19 November 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — LA BOHÈME (S. Kantorski, A. Livingston Geis, D. Pershall, D. Thompson-Brewer, D. Hartmann, S. Outlaw, R. Wells, T. Gilliam, M. Williams, B. Kilpatrick; Greensboro Opera, 13 November 2022)

IN REVIEW: the cast of Greensboro Opera's November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Alan Howell, © by Greensboro Opera]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La bohème – Suzanne Kantorski (Mimì), Arnold Livingston Geis (Rodolfo), David Pershall (Marcello), Diana Thompson-Brewer (Musetta), Donald Hartmann (Colline) Sidney Outlaw (Schaunard), Robert Wells (Benoît, Alcindoro), Travis Gilliam (Parpignol), Markel Rashad Williams (Un sergente dei doganieri), Brian Kilpatrick (Un doganiere); Greensboro Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Joshua Horsch, conductor [David Holley, director; Trent Pcenicni, costume designer; Jeff Neubauer, lighting designer and technical director; Greensboro Opera, UNCG Auditorium, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 13 November 2022]

The art form’s complex emotions, convoluted dramatic situations, and confounding offstage politics sometimes distract those who create and consume opera from the most basic reasons for its four-century endurance. When any opera company announces a season that includes a production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, there are invariably calls for justification of the opera’s prevalence in the repertory. 126 years after its première at Teatro Regio di Torino, why is La bohème performed so frequently and at the expense of neglected works that deserve reassessment? Proponents of the score propose thoughtful artistic rationalizations for staging La bohème, but the principal validation of the piece’s viability is gratingly banal. Yes, the characters are winsome, the melodies are memorable, and the tragedy is gripping, but the crucial motivation for producing La bohème is often more practical than poetic. For better or worse, companies perform La bohème because audiences want to hear it.

The ‘worse’ of the aforementioned conceit disfigures some performances of La bohème, intensifying objections to its regular appearances in operatic seasons, but Greensboro Opera’s production, transforming the UNCG Auditorium stage into the Parisian Quartier Latin in which the denizens of Puccini’s adaptation of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème live and love, demonstrated that the opera’s commercial viability results not from nostalgia or audiences’ lack of imagination but from the still-poignant music. Revitalizing a well-travelled production with set designs by Robert Little that originated at Tri-Cities Opera, the company’s General and Artistic Director David Holley guided a performance in which the much-maligned pathos of La bohème was imaginatively rekindled, the stage action engagingly vivid without being excessively hectic. As in a number of recent Greensboro Opera productions, Trent Pcenicni’s attractive wig and makeup designs and Jeff Neubauer’s expert lighting and technical direction ably complemented Holley’s concept, and the lovely costumes, those for the principals sourced from Sarasota Opera and the choristers’ from Pierre’s Mascots and Costumes, enhanced the performance’s lavish visual appeal. Holley’s stagings often impress by telling familiar stories with new perspectives, and this lovingly straightforward Bohème was representative of his most thoughtful, heartfelt work.

Often employing expansive tempi that facilitated appreciation of the skillfulness of Puccini’s orchestrations, conductor Joshua Horsch led a performance in which scenes of tremendous poise alternated with moments of imprecise ensemble. Inconsistent cues yielded wrong entrances and lack of coordination among singers, chorus, and orchestra, most disruptively in Act Two. There were nonetheless many passages in which Horsch achieved true distinction. Under his baton, Greensboro Opera’s orchestra and choruses, the latter’s children trained by LJ Martin and the adults by James Baumgardner, delivered their parts with intensity and integrity. Despite momentary fluctuations in intonational accuracy and balances, the most jarring of which was the trumpet’s over-prominence at the start of Act Four, the musicians played with understanding of Puccini’s style. Similarly, the choral singing overcame fleeting instability to thrill in Act Two. Passing difficulties did not diminish the cumulative impact of Horsch’s handling of the performance, in which the well-known tragedy was realized with dignity, directness, and musical discernment.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Colline, tenor ARNOLD LIVINGSTON GEIS as Rodolfo, baritone ROBERT WELLS as Benoît, baritone DAVID PERSHALL as Marcello, and baritone SIDNEY OUTLAW as Schaunard in Greensboro Opera's November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]Gli amici e l’intruso: (from left to right) bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Colline, tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Rodolfo, baritone Robert Wells as Benoît, baritone David Pershall as Marcello, and baritone Sidney Outlaw as Schaunard in Greensboro Opera’s November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Taking advantage of the wealth of talent that enriches the Triad community, this production of La bohème surrounded the artists at the opera’s core with singers who brought vocal solidity and well-honed stagecraft to supporting rôles. The lines for the Doganiere and Sergente dei doganieri, the customs officer and his sergeant who patrol the gates of Paris in the first scene of Act Three, were commandingly sung by bass-baritones Brian Kilpatrick and Markel Rashad Williams. Tenor Travis Gilliam peddled the toyseller Parpignol’s wares with bright tone and clear words, heightening the festive atmosphere of the opera’s second act with his cheerful vociferations.

As the bohemians’ landlord Benoît in Act One and Musetta’s indulgent but indignant suitor Alcindoro in Act Two, baritone Robert Wells sang with deft comedic timing and vocal security but was occasionally inaudible, especially in the lower fifth of the range. Both Benoît’s ‘Timido in gioventù, ora me ne ripago’ and Alcindoro’s ‘Come un facchino correr di qua’ were voiced capably, Wells enunciating the words with panache, and his characterizations benefited from an absence of the over-the-top antics to which some exponents of these rôles resort.

Portraying the musician Schaunard, baritone Sidney Outlaw was in superlative voice, every note of the part placed with fluidity and projected with bravado. Declaiming ‘La Banca di Francia per voi si sbilancia’ in Act One with feigned grandiloquence, he established Schaunard as the bohemians’ impish instigator. His story of the exasperated Englishman and the noisy parrot failing to divert his friends from their ribaldry, this Schaunard uttered ‘Il diavolo vi porti tutti quanti’ with aggravation that did not conceal his own amusement. His characterization more pensive but still mirthful in Act Two, Outlaw voiced ‘Fra spintoni e pestate accorrendo’ captivatingly. In Act Four, Outlaw’s Schaunard pivoted from architect of merriment to emotional anchor, his alarm and grief subdued by his efforts at comforting and supporting his friends. Mimì’s death was more affecting for the spontaneity of Schaunard’s recognition of her passing, Outlaw viscerally imparting the anguish of the discovery. In every scene, the psychological immediacy of Outlaw’s performance was communicated by vocalism of uncompromising grace and gusto.

In the course of his esteemed career, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann’s acquaintance with La bohème has been shaped by singing Puccini’s music for Marcello, Colline, Schaunard, Benoît, and Alcindoro. Here returning to the rôle of Colline after a two-decade interval, Hartmann sang and acted masterfully, his experience engendering a circumspect characterization of the amiable philosopher. Voicing ‘Già dell'Apocalisse appariscono i segni’ with an ideal balance of wit and weight, he escalated the joviality of the opera’s opening act. Welcoming Mimì into the bohemians’s selective society in Act Two, the feigned gravitas of his proclamations was droll but also imparted abiding sincerity. Colline’s affection for his friends permeated Hartmann’s boisterous singing in the first half of Act Four, but Colline’s stoicism was upended by the dying Mimì’s arrival. The profound sorrow evinced by his magnificent account of ‘Vecchia zimarra, senti’ wholly justified singing the aria at a tempo somewhat slower than Puccini’s intended Allegretto moderato, and, in Hartmann’s performance, Colline’s understated act of charity, giving the proceeds of the sale of his coat to Musetta in reimbursement of her sacrifice for Mimì, was uncommonly touching.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) baritone ROBERT WELLS as Alcindoro, soprano DIANA THOMPSON-BREWER as Musetta, baritone DAVID PERSHALL as Marcello, tenor ARNOLD LIVINGSTON GEIS as Rodolfo, and soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Mimì in Greensboro Opera's November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]La regina del viale: (from left to right) baritone Robert Wells as Alcindoro, soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer as Musetta, baritone David Pershall as Marcello, tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Rodolfo, and soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Mimì in Greensboro Opera’s November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Some productions and performers depict Musetta as a foil for Mimì, a robust, flamboyant contrast to the frail Mimì’s docile introversion. Greensboro Opera’s Musetta embodied this archetype, but soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer gave her a beguilingly unique personality. From her first appearance in Act Two, it was apparent that Musetta’s flirtation with the dull Alcindoro was solely a means to an end, but there were flickers of fondness in her banter with him. Thompson-Brewer’s voicing of ‘Marcello mi vide’ revealed that, as Mimì sensed, passion for her recalcitrant former lover motivated Musetta’s actions.

‘Quando me’n vo’ soletta per la via’ was radiantly sung, the top Bs resplendent. The quarreling in Act Three was spirited but avoided vocal harshness, affection tempering even the most heated exchanges. Helplessness shaded Thompson-Brewer’s voice in Act Four, her singing of ‘Intesi dire che Mimì’ and ‘Madonna benedetta, fate la grazia a questa poveretta’ disclosing the breadth of Musetta’s devotion to the bohemians. She alone seemed to accept that Mimì’s death was imminent yet was unprepared for it. Vocally and theatrically, Thompson-Brewer’s Musetta delighted, but it was as a humble woman holding the hand of her dying friend that she shone most brilliantly.

In the opera’s first minutes, his ‘Questo Mar Rosso mi ammollisce’ trembling with cold, baritone David Pershall seemed out of sorts in Marcello’s music, the middle of the range lacking focus and notes above the stave constricted. As the performance progressed, however, the voice settled, and Pershall’s burnished timbre filled the theater. Interacting first with Rodolfo and subsequently with Colline, Schaunard, and Benoît, Marcello’s lines were sung with humor and confidence. The evolution of Marcello’s feelings in Act Two was palpably evinced, Pershall intuitively differentiating his vocal inflections in ‘Facciamo insieme a vendere e a comprar’ and ‘Domandatelo a me’ and declaring ‘Gioventù mia, tu non sei morta’ with fervor that affirmed the resurgence of Marcello’s infatuation with Musetta.

Pershall’s most plangent singing of the afternoon coincided with the fateful confrontations of Act Three. Learning from the distraught Mimì of her estrangement from Rodolfo, this Marcello counseled without hectoring, even his ‘Per carità, non fate scene qua!’ delivered with tenderness. The gentleness of his discourse with Mimì gave way to frustration as Rodolfo falsely attributed his repudiation of Mimì to her coquetry, the baritone voicing ‘Non mi sembri sincer’ insistently. The sound of Musetta’s laughter from within the tavern ignited a blaze of mistrust that engulfed the stage as the lovers battled. The duet with Rodolfo in Act Four was handsomely sung, ‘Io non so come sia che il mio pennello lavori’ suffused with disenfranchisement, but Marcello’s true regard for Musetta emerged in the opera’s final moments, Pershall using his voice as a conduit for emotions too complex for words alone.

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Mimì (left) and tenor ARNOLD LIVINGSTON GEIS as Rodolfo (right) in Greensboro Opera's November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]Nessuna chiave, qui: soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Mimì (left) and tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Rodolfo (right) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Enunciating each phrase of the rôle with linguistic clarity befitting a poet, tenor Arnold Livingston Geis portrayed Rodolfo with steadfast earnestness and vocal elegance, his upper register scintillating throughout the performance. His early scenes were marked by vocalism of youthful athleticism and animation, his account of ‘Nei cieli bigi guardo fumar dai mille comignoli Parigi’ filled with curiosity and awe. Rodolfo’s halfhearted attempt at writing interrupted by Mimì, the frigidity of the bohemians’ garret was warmed by Geis’s glowing vocalism. ‘Che gelida manina’ was the amorous reverie that Puccini intended it to be, persuasively evocative of burgeoning love, and the ascending lines of ‘O soave fanciulla, o dolce viso’ soared above the orchestra as they were meant to do. The ardor with which Geis described Mimì to Rodolfo’s friends in Act Two was stirring, ‘Questa è Mimì, gaia fioraia’ and ‘Perché son io il poeta, essa la poesia’ voiced engrossingly, but the dangerously jealous and suspicious elements of Rodolfo’s personality resounded in the tenor’s articulation of ‘Sappi per tuo governo che non darei perdono in sempiterno.’

The emotional maelstrom of La bohème’s third act swept through Geis’s performance but never altered the unerring course of his singing. His utterance of ‘Mimì è una civetta’ was impassioned but unmistakably disingenuous, making the candor of ‘Mimì è tanto malata!’ crushing for both the eavesdropping Mimì and the audience. Geis managed the demanding tessitura of the poignant scene with Mimì with astonishing ease, caressing phrases that some tenors shout. In the same vein, his singing of ‘O Mimì, tu più non torni’ in the duet with Marcello in Act Four was expressive rather than explosive, each note placed without forcing. Geis’s vocalism as Rodolfo endeavored to reinvigorate the fading Mimì was boyishly effervescent, but guilt defeated his effort. In this performance, Rodolfo’s reaction to Mimì’s death fused the pain of loss with the sickening devastation of having failed her, arrestingly voiced.

IN REVIEW: tenor ARNOLD LIVINGSTON GEIS as Rodolfo (left) and soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Mimì (right) in Greensboro Opera's November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]La vera Lucia: tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Rodolfo (left) and soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Mimì (right) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Before she was seen on stage, the voice of soprano Suzanne Kantorski’s Mimì enchanted listeners, particularly her Rodolfo, whose initial exclamation of ‘Una donna!’ exuded amazement. Bringing a vernal aura into the chilled garret, Kantorski sang ‘Oh! sventata, sventata!’ sweetly, shyly telling Rodolfo of her simple but fulfilling life. Rising to gleaming top As, she sang ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ gorgeously, and the lush femininity of her ‘Oh! come dolci scendono le sue lusinghe al core’ and suggestive teasing of Rodolfo recalled the celebrated Mimì of Licia Albanese. No Rodolfo could have resisted the charm of this Mimì’s ‘Una cuffietta a pizzi tutta rosa ricamata’ in Act Two, and Kantorski deepened her characterization by voicing Mimì’s sympathy and admiration for Musetta so beautifully.

Weariness weakened Mimì’s resolve in Act Three, but Kantorski sang ‘Sa dirmi, scusi’ and ‘O buona donna, mi fate il favore’ urgently. Pleading for Marcello’s help, her Mimì intoned ‘Rodolfo m’ama e mi fugge’ wrenchingly, and her interjections as she overheard Rodolfo’s tale of her deteriorating health demonstrated her innocent optimism. Realizing that her life was waning, her resilient ‘Donde lieta uscì al tuo grido d’amore torna sola Mimì’ aimed as much to reassure Rodolfo as to quiet her own fear. Without succumbing to lachrymose exaggeration, Kantorski’s singing in Act Four manifested the resigned sadness of a young woman seeking the company of people she loved in her final hours. Paralleling Rodolfo’s remorse, Mimì’s ‘O mio Rodolfo, mi vuoi qui con te?’ was genuinely inquisitive, and ‘Lascia ch’io guardi intorno’ and ‘Sono andati?’ were voiced with exquisite purity. The technical accomplishment of Kantorski’s singing was unfaltering, but it was the emotion of her performance, allied with the work of her colleagues in this production, that silenced cynicism about La bohème’s unabating relevance.

08 November 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Nathan Hudson, Sarah Kirkland Snider, & Caber Smith — God: Autumn 2022 Concert (Elon Contemporary Chamber Ensemble; Elon University, 26 September 2022)

IN REVIEW: Nathan Hudson, Sarah Kirkland Snider, & Caber Smith - Elon Contemporary Chamber Ensemble Autumn 2022 Concert [Graphic © by Elon Contemporary Chamber Ensemble]NATHAN HUDSON (born 1992), SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER (born 1973), and CABER SMITH (born 2000): Contemporary works for chamber ensembleRobert Anthony Mack, tenor; Donald Hartmann, bass-baritone; Elon Contemporary Chamber Ensemble; Jonathan Poquette, director [Whitley Auditorium, Elon University, Elon, North Carolina, USA; Monday, 26 September 2022]

History documents audiences’ reactions to the first performances of seminal works of music like Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, but, from the perspective of a time in which these pieces are so familiar as to no longer seem radical, it is difficult to imagine how such music must have sounded when it was truly sui generis. As Rameau, Beethoven, and Stravinsky defied the traditions from which their work emerged, composers in the Twenty-First Century continue to challenge listeners with music that creates its own contexts, striving to be heard with the sort of curiosity and contemplation that sparked musical revolutions of the past.

Whatever the circumstances, be they much-publicized premières of large-scale works in storied venues, débuts of compact pieces in intimate settings, or first introductions to innovative sounds, there is considerable excitement in hearing new music springing to life. Sadly, contemporary Classical music and the artists who create and perform it in the United States struggle to find audiences and funding. Much admirable music is being written, but it often goes unheralded outside of large metropolitan centers. That Elon Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, based at Elon University, garners the resources necessary to bring new music to central North Carolina—no cultural wasteland, of course, but also no bastion of avant-garde music—is remarkable, but the advocacy, integrity, and musicianship of the ensemble’s performances are a testament to the galvanizing leadership of Elon’s Director of Bands, Jonathan Poquette. Under his direction, ECCE’s Autumn 2022 concert, God, offered recent works by three gifted composers, splendidly performed by a team of artists whose individual and collective virtuosity astonished.

Opening the programme, Nathan Hudson’s Brace Yourselves! for clarinet and piano earned its title, the demands of the writing for both instruments leaving listeners gasping in amazement. A tribute to the composer’s friendship and close working relationship with author Ben Loory, Brace Yourselves! is a stylistic compendium, its musical dialects, ranging from post-Romantic lyricism to original variants of post-modern atonality, encompassing influences as diverse as Mozart’s, Weber’s, and Brahms’s works for clarinet and a sly nod to Krzysztof Penderecki. Pianist Annie Jeng transformed the keyboard into a Mahlerian orchestra, thundering and whispering as required and coaxing a surprising spectrum of colors from the instrument. In his intrepid performance of this music, some of the most daunting written for his instrument, clarinetist Andy Hudson provided a rare exhibition of the ways in which dazzlingly demonstrative writing can wield unexpected expressivity. The piece’s pensive moments were played with measured sophistication and expansive phrasing. When the composer pushed the clarinet to the limits of its abilities, Hudson responded by extending the boundaries of his technique. The electrifying energy of the performance belied the grueling preparation required to engender it, but Brace Yourselves! made a thrilling impression for which none in the audience is likely to have been prepared.

Inhabiting a vastly different sound world, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s You are Free augmented the scoring of Brace Yourselves! by completing a Pierrot ensemble with the addition of violin, cello, and flute and incorporating marimba, played in ECCE’s performance by percussionist Isaac Pyatt. Joining Jeng and Hudson, whose work maintained the high standard set in the first piece, violinist Nathan Southwick, cellist Meaghan Skogen, and flautist Linda Cykert played their parts eloquently, each instrument’s timbre organically assimilated into the aural tableau. The work’s glorification of personal freedom, interpretive independence, and continuing initiatives to foster liberty and artistic autonomy echoed in the ensemble’s sounds, especially in the marimba’s enchanting tones, exquisitely managed by Pyatt. Snider’s diaphanous music journeys through countless moods, but its prevailing evocation of hope was realized with touching simplicity and sincerity.

Inspired by one of the best-known episodes in English-language theater, the appearance of the witches in the opening scene of Act Four of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Caber Smith’s Toil and Trouble is essentially a xylophone concerto in miniature, the instrument engaging in a raucous contest with the Pierrot ensemble. ECCE’s musicians again played marvelously, but, transitioning from marimba to xylophone, Pyatt excelled. Reminiscences of prominent writing for xylophone in Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre, Act One of Puccini’s Turandot and works by Bartók and Ravel, as well as Britten’s use of the Balinese gamelan, are numerous, but Smith created unique sonorities and textures for the instrument in Toil and Trouble. Invigorated by the momentum generated by his colleagues, Pyatt traversed the xylophone’s full range with astounding acumen, his performance marked by flawless musicality and unapologetic showmanship. His command of the instrument displayed artistic sorcery, and, through his whirring mallets, Smith’s music entranced the audience.

The title of the concert’s programme was borrowed from Nathan Hudson’s imaginative cantata God, composed in 2019 and given its world première in this performance. Setting a story with text by Ben Loory, Hudson endeavored to honor the youthful exposure to liturgical music that guided him along the path to a musical career. Vestiges of Martin Luther’s ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,’ Monteverdi motets, Bach chorales, Händel oratorios, and traditional hymns emerge as God progresses, but Hudson absorbs these memories into his own distinctive compositional voice. Increasing the Pierrot ensemble with an array of chimes, cymbals, and tom-tom, all vividly played by Pyatt, Hudson tells Loory’s story of a man who, wearied by the incessant exertion of enduring, yearns to stop breathing with compassion and wry humor, the music evincing the pathos of human ridiculousness.

Casting the instrumentalists as narrators and chorus viscerally involved them in the drama, and each musician spoke and sang cogently. As the voice of reason that, upon the despairing man’s attempt at ceasing to breathe, intones divine counsel, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann melded his merlot-hued timbre with debonair wit. This God’s benevolence did not preclude suggestions of bemused sarcasm, but Hartmann achieved an ideal balance of empathy and ennui. The incandescent voice of tenor Robert Anthony Mack shone in Hudson’s turbulent music for the man whose irrepressible need to sing overcomes his longing for silence. Uttering each word with conviction and glistening tone, Mack created a character in whose plight elements of Orpheus and Dædalus merged with the everyday stresses of ordinary people.

All music was once new, but no music grows old except by being allowed to decay through unfeeling, routine performances. Presenting works in their infancy compels artists to approach the music with careful study and fresh insights. These qualities abounded in Elon Contemporary Chamber Ensemble’s performances of pieces by Nathan Hudson, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Caber Smith, but any composer of any era would be grateful for music making of such enthusiasm and expertise.

07 November 2022

RECORDING REVIEW: Artur Schnabel — COMPLETE VOCAL WORKS (Sara Couden, contralto; Jenny Lin, piano; Steinway & Sons STNS 30208)

IN REVIEW: Artur Schnabel - COMPLETE VOCAL WORKS (Steinway & Sons STNS 30208)ARTUR SCHNABEL (1882 – 1951): Complete Vocal WorksSara Couden, contralto; Jenny Lin, piano [Recorded in Samurai Hotel Recording Studio, Astoria, New York, USA, 23 – 25 April 2022; Steinway & Sons STNS 30208; 1 CD, 77:52; Available from Amazon (USA), Apple Music, Spotify, and major music retailers and streaming services]

Virtually all admirers and students of the thirty-two canonical piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven have been exposed to the work of pianist Artur Schnabel. Born in the Silesian region of modern Poland as the Austro-Hungarian empire of Franz Joseph neared its end, Schnabel studied in Vienna with Theodor Leschetizky and his wife Anna Yesipova, inaugurating an artistic connection to Beethoven via Leschetizky’s teacher, Carl Czerny, and making the acquaintance of Johannes Brahms, into whose selective society the teenaged prodigy was welcomed. It can be theorized that early immersion in the then-little-remembered piano sonatas of Franz Schubert lured Schnabel into the Beethoven sonatas, upon his interpretations of which his renown would ultimately be founded. Fleeing the National Socialist regime in 1933, Schnabel entered British HMV studios to record music by Beethoven, producing the first complete cycle of Beethoven’s mature sonatas. Eighty-seven years after the 1935 completion of the sonata recordings, Schnabel’s accounts remain a benchmark to which every subsequent performance is compared.

Around the turn of the Twentieth Century, a meeting in Berlin, to which city he relocated in 1898, with contralto Therese Behr proved to be doubly fortuitous, in the personal sense that she became Schnabel’s wife and in enticing the pianist into the realm of Lieder. With Schnabel at the keyboard, Behr pioneered performance of Schubert’s Winterreise by a female voice, but she also spurred her husband to compose Lieder of his own to capitalize on the quality of her voice and celebrate their relationship. Schnabel was not a prolific composer in the manner of Haydn and Mozart, but his body of work surprises by containing relatively few pieces for solo piano. His catalogue of Lieder is also not extensive, but the songs contain some of his most original writing for the instrument of which he was one of history’s greatest exponents.

Recorded for the Steinway and Sons proprietary label in a close but warm acoustic, this recital of Schnabel’s complete Lieder partners Steinway ambassador Jenny Lin with one of the Twenty-First Century’s rarest vocal commodities—a true contralto. The highest-quality recordings of Therese Behr were made when she was in her mid-fifties and offer only suggestions of the amplitude, timbre, and range of the voice in its prime. The most reliable testaments to her vocal abilities are therefore found in the songs written for her by Schnabel, Richard Strauss, and other composers. In her performances of the Schnabel lieder on this disc, Sara Couden engages her own formidable abilities in an appraisal of Behr’s artistic persona. The spirit of her predecessor’s influence on the creation of this music is omnipresent, but Couden does not endeavor to portray Behr by singing her songs. Rather, these become her songs, and she sings them with insights unique to her journey.

Composed during a span of seven years, Schnabel’s Lieder are remarkably consistent in style. Written singly but published in collections, eschewing programmatic cycles like those created by Schubert and Schumann, the songs also demonstrate fidelity to a small number of poets. The set of five Lieder für Singtimme und Klavier written between 1902 and 1906 wields the greatest textual variety amongst the Lieder, the first song, ‘Sphärengesang,’ being Schnabel’s sole setting of verses by Hieronymus Lorm, the nom de plume of Austrian poet Heinrich Landesmann. The Lied’s subtle mysticism builds from a disquieting start, evocatively rendered by Lin, and Couden imbues the vocal line with ethereal tranquility.

Both ‘Frühlingsgruss’ and ‘Morgengruss’ use lines penned by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, whose work provided texts for composers throughout the Nineteenth Century. Couden and Lin mold their performances of the former Lied with apt anticipation and of the latter with unaffected awe. The words of ‘Das Mädchen mit den hellen Augen’ were authored by Theodor Storm, and they are uttered with undeviating concentration on Schnabel’s clever manipulations of their sounds. Friedrich Rückert’s ‘Abfindung’ oppresses the mood of uncomplicated happiness engendered by the first four songs, the unease that lurks in the piano realized by Lin with the controlled agitation heard in Schnabel’s performances of Beethoven’s tumultuous late sonatas. Momentary doubt shudders in Couden’s vocalism before being vanquished by the abiding confidence of her interpretation of the words.

Verifiable information concerning Behr’s career as a soloist is frustratingly elusive. It can be conjectured based upon chronological possibility and vocal feasibility that she may have sung the part of the Waldtaube in Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder in the years between the work’s 1913 première and her retirement, but only the presumed suitability of the voice for the music is documented. Nevertheless, there are undeniable similarities between Schoenberg’s pre-Moses und Aron musical language and the structure of Schnabel’s Lieder. Dating from a period extending from 1899 to 1902, the ten Lieder für Stimme und Klavier published as Schnabel’s Opus 11 vary greatly in subject but are musically cohesive, intimating that, even before their marriage in 1905, the composer had gained thorough knowledge of the contours of Behr’s voice. Poems by Werner Wolffheim supplied the words for two of these songs, ‘Wunder’ and ‘Ein ferner Frauensang,’ and the texts also supply Couden and Lin with means via which to create their own poetry. Lin discerns the appropriate atmosphere for each Lied, honoring Schnabel’s markings but also listening carefully to the metamorphosing colors of Couden’s singing.

Schnabel turned to verses by Richard Dehmel for three of the Opus 11 Lieder. The evolving emotions of ‘Dann’ are limned by contralto and pianist with dauntless directness, and the contrasts between ‘Manche Nacht’ and ‘Waldnacht’ are intensified by the lightness of Lin’s pianism and the shadows that darken Couden’s vocalism. Only ‘Marienlied’ uses words by Novalis, né Friedrich von Hardenberg, but this performance affirms the efficacy of Schnabel’s treatment of the lines. Similarly, verses by Hanns Sachs and Otto Julius Bierbaum respectively appear once in Opus 11, the first in ‘Das Veilchen an den spanischen Flieder,’ bewitchingly sung, and the second in ‘Tanzlied,’ in which the dramatic thrust of every phrase is accentuated without being exaggerated. The writing of Stefan George seems to have appealed strongly to Schnabel, who sourced texts for several of his most deeply-felt Lieder from George’s work. Ideally partnered by Lin’s mercurial playing, Couden’s patrician phrasing lends ‘Dieses ist ein rechter Morgen’ particular persuasiveness. The fervor with which ‘Sieh mein Kind ich gehe’ is performed makes the love that Schnabel and Behr shared audible six decades after their deaths.

Especially in these Lieder’s most extroverted passages, the columnar voluptuousness of Couden’s voice sometimes needs greater aural space in which to reverberate than studio microphones afford, but full-voiced emoting is never sacrificed in the interest of singing to the microphone. The vocal power at Couden’s command is heard in her traversals of the seven Lieder of Schnabel’s Opus 14, their words extracted from works by Eichendorff, George, and Storm. Foreboding and resignation trouble the beauty of ‘Frühlingsdämmerung,’ Lin and Couden projecting faltering resolve, but they infuse ‘Oktoberlied’ with an air of relieved acceptance. Almost fifty years before Richard Strauss composed his Vier letzte Lieder, Schnabel addressed similar themes of battling and surrendering to time in ‘Abendständchen’ and ‘Abendlandschaft,’ two of his most affecting songs that receive two of this recording’s finest performances. The wistful serenity of Couden’s voicing of ‘Hyazinthen,’ facilitated by Lin’s wondrously Impressionistic playing, is supplanted in ‘Heisst es viel dich bitten?’ by apprehensive sobriety. These artists ensure that the gravitas of ‘Die Sperlinge’ does not become morose, never permitting tension to eclipse tenderness.

Built upon verses by Dehmel, the 1914 Notturno für Singstimme und Klavier (Opus 16) is at once an expansive, rhapsodic duet in which the piano engages in a dialogue with the voice and a chamber piece that pairs the instruments on equal footing in a twenty-two-minute sonata with words. Meandering through shifting psychological landscapes, the text is akin to a stream-of-consciousness monologue to which Schnabel’s music grants narrative continuity. Lin articulates the piano’s proto-prologue with a deceptive attitude of spontaneity, the music’s improvisatory mien masking the accuracy of her playing. Couden’s singing is no less precise, her intonation and diction exact in the Notturno and all of the Lieder. The seamless integration of her registers and centered placement of vowels are reminiscent of the singing of Ernestine Schumann-Heink, heard on recordings good enough to substantiate that her reputation was warranted.

Compelling in every selection, Couden’s expressivity in the Notturno is incredible. Schnabel’s angular melodic lines, at times seeming to lack continuity on the page, are revealed in Couden’s performance to be diligently contoured to the emotional currents of the words. In each of Schnabel’s songs, Couden and Lin exhibit the manner in which the interactions between voice and piano parallel the marriage of music and words. Perhaps Schnabel did not purposefully glorify the symbolism of this interdependence, but a husband’s adoration for his wife permeates his vocal works. More than a century after their devotion inspired these songs, the Schnabels would surely rejoice in this unforeseen fruit of their union, a recital in which extraordinary artists of another generation rapturously reawaken their love

05 November 2022

RECORDING REVIEW: W. Alexander III, B. Britten, M. de Falla, R. I. Gordon, J. Heggie, J. Higdon, B. Moore, F. Poulenc, E. Smyth, & M. É. Valverde — NO CHOICE BUT LOVE (Eric Ferring, tenor; Madeline Slettedahl, piano; Lexicon Classics LC2206)

IN REVIEW: W. Alexander III, B. Britten, M. de Falla, R. I. Gordon, J. Heggie, J. Higdon, B. Moore, F. Poulenc, E. Smyth, & M. É. Valverde - NO CHOICE BUT LOVE (Lexicon Classics LC2206)WILLIE ALEXANDER III (born 1992), BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976), MANUEL DE FALLA (1876 – 1946), RICKY IAN GORDON (born 1956), JAKE HEGGIE (born 1961), JENNIFER HIGDON (born 1962), BEN MOORE (born 1960), FRANCIS POULENC (1899 – 1963), DAME ETHEL SMYTH (1858 – 1944), and MARI ÉSABEL VALVERDE (born 1987): No Choice But Love – Songs of the LGBTQ+ CommunityEric Ferring, tenor; Madeline Slettedahl, piano [Recorded in WFMT Studios, Chicago, Illinois, USA, 4 – 7 June 2022; Lexicon Classics LC2206; 2 CDs, 89:52; Available from Lexicon Classics, Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify, and major music retailers and streaming services]

The story of Western music encompasses many missing pages, the absence of which alters and in many instances perniciously diminishes understanding of the evolution of Art as both product and catalyst of cultural change. To some extent, it is possible to quantify the vast body of work lost to natural and human catastrophes, the Second World War alone responsible for the destruction of musical treasures ranging from irreplaceable manuscripts to priceless instruments. How, though, can the music that has been silenced by oppression be assessed and adequately lamented? Institutional assaults on the music of unique peoples like the Nazi Entartete Musik and Soviet suppression of dissenters’ work are well documented, but how many songs were never sung because the voices that yearned to give them life could not be heard?

The ravages of politics on culture are inescapable, but the part that culture itself can play in marginalizing communities and rejecting their artistic expression is frequently overlooked. More than a half-century after the Stonewall riots, LGBTQ+ individuals, their families and allies, and their artistic endeavors battle stigmas and prejudices perpetuated by popular culture, in some ways different but no less disenfranchising in 2022 than in 1969. Queer voices now sing with decreased fear of organized retribution, but some of their neighbors still refuse to listen, rejecting their work unheard based solely upon biased hate for its source. In the centuries before Jonathan Larson jolted musical theater with Rent and Rufus Wainwright composed an opera celebrating Hadrian’s love for Antinous, how many creators censored or ignored their own imaginations, knowing that their work was unwelcome in the cultures that inspired it?

Traversing a century of musical expression by composers of non-straight orientation, Lexicon Classics’ No Choice But Love - Songs of the LGBTQ+ Community engrossingly examines the ways in which queer artists shape and are shaped by the societies in which they live and work. The significance of this project and its dedication to telling the stories of lives subjected to bigotry and persecution demands uncompromising musical integrity and receives it from all participants in the recording, their work individually and collectively recounting their own narratives of emergence and acceptance. Since his 2021 company début as Pong in the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s Turandot, tenor Eric Ferring has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera as Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and as the Héraut royal and Arturo in Sir David McVicar’s and Simon Stone’s provocative new productions of Verdi’s Don Carlos and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Here allied with collaborative pianist Madeline Slettedahl, whose exemplary credentials as a nurturer of voices include lauded tenures with Houston Grand Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Ferring acts as both raconteur and advocate, every word sung on these discs projecting unwavering immersion in the music and the intensely personal dramas of these songs and their contexts.

Each selection on No Choice But Love is performed with extraordinary emotional perspicacity, voice and piano melding into a single, singular interpretive force, but the performance of Ben Moore’s Love Remained with which the recital opens is uniquely poignant. With words drawn from a speech by Fort Worth city councilman Joel Burns, the first song, ‘Hold On,’ becomes an anthem for resilience in this reading, Ferring’s gleaming timbre extending the vocal line like an outreached hand seeking the grasp of a faltering friend. ‘Uncle Ronnie’ employs passages taken from a letter penned by Randy Robert Potts, grandson of evangelist Oral Roberts, and the momentous simplicity of the words permeates the tenor’s singing and the pianist’s playing. The text of the cycle’s titular song comes from a poem by baritone Michael Kelly, who sang the première of Love Remained in 2011. Ferring and Slettedahl use Moore’s music as the conduit for pointed delivery of Kelly’s verse.

The 1978 assassination of San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk was a pivotal event in the LGBTQ+ community’s slow progression towards recognition and redressing of injustice, and his words continue to foment understanding and tolerance in ‘Hope,’ the final song of Love Remained. Slettedahl’s gift for intuitively supporting singers’ phrasing was especially apparent, her playing begetting an atmosphere of indomitable belief in the promise of brightening horizons. The voice enthrallingly beautiful, Ferring articulates Milk’s words not with the mystical zeal of a prophet but with the guileless directness of a young man feeling acknowledged and represented. Meticulously crafted, Moore’s music amplifies the unifying message of the words, and Ferring and Slettedahl movingly commemorate Milk by disclosing the inherent melodiousness of his rhetoric.

Though an encouraging wave of progressivism has swept over the country in the Twenty-First Century, Spain in the decades between its civil war and the death of Francisco Franco was gripped by staunch conservatism that imposed spiritual exile upon artists like Manuel de Falla, whose orientations were held in necessary secrecy. Seeking ‘signatures’ of unseen identities in artists’ work often yields performances that focus more on the performers than on the creators, but Ferring and Slettedahl approach de Falla’s ‘Preludios,’ a setting of lines by Antonio de Trueba, with no goal other than faithfully serving composer and poet. Here and in the composer’s treatment of poetry by María de la O Lejárraga García, ‘Oración de las madres que tienen a sus hijos en brazos,’ both instruments achieve unerring stylistic synchronicity, their joint shaping of melodic progressions, harmonic shifts, and rhythmic transitions exploring the subtleties of the music with eloquence. In Ferring’s refined but piquant performances of these songs, de Falla’s true voice sings as it perhaps never could during the composer’s life.

In the past quarter-century, Jake Heggie has written works for some of America’s most renowned singers. The melodic allure and emotional cogency of his Friendly Persuasions, a tender homage to Francis Poulenc with texts by Gene Scheer, exemplify the traits that inspire singers’ love for Heggie’s music, and Ferring’s detailed traversals of these songs exhibit sagacious musical portraiture. Slettedahl engages in vivid characterization of her own in ‘Wanda Landowska,’ recreating the tempestuous atmosphere of the Polish virtuoso’s playing whilst Ferring voices Scheer’s words with dramatic thrust. Their partnership yields a performance of ‘Pierre Bernac’ in which the baritone, whose close connection with Poulenc began with the 1935 première of Cinq poèmes de Paul Éluard, would have recognized the musical integrity and attention to textual subtleties that he espoused. Tenor and pianist touchingly memorialize the writer’s brief life in ‘Raymonde Linossier,’ Heggie’s music suggestive of unrealized promise. In a sense, the last of Heggie’s Friendly Persuasions, ‘Paul Éluard,’ is the point at which No Choice But Love’s paths of understanding past and reshaping present discourses on gender identities and orientations intersect. The symbiosis of Heggie’s music and Scheer’s words envelops Ferring and Slettedahl, bringing the listener into the heart of Poulenc’s relationship with Éluard with unmistakable empathy.

Éluard’s poetry provided Poulenc with texts for the nine mélodies published in 1937 under the title Tel jour, telle nuit. Slettedahl’s ability to fashion evocative sonic tableaux in which Ferring’s voice thrives finds an ideal outlet in Poulenc’s writing for the piano in these mélodies, the musical language of which is sophisticated but direct. Ferring voices ‘Bonne journée’ with warmth and charisma befitting the text, and he and Slettedahl fastidiously observe the dynamic markings that sculpt the lines in ‘Une ruine coquille’ and ‘Le front comme un drapeau perdu.’ The French texts receive from Ferring vocal and linguistic inflections reminiscent of the singing of Henri Legay, the interplay of vocal colorations in ‘Une roulotte couverte en tuiles’ governed by flawlessly-placed consonants.

The depths of Poulenc’s responses to Éluard’s verses and the brilliance with which he echoed their cadences in music are apparent in Ferring’s and Slettedahl’s performances of each of the mélodies, but ‘À toutes brides’ and ‘Une herbe pauvre’ here wield splendid Francophone authenticity, the pianist’s phrasing possessing musical liaison and the singer’s idiomatic vowels spotlighting the composer’s uncommon ear for the innate musicality of words. To their stylistic acumen Ferring and Slettedahl add heightened expressivity in ‘Je n’ai envie que de t’aimer’ and ‘Figure de force brûlante et farouche,’ the vocalism elucidating felicities of Poulenc’s word settings. ‘Nous avons fait la nuit’ is sung with stirring expressivity, the voice’s inviolable evenness and sheen throughout the range communicating an intimate connection with music and text.

Extracted from a collection of three songs published in 1913, Dame Ethel Smyth’s ‘On the Road’ treats Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s words with the immediacy and ingenuity that have spurred a recent revival of interest in the composer’s powerful opera The Wreckers. The sexual ambiguity that was so integral a component of Smyth’s personality can also be discerned in her music, and the account of ‘On the Road’ on No Choice But Love imparts ambivalence. Looking beyond the simplest meanings of the text, Ferring and Slettedahl interpret the song engrossingly, evincing both the vulnerability and the vanity of Smyth’s writing by executing the piece wholly without artifice.

Jennifer Higdon has earned the respect of many of America’s foremost exponents of Art Song by consistently deploying her considerable faculties as a composer of songs in arrangements of texts worthy of her music. This is indisputably true of her song ‘Lilacs,’ the words of which were drawn from Walt Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.’ Higdon’s musical recitation of some of the most familiar lines in American poetry is propelled by wonderfully emotive playing by Slettedahl, the pulse that she provides enlivening Ferring’s singing. As Hindemith did in his Requiem for those we love, Higdon extends the universality of Whitman’s words, giving Ferring and Slettedahl a platform from which they declaim the song’s paean to fallen idols and upended ideals with striking urgency.

With Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his still-devastating survey of Depression-era poverty with haunting photographs by Walker Evans, and the autobiographical novel A Death in the Family, James Agee gave a voice to rural America, not only amplifying marginalized peoples’ cries for justice but also extolling the stark nobility of their struggles. Willie Alexander III’s music for Agee’s ‘Sure on this Shining Night’ simmers with reticent sensuality, stoked in this performance by Slettedahl’s flickering realizations of the piano figurations. Into this mood Ferring introduces his voice with great delicacy, the words sung on the breath and caressed by glistening tone.

As the title suggests, Mari Ésabel Valverde’s 2010 work To digte af Tove Ditlevsen draws upon a pair of poems by the eponymous author, whose work was as esteemed in Denmark during the Twentieth Century as that of her celebrated countrywoman Isak Dinesen. Enunciating the Danish texts suavely, Ferring voices Valverde’s settings of ‘Så tag mit Hjerte’ and ‘Mit hjerte er blevet borte’ radiantly, the voice rising with the melodic tides to understated but uplifting climaxes. Slettedahl’s playing of this music energizes its latent bel canto, interweaving harmonic strands with a gossamer touch that aggrandizes the composer’s utilization of the words as the driving force of the songs’ emotional development.

The first of Benjamin Britten’s five Canticles, his Opus 40 exegesis of Francis Quarles’s Seventeenth-Century paraphrase of text from the biblical Song of Solomon, was written in 1947 in memory of pacifist Dean of Canterbury Dick Sheppard. The eroticism of the words is distilled by Britten’s music—composed, as were many of his vocal works, for the voice of his partner, tenor Sir Peter Pears—into an intoxicating essence of subdued longing and the cathartic bliss of fulfillment. Britten’s writing for the piano recalls the viol consort music of Henry Purcell, and Slettedahl masters both the vestiges of Baroque form and the modernity, persuasively fusing the old and new aspects of the music. Vocally, Ferring’s perfo​r​rnance of Canticle I is marvelous, the difficult tessitura conquered without outward show of effort, and his interpretation of the piece is exquisite. There is no more moving passage on No Choice But Love than when Ferring sings ‘He is my Altar; I, his Holy Place.’ In these eight words and Ferring’s voicing of them is the soul of No Choice But Love: above all, the joys and sorrows of the LGBTQ+ community are those of every other community.

The work of few composers has been as indelibly influenced by the LGBTQ+ community’s heartbreaks as the vocal music of Ricky Ian Gordon. Choosing as his texts for Genius Child poems by Langton Hughes, Gordon amalgamates the post-Stonewall pursuit of acceptance with the Harlem Renaissance’s fight for social justice. The seventh of the ten songs of Genius Child, ‘Prayer,’ is sensitively sung by Ferring, the piercing uncertainty of his statement of ‘I do not know, Lord God, I do not know’ epitomizing the song’s representation of the continuing precariousness of progress. ‘Joy’ ends Genius Child equivocally, Hughes’s words and Gordon’s music grappling with the fickleness of happiness. Slettedahl plays magically, conjuring an ambiance of unsettling charm in which Ferring’s equally spirited and disspiriting singing of ‘Such company, such company, as keeps this young nymph, Joy!’ mesmerizes.

Commissioned by Ferring in 2021, Ben Moore’s ‘No Choice but Love’ utilizes an original text that recapitulates the themes that reverberate in every song to which Ferring and Slettedahl devote their talents. This valedictory fruit of their collaboration on this project juxtaposes the crystalline crispness of the pianist’s technique with the expressive elasticity of the tenor’s prevailing aesthetic. As in their performance of Love Remained, they animate Moore’s music with palpable personal and artistic accord. Ferring’s voice is that of every wayfarer, journeying to destinations to which there are no concrete directions. The ethos of this release, framed but in no way constrained by LGBTQ+ experiences, champions self-awareness and forbearance, but the listeners for whom this recording is intended are those who feel, regardless of what, how, and for whom they feel. Listening to this project with ears attuned to the glories of song and hearts open to emotions of startling honesty, there is no choice but love.

24 October 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — LA TRAVIATA (Y. Lysenko, O. Van Gay II, R. Overman, K. Schwecke, D. Romano, D. Maize, S. MacLeod, K. Spooner, D. Hartmann; Piedmont Opera, 21 October 2022)

IN REVIEW: soprano YULIA LYSENKO as Violetta in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): La traviataYulia Lysenko (Violetta Valéry), Orson Van Gay II (Alfredo Germont), Robert Overman (Giorgio Germont). Kristin Schwecke (Flora Bervoix), Danielle Romano (Annina), David Maize (Gastone, Visconte di Letorières), Scott MacLeod (Il barone Douphol), Kevin Spooner (Il marchese d’Obigny), Donald Hartmann (Il dottor Grenvil), Jackson Ray (Giuseppe), Lawrence Hall (Un commissionario); Piedmont Opera Chorus, Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, stage director; Howard Jones, set designer; Gary Taylor, choreographer; Norman Coates, lighting designer; Martha Ruskai, wig and makeup designer; Piedmont Opera, Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 21 October 2022]

The world première of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on 6 March 1853, failed to equal the success of the house’s inaugural presentation of Rigoletto two years earlier. The rapturous reception given to Rigoletto by the Venetian public prompted La Fenice’s management to commission Verdi to write an additional opera for the house, but derision of what the first-night audience regarded as infelicitous casting deprived La traviata of a triumphant introduction befitting the opera’s popularity with subsequent generations of opera lovers. Like other operas that survived inauspicious premières to later garner acclaim and affection, La traviata demonstrated its considerable musical and theatrical virtues to observers willing to ignore visual distractions and listen without prejudices, its memorable melodies and poignant tragedy soon applauded in virtually every opera house in the world.

Correspondence between Verdi and the librettist for his new opera for La Fenice, Francesco Maria Piave, with whom he had already collaborated on scores including Ernani, Macbeth, and Rigoletto, documents the composer’s quest to choose a subject that defied the prevailing conventions of the day. Though wary of the manner of censorial meddling that marred his adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, Verdi was determined to find a contemporary subject rather than the typical operatic fare of mythological figures, tales of Antiquity, and Medieval pageantry. Scholars debate whether Verdi’s first exposure to Alexandre Dumas fils’s La Dame aux camélias was seeing a performance of its stage incarnation in Paris in February 1852 or reading the novel after its publication in 1848, but the story of a denizen of Parisian demimonde society sacrificing her happiness in order to preserve the honor of her paramour’s family indisputably captivated him. Misgivings about potential censorship did not deter Verdi and Piave from transforming Dumas’s dame aux camélias, Marguerite Gautier, into Violetta Valéry, the heroine of their La traviata. The contemporary setting of Verdi’s opera fell victim to official objection, but countless productions in the years since its première in 1853 have exhibited that the effectiveness of the opera’s tragedy does not depend upon visual stimuli. Whether she wears a hoop skirt, a bustle, or jeans, a Violetta who trusts Verdi’s music to guide her performance will earn tears and cheers.

IN REVIEW: baritone ROBERT OVERMAN as Giorgio Germont (left) and soprano YULIA LYSENKO as Violetta (right) in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Sull’orlo della morte: baritone Robert Overman as Giorgio Germont (left) and soprano Yulia Lysenko as Violetta (right) in Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

That Verdi and Piave achieved their goal of making the tragedy of their setting of the Dumas drama universally affecting was apparent in every moment of Piedmont Opera’s staging of La traviata. Perpetuating an association with the company that proved splendidly fruitful in Piedmont Opera’s 2019 and 2021 productions of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, Steven LaCosse directed this staging of La traviata with imagination fueled by unmistakable affection for the score. Unlike some of his directorial counterparts, whose work controverts even the most generalized animas of composers’ and librettists’ intentions, LaCosse tasks himself with telling operas’ stories in his own ways rather than telling his own stories using the operas with which he is entrusted.

Aided in this production by elegant set designs by Howard Jones, the effectiveness of which was diminished only by the too-obvious symbolism of an oversized frame that held painted tableaux in the first and second act being empty in Act Three, Norman Coates’s atmospheric but often excessively dark lighting, opulent costumes borrowed from Sarasota Opera and coordinated in Winston-Salem by Ann M. Bruskkiewitz, and typically attractive but unobtrusive wigs and makeup by Martha Ruskai, LaCosse returned La traviata to the Nineteenth-Century setting that Verdi wanted but was denied by the Venetian censor. Gary Taylor’s choreography raucously brought the frenetic energy of Spanish fiestas to Flora’s party in Act Two. Fondly traditional but never stodgy, this Traviata was both familiar and fresh.

Alongside LaCosse’s insightful direction, the conducting of Music Director James Allbritten reliably integrates the constituent elements of Piedmont Opers productions into cohesive theatrical experiences. In recent seasons, Allbritten has demonstrated his mastery of a broad array of repertoire, and his conducting of this performance of La traviata was distinguished by particularly eloquent handling of a beloved score. Espousing neither the view that La traviata is too popular to require study and reevaluation nor the assertion that a conductor must approach Verdi’s music radically and idiosyncratically in order to manifest individuality, Allbritten paced the score with keen focus on permitting the opera’s crucial relationships to develop and evolve organically via the music. Unafraid of grand dramatic gestures and dulcet lyricism, he expertly accentuated the contrasts between outward appearances and inner feelings, a vital component of La traviata and of Verdi’s operas in general.

The wisdom of Allbritten’s management of this Traviata’s musical forces was abundantly apparent in the singing of the Piedmont Opera Chorus and the playing of the Winston-Salem Symphony. As partygoers, jubilant in Act One and at first exultant and then shocked in Act Two, and offstage revelers in Act Three, the choristers sang excitingly, providing a sonorous musical backdrop before which the opera’s tragedy transpired. The Symphony musicians rendered their parts with gusto that amplified the aural impact of Allbritten’s reading of the score. Instances of intonational insecurity were few, and Allbritten’s leadership facilitated a high level of musical excellence that was rapidly restored when precision of ensemble between stage and pit disintegrated. Without sacrificing intricate details of Verdi’s late bel canto language, the opera’s drama was recounted not in a series of interconnected sentences but in broadly-conceived paragraphs, the conductor imparting from the first bars of the work’s plaintive Preludio—sadly marred by a glaring wrong entry—an abiding sense of the frsgility of love and life.

IN REVIEW: the ensemble of Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Donne al ballo: the ensemble of Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

La traviata is unique in the Verdi canon in placing the drama solely upon the backs of the opera’s three central characters. The figures who inhabit the periphery of the story serve clearly-defined functions within the plot but have few opportunities for characterization. Piedmont Opera nonetheless assembled a team of talented singing actors for supporting rôles in this Traviata. Appearing only in Act Two, Violetta’s servant Giuseppe and the Commissionario who delivers Violetta’s fateful letter to Alfredo were handsomely sung by tenor Jackson Ray and baritone Lawrence Hall. Similarly, baritone Kevin Spooner was an uncommonly noteworthy Marchese d’Obigny, and tenor David Maize, lustrously singing Verdi’s lines for Gastone, the Visconte di Letorières, introduced Alfredo to Violetta in Act One with an earnest ‘In Alfredo Germont, o signora.’ Baritone Scott MacLeod was aptly haughty as Barone Douphol, delivering the libidinous aristocrat’s admonitions to Violetta and threatening Alfredo with firm-toned vehemence.

Aside from the soprano and tenor protagonists, only Dottore Grenvil appears in each of La traviata’s three acts. A participant in Act One’s festivities who witnesses Alfredo’s cruel denunciation of Violetta in Act Two and attends to her as she nears death in Act Three, he received genuine vocal and theatrical presence in this production from bass-baritone Donald Hartmann. Singing vividly in Acts One and Two, in which his imposing tones lent the ensembles a firm foundation, he voiced ’La tisi non le accorda che poche ore’ in Act Three with sonorous gravitas, shattering the illusion of Violetta’s desperate optimism.

Serving Violetta in her rural retreat with Alfredo in Act Two and steadfastly remaining at her mistress’s side in Act Three, Annina was depicted as a concerned, compassionate woman by mezzo-soprano Danielle Romano, her urgent singing often conveying the character’s concern and anguish. Soprano Kristin Schwecke’s Flora exuded glamour, both in Violetta’s salon in Act One and at her own rollicking soirée in Act Two, during which she voiced ‘Avrem lieta di maschere la notte’ compellingly, heightening the air of foreboding that detonates in Violetta’s confrontation with Alfredo. Romano and Schwecke sang appealingly, Annina’s humility contrasting tellingly with Flora’s worldliness.

IN REVIEW: baritone ROBERT OVERMAN as Giorgio Germont in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Il padre severo: baritone Robert Overman as Giorgio Germont in Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograp by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

Arturo Toscanini famously counseled the young Robert Merrill that his understanding of Act Two of La traviata would be transformed by fatherhood, intimating that, in a wholly successful portrayal of the elder Germont, vocalism of even the finest caliber must be allied with paternal warmth. The consistent brilliance of baritone Robert Overman’s 2015 depiction of Rigoletto for Piedmont Opera was only fitfully replicated in his interpretation of Giorgio Germont. At his first entrance in Act Two, it was immediately discernible that Overman’s timbre remains well suited to Verdi repertoire, but the wide compass of Germont’s music exposed the voice’s lack of steadiness. In the extended duet with Violetta, he sang ‘Pura siccome un angelo’ nobly, touchingly invoking the father’s love for his daughter, and he phrased ‘Un dì, quando le veneri il tempo avrà fugate’ with true dignity. Overman voiced ‘Piangi, piangi, piangi, o misera’ gracefully, comforting rather than hectoring as Germont demanded that Violetta abandon Alfredo.

‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol’ is one of Verdi’s finest arias for baritone, and Overman’s account of it was admirable in skilled management of the line and even projection throughout the range, but the tremulous tone disappointed. As in many productions, Germont’s cabaletta was suppressed, leaving him to end Act Two by reacting with exasperation to Alfredo’s hasty pursuit of Violetta. Overhearing his son’s merciless outburst at Flora’s fête, this Germont declaimed ‘Di sprezzo degno sè stesso rende’ fervently, his shame as great as Violetta’s. In Overman’s performance, Germont’s arrival at the dying Violetta’s flat in Act Three was understated, his ‘Di più non lacerarmi’ enunciated subtly as he withdrew into the shadows, making way for Alfredo to share Violetta’s final moments. The many virtues of Overman’s portrayal of Germont ultimately overcame the voice’s diminished security, his limning of the father’s journey from cold severity to remorse and reconciliation intensifying the opera’s pathos.

IN REVIEW: tenor ORSON VAN GAY II as Alfredo in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Solo, con il suo rimorso: tenor Orson Van Gay II as Alfredo in Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

Bringing to his performance of Verdi’s music for the lovelorn Alfredo a flickering vibrato reminiscent of Miguel Fleta, tenor Orson Van Gay II sang and acted ardently, his body language in the opening scene of Act One communicating the character’s devotion to Violetta before his first word was sung. Launhcing the celebrated Brindisi, Van Gay voiced ‘Libiamo, libiamo ne’ lieti calici’ ebulliently. His traversal of ‘Un dì, felice, eterea’ was properly amorous, but the ascent to ‘croce e delizia’ disclosed a tendency to forsake the correct vowels in the interest of engendering more congenial placement of tones above the passaggio. This was less apparent in Van Gay’s singing from offstage during Violetta’s cabaletta and in his impassioned articulation of ‘Lunge da lei per me non v’ha diletto!’ at the start of Act Two.

In Van Gay’s performance, Alfredo’s aria ‘De’ miei bollenti spiriti’ was a potent statement of personal conviction, the zealous lover proclaiming his total immersion in life with Violetta. Like his father, Germont fils lost his cabaletta, and the absence of ‘O mio rimorso! o infamia!’ made the shortened scene seem disconcertingly perfunctory. The scenes with Violetta and Germont that followed inspired the tenor to his best singing of the evening, the voice sounding focused and free. Bursting into Flora’s party, this Alfredo sparred insouciantly with Barone Douphol and heartlessly dismissed Violetta’s warnings. Van Gay uttered ‘Ogni suo aver tal femmina’ ruthlessly but convincingly evinced Alfredo’s horror and heartbreak when Germont castigated his behavior. Alfredo’s belated return to Violetta in Act Three was strangely pedestrian, Van Gay’s voicing of ‘Parigi, o cara’ sensitive but phlegmatic, as though Alfredo was aware that he had no more time with Violetta. He sang ‘O mio sospiro e palpito’ affectingly, but his demeanor betrayed cognizance of the inevitability of Violetta’s death. Van Gay was a romantic Alfredo whose heart-on-the-sleeve emoting in the opera’s first two acts intermittently robbed the voice of evenness, but the vitality of his work was gratifyingly unflappable.

IN REVIEW: soprano YULIA LYSENKO as Violetta in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Una lettera d’un padre: soprano Yulia Lysenko as Violetta in Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

When asked in an interview some years ago to share his thoughts on the dramatic structure of La traviata, a prominent tenor who frequently sang Alfredo replied, ‘It’s about Violetta.’ Whether on stage alone or in the company of the full ensemble, soprano Yulia Lysenko was indisputably the soul of Piedmont Opera’s Traviata. Her opening ‘Flora, amici, la notte che resta’ in Act One disclosed vocal allure and technical poise, recalling Victoria de los Ángeles’s Violetta despite diction that faltered in some passages. Joining Van Gay in the Brindisi, she voiced ‘Tra voi, tra voi saprò dividere’ effervescently, and her enunciation of ‘Ah, se ciò è ver, fuggitemi’ allied playfulness with yearning. Lysenko infused ‘È strano!’ with curiosity, but her mesmerizing traversal of ‘Ah, fors’è lui che l’anima,’ compromised only by a slight crack on the second top A, radiated burgeoning desire. The reverie was abruptly ended by her sparkling ‘Follie! follie! delirio vano è questo,’ bemused elation lightening the voice. ‘Sempre libera’ was splendidly sung, the top Cs and D♭s comfortably in the voice and the fiorature dispatched intrepidly.

Lysenko was a rare Violetta whose singing in all three of the opera’s acts was accomplished, but she rose to exalted heights of expressivity and musicality in Act Two. Having lovingly hidden the true source of her finances from Alfredo, Lysenko’s Violetta matured further in the momentous discourse with Germont. The avidity of her ‘Non sapete quale affetto vivo’ was as galvanizing as the simplicity of her ‘Dite alla giovine sì bella e pura’ was moving, and the resolve with which she voiced ‘Morrò! morrò! la mia memoria non fia ch’ei maledica’ was wrenching. Keeping her promise to leave Alfredo, she entreated ‘Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’io t’amo’ with overwhelming emotional power.

The depth of Violetta’s pain was audible in Lysenko’s statement of ‘Che fia? morir mi sento!’ at Flora’s ball, and fear trembled in her ‘Invitato a qui seguirmi’ when she encountered Alfredo. Silently enduring the humiliation of his public recriminations, her sorrow cascaded in a devastatingly beautiful ‘Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core non puoi comprendere tutto l’amore.’ Lysenko eschewed overwrought histrionics in the spoken recitation of Germont’s letter in Act Three, and her cry of ‘È tardi!’ was chilling. The sublime resignation and soaring top As of Lysenko’s singing of ‘Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti’ rendered the excision of its second half lamentable. Her hope rekindled by Alfredo’s return, ‘Parigi, o caro’ offered a crushing glimpse of renewed happiness, but the finality of ‘Ah! gran Dio! morir sì giovine’ codified the impending tragedy. Lysenko’s crisp trills as Violetta sang of feeling her will to live returning were a final, fleeting vocal manifestation of physical health. Exhausted by the effort, Lysenko’s Violetta expired as she lived, collapsing unsupported, seen by those around her but left to fight her own battle. Lysenko did not fight without aid in Piedmont Opera’s La traviata, for which the company enlisted a battalion of gifted artists, but hers was the victory that ensured this Traviata’s conquest.