22 March 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — DON PASQUALE (B. Smoak, M. Redding, C. Carrico, K. Alston, J. Ray; Piedmont Opera, 19 March 2023)

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone BRAD SMOAK in the title rôle of Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Don PasqualeBrad Smoak (Don Pasquale), Michael Redding (Dottore Malatesta), Cree Carrico (Norina), Kameron Alston (Ernesto), Jackson Ray (Carlino); Piedmont Opera Chorus, Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra, John McKeever, conductor [James Allbritten, Stage Director; John Pascoe, Scenic Designer; Norman Coates, Lighting Designer; Ann M. Bruskiewitz, Costume Designer; Destinee Steele, Wig and Makeup Designer; Elizabeth Fowle, Choreographer Piedmont Opera, Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 19 March 2023]

The composer’s surviving correspondence intimates that the final decade of Gaetano Donizetti’s life were troubled by artistic frustration, progressing illness, and mental decline. Censorial impediments to staging new works in the forms in which they were conceived and other bureaucratic interference having soured his long-standing partnership with Naples’s Teatro di San Carlo, the house that witnessed the first performances of Lucia di Lammermoor, Roberto Devereux, and a number of his less-remembered operas, Donizetti turned his attention to Paris. Following the examples of both Rossini and Bellini, who created new works for the French capital, Donizetti sought to replicate the successful Paris première of his opera Parisina d’Este at the Théâtre-Italien by devising a wholly-new piece for the company. Working with librettist Giovanni Ruffini, he adapted Angelo Anelli’s text for Stefano Pavesi’s 1810 opera Ser Marcantonio into a delectable comedic confection that abounds with the finest ingredients of his artistry.

Contemporary accounts of the world première of Don Pasquale at the Théâtre-Italien on 3 January 1843, document the Parisian public’s immediate recognition of the extraordinary quality of Donizetti’s score. The opera’s farcical story of a pompous man of a certain age disinheriting his lovelorn nephew in order to take a young wife for himself stoked the composer’s imagination, yielding music that, despite its Rossinian elements, simmers with originality. Previous Piedmont Opera productions of L’elisir d’amore and Maria Stuarda masterfully realized the theatrical potency of both comic and serious Donizetti, meticulous handling of the scores’ musical demands engendering performances in which the aspects of his craft that differentiated Donizetti from Rossini, Bellini, the young Verdi, and other contemporaries were uncommonly discernible. Sharing its predecessors’ emphasis on maintaining high musical standards, the company’s Don Pasquale recaptured the wit and bel canto grace that captivated Parisians 180 years ago, making both the opera’s long-loved comedy and Donizetti’s oft-performed score seem wholly new.

Trading the podium for the director’s chair for this production, Piedmont Opera Artistic Director James Allbritten achieved in his staging of Don Pasquale the irreproachable musicality that distinguishes his work in the orchestra pit. Allied with Elizabeth Fowle’s suave choreography, delightfully executed by the singers, Allbritten’s direction avoided the pitfalls of comic opera, eschewing manic slapstick and physical comedy that distracts singers and audiences from the music in favor of stage action that was genuinely funny but also conducive to proper singing.

Recalling the recreations of Edwardian England in Merchant-Ivory films, Ann M. Bruskiewitz’s costume designs and Destinee Steele’s wigs and makeup complemented the aesthetics of Allbritten’s concept, enhancing the visual comedy without hindering movement or vocal production. With bel canto credentials encompassing many noteworthy productions, among the most significant of which is the 1989 Detroit Norma in which Dame Joan Sutherland sang her final performances of Bellini’s titular druidess, scenic designer John Pascoe devised a physical setting for Don Pasquale that manifested the eponymous curmudgeon’s past-his-prime pomposity. Artfully illuminated by lighting designer Norman Coates, Piedmont Opera’s staging provided vibrant tableaux in which the kaleidoscopic colors of Donizetti’s music danced alongside the cast.

IN REVIEW: tenor JACKSON RAY as Carlino in Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]Un notaio in famiglia: tenor Jackson Ray as Carlino in Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Returning to the company he ably served as Assistant Conductor for several seasons, John McKeever led this performance of Don Pasquale idiomatically, shaping scenes with confident handling of tempi and dynamics. Ensembles crackled with propulsive energy under McKeever’s baton, the comedy moving at a rapid pace without leaving any of the principals gasping for breath, and the score’s lyrical passages were allowed ample time in which to cast their spells. The Winston-Salem Symphony musicians responded to the conductor’s effervescent leadership with a rollicking performance of the opera’s spirited Sinfonia and fine playing throughout the afternoon.

Ken Wilmot’s splendid realization of the hauntingly beautiful trumpet obbligato in Ernesto’s scene in Act Two was undermined by only a very brief intonational falter, and the unerring rhythmic precision of percussionist Isaac Pyatt’s work excitingly reinforced the momentum of McKeever’s pacing. Piedmont Opera’s choristers sang rousingly, their performance of the servants’ chorus—an episode that is sometimes more to be endured than enjoyed—exhilarating and amusing. Only the opera’s final scene, shortened by cutting the repeat of Norina’s rondò and the characters’ reactions to the end of their game in the finale’s stretta, lacked continuity, the resolution of the comical entanglements feeling forced rather than organic. Nevertheless, the integrity of McKeever’s reading of the score was inviolable.

Appearing only in the final scene of Act Two, in which he plays the part of the notary engaged to prepare the marriage contract for Pasquale and the feigned Sofronia, Dottor Malatesta’s cousin Carlino was portrayed with faultless intonation, well-honed comedic timing, and an expert ‘et cetera’ by tenor Jackson Ray. Carlino’s few words were sung with brio, giving the momentary participant in the nuptial charade a distinct personality.

IN REVIEW: tenor KAMERON ALSTON as Ernesto in Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]Ecco il nipote: tenor Kameron Alston as Ernesto in Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

In the rôle of Pasquale’s nephew Ernesto, whose love for the beguiling widow Norina is thwarted by his uncle’s grumbling disapproval, tenor Kameron Alston sang with theatrical conviction, convincing as both an ardent lover and a player in Malatesta’s stratagem to open Pasquale’s eyes to his own absurdity. Musically, the pliancy of his vocalism and his satin-textured timbre were reminiscent of the Ernesto of Cesare Valletti. His voicing of ‘Ci volea questa mania’ in the Act One duetto with Pasquale persuasively imparted the young man’s vexation at the ridiculousness of his uncle’s actions and arguments.

In the scene at the start of Act Two, Alston declaimed ‘Povero Ernesto!’ with heartfelt sincerity and lustrous tone, the young man’s despair touchingly conveyed. [The audience’s laughter reaffirmed that projected translations are sometimes the enemy of the intended sentiments of music and text.] The larghetto aria ‘Cercherò lontana terra’ was deftly sung, the tenor’s phrasing eloquently sculpting the line and effortlessly conquering the daunting tessitura, and his performance of the cabaletta, ‘E se fia che ad altro oggetto,’ ended with a courageous interpolated top D♭, was electrifying.

Each of Ernesto’s lines in the quartetto was enunciated with clarity and directness, and his singing in the brief scene with Malatesta in Act Three, in which Ernesto was apprised of his part in the final ruse, was unaffectedly ebullient. Quickly righting an early entry, Alston voiced the tuneful serenata ‘Com’è gentil a notte a mezzo april’ mesmerizingly and joined with Norina in a rapturous performance of the notturno, ‘Tornami a dir che m’ami.’ Ernesto finally obtaining Pasquale’s blessing of his relationship with Norina, the ecstatic lover’s joy emanated from Alston’s charismatic singing and acting.

IN REVIEW: soprano CREE CARRICO as Norina in Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]La suora laica: soprano Cree Carrico as Norina in Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Piedmont Opera equaled an exceptionally strong ensemble of male principals by casting scene-stealing soprano Cree Carrico as Norina, the clever widow who masquerades as the fresh-from-the-convent ingenue Sofronia in order to dupe Don Pasquale. From the start of her cavatina in Act One, ‘So anch’io la virtù magica,’ this Norina was a dynamo, each of her words articulated with dramatic intention that required no translations her trill and top C deployed with technical acumen and bewitching insouciance. The cabaletta ‘Ho testa bizzarra’ was charmingly sung, bringing the playful lady’s character into focus before she sparred dazzlingly with Malatesta in their duetto.

Largely avoiding soubrettish shrillness, Carrico was a Norina who weaponized her upper register, especially in Acts Two and Three: notes above the stave were fired like rockets, never missing their targets. Her utterance of ‘Come? Un uomo! Oh, me meschina’ in the terzetto with Malatesta and Pasquale was marvelously coy, and each phrase in the quartetto was delivered with panache. The voice scintillated in ‘A star cheto e non far scene’ in the Act Three duetto with Pasquale, and Carrico elucidated the wave of regret and empathy that swept over Norina after she slapped Pasquale. Her vocalism in the notturno with Ernesto was arrestingly lovely, and ‘La morale in tutto questo,’ the opera’s rondò finale, was sung with valedictory brilliance. Carrico’s Sofronia was aptly shrewish, but her Norina’s sunny nature always shone in voice and gesture.

IN REVIEW: baritone MICHAEL REDDING as Dottor Malatesta in Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]Il medico scaltro: baritone Michael Redding as Dottor Malatesta in Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Michael Redding’s vivacious portrayal of the cunning Dottor Malatesta splendidly validated the baritone’s popularity with Piedmont Opera audiences. In the Dottor’s opening scene with Pasquale in Act One, Redding sang boldly, communicating Malatesta’s pleasure in his own shrewdness, and his ardent performance of the larghetto cantabile paean to Sofronia’s virtues, ‘Bella sicome un angelo,’ convinced Pasquale and the audience of the girl’s exquisite qualities. Briefing Norina on her rôle in his plan to deflate Pasquale’s ego, this Malatesta relished every word, machinating with irrepressible glee. Putting his plan into action in Act Two, Redding voiced ‘Fresca uscita di convento’ in the terzetto with Norina and Pasquale with perfect comedic suggestiveness, and his galvanizing singing of ‘Non oseris, son certo’ and Malatesta’s part in the quartetto exuded conspiratorial exuberance.

After apprising Ernesto of the final phase of Pasquale’s disgracing in their scene in Act Three, Redding’s Malatesta united with Pasquale in an uproarious traversal of their celebrated duetto, the baritone voicing ‘Noi due soli andiam sul loco’ forcefully and adroitly dispatching the daunting patter, meriting the traditional encore of the piece’s unison conclusion. In the final scene, too, Malatesta’s lines were sung with unmistakable and infectious joy. A couple of Redding’s highest notes sounded raspy (it was a windy afternoon in the hyper-pollenated South, after all), but the voice was as striking as the characterization, making his Malatesta an endearing prankster and an obvious ancestor of Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone BRAD SMOAK in the title rôle of Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © Piedmont Opera]Lo scapolo idoneo: bass-baritone Brad Smoak in the title rôle of Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

The scornful snobbery towards ‘regional companies’ by some opera aficionados was incontrovertibly defied by Piedmont Opera’s engagement of a Don Pasquale who possessed every quality demanded by the part, from a two-octave range without weakness to a bonafide trill. Luigi Lablache, the bass who created the title rôle, marked his forty-eighth birthday a month before the first performance of Don Pasquale—more dotardly by Nineteenth-Century standards than by today’s but hardly a musical Methuselah. Bass-baritone Brad Smoak was wholly credible as a man of advancing years, but hearing a voice on peak form in Pasquale’s music was incredibly gratifying. From his first appearance in Act One, Smoak’s Pasquale was unquestionably a crotchety codger but also proved to be one who sang ‘Son nov’ore’ and ‘Non, c’è ma, correte’ with absolute security and unflagging imagination. The duetto with Ernesto asked nothing of Smoak that he could not supply in spades, his voicing of ‘Scherzo un corno’ earning the audience’s mirth.

Smoak sang ‘Quando avrete introdotto’ in the Act Two terzetto with Norina and Malatesta incisively, Pasquale’s disbelief at the good fortune of finding a wife as attractive and accommodating as Sofronia zealously evinced. His singing in the quartetto was no less diverting, each word sounded with intelligence. ‘Per poco che la duri in questo modo’ at the beginning of Act Three was delivered with exasperation, and ‘È finita, Don Pasquale, hai bel romperti la testa!’ in the duetto with Norina was at once droll and affecting. In the famous duetto with Malatesta, ‘Cheti, cheti, immantinente,’ Smoak’s vocalism dazzled, the patter sung with bravado and unflappable accuracy. Palpably relieved to be parted from Sofronia, this Pasquale accepted defeat graciously. The character may have undergone a well-deserved humbling, but Smoak’s performance awed. Even a lackluster production of Don Pasquale with a protagonist like Smoak’s too-debonair-to-be-decrepit Don at its core would have moments of success, but there was no moment in Piedmont Opera’s Don Pasquale that failed to enchant.

16 March 2023

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: raising my Voix des Arts — an origin story

A room with a view: the set of Sir Jonathan Miller's production of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS, reviewed at The Metropolitan Opera in June 2022 [Photograph by the author; stage décor © by The Metropolitan Opera]A room with a view: the set of Sir Jonathan Miller’s production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, reviewed at The Metropolitan Opera in June 2022
[Photograph by the author; stage décor © by The Metropolitan Opera]

In Autumn 2007, New York’s Lincoln Center hosted a much-lauded Les Arts Florissants touring production of Stefano Landi’s pioneering opera Il sant’Alessio. Featuring an ensemble of acclaimed countertenors including Philippe Jaroussky, Max Emanuel Cenčić, Xavier Sabata, and José Lemos, the production offered an extraordinary opportunity to hear a neglected work, performed by singers who were then rarely heard in North America.

I had the good fortune to attend the performance of Il sant’Alessio in Frederick P. Rose Hall on 29 October 2007. In the days thereafter, as I perused reviews of the production, I grew increasingly frustrated by what I read. Despite the existence of a studio recording by the same forces by whom Il sant’Alessio was performed in New York—Les Arts Florissants and William Christie—and the wide circulation of a Salzburger Festspiele broadcast with as noteworthy a singer as Edita Gruberová among the cast, a lack of familiarity with Landi’s music was expected, but the prevailing indifference to details of historically-informed performance practices evident in many critical assessments was maddening. His career has been primarily centered in Europe, but Christie is American, after all. Could his countrymen not spare the time required to assess his work with depth? Did so thoroughly prepared a production merit only generalities?

Contemplating these questions, I recalled the advice of an esteemed professor, academic advisor, and mentor, Dr. Charles Tisdale. ‘Joey,’ he once told me, ‘when you do not find scholarship of the quality that you expect, it is your responsibility to provide it.’ Dr. Tisdale was speaking of literary analysis of thematic links among Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, which would become the subject of my thesis, but the logic seemed no less applicable to music criticism. If my own musical training and sensibilities impelled the belief that performers deserve more informed analysis than they often receive in the mainstream press and from writers with wide followings but limited musical credentials, is it not my duty to add my voice to the critiquing chorus?

From this experience Voix des Arts was born. At the inception of my journey in writing criticism, I established as my foremost goal maintaining inviolable respect for artists and their endeavors. Artists make sacrifices of which audiences never know, often missing family occasions and milestones. Even in their weakest moments on stage, artists give of themselves in ways that those who have never performed before the public can only partially understand but which must always be valued and extolled.

As a writer, I perceive my most profound responsibility to be serving as an unwavering advocate for composers and librettists. Expressing whether I like or dislike a staging, a tempo, or a timbre is secondary to explicating performances’ fidelity to scores. Productions’ sights and sounds are subjective: tableaux and voices that enchant my eyes and ears repulses other observers. The principal questions that my reviews should answer therefore concern not the aesthetics of a performance, vital as they are, but the caliber of execution of music and words.

In my view, praising the positive aspects of a performance rather than reveling in condemning its deficiencies is not bias, as has sometimes been alleged, but celebration of music’s capacity to transcend adversity. Negativity pervades modern society but should not be welcomed in the Arts as a conduit for fleeting notoriety. There are absolutes, of course: a singer either emits the composer’s specified pitches or substitutes other tones, either by design or by mistake. This is relevant. All the same, singers are feeling, evolving beings. Perfection is an imperfect goal for even the most gifted singers. My goal is to evaluate the intentions behind the blemishes, encouraging artistic initiative whilst honestly documenting missteps.

I want singers to come to Voix des Arts with the expectation of reading earnest considerations of their work, knowing that every review is a safe haven in which their integrity is preserved. I want readers of all levels of musical knowledge to come to Voix des Arts with the expectation of reading reviews that recreate the visual, aural, and emotional experiences of performances without burdens of personal opinions, prejudices, and gossip. I unquestionably fail to achieve these aims more frequently than I would care to admit, but every error is committed with admiration.

the interior of The Metropolitan Opera, June 2022 [Photograph by the author]

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21 February 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Johannes Brahms — EIN DEUTSCHES REQUIEM (J. Sitkovetsky, A. Garland; Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale and Orchestra, 18 February 2023)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano JULIA SITKOVETSKY, conductor DMITRY SITKOVETSKY, and baritone ANDREW GARLAND, cornerstones of Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale and Orchestra performance of Johannes Brahms's EIN DEUTSCHES REQUIEM, 18 February 2023 [Graphic © by Greensboro Symphony Orchestra; all rights reserved by original photographers]JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 – 1897): Ein deutsches Requiem, Opus 45Julia Sitkovetsky (soprano), Andrew Garland (baritone); Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale and Orchestra; Dmitry Sitkovetsky, conductor [Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Saturday, 18 February 2023]

Had Sigmund Freud sought a candidate for in-depth analysis of the effects on an artistic psyche of close attachments to both a mother and a maternal surrogate, he could have found no more ideal a candidate than Johannes Brahms. Born in Hamburg in 1833, Brahms learned music from his father, a renowned horn virtuoso, but was tutored in other disciplines by his mother, a woman two decades her husband’s senior and long acquainted with hardship. The lore of the young Brahms having demonstrated the fruits of his early piano studies with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel and Eduard Marxsen in dens of vice allegedly frequented by his father has limited historical corroboration at best, but all that is known of the composer’s life substantiates that his childhood engendered unconventional relationships with both of his parents, who grew estranged as the effects of their age disparity increased. Profoundly saddened by his mother’s death in February 1865, Brahms began composing what would become his most expansive work, the gestation of which may have extended back almost a decade to the mental deterioration and death of his idol Robert Schumann. Setting not the traditional Latin Missa pro defunctis but his own selection of verses from Martin Luther’s German Bible, Brahms crafted a Requiem in which prayer for comfort for the living supplanted entreaties for the departed soul’s repose.

Brahms’s surviving correspondence provides few indications of the extent to which conceptualization of his Opus 45 Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift pre-dated his mother’s passing. Three of the work’s movements, originally planned to number six in total, being completed by the start of May 1865 suggests that the work had been devised in some form prior to 1865, a supposition that gains credence from Brahms’s use of music composed during the time of Schumann’s final decline in the Requiem’s second movement. Valuable as cognizance of a work’s genesis can be, the significance of the catalysts that spurred composition of the Requiem is eclipsed by the magnitude of the work itself. Omitting references to messianic redemption, a core component of Christian liturgy, Brahms accentuated the complexities of grieving and carrying on, utilizing passages from the biblical books of Matthew, Psalms, 1 Peter, James, Isaiah, the Wisdom of Solomon, John, Ecclesiastes, Hebrews, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation to yield a deeply affecting text that largely avoids denominational dogma. As in many of his works, Brahms’s innovations in Ein deutsches Requiem are partnered by near-academic adherence to prescribed musical structures, most notably the precepts of counterpoint inherited from Johann Sebastian Bach.

A vital aspect of Brahms’s genius was his uncanny ability to achieve novelty within the confines of tradition. The writing for both chorus and orchestra in the Requiem demonstrates the encyclopedic acquaintance with the music of Händel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann that permeates Brahms’s work, here allying expressive devices derived from Bach’s Passions with the intensity of emotion found in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. These unmistakable influences notwithstanding, the ingenuity of Brahms’s music complements the understated boldness of his textual choices, the voice that emerges most discernibly from the pages of Ein deutsches Requiem coming neither from composers of the past nor from any religious ideology but from Brahms himself—a voice seeking a path from the bleakness of grief to the comfort of hope.

Marking the 154th anniversary of the première of the final, seven-movement version of the work, first performed in Leipzig on 18 February 1869, with this performance of Ein deutsches Requiem in Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, the Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale continued a journey started in December 2021 with the choir’s inaugural presentation, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Under the direction of founding conductors Jonathan Emmons and James Keith, the choristers continue to refine their sound, tailoring the balances that they project to the music at hand and to the efforts of their Greensboro Symphony Orchestra colleagues. In this performance, GSO’s Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky led the combined choral and orchestral forces with unwavering concentration on the work’s intricate musical architecture, masterfully building to but avoiding over-accentuating climaxes. Even with pauses of several seconds separating the movements, thematic continuity was maintained throughout the performance. Sitkovetsky’s navigation of the score’s emotional currents often recalled Wolfgang Sawallisch’s conducting of the piece, the Greensboro performance exhibiting the profound but unsentimental breadth of expression heard in Sawallisch’s preserved traversals of the Requiem.

Fastidiously observing the Ziemlich langsam und mit Ausdruck marking of the Requiem’s opening movement, Sitkovetsky and the orchestra established a high standard of musicality from which the musicians’ playing never deviated. The choir’s hushed delivery of ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen’ movingly conveyed the meaning of the text and fostered an atmosphere of reverence and contemplation into which the work’s angry, anguished passages burst with tremendous force. Here and in the subsequent movement, (Langsam, marschmüssig), the absence of an organ in Tanger Center was particularly regrettable, as it also was in the Requiem’s two final movements, but Sitkovetsky’s shaping of orchestral textures provided the firm aural foundation needed by the chorus to articulate ‘Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras’ so stirringly. The theater’s acoustic, better suited to symphonic repertoire than to opera but ideal for neither, lessened the impact of the words in the choir’s singing of ‘Die Erlöseten des Herrn werden wieder kommen,’ but, owing to Sitkovetsky’s leadership and the choristers’ preparedness, musical potency was unimpeded.

In the third movement (Andante moderato), baritone soloist Andrew Garland intoned ‘Herr, lehre doch mich, daß ein Ende mit mir haben muß’ incisively and with shining vocal luster, his E and F at the top of the stave projected effortlessly but with dramatic purpose. Each of his words was matched with a vocal coloration that limned its meaning, and oft-neglected musical subtleties, one of the most intriguing of which is a brief reminiscence of a phrase in the Lied ‘Gute Nacht’ from Schubert’s Winterreise, were meticulously explored. In response to Garland’s superb diction, the chorus articulated ‘Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand und keine Qual rühret sie an’ with increased verbal clarity. The heightened interpretive acuity of their singing persisted in the fourth movement (Mässig bewegt), their singing of ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth!’ evincing the awe that permeates both music and text. Sitkovetsky’s sagacious adherence to Brahms’s stipulated dynamics provided compelling interplay of gravitas and catharsis, the music paralleling the manner in which grief evolves, relenting at times but returning with renewed severity.

Heard only in the work’s fifth movement (Langsam), completed in May 1868 as a reaction to a performance of the Requiem in which the aria ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ from Händel’s Messiah was inserted into the six-movement edition of the score, soprano soloist Julia Sitkovetsky sang ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ pensively, her vocalism disclosing little difficulty with the tessitura. When joined by the chorus, she shaded her timbre to shimmer above the cascades of sound. The choir voiced each line with deepening involvement, introducing an account of the Andante beginning of the sixth movement in which their singing of ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’ surged with earnestness. Garland lent each word of ‘Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis’ conviction, placing each tone with assurance. Sitkovetsky paced the transitions to Vivace and Allegro intelligently, escalating tension without jeopardizing contrapuntal precision.

The sustained forte F5 with which the sopranos launched the Requiem’s seventh movement (Feierlich) propelled the choir’s affecting singing of ‘Selig sind die Toten,’ and both chorus and orchestra followed Sitkovetsky’s guide in fashioning an exalted realization of Brahms’s concluding sequence of musical and emotional trials. The kinship of this music with Gustav Mahler’s Second and Eighth Symphonies was apparent, Sitkovetsky resolving this performance of the Requiem with disciplined zeal that illuminated in Brahms’s music the tide of hurt and healing that courses through Mahler’s scores. The flaws in this performance of Ein deutsches Requiem were minor and fleeting, never undermining the vision of the piece that Sitkovetsky endeavored to manifest.

Brahms’s faith in salvation was centered not in redemptive theology but in the restorative capacity of music, and that faith inhabits every page of Ein deutsches Requiem. Uplifted by the palpable dedication of chorus, orchestra, soloists, and conductor, faith in the enduring eloquence of Brahms’s music was the defining ethos of Greensboro Symphony’s poignant performance of the Requiem.

12 February 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gregory Spears & Greg Pierce — FELLOW TRAVELERS (J. Lattanzi, A. Acosta, K. Pracht, K. Thurman, J. Jeremiah, J. Fulton, K. Riess, K. White, J. Harr; Virginia Opera, 12 February 2023)

IN REVIEW: tenor ANDRES ACOSTA as Timothy Laughlin in Virginia Opera's 2023 production of Gregory Spears's and Greg Pierce's FELLOW TRAVELERS [Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]GREGORY SPEARS (born 1977) and GREG PIERCE (born 1978): Fellow TravelersJoseph Lattanzi (Hawkins Fuller), Andres Acosta (Timothy Laughlin), Katherine Pracht (Mary Johnson), Katrina Thurman (Miss Lightfoot), Joshua Jeremiah (Senator Joseph McCarthy, Estonian Frank, Interrogator), John Fulton (Senator Charles Potter, General Arlie, Bartender), Kaileigh Riess (Lucy), Kyle White (Tommy McIntyre), Jeremy Harr (Senator Potter’s Assistant, Bookseller, Technician, French Priest, Party Guest); Virginia Opera Chorus, Virginia Symphony Orchestra; Adam Turner, conductor [Kevin Newbury, Director; Victoria Tzykun, Scenic Designer; Paul Carey, Costume Designer; Thomas C. Hase, Lighting Designer; James P. McGough, Wig and Makeup Designer; Virginia Opera, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center for the Arts, Richmond, Virginia, USA; Sunday. 12 February 2023]

When their opera Fellow Travelers premièred at Cincinnati Opera in June 2016, composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce likely could not have envisioned that, six decades having passed since the Cold War-era ‘lavender scare’ persecuted gay and lesbian civil servants as alleged risks to national security, federal legislation would be required to safeguard Americans’ rights to wed according to the dictates of their hearts. In the contentious political climate and precarious fiscal battleground of this first quarter of the Twenty-First Century, the art form’s champions are continually challenged to reaffirm opera’s relevance. It can be argued that, from its modern inception in Sixteenth-Century Italy, opera has ever been more of a sublime diversion than a conduit for societal evolution, but is not uplifting souls relevant to the human condition of its own accord? In Fellow Travelers, though, composer and librettist intrepidly bared unhealed wounds through song, bringing to the operatic stage a harrowing parable of a love that in too many sectors of today’s America still dares not speak its name. The lamentable timeliness of the opera’s narrative notwithstanding, the concept of relevance is itself irrelevant in the context of Fellow Travelers. As a means of uniting diverse peoples, even if for no longer than the duration of a performance, and telling stories that might otherwise go unheard, opera is necessary.

Arrayed in sixteen scenes, Spears’s and Pierce’s opera is an adaptation of Thomas Mallon’s 2007 Lambda Literary Award-nominated novel of the same title, an absorbing book that traces the progression of a fictitious queer relationship in McCarthy-era Washington. Pierce’s libretto metamorphoses Mallon’s novel into a powerful text that is both intelligible when sung and faithful to the linguistic style of the 1950s. Eschewing easy integration of period-specific trends in popular and Classical idioms, Spears’s music creates an aural atmosphere that is in turn expansive and claustrophobic, heightening the tension of the drama as the protagonists’ romance progresses towards betrayal and disillusionment. The musical language is abidingly tonal but enriched by contrasting serialist and post-Romantic accents, at times fusing Pierre Boulez-like rhythmic structures with harmonic lushness reminiscent of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Last Savage. Whether intimating the burgeoning passion between the opera’s titular ‘fellow travelers,’ State Department official Hawkins Fuller and idealistic journalist Timothy Laughlin, or intensifying the torture of Hawk’s interrogation, the score viscerally amplifies the drama’s psychological shifts. Fellow Travelers is a daunting work, for orchestra and conductor as much as for singers, but the prevailing ethos of Spears’s music is clarity, his writing enabling words and feelings to engage performers and audiences.

IN REVIEW: tenor ANDRES ACOSTA as Timothy Laughlin (left) and baritone JOSEPH LATTANZI as Hawkins Fuller (right) in Virginia Opera's 2023 production of Gregory Spears's and Greg Pierce's FELLOW TRAVELERS [Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]Dangerous passion: tenor Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin (left) and baritone Joseph Lattanzi as Hawkins Fuller (right) in Virginia Opera’s 2023 production of Gregory Spears’s and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers
[Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]

Recreating his world-première staging for Cincinnati Opera, stage director Kevin Newbury reinvigorated Fellow Travelers for its inaugural production by Virginia Opera, reclaiming the trailblazing spirit of the first performances and emphasizing with increased urgency the parallels between institutional oppression in the 1950s and today’s ongoing struggles against elitist and extremist movements. Framed and in some moments sharpened by Victoria Tzykun’s provocative but never distracting scenic designs and Thomas C. Hase’s lighting, exchanges anong characters were fraught but organic, their actions plausible within both the opera’s specific dramatic situations and its evocation of the Zeitgeist of 1950s Washington. Paul Carey’s costume designs and James P. McGough’s wigs and makeup augmented Newbury’s attention to manifesting the score’s musical transitions in its physical presentation. Accentuating not the aspects of the opera’s story that some observers may find objectionable but the intrinsic universality of the characters and their circumstances, Newbury’s vision yielded a performance of immense emotional impact.

During his tenure with Virginia Opera, the company’s Artistic Director Adam Turner has exhibited noteworthy versatility, conducting acclaimed performances of standard-repertory and lesser-known works ranging from the effervescence of Rossini to the starkness of Kurt Weill. The focus on facilitating character development and comprehensible storytelling apparent in Turner’s conducting of Virginia Opera’s 2016 production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer was heard to even greater advantage in this performance of Fellow Travelers. The sequence of scenes advanced with cinematic efficiency, each thread of the plot carefully spun and woven into the fabric of the story via tempi that suited indivudual scenes and the work’s cumulative flow. The Virginia Symphony Orchestra musicians played wonderfully under Turner’s leadership, realizing the gravity that the conductor sought to achieve in passages like the pulsing ostinato at the opera’s start. Employed much like the continuo in Baroque opera, Spears’s writing for the piano received fleet handling from Associate Conductor Brandon Eldredge. Bringing Fellow Travelers to Virginia Opera was unquestionably an act of advocacy, both for the opera itself and for the LGBTQ+ community that it honors, but the zeal that guided Turner’s conducting was musical, not political. In this performance, the opera was simply the song of Tim and Hawk, two very different people who happen to meet on a park bench and fall in love.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor ANDRES ACOSTA as Timothy Laughlin, baritone KYLE WHITE as Tommy McIntyre, baritone JOSHUA JEREMIAH as Senator McCarthy, and baritone JOHN FULTON as Senator Porter in Virginia Opera’s 2023 production of Gregory Spears’s and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers[Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]Cogs in the bureaucratic wheel: (from left to right) tenor Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, baritone Kyle White as Tommy McIntyre, baritone Joshua Jeremiah as Senator McCarthy, and baritone John Fulton as Senator Porter in Virginia Opera’s 2023 production of Gregory Spears’s and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers
[Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]

The caliber of the vocal ensemble engaged by Virginia Opera for Fellow Travelers reflected the meticulous attention to musical and theatrical values with which the production was planned. In the rôles of Senator Potter’s assistant, the bookseller, the technician, and the party guest, bass Jeremy Harr sang lustrously, but it was as the French priest to whom Tim confesses his inability to suppress his love for Hawk that he was most memorable, the cleric’s unyielding disapprobation quaking in Harr’s voice. The reporter Tommy McIntyre, a friend of Senator Potter who schools Tim on the ways of Washington, was portrayed with conspiratorial collegiality and vocal suavity by baritone Kyle White. As Lucy, the flirtatious partygoer who becomes Hawk’s suburban-dwelling wife, soprano Kaileigh Riess sang appealingly, and baritone John Fulton voiced Spears’s and Pierce’s lines for Michigan Senator Charles E. Potter, General Arlie, and the bartender incisively.

Lending gravity to each word of the parts entrusted to him, baritone Joshua Jeremiah keenly differentiated his depictions of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, Estonian Frank, and the Interrogator, seeming to bring a unique, apt voice to each of them. The quintessential office gossip who makes all of her colleagues’ affairs her business, the secretary Miss Lightfoot was given unexpected depth by soprano Katrina Thurman, whose singing glistened even when the text that she sang was repulsive.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano KATHERINE PRACHT as Mary Johnson (left) and soprano KATRINA THURMAN as Miss Lightfoot (right) in Virginia Opera's 2023 production of Gregory Spears's and Greg Pierce's FELLOW TRAVELERS [Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]Ladies who listen: mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht as Mary Johnson (left) and soprano Katrina Thurman as Miss Lightfoot (right) in Virginia Opera’s 2023 production of Gregory Spears’s and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers
[Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]

Hawkins Fuller’s assistant Mary Johnson is the opera’s steward of decency amidst conniving and opportunism, and in Virginia Opera’s Fellow Travelers mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht crafted an exquisitely sympathetic portrayal of the pragmatic New Orleansian. From the start, this Mary’s genuine affection for Hawk was perceptible: it was no surprise that she once thought that he could be ‘the one’ for her. Equally unmistakable was the sincerity of Mary’s fondness and concern for Tim, communicated through tender, tenacious singing. The expressivity of Pracht’s account of ‘I worry—that’s all—about you, Timmy’ was wrenching, the glint of her upper register here and in the scene in which Mary reacts with horror to Hawk’s admission of denouncing Tim imparting the profundity of her feelings. The pain of her exit after Tim learned of Hawk’s betrayal was palpable, and the momentousness of Mary being the sole witness to Tim’s humiliation who did not turn away from him was poignantly conveyed. Wholly comfortable with the part’s difficult vocal writing, which sometimes recalls Gluck’s demanding music for heroines like Iphigénie and Alceste, Pracht melded unerring musicality with Classical poise, Mary’s self-reliance and compassion limned with incredible tonal beauty.

IN REVIEW: tenor ANDRES ACOSTA as Timothy Laughlin in Virginia Opera's 2023 production of Gregory Spears's and Greg Pierce's FELLOW TRAVELERS [Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]From the heart: tenor Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin in Virginia Opera’s 2023 production of Gregory Spears’s and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers
[Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]

In every scene in which he appeared, tenor Andres Acosta sang Spears’s music for the endearingly naïve writer Timothy Laughlin with youthful exuberance and technical fluency, his timbre sparkling throughout the rôle’s broad compass. Drinking milk and swinging his feet on the bench on which he first meets Hawk, Acosta’s Tim was sweetly boyish, his shy nervousness trembling in the voice. The contrast with the cascading passion of the Bermuda duet with Hawk and the resolve of his voicing of ‘Forgive me, Holy Father’ in the fifth scene was therefore all the more telling. Tim’s adoration of Hawk having supplanted his faith, his journey from infatuation to disenfranchisement and enlistment in the Army was gutting, Acosta’s unaffected singing of ‘I wasn’t enough’ in the rooftop scene devastating. The crying heard in the auditorium when Tim uttered ‘I feel like I never existed’ in the final scene was earned, the tenor’s voice colored by excruciating uncertainty. In truth, Acosta articulated Tim’s every word with clear emotional intent, though there were instances in which enunciation was sacrificed to emoting. Acosta’s performance was as much felt as it was sung and was felt as mesmerizingly as it was heard by the listener.

IN REVIEW: baritone JOSEPH LATTANZI as Hawkins Fuller (left) and tenor ANDRES ACOSTA as Timothy Laughlin (right) in Virginia Opera's 2023 production of Gregory Spears's and Greg Pierce's FELLOW TRAVELERS [Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]Benched desires: baritone Joseph Lattanzi as Hawkins Fuller (left) and tenor Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin (right) in Virginia Opera’s 2023 production of Gregory Spears’s and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers
[Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]

Reprising the rôle that he created in Cincinnati in 2016, baritone Joseph Lattanzi physically and vocally embodied the unignorable enchantment of Hawkins Fuller. No one-dimensional libertine, Hawk teased Tim with amiable cunning at their first meeting, his furtive glances at the quiet young man on the bench suggesting true interest mingled with carnal desire. His descriptions of the wonders of Bermuda also shimmered with feeling. Lattanzi persuasively depicted Hawk’s skill at playing the requisite part in every situation, whether manipulating his interrogator or courting Lucy. Only in his discourses with Mary were his emotions unguarded, touchingly revealing well-hidden vulnerability.

Reconciling with Tim after callously proposing that they supplement their liaison by engaging a third participant and reuniting after Tim’s military service in France, this Hawk was torn between love and fear, cruelly telling Tim of his honeymoon with Lucy in Bermuda. Heartbreakingly voiced by Lattanzi, the essence of Hawk’s emotional constitution was movingly manifested in the two small words with which he replied to Tim’s assertion of all-consuming love—‘same here.’ Truth finally penetrated the carefully-honed façade in Lattanzi’s stunning performance of the monologue ‘Our very own house, Skippy’ and, still more forcefully, when, responding to Tim’s feeling of never having existed, Lattanzi declaimed Hawk’s definitive ‘You did.’ The theater’s troublesome acoustic complicated projection of Hawk’s lowest notes, but the full range of the part was confidently traversed. Diligently following the map of Spears’s music, Lattanzi and his fellow travelers reached a devastating destination at which nothing was relevant except living and loving in the moment.

07 February 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Franz Joseph Haydn — ORLANDO PALADINO (K. Alston, C. Orr, D. Maize, T. Bradford, G. Meinke, K. Spooner, D. Romano, E. Wood, J. Ray; A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute, 5 February 2023)

IN REVIEW: the ensemble of A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn's ORLANDO PALADINO [Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN (1732 – 1809): Orlando paladino, Hob. XXVIII:11Kameron Alston (Orlando), Carolyn Orr (Angelica), David Maize (Medoro), Toby Bradford (Pasquale), Gabi Meinke (Eurilla), Kevin Spooner (Rodomonte), Danielle Romano (Alcina) Ethan Wood (Caronte), Jackson Ray (Licone); UNCSA School of Music Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, Director; Gisela Estrada, Scenic Designer; Logan Benson, Costume Designer; Petko Novosad, Lighting Designer; Madi Pattillo, Wig and Makeup Designer; A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Stevens Center of the UNCSA, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 5 February 2023]

Historians now theorize that the famous remark about the superlative quality of opera performances at Eszterháza, the country seat of the princes Esterházy, attributed for generations to Habsburg empress Maria Theresa, is apocryphal, but the long-accepted legitimacy of the sentiment is a testament to the artistic fecundity of Franz Joseph Haydn’s four-decade tenure in the Esterházy musical establishment. The theater built at Eszterháza by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy transformed the rural estate, located in modern Hungary and at a considerable distance from the social and artistic milieux of both Vienna and Schloss Esterházy in the Bergenland, into a center of operatic activity in central Europe. The effects of Eszterháza’s geographical and cultural isolation on the stylistic evolution of Haydn’s music is documented in the composer’s own words and audible in the many pieces that he wrote as the Esterházy Kapellmeister. His operas are among the Haydn works that are least familiar to Twenty-First-Century audiences: aside from Armida and Orfeo ed Euridice, occasionally programmed as curiosities, these innovative pieces dwell in libraries and musicological tomes rather than in opera houses and concert halls. Imperial acclaim for opera at Eszterháza may have been exaggerated or invented, but has hyperbole not proved to be a key that opens doors in this new millennium?

Maria Theresa had been dead for nearly two years when Haydn’s opera Orlando paladino was first performed at Eszterháza on 6 December 1782, six months after the respective Munich and Vienna premières of Salieri’s Semiramide and Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, with which works Haydn’s score shares elements of genre hybridization and exoticism. Its libretto adapted by Nunziato Porta, himself a composer, from an earlier operatic text by Carlo Francesco Badini, Orlando paladino brought one of the most widely-traveled sources of operatic inspiration in the Eighteenth Century, Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, to Eszterháza in a setting in which Haydn both celebrated and satirized the opera seria conventions of Baroque opera. In Orlando paladino, the lovesick madness of the Frankish knight Roland is depicted with wry humor, parodying the emotional melodrama found in many settings of the tale, yet Haydn’s opera abounds with genuine pathos. This dichotomy seemingly resonated with audiences at and beyond Eszterháza, not least in Prague, where Mozart conducted performances of Orlando paladino whilst supervising the inaugural production of his La clemenza di Tito in 1791. In the years between its 1782 première and the composer’s death in 1809, Orlando paladino became the most performed of Haydn’s operas.

Boldly venturing where professional opera companies fear to tread, A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts furthered a legacy of staging demanding works like Händel’s Rodelinda and Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix by bringing Haydn’s Orlando paladino to Winston-Salem’s Stevens Center. With brilliantly creative scenic designs by Gisela Estrada, their visual depth enhanced by Petko Novosad’s lighting, Haydn’s captivating musical adventure was launched into the realm of science fiction. The action playing out in settings that might have been borrowed from the imagination of Gene Roddenberry, Fletcher Opera Institute’s Artistic Director Steven LaCosse explored the psychological subtleties of Haydn’s music, Porta’s words, and Ariosto’s story with Twenty-First-Century sensibilities allied with respect for the opera’s historical context.

Like many of his stagings in Winston-Salem, LaCosse’s Orlando paladino was centered upon meaningful interactions among characters, their motivations elucidated by their gestures and postures. Logan Benson’s costume designs and Madi Pattillo’s wigs and makeup heightened the visual appeal of the concept, their whimsy accentuating the vividness of the opera’s dramatic confrontations. In LaCosse’s realization, the comedic episodes were often uproarious, and the silence that enveloped the theater in moments of fear and sorrow affirmed the immediacy with which the opera’s touches of tragedy were presented.

IN REVIEW: tenor TOBY BRADFORD as Pasquale in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn's ORLANDO PALADINO [Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]Lo scudiero musicale: tenor Toby Bradford as Pasquale in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Orlando paladino
[Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]

Encompassing Baroque bravura, the Classicism that was his hallmark, and precursors of bel canto, Haydn’s writing for voices and orchestra in Orlando paladino is remarkably varied. Perhaps accounting for the opera’s wide appeal to Eighteenth-Century audiences, the stylistic heterogeneity of the music makes leading performances of Orlando paladino difficult for modern conductors, no matter how diverse their experience may be. An insightful interpreter of an uncommon breadth of repertoire, Fletcher Opera Institute’s Music Director James Allbritten conducted this performance of Orlando paladino with flair and finesse. The musical structure of each number was emphasized in a manner that at once revealed its originality and occupied a finite place within the opera’s dramatic progression.

The organic pacing of recitatives, aided by Lucas Wong’s expert playing of the harpsichord continuo, complemented judicious tempi in arias and ensembles. The musicians of the UNCSA School of Music Orchestra demonstrated that any notions of Haydn’s music being easy are ridiculous, their work in this performance occasionally flawed but consistently spirited. Rather than approaching Orlando paladino as a piece that needs conductorial intervention in order to succeed with modern audiences, Allbritten conducted with the same confidence in the quality of the music that guides his performances of Verdi repertoire. It was Haydn’s music, not a conductor’s ego, that made this performance so engrossing.

Haydn did not write an aria for the shepherd Licone, who begins the opera with a frantic scene with his daughter Eurilla and the blustering knight Rodomonte, but baritone Jackson Ray sang each of the character’s lines resiliently. Licone’s alarm trembled in Ray’s vocalism in the terzetto, and the meaning of each word of recitative was apparent, needing no projected translation.

His brief scene at the start of Act Three enacted before an eerily gorgeous backdrop that evoked Utah’s otherworldly Landscape Arch, the mythical ferryman Caronte is a stylistic kinsman of the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, though Haydn’s character is the instrument of deliverance from doom rather than the harbinger of damnation. Lower voices often mature later and more slowly than their higher counterparts, and bass Ethan Wood did not yet possess the sepulchral resonance that Caronte’s music ideally requires. Still, his voicing of the hauntingly lovely aria ‘Ombre insepolte, di qua partite’ was stirring, and he declaimed Caronte’s lines, strangely menacing and benevolent, in the accompagnato ‘L’irremeabil onda’ with gravitas, capitalizing on the ingenuity of Haydn’s writing and the part’s significance in the drama.

A figure familiar from operas by Caccini, Vivaldi, and Händel, the sorceress Alcina is the moral force who safeguards true love in Orlando paladino, protecting the imperiled Angelica and Medoro and ultimately curing Orlando of the madness of his infatuation with Angelica. Only in Act One did Haydn grant his Alcina an aria, the bracing ‘Ad un guardo, ad un ceddo solo,’ but, after singing the aria electrifyingly, mezzo-soprano Danielle Romano lorded over the performance with unforced sovereignty, acting with Sophia Loren-like glamor and declaiming each of the sorceress’s pronouncements with irrefutable authority. Her glowing-amber timbre shone in Haydn’s music, the voice shimmering from guttural low notes to a gleaming top.

Wielding a flinty timbre and a fabulous maniacal laugh, baritone Kevin Spooner enlivened the Barbarian king Rodomonte with forceful singing and stage savvy worthy of a blockbuster action film. Rushing onto the stage in Act One as though he were ejected from a neighboring galaxy, this Rodomonte terrorized Eurilla and Licone amusingly, his words slashing as threateningly as his sword. Spooner sang the aria ‘Temerario! Senti e trema’ commandingly, only the lowest notes lacking impact. ‘Dove si cela mai’ in the Act One finale was delivered with boundless energy, and Rodomonte’s aria in Act Two, ‘Mille lampi d’accese faville,’ was delivered with swaggering bravado. Setting a standard for his colleagues, Spooner enunciated every line in recitatives and ensembles incisively, the vigor of his performance enhancing the comedy of the contrast between Rodomonte’s bombast and the other characters’ plights.

A temperamental ancestress of Richard Strauss’s Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, Haydn’s flirtatious shepherdess Eurilla serves as a foil for the regal, melancholy Angelica. Soprano Gabi Meinke limned Eurilla’s capricious playfulness with great charm, evident at her first entrance with Licone in Act One. She sang the aria ‘Ah, se dice io vi potessi’ delightfully and voiced Eurilla’s lines in ensembles brightly and clearly. Meinke’s best singing came in the scenes with Pasquale, particularly the Act Two duetto, in which her account of ‘Quel tuo vinetto amabile’ beguiled. Occasional shrillness in the upper register in the first act was largely absent after the interval, the voice sounding more focused in the opera’s final scenes. Meinke’s theatrical instincts were unerring throughout the afternoon, making each of Eurilla’s appearances in the opera a joy.

A product of the tradition of Sancho Panza-esque servant figures in Baroque opera that also yielded Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Orlando’s witty but none-too-valiant squire Pasquale was spectacularly portrayed by tenor Toby Bradford. Haydn wrote music of extraordinary difficulty for Pasquale, subjecting the singer to virtually every virtuosic feat that could have been expected of a tenor in the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century. Bradford not only coped but fully conquered, meeting every challenge of the part with astonishing sangfroid. Introducing the character in Act One with the cavatina ‘La mia bella m’ha detto di nò,’ Bradford sang fetchingly, his crisp phrasing imparting Pasquale’s irrepressible exuberance.

The cracking patter aria ‘Ho viaggiato in Francia, in Spagna’ and Act Two cavatina ‘Vittoria, vittoria’ were jubilantly dispatched, and Bradford voiced ‘Il cavallo ed il padrone’ in the duetto with Eurilla fetchingly. Relocated in this production from Act Two to Act Three, the celebrated aria ‘Ecco spiano, ecco il mio trillo’ was sung with dazzling techical aplomb, the long-sustained tone at the start of the aria, the ornaments, and the ascents into the vocal stratosphere adroitly handled. A depiction of Pasquale as accomplished as Bradford’s would be notable in any of the world’s great opera houses: in this university production, it was nothing short of sensational.

IN REVIEW: soprano CAROLYN ORR as Angelica (left) and tenor DAVID MAIZE as Medoro (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn's ORLANDO PALADINO [Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]I teneri amanti: soprano Carolyn Orr as Angelica (left) and tenor David Maize as Medoro (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Orlando paladino
[Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]

As in many of Händel’s operas, it is not the title character but the secondo uomo who is the romantic lead in Orlando paladino. In tenor David Maize’s performance of the rôle, the conflicted but faithful Medoro merited his Angelica’s devotion, his every doubt and pang of regret expressed with vocalism of incredible beauty. The Act One aria ‘Parto. Ma, oh dio, non posso’ was hauntingly sung, the character’s inner turmoil conveyed through the interplay of anguish and repose in the vocal line. Similar qualities permeated Maize’s traversal of Medoro’s aria in Act Two, ‘Dille che un infelice,’ the vocal shading paralleling the moods of the text. The duetto with Angelica, ‘Qual contento io provo in seno,’ displayed the depth of the tenor’s artistry, his mastery of florid writing equal to the music’s most demanding moments. So endearing was Maize’s portrayal that the barbarians’ unforeseen wounding of Medoro drew agonized gasps from the audience. Alcina’s deus ex machina healing of his injury resuscitated the heart of the performance, which beat most palpably when Maize was singing.

The tormented Queen of Cathay Angelica, madly in love with Medoro but relentlessly pursued by Orlando, was brought to life with passion and poise by soprano Carolyn Orr. In her entrancing cavatina in Act One, ‘Palpita ad ogni istante,’ Orr’s Angelica created an aura of noble suffering that persisted until the opera’s dénouement, when the queen’s suffering at last ended. The aria ‘Non partir, mia bella face’ disclosed the effort expended in singing Haydn’s music, the fiorature sounding labored but never dodged or simplified. Orr phrased the adagio in the Act One finale, ‘Sento nel seno, oh dio,’ gracefully, communicating the panoply of emotions by which Angelica is plagued. Her account of the aria ‘Aure chete, verdi allori’ throbbed with raw feeling, and yearning simmered in her voicing of the accompagnato ‘Fra queste selve invan.’

Orr sang ‘Non fia mai, che venga meno’ in the duetto with Medoro mesmerizingly, Angelica’s love soaring in the music, and her reading of the accompagnato ‘Implacabili numi!’ in Act Three was the work of a talented singing actress. Some sopranos would justly complain that it was cruel of Haydn to place an aria as difficult as ‘Dell’estreme sue voci dolenti’ so late in the opera, but Orr was inspired by the music’s obstacles, singing with abandon. In all of Angelica’s scenes, Orr sang intrepidly, the flickers of vocal strain integrated into a laudably thoughtful portrait of the beleaguered queen.

Tenor Kameron Alston, who will return to Stevens Center in March 2023 as Ernesto in Piedmont Opera’s production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, enriched his portrayal of the unhinged Orlando with vocal sheen and psychological introspection, eschewing excessive caricature. The excellent Carlo in Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2022 staging of Linda di Chamounix, Alston found nothing in Haydn’s music that overwhelmed his technical resources. As in Händel’s Orlando, much of the eponymous paladin’s madness transpires in mercurial accompagnati rather than in arias. In Act One, Alston articulated the accompagnato ‘Angelica, mio ben’ urgently, the character’s mental instability obvious in his words but never undermining the tenor’s vocal security.

Alston voiced the aria ‘D’Angelica il nome!’ with angst befitting Orlando’s affliction, and the accompagnato ‘Oimè, qual tetro oggetto!’ and aria ‘Cosa vedo! Cosa sento!’ in Act Two were sculpted with the delicacy of a gifted bel canto singer, only a pair of piano notes above the stave that threatened to crack betraying the toil involved in singing this daunting music. In the scene with Caronte at the beginning of Act Three, Alston’s vocalism was shaded with tragic overtones. His singing of the accompagnato ‘Sogno? Veglio? Cos’è?’ was riveting, and the aria ‘Miei pensieri, dove siete?’ was sublime. The preternatural restoration of Orlando’s reason can perhaps never be believable for modern audiences, but Alston’s amusing depiction of the knight’s loss of any memory of his love for Angelica was cunningly credible. Alston was the keystone of a phenomenal ensemble of artists, musical and technical, who rousingly reincarnated Haydn’s score. Maria Theresa may not have actually said that it was to Eszterháza that she went to hear opera of the highest quality, but Fletcher Opera Institute’s performance of Orlando paladino would unquestionably have earned the royal approbation for Winston-Salem.