaginations with its rich lodes of subdued passions, shifting loyalties, and near-constant deception, all rife for musical mining. Two years after the première of Caldara’s Adriano in Siria in Vienna, a treatment of the text by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi reached the stage of Naples’s Teatro San Bartolomeo. First performed on 25 October 1734, the opera was created by a cast that included Maria Marta Monticelli, Giustina Turcotti, Catarina Fumagalli, and the ill-tempered castrato Caffarelli, begrudgingly acknowledged by Porpora as the finest singer in Italy. Overshadowed in the past half-century by Lo frate ’nnamorato, La serva padrona (originally an intermezzo in Il prigionier superbo), and L’Olimpiade, also a setting of a Metastasio libretto, Adriano in Siria is a masterful example of Neapolitan opera seria and a work that deserves the near-perfectly-executed attention that it receives on this DECCA recording.

His life ended prematurely by consumption before he reached his twenty-seventh birthday, Pergolesi is a figure whose importance to the progressive development of the Italian Baroque is difficult to assess owing to the mythology spurred by Romanticized accounts of his last days and the legacy of his Stabat mater, alleged to have been the best-known and most-published musical work of the Eighteenth Century. This recording of Adriano in Siria significantly expands today’s listeners’ ability to assess Pergolesi’s work within the boundaries of performance practices appropriate for the music. Hearing this recording, it is virtually impossible to accept that the first production of Adriano in Siria did not meet with success. The quality of the performance on these well-engineered discs is extremely high, it is true, but can a performance with Caffarelli at its center really have been markedly inferior? Perhaps even with the light-hearted intermezzo that accompanied it at its première Adriano in Siria was too somber for the farce-loving Neapolitans.

Today’s listeners are certainly no strangers to the phenomenon of genius being rejected whilst mediocrity is embraced, but the performance of Adriano in Siria led here by Jan Tomasz Adamus manifests Pergolesi’s genius in ways that cannot be ignored. The conductor implements tempi that invigorate the now-archaic formulae of opera seria with bristling vitality, only occasionally applying slightly more pressure than the music can withstand, and his work is complemented by the stylish, alert playing of Capella Cracoviensis. Joined on harpsichord by Marcin Świąkiewicz and on theorbo by Ophira Zakai, Adamus keeps the long stretches of secco recitative moving, generating welcome linear continuity among scenes but also granting the singers latitude in highlighting passages of particular importance. The sounds produced by oboists Magdalena Karolak and Aleš Ambrosi and horn players Nicolas Chedmail and Gijs Laceulle contribute excitingly to the orchestral canvas upon which the singers create their character portraits. There is nothing strikingly original in the opera’s Sinfonia, but Adamus and Capella Cracoviensis make it a true introduction to the drama that follows rather than merely a noisy bit of music tacked on at the head of the score. In a few instances, most notably in those arias in which extroverted emotions burst forth, the orchestra’s emphatic playing yields abrasive, excessively-accentuated chords, but every whimper and roar is justified by elements of the plot. Much of Pergolesi’s music warrants the clichéd assessment that the composer was ‘ahead of his time.’ In this performance of Adriano in Siria, Adamus and his colleagues keep pace with Pergolesi’s musical soothsaying from the first note of the Sinfonia to the last bar of the chorus that ends Act Three.

The Roman tribune Aquilio, Adriano’s friend and confidant, has a vested interest in encouraging the emperor’s designs on Emirena: by abandoning the intended imperial consort, Sabina, there would be no obstacle to Aquilio revealing his own love for Caesar’s betrothed. Turkish soprano Çiğdem Soyarslan’s timbre is unmistakably feminine, but she credibly evinces the young man’s romantic dilemma with carefully-managed vocal acting. Hers is an endearingly youthful, almost naïve performance: not even Aquilio’s scheming deprives her singing of its buoyancy. In Act One, Soyarslan delivers ‘Vuoi punir l’ingrato amante?’ with bright, sharp-edged tone and forthright clarity of purpose. Aquilio’s aria in Act Two, ‘Saggio guerriero antico,’ is solidly done, and the soprano’s performance of ‘Contento forse vivere del mio martir potrei’ in Act Three lacks only a prevailing dramatic profile. Still, Soyarslan’s Aquilio is an active participant in the machinations that upset the opera’s amatory equilibrium. Vocally, she is not apt to be mistaken for a man, Roman or otherwise, but she possesses every trait needed to be identified as a singer with great promise.

Portraying the proud Parthian king Osroa, histrionic cousin of Bajazet in Händel’s Tamerlano, Spanish tenor Juan Sancho sings incisively, limning the hot-tempered sovereign’s dogged pursuit of vengeance with musical braggadocio. The intentions are sometimes more enjoyable than the results, but Sancho holds nothing back in his analysis of the character’s arrogance, animosity, and eventual ambivalence. The Act One aria ‘Sprezza il furor del vento’ is lustily sung, its volleys of fiorature blazingly dispatched. Later, Osroa declares that his daughter and Farnaspe perishing as collateral damage in his plot to burn the seats of Roman power is an acceptable outcome, but his music tells a vastly different story. Sancho expertly but unpretentiously executes every hairpin emotional turn of the accompagnato ‘E pure, ad onta del mio furor,’ the potential consequences of the king’s rash actions suddenly flooding his conscience. The tenor’s voicing of the aria ‘A un semplice istante’ seethes with doubt and guilt. Sancho heightens the contrasts between Osroa’s arias in Acts Two and Three, ‘Leon piagato a morte’ and ‘Ti perdi e confondi,’ by using the texts as the blueprints for his construction of musical edifices. Sancho is an exceptionally intelligent singer who unflinchingly meets every challenge of the parts that he sings, but the stress that his no-holds-barred approach exerts on his upper register can be worrying. His vocalism is as resilient as it is intuitive, however, and his conflicted, rabble-rousing Osroa in this performance is an exhilarating depiction of a flawed, fascinating man.

Assuming the patrician mien of Sabina, whose betrothal to Adriano the emperor is all too willing to ignore in order to woo the conquered Emirena, young Russian soprano Dilyara Idrisova illuminates Pergolesi’s melodic lines with a voice that shimmers like the last rays of twilight on autumn foliage. Still a very young singer, her technique remains noticeably ‘green’ in fiorature, and her placement of tones is not always completely steady. Nevertheless, the unaffected beauty of her singing of Sabina’s aria in Act One, ‘Chi soffre, senza pianto,’ is profoundly fulfilling and wholly appropriate to the dramatic situation. In Act Two, she meaningfully imparts the indignation of ‘Ah, ingrato, m’inganni’ without over-emoting or distorting the lovely timbre of her voice. ‘Splenda per voi sereno’ draws from her a wholly different spectrum of vocal colors, used with the utmost delicacy even when the character is under duress. The Act Three aria ‘Digli ch’è un infedele’ receives from Idrisova a performance of maturity and refinement that belie her youth. The noble lady’s trials do not seem out of place in the handling of her young interpreter, and the music is movingly, sometimes magically sung. What an auspicious introduction this is for a singer who seems poised to prove an invaluable asset to performances of Baroque repertory.

When Adriano in Siria was first performed, both Aquilio and the title rôle were assigned to female singers in travesti, a boon to the production’s irascible primo uomo that serendipitously avoided pitting Caffarelli against a rival castrato. For this recording, though, Adriano is restored to the proper gender in a mercurial performance by Ukrainian countertenor Yuriy Mynenko. Gilding his attractive voice with a bright edge, Mynenko convincingly projects Adriano’s regal bearing, articulating text imperiously and phrasing with authority. His aria in Act One, ‘Dal labbro che t’accende,’ is delivered with abundant feeling and technical prowess. Of an altogether different ethos is Adriano’s aria in Act Two, ‘Tutti nemici e rei,’ and Mynenko impresses by adapting his comportment so discernibly within the parameters of the characterization he has created. Furthering this achievement, he fashions a traversal of ‘Fra poco assiso in trono Cesare parlerà’ in Act Three that adds another dimension of complexity to his Adriano. The efficacy of Mynenko’s artistry is revealed by the adroitness with which he transforms a petulant, self-centered autocrat into an approachable, sympathetic man whose heart is as volatile as his empire. Teatro San Bartolomeo’s impresario got it right in 1734: had he been compelled to compete with singing as dexterous, thoughtful, and even throughout the range as Mynenko provides here, Caffarelli would have been fuming.

Pergolesi’s music for Emirena, the daughter of Osroa who, though betrothed and deeply devoted to Farnaspe, has the misfortune of rousing Adriano’s passion, is ideally suited to the voice and dramatic attitudes of Italian mezzo-soprano Romina Basso. In fact, reviving Adriano in Siria was worthwhile solely for the opportunity that it afforded Basso to be heard in this part. The lone native Italian in the cast, her diction is a beacon for her colleagues, who strive to reach the level of communicativeness that she effortlessly exhibits. Basso’s voice, here sounding at its absolute peak, is an extraordinary instrument, her ebony-hued, contralto-like lower register ideally integrated with the rich upper reaches. It is a voice in which the tears of tragic heroines sparkle—a voice in which, in the context of Adriano in Siria, the pain of a woman who believes that she has been abandoned by her lover resounds with heart-wrenching beauty. Both of Emirena’s arias in Act One, ‘Prigioniera abbandonata’ and the sublime ‘Sola mi lasci piangere,’ are sung with impeccable musicality and in-depth understanding of the texts. Not surprisingly, Basso shapes recitatives nearly as memorably as she sculpts arias, her impassioned but reliably tasteful utterances in secco recitatives constituting the dramatic spine of the performance. As she brings it to life, ‘Quell’amplesso e quel perdono’ in Act Two becomes a poignantly intimate expression of uncertainty. The Act Three duet with Farnaspe, ‘L’estremo pegno almeno ricevi,’ is lofted by Basso’s singing to dizzying heights of ecstatic sensuality. Basso is the rare artist in whose singing early composers’ goals of using the new genre of opera to recreate the exalted ideals of Greek drama are fully realized. As potent an exponent of her repertory as Stignani and Simionato were of theirs, Basso here offers a performance of Pergolesi’s Emirena to stand alongside Stignani’s Adalgisa and Simionato’s Eboli.

If Caffarelli sang Farnaspe more brilliantly in Naples in 1734 than Argentine countertenor Franco Fagioli does on these discs, the most flattering contemporary commentary about the castrato did not do him justice. Few singers possess the technical wherewithal to sing music composed for Caffarelli, and this is especially true of Pergolesi’s music for Farnaspe in Adriano in Siria. Ferocious in terms of both its near-ridiculous bravura writing and its two-octave compass, Farnaspe’s music requires nothing less than best-in-the-world virtuosity and largely receives it from Fagioli in this performance. His entrance aria in Act One, ‘Sul mio cor so ben qual sia,’ is the stuff of singers’ nightmares, but Fagioli’s wide-awake, intrepid singing clears the music’s hurdles with athleticism to spare. Without question, Fagioli forces his superb natural instrument, usually when braving rapid-fire fiorature, but he is a shrewd singer who knows and respects the voice’s limitations. The expressivity of which he is capable surges to the surface in the aria with which Farnaspe ends Act One, ‘Lieto così talvolta,’ a discourse with a splendidly-written oboe obbligato. In this music, the twenty-four-year-old Pergolesi rivaled Händel as a musical poet, and Fagioli recites the young composer’s verses lovingly. Farnaspe also ends Act Two, the aria that Pergolesi gave him for this purpose, ‘Torbido in volto e nero,’ again testing the singer’s capabilities. Fagioli aces this test, but he is at his best in the Act Three duet with Emirena, ‘L’estremo pegno almeno ricevi.’ Momentarily setting aside the responsibilities of his rank, Farnaspe is here a tender lover, and Fagioli blends his tones with Basso’s gorgeously. Even among today’s ranks of gifted countertenors, Fagioli is sui generis. His portrayal of Pergolesi’s Farnaspe on this recording is singing of an order of which the pioneers of his Fach, world-changing artists like Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin, can scarcely have dreamed.

As recently as a decade ago, the appearance on a major label of a studio recording of any of Pergolesi’s surviving operas was unimaginable. Who, though, might have imagined that in 2016 it would be possible to record a Pergolesi opera with far greater success than could be mustered in recordings of scores by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, and Richard Strauss? With this fantastic recording of Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria, the DECCA discography welcomes a release worthy of inclusion among the label’s classics of previous generations, recordings like Knappertsbusch’s Meistersinger, the elder Kleiber’s Rosenkavalier, Böhm’s Frau ohne Schatten, and Solti’s Ring. Thus is our brave new—or, rather, old—world!

15 November 2016

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | November 2016: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — DON GIOVANNI, K. 527 (D. Tiliakos, V. Priante, M. Papatanasiu, K. Gauvin, K. Tarver, G. Loconsolo, C. Gansch, M. Kares; Sony Classical 88985316032)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | November 2016: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - DON GIOVANNI, K. 527 (Sony Classical 88985316032)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Don Giovanni, K. 527Dimitris Tiliakos (Don Giovanni), Vito Priante (Leporello), Myrtò Papatanasiu (Donna Anna), Karina Gauvin (Donna Elvira), Kenneth Tarver (Don Ottavio), Guido Loconsolo (Masetto), Christina Gansch (Zerlina), Mika Kares (Il Commendatore); MusicAeterna (Orchestra and Chorus of the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre); Teodor Currentzis, conductor [Recorded in P. I. Tchaikovsky State Opera and Ballet Theatre, Perm, Russia, 23 November – 7 December 2015; Sony Classical 88985316032; 3 CDs, 170:10; Available from Amazaon (USA), iTunes (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

From ancient accounts of Potiphar’s wife’s adulterous but not unrequited infatuation with the virtuous Joseph to the literary exploits of Molière’s Tartuffe, de Laclos’s Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmomt, de Sade’s Justine, and Byron’s Don Juan, the adventures of amatory predators and prey have ignited artists’ and audiences’ imaginations. Libidinous appetites and the pursuit of their fulfillment are components of human nature commonly regarded as inappropriate topics for polite conversation, but the boundaries of propriety upon the operatic stage have, since Monteverdi’s Nerone first enacted his debaucheries in song, been an ever-changing, wide-ranging measure of societal attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Composed for Prague in response to the tremendous success that his Le nozze di Figaro had previously enjoyed in that city, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni reunited the composer with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, whose texts melded pointed social commentary with eloquent expressions of emotion. The class warfare that serves as the backdrop for the characters’ intimate drama in Le nozze di Figaro also wages just beyond the fringes of Don Giovanni’s plot, but here there are no obvious victors; none, that is, except for the listener, who is treated to three hours of the finest music in opera. In its way, Don Giovanni is as bold and seductive as the poetry of Walt Whitman and the paintings of Gustav Klimnt, but, of these, Mozart’s was the most timeless and universal genius. This recording confirms time after time that the opera’s capacity to provoke and surprise is undiminished more than two centuries after its first performance. Whether in Prague in 1787 or in Perm in 2015, Mozart’s and da Ponte’s magnificently complex but also engagingly simple tale of Don Giovanni and his conquests forces performers and observers to peer into the corners of our psyches that we endeavor to hide from others’ view. We may not like what we see, but a performance of Don Giovanni like the one on these discs makes it impossible to dislike what we hear.

In a sense, Don Giovanni poses questions not unlike those suggested by Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Gioconda, whose ambiguous visage leads the observer to ponder whether she is consciously smiling and, if so, why and at whom. In this recording, the final leg of his journey through Mozart’s three operas with libretti by da Ponte, Greek conductor Teodor Currentzis strips away layers of well-meaning but inauthentic performance traditions in the manner of an art historian restoring a weathered canvas. Recorded in full in 2014, scrapped because the results did not achieve the spirit of rediscovery that the conductor sought, and finally recorded anew in 2015, the performance on these discs, preserved by Sony Classical in clean acoustics that heighten dramatic propulsion by evoking a theatrical atmosphere, mines Mozart’s score for answers to difficult questions. Accompanied on this adventure by the voices and instruments of MusicAeterna, artists of the Perm State Opera and Ballet, Currentzis takes Don Giovanni at face value, approaching it as neither an academic treatise nor a post-Freudian psychological muddle. Perhaps, as his correspondence suggests, Mozart was not the most mature of men, but his music is reliably logical in construction. It is Mozart’s logic that Currentzis follows, and it leads him to musical details that many performances overlook.

The continuo in this recording is a model of its kind, elaborate but never obtrusive. The notion that Mozart or any other self-respecting musician who was involved with performing Don Giovanni during the composer’s lifetime merely plonked out chords during secco recitatives is absurd, but so is much of the continuo playing heard today. Here, an ideal balance between imagination and integrity is achieved. Throughout the performance, instrumental obbligati are beautifully done, the instruments singing with the voices they support. Though true, it is misleading to state that Currentzis’s conducting is revolutionary. This implies that the conductor’s work is idiosyncratic, which denotes a departure from convention with a pejorative connotation. In fact, Currentzis’s conducting of this Don Giovanni is both revolutionary and idiosyncratic in the sense that he regards the opera as neither a dainty, Baroque-influenced period piece nor a Romanticized psychodrama but as a hybrid work with elements of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century innovations. The opera may have been written in and for a more genteel time, but it is anything but polite. Astonishingly, though, Currentzis never forces or pushes the singers or the orchestra. Tempi and instrumental balances sound precisely right for a score composed in 1787. Currentzis has acquired—and actively cultivated—a ‘bad boy of Classical Music’ persona, but he is the right ‘bad boy’ for the job of reintroducing Don Giovanni as Mozart and da Ponte conceived it.

Il Commendatore serves as the catalyst for the opera’s explosive dramatic reactions, first by dying at Don Giovanni’s hand in Act One and by returning in Act Two in petrified form to instigate his murderer’s final judgement. Projecting every note of the part with fiery focus, Finnish bass Mika Kares is a Commendatore who deserves the title. Moreover, Kares is a bona fide bass who plays the part after the manner of Ludwig Weber and Gottlob Frick. The Commendatore interrupting Don Giovanni’s attempted mischief with Donna Anna, Kares voices a frightening ‘Lasciala, indegno!’ Perhaps old in the ways of the world, this is no wheezing, decrepit Commendatore: Kares depicts a still-brawny father who is a potent threat to Giovanni. ‘Ah, soccorso! Son tradito!’ is neither shouted nor crooned, and the bass brings atypical dignity to the Commendatore’s death. In this performance, with a Commendatore who does not sound like a demented troll, it is possible to appreciate Donna Anna’s prolonged grieving, often a source of humor in performances of Don Giovanni. There is nothing comical about Kares’s singing in Act Two, when the Commendatore’s stone monument accosts Giovanni and Leporello in the cemetery and subsequently turns up as invited at Giovanni’s banquet. The gravity of ‘Don Giovanni, a cenar teco m’invitasti, e son venuto’ and the calls for Giovanni to repent resounds in Kares’s vocalism, and he is totally convincing as the no-longer-of-this-world statue without resorting to artificial vocal production or being distorted by misguided audio effects. Kares’s Commendatore is unique in sounding as though he actually wants Giovanni to avoid damnation by repenting. Few singers bother to do anything other than sing the notes that Mozart wrote for the Commendatore, and even fewer manage to sing them well. Kares both sings ably and legitimately interprets the rôle.

Italian baritone Guido Loconsolo is a confident, youthful Masetto, almost a plebeian Don Giovanni in training, whose singing of Mozart’s notes is as accomplished as his handling of da Ponte’s words. Not even when Masetto’s anger is uncontainable does the singer relinquish his firm control over the voice. Tossing off ‘Giovinetti leggieri di testa’ with the effervescent joy of an adoring fiancé on his wedding day, Loconsolo gives Masetto the charm and appeal that he possesses in the score but so often lacks on stage and on disc. His voice rings out handsomely in ‘Ho capito, signor sì!’ Whether with the intention of spotlighting the social divide that separates him from Don Giovanni or owing to unimaginative singers, Masetto is often portrayed as a grunting simpleton, a sort of Neanderthal with a hot temper and little trust in his betrothed’s capacity for fidelity. Loconsolo’s Masetto is no empty-headed brute. It would be no surprise to find him in a barroom brawl, but, unlike many rival portrayals, he would indubitably have a good reason for throwing punches and, most winningly, would sing splendidly whilst doing so.

Austrian soprano Christina Gansch provides Loconsolo’s Masetto with a Zerlina of feminine wile and flirtatious sweetness whose sensibilities complement his own. Gansch voices ‘Giovinette che fate all’amore’ brightly but without the hard edge that many sopranos bring to the music. When this Zerlina sings ‘Vorrei e non vorrei’ in response to Giovanni’s wooing ‘Là ci darem la mano,’ she sounds credibly bewildered, both flattered and frightened by the philanderer’s attention. The aria ‘Batti, batti, o bel Masetto’ is virtually unbearable in many performances, sopranos smothering the music with cuteness and self-indulgent cooing. Here, however, the singer’s vocalism is certainly pretty but never coy or caricatured. Following her colleagues’ examples, Gansch embellishes her music liberally but tastefully, adding an easy top C to the cadenza in her beautifully-sung ‘Vedrai, carino, se sei buonino’ in Act Two. This recording delights unexpectedly by including the scene in which Zerlina abducts Leporello and threatens to slice him to shreds with a razor, composed for the opera’s first production in Vienna and now almost always omitted. The soprano’s silvery tones acquire a glinting edge as she hurls ‘Non v’è pietà, briccone’ at Leporello, believing him to have beaten Masetto, but she is no murderess. This fit of vengeful rage out of her system and Giovanni dispatched to incendiary retribution, Zerlina is the cheerful, clever bride once more, and she is heard with pleasure in the opera’s finale. Gansch’s Zerlina is not a chirping schoolgirl but an independent young woman who sings stylishly and refuses to be any man’s plaything—unless she wants to be.

Vocally and dramatically, Don Ottavio is often a pronounced weakness in otherwise enjoyable performances and recordings of Don Giovanni. In recent years, a true Mozart tenor—a singer like Anton Dermota, whose repertory was built upon the foundation of Mozart singing and whose stylishness and technical acumen as a Mozartean remained reliable throughout a long career—has been as rare as a genuine Heldentenor. There are tenors who manage Don Ottavio’s music effectively, but almost none of his contemporaries rivals American tenor Kenneth Tarver’s level of comfort in the rôle. Ottavio’s music offers the singer nowhere to hide. A singer who requires no vocal hiding places, Tarver contributed an exemplary portrayal of Ottavio to René Jacobs’s harmonia mundi recording of Don Giovanni, as well as having sung Ferrando in Currentzis’s account of Così fan tutte for Sony Classical, but he surpasses both of those performances with his Ottavio in this Don Giovanni. Vowing to aid his fiancée Donna Anna in identifying and having revenge on her attacker—assuming, that is, that she was as unwilling a recipient of Giovanni’s love-making as she later indicates to Ottavio—and her father’s murderer, Tarver possesses the vocal power needed for the oath-swearing duet, singing ‘Senti, cor mio, deh senti’ with gripping bravado. Learning from Anna what transpired in the moment’s before the Commendatore’s death, this Ottavio comforts his beloved with the soothing timbre of his voice in the intense accompagnato that precedes Anna’s ‘Or sai chi l’onore.’ Tarver’s performance of ‘Dalla sua pace la mia dipende’ is magical: on recordings, only Cesare Valletti rivals him for tonal beauty, but Tarver’s technique enables even more exquisite breath control than Valletti had at his command. Furthermore, Tarver is a rare Ottavio who is not upstaged by his female cohorts in the sublime trio in the Act One finale, ‘Protegga il giusto cielo il zelo del mio cor!’ In the Act Two sextet, Tarver sings ‘Tergi il ciglio, o vita mia’ lovingly, but it is his account of ‘Il mio tesoro intanto andate a consolar’ that most ravishes the ears and enthralls the heart. The long runs are sung with single breaths as Mozart surely intended, and the evenness of tone from bottom to top is exceptional. This Ottavio seems to thoroughly understand and accept his Anna, and his lines in the opera’s final scene are affectionately articulated. Tarver is a wonderful singer and great artist, but this Ottavio is an extraordinary performance even by his own standards.

At her first appearance, the Donna Anna of Greek soprano Myrtò Papatanasiu sounds vocally undernourished, but that appearance thankfully proves to be deceiving. Anna’s terror as her father comes to her rescue and is slain by Don Giovanni invigorates the opera’s first scene, the soprano evincing the life-or-death tension of the situation without going off the rails vocally. In the accompagnato ‘Ma qual mai s’offre, oh dei!’ and the vengeance-pledging duet with Ottavio, Papatanasiu sings with growing power and nuance, securing her dramatic footing with a coldly determined exclamation of ‘Fuggi, crudele, fuggi!’ Anna’s lines in the quartet with Giovanni, Ottavio, and the raving Elvira are pointedly sung. The stirring accompagnato ‘Don Ottavio, son morta!’ is launched with laser-like tonal accuracy and histrionic kinesis. It was in the aria ‘Or sai chi l’onore rapire a me volse’ that powerhouse Annas like Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, and Dame Gwyneth Jones excelled, but Papatanasiu’s more modestly-dimensioned voice scales the heights of the music excitingly, the fearsome top As projected without strain or scrambling. She partners Tarver radiantly in the masquers’ trio, matching his elegant shaping of ‘Protegga il giusto cielo il zelo del mio cor!’ and rising above the stave with encouraging ease. Joining in Act Two’s masterful sextet, Papatanasiu voices ‘Lascia, lascia alla mia pena questo picciolo ristoro’ endearingly but with an abiding sense of her prolonged agony over the loss of her father. Unlike many recorded Annas, Papatanasiu projects mental clarity in the accompagnato ‘Crudele? Ah no, mio bene’ and aria ‘Non mi dir, bell’idol mio.’ Why the aria is frequently cited as a bravura showpiece is perplexing. Its bravura writing is very difficult, to be sure, but the piece is not a perch upon which songbirds can pose and tweet roulades. Both Currentzis and Papatanasiu are alert to this and give the aria the dramatic immediacy for which it cries out. The soprano brings tremendous focus to her negotiations of the vocal line, always emphasizing melody rather than technical display. Her technique is fully equal to the coloratura, but Papatanasiu is above all a gratifyingly musical Donna Anna whose instincts direct her to the expressive core of every phrase. In the Act Two finale, her words to Ottavio are sung with conspicuous feeling, this Anna putting him off not out of capriciousness but because the grief in her heart does not yet allow room for him to inhabit it fully. Papatanasiu makes the rôle her own as few singers on disc have done, and solely in terms of raw vocalism she is an uncommonly successful Donna Anna.

Provided that she sings her difficult music capably, a Donna Elvira can be forgiven for seeming somewhat ridiculous. After all, hers is the unfortunate lot of endeavoring to loathe and publicly denounce a man with whom she falls in love anew in every scene: she may be destined for a convent, but it will surely be an institution in which the face of every saint is transformed in this highly-strung lady’s mind into that of Giovanni. Singing accurately and exaggerating nothing, Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin proves a hearteningly musical and uncommonly moving Donna Elvira. Yes, the character’s actions and reactions are often illogical, but in Gauvin’s performance they never seem so: her Elvira is not a wounded animal caught in a snare but a deeply sensitive woman whose capacity for love greatly exceeds that for skepticism. At her first entrance, it is discernible in her electrifying but affecting account of the aria ‘Ah! chi mi dice mai quel barbaro dov’è’ that Gauvin is an Elvira who has pored over the emotional aspects of the rôle as closely as she studied the music. Her ‘Ah! fuggi il traditor’ both throbs with fury and exudes despondency and jealousy, and the music is authoritatively sung. Gauvin’s voice scintillates in the quartet, her singing of ‘Non ti fidar, o misera’ limning the ambiguity of her feelings. With both ‘Bisogna aver coraggio’ and ‘Vendichi il giusto cielo il mio tradito amor!’ in the trio with Anna and Ottavio, Gauvin markedly deepens her characterization of Elvira, fully exploring the complexities with which Mozart and da Ponte enriched the part. The Act Two trio also inspires the singer to musical emoting of the highest order, her ‘Ah! taci, ingiusto core, non palpitrarmi in seno’ projected with Callas-like sensitivity to the relationships between the vocal line and the meaning of the text. Fascinating, too, is the insightfulness with which she enunciates ‘Sola, sola, in buio loco’ in the sextet. Neither in performance nor on disc does Elvira’s accompagnato ‘In quali eccessi, o numi, in quai misfatti orribili, tremendi’ often wield the histrionic force that Gauvin builds in her singing of the music: in her hands, the passage is no less riveting than the accompagnato that precedes Anna’s ‘Or sai chi l’onore.’ This is followed by a performance of the aria ‘Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata’ that astounds. Her widely-lauded credentials in Baroque repertory contribute to what is clearly a sapient understanding not only of Mozart’s music but also of Currentzis’s concept of Don Giovanni. In the brief duration of this single aria, she wholly embodies the essence of this recording: nothing is overwrought, but no phrase wants for ardor. As Gauvin sings it, Elvira’s ‘L’ultima prova dell’amor mio ancor vogl’io fare con te’ fuels the conflagration that ultimately consumes Giovanni, the absolute sincerity of her appeal to Giovanni’s better nature all the more poignant for being so euphoniously sung. There is also palpable lyricism in Gauvin’s singing of Elvira’s resolve to enter a convent. From Luise Helletsgruber, Jarmila Novotná, and Eleanor Steber to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac, and Leyla Gencer, Elvira has been portrayed in broadcast and studio recordings by some of opera’s most renowned singing actresses. With her performance on this recording, Gauvin asserts that she is the equal of the best of them.

A poor Leporello can undermine the best intentions of any Don Giovanni, and a good Leporello can lessen the impact of the deficiencies of a haphazard performance of the opera. In the performance on the present discs, the Leporello of Italian baritone Vito Priante is precisely what a skilled manservant should be: always at hand, anticipating his master’s needs, fulfilling his duties with alacrity, and standing aside when he is not meant to be the center of attention. Priante’s voice is lighter in both timbre and weight than those of many recorded Leporellos, but his interpretation of the rôle, unforcedly funny and sharp-witted, is among the most substantial on disc. He dispatches ‘Notte e giorno faticar’ with the elegance of a man who has learned much from his exposure to high society, and his interactions with Giovanni throughout the opera reflect a sardonic awareness that, though he is a nobleman, Giovanni is anything but noble. As Priante sings it, ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’ seems intended to mitigate Elvira’s embarrassment rather than to increase it by mocking her. As each of the opera’s characters emerges in the Act One finale, Leporello’s critical part in the drama becomes ever more evident, his responses to each participant’s competing agenda disclosing a mind far quicker than Giovanni appreciates—a major contributing factor in the Don’s eventual downfall. The Act Two duet with his abusive master draws stark irony from Priante, Leporello barely able to contain his contempt for Giovanni and his injustices in his firmly-sung ‘No, no, padrone, non vo’ restar.’ As when singing the Catalogue Aria in Act One, Priante emphasizes an element of sympathy for Elvira in his statement of ‘State a veder la pazza, che ancor gli crederà,’ and he pleads ‘Perdono, perdono, signori miei’ in the sextet with subtle desperation. The aria ‘Ah, pietà, signori miei’ goes for nothing in many performances, but the understated nuances of Priante’s traversal of the aria heighten its importance in the progression of the opera’s narrative. The restored scene with Zerlina proves to be this Leporello’s greatest vehicle for musical characterization, and he seizes every opportunity to use da Ponte’s words as a springboard for diving deeply into the character’s motivations. Priante’s ‘Per queste tue manine candide e tenerelle’ is as thoughtful as his ‘Amico, per pietà, un poco d’acqua fresca o ch’io mi moro!’ is amusing. He acutely conveys Leporello’s horror and fear in the duet ‘O statua gentilissima del gran Commendatore’ and in ‘Ah, Signor, per carità’ in the finale without placing one note or syllable beyond the boundaries of good taste. To his credit, Priante never attempts to emulate the Leporellos of larger voices, preferring to sing the part on his own terms. Those terms, negotiated by singer and conductor with Mozart’s music as the mediator, produce one of the liveliest and loveliest Leporellos on disc.

It is easy to view Don Giovanni, Conte d’Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, and Guglielmo in Così fan tutte as Mozart’s equivalents of Verdi’s Rigoletto, Giorgio Germont in La traviata, and Conte di Luna in Il trovatore. The vocal Fächen that are so frequently cited today were considerably less codified during and for another generation after Mozart’s career, and his rôles in baritone range are only marginally less difficult to cast with complete success than Verdi’s great baritone parts. Acclaimed for his work in Verdi repertory, particularly the title rôle in Macbeth and Giorgio Germont, Greek baritone Dimitris Tiliakos is the ideal protagonist for Currentzis’s pragmatic Don Giovanni. Suave, sensual, and sonorously masculine, Tiliakos’s Giovanni dominates this performance despite the very strong work by his colleagues. Tussling with the Commendatore after being discovered in the act of assailing Donna Anna’s honor, Tiliakos sings like a man possessed, his voice flashing in the dark soundscape like lightning. The contrast with ‘Là ci darem la mano’ could not be greater. Here, the baritone’s vocalism is like the whisper of a summer breeze: Zerlina can hardly be blamed for following where it leads. Tiliakos voices ‘La povera ragazza è pazza, amici miei’ in the quartet with deceptive concern, and he follows this with a volatile reading of ‘Fin ch’han dal vino calda la testa,’ one which combines musical virtuosity with dramatic acuity. The pace of the Act One finale is set by Tiliakos’s animated singing of ‘Su, svegliatevi, da bravi!’ and ‘Ecco il birbo che t’ha offesa.’ Opening Act Two with the duet with Leporello, this Giovanni brandishes ‘Eh via, buffone, non mi seccar’ like a slap to Leporello’s face. Then, in the trio with Elvira and Leporello, he intones ‘Discendi, o gioia bella’ alluringly. Tiliakos sings one of the most beautiful and erotic accounts of the canzonetta ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra, o mio tesoro’ on disc, his hypnotic mezza voce and idiomatic diction captivating. The aria ‘Metà di voi qua vadano’ benefits from Tiliakos’s assertive swagger, and his insistent manner infuses ‘Finiscila, o nel petto ti metto questo acciar’ in the duet with Leporello with excitement. Defiant to the end, Tiliakos’s Giovanni mercilessly teases and torments Leporello at the banquet in the opera’s penultimate scene, and the baritone sings ‘Già la mensa è preparata’ with insouciance. The interpolated top A with which Tiliakos expresses his ultimate truculence aptly summarizes his interpretation of the rôle: his Giovanni is his own man, answering only to himself and recognizing no moral authority of this or any other world. There are more smoothly-sung Giovannis on disc, but Tiliakos blends Pinza’s vivacity, Siepi’s joviality, Gobbi’s urbanity, and Taddei’s panache in a brilliantly-executed, compellingly-vocalized depiction of one of opera’s most chameleonic characters.

Mozart’s and da Ponte’s Don Giovanni is an operatic moving target with no definitive edition or interpretation. In the eight decades since the first complete recording of the opera was issued, recorded performances have appeared with relative regularity, populating a discography with renditions ranging in their prevailing sentiments from bawdy comedy to proto-Wagnerian tragedy. The de jure atman of this prismatic dramma giocoso dwells somewhere between these extremes. It is an opera that every listener hears differently. 229 years after its première, it is impossible to know precisely how Mozart and da Ponte ‘heard’ Don Giovanni, but with this recording Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, and an uniformly superlative cast purvey as cogent a ‘hearing’ of this glorious, exacting masterpiece as has been committed to disc.

13 November 2016

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Henry Purcell — THE FAIRY QUEEN, Z.629 (M. Molomot, K. E. Jones, C. Berry, A. Martinez-Turano, S. Brunscheen, D. Taylor, R. Belongie, R. Gomez; Chicago Opera Theater, 11 November 2016)

IN REVIEW: Tenor MARC MOLOMOT as Puck in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]HENRY PURCELL (1659 – 1695): The Fairy Queen, Z.629Marc Molomot (Puck), Kimberly Eileen Jones (Tanya), Cedric Berry (Ron), Alexandra Martinez-Turano (Helena, Dancer), Scott J. Brunscheen (Demetrius), Darryl Taylor (Herman), Ryan Belongie (Lysander), Roberto Gomez (Shakes); Haymarket Opera Orchestra; Jory Vinikour, harpsichord and conductor [Andreas Mitisek, Production Design and Director; Dan Weingarten, Lighting Designs; David Lee Bradke, Lighting Director; Chicago Opera Theater, The Studebaker Theater, Fine Arts Building, Chicago, Illinois, USA; Friday, 11 November 2016]

Oscar Wilde wrote that ‘man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.’ Though the contexts and the meanings of the related words are very different, it can be asserted with ample justification that giving Henry Purcell an opportunity to compose a masque inspired him to express human truths through music. Born in London’s Royal Borough of Westminster in 1659, Purcell is, despite his extraordinary significance to English music, a figure about whose biography there is at least as much conjecture as there is consensus. The composer Daniel Purcell, commonly identified as Henry’s younger brother, may have actually been his cousin or a lesser relation, for example, and constructing a chronology of the elder Purcell’s career with any pretension of accuracy is virtually impossible. Painstaking scholarship has yielded relative certainty about the likelihood that Purcell’s largest-scaled work for the stage, the masque The Fairy Queen, was composed in 1692 and premièred at the Queen’s Theatre in the same year in celebration of the wedding anniversary of Britain’s dual monarchs, William III and Mary II. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the Queen’s Theatre was a marvel of form and function, the feats of stagecraft made possible by the fruits of Wren’s genius manifested in the music written for the venue. It was as an entertainment to be presented among the five acts of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that The Fairy Queen was conceived, but the masque’s words, authorship of which remains unidentified, are only tangentially related to Shakespeare’s play. Given this masque within the structure of one of Western literature’s greatest works for the stage in which to perform his musical magic, Purcell tells the truth with stunning wit and wisdom. Perhaps, as Emily Dickinson put it, he sometimes tells it ‘slant,’ but the truth in The Fairy Queen is unfailingly tuneful.

The first fully-staged show to be presented in the newly-rejuvenated Studebaker Theater in the historic Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, Chicago Opera Theater’s production of The Fairy Queen, designed and directed by COT General Director Andreas Mitisek and utilizing a very free adaptation of Purcell’s semi-opera [numbers were cut and reordered, vocal parts were changed, and music from other scores by Purcell, mainly King Arthur, was interpolated] by the trio of inventive minds—Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Siguenza—united in Culture Clash, fused Purcell’s musical ‘Restoration spectacular’ with elements of the plot of its intended Shakespearean setting. Transplanting the action from Shakespeare’s distant antiquity to a vague present, the mysterious sylvan world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was traded for a seedy Las Vegas establishment that recalled the continental haunts of Christopher Isherwood and his circle of moral miscreants. Though intermittently effective in the most basic ways, especially in exploring how decent people can unintentionally but devastatingly hurt one another, the production left few tired, dramatically pointless clichés of sexual depravity untouched. Here a nightclub owner who was equal parts Joel Grey’s Emcee in Cabaret, Jonathan Pryce’s Engineer in Miss Saigon, and a parody of every roué in opera, COT’s Puck was deprived of the mercurial charisma that renders Shakespeare’s incarnation of the character memorable. No new ground was excavated by the production’s race, gender, and sexual preference stereotypes, and the innuendo and pantomime depravity, typified by the heroine of sorts suggestively unzipping Puck’s trousers, were uncomfortable for the cast and, most critically, for Purcell. Dan Weingarten’s lighting designs and David Lee Bradke’s implementation of them brought the production vividly to life, though the strobe lights in Part Two emphasized the garishness of the pseudo-erotic cavorting at the expense of the unfolding emotional drama. There were many affecting moments in the performance, but they mostly occurred in spite of rather than because of the production. Modernizing Baroque scores when bringing them to the stage has become common practice, sometimes with fantastic results, but the problem with reimagining The Fairy Queen as Lulu is that Purcell’s risqué but sublime, sensitive work is at odds with a nonsensical story about repulsive people. Purcell demands poetry, not pornography, and this production failed its participants and its patrons by using the artists on stage as objects in a sexual farce rather than vessels for the unadulterated outpouring of Purcell’s music.

IN REVIEW: Harpsichordist and conductor JORY VINIKOUR, conductor of Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by Nuccio di Nuzzo]Man with a plan: Harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour, conductor of Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen, 11 November 2016
[Photo by Nuccio di Nuzzo]

Purcell’s champion and savior in this production was internationally-acclaimed harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour. Leading the period-instrument orchestra of Chicago’s Haymarket Opera, with which company he will perform Alessandro Scarlatti’s oratorio San Giovanni Battista at Malta’s Valletta Baroque Festival in January 2017, Vinikour labored mightily to enthrone this Fairy Queen in a musical realm that Purcell would recognize and endorse. The Haymarket musicians—first violinists Jeri-Lou Zike, Ann Duggan, and Wendy Benner; second violinists Martin Davids, Emi Tanabe, and Lori Ashikawa; violists Liz Hagen and Dave Moss; cellists Craig Trompeter and Lucien Werner; violone player Jerry Fuller; Dave Walker on theorbo; Kathryn Montoya and Sung Lee doubling on oboe and recorder; Kris Kwapis and Tom Pfotenhauer on natural trumpet; and Brandon Podjasek on kettle drums and tambourine—collaborated with Vinikour in the creation of a sound world in which one could take refuge from the tomfoolery littering the stage. Even from the perspective of the Twenty-First Century, in which perceptions of orchestral grandeur are shaped in the opera house by Wagner and Richard Strauss and in the concert hall by Mahler, it is remarkable to experience how much sheer sound an ensemble of eighteen musicians can generate. That sound was sporadically compromised by faltering intonation and a handful of flaws from the notoriously unmanageable valveless trumpets, but, on the whole, the period instruments and their handlers made wonderfully diverting noises. Guiding the performance as though extemporaneously composing the score himself, Vinikour provided continuo playing that was inventive but restrained, and his colleagues in the pit shared his gifts for crisp rhythms, pinpoint articulations of harmonic progressions, and purposeful ornaments. The pruning and restructuring to which the score was subjected limited cohesion among scenes, but Vinikour achieved marvels in sustaining momentum and facilitating musical characterization by both singers and instrumentalists. Long in demand as a vocal coach and respected recital partner for some of the world’s best singers, Vinikour débuted as a conductor of opera as recently as August 2016, when he paced West Edge Opera’s performances of Händel’s Agrippina in Oakland, California, but a novice’s nerves were not apparent in this Fairy Queen. He and the orchestra supplied the foundation of professionalism that the production sorely needed, and his spot-on tempi and grounding musicality counterbalanced the unnecessary scenic stupidity.

Also covering the lead rôles, the seven choristers—tenor Jonathan Weyant, soprano Lari Stait, basses Zacharias Niedzwiecki and Samuel Weiser, mezzo-sopranos Kira Dills-DeSurra and Quinn Middleman, and tenor Patrick Dean Shelton—sang strongly and often very beautifully. In an ensemble of this size, the quality of each individual voice was apparent, and the young singers revealed themselves to be first-rate artists in the making. Temporarily abandoning his Club FQ bartending duties to writhe acrobatically as the dominatrix Miss Trixie’s scantily-clad ‘pussy cat’ in the production’s second half, Niedzwiecki literally revealed more than his colleagues, but his singing was as impressive as his physique. Any one of these talented youngsters might have stepped into a leading rôle with assurance. As an ensemble, their work was marvelous: lulling the anguished Tanya to sleep, their singing of ‘Hush, no more, be silent all’ was the musical zenith of the performance.

Shakes—an apt name for a perennially-inebriated barstool bard who merrily trades couplets for Courvoisier—was portrayed with absolute conviction by baritone Roberto Gomez, a lauded Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia whose familiarity with Rossinian fiorature paid rich dividends in his singing of Purcell’s music. Among the cast, Gomez seemed most at ease with the bawdy comedy (but was also spared the most provocative of it, it must be admitted), delivering lines with near-perfect timing, reacting organically to the other players, and taking bits like Shakes’s concerted flirtation with Puck—falling victim to his own aphrodisiacal concoction—in stride. Though the tessitura of his music sometimes seemed marginally too low for him, the baritone sonorously entreated his friends at Club FQ to ‘Fill up the bowl,’ and he was a champion stutterer in Purcell’s parody music. Gomez was an amiable Drunken Poet, a good-natured if excessively-boozed Christopher Sly who sang with a good grasp of Purcell’s idiom. Can one really imagine Sly propositioning a tavern keeper, though?

IN REVIEW: Countertenors RYAN BELONGIE as Lysander (left) and DARRYL TAYLOR as Herman (right) in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]Boys on the town: Countertenors Ryan Belongie as Lysander (left) and Darryl Taylor as Herman (right) in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen, 11 November 2016
[Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]

The production made it difficult to empathize with any of the characters, especially the party-seeking newlyweds Lysander and Herman, but the interpreters of these rôles worked diligently to connect with their audience. Countertenor Ryan Belongie was a suavely handsome Lysander who coped manfully with being asked to romp embarrassingly—and shirtlessly—with Helena. Vocally, his was a mellifluous performance, and the quality of his acting largely matched the caliber of his singing. Arriving at Club FQ, Belongie’s Lysander duetted erotically with Herman, but his potion-induced transition to heterosexuality was equally adroit. His delivery of the line ‘I even find her breasts enticing’ when ogling Helena was hilarious. His lean, sinewy voice flowed through Purcell’s melodic lines like pure honey, and he negotiated divisions with surety. He radiated boyish sex appeal but was also the most maturely expressive of the principals: gaining cognizance of his brief liaison with Helena, his face conveyed heartbreak and regret as earnestly as his singing.

Fellow countertenor Darryl Taylor was a supernova of virility as Herman, flexing his muscles like a prizefighter and donning South Beach-esque attire with aplomb. Like Belongie, he found in Purcell’s music ample opportunities for honeyed vocalism, and his agility was admirable. The melting lyricism of his singing in ensembles was delightful. The imagery of ‘See my many coloured fields’ was manifested in his light-emitting shoes, but it was the voice that shone most brightly. The staging required Taylor to camp it up shamelessly, but the integrity of his artistry could not be obscured.

In this production, Demetrius and Helena were not yet married but already pursuing counseling in an effort to heal and preserve their foundering relationship. One wondered whether its survival was really wanted by the henpecked Demetrius of tenor Scott Brunscheen. Tall, feigning awkwardness, and clearly unnerved by his bossy bride-to-be, he could not be faulted for his reluctance to make a lifelong commitment to Helena. Vocally, there was nothing hesitant in Brunscheen’s performance. His lithe, attractive lyric tenor was firm and focused throughout the performance, and the liquid ease of his singing was enchanting. Dramatically, Brunscheen was the crestfallen fiancé to the life, unsure of himself and awaiting instructions from Helena on what to think and feel. The singer’s voice soared with the freedom and confidence that the character’s spirit lacked, and his admission to Helena that, whilst under the influence of Puck’s elixir, he had done quite a bit more than staring into another man’s eyes was bizarrely touching.

IN REVIEW: Soprano ALEXANDRA MARTINEZ-TURANO as Helena (left) and countertenor RYAN BELONGIE as Lysander (right) in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]What fools these mortals be: Soprano Alexandra Martinez-Turano as Helena (left) and countertenor Ryan Belongie as Lysander (right) in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen, 11 November 2016
[Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]

Singing as gracefully as she moved as an exotic dancer in Club FQ, soprano Alexandra Martinez-Turano was a fanciful, flexible Helena who seemed besotted with the notion of being married but not so much with its practical implications, especially those implications that she could not micromanage. It was unfortunate that this production perpetuated the slander that folks who enjoy a bit of fun are essentially sex-addicted sluts. Shakespeare’s Helena, though unquestionably highly-strung, is no Athenian Jezebel, but COT’s Helena was undeniably an historically-informed girl gone wild. Martinez-Turano therefore earned special praise for making the character interesting. Her vocalism was unimpeachable. Her performance lent the expected metamorphosis from uptight prude to sexually-liberated ‘true self’ emotional sincerity. Recasting the languidly sensual ‘If Love’s a sweet passion’ as a quartet for Helena, Demetrius, Herman, and Lysander was among the production’s foremost successes, and the singers traded lines beguilingly. Here and in every passage that she sang, Martinez-Turano’s crystalline tones were a great asset to this Fairy Queen.

Standing in for Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania, COT’s Ron and Tanya were sung by a pair of expert singing actors whose well-matched musical and dramatic qualities enabled them to loft their characterizations above the production’s obsession with flesh and carnal gratification. Bass-baritone Cedric Berry projected machismo and a voice of fabulous mettle to the theater’s last row. A man with natural weaknesses rather than a licentious philanderer, the Ron created by Berry was a hard-surfaced but tender-hearted husband whose love for Tanya seemed to ooze from his pores. Distracted by Martinez-Turano’s feisty señorita, he voiced ‘See, I obey’ commandingly, and he joined Martinez-Turano in a steamy rendition of ‘Come, come, come, come, let us leave the town.’ Parted from Tanya by the fallout from his straying eyes and hands, Ron’s life was stopped in its tracks. Berry expressed the character’s guilt and loss in his heartfelt, compellingly-sung ‘Next, winter comes slowly.’ Turning on Puck in frantic anger after the well-intentioned cocktail misdirected Tanya’s affections, Berry raged rousingly in ‘Arise, ye subterranean winds,’ tossing off the difficult passagework and deploying dazzling thunderbolts of sound at the top of the range. In the production’s penultimate scene, Ron’s reconciliation with Tanya was nobly done: in addition to earning Tanya’s forgiveness, the sighs of surrender and warm applause made it clear that Berry’s debonair wooing won over hearts in the audience. His was the best singing of the evening, an unforgettable performance by a star on the rise.

IN REVIEW: Soprano KIMBERLY EILEEN JONES as Tanya (left) and bass-baritone CEDRIC BERRY as Ron (right) in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]The course of true love never did run smooth: Soprano Kimberly Eileen Jones as Tanya (left) and bass-baritone Cedric Berry as Ron (right) in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen, 11 November 2016
[Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]

Partnering Berry as the temperamental Tanya, soprano Kimberly Eileen Jones looked like a svelte Jennifer Hudson and sounded like a young Camilla Williams. Discovering her husband prostrate beneath an undulating dancer, Jones’s eruption of ire was ferocious: most of the men in the theatre likely wanted to cower beneath their seats merely for having looked at the shimmying Delilah. The production’s single greatest misstep was staging a comedic routine for Puck during Tanya’s singing of the score’s most famous number and one of the pinnacles of Seventeenth-Century music, the passacaglia-form Plaint ‘O let me weep.’ Jones phrased the air magisterially, her command of the requisite style more certain here than in any other number. She sometimes sacrificed diction to the use of distorted vowels more conducive to vocal production, especially as her lines ascended, but the rounded tones that she produced rarely failed to compensate for the lack of verbal clarity. The bravura demands of ‘Hark! how all things in one sound rejoice’ and ‘Hark! the echoing air’ were sparklingly met. Nevertheless, Jones was happiest when her melodies were unencumbered by fiorature, but she wielded a good trill. Like Berry’s, her performance satisfied and promised still finer things to come. Though the production’s depiction of African American culture was dispiritingly unoriginal and even insulting, placing a couple of color at its center was a commendable and irrefutable validation that all singers as gifted as Berry and Jones belong on all of the world’s important stages.

IN REVIEW: Tenor MARC MOLOMOT as Puck (left) and soprano KIMBERLY EILEEN JONES as Tanya (right) in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]The elixir of lust: Tenor Marc Molomot as Puck (left) and soprano Kimberly Eileen Jones as Tanya (right) in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen, 11 November 2016
[Photo by Liz Lauren / Handout]

The nucleus around which the supercharged particles of this Fairy Queen whirred was the Puck of tenor Marc Molomot. A celebrated exponent of French repertory ranging from Lully to Poulenc, Molomot’s haute-contre voice was a good fit for Purcell’s music, which was likely composed for voices in the English tradition of singers like John Dowland, their natural ranges poised between the modern distinctions of tenor and countertenor. Some of the music assigned to Molomot was slightly too low for his vocal center of gravity, but he conquered every challenge, singing attractively even when burdened with ridiculous stage business. Only with the advent of the Hanoverian dynasty that was established in England after the death of the childless last scion of the House of Stuart, Queen Anne, was the full force of the Italian Baroque felt by English musicians. Thus, French influences are prevalent in Purcell’s music, and Molomot thrived on the elegance of the composer’s vocal writing. Not every note that he sang was perfectly-pitched or of surpassing beauty, but he inhabited the rôle and his music from the heels of his cordovan loafers to his neon-pink hair. The tenor’s voicings of ‘Come, all ye songsters of the sky’ and the epithalamium ‘Thrice happy lovers’ were the performance’s finest instances of Purcellian vocal authenticity. Singing, dancing, joking, hectoring, reduced to his undershirt and jockey shorts, Molomot never succumbed to superfluity. In a production with much to offend, his multifaceted Puck indelibly made amends.

Preparing The Fairy Queen for performance is not unlike trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. Modern attention spans make staging the work in its original guise as a companion to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream unpalatable, and without that context the score has no dramatic foundation. In order to stage Fairy Queen in operatic form, a plot must therefore be devised, and in the fulfillment of that necessity Chicago Opera Theater’s production was not without merit. With an intelligent, uniformly capable cast on stage and an ensemble of virtuosi in the pit, all marshaled by an acknowledged master of Baroque repertory, the Shakespeare-derived story of lovers and their foibles would have sufficed. Leaving well enough alone is rarely a principle that wins arguments in opera, however, and the impulse to shock here outweighed the responsibility to serve the composer. Performed stylishly and sometimes exquisitely, COT’s production was not truly The Fairy Queen, Purcell, or Shakespeare, but it was great fun.

IN REVIEW: the harpsichord played by harpsichordist and conductor JORY VINIKOUR in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Henry Purcell's FAIRY QUEEN, 11 November 2016 [Photo by the author]Scene of the crime: the harpsichord played by harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Henry Purcell’s Fairy Queen
[Photo by the author]