15 August 2018

ARTS IN ACTION: Baritone BRIAN MULLIGAN and Vocal Arts DC bring the world première of Gregory Spears’s Walden, alongside Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, to Washington’s Kennedy Center on 16 September 2018

ARTS IN ACTION: Baritone BRIAN MULLIGAN, premièring Gregory Spears's WALDEN alongside Dominick Argento's FROM THE DIARY OF VIRGINIA WOOLF at Washington's Kennedy Center on 16 September 2018 [Photo © by Dario Acosta]September Songster: Baritone Brian Mulligan, who joins pianist Timothy Long in Vocal Arts DC’s world-première performance of Gregory Spears’s Walden, paired with Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, in Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Sunday, 16 September 2018
[Photograph © by Dario Acosta]

‘Music, once admitted to the soul,’ the Victorian author and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote, ‘becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies.’ In the realm of Art Song, ‘the Soul selects her own Society,’ as Emily Dickinson opined, each listener’s individual experiences, personality, and preferences dictating the constitution of that musical soul. Whether a listener’s foremost loves are German Lieder, French chansons, Italian canzonette, or Art Songs in English, there is an universal sense of euphoria sparked by hearing great music for the first time—the euphoria that transforms sounds into the eternal spirit of which Bulwer-Lytton wrote. On Sunday, 16 September 2018, dynamic baritone Brian Mulligan joins pianist Timothy Long in a Vocal Arts DC recital in Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater that both introduces new music and enables listeners in the nation’s capital to revisit a lauded work of America’s recent musical past. Thankfully, Art Song recitals remain plentiful, even beyond America’s metropolises, but opportunities to witness the début of new music by artists of uncompromising integrity are infrequent events. With this Kennedy Center recital, Vocal Arts DC patrons have the chance to join the ranks of musical pioneers like those who first heard Schubert’s Winterreise, Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder.

A native of New York’s Triple Cities region, Mulligan possesses a voice that flows with the power and beauty of the Susquehanna. An alumnus of both Yale University and the Juilliard School, the baritone has established himself as a master of an extraordinarily broad repertoire, his engagements at the Metropolitan Opera including rôles in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Gounod’s Faust, Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, and Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. In this Vocal Arts DC recital, he further expands his acquaintance with contemporary music with the world-première performance of Gregory Spears’s Walden, a setting of texts by Henry David Thoreau. In a recent conversation, Mulligan disclosed that a telling sense of responsibility guides his preparations for the first performance of Walden. ‘Being a part of a world première helps remind me that all of my artistic interpretations can be unique and meaningful, even if the music I usually perform is over 100 years old,’ he confided. ‘The greatest reward of singing a world première is the feeling of being a true creator. As a singer, it’s sometimes a challenge to remember that you are a creator, not just an instrument.’

First published in 1854, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods is a pillar of the American literary canon, its endorsement of quintessential Yankee virtues and the basic tenets of Emersonian transcendental philosophy lending Thoreau’s words an aura of prophecy that seems ever more visionary in the modern era. More reactionary than truly radical, the writer’s ideas are presented without artifice, yet, unlike the symbolism-laden novels of Ernest Hemingway, Walden cannot honestly be said to be a ‘good read’ on a superficial level. The irregular meters and syntactical idiosyncrasies of Thoreau’s writing do not facilitate musical adaptation, but the humanistic message imparted by the author’s words finds an expert conduit in Spears, whose critically-acclaimed opera Fellow Travelers, premièred by Cincinnati Opera in June 2016, similarly asks audiences to confront uncomfortable political, societal, and spiritual prejudices. Mulligan’s reflections on his involvement in furthering Walden’s genesis divulges the organic proficiency of Spears’s handling of Thoreau’s words. ‘The greatest challenge in any world première is handling the revisions that inevitably come up in rehearsals,’ the baritone states. ‘It’s part of the process of creating a new piece of music, but it can get very confusing for a singer to remember all of the revisions!’ In this music, however, writer, composer, and interpreter have achieved symbiosis with minimal alternations. ‘Happily,’ Mulligan says, ‘there were very few changes made to Walden—thank you, Greg!’

Walden is partnered in its first performance with music by American composer Dominick Argento. When circumstances delegated the inaugural performance of music commissioned for a 1975 recital sponsored by Minneapolis’s Schubert Club first to one American soprano, then to a very different American soprano, and finally to widely-acclaimed British mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker, the changes in personnel led Argento on a search for material suited to each successive recitalist’s particular gifts. With the aim of engaging Baker’s interpretive savvy, the composer ultimately chose as his texts selections from A Writer’s Diary, a 1953 compendium of excerpts from the diaries of Virginia Woolf. The song cycle created for and premièred by Baker in Minneapolis on 5 January 1975, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, garnered the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Music for Argento, rightly rewarding the psychological depth and emotional immediacy of his settings of Woolf’s candid words.

Manifested in a wonderful 2016 Naxos recording, Mulligan’s advocacy of From the Diary of Virginia Woolf has offered fresh interpretations of this vibrant music to Twenty-First-Century audiences. Now, he brings to Kennedy Center a singular perspective on the parallels and intersections among Thoreau, Woolf, Spears, and Argento. Contemplating the similarities between the pieces that he will sing in Washington, Mulligan identifies a common nationalism in the cores of both From the Diary of Virginia Woolf and Walden. ‘Dominick and Greg both compose music that, to me, sounds uniquely, proudly, beautifully American,’ he suggests. ‘The texts of these two cycles are both deeply emotional introspections, but they are each expressed very differently. Woolf’s diary is devastating, sometimes manic, and Argento wrote music that is a visceral expression of her text.’ This, he explains, establishes an emotive contrast between the works. ‘Thoreau’s words in Walden are calm and collected, and Spears’s music is a quiet, cerebral expression of his text—to me, anyway!’ Committed to safeguarding listeners’ right to form their own conclusions, he quickly adds, ‘That’s just how I experience this music, but [they] may experience it differently. I do think the two cycles complement each other, musically and thematically. They are both gorgeous contemplations.’

The abiding difference between Walden and From the Diary of Virginia Woolf might be best characterized as one of basic attitudes towards the tribulations of human existence. Mulligan is keenly sensitive to this polarity. ‘While Thoreau’s Walden is full of hope and wonder, Woolf’s diary is mostly wrought with an inescapable despair,’ he contends. ‘Thoreau once wrote that he had “a real genius for staying at home,” and I think Woolf shared that clever sentiment. Woolf was born twenty years after Thoreau’s death, and she was a great admirer of him and his work. In July 1917, The Times Literary Supplement published Woolf’s essay “Thoreau,” and it is a beautiful tribute to him. [Click here to read an edited version of Woolf’s ‘Thoreau’ on the TLS website.] They were very different people, but I think they both relied on solitude in order to clearly observe both society and themselves.’

More than a century and a half after Thoreau’s death and nearly eighty years after Woolf ended her life, Mulligan recognizes the paradox of withdrawing from society in order to better understand it that they exemplified as a vital component of the analytical acuity wielded by Thoreau and Woolf. ‘One of the things I like best about Thoreau and Woolf is that they were both so brilliantly introspective,’ he asserts. ‘They were both so conscious and present, always aware of what was going on around them. The way that they processed their life experiences into their art is incredibly inspiring to me—and something I strive to do in all of my performances.’ Retreating inward in order to sharpen one’s outward perspicacity is an action that is very familiar to the singer. ‘That solitude, or aloneness, helped to unburden their minds and distill their thoughts,’ he says of Thoreau and Woolf. ‘It’s a practice I regularly turn to as an artist when I’m learning new music or creating a complex character.’

When asked to which aspects of Spears’s and Argento’s music he would entreat the Kennedy Center audience to be especially attentive, Mulligan exclaims, ‘I don’t believe in asking audiences to prepare to be entertained! At the recital, sit back, experience the performance, listen to the words, hear the music, and allow yourself to feel something. After the performance, if you want to learn more, go to my website. Listen to the music again, reexamine these texts, and discover more about the creators who brought this all together. [Among] Argento, Spears, Thoreau, and Woolf, there’s just so much art and history to enjoy.

Listeners are certain to feel something when hearing Brian Mulligan sing. The energy of his singing is felt by the body, and the sincerity of his emoting is felt by the soul. He does not demand that audiences agree with his artistic choices, but he makes them with the expectation of being heard with the same openness and concentration with which he performs. In this, his work recalls the crafts of both Henry David Thoreau and Virginia Woolf. In her final novel, Between the Acts, Woolf wrote, ‘Music wakes us. Music makes us see the hidden, join the broken.’ Giving first life to Gregory Spears’s Walden and new life to Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, Mulligan’s Vocal Arts DC recital promises to awaken, reveal, and restore.

Vocal Arts DC presents Brian Mulligan, baritone, with Timothy Long, piano
Sunday, 16 September 2018, 2:00 PM
Terrace Theater
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Please click here for more information or to purchase tickets for this performance.
Click here to learn more about Vocal Arts DC’s exciting 2018 – 2019 Season.

ARTS IN ACTION: Song Cycles by Dominick Argento, performed by baritone BRIAN MULLIGAN and pianist TIMOTHY LONG (Naxos 8.559828)Brian Mulligan’s and Timothy Long’s Naxos recording of Dominick Argento’s The Andrée Expedition and From the Diary of Virginia Woolf
Naxos 8.559828
Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon, and major music retailers

12 July 2018

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — LA CLEMENZA DI TITO, K. 621 (R. Villazón, J. DiDonato, M. Rebeka, R. Mühlemann, T. Erraught, A. Plachetka; Deutsche Grammophon 483 5210)

IN REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - LA CLEMENZA DI TITO, K. 621 (Deutsche Grammophon 483 5210)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): La clemenza di Tito, K. 621Rolando Villazón (Tito Vespasiano), Joyce DiDonato (Sesto), Marina Rebeka (Vitellia), Regula Mühlemann (Servilia), Tara Erraught (Annio), Adam Plachetka (Publio); RIAS Kammerchor, Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded during concert performances in Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Baden-Baden, Germany, in July 2017; Deutsche Grammophon 483 5210; 2 CDs, 140:36; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

1791 was a remarkable year for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. After celebrating his thirty-fifth birthday in January, he produced three of his most enduring and influential compositions: the E♭-major String Quintet (K. 614), the Clarinet Concert (K. 622), and his opera Die Zauberflöte. In July, he and his wife welcomed the second of their children who would eventually reach adulthood, their son Franz Xaver Wolfgang. Sadly, the infant would need to survive only a few months in order to outlive his father. When Mozart died on 5 December 1791, the works dating from his final year, including the unfinished Requiem and the motet ‘Ave verum corpus,’ essentially became characters in a drama that grew ever more fantastical until the Mozart known to the musical denizens of Enlightenment Vienna was little more than a shadow in his own spectacle.

Until the second half of the Twentieth Century, a little-read chapter in the story of the last months of Mozart’s life recounted the genesis of La clemenza di Tito, an opera seria of the type that was a relic of earlier generations, though still a respected and in some circles, like that of which Mozart’s supporter Gottfried van Swieten was the center, beloved one. The death of the Hapsburg emperor Joseph II in February 1790 closed Vienna’s theatres whilst Mozart was at the zenith of his faculties, but the ascension of Joseph’s brother Leopold II to the throne made amends with an opportunity to write an opera to celebrate the new monarch’s coronation as King of Bohemia. The contract for arranging the composition and performance of the opera was granted to Prague impresario Domenico Guardasoni, whose invitation to participate in the project was declined by Antonio Salieri. The tremendous success of the inaugural production of Don Giovanni, staged in Prague in October 1787, made Mozart a viable candidate to substitute for Salieri, and, despite being immersed in the preparation of Die Zauberflöte, the younger composer accepted the offer and started his work—and how he worked! Less than two months separated Guardasoni’s receipt of the contract on 8 July and the world première of La clemenza di Tito in Prague’s Stavovské divadlo on 6 September.

Unlike many composers of his time, Mozart prized novelty in his writing for the stage, preferring to work with libretti prepared specially for him rather than perpetuating the tradition of using widely-traveled texts already employed by other composers. In this regard, La clemenza di Tito is an anomaly among Mozart’s mature operas, its libretto, an adaptation by Caterino Mazzolà of the work of the Eighteenth Century’s busiest librettist, Pietro Metastasio, having been previously set by nearly forty other composers including Antonio Caldara (1734), Christoph Willibald Gluck (1752). and Baldassare Galuppi (1759). For Prague, Mazzolà substantially streamlined and restructured the drama, reducing Metastasio’s three acts to two and eliminating many arias, only a few of which were replaced with new texts. In truth, the original goal of the commission was to serenade Leopold II with a wholly-new piece, but the writing of a fresh libretto would have left even less time for composition of the music. Nevertheless, the recycled tale of amorous intrigue, political upheaval, and royal magnanimity clearly inspired Mozart, who had fallen ill by the time that the opera reached the stage. His burden was lightened by the task of writing secco recitative being placed in other hands, but it is doubtful that, facing the pressure of such a deadline, the industrious Rossini or Donizetti could have crafted a score of the quality and significance of La clemenza di Tito under similar circumstances.

Expanding the cycle populated to date by recordings of Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Mozart’s three operas with libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte and to be joined in due course by a souvenir of this month’s Festspielhaus Baden-Baden concert performances of Die Zauberflöte, this Clemenza di Tito deepens Québécois conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s experience with the music of a composer in whose musical language he has demonstrated a notable fluency. It is hardly surprising that this young conductor, still only in his early forties, excels at leading performances of scores shaped by white-hot passions, but his fervent handling of the ‘formal’ style of La clemenza di Tito is tempered by commendable and period-appropriate restraint. The contrasts among fast and slow sections of arias are sometimes slightly exaggerated, but the opera’s emotional transitions benefit tremendously from the heightened sense of impending calamity that this engenders. On the whole, Nézet-Séguin’s tempi are both prudent and sensitive: the quickest passages are controlled, and slower music rarely languishes.

The conductor’s concerted efforts to keep the drama moving at a sensible, sustainable pace are supported by Jory Vinikour’s fortepiano continuo, played with technical and intellectual nimbleness, and expertly seconded in secco recitative by cellist William Conway. Likewise, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe musicians deliver performances that spur renewed admiration of Mozart’s skill as an orchestrator, not least in the brilliant—and, in this performance, brilliantly-played—Overture and the delightfully martial Maestoso Marcia in Act One. Some performances of La clemenza di Tito create the illusion that in this score Mozart’s creative genius took a step back from his achievements in the da Ponte operas and Die Zauberflöte, first performed in Vienna three weeks after Tito’s Prague première, but the performance incited by Nézet-Séguin corroborates the assertion that La clemenza di Tito is a by no means unworthy sibling of Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and Die Zauberflöte.

Mozart’s operatic choral writing reached its apotheosis in La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte. In these works, the choristers genuinely participate in the drama rather than merely commenting on it. As the populace of Tito’s Rome, patricians and plebeians, the expert RIAS Kammerchor singers perform Mozart’s music with a balance of zeal and precision that complements Nézet-Séguin’s approach to the score. In Act One, they deliver ‘Serbate, o Dei custodi della Romana sorte’ with credible avidity, their plea for divine protection propelled heavenward on a torrent of accurately-pitched, perfectly-blended tone. The tumultuous music of the Act One finale could hardly be more different, and the mettle of their singing makes the fear and panic of the scene palpable. ‘Ah, grazie si rendano al sommo fattor’ in Act Two returns to a reverential manner, and the ensemble’s performance adapts accordingly. They preface the opera’s finale with a heartfelt account of ‘Che del ciel, che degli Dei tu il pensier,’ and their singing intensifies the catharsis of the final scene. Like Nézet-Séguin’s conducting, RIAS Kammerchor’s singing further spotlights the ingenuity that Mozart expended in the composition of La clemenza di Tito.

It is unusual to hear a singer of Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka’s abilities as Publio, the commander of Tito’s Praetorian guards, but the power of his singing gives the character a stronger presence than he typically commands. In the first of his trios, the ensemble with Vitellia and Annio in Act One, Plachetka is a rare Publio who is always noticeable. This is also true in the quintet, in which the bass-baritone voices Publio’s lines sonorously and energetically. Trios in Act Two unite him first with Vitellia and Sesto and then with Sesto and Tito: Plachetka makes a robust impression in both settings. Between these trios comes Publio’s aria, ‘Tardi s’avvede d’un tradimento,’ sung here with secure tone and solid technique. Plachetka’s voice remains audible and attractive in the opera’s closing ensemble, and his Publio sets a high standard both for his colleagues and for the performance of this rôle.

Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught characterizes the young Annio with keenly-honed histrionic instincts and vocal technique that maintains the requisite style without sacrificing the emotive spontaneity of her singing. In the beautiful Andante duet with Sesto in Act One, ‘Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso,’ Erraught voices Annio’s words with obvious understanding of their meaning, and, here and in the subsequent duet with Servilia, ‘Ah, perdona al primo affetto,’ the mezzo-soprano imbues the rôle with significantly greater dramatic involvement than he wields in many performances. Like Plachetka’s Publio, Erraught’s Annio is engagingly conspicuous in both their trio with Vitellia and the momentous quintet that ends Act One.

The first of Annio’s arias in Act Two, the Allegretto ‘Torna di Tito a lato,’ is affectionately sung, but it is in the Andante aria ‘Tu fosti tradito’ that Erraught claims for herself a place alongside Brigitte Fassbaender and Frederica von Stade among the finest recorded interpreters of Annio. The appeal of her vocalism is consistent throughout the performance, but the parlous position in which Annio finds himself in ‘Tu fosti tradito,’ acknowledging that his friend Sesto’s deeds warrant a death sentence but entreating Tito to allow his deliberations to be guided by the mandates of his heart rather than the rule of law, inspirit Erraught’s depiction. In the opera’s finale, her Annio evinces the jubilation of having facilitated Sesto’s deliverance from an inglorious fate, and the magnetism of Erraught’s singing compels the listener to rejoice, as well.

In recent seasons, Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann has rapidly established herself as one of her generation’s preeminent Mozart singers. Heard as Barbarina in Nézet-Séguin’s recording of Le nozze di Figaro and donning Papagena’s musical plumage in his Die Zauberflöte, she portrays Servilia in this performance of La clemenza di Tito with unforced charm and secure, often radiant singing. She does not over-accentuate the top As in the Act One duet with Annio, ‘Ah, perdona al primo affetto,’ instead emphasizing continuity of the musical line. She, too, utters her lines in the quintet with urgency and impeccable musicality. Mühlemann phrases Servilia’s Act Two aria in minuet time, ‘S’altro che lacrime per lui non tenti,’ liltingly, rising to a dulcet top A. Her tones gleam in the final scene, in which she resolves Servilia’s part in the drama with noteworthy comprehension of the intricacies of Mozart’s part writing.

That Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka’s repertoire has expanded in the past two years to include the title rôles in Bellini’s Norma, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, and Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco and Luisa Miller is indicative of this artist’s musical intrepidity. It is also evidence of her technical fortitude. With Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito, Mozart created a full-blooded sister for Elettra in Idomeneo, re di Creta and Die Königin der Nacht in Die Zauberflöte—and, though he did not know it, a fantastic part for Marina Rebeka. Vitellia’s duet with Sesto in Act One, ‘Come ti piace, imponi,’ offers the soprano an opportunity to exhibit her talents, and she seizes it with alacrity, bringing mellifluous sounds to the Andante and projecting resonant top notes in the Allegro section. She quarries the rich lode of expressivity in the shift from Larghetto to Allegro in the aria ‘Deh, se piacer mi vuoi,’ executing the fiorature unflinchingly. Rebeka takes control of the trio with Annio and Publio with the authority of an emperor’s daughter, hurling out ‘Vengo! aspettate!’ with vehemence echoed by her effortless top B and thrilling launch to the infamous D6. As Vitellia’s plans spiral out of control in the final pages of Act One, Rebeka’s voice simmers with the heat of the flames that engulf the Campidoglio.

The Act Two trio with Sesto and Publio discloses a different dimension of Vitellia’s personality, and Rebeka voices her music with assurance. Words and notes erupt with the cataclysmic kinesis of Vesuvio in the accompagnato ‘Ecco il punto, o Vitellia,’ declaimed in this performance with Shakespearean perceptiveness. The plummets below the stave in the rondò aria ‘Non più di fiori vaghe catene’ are not easy going for Rebeka, but she shirks nothing, bravely traversing the two-octave interval to top A♭. As her quest for vengeance unravels and she confesses her treachery to the emperor, Vitellia leaves the world of Elettra and Die Königin der Nacht and enters the realm of Pamina, made worthy of mercy by tasting the bitter elixir of tragedy. The beauty of Rebeka’s singing makes this transformation especially apparent. Musically and dramatically, few singers manage to embody a character as completely as Rebeka animates Vitellia on this recording. Neither victim nor vixen, this Vitellia is merely, movingly human.

Among the many sparkling facets of Joyce DiDonato’s artistry, her singing of Mozart repertoire perhaps does not receive the attention that her performances of Baroque, bel canto, and contemporary music justifiably garner. This is an inexplicable injustice, as her depiction of Sesto in this recording of La clemenza di Tito is a performance of the sort of psychological depth and technical confidence that only a truly great singer can muster. In the past few seasons, the mezzo-soprano has sometimes discernibly worked harder to conjure the musical magic for which she is renowned, but her Sesto is a reminder of the wisdom of singers like Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson, mistresses of other repertoire who insisted that periodically singing Mozart rôles is a soothing balm for the voice. Sesto’s music is daunting, but Mozart was too shrewd to write vocal lines that could not be sung.

After hearing DiDonato’s singing in the Act One Andante duet with Vitellia, ‘Come ti piace, imponi,’ doubting the veracity of Flagstad’s and Nilsson’s suggestion is unfathomable. Here and in the duet with Annio, ‘Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso,’ DiDonato’s vocalism is youthful, poised, and sincere: what artifice there is exists in the music. Weaving her voice into the colorful tapestry fabricated by Romain Guyot’s wonderful playing of the aria’s clarinet obbligato [his performance of the basset-horn obbligato in Vitellia’s rondò is equally superb], she delivers an astounding account of ‘Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio,’ the crispness of her trills matched by the fluidity of her articulation of the triplet fiorature cresting on top B♭s in the fast-paced Allegro assai. Then, as Sesto wrests with his promise to slay Tito, she summons the potency of Greek tragedy in the accompagnato ‘O Dei! che smania è questa, che tumulto ho nel cor!’ The passage beginning with ‘Deh, conservate, o Dei, a Roma il suo splendor’ in the quintet is voiced with acute understanding of Sesto’s motivations and the conflicting loyalties that torment him.

Responding to Rebeka’s and Plachetka’s vocal sparks, DiDonato sings ‘Se al volto mai ti senti lieve aura che s’aggiri’ in the Act Two trio with Vitellia and Publio with imaginative nuance, followed by a subtle but steadfast reading of ‘Quello di Tito è il volto!’ in the subsequent trio with Tito and Publio. DiDonato’s performance of the Adagio rondò ‘Deh, per questo istante solo ti ricorda il primo amor’ affirms that this piece is in no way inferior to Sesto’s more famous aria in Act One. Interpreted by this singer, Sesto’s shame and self-loathing are uncommonly believable, not least when he declares ‘Tu, è ver, m’assolvi, Augusto, ma non m’assolve il core.’ There have been excellent recorded performances of Sesto’s music, foremost among which are Teresa Berganza’s portrayals for István Kertész and Karl Böhm, but DiDonato initiates a class of her own. So apt are her discreet embellishments that Mozart might have been whispering them in her ear. Her Donna Elvira in Nézet-Séguin’s Don Giovanni was a tremendous accomplishment, but this Sesto surpasses even her own best work.

In the first legs of Nézet-Séguin’s DGG Mozart journey, Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón surprised many listeners who questioned the wisdom of his Mozartian forays with vibrant, mostly stylish performances as Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Don Curzio in Le nozze di Figaro, Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, and Ferrando in Così fan tutte. [Villazón’s rôle in the forthcoming Die Zauberflöte is Papageno.] Here mounting the imperial throne as the troubled but ultimately level-headed Tito Vespasiano, he does not fully rise to the level of those previous impersonations, but this is music in which many valiant efforts have fallen short of success. A cinematic stereotype of Roman emperors—either exasperatingly haughty or vulgarly libidinous and unfailingly speaking with a pompous British accent—persists in today’s cultural consciousness, and Villazón turns this paradigm on its head. His is a Tito more likely to be found among his subjects, devouring the marvels of Rome, than cloistered behind palace walls. He sculpts the lines of the Andante con moto aria ‘Del più sublime soglio l’unico frutto è questo’ with the steady hand of a master craftsman, little bothered by the frequent treks to G at the top of the stave. The reliability of the tenor’s G4 is further tested in Tito’s Allegro aria ‘Ah, se fosse intorno al trono,’ and Villazón again passes without cheating, laudably confronting every difficulty with determination.

There is an aura of a celebrant’s interactions with his congregation in Villazón’s singing of Tito’s Act Two scene with the chorus, his pronouncement of ‘Ah no, sventurato non sono cotanto’ ringingly regal in tone. His smoky timbre enables a probing explication of the emperor’s predicament in the accompagnato ‘Che orror! che tradimento!’ Villazón’s bold but calm demeanor is touchingly effective in this music and in the trio with Sesto and Publio. The aria ‘Se all’impero, amici Dei!’ is a veritable obstacle course, the tranquil contemplation of its Andantino section disrupted by a return to the galloping Allegro. When a singer as stylistically deft as Nicolai Gedda was unable to negotiate the aria’s dizzying fiorature cleanly under studio conditions, Villazón earns leniency, but no apology needs to be made for his performance. The pitches are there, and the top B♭s present no problems. The accompagnato ‘Ma che giorno è mai questo?’ is ideal territory for him, and he enlivens music in which leaner voices can sound feeble. Villazón’s voicing of ‘Il vero pentimento di cui tu sei capace’ in the finale scene proclaims that this Tito’s mild manner is a manifestation of courage, not weakness. Musically, this is not a flawless performance, but it is as thoughtful and enjoyable a portrayal of Tito as has been recorded.

Mozart’s correspondence divulges a fascinating profundity of self-awareness, but it is impossible to know whether the composer was cognizant as he left Prague after the première of La clemenza di Tito to return to Vienna and resume work on Die Zauberflöte that he had said his farewell to Italian opera. As is the case with Pergolesi, Schubert, Bellini, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and other composers who died young, later generations of musicians, listeners, and scholars ponder what these artists might have achieved had they lived longer. Many long-lived composers would undoubtedly savor a final effort in any genre as inventive as La clemenza di Tito and a performance of it as superlative as this one via which to be remembered.

07 July 2018

CD REVIEW: Harold Meltzer — VARIATIONS ON A SUMMER DAY and PIANO QUARTET (A. Fischer, Boston Chamber Music Society; Open G Records 888295672382)

IN REVIEW: Harold Meltzer - VARIATIONS ON A SUMMER DAY and PIANO QUARTET (Open G Records 888295672382)HAROLD MELTZER (born 1966): Variations on a Summer Day and Piano QuartetAbigail Fischer, soprano; Tara Helen O’Connor and Barry Crawford, flute; Alan Kay and Vicente Alexim, clarinet; Margaret Kampmeier, piano; Cyrus Beroukhim, Miranda Cuckson, and Andrea Schultz, violin; Daniel Panner, viola; Greg Hesselink, cello; Jayce Ogren, conductor; Boston Chamber Music Society [Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, USA, on 25 March 2017 (Piano Quartet) and 28 – 30 March 2017 (Variations on a Summer Day); Open G Records 888295672382; 1 CD, 40:51; Available from Bandcamp.com]

Originality for its own sake is scarcely better than unimaginative adherence to traditions. Popularity is not universally indicative of quality, but traditions are rarely devoid of some degree of celebration of the exceptional. Newly-minted words with nothing to say merely clutter languages that are already ludicrously verbose, widening the chasm between thought and expression in ways that further complicate the critical act of communication. As a physical manifestation of the most honest aspects of humanity, Art must communicate necessary truths too uncomfortable for everyday discourse and must do so in ways that demand attention and action. For music, it is not enough to spin a beguiling melody or beat out a distracting rhythm. Whether old or new, the sounds must forge connections among people—connections that engender harmonious resolutions for life’s chaotic cacophonies.

There are no formulæ that reliably concoct success for a composer of what is now identified as ‘serious’ music. Few composers in the recent history of Classical Music are likely to have been spared enduring the well-meaning dictate that artistic fulfillment depends upon originality, but originality in music is a misleading notion. All that has been achieved by musicians since the inception of composing in written form notwithstanding, the available tonal spectra are finite. Whether music makes use of quarter tones, tone rows, counterpoint, scordatura, or any of the thousands of effects that fill musicological glossaries, the basic structural tenets are unchanging. Success as a composer begins with recognizing that originality does not demand abandonment of the time-tested fundaments of music.

That Johannes Brahms was one of the most powerful instigators of musical evolution is indisputable, but which bold innovation in music does one attribute solely to Brahms’s invention? Brahms’s genius was not in discarding established methods and fabricating new ones: he altered the course of music’s cyclical metamorphoses by perfecting the forms he inherited from past masters and reshaping them to realize his own designs. As a reformer looking to both the past and the future, Brooklyn-born composer Harold Meltzer is among Brahms’s most gifted Twenty-First-Century heirs. The pieces on this expertly-produced Open G Records disc ask the listener not only to absorb the complexities of the sonic layers but also to consider their meaning. Why did Meltzer choose these forms, these instruments, these words? This is not arbitrarily-conceived music. Like Brahms, Meltzer has crafted an individual style not by rejecting the work of his artistic ancestors but by respecting, learning from, and continuing it. His is originality with purpose.

Written in 2016 in memory of composer Steven Stucky (1949 – 2016), Meltzer’s Piano Quartet is a thought-provoking but never coldly academic piece in which novelty and nostalgia interact in a mesmerizingly intricate ballet. The spirit of Meltzer’s memorial to a fellow artist is anything but funereal: this music is a paean to living, remembering, carrying on, and moving forward. The adjectives combined by the composer with metronome markers in lieu of conventional verbal instructions of tempo and temperament—effervescent, ardent, ecstatic, eager, poignant, ebullient, contented, sparkling—are observed so meticulously by the Boston Chamber Music Society musicians—violinist Harumi Rhodes, violist Dimitri Murrath, cellist Raman Ramakrishnan, and pianist Max Levinson—that an attentive listener might use precisely these words to describe the impact of this performance of the piece. The through-composed structure of his quartet differs from the architecture of these earlier works, but Meltzer’s part writing fleetingly recalls both Brahms’s three piano quartets and Antonín Dvořák’s superb Opus 87 Piano Quartet. Notable for inspired use of pizzicato, the emotional epicenter of the American composer’s quartet is the ‘Dreamwaltz for Steve,’ an episode further distinguished by kaleidoscopic intermingling of instrumental textures and timbres that amplify a faint echo of Beethoven. The instrumentalists are alert to the music’s subtleties, navigating the work’s expressive transformations with playing of unwavering technical mastery. This is a sophisticated performance of significant, splendidly-scored music.

A setting of verses by American poet Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955), Meltzer’s Variations on a Summer Day discloses a rare affinity for perceiving the inherent song in words and fashioning music that manifests that song for performers and listeners. Stevens’s text is a stream-of-conscious meditation that is not unlike the mature work of writers as seemingly dissimilar as T. S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg, the thoughts within his lines seeming to exist externally, free-standing concepts that are not reasoned but encountered like landmarks along a path. The poet blurred the distinctions between physical and metaphysical, and Meltzer embraces this ambiguity in writing that is at once earthly and ephemeral. Though their musical idioms are very different, there is a familial relationship between the narrator of Variations on a Summer Day and the nameless protagonist of Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine. Like Poulenc’s incarnation of Jean Cocteau’s surrealistic drama, Variations on a Summer Day is an engrossing exchange with an unheard conversant. Mimicking nature’s cycles, the music imparts a sense of inevitability: rather than beginning and ending with contrived formality, the music rises to the surface for the duration of Variations on a Summer Day and then retreats into silence, waiting to be heard again.

Under the direction of conductor Jayce Ogren, the musicians to whom performing Variations on a Summer Day for this recording was entrusted play Meltzer’s music with an abiding interpretive spontaneity, vividly limning the score’s tonal unpredictability. Flautists Tara O’Connor and Barry Crawford, clarinetists Alan Kay and Vicente Alexim, violinists Miranda Cuckson and Andrea Schultz, violist Daniel Panner, cellist Greg Hesselink, and pianist Margaret Kampmeier approach this music with obvious preparation, but their playing is appealingly free from artifice. [In the passages beginning with ‘Round and round goes the bell of the water’ and ‘Low tide, flat water, sultry sun,’ violinist Cyrus Beroukhim deputizes for Cuckson. That the substitution is indiscernible is a testament to both musicians’ artistic integrity.] Cleanness of execution of the music’s rhythmic transitions is critical to the effectiveness of Variations on a Summer Day, but clinical exactitude would deprive the piece of its improvisational fervor. Guided by the apparent thoroughness of Ogren’s acquaintance with the score’s challenges, this performance is precise without ever being perfunctory.

It is often as an implicit euphemism for a less-flattering characterization that a singer is said to possess an unique voice, but soprano Abigail Fischer proves to be a peer of Bethany Beardslee, Cathy Berberian, and Jan DeGaetani as a singer with a wholly unique voice in the very best sense. A bright, forward placement of vowels and a flickering vibrato contribute to the fluidity of the soprano’s singing of both Meltzer’s music and Stevens’s words. Moreover, Fischer’s diction is little affected by notorious ‘opera singer English,’ her enunciation refreshingly natural. The exhilaration generated by her voicing of ‘Say of the gulls’ is tempered by the uneasy serenity of her declamation of ‘A music more than a breath.’ Fischer commands the irregular emotional tides of the sequence encompassing ‘The rocks of the cliffs,’ ‘Star over Monhegan,’ and ‘The leaves of the sea’ like a sorceress, wielding the magic of Meltzer’s music with able, assured vocalism.

A restless energy reminiscent of that found in Dylan Thomas’s poetry courses through ‘It is cold to be forever young,’ its sparks igniting Meltzer’s ingenuity. The music here grows more intense, and Fischer and Ogren sharpen their focus on the composer’s aural imagery. Singer and musicians lend ‘One sparrow is worth a thousand gulls’ a measure of lightness, and the accents of ‘An exercise in viewing the world’ and ‘This cloudy world’ are judiciously matched with the cadences of the words. Meltzer provides music of uncompromising directness for both ‘To change nature’ and ‘Now, the timothy at Pemaquid,’ and these performers give his lines readings of equal earnestness. Fischer sings ‘Everywhere the spruce trees bury soldiers’ with particular eloquence, joining Meltzer in evincing the ambivalence of the text with touching simplicity. Emotional honesty is also the heart of Fischer’s account of ‘Cover the sea with the sand rose,’ the vocal lines of which she sculpts with perfectly-balanced tenderness and toughness.

‘Words add to the senses’ is an apposite artistic credo for both Meltzer and Wallace Stevens—and for this performance of Variations on a Summer Day. Too often, words seem to stand in the way of today’s composers’ efforts at creating memorable music, but Meltzer seizes the opportunities for sketching familiar but previously unseen vistas offered by Stevens’s words. A near-Baroque sensibility permeates ‘The last island’ and ‘Round and round goes the bell of the water,’ the composer identifying distant vestiges of John Donne in the text, and Fischer sings the music with appropriately ringing tone that would serve her as stylishly in music by Bach or Telemann. Meltzer’s final variations emphasize the parallels between Stevens’s words and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Afforded a chance to demonstrate her dramatic instincts, Fischer sings ‘Pass through the door’ with unaffected sincerity. Her vocalism is impressive throughout the performance, but she saves her best singing for the final three segments, launching the work’s quest for renewal with a searching traversal of ‘Low tide, flat water, sultry sun.’ The strangely disquieting ‘One boy swims under a tub’ and ‘You could almost see the brass on her gleaming’ highlight the perpetuality of Variations on a Summer Day. Instead of proposing a resolution, they suggest an inexorable continuation of the voyage. Fischer, Ogren, and their colleagues eschew ostentatious gestures in Variations’ final pages: their sounds cease, but the music does not end.

In grasping at success that is increasingly difficult to define, today’s composers sometimes forget the ideal that should always be the objective of creativity. Scholars can debate whether originality is characterized by saying something entirely new or saying something that has been said before but differently, but the truest gauge of music’s success is its appeal to the listener. Sonic treatises on new ways of composing and performing music are valuable, but how often does one genuinely want to hear them? Harold Meltzer’s Piano Quartet and Variations on a Summer Day break new ground without subjecting the listener to gruesome noises of demolition. No idols of previous generations were smashed in the name of originality in the making of this music. Rather, this composer has molded contemporary music that is as pleasing as it is progressive. How original!

02 July 2018

July 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Agostino Steffani — O BARBARO AMORE (A. Brisson Paquin, C. Ricci, J. Lemos, S. Soph, M. Bouvier; Musica Omnia mo0711)

July 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Agostino Steffani - O BARBARO AMORE (Musica Omnia mo0711)AGOSTINO STEFFANI (1654 – 1728): O barbaro Amore – Duetti da cameraAndréanne Brisson Paquin (soprano), Céline Ricci (mezzo-soprano), José Lemos (countertenor), Steven Soph (tenor), and Mischa Bouvier (baritone); Jennifer Morsches (cello), Deborah Fox (theorbo and guitar), and Jory Vinikour (harpsichord and direction) [Recorded in Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, USA, 14 – 18 February 2017; Musica Omnia mo0711; 1 CD, 66:07; Available from Musica Omnia, Naxos Direct, Amazon (UK), Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

There is an uncannily timely lesson about cultural cooperation and coexistence to be learned from the fact that much of Twenty-First-Century observers’ acquaintance with the music of Italian composer Agostino Steffani is owed to the advocacy of a German-speaking aristocrat who became King of England. When the Elector of Hannover ascended to the English throne as George I in 1714, included in the souvenirs of his native land that accompanied him to London were Steffani scores that would otherwise now almost certainly be lost. Royal prerogative has indisputably sometimes been abused, but Sir Winston Churchill might reasonably have said of the fledgling Hannoverian dynasty’s preservation of Steffani’s work that there are few instances in musical history in which so much is owed to so few.

Born in 1654 in the Veneto region of Italy, near both Treviso and Venice, Steffani embarked upon his circuitous musical education at Venice’s Basilica di San Marco, where he served as a chorister. Noble patronage subsequently transported the young composer first to Munich, then to Rome, and ultimately back to the Bavarian capital, in which cities his natural abilities flourished under capable, nurturing tutelage. The path that led him to the court of the eventual George I also brought him into contact with a fellow composer who, unlike Steffani, would follow his employer to Britain: Georg Friedrich Händel. The extent to which Steffani may have influenced his Halle-born junior cannot be definitively discerned, but Händel undoubtedly benefited from the older man’s encouragement. Later appointments found Steffani in Brussels, Düsseldorf, and again in Hannover, where, like the esteemed castrato Farinelli, he was entrusted with diplomatic missions. It was whilst fulfilling political duties that the composer died in Frankfurt in 1728. Neglecting the work of an artist who was sufficiently esteemed by his superiors to be tasked with the handling of affairs of state seems anything but reasonable, but the whims of artistic fashion adhere to no conventional logic.

Recent years have ushered in a resurgence in Steffani’s reputation, propelled by the espousal of his music by renowned artists, perhaps the most committed amongst whom is mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. Productions of Steffani’s 1688 opera Niobe, regina di Tebe by London’s Royal Opera House and Boston Early Music Festival were recorded and released commercially to great acclaim, broadening awareness of his proficiency for writing for the stage. Appreciation of the keen understanding and innovative use of the prevalent music forms of his time that was likely the basis of his contemporaries’ respect for Steffani has been somewhat slower in expanding into the Twenty-First Century. Recorded with extraordinary acoustical clarity and immediacy by the industry-leading production team of Peter Watchorn (Executive Producer), Dan Merceruio (Producer), Daniel Shores (Engineer, Mixing, and Mastering), and Allison Noah (Recording Technician), O barbaro Amore, Musica Omnia’s recital of ten of Steffani’s sublime, stirring duetti da camera, offers a wonderful opportunity to examine the fluency of the composer’s musical language in the setting of inward discourses among voices and continuo instruments. Distant but undeniable relations of Monteverdi’s madrigals, the duets are here imaginatively ordered to form a continuous psychological arc that rivals the linear storytelling of Schubert’s Winterreise and Schumann’s Dichterliebe.

Amidst the bursts of enthusiastic rediscovery that have introduced Steffani and his work to modern audiences, his music has been revitalized by no artists more gifted than Deborah Fox, Jennifer Morsches, and Jory Vinikour. Directing these performances from the harpsichord, Vinikour paces each piece with masterful command of its musical and poetic nuances, both emphasizing the unique qualities of each duet and persuasively creating context within the cumulative narrative of the ten duets in succession. As a harpsichordist, Vinikour’s work has rarely been more refined, the restraint exhibited by his playing here affirming his faith in the expressive potential of the music. Avoiding the trap of excessive ornamentation, he fosters lean, lithe textures that support the vocalists rather than competing with them. Likewise, Fox plays theorbo and Baroque guitar with interpretive nimbleness that rivals her manual dexterity. Via her participation in performances of Baroque operas, she has honed an unerring instinct for aiding singers in maintaining conversational naturalness even in music of tremendous technical difficulty. Cadences are her punctuation, and Fox resolves phrases with unforced momentum. Morsches complements her colleagues’ efforts with alert, adaptive playing, accenting her tones in response to the words that they accompany. Fox’s theorbo and Morsches’s cello are an aural embodiment of Ovid’s Pyramus, and Vinikour’s harpsichord is the porous wall through which they converse with the singers’ Thisbe.

It seems unlikely that music of the quality heard on O barbaro Amore was written without the voices of specific singers resounding in Steffani’s mind, but the circumstances of the composition and first performances of these duets are largely unknown. Unanswered questions about their inception give the duets an alluring aura of mystery, but the performances on this disc establish beyond any uncertainty that soprano Andréanne Brisson Paquin, mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci, countertenor José Lemos, tenor Steven Soph, and baritone Mischa Bouvier are a quintet to whose talents any composer past, present, or future would delight in tailoring new music. The variety of Steffani’s deployment of different vocal registers in the duets is evidence both of the composer’s expertise in writing for voices and of the quality of the voices by which he anticipated his music being sung. Individually and in ensemble, the voices selected for this recording heighten the expressive impact of the duets with singing in which virtuosity, always present and wielded with confidence, seems an afterthought. Beauty of tone, purity of line, and honesty of emotional engagement are the characteristics that shape the artistic experience of O barbaro Amore. The raw sentiments of the words are felt before the difficulty of the music is perceived. How many performances of repertory of this vintage can truly be said to achieve this?

Brisson Paquin and Bouvier take the first steps on this journey with a traversal of ‘È spento l’ardore’ that establishes a charged atmosphere in which the relationships between text and music—and the alternating collaborations and confrontations between voices—conjure bitingly realistic tableaux of lovers’ rows and reconciliations. The brightly-polished patina of the soprano’s timbre soars above the darker hues of the baritone’s voice, but their sounds meld with surprisingly mellifluous homogeny. Brisson Paquin also shares an euphonious bond with Ricci, who joins her in an account of ‘Saldi marmi’ that closes the distance from Steffani’s music to duets for Rossini’s Semiramide and Arsace and Bellini’s Norma and Adalgisa. The adventurous harmonies of Diana’s exchanges with Endimione in Cavalli’s La Calisto also echo in Steffani’s music, rising to the surface in ‘Saldi marmi’ owing to the singers’ judicious management of the intervals that separate their vocal lines. Soph proves a wholly-qualified partner for Brisson Paquin, as well, delivering his part in their account of ‘Io voglio provar’ with dulcet but sonorous vocalism. In each of the first three duets, the soprano finds within her voice a range of colors that reflect the moods of the text, and each of her colleagues proves to be wonderfully skilled at revealing the unexpected modernity of Steffani’s word settings.

In the evocative strains of ‘Non so chi mi piagò,’ Brisson Paquin and Lemos fuse their voices into a stream of molten sound that illuminates the subtleties of the composer’s exploitation of the polarities of the upper and lower lines. The soprano’s vocalism is particularly effective here, her opalescent tones at the top of the stave cascading like lovers’ sighs. In the first of Ricci’s contests with Lemos, ‘Placidissime catene,’ the music seems to pour not solely from their lungs but from every cell of their bodies and every recess of their psyches. They unleash the latent verismo in Steffani’s music without one note of their performance straying from the appropriate style of elocution. This is historically-informed singing that refuses to be pedantic. Soprano and mezzo-soprano reunite for an affectingly spirited account of ‘Lontananza crudel’ in which their navigation of the intersections of their serpentine vocal lines compellingly limns lovers’ loathing of the distances that separate them.

The poignant potency of Ricci’s alliance with Brisson Paquin also courses through her performance of ‘Il mio seno è un mar di pene’ with Soph. The tenor voices his music with dramatic immediacy and silver-clad tone that gleams most brightly in his enunciation of vowels. The essence of the music is articulated in the lines ‘in sperar tropp’anelante solo si muor per essere costante,’ and the despair of these words permeates this reading of the duet. As in their first encounter on O barbaro Amore, there is an unique electricity that sizzles in Ricci’s and Lemos’s singing of ‘Quando ti stringo, o cara.’ Though similar in basic compass, their voices are very different instruments. The churning depths of the mezzo-soprano’s timbre collide with the lava that flows from the countertenor’s vocal cords, generating a scorching geyser of histrionic steam that lends their musical sparring an element of spontaneous but perceptively-wrought catharsis. The metamorphosis in Ricci’s demeanor in ‘Labri belli, dite un po’ is indicative of her submersion in the text, and she reacts alluringly to Bouvier’s vigorous but sensitive voicing of his music. Mezzo-soprano and baritone make of this duet a vibrantly hypnotic dance, approaching words and music with caressing sensuality.

The last chapter in this tale of love’s pains and pleasures, ‘Occhi, perché piangete,’ pairs Brisson Paquin with Lemos in a demonstration of artistry that epitomizes both the consistency of Steffani’s inspiration and the caliber of the music making that produced O barbaro Amore. These singers and the musicians who accompany them follow the music wherever it leads, swathing even the most uncomfortable niches of humanity in beauty. Above all, the performances on this disc raise a vital query: how can such music have been ignored for so many years?

Pat Benatar and the Four Aces got it right: love is truly both a battlefield and a many-splendored thing. History preserves few intimate details of Agostino Steffani’s life before his rise to prominence on Europe’s musical, political, and ecclesiastical stages, but his music provides glimpses of the man time has largely concealed. With the ten duetti da camera on this disc, Steffani transformed a remarkable aesthetic cognizance of the complexities of love into music of timeless cogency. In performing these duets, the artists whose work created O barbaro Amore unequivocally got it right, too.

22 June 2018

CD REVIEW: Leonard Bernstein — A QUIET PLACE (C. Boyle, J. Kaiser, G. Bintner, L. Meachem, R. Charlesworth, D. Belcher, A. Rosen, S. Humes, M. Skille, J. Tessier; DECCA 483 3895)

IN REVIEW: Leonard Bernstein - A QUIET PLACE (DECCA 483 3895)LEONARD BERNSTEIN (1918 – 1990): A Quiet Place [Edition by Garth Edwin Sunderland]—Claudia Boyle (Dede), Joseph Kaiser (François), Gordon Bintner (Junior), Lucas Meachem (Sam), Rupert Charlesworth (Funeral Director), Daniel Belcher (Bill), Annie Rosen (Susie), Steven Humes (Doc), Maija Skille (Mrs. Doc), and John Tessier (Analyst); Chœur et Orchestre symphonique de Montréal; Kent Nagano, conductor [Recorded in Maison symphonique de Montréal, Montréal, Québec, Canada, 17 – 19 May 2017; DECCA 483 3895; 2 CDs, 93:05; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers; WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING OF SUNDERLAND’S EDITION]

The roads leading to the world’s important opera houses are strewn with the carcasses of musical vehicles scuttled before they reached their destinations, parts tried and discarded in the process of revising scores, and the abandoned ambitions of works that never realized their potential. Even among pieces that found success, there are plethoras of questions with no definitive answers. Should a mezzo-soprano or a tenor Idamante be preferred in Mozart’s Idomeneo? Should Bizet’s Carmen be performed with spoken dialogue or sung recitatives? Should Verdi’s Don Carlos be sung in four or five acts; and in French or Italian? Is Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess more at home in a Broadway theatre or an opera house? Now, nearly two decades after his death, how is Leonard Bernstein’s legacy as an operatic innovator fairly assessed?

Since its inception, qualms about the work’s theatrical viability have largely banished Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place to the pages of academic studies of the composer’s œuvre, the few productions that the score has received in the thirty-five years since the première of its original form having mostly failed to meet the opera’s goals of further examining and refining the themes addressed in Bernstein’s 1952 opera Trouble in Tahiti. In the earlier work, audiences met Dinah and Sam, a couple bound in a complicated marriage that produced a son who was more a possession to be inventoried than a tangible manifestation of love. Integrating Trouble in Tahiti into its second act as a series of reminiscences, the three-act version of A Quiet Place that Bernstein conducted at the Wiener Staatsoper in 1986, pacing performances that were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, opens with the aftermath of Dinah’s death in a car accident. The tyke in Trouble in Tahiti, Junior, was joined in the time between the operas by a sister, Dede, whose husband François was previously Junior’s lover. Each member of the family loves and is loved but has never learned to express feelings more intimate than frustration. Perhaps this is the crux of the opera’s difficulties: how can a composer who made lines as seemingly banal as ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ not only integral to a piece’s dramatic continuity but also an indelible episode in American musical history effectively convey the sometime futility of words?

That he returned after an absence of thirty years to the dysfunctional family at the core of Trouble in Tahiti indicates that these people and their mostly self-inflicted struggles clearly captivated Bernstein. First devised by the composer and his chosen librettist, Stephen Wadsworth, in a single, two-hour act, A Quiet Place was a departure from the charm and romance of West Side Story and Candide. Considerably more convoluted than the straightforward love against the odds of West Side Story’s María and Tony, the relationships at the heart of A Quiet Place triggered profound responses from both composer and librettist, described in detail in Wadsworth’s insightful liner notes for the Deutsche Grammophon recording.

...we discovered a coincidence of need - to write about loss, grief, family mourning, and coming through tragedy together. Lenny had lost his wife, Felicia, only two years before, to cancer. I had lost my sister Nina only one year before, in a car crash. These things weighed heavily on our souls.
It is gross exaggeration to assert that the incarnation of A Quiet Place performed in Vienna in 1986 and recorded by DGG attempted to conflate the intimacy of Idomeneo with the grandeur of Götterdämmerung, but there is a certain legitimacy in the gist of the hyperbole: the impact of the stark simplicity of the distinctly American family dynamic that is the lifeblood of A Quiet Place was diminished by the necessity of matching the drama with music of auditorium-filling dimensions.

Recorded with exceptional sonic clarity in Maison symphonique de Montréal, this DECCA recording of A Quiet Place utilizes an arrangement of the score prepared by The Leonard Bernstein Office Vice President for Creative Projects Garth Edwin Sunderland, first performed in Konzerthaus Berlin in 2013 under the direction of Kent Nagano, whose conducting is a vital component of the success of this performance. Engendered by career-long acquaintance with the composer’s work, as well as his mastery of a related piece like Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, with which A Quiet Place shares an emphasis on the Existential implications of interpersonal relationships, Nagano’s informed handling of Bernstein’s music lends Sunderland’s arrangement of A Quiet Place an aura of authority. Bernstein possessed one of the Twentieth Century’s best-trained ears for reimagining orchestral colors and textures, and Nagano’s management of the intricately-constructed tonal strands, spellbindingly executed by Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, unearths and enlivens the wealths of musical ingenuity and emotional power that the score wielded from the start of Bernstein’s and Wadsworth’s operatic alliance.

Reduced from the 150 minutes heard in Vienna in 1986 to ninety-three minutes, principally by excising flashbacks of Trouble in Tahiti from Act Two, the opera here moves at a fast pace that suits the episodic nature of the drama. Paralleling the work of their orchestral counterparts, the expert singing of Chœur symphonique de Montréal combines close adherence to the score’s pitches and rhythms with convincing conversational immediacy. The communicative effectiveness of Bernstein’s writing for groups of voices is enhanced by Sunderland’s treatment of the intersections among instruments and voices, and Nagano’s conducting spotlights subtleties always present in the opera but less evident in previous performances.

In the orchestral Postlude that ends Act One of A Quiet Place, Bernstein unleashed a torrent of the destructive but liberating familial angst that permeates Mozart’s Idomeneo, Verdi’s Rigoletto, and Wagner’s Die Walküre, and Nagano fully capitalizes on the music’s innate poignancy. Lyrical passages emerge from the manic pages of the score like lulls in storms of grief, given space in which to develop organically. A Quiet Place was unquestionably a masterful work at its 1983 première, and Sunderland’s intelligent restructuring of its words and music make it more accessible. With this performance, Nagano confirms that A Quiet Place is one of the most beautiful, unique, and moving operas of the Twentieth Century.

During his career, Bernstein was fortunate—far more fortunate than many of his contemporaries in musical theatre and opera—to enjoy collaborations with artists who understood, respected, and shared his ideals. Supporting rôles in this performance of A Quiet Place are brought to life by singers who exhibit qualities similar to those that defined the work of vocalists with whom Bernstein worked closely. Tenor John Tessier’s bel canto credentials might seem an over-qualification for the Analyst’s music in A Quiet Place, but his proper placement of vowels, rhythmic precision, and intonational accuracy are as welcome in Bernstein’s vocal lines as in Bellini’s. Similarly, the techniques of bass Steven Humes and mezzo-soprano Maija Skille are deployed with style and sensitivity in their portrayals of Doc and Mrs. Doc. The vocal acting of intrepid mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen amplifies the importance of Susie’s every word and note, lending the character added substance. Baritone Daniel Belcher’s Bill is also a fully-characterized depiction, sung with burnished tone and verbal lucidity. The Funeral Director receives from tenor Rupert Charlesworth a performance that gives the character unexpected dimensions of credibility and empathy. Each of these singers devotes to Bernstein’s music the vocal charisma and emotional honesty that it deserves.

The voice of tenor Joseph Kaiser is an instrument of finer quality than any listener might ever have hoped to hear in Bernstein’s music for François, the unknown variable of sorts in A Quiet Place’s family equation. First Junior’s lover and then Dede’s husband, François is the outsider who, despite his close involvement in their affairs, is able to discern the family’s shortcomings. Casting Kaiser in the rôle astutely intensifies the contrasts among François and both Junior and Sam, his higher, leaner timbre sounding almost fragile in comparison with the voices of his in-laws. In his every utterance in Act One, Kaiser is anything but feeble, however, his agile, attractive voice dominating the angular writing with ease except at the extreme top of the range, where effort is audible. Those hints of effort are put to apt dramatic use: like the family into which he inserted himself, François falls victim to his own insecurities, portrayed by Kaiser with touching verisimilitude. This is implicitly evoked in François’s Act Two aria ‘I’ve been afraid,’ passionately sung by Kaiser as a genuinely self-searching expression of endearment.

The tenderness that often glows in Kaiser’s vocalism calms the tempestuous egos that explode in the opera’s charged atmosphere. There is an alluring Mozartian fluidity in his account of the Act Three aria ‘Dear Loved Ones,’ the reading of Dinah’s suicide note that was originally assigned to Junior and is here the song of a Twentieth-Century Idamante brokering a delicate peace. Fulfilling his destiny as the catalyst for reconciliation and healing, Kaiser’s François launches his aria ‘Stop! You will not take another step!’ with the conviction of exasperation, but the sense that he is at last being heard softens the steel of his delivery. As the shared lover of troubled siblings, François is a character who can seem calculating and opportunistic, but, singing with gleaming tone and sincerity, Kaiser infuses François with nobility that figuratively provides the quiet place in which the drama achieves resolution.

It is not difficult to imagine Kaiser’s thoughtful François having been infatuated with the Junior of bass-baritone Gordon Bintner. Even when careening towards psychiatric cataclysm, this Junior is mesmerizing and, more consequentially, obviously redeemable. There is no denying that the Junior who bursts into Act One with the vehemence of a rabid animal exhibits few signs of reclaimable sanity, but Bintner evokes sympathy for the errant son by voicing his lines with a pervasive suggestion of inevitability, demonstrating that Junior’s rants are symptoms of illness, not true depravity. In the disturbing scene in which Junior disrupts his mother’s funeral with a shocking strip tease, Bintner adopts a garish but pitiable manner that suits the frenzied music and further exposes the fractures in the man’s mental state. By casting a singer with a strong, sinuous voice as Junior, his kinship with Sam is rendered both more believable and more meaningful.

The pathetic state of Junior’s mental health becomes sickeningly apparent in the vaudevillian scene in Act Two in which he invents a harrowing tale of an incestuous youthful relationship with Dede, mercilessly taunting François and goading his family to conflict. Bintner traverses this jazz-tinged music with flamboyance, purring his untoward accusations with something of Chet Baker’s sangfroid. None of the vocal effects that Bintner employs for dramatic variety distorts the singer’s pitch, but his characterization is immeasurably enriched: like Kaiser’s François, Bintner’s Junior, engrossingly sung, is an atypically plausible persona. Spanning the psychological metamorphoses of Act Three with acuity that culminates in a commanding performance of the aria ‘You see, Daddy, that death does bring some relief,’ Bintner persuasively evinces Junior’s ultimate transformation from bitter man mired in childhood inhibitions to better man on the path to recovery.

Building upon her colleagues’ erudite embodiments of their parts, soprano Claudia Boyle uplifts this performance of A Quiet Place with a portrayal of Dede that is capably sung—no small feat—and refreshingly free of cliché. The wide intervals and placement of tones without facile approach demanded by Dede’s music, much of which prefigures very different but equally difficult rôles like Ariel in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest and Pip in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, are unflappably supplied by Boyle. Her voice soars above the stave, but she also negotiates tricky passages in the lower octave with aplomb. Boyle voices Dede’s Act One arietta ‘Fantastic, great!’ with a piercing irony that is unmistakably limned by the slightly acidic edge with which she projects her tones. Dede plays the rôle of the more stable of Sam’s children (and François’s partners), but she is not without idiosyncrasies and indiscretions. Still, Boyle never allows the young woman’s flaws to obscure her basic humanity, her vocalism as reassuringly lovely when the text is thorny as when her words are comforting.

The trio with Junior and François and the scene in Act Two in which Dede at least momentarily connects with her father whilst donning one of Dinah’s dresses are pinnacles in Boyle’s performance, her voice arrayed in primary colors for the confrontational sparring and in pastel hues for intermittent tranquility. Occasional shrillness, dramatically appropriate, illustrates Dede’s awkwardness, especially in exchanges with François. The ambivalence of Sam’s and Dinah’s marriage is echoed in Dede’s relationship with François, and Boyle affectingly articulates her character’s indecision. The soprano sings the Act Three aria ‘Morning’ incisively, the text garnering as much attention as the music. Dede can be portrayed as a petulant shrew, but Boyle tames her, seizing each of the score’s inherent opportunities to chart the progress of her emotional evolution.

The husband and father at the center of the opera’s drama is portrayed in this performance with a myriad of temperamental contradictions by granite-voiced baritone Lucas Meachem. The first impression made by his Sam is one of unstinting strength, the core of iron in his singing introducing an element of stereotypical machismo into his depiction of the stern father. Meachem quickly divulges that Sam’s bravado is a coping mechanism that masks a vulnerability that is exacerbated by the father’s damaged relationships with his children. The character’s gruff exterior crumbles when platitudes are not adequate to express his feelings, and the baritone’s singing is most memorable when Sam’s hopelessness is most exposed. Throughout Act One, Meachem alternates boldly handsome singing with vocalism of unnerving sweetness, his account of the aria ‘You’re late’ a manifestation of Sam’s inability to grant his children access to his innermost emotions.

Grappling with the anger, denial, and uncomfortable truths forced to the surface by Dinah’s death, Sam begins Act Two with the aria ‘I wish I could sleep,’ delivered by Meachem with a wide spectrum of vocal colors ranging from darkest despair to glowing embers of self-recrimination. Here and elsewhere in this performance, the world-weariness of Meachem’s singing unveils a link between the small-scaled situations of A Quiet Place and the macrocosms of Wagner’s Ring. Singing with galvanizing resolve, Meachem reveals in Sam a suburban Wotan, his Fricka gone but still omnipresent and his children, not unlike Sieglinde and Siegmund, embroiled in futile combat against fate. In Meachem’s performance, Sam’s aria in Act Three, ‘Oh, François, please,’ is an outcry of desperation. Freud would likely theorize that, as an amorous partner for Dede and Junior, François is a stand-in for Sam, a father figure with whom they share a long-desired affection. In the wake of François’s rebuke and cathartic destruction of Dinah’s letter, the humility with which Meachem’s Sam welcomes François to the family proposes that he accepts and embraces his son-in-law as an equal. Though not every man can aspire to sing as Meachem does, his Sam is an Everyman, complicated in his simplicity and finally strongest when admitting his weaknesses.

Opera is an art that thrives on second chances. Many are the works that overcame unpromising and in some instances utterly disastrous premières to claim eventual success. Nonetheless, how many neglected honorable failures are there for every Carmen, and how many of those honorable failures might prove to be stage-worthy under the right circumstances? In terms of the consistent quality of Leonard Bernstein’s music, the very busy conducting schedule that undoubtedly deprived the public of works that never came to fruition was perhaps advantageous. It can be truthfully if not charitably said of some composers that their least-inspired music is good and their best work not markedly better, but Bernstein had little time for mediocrity. Artistically, A Quiet Place was never a failure, but, as the opera’s protagonists discover, redemption often requires compromise and cooperation. In this performance of A Quiet Place, all of the circumstances are right, and Bernstein’s final work for the operatic stage makes its second chance a triumph.