30 April 2017

CD REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini — ADELSON E SALVINI (S. Alberghini, E. Scala, D. Barcellona, M. Muraro, R. Pogossov, D. Soar, K. Rudge, L.-M. Jones; Opera Rara ORC56)

IN REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini's ADELSON E SALVINI (Opera Rara ORC56)VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835): Adelson e SalviniSimone Alberghini (Lord Adelson), Enea Scala (Salvini), Daniela Barcellona (Nelly), Maurizio Muraro (Bonifaccio), Rodion Pogossov (Colonel Struley), David Soar (Geronio), Kathryn Rudge (Fanny), Leah-Marian Jones (Madama Rivers); Opera Rara Chorus; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Daniele Rustioni, conductor [Recorded in BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, England, in May 2016; Opera Rara ORC56; 2 CDs, 153:29; Available from Opera Rara and major music retailers]

If the repertories of the world’s most prominent opera houses were reliable criteria for judging the musical development of the greatest composers of opera, it would be easy to conclude that these composers emerged, Athena-like, from their respective places of origin as fully-formed artists with complete dominion over their faculties. The notable exceptions are Mozart, whose pre-Idomeneo operas have retained at least a measure of curiosity value among opera lovers, and Verdi, whose early scores still cling to the periphery of the international repertory despite performances that more often than not mishandle the music. The performance diaries of the world’s leading theatres would have one believe that Rossini’s career began with Il barbiere di Siviglia, Donizetti’s with Lucia di Lammermoor, Wagner’s with Der fliegende Holländer, Puccini’s with Manon Lescaut, and Richard Strauss’s with Salome. Some composers disavowed the scores via which they honed their talents and established their reputations, of course, but only a decidedly imperfect understanding of an artist can be gleaned from an examination of his œuvre that ignores formative works.

The quest to place Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto masterpieces Norma, La sonnambula, and I puritani in the context of their creator’s artistic development begins in Naples in February 1825, when the young Sicilian composer, an eager pupil at the Real Collegio di Musica—today’s Conservatorio di Musica San Pietro a Majella—under the conservative supervision of Niccolò Zingarelli, introduced himself to the opera-loving Neapolitans with Adelson e Salvini. A setting of a Gothic-leaning libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola based upon a novella by François-Thomas-Marie de Baculard d’Arnaud, a little-remembered author whose great popularity in late-Eighteenth-Century France offers insight into the later French appreciation for Edgar Allan Poe, Bellini’s first opera was a graduation exercise that was staged in accordance with the Real Collegio’s practice of giving especially deserving matriculants opportunities to wade in the tumultuous operatic waters of Naples in the relatively safe harbor of the Conservatory. Tailored to the abilities of the musical forces at the composer’s disposal, Adelson e Salvini offers intriguing glimpses of the genius of Norma attired in the fashion of Rossini. A source of great novelty for modern listeners, it was likely the assimilation of disparate elements—flashes of Bellini’s mature style, Rossinian bravura writing, and rollicking passages in Neapolitan dialect—that endeared Adelson e Salvini to Bellini’s fellow students at the Conservatorio, where the opera was performed every Sunday for a year! The opera’s conquest did not extend beyond the Conservatorio, but the informed enthusiasm of his peers surely boosted the young Bellini’s confidence.

Recorded in conjunction with a concert performance in London’s Barbican Centre, Opera Rara’s studio recording provides listeners almost two centuries after the opera’s first performance with a chance to hear Adelson e Salvini in a faithful reconstruction of the form in which it was first performed. Like a number of composers, Bellini later returned to his first opera, both to revise it, assisted by a friend, for future performances that never transpired and to plunder its best material for reuse in later scores. As performed here, the quality of the young Bellini’s craftsmanship is consistently apparent, but this traversal of Adelson e Salvini is anything but a scavenger hunt for tunes heard in later, ostensibly better scores. Though his innate melancholia dulled Bellini’s response to the plot’s comedic elements, Adelson e Salvini is unmistakably a young man’s opera, and the exuberance of conductor Daniele Rustioni’s pacing of the music emphasizes its vitality and continuity. With the crisp, characterful singing of the Opera Rara Chorus, expertly led by Eamonn Dougan, and the controlled but corpuscular playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra as the agents of his mastery of Bellini’s score, Rustioni shapes a performance enjoyable both as a harbinger of the composer’s future operas and as its own entity. The libretto of Adelson e Salvini cannot be praised for its literary calibre, but Rustioni’s keenly-judged tempi and unapologetic Romantic fervor enable the singers to make the most of the dramatic potential afforded by Bellini’s setting. Bolstered by the choristers’ and instrumentalists’ dedicated work, Rustioni and the cast generate more tension than the opera has any right to wield. With its overlong stretches of dialogue, mostly handled very capably by the cast, Adelson e Salvini is an unevenly-proportioned score, but Rustioni meticulously effectuates a balance between true bel canto and a novice composer’s moments of uncertainty.

This recording of Adelson e Salvini splendidly perpetuates Opera Rara’s legacy of filling supporting rôles with talented artists. As Madama Rivers, the Adelson estate’s seemingly inescapable housekeeper, a rôle sung in the opera’s première by a male singer, mezzo-soprano Leah-Marian Jones is never heard without enjoyment but is at her absolute best in the Act Three finale, voicing ‘Ed in giubilo l’affano in ogni alma si cangiò’ with zeal and a captivating hint of irony. Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge’s fretful Fanny, Madama Rivers’s niece and Salvini’s adoring pupil, jump-starts Act One with her forthright singing of ‘Immagine gradita del ben che tanto adoro.’ Both ladies ably lend their voices to ensembles. Bass David Soar delivers Bellini’s music for the guileful Geronio with delectably malevolent glee. His account of ‘Oh fortunati istanti’ with the chorus in Act One rings out strongly, his timbre attractive and his intonation secure throughout the range of his part. Soar’s singing in Geronio’s Act Two duet with Struley bursts with energy and dramatic purpose but always adheres to a bel canto line.

Filling the lungs of Colonel Struley with air of an aptly martial swagger, baritone Rodion Pogossov sings Bellini’s music with attractive, easily-produced tone and dramatic instincts befitting one of today’s best-qualified exponents of Mozart’s Papageno in Die Zauberflöte. Struley would benefit greatly from a dose of Papageno’s amiability, but Pogossov manages to make the dastardly colonel unexpectedly sympathetic, his machinations a means to an end rather than evidence of irredeemable villainy. The baritone sings his Act One aria ‘Tu provi un palpito per la dimora’ suavely, every note of the range in the voice and projected evenly. In the Act Two duet with Geronio, Pogossov equals Soar as a bel canto stylist, phrasing even foursquare passages with imagination. The virility of the baritone’s voicing of ‘D’inutili querele questo non è l’istante’ in the Act Two finale electrifies the scene more palpably than the offstage gunshot that is erroneously believed to have ended the life of the opera’s heroine. Throughout the performance, Pogossov enacts Struley’s intended vengeance for having once been exiled from Ireland with vocalism of polished bravado, extracting from Bellini’s writing the histrionic essence of a part that in many ways prefigures Ernesto in Il pirata and Riccardo Forth in I puritani.

An acclaimed interpreter of comic bel canto rôles including Bartolo in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Sulpice in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro brings to his performance of Bonifacio, Salvini’s Napulitano-spouting servant, extensive experience in music of Adelson e Salvini’s vintage. In truth, Bonifacio’s effusions go on rather longer than Bellini’s invention could sustain them, but Muraro devotes a magnificent display of comedic artistry to making the character engaging and, on the whole, succeeds impressively. The Act One cavatina ‘Bonifacio Voccafrolla? Lei l’ha in faccia, eccolo ccà’ is sung with brio, and Muraro’s affability perfectly complements his Santini’s impenetrable seriousness in their duet, ‘Vi, comme se storzella.’ The bass-baritone anchors the Act One finale steadfastly. Muraro performs Bonifacio’s Act Two aria ‘Ora vi’, lo caso è bello!’ with indefatigable brilliance, and his singing of ‘Miette l’esca vicin’a lo ffuoco’ in the Act Three duet with Adelson bristles with guarded insinuation. The microphone occasionally emphasizes an unsteadiness in Muraro’s voice that is markedly less discernible in the theatre, but steadiness is the hallmark of the dramatic trajectory of his performance. Bonifacio could easily be a buffoon: as sung by Muraro, he is a practical, pragmatic figure willing to play the fool in order to defuse explosive situations.

The Adelson of bass-baritone Simone Alberghini, like Muraro a renowned Rossinian, not least in parts like Figaro and Dandini in Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, is a man of appropriately aristocratic bearing, one whose innate benevolence is sorely tested by the opera’s madcap twists of fate. At his entrance late in Act One, Alberghini declaims ‘Obliarti? Abbandonati!’ powerfully, leaving no doubt that the lord of the manor has returned to oversee his realm. Not suspecting the cause of his friend’s agitation, Alberghini’s Adelson sings ‘Torna, o caro, o questo seno’ in the Act Two duet with Salvini mellifluously, confident that his imminent happiness will restore to the artist his own tranquility. Believing that he is ensuring Salvini’s future joy by presenting Fanny to him as a bride, Adelson launches the Act Two finale in earnest, and Alberghini sings ‘Ecco alfin quel caro oggetto’ jovially. Thereafter, bewildering events sweep over him like an avalanche, and the bass-baritone’s refined portrayal of Adelson reflects every emotional pivot that the character experiences without hectoring or hysterics. In the Act Three duet with Bonifacio, this Adelson’s scheming does not conceal his sorrow. The subsequent confrontation with Salvini inspires Alberghini to a stirring reading of ‘L’amico! Ah! Più non è...tu l’uccidesti!’ The singer’s bel canto credentials are put to excellent use in this performance of music for which his voice is virtually ideal.

In Adelson e Salvini’s Neapolitan première, the rôle of the painter Salvini was entrusted to Leonardo Perugini, a singer whose technical acumen is proved by the music that Bellini wrote for him to have been equal to the accomplishments of the finest tenors of his era. Opera Rara’s cast for this recording of Adelson e Salvini is graced by a tenor who answers to the same description among singers of his own time, Enea Scala. Intoning ‘Speranza seduttrice, fuggi da questo cor!’ in Salvini’s Act One duet with Bonifacio with eloquence and expressivity, Scala immediately confirms that bel canto is in his blood. In the duet with Nelly, the woman he loves despite her relationship with Adelson, that bel canto blood boils in Scala’s singing of ‘Ah! L’oppresse il dolor!’ and ‘E quest’alma lacerata da un affetto il più furente.’ The Act Two duet with Adelson is one of the opera’s climaxes, and Scala rivals Alberghini as a dramatic firebrand with his heartfelt voicing of ‘In seno al bel riposo fa l’alma ormai ritorno.’ In the Act Two finale, the tenor’s effervescent ‘È il Ciel, in questa guisa’ cuts through the scene like a lightning bolt. The beauty of Salvini’s Act Three aria with chorus and Adelson ‘Si cadrò....ma estinto ancora’ approaches that of Bellini’s writing for Elvino in La sonnambula and Arturo in I puritani, and Scala’s account of the aria intensifies the scene’s emotional potency. Indeed, the singer’s portrayal of the spirited artist heightens the persuasiveness of the performance as a whole. As recorded, there is a slight tightness in Scala’s singing, but this contrasts with the awesome freedom in this and other recorded performances of his ascents to top C. This recording has many virtues, but any listener hearing Scala for the first time in this performance of Adelson e Salvini would not be unjustified in thinking that the greatest of them is making the acquaintance of this phenomenal tenor.

The most surprising aspect of Adelson e Salvini’s 1825 première is that the rôle of the opera’s heroine Nelly was portrayed by Giacinto Marras, an adolescent male singer—and apparently rather a good one!—whose voice at that time was centered in the contralto register. Rossini wrote the rôle of Arsace in his 1813 opera for La Scala, Aureliano in Palmira, for the famous castrato Giovanni Battista Velluti, but the age of bel canto and the Elizabethan custom of casting young men in female rôles are not commonly thought to have intersected. [In 1825, the year of Adelson e Salvini’s Neapolitan première, Velluti’s London début in Aureliano e Palmira was little short of a fiasco, signaling the end of Europe’s prolonged obsession with castrati.] It is difficult to imagine even the composer of the travesti rôle of Romeo in I Capuleti ed i Montecchi intending any of his heroines to be sung by a male singer, and history unfortunately does not preserve a detailed account of how Marras came to be Bellini’s Nelly. Whether it was an instance of the youngster being in the right place at the right time, as it were, or of more controlled circumstances, Bellini’s music reveals that, like his colleagues in the first performance of Adelson e Salvini, Marras was—or was expected to be—a thoroughly capable singer.

Handsomely statuesque of figure and voluptuous of voice, mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona is in no danger of being mistaken for an adolescent boy; nor is her Nelly in this recording of Adelson e Salvini apt to be mistaken for the work of one. The Act One romanza ‘Dopo l’oscuro nembo’ is the score’s best-known number, and Barcellona’s performances of both Bellini’s original setting and a later revision of the aria pulse with the heart of the Bellini familiar from Norma’s ‘Casta diva.’ The mezzo-soprano’s singing in this performance is fulsome and flexible, her intonation unshakable. In the duet with Salvini, she exclaims ‘Infelice, in te rinvieni!’ with vehemence tinged with fear, and her articulation of ‘Di piacer la voce echeggi!’ in the Act One finale evinces the upheaval of Nelly’s predicament. In a misstep that he would not repeat in the operas that followed Adelson e Salvini, Bellini gave Nelly little to do in Acts Two and Three, but Barcellona’s Nelly is noticed even when she is not the center of attention. Her distinctive voice emerges from the ensemble in the opera’s final scene as it should, the long-suffering girl’s peace of mind finally restored. Nelly’s music poses few challenges to Barcellona’s technique, but her performance is by no means small-scaled. Nelly is not Norma, but in this performance she achieves the stature that her music commands.

No one would object more vigorously to proclaiming Adelson e Salvini an unjustly-neglected masterpiece than Bellini himself, but, typical of the label’s endeavors, Opera Rara’s recording presents the opera so winningly that its importance in both its composer’s artistic development and the evolution of opera in the Nineteenth Century cannot be denied. The value of any performance or recording must ultimately be determined by its musical merits, however, and on these terms Opera Rara’s Adelson e Salvini is a complete success. Even amidst the lofty milieux of opera, this Adelson e Salvini asserts, education can sometimes be wonderfully entertaining!

27 April 2017

CD REVIEW: Carl Heinrich Graun — OPERA ARIAS (Julia Lezhneva, soprano; DECCA 483 1518)

IN REVIEW: Carl Heinrich Graun - OPERA ARIAS (DECCA 483 1518)CARL HEINRICH GRAUN (1703 or 1704 – 1759): Opera AriasJulia Lezhneva, soprano; Concerto Köln; Mikhail Antonenko, conductor [Recorded in Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln, Germany, 17 – 18, 26 – 27, and 29 – 30 September 2016; DECCA 483 1518; 1 CD, 65:12; Available from Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), iTunes, Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In the summer of 1966, an ensemble of singers including Lauris Elms, Monica Sinclair, and Dame Joan Sutherland gathered alongside the Ambrosian Singers and London Philharmonic Orchestra in London’s Kingsway Hall to record excerpts from a pair of operas that by the middle of the Twentieth Century had been dormant for more than two hundred years. The subject of the first of these curiosities, a storied paragon of patience and virtue immortalized in literature by Giovanni Boccaccio, was one of the most popular operatic heroines of the Eighteenth Century, an inspiration to Antonio Maria Bononcini, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Antonio Vivaldi. Rather than the work of any of these acknowledged masters, it was Giovanni Battista Bononcini’s 1733 London opera Griselda that Sutherland’s husband Richard Bonynge resurrected for the studio microphones. Griselda’s unlikely companion in the eventual DECCA compact disc reissue was another of Baroque opera’s most widely-traveled characters, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, the ruler of the Aztec empire at the time of Spanish conquest. Like Griselda, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin was given an operatic outing of excellent quality by Vivaldi, but it was to a setting of the Aztec emperor’s encounter with Hernán Cortés by Carl Heinrich Graun that Bonynge turned his attention. First performed at Berlin’s Hofoper in 1755, Graun’s Montezuma was distinguished by a libretto adapted from Voltaire’s Alzire, ou Les Américains by Friedrich der Große, the music-loving King of Prussia at whose court the composer served as Kapellmeister for nearly two decades. A half-century after Sutherland and Bonynge devoted their considerable powers to exposing the beauties of Graun’s Montezuma, a DECCA release is again the vehicle for a riveting rediscovery of wonderful music by this still-neglected composer. Backed by acclaimed period instrument ensemble Concerto Köln, young Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva lends her pellucid timbre and quicksilver technique to performances of eleven arias from seven of Graun’s operas, not one of which has been revived in modern times. A fascinating journey through music that deserves to be heard, this disc creates a compelling portrait of Graun as both composer and dramatist. Likewise, it introduces Julia Lezhneva as not only a superb vocalist, in which rôle she has earned plaudits throughout the world, but also as a surefooted musical spelunker, able and willing to descend into the cavernous recesses of archives and libraries in search of scores awaiting a modern interpreter to reawaken them.

The presence of a question mark after the date of a composer’s birth often indicates a lack of reliable information about the education and experience that contributed to his mature artistry. Carl Heinrich Graun was born in Wahrenbrück in Brandenburg; whether in 1701, 1703, or 1704—the years put forth as contenders by most sources—has not yet been definitively established. The young Graun and his brother are documented as having been members of the famous Dresdner Kreuzchor, and Graun’s musical studies were likely divided between voice and composition. In the years prior to his engagement as Kapellmeister at the court of Friedrich der Große, Graun was a respected chorister, tenor soloist, and composer in theatres in Dresden, Braunschweig, and Rheinsberg. It was in the last of these cities that he likely made the acquaintance of his future royal employer, having been commissioned to write an opera in celebration of then Crown Prince Friedrich’s 1733 nuptials. Despite Friedrich’s obvious fondness for his work, which some evidence suggests was secondary in the king’s affection to his singing, Graun’s music was seemingly quickly forgotten after the composer’s death in Berlin in 1759. Like his near contemporary Johann Adolf Hasse, Graun’s works were not unknown to fellow artists and connoisseurs like Mozart and his staunch supporter in Imperial Vienna, Baron van Swieten, but only the 1755 Passion cantata Der Tod Jesu and a few instrumental pieces preserved Graun’s name from complete oblivion until the Twentieth Century’s revival of interest in Montezuma, Cesare e Cleopatra, and other of the composer’s works.

Concerto Köln’s acquaintance with Graun’s operatic style extends back more than two decades. In 1995, following a production first heard at the Festival Baroque de Versailles in 1992 and later staged at Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, the orchestra and a fine cast conducted by René Jacobs recorded a sterling account of Graun’s 1742 opera Cesare e Cleopatra, the work commissioned by Friedrich der Große two-and-a-half centuries earlier to inaugurate Berlin’s newly-built Königliches Opernhaus. Here sharing concertmaster duties under the direction of conductor Mikhail Antonenko, Dmitry Sinkovsky and Emilio Percan lead today’s Concerto Köln in pursuing the same goals of historically-informed and emotionally-engaged playing that have been hallmarks of the ensemble’s performance since the group’s formation in 1985. Guided by the emotional contexts of the music, the tempi enacted on this disc are consistently intelligent, those for extroverted utterances excitingly challenging and those for contemplative passages beguilingly lilting. The stylish, imaginative playing of lutenist Luca Pianca further enhances the appeal of the disc’s instrumental substratum. The orchestra’s performance of the Sinfonia from Graun’s opera Rodelinda, regina de’ Langobardi, a subject familiar from Händel’s 1725 setting of a revision of the Antonio Salvi libretto that inspired both Giacomo Antonio Perti in 1710 and Graun in 1741 [in fact, Graun employed an adaptation by Giovanni Gualberto Bottarelli of the revision of Salvi’s libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym set by Händel], is an ideal example of the aesthetic that Concerto Köln’s playing on this disc exemplifies: sounding wholly appropriate for music composed in the first half of the Eighteenth Century to the extent that practices of that era are now understood, the orchestral textures are full-bodied, fully convincing backdrops for the emotional tableaux of the arias.

Unlike Gluck’s and Bertoni’s later operatic treatments of the Orpheus myth, Graun’s 1752 opera L’Orfeo included a dramatis personæ expanded beyond the lyre-wielding hero, his ill-fated bride, and an amorous deity. The aria ‘Sento una pena’ is sung by Aspasia, the Thracian queen who vies with Euridice for Orfeo’s love, and Lezhneva responds to the aria’s despondent sentiments with vocalism of unnerving immediacy, the forward placement of vowels enabling her to darken the sound to suit the text without distorting or dulling her naturally gleaming timbre. Frightened by the potential consequences of Aspasia’s jealousy, Euridice incites Orfeo to flee with her in ‘Il mar s’inalza e freme,’ a virtuosic simile aria comparable in quality to the best of Vivaldi’s writing in this vein. The ease with which Lezhneva meets the music’s bravura demands is flabbergasting, but there is content in her coloratura. The soprano’s vocal fireworks are dizzyingly impressive, but she does not allow the listener to ignore the dramatic events that light the fuses of Graun’s rockets of notes. A touching lament for the fallen Euridice sung by Orfeo’s brother Aristeo, ‘D’ogni aura al mormorar’ receives from Lezhneva a traversal of limpid melancholy, the gravity of the words intensified by the deftness with which the singer extends the line.

Most familiar to modern listeners in her later Gluckian guise, Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra—or, according to some writers, of Theseus and Helen—and sister of Orestes and Electra, is another figure who was popular with composers throughout the Eighteenth Century. Graun contended with the unfortunate girl’s plight in his 1748 opera Ifigenia in Aulide. Lezhneva offers an aria for Ifigenia’s father, the Greek king Agamemnone, ‘Sforzerò l’avverso mare.’ Her singing here exudes the much-tested monarch’s authority, as well as the psychological toll of his tribulation. The soprano is often at her best when dispatching fiorature at breakneck velocity, but in this music she makes an equally cogent impression with her handling of rests and verbal cadences. Her Italian diction is not that of a native speaked but is generally accurate without being exaggerated. Dating from 1749, Volunnia’s aria ‘Senza di te, mio bene’ from Coriolano is sufficient to establish Graun’s reputation as a significant composer of opera, and Lezhneva finds in its expressive phrases a splendid outlet for her musical and dramatic sensibilities, her account of the aria glistening with ornaments that complement her nuanced handling of the text.

Perhaps the most frequently-mined lode of operatic source material during the Eighteenth Century was Torquato Tasso’s 1581 epic Gerusalemme liberata. Even before Händel composed Rinaldo, the first Italian opera written exclusively for the London stage, in 1711, Tasso’s Armida had already served as the heroine of a tragédie en musique by Lully, and she would go on to collect operatic homages from Haydn, Rossini, and Dvořák. In 1751, Graun’s Armida brought the pagan sorceress and her romantic tangle with the Christian knight Rinaldo to Friedrich der Große’s Hofoper. Lezhneva first sings the knight Ubaldo’s entreaty to Rinaldo to seek glory in righteous conflict rather than pleasure in the company of Armida, ‘La gloria t’invita.’ This spirited exhortation makes formidable technical demands, but the soprano’s negotiations of the difficult passagework and carefully-managed breath control conquer the aria’s pitfalls. Of a vastly different but no less daunting nature is Armida’s aria ‘A tanti pianti miei,’ in her singing of which Lezhneva, persuasively impersonating the legendary enchantress, invokes her own dazzling musical wizardry, casting an unbreakable spell with her scintillating upper register.

The eponymous protagonist of Graun’s 1750 opera Il Mithridate is familiar as the hero of the fourteen-year-old Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto, but the aria selected for inclusion on this disc, ‘Piangete, o mesti lumi,’ belongs to Rosmiri, a character not present in Mozart’s opera. The evenness of Lezhneva’s singing throughout the range of the music highlights the faculty with which Graun wrote for voices, whether those of castrati or female singers. The potency of the soprano’s limning of Rosmiri’s despair is touching, all the more so for her vocalism being cleanly articulated. With a libretto in which his royal patron had a hand, Graun’s Silla from 1753 visited territory covered in Händel’s little-remembered Lucio Cornelio Silla, as well as in the young Mozart’s Lucio Silla. Ottavia’s vehement recitative ‘Parmi...ah no!’ and aria ‘Venga pure, e ardita, e forte’ are performed by Lezhneva and Concerto Köln with histrionic fire that ignites the intricacies of the composer’s part writing. The incisiveness of the singer’s phrasing of Postumio’s aria ‘No, no, di Libia fra l’arene’ spurs appreciation of Graun’s great talent for musical storytelling. Lezhneva’s discovery of Agrippina’s aria ‘Mi paventi il figlio indegno’ from Graun’s 1751 opera Britannico is cited in George Loomis’s concisely informative liner notes as the catalyst for the soprano’s interest in the composer’s music and the impetus for this recording project. As she sings the aria here, Graun could hope for no more eloquent, committed, and purely beautiful a starting point for the modern listener eager to explore his music.

Even when recorded with the technological finesse achieved in the engineering of this disc, voices can be difficult to analyze and assess in the context of studio recordings. Julia Lezhneva’s illustrious predecessor in the DECCA Graun discography is a perfect case study. Among Dame Joan Sutherland’s many recordings for the label, almost all of which are worthwhile documents of the continuous development of one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest voices, her recording of Puccini’s Turandot comes nearest to faithfully capturing the remarkable amplitude and sheer aural impact of Sutherland’s instrument in the opera house. In terms of tonal heft, Lezhneva is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sutherland, but her voice, too, tests recording technicians’ skills. Tending to sound brittle and monochromatic if recorded in unsympathetic acoustics, Lezhneva’s voice is an instrument of innumerable shadows and overtones, the bright sheen of the timbre extending from a gossamer mezza voce to clarion tintinnabulation that projects with power surprising for a voice of modest dimensions. In the performances on this disc, Lezhneva’s voice is placed in an aural space in which her tones have ample resonance, possessing just enough of a metallic edge to oblige the listener to devote as much attention to the musical and dramatic details of Graun’s arias as the singer has done. With this welcome disc, Lezhneva absorbingly refines her artistry and adds Graun’s voice to the growing conversation about the important operatic innovators of the first half of the Eighteenth Century.

24 April 2017

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (K. Sampson, M. Giordani, A. Bogdanov, J. McKinney, G. Bocchino, A. Harreveld, D. Hartmann, C. DuPont, D. Boye, N. Nestorak, J. McEvoy; Opera Carolina, 23 April 2017)

IN PERFORMANCE: The cast of Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La fanciulla del WestKristin Sampson (Minnie), Marcello Giordano (Dick Johnson), Aleksey Bogdanov (Jack Rance), Jason S. McKinney (Ashby), Gianluca Bocchino (Nick), Giovanni Guagliardo (Sonora), Johnathan White (Joe), Joshua Wild (Bello), David Clark (Happy), Noah Rice (Harry), Michael Francis Stomar (Jim Larkens), Donald Hartmann (Billy Jackrabbit), Carl DuPont (José Castro), Dan Boye (Sid), Nicholas Nestorak (Trin), Jeffrey McEvoy (Jake Wallace), Anna Harreveld (Wowkle), John Harmon (Un postiglione); Men of the Opera Carolina Chorus; Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Ivan Stefanutti, Director; Stefano Nicolao, Costume Designer; Michael Baumgarten, Digital Projection Designer; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 23 April 2017]

In his biography of the man of dubious morals who was purported to be the model for the irreproachable protagonist of Owen Wister’s genre-defining novel The Virginian, John Watson wrote that ‘Los Angeles has never been a truly civilized place.’ Many of the Easterners who trekked to the Bear Republic in search of fame or fortune would surely have agreed that all of California could be a land of misery and misfortune, its beauties at once seductive and inhospitable. Whatever chivalry existed in the early California of Spanish missionaries, haciendas, and rancheros was quickly obliterated by the coarse manners and lawlessness that poured over the Sierra Nevada with prospectors in search of quick fortunes to be extracted from the celebrated lodes of the romanticized West. Careful study of history dispels the notion of California’s near-mythical Forty-Niners having been mostly a poorly-educated, hard-living lot, but the fraternity of work-wearied miners who populate David Belasco’s 1905 play The Girl of the Golden West owe what education and humanity of which they can boast to the eponymous Girl, the disarmingly unsophisticated but intriguingly complex proprietress of the Polka Saloon. That Belasco’s Girl was an unlikely sister for Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Mimì, Tosca, and Cio-Cio San, the last of these another lady to whom the Italian composer was introduced by a Belasco dramatization, made her all the more tantalizing. The musical characterization that resulted is one of Puccini’s most endearing, but the difficulty of the music that the Girl of the Golden West and her fellow residents of the Cloudy Mountain mining camp makes her an infrequent visitor to the world’s stages. Again treading into territory avoided by many of America’s regional opera companies, Opera Carolina brought La fanciulla del West to Charlotte with seismic passion befitting the opera’s fault-straddling setting. Why Fanciulla is neglected when Puccini’s other mature operas maintain prominence in the international repertory was obvious, but Opera Carolina’s performance fired Fanciulla’s virtues into the theatre with the accuracy of Annie Oakley’s rifle. Anyone in the audience who failed to take a shot to the heart wore armor impervious to opera at its best.

Commissioned during the managerial administration of Giulio Gatti-Casazza, La fanciulla del West was composed to order for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, by which company the opera was premièred on 10 December 1910, with Arturo Toscanini conducting and a cast including Emmy Destinn as Minnie, Enrico Caruso as the ‘road agent’ Dick Johnson (né Ramerrez), and Pasquale Amato as Sheriff Jack Rance. Immediately recognized as a work of exemplary musical craftsmanship, Fanciulla nonetheless failed to attain the level of popularity enjoyed by La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot. The demands exacted on singers, musicians, and conductor by Fanciulla are as imposing as the Sierra Nevada themselves, but, like the backbreaking work of the miners, the toil is richly rewarded.

Conducting with firm grasps on both the opera’s unflinching directness and its uncanny emotional impact, Opera Carolina’s General Director and Principal Conductor James Meena provided the focus and propulsion that a performance of Fanciulla needs without neglecting any of the score’s meticulously-wrought details. There was an abiding cinematic expansiveness to Meena’s approach, but this was not a Fanciulla that seemed like a film score with voices. The conductor’s gift for inspiring the Opera Carolina Chorus and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra was much in evidence in the excellence of the ensembles’ work. Fanciulla is a daunting score for even the best-trained musicians, and the Charlotteans marvelously rose to the challenge. Harpist Amber Joy Carpenter1 earned particular praise for her beautiful playing. Perhaps American musicians feel for this score something like the pride that Italians feel for Nabucco and the Viennese for Der Rosenkavalier, but the choral singing, orchestral playing, and conducting in Charlotte would distinguish a production of Fanciulla in any of the world’s great opera houses. The drama progressed at a near-ideal pace: nothing lingered beyond its capacity to captivate, and successive events had clarity and cohesion. Narratively, Fanciulla is arguably Puccini’s most tautly-constructed work, with no offstage madrigals or farewells to overcoats to delay the resolutions of scenes, and Meena insightfully steered the performance through the few pages of the scores that can present problems with momentum. During his seventeen-year tenure with the company, Meena has been on the podium for many of Opera Carolina’s greatest successes, among which was an unforgettable Turandot in 2015. This performance of La fanciulla del West raised the bar for future Opera Carolina seasons and for the quality of productions of Fanciulla throughout the world.

A native Californian, David Belasco worked before his theatrical aspirations took him to New York as stage manager at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada, a bustling town enriched by the high-quality silver extracted from the Comstock Lode. The experience that he gained in this bastion of the legendary Old West served him well throughout his career, which encompassed not only Broadway success and collaborations with Puccini but also nurturing the development of talented young actors, one of whom, Barbara Stanwyck, would eventually portray one of the foremost heroines of American television Westerns, Victoria Barkley on The Big Valley. In Opera Carolina’s production of Fanciulla, an ambitious joint venture with Teatro di Giglio in Lucca, Puccini’s hometown, Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, and the revitalized New York City Opera, it looked as though at any moment in the performance the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa, the Graingers of Shiloh, or any of the familiar figures of America’s fictionalized West might have strode onto the stage. Historical accuracy was not among Puccini’s foremost goals when creating a score, but his operatic excursion into the American West, guided by the first-hand knowledge that enlivened Belasco’s play, is distinguished by a magnitude of realism rare even in verismo.

Fanciulla takes place circa 1850, not long after the first large-scale discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in Mexican California in 1848 [the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which formally ceded modern California to the United States of America, was not signed until nine days after the initial discovery at Sutter’s Mill], and conjuring an atmosphere reflecting the opera’s physical and temporal settings was a central focus in Opera Carolina’s production. Rather than frequently-encountered depictions as a cigar-store Indian and his daft squaw, for instance, Billy Jackrabbit and Wowkle were here credible representatives of California’s indigenous peoples; in the case of those in proximity to gold-mining country, perhaps the Modoc. Nevertheless, theatricality was not lost amidst the visual verisimilitude embodied by Atelier Nicolai’s costumes, Ivan Stefanutti’s production designs, and the sets and digital projections, supervised by Opera Carolina’s Director of Production Michael Baumgarten and built in the company’s Gastonia workshop. Granted access to the company’s San Francisco archives by the Charlotte office of Wells Fargo, the production team brought to the Belk Theater stage a California mining camp as authentic as any that has existed in the century since the cessation of mining transformed once-vibrant boom towns into dusty, deserted ghost towns. The stenches of whiskey and cigar smoke veritably wafted from the interior of Opera Carolina’s Polka Saloon, a raucous establishment tamed in an instant by its Girl and her Bible lessons—and her six shooter. Instead of the Halloween-cowboy pageants often imposed upon Puccini’s opera, this was a Fanciulla so absorbing that it was surprising not to hear the jangling of spurs and shot glasses during the interval.

IN PERFORMANCE: the cast of Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Ciao, ragazzi: the cast of Opera Carolina’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, April 2017
[Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

The degree to which Puccini and his librettists, Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini, were faithful to Belasco’s play is remarkable, not least in the subtly-characterized vignettes of Cloudy Mountain’s miners and patrons of the Polka Saloon. Amidst the perils of Belasco’s mining camp, where missteps can send the careless plummeting into the abyss and misspeaks might be rewarded with gunfire no less fatal, thoughtfulness is a precious commodity, and the tender hearts amongst the hardscrabble denizens of Puccini’s Cloudy Mountain therefore beat still more perceptibly. As the Postiglione—not, as Belaso (but not Puccini) and Opera Carolina’s playbill and supertitles indicated, a Pony Express rider, as the Pony Express only rode for nineteen months, a decade after Fanciulla takes place—who electrifies the Polka with the fateful message from the treacherous woman of ill repute, Nina Micheltoreña [she loses her tilde in Italian, pobrecita], indicating her willingness to betray the bandit she loved to Wells Fargo, John Harmon delivered his lines with equal expediency and effectiveness. The miners Joe, Bello, Harry, and Happy, each having his moment in the spotlight, were brought to life with good singing and acting by Johnathan White, Joshua Wild, Noah Rice, and David Clark. Bass-baritones Jason S. McKinney and Carl DuPont as Wells Fargo agent Ashby and his quarry José Castro, a member of Ramerrez’s party of stagecoach robbers, deployed firm, focused voices in Puccini’s congenial lines and clearly enjoyed playing their parts in the drama.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Harreveld opened Act Two with a portrayal of Minnie’s Native American domestic Wowkle that was laudably free of caricature, her singing of ‘Il mio bimbo è grande e piccino’ unusually attractive. Her shy glances at her mistress as she entertained Johnson spoke volumes about the girl’s attachment to Minnie. An operatic Buster Keaton with the vocal resonance of Nazzareno De Angelis, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann set the wooden Billy Jackrabbit, Wowkle’s intended consort, ablaze with aptly earthy vocalism. Affability boomed from his singing of ‘Tua padrona mandare. Dice: Billy sposare.’ Special care was expended in lessening the pejorative implications of Wowkle’s and Billy’s frequent articulations of ‘Ugh.’ Communicative rather than offensively indicative of savagery in this performance, the monosyllables were neither more nor less than the knowing private language of a community of two.

As Sid, Belasco’s ‘Sidney Duck,’ bass-baritone Dan Boye protested his punishment for cheating at cards without overdoing the histrionics, and, like all of his fellow citizens of Cloudy Mountain, the sincerity of this Sid’s devotion to Minnie could not be questioned. Tenor Nicholas Nestorak was a stylish, sympathetic Trinidad, and baritone Jeffrey McEvoy made the minstrel Jake Wallace’s Andante tranquillo ballad ‘Che faranno i vecchi miei là lontano’ an interlude of moving but not overwrought nostalgia. Michael Francis Stromar voiced the broken Jim Larkens’s longing to return home, ‘Non reggo più, non reggo più, ragazzi,’ heartbreakingly, legitimizing the magnanimous reaction of his friends, whose collection of funds for Larkens’s homeward journey is as poignant in its way as Mimì’s and Cio-Cio San’s deaths in La bohème and Madama Butterfly. Tenor Gianluca Bocchino sang appealingly as Nick, the Polka’s wily barkeep, the character’s concern for Minnie’s welfare as palpable as his boundless affection for her, but he sometimes struggled to project over Puccini’s orchestrations. Baritone Giovanni Guagliardo was a tough but tender Sonora, singing ‘Le tue parole sono di Dio’ in Act Three eloquently. In the opera’s final scene, the miners’ repetitions of ‘Mai più ritornerai, no, mai più, mai più’ were profoundly touching, their sadness at Minnie’s departure from Cloudy Mountain as expansive as the California landscapes that surrounded them.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) Bass-baritone JASON S. MCKINNEY as Ashby, soprano KRISTIN SAMPSON as Minnie, and baritone ALEKSEY BOGDANOV as Jack Rance in Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]The lady and the law: (from left to right) Bass-baritone Jason S. McKinney as Ashby, soprano Kristin Sampson as Minnie, and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov as Jack Rance in Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's La fanciulla del West, April 2017
[Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

In terms of the leading rôles in Puccini’s operas, only Turandot is as difficult to cast as La fanciulla del West. Rance and Johnson demand vocal and dramatic resources at least as great as those wielded by the best interpreters of their counterparts in Tosca and Il tabarro. Ideally, Minnie requires a voice poised between Tosca and Turandot, allying a reliable lower octave with an upper extension capable of scaling the formidable heights of the tessitura and soaring in her Act One aria to one of opera’s most ferocious exposed top Cs. The ranks of great Toscas and Turandots are hardly overpopulated, but great Minnies are still fewer. Two of the finest American exponents of the rôle, Eleanor Steber and Dorothy Kirsten, would likely have been advised by competent vocal coaches to avoid the part, which since it was recorded by Birgit Nilsson has often been assigned to singers with credentials in Wagner and Richard Strauss repertories rather than Puccinians—if, that is, bonafide Puccinians have existed in the years since Renata Tebaldi sang her final Minnie. In the seasons since the opera’s centennial in 2010, Fanciulla has been performed more often than in decades past, but the casting of Rance, Johnson, and Minnie in a number of productions has reaffirmed the near-impossibility of manning a production of Fanciulla with singers capable of more than basic survival in the lead rôles. Here, too, Opera Carolina succeeded astonishingly, giving the Charlotte audience a central trio by no means unworthy of music first sung by Amato, Caruso, and Destinn.

Jack Rance, Cloudy Mountain’s rugged lawman, is, perhaps in spite of himself, one of Puccini’s most three-dimensional characters. Duplicitous, jealous, and merciless, even he is ennobled to some extent by his interactions with Minnie. As portrayed by baritone Alexsey Bogdanov in Opera Carolina’s Fanciulla, he was conniving but conflicted, lust never wholly overwhelming an inherent decorum. At the start of Act One, his singing of ‘Che terra maledetta, quest’occidente d’oro!’ evinced bitterness, but there was sly humor in the calm professionalism of ‘Andiam, ragazzi; un po’ di calma’ and his handling of Sid’s transgression. The rancor between Rance and Ashby in Belasco is muted by Puccini, and Bogdanov’s Rance presented his counterpart to the Polka’s customers with a hearty account of ‘Ragazzi, fate largo! Salute a mister Ashby, dell’Agenzia Wells Fargo.’ The utter conviction with which he referred to Minnie as ‘Mistress Rance, fra poco’ was both arrogant and strangely vulnerable, the sardonic gambler suddenly revealing his hand. As much sweetness as such a man can muster was infused into the baritone’s singing of ‘Ti voglio bene, Minnie,’ and Bogdanov phrased the lovely Andante sostenuto ‘Minnie, dalla mia casa son partito ch’è là dai monti’ with awkward but affecting feeling. None too happy about a stranger’s interruption of his floundering wooing of Minnie, Rance’s frustration burgeoned in Bogdanov’s virile singing of ‘Mister Johnson, voi m’avete seccato!’ and ‘Ragazzi! Uno straniero ricusa confessare perchè si trova al campo!’

Stealing like the howling blizzard into Minnie’s cabin in Act Two, the boyish glee with which Bogdanov’s Rance voiced ‘Abbiamo detto che il tuo perfetto Johnson di Sacramento,’ disavowing Minnie of her imperfect acquaintance with her ‘dandy,’ was disgustingly smug. Later, returning in search of the injured Johnson, he corrected Minnie with a brutal reading of ‘Non son Jack...Son lo Sceriffo, a caccia del tuo Johnson d’inferno.’ Bogdanov’s body language conveyed the tension of the poker game for Minnie’s and Johnson’s freedom as grippingly as his flinty singing. Conceding defeat, he departed with a growled ‘Buona notte’ that imparted far more than a crestfallen goodbye. The full force of Rance’s anger and disenfranchisement exploded in Act Three, and Bogdanov recalled Louis Quilico with a startlingly vehement account of ‘Or piangi tu, o Minnie, or piangi tu!’ Throughout the performance, Bogdanov’s top Fs were perfectly-pitched and powerful, and he filled the theatre with exhilaratingly masculine sound without shouting. The irony that radiated from his singing of ‘E così, Mister Johnson, come va?’ was as stinging as the blow he dealt his captured rival for Minnie’s love, and his tones when he hurled ‘Basta, donna, alle tue parole!’ at Minnie were those of a man already past the point of no return—a man who declared in Act One that he fears no destiny but is shattered by circumstances that he cannot manipulate. Clad in a suit of a hue that seemed drawn from the depths of Lake Tahoe, Bogdanov was a thrillingly-sung Rance who was all the more dangerous for being so debonair.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor MARCELLO GIORDANI as Johnson (left) and soprano KRISTIN SAMPSON as Minnie (right) in Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Passion at the Polka: Tenor Marcello Giordani as Johnson (left) and soprano Kristin Sampson as Minnie (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

With a career that has taken him to the world’s most celebrated opera houses for performances of a wide repertory encompassing many of the most difficult rôles written for the tenor voice, Marcello Giordani is among the few truly qualified heirs to the legacy of Bergonzi and Corelli. Bergonzi and Corelli were very different singers, of course, and at his best Giordani has exemplified the finest qualities of both of his forebears, combining aspects of Bergonzi’s grace and musicality with Corelli’s unbridled intensity. Although he unwisely ventured the title rôle in Verdi’s Otello very late in his career, Bergonzi never sang Johnson, but Puccini’s bandito was a good fit for Corelli, not least opposite Dorothy Kirsten’s feminine but fearless Minnie in the 1966 MET revival of Fanciulla. When the MET celebrated the opera’s hundredth anniversary in the 2010 – 2011 Season, it was to Giordani that Johnson’s music was entrusted. Solely as singing, the tenor’s performance of the rôle was in many ways more successful in Charlotte than in New York. The voice’s lower octave was slow in coming under control and could turn unruly at any time throughout the afternoon, but pitches were mostly placed accurately and solidly. Most notably, Giordani left sobbing and other Italian tenor mannerisms to other singers, preferring simply to sing the music. Strutting into the Polka’s barroom, ready to face the threatened ‘hair curling’ he garnered by ordering whiskey with water, Johnson was stopped in his tracks by recognizing Minnie as the enchanting girl he once met on the road to Monterey. Giordano’s voice lacked the youthful vigor needed for ‘Chi c’è, per farmi i ricci?’ but exuded the bashful wonder of ‘Vi ricordate di me?’ His voicing of ‘Non so ben neppur io quel che sono’ flowed organically to a brilliant top B♭, and the tenor’s dulcet phrasing of the beautiful Andante mosso moderatamente ‘Quello che tacete me l’ha detto il cor’ revealed his instinctive comprehension of Puccini’s style.

The ardor of ‘Un bacio, un bacio almen!’ in Act Two surged without vulgarity, and Giordano lent his singing of ‘Minnie! Che dolce nome!’—a line that, largely owing to supertitles, inexplicably prompts laughter from today’s audiences—romantic restraint that heightened the significance of the sentiment. Giordani joined his Minnie in an incandescent performance of their unison ‘Dolce vivere e morir e non lasciarci più’ in which they soared with few hints of effort to the top B♭s and C. Revealed as Ramerrez, the bandit being pursued by Wells Fargo, Johnson’s explanation of the circumstances that precipitated his criminal enterprise fell on ears too consumed by pealing anger to fully hear and process his words, but Giordani sang ‘Ma non vi avrei rubato!’ and discharged Johnson’s repeated top B♭s with enthralling enthusiasm. Giordani sang Johnson’s aria in Act Three, the emotionally-charged Andante molto lento ‘Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano,’ with a stream of glowing, easily-projected tone, rising to the pair of top B♭s strongly. The quiet relief and honest gratitude with which he voiced ‘Grazie, fratelli’ after Sonora and the miners freed him from the noose and reunited him with Minnie succinctly disclosed the essence of the complicated but honorable character Giordani had personified throughout the performance. Bidding farewell to the land of Johnson’s youth, Giordani addressed ‘Addio, mia dolce terra’ as much to the peaks and valleys of his life as to the California topography, the top B a cry of rebirth. Having an artist of Giordani’s reputation in Charlotte is an accomplishment of which the city should be proud, but having a Johnson of the quality provided by Giordani in Opera Carolina’s La fanciulla del West was a priceless gift to opera lovers.

A performance of La bohème can overcome poor singing from its Mimì, but Minnie in Fanciulla faces the most daunting fate of any Puccini heroine: survival. The vocal sins of an inadequate Mimì are easily forgiven when she breathes her last in the company of her friends, but Minnie, whose resilience is the backbone of Fanciulla, has no tragedy behind which to hide. Upon her shoulders, the opera soars or sinks, and soprano Kristin Sampson, a diminutive Atlas with a voice of satin and steel, lofted Opera Carolina’s Fanciulla into the endless California sky with an imaginative but delightfully straightforward portrayal of Minnie. Though reinforced by a shot from her pistol, this Minnie’s entrance was sufficient to end the fracas among Rance, Sonora, and their factions in Act One, her pointed query ‘Che cos’è stato?’ reducing the burly men to stuttering embarrassment. Beginning the miners’ coveted Bible lesson, Sampson voiced the Andantino ‘Dove eravamo? Ruth...Ezechiel’ and the plaintive ‘Lavami e sarò bianco come neve’ girlishly, laying the foundation of belief in redemption and rejuvenation upon which the opera’s final scene is built. Derisively describing Nina Micheltoreña when the Postiglione brought news of the harlot’s proposed meeting with Ashby, her voice assumed an air of coquetry as she insinuated ‘È una finta spagnuola nativa di Cachuca.’ Sparring with Rance, for whom the respect she invoked was genuine, was for Sampson’s Minnie sport without the slightest indication of ill will. The surprise and hurt of Rance’s betrayal of the cordiality of their relationship were therefore heightened.

Sampson approached Minnie’s Andantino aria ‘Laggiù nel Soledad, ero piccina’ not as a showpiece but as a rare reverie in which the girl allowed herself to reminisce about the distant joys of her childhood. The soprano ascended to a bright, secure top C, but this was a component rather than the goal of her performance of the aria. Energized by Johnson’s unexpected arrival at the Polka, Sampson’s Minnie vouched for him with an ‘Io lo conosco! Innanzi al campo intero...sto garante per Johnson!’ of inviolable integrity. When invited to dance, the innocence at the core of Sampson’s mirthful reading of ‘Io? Scusatemi: voi non lo crederete, non ho mai ballato in vita mia’ was enchanting. Guarded surrender to new feelings emanated from her singing of ‘Mister Johnson, siete rimasto indiestro a farmi compagnia per custodir la casa?’ Her well-schooled vocalism notwithstanding, it was impossible to doubt this Minnie when she asserted ‘Io non son che una povera fanciulla’ and punctuated the declaration with a shining top B. There is no more bewitchingly self-effacing remark in opera than Minnie’s ‘Non v’aspettate molto! Non ho che trenta dollari soli d’educazione,’ in which she ashamedly warns Johnson of the dullness of her conversation owing to her education amounting to only what thirty dollars can buy, and Sampson sang the lines without a trace of artifice. Remembering Johnson’s parting words, she caressed each syllable of ‘Come ha detto? Un viso d’angelo,’ ending Act One with a sigh of reawakened love.

Few characters in opera experience greater personal upheaval than Minnie endures in Act Two of La fanciulla del West. Preparing the mountainside cabin—and herself—to host Johnson, Sampson’s Minnie proclaimed ‘Voglio vestirmi tutta come in giorno di festa’ with boundless joy, her top B♭ like a beacon to guide Johnson along the craggy path to her welcoming abode. As in her aria in Act One, she phrased ‘Oh, se sapeste come il vivere è allegro!’ in a manner in which her stunning top B was an extension of the line rather than its own destination. Sampson’s fortissimo top C when Minnie awarded her first kiss to Johnson left no doubt about the breadth of her elation. Having embraced these new sensations, the upending of her world when Rance brusquely informed her that her lover was deceiving her was devastating. Sampson vaulted ‘Vieni fuori, vieni fuori, vieni fuor!’ into the theatre with abandon, her top B♭ glinting. The rising tide of her desperation crested on the soprano’s incendiary voicing of ‘Vigliacco! Ah! Via di qua, vigliacco!’ She gamely touched the top C♯ that Puccini cruelly requested, the roar of a wounded soul. The scene in which Minnie challenges Rance to a life-or-death game of poker is nothing short of genius, and Puccini’s orchestration, reducing the soundscape to percussion amplifying the palpitations of Minnie’s heart, is the work of a keen theatrical sensibility. Sampson suggested ‘Una partita a poker!’ with pluck that tempered her anxiety. Having distracted Rance and produced the winning hand from the folds of her skirt, this Minnie’s ‘Vi sbagliate. È la gioia! Ho vinto io! Tre assi e un paio!’ brandished the brawn of Brünnhilde’s battle cry. The string of top As as Minnie entered in Act Three streaked across the gloomy scene like lightning, and even at the foot of the scaffold the miners’ faces were illuminated with the happiness that Minnie brought to them. Sampson sang ‘Di qual giustizia parli tu?’ potently, and with ‘Non vi fumai chi disse: Basta!’ she scolded the society into which she introduced the concepts of compassion and forgiveness. This was her final lesson to her beloved friends: as Hermann Hesse put it, there are situations in which letting go requires greater strength of character than holding on. Sampson’s Minnie was a fighter without enmity, in voice as much as in spirit a true Girl of the Golden West.

Puccini is often conceded to be an important composer of opera but is seldom if ever cited as a great composer in a broader sense. On the whole, it is difficult to dispute the validity of such an assessment, but hearing a persuasive performance of La fanciulla del West can convince an open-minded listener that Puccini was far more than a purveyor of pretty tunes and weepy melodramas. Much has been written about the shadows of Debussy, Richard Strauss, and even Wagner that stretch across the rocky vistas of La fanciulla del West, but the voice that emerges most viscerally from the score is Puccini’s. Opera Carolina’s production of La fanciulla del West let Puccini’s voice be heard without obstruction, not just putting on a marvelous show but reclaiming the hope of a time in which prosperity was measured not by bank balances and possessions but by hard work, honesty, and fairness. This was a Fanciulla del West that rekindled the famous words of Walt Whitman: in this performance, one could hear America singing.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor MARCELLO GIORDANI as Johnson (left) and soprano KRISTIN SAMPSON as Minnie (right) in Opera Carolina's production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST, April 2017 [Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Revolver to the rescue: Tenor Marcello Giordani as Johnson (left) and soprano Kristin Sampson as Minnie (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, April 2017
[Photo by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

1Apologies to Amber Joy Carpenter for having erroneously cited another harpist in the initial publication of this review.

17 April 2017

CD REVIEW: Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, & David Del Tredici — BRIGHT CIRCLE (Beth Levin, piano; Navona Records NV6074)

IN REVIEW: Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, & David Del Tredici - BRIGHT CIRCILE (Navona Records NV6074)FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828), JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 – 1897), and DAVID DEL TREDICI (born 1937): Bright CircleBeth Levin, piano [Recorded at Peter Karl Studio, Brooklyn, New York, USA, in July and August 2016; Navona Records NV6074; 1 CD, 77:41; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), iTunes, and major music retailers]

Whether the landscapes that they create are in oil or pastel, bronze or marble, song or symphony, great artists are born, but great artisans are nurtured. Far more plentiful are significant artists and impeccably-trained artisans than those remarkable creatures in whom exceptional natural ability and acquired refinement are combined. One admires the temperament that explodes from a Goya canvas whilst appreciating the technique that maintains the decorous equilibrium of a scene by Velázquez, but the controlled chaos of a work like Pablo Picasso’s Guernica displays a command of form that coincides with an astonishing interpretive depth. The foundation established by the former attribute allows the latter quality to be honed to the greatest extent permitted by the artist’s imagination. In music, the profundity of Bach’s and Mozart’s humanistic insights are so easily perceived by even the casual listener owing to the extraordinary, almost mathematical equilibrium of their compositions.

In that vein, the artistry of pianist Beth Levin possesses both the unteachable gift for solving music’s emotional riddles and the technical accomplishment required to present those solutions in a manner that enables listeners of all levels of musical sophistication to feel as though we, too, have discovered music’s innermost secrets. Playing music by Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, and David Del Tredici, Levin ignites the blank canvas of her new Navona Records disc Bright Circle with mesmerizing landscapes that metamorphose the sounds of the composers’ music into visual and tactile sensations that transport the listener into the resplendent core of her singular artistic sphere.

Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major (D.959), one of the three remarkable final sonatas with which he fully explored the breadth of his genius for writing for the piano, was likely completed in its final form in September 1828, only two months before the young composer’s death. Contemporary accounts suggest that Schubert was a sensitive but imperfect pianist, a characterization that seems strange to the modern observer acquainted with the formidable demands of his mature music for the piano. Perhaps his mastery of the instrument was incomplete, but the A-major Sonata confirms that his understanding of composing for the piano equaled Beethoven’s and Chopin’s.

The complex thematic development of the Sonata’s opening Allegro movement is steered by modulations through a traditional circle of fourths, evoking the ‘bright circle’ of the disc’s title, and Levin plays the music with impressive technical acumen. In music from the last year of Schubert’s life, virtuosity is never a piece’s sole destination, however, and Levin is uncommonly clear-sighted in navigating the Sonata’s labyrinthian emotional byways. This is not melancholy music of a man anticipating death: in this music, Schubert clings passionately to life. The rhythmic tautness of Levin’s playing, consistent but never constricting, ideally serves the movement’s innate buoyancy. Some pianists bloat this music by trying to generate profundity where it already exists, but this pianist focuses on following the emotional threads that Schubert wove into the score. Recalling the basic structure of the haunting Lied ‘Pilgerweise,’ the Sonata’s Andantino movement is steeped in a poised tranquility that, as realized in this performance, is subtly disquieting. Levin phrases with a great Lieder singer’s intuitive handling of melodic lines, and she highlights the nuances of Schubert’s harmonic progressions with the skill of an expert organist emphasizing the inner voices of Bach counterpoint. To the Allegro vivace Scherzo the pianist brings a renewed commitment to finding within the composer’s carefully-constructed score the sentiments that Schubert wished to convey. Here and in the Allegretto Rondo final movement, its thematic profile bringing to mind the Lied ‘Im Frühling,’ Levin veritably transforms the piano into a full orchestra, extracting from both music and instrument an arresting array of colors. Still, even when her playing is most boldly extroverted, this is not a performance of the Sonata for the coldly cavernous expanse of a concert hall. Rather, the listener is given the gift of experiencing what seems like a private conversation with Schubert. The creatively-manipulated formal architecture of the Sonata provided the composer a framework within which he fabricated an intriguingly personal tonal narrative, and Levin’s retelling of it utilizes the inherent formality of the Sonata’s skeleton as a vividly-contrasted backdrop for the adventurous musical discourse. Many of the most celebrated pianists of the past century have recorded and included the D.959 Sonata in their recital repertories, but not even renowned interpreters of Schubert’s piano music such as Alfred Brendel and Mitsuko Uchida have exposed the authentic voice of Schubert as compellingly as Levin does in the performance on this disc.

A noted champion of contemporary music, Levin finds in American composer David Del Tredici’s Ode to Music an ideal outlet for her unique talents. A reworking of an earlier adaptation of Schubert’s touching Lied ‘An die Musik’ for wind quintet, Ode to Music develops the principal subject of ‘An die Musik’ after the manner of Schubert’s brilliant Wanderer-Fantasie, with, as Del Tredici indicates in his description of the piece, Lisztian and Wagnerian pretensions. Taking both performer and listener on a magical journey in eleven-and-a-half minutes, Del Tredici’s writing marvelously intertwines with Schubert’s familiar melody, the younger composer’s work exhibiting Ralph Vaughan Williams’s aptitude for assimilating existing thematic material into his own original music. Levin’s heart is clearly as captivated by Ode to Music as her fingers are energized by it. As she plays the piece, the listener immediately shares her enthusiasm.

Schubert’s A-major Sonata is the work of a youthful composer at the height of his powers but already at the end of his foreshortened career, but Brahms’s Opus 24 Variations and Fugue on the Air from Georg Friedrich Händel’s 1733 Suite for Harpsichord in B♭ major (HWV 434), completed in September 1861, are the product of a still-young genius in the morning of an extensive tenure as one of the greatest guardians of genuine musical Classicism. Dedicated to Clara Schumann, the muse of the first phase of his career, the twenty-five variations and concluding fugue constitute the zenith of Brahms’s writing for solo piano, an instrument for which he also wrote superlative concerti and chamber music. Bach and Händel bequeathed the basic musical forms of Classicism to Haydn and Mozart, who perfected and passed them on to Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann, but it was often the conservatively revolutionary Brahms who reaped the most exotic blossoms grown from the old seeds. As Händel’s B♭-major Suite constituted an encyclopedic survey of writing for the keyboard in the first half of the Eighteenth Century, Brahms’s Variations and Fugue advanced the progress of compositional techniques from the Nineteenth Century into the Twentieth.

What Levin achieves in her performance of the Variations and Fugue is exemplary. Singling out her playing of any of the Variations for special praise would distract from appreciation of her keenly intelligent approach to the work. Lest her technical prowess be taken for granted, it must be stated that she plays this challenging music with the ease of a promising conservatory student breezing through Hanon exercises. Nevertheless, it is her grasp of the near-miraculous continuity of Brahms’s writing that compels awe. As she proceeds through the Variations, delivering each with uncommon attention to the composer’s tempi and dynamics markings, the propulsive homogeneity with which the composer varied Händel’s theme is stunningly apparent. In Levin’s hands, the Variations and Fugue rightfully assume the monumental scale of a Strauss tone poem or a Mahler symphony. This results not from artificial inflation of the music but from playing it as Brahms wrote it, looking not beyond the score but squarely into it. Levin adheres to Brahms’s direction of ‘ma non più’ in the Larghetto thirteenth Variation without exaggerating the lilting quality of the music. As in her performance of the Schubert Sonata, Levin’s pianism expands the instrument’s timbral spectrum, her playing of Brahms’s music at once recreating the crisp cascading of Händel’s harpsichord and unleashing the full panoply of the Romantic orchestra. Amongst German-speaking composers of the Nineteenth Century, only Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Bruckner rivaled the contrapuntal acuity that Brahms lavished on the fugue that resolves his Händel variations. The analogy of an accomplished organist playing one of Bach’s fugues is as valid in the context of Levin’s playing of Brahms’s fugue as in that of her traversal of Schubert’s Sonata. She performs this music with the drive of an artist connecting with a fellow genius. Brahms’s score deserves nothing less.

The clarity of articulation and gossamer touch at all levels of dynamics that are the hallmarks of her playing on Bright Circle resemble the style of Julius Katchen, but Beth Levin’s artistry mimics no other pianist’s. It has been said, not without cause, that self-made men tend to think too highly of their makers. In an artist, though, originality is incalculably precious, and, though they well knew and loved the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms hewed their own paths from the bedrock of Classicism. By pioneering Neoromanticism, Del Tredici has pursued his own course, as well. Closing the bright circle that connects the three dissimilar composers whose music is performed on this disc is Beth Levin, a pianist whose interpretive sincerity affirms C. S. Lewis’s assessment in Mere Christianity of originality among artists. ‘No man who bothers about originality will ever be original,’ he wrote, ‘whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.’ Hearing Bright Circle, failing to notice Beth Levin’s originality, manifested in performances that are works of art as important as the pieces played, is impossible.

16 April 2017

CD REVIEW: Sir John Stainer — THE CRUCIFIXION (M. Wilde, G. Trew; Choir of St. Marylebone Parish Church; Herald HAVPCD 399)

IN REVIEW: Sir John Stainer - THE CRUCIFIXION (Herald HAVPCD 399)SIR JOHN STAINER (1840 – 1901): The CrucifixionMark Wilde (tenor), Graham Trew (baritone); The Choir of St. Marylebone Parish Church; Thomas Allery, organ; Gavin Roberts, Director of Music [Recorded in performance at St. Marylebone Parish Church, Marylebone, London, UK, on 25 March 2016; Herald A V Productions HAVPCD 399; 1 CD, 70:14; Available from Herald A V Productions, MDT (UK), and major music retailers]

Queen Victoria was perhaps not a woman of any particular religious fervor, but outward shows of piety were an integral aspect of the rigid public morality of the era in British history to which she lent her name. Innate English stoicism precluded the sorts of processional outpourings of faith that enthralled Catholic Mediterranean communities, but British society during Victoria’s long reign was a precise ordering of responsibilities large and small in which it was one’s duty whether in Belgravia, Birmingham, or Brighton to don one’s smartest clothes and finest manners on Sundays and receive from the Church of England’s rectors the verbal keys to Paradise. In his little-remembered 1852 work The History of Henry Esmond, William Makepeace Thackeray succinctly expressed the moral attitude of the age, a time in which the Queen’s adored consort was celebrated as a veritable martyr for the cause of the advancement of European political reform and Victoria herself was depicted—not always flatteringly—as the paragon of grieving widowhood. ‘'Tis not the dying for a faith that's so hard...'tis the living up to it that is difficult,’ a character in Thackeray’s book philosophizes to the eponymous protagonist. This sentiment illustrates a crucial element of the enduring emotional power of the narrative of Christ’s Passion. It is one thing to surrender one’s life in service to one’s cause but another thing entirely to live according to the ethos of one’s beliefs, and in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion can be gleaned the quintessential tenets of what might be termed faith in action. Setting words by W. J. Sparrow Simpson, British composer Sir John Stainer continued the tradition of Renaissance and early Baroque music for Holy Week, Bach’s and Telemann’s Passions, Händel’s Messiah, and Liszt’s Christus with The Crucifixion, a concentrated exploration not solely of Christ’s death and resurrection but equally of the final acts of life that transformed a brutal execution into a transfiguration that has throughout two millennia influenced the course of human history in ways that perhaps even the man upon that cross did not foresee.

First performed on 24 February 1887, in London’s St. Marylebone Parish Church, the venue in which the present performance was recorded, Stainer’s ‘Meditation on the Sacred Passion of the Holy Redeemer’ epitomizes the Victorian affection for ceremony on an intimate scale. Proportioned for the musical forces of the village parish church rather than those of the grand cathedral, The Crucifixion advocates the grandeur of simplicity. Wholly eschewing pomposity, Stainer conceived a contemplative work in which, as in Bach’s Mathhäus-Passion, individual reflection is the central focus. There is abundant drama in the music for the soloists, but the action is primarily intellectual. Perhaps reacting to the shifting mores of his younger colleagues, Stainer himself disavowed his Crucifixion later in his career—an unfortunate and ill-deserved fate for so fine a work. When performed on an appropriate scale, as is done on this disc, The Crucifixion is no less compelling in its profoundly unaffected statement of faith than are Bach’s Passions in the magnificent expansiveness of theirs.

Led by Marylebone’s Director of Music Gavin Roberts with unfailing understanding of the score’s dimensions and the handling that they necessitate, this performance of The Crucifixion dispels any notions of Stainer’s score being merely a curiosity, a souvenir of Victoria’s England with limited appeal to Twenty-First-Century performers and audiences. Complementing Roberts’s pacing, the playing of organist Thomas Allery is an invaluable component of the success of this performance. Even organists as talented as Allery sometimes succumb to the temptation to approach The Crucifixion as a tone poem for organ with vocal obbligati. As he plays here, not least in the Processional to Calvary, Allery is neither willful soloist nor unambitious accompanist: he is a participant in the performance, the voices of his instrument contributing as compellingly to the momentum and impact of the storytelling as those of the soloists and choristers.

Declaiming his recitatives with unerringly clear diction and emotional forthrightness that never obscure the natural beauty of the voice, tenor soloist Mark Wilde movingly fulfills his evangelical duties. In the work’s opening recitative, ’And they came to a place called Gethsemane,’ and The Agony, the tenor, united in the latter with his baritone colleague, conveys the breathless tension of the events described whilst maintaining superb breath control. Wilde employs his silver-clad tones to sublime effect in The Majesty of the Divine Humiliation. There are in the strains of ‘Jesus said, Father, forgive them’ senses of magnanimity and inevitability, a benedictory acceptance of the fulfillment of destiny. The sadness that pervades Wilde’s reading of ‘When Jesus therefore saw His Mother’ is all the more affecting for seeming so personal. ‘After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished’ is sung with absolute commitment and unforced tonal beauty. In this performance, Wilde is a fantastic singer with none of the manifestations of ego that often compromise the integrity of singing at this level. Compared with previous recorded interpreters of this music, Wilde is more comfortable with Stainer’s idiom than the overtly operatic but bronze-voiced Richard Crook and possesses a timbre more attractive than Robert Tear’s. Wilde sets a new standard for the performance of the tenor solos.

In his every utterance as recorded here, baritone Graham Trew provides the authority that the music needs without hectoring or ignoring the humanity of the text. The character that he creates is a sensitive but strong-willed man, neither broken nor bullying. Musically, Trew is a powerful presence, his still-potent voice losing focus and resonance only on a pair of notes at the very top of the range. Like Wilde, he wastes not one sound on vocal display: his singing impresses because it serves the composer, librettist, and subject rather than the singer. Whereas Wilde touches the heart, Trew rouses the senses, depicting an unflappable hero certain to stir English pride. There is a suggestion of stark apprehension in Trew’s enunciation of ‘And when they had come to the place called Calvary,’ the directness of his elocution conveying the fateful implications of Christ’s arrival at Calvary. ‘He made Himself of no reputation’ is sung with touching dignity, the evocation of Christ’s humility inspiring the baritone to singing of special grace. Both ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent’ and ‘And one of the malefactors’ are delivered with stirring fortitude. Trew joins with Wilde in a poetic traversal of the duet ‘So Thou liftest Thy divine petition.’ Stainer captured the essence of the uniquely English art of getting at the heart of a matter without frivolity or melodrama with his utterly unpretentious setting of ‘Is it nothing to you?’ Trew responds to the sincerity of Stainer’s expression with a nuanced articulation of the text that is completely free of artifice. The baritone’s vocalism captivates on its own terms, but it is his gift for acting with the voice that makes his singing in this performance of The Crucifixion intensely engaging.

With ‘Fling Wide the Gates,’ the Marylebone choristers enhance the performance with an encouraging exhibition of the continuing health of the storied English choral tradition. Roberts and the chorus never endeavor in this performance to sound as though they aspire to the Covent Garden stage, instead dedicating their considerable abilities to singing Stainer’s music as the score dictates. In ‘God so loved the world,’ the choir’s attention to balance among registers is gratifyingly apparent, and the composer’s part writing in The Appeal of the Crucified provides the choristers with an opportunity to exercise their thorough training—an opportunity that they seize with gusto. Basses Mark Chaundy and Andrew Copeman deliver solo lines with solid tone, further revealing the efficacy of the choir’s preparation. Stainer’s music is not of extraordinary difficulty, but it is astounding to note how often ‘easy’ music is badly performed. Honoring the legacy of their forebears who first sang this music 130 years ago, today’s St. Marylebone Parish Church choristers sing Stainer’s carefully-crafted choruses as though premièring The Crucifixion were entrusted to them.

So organic a part of this performance are the sounds of the congregation rising to sing the hymns that Stainer might have scored them. The Crucifixion’s five congregational hymns—The Mystery of the Divine Humiliation, Litany of the Passion, The Mystery of Intercession, The Adoration of the Crucified, and ‘For the love of Jesus’—cannot be expected to be perfectly sung when the oratorio is performed in its intended liturgical context, but the Marylebone parishioners acquit themselves splendidly. As sung here, the hymns are as enjoyable and involving cornerstones of Stainer’s score as the chorales are of Bach’s Passions.

The wonderful quality of the music making notwithstanding, the greatest joy of this performance of The Crucifixion is hearing this music truly live. Lacking very little of the polish made possible by the takes and retakes of recording in studio, this performance has all of the vitality that Stainer surely meant his work to engender. Immaculately engineered without being over-processed, this recording invites the listener into the rapt atmosphere of St. Marylebone Parish Church for an uplifting performance of a work that retains its potential to transcend its Victorian provenance. The recording label to be thanked for this release is very appropriately named, for this Crucifixion indeed heralds a revitalization not only of Sir John Stainer’s score but also of the exalted lineage of English choral music of which it is a part.

04 April 2017

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | April 2017: Juliana Hall — LOVE’S SIGNATURE, Songs for Countertenor & Soprano (D. Taylor, S. Narucki; J. Hall, D. Berman; MSR Classics MS 1603)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | March 2017: Juliana Hall - LOVE'S SIGNATURE (MSR Classics MS 1603)JULIANA HALL: Love’s Signature – Songs for Countertenor and SopranoDarryl Taylor, countertenor; Susan Narucki, soprano; Juliana Hall and Donald Berman, piano [Recorded at Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York, USA, 17 – 19 September 2015 (Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush and Propriety) and 7 – 8 August 2016 (O Mistress Mine); MSR Classics MS 1603; 1 CD, 71:00; Available from MSR Classics, Amazon (USA), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Had he endured it, Thomas Paine would surely have agreed that 2016 was a year to try men’s souls. Whether troubled by matters global or personal, by politics or unspoken perfidies, by losses widely mourned or unnoticed, few sensitive spirits were untouched by the year’s tribulations. It was a year in which Shakespeare’s likening in The Merchant of Venice of a lone candle blazing in the night to the gleam of a good deed in a naughty world shone with its own illuminating truth. In the same scene in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare wrote of the man affected by life’s vices that ‘music for the time doth change his nature.’ The first quarter of 2017 has introduced new challenges and realities almost too fantastic to be believed—and, with them, pitifully little of the common sense that Thomas Paine identified as the hallmark of an enlightened free society. The power of music to change the natures of oppressor and oppressed is now more critical than ever before, the universal language of song needed to close the ever-widening gaps among neighbors and nations. When joining words with music, gifted American composer Juliana Hall perhaps does not consciously set out to create songs that close the circuits via which emotional currents flow from the individual to the universal, but the three song cycles recorded for MSR Classics’ new disc Love’s Signature reveal her extraordinary talent for crafting music that translates the meanings of texts into sounds that can be felt as well as heard. Whether handling the words of William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or Marianne Moore, Hall exhibits an uncanny faculty for amplifying the innate musicality of poets’ diction. Placed by MSR Classics’ engineering within an aural ambiance that recalls a small recital hall, the sound both intimate and ideally spacious, the performances that inscribe Love’s Signature upon the listener’s conscience restore faith in music’s still-potent force for positive change even in troubling times.

Written for countertenor Brian Asawa, whose untimely passing in April 2016 was a tremendous loss to the Arts community, O Mistress Mine is that rarest of achievements in Art Song: a true cycle of songs that both convey a cumulative narrative and are individually effective. Settings of texts by William Shakespeare, the twelve songs guide the listener along an emotional journey in which gentle humor and pathos thrive in one another’s company. Though a composer’s creative process is a marvel of nature that no mind but her own can fully comprehend, the songs of O Mistress Mine permit the listener to appreciate the meticulous craftsmanship of Hall’s work. The distinctive strains of ‘Greensleeves,’ presented in counterpoint to an original melody, and faint echoes of the lute songs of John Dowland provide aural glimpses of the musical environment into which Shakespeare and his works were born. Hearing all of the songs on this disc, it is apparent that Hall does not compose with the goal of steeping her music in a purposefully-concocted brew of modernity: rather, she follows the texts, responding to the inherent music of the words and conjuring sound worlds appropriate to each passage from an economy of means. Each of Hall’s notes has a purpose as clearly defined as that of each of Shakespeare’s words. The songs’ novelty is wholly organic, never contrived, and the composer perpetuates the American Art Song tradition of Beach, Barber, and Bolcom with music of ingenuity and integrity.

The performance that O Mistress Mine here receives from Hall and countertenor Darryl Taylor is a wonderful tribute to Brian Asawa, a subtle but intense exploration of music that would have perfectly suited both his voice and his musical personality. Though his basic timbre is very different from Asawa’s, Taylor shares his colleague’s uncompromising approach to song repertory. From the opening bars of ‘Lawn as white as driven snow,’ Taylor lavishes on the words from The Winter’s Tale articulation worthy of the stage of the Globe—an integral component of his artistry rather than artifice. With the opening bars of ‘O happy fair!’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), an astonishing transformation is achieved, revealing another facet of the singer’s chameleonic musical temperament. In some moments bringing to mind Russell Oberlin’s unforgettable timbre and in others sounding uncannily like a lyric mezzo-soprano in her prime, Taylor adapts his platinum-hued voice to the emotional temperature of each phrase. There is a sense of determination in his utterance of the sonnet ‘If love make me forsworn’ from Love’s Labour’s Lost that hints at blush-worthy sultriness, and the unaffected passion of his singing of Hall’s brilliant setting of ‘Who is Silvia?’ from Two Gentlemen of Verona enhances the impact of Shakespeare’s famous words.

Hall’s cycle takes its name from ‘O, mistress mine’ from Twelfth Night, and her dulcetly tuneful handling of the text makes the song the rightful centerpiece of the cycle. As she and Taylor deliver the song, it also assumes a position of prominence in the context of this disc, their partnership never bearing more alluring fruit than in this piece. ‘If music be the food of love’ and ‘Come away, come away, death’ are among the best-known passages in Twelfth Night, a gem among Shakespeare’s plays that remains too infrequently performed beyond England’s borders. Hall’s music preserves the kinship between the speeches without accentuating their similarities at the expense of each song’s individuality. Utilizing skills he has honed through operatic experience, Taylor masterfully characterizes the songs’ implicit narrator, bringing understated elements of the play from which they are drawn to his readings of the texts. The countertenor’s keen intelligence notwithstanding, the joys of his performances of ‘Take, o take those lips away’ (Measure for Measure) and ‘Tell me where is Fancy bred’ (The Merchant of Venice) are principally musical, his gift for matching every bar of Hall’s music with apposite tonal colors arrestingly employed. When music and text communicate darker thoughts, Taylor does not shrink from producing anguished sounds, and his performance of O Mistress Mine is thus all the more beautiful and emotionally powerful.

Taken from lines spoken by Stephano in The Tempest, the text of ‘This is a very scurvy tune to sing’ is delightfully piquant, but there is nothing distasteful about the performance that the song receives from Taylor and Hall. Perhaps it seems slightly ridiculous to state that Hall plays her own music splendidly, but this cannot be taken for granted. For all their troves of interpretive felicities, wartime broadcast recordings of Richard Strauss’s accompaniment of singers including Maria Reining and Anton Dermota in performances of the composer’s Lieder are littered with small mistakes, after all. Hall’s playing unites rhythmic precision with elasticity of phrasing, however: her pointed pianism seems neither goaded nor blunted by the singer. The psychological significance of the shifting harmonies of ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ (As You Like It) is made apparent by the close collaboration between singer and pianist, Taylor’s vocalism soaring above the dynamic topography of Hall’s playing. Few passages in all of the Shakespeare canon match the serenity of ‘Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun’ from Cymbeline, a quality gloriously captured in settings by Gerald Finzi and Roger Quilter. Hall is no less successful than her English counterparts at conveying the tranquility of the text, and her playing of the piano part is suffused with simplicity and depth of feeling, traits that Taylor answers with singing of focus and finesse. Anyone who doubts the health of the Art of Song should hear this performance. In it, composer, poet, singer, and pianist uphold the standards established when Schubert made songs of the words of Goethe and Heine and when Pears and Britten performed them.

Songs with prose texts are far fewer in number—and, by extension, importance—than settings of poetry, perhaps because patterns of thought and emotion are less compartmentalized in prose and therefore less conducive to musical treatment. Still in many ways an enigma to Twenty-First-Century readers and scholars, Emily Dickinson might be said to have embodied Rodolfo’s famous characterization of himself and Mimì in Act Two of La bohème: a poet by vocation, she was in her singular manner of living a personification of poetry. It is hardly surprising, then, that Dickinson’s correspondence is nearly as compelling as her verse. How fascinating it must have been to receive letters that issued from an intellect as sensitive, prophetic, and comprehensive as Dickinson’s! Composed in 1989, Hall’s Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush utilizes excerpts from a selection of Emily Dickinson’s letters, the contents of which hold innumerable insights into the daily existence of both the poet and the woman. Hall’s kaleidoscopic music movingly evokes the spirit of the poet’s well-known lines, ‘This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to Me.’ This, Dickinson might have written, is her serenade to a world that, in her relative seclusion, she only partly knew but that she understood with extraordinary perspicacity.

Like Taylor and Hall in O Mistress Mine, soprano Susan Narucki and pianist Donald Berman are ideal interpreters of this music. Hall’s adaptations of Dickinson’s words in ‘To Eudosia C. Flynt’ are articulated as eloquently by the pianist as by the singer, and the composer’s profoundly sympathetic reactions to the poet’s stream of consciousness in ‘To T. W. Higginson’ are reflected in the crystalline sheen of the soprano’s singing, her artful phrasing complemented by the elegance of Berman’s playing. The pianist forges a path into the heart of ‘To Emily Fowler (Ford)’ that Narucki travels without one misstep of breath control, tonal production, or interpretive nuance. Examined from the perspective of today’s knowledge of details of Dickinson’s life, even her most innocuous banter can reveal layers of meaning that draw the reader into the poet’s very private but startlingly vivid world. Hall lures the listener into the specific atmosphere of ‘To Samuel Bowles the younger,’ and Narucki and Berman reward the attention with music making of the highest order. It is as surely Dickinson’s voice as Narucki’s that resonates in this traversal of ‘To Eugenia Hall,’ a song in which the like-surnamed composer discloses the best of her art as a musical poet. In the spirit of the title heroine’s paean to fidelity unto death in Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe being termed the ‘Leadville Liebestod,’ Hall’s pairing of ‘To Susan Gilbert (Dickinson) I’ and ‘To Susan Gilbert (Dickinson) II’ as the closing sequence of Syllables of Velvet, Sentences of Plush might reasonably be said to constitute an Amherst Anthem. Here, Dickinson seems to speak directly to the listener, not through a third party but with her own voice, demure but demonstrative. This is not decades-old literature dryly set to music but living art, born anew with each playing.

A product of 1992, Hall’s song cycle Propriety makes use of verses by American poet Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972), an artist whose scant renown among her countrymen is markedly disproportionate with the great quality of her work. As in their performances of Hall’s Dickinson settings, Narucki and Berman are expert exponents of these Moore songs. Narucki’s singing of ‘Mercifully’ resounds with enthusiasm for both words and music, an impression bolstered by Berman’s mercurial playing. With her vibrant setting of ‘Carnegie Hall, Rescued,’ Hall made a valuable contribution to the rescue of American Art Song. Here and in ‘Dream,’ the composer’s tone painting is remarkably attuned to the subtexts of Moore’s words, the composer’s sensibilities engendering songs in which text and music become veritably inseparable. One of the finest songs written in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century, ‘Propriety’ receives from Narucki and Berman a performance that realizes all of the piece’s potential to challenge and thrill. The cycle’s last words are entrusted to ‘Melchior Vulpius,’ and soprano and pianist pronounce them with complete conviction. Like Taylor, Narucki is not a songbird for whom beautiful but emotionally blank sounds are the ultimate goal—and neither, for that matter, is Hall. These are artists—and these are performances—that aim for the heart and the mind at once, and they do not hide behind polite façades when the truths of which they sing are ugly.

Art in any of its forms is never further than a single generation from extinction. Man’s nature is to fear, ridicule, and reject the unknown, all of which actions are seemingly far less strenuous than seeking to understand, accept, and embrace new concepts, cultures, and individuals. Fashions change, styles evolve, and affections wane, and in music these currents sometimes flow especially swiftly and devastatingly. Händel still breathed when almost all of his operas were interred in tombs of neglect, for instance, and Mahler never enjoyed in his own lifetime the universal recognition of his genius that subsequent decades have bestowed. Stasis is fatal to the survival of art, making the work of an artist like Juliana Hall crucial not only for the continued freshness of serious music but for its very life. Love’s Signature is a breath of life that fills the lungs with the air of song and the soul with the joy of recognizing a compositional voice of acuity and ingenuity. Insecurity, instability, and indecision abound, but the common sense of good music performed well still prevails. These are times to try men’s souls, but Juliana Hall has invented sounds that silence the din of discord.