31 March 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Umberto Giordano — FEDORA (M. Johnson, J. Brauner, M. Guzzo, M. Brea, S. White, E. Forteza, R. Casas, M. Gracco, B. Montgomery, J. Weatherston Pitts, R. Agster; Teatro Grattaciello, 16 December 2020)

IN REVIEW: soprano MICHELLE JOHNSON as Fedora (left) and tenor JEREMY BRAUNER as Loris in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]UMBERTO GIORDANO (1867 – 1948): FedoraMichelle Johnson (Principessa Fedora Romazoff), Jeremy Brauner (Conte Loris Ipanoff), Marcelo Guzzo (De Siriex), Maria Brea (Contessa Olga Sukarev), Samuel White (Desiré), Eugenia Forteza (Dimitri), Rubin Casas (Grech), Michael Gracco (Lorek), Brian Montgomery (Cirillo), Jordan Weatherston Pitts (Barone Rouvel), Rick Agster (Boroff), Kinneret Ely (Un piccolo savoiardo), Pavel Suliandziga (Sergio), William Desbiens (Nicola); Ezio Pelliteri, accordion; Israel Gursky, piano and conductor [Malena Dayen, director; Jon DeGaetano, lighting designer; Matthew Deinhart, assistant lighting designer; Sangmin Chae, projections; Enrico Venrice, editing; Nicole Russell, assistant conductor; Streamed performance by Teatro Grattacielo, filmed at Tagret Margin Theater, Brooklyn, New York, USA, in October 2020]

Use of only ingredients of the highest quality does not transform an indifferent cook into a Michelin-starred chef. Similarly, utilizing superlative components in the making of an opera guarantees neither the resulting score’s merit nor its success. Opera’s history abounds with accounts of the failures of many pieces with plots drawn from the revered pages of Virgil, William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and other literary illuminati, but works like Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Verdi’s Macbeth and Otello, and Massenet’s Werther reveal what delicacies can emerge from musical minds when they are enticed by words worthy of their melodies.

From the first printings of his early poetry and his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris, still one of the most familiar novels of the Nineteenth Century, Victor Hugo influenced French culture and global perceptions thereof to an extent that few of his fellow writers have approached. Three years before Hugo’s death in 1885, the vibrant Parisian theatrical community was enchanted by the much-discussed actress Sarah Bernhardt’s first performance of the title rôle in a new play by Victorien Sardou, whose work had already been before the public with varying degrees of acceptance for three decades. Their 1882 collaboration, Fédora, solidified an alliance that produced a progression of new plays including La Tosca and Madame Sans-Gêne via which Sardou and Bernhardt would challenge Hugo’s dominance—and, in the inspiration of operatic adaptations of their creations, surpass it.

The appeal of Sardou’s gritty realism extended beyond France’s borders, spilling over the Alps and into Italy’s operatic centers. In Milan, the allure of Bernhardt’s passionate Fédora fascinated the thirty-year-old Umberto Giordano, who sought a subject for a new work to match the success of his 1896 opera Andrea Chénier. Employing a libretto by Arturo Colautti that preserved the vivid melodrama of Sardou’s play, Giordano’s Fedora premièred on 17 November 1898, in Milan’s Teatro Lirico, a prestigious theater that also hosted the début performances of operas by Antonio Salieri, Gaetano Donizetti, and Ruggero Leoncavallo. The reception that Fedora garnered in Italy rivaled that received by Fédora in Paris, the widespread but short-lived popularity of Giordano’s opera, alongside the brief notoriety of the composer’s later setting of Madame Sans-Gêne and the enduring prominence of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca in the international repertory, securing Sardou’s place amongst literature’s most fecund sources of operatic fodder.

Pining to reclaim some incarnation of normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred extraordinary ingenuity in the Performing Arts community. With countless performances having been cancelled in accordance with efforts to protect vulnerable populations from the virus, opera companies have adapted their initiatives to the same technologies that allowed businesses and schools to function remotely, uniting artists with audiences via innovative media. Never content to bow to convention even during the best of times, New York’s Teatro Grattacielo collaborated with Camerata Bardi Vocal Academy to mold a streamed production of Giordano’s Fedora into a momentous experience that both transcended the inherent detachment of the medium and recreated the visceral melodrama of Sardou’s play and Giordano’s still-under-appreciated score with greater immediacy than many lavish stagings with full orchestras and on-site audiences manage to engender.

IN REVIEW: the company of Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]Gli ospiti al ballo: (from left to right) baritone Marcelo Guzzo as De Siriex, soprano Maria Brea as Olga, bass Rick Agster as Boroff, tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts as Barone Rouvel, tenor Jeremy Brauner as Loris, and soprano Michelle Johnson as Fedora in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Performing Fedora with minimalistic scenic designs and singers donning formal attire proved wholly effective in rendering the three disparate settings for the action, the slain Vladimiro’s St. Petersburg palace in Act One, Fedora’s Paris salon in Act Two, and the princess’s Swiss villa in Act Three. Allied with the evocative work of lighting designer Jon DeGaetano and assistant lighting designer Matthew Deinhart, media artist Sangmin Chae’s projections unobtrusively created apt visual atmospheres in which interactions among characters were always the central focus. Capitalizing on the intimacy of the production’s filmed format, Malena Dayen’s direction lent the opera’s action uncommon clarity: regardless of the number of singers on screen and the sameness of their dress, the individual identities of the characters singing and the significance of their utterances were consistently apparent.

Particularly in opulent stagings, the profoundly personal nature of Fedora’s exchanges with Loris amidst the hubbub of Act Two is sometimes obscured, but Teatro Grattacielo’s Fedora elucidated every conflicted emotion and convoluted detail of the opera’s political backstory. A good Fedora brings the implausible plot to life: this Fedora intelligently and engagingly brought the realities of life during a pandemic to a century-old opera, the psychological implications of isolation, suspicion, and loss suffered in lockdown manifested in an eloquent realization of Giordano’s score.

Rather than adapting Giordano’s score for performance by a number of musicians that would have complied with restrictions on mass gatherings, Teatro Grattacielo’s Fedora partnered the singers with the dexterous pianism of conductor Israel Gursky—a sensible decision, as a substantial portion of Act Two is accompanied according to the composer’s instructions by a pianist portraying Boleslao Lazinski, a fictitious ‘nephew of Chopin.’ Hearing the full score played on the piano highlighted the influence of Chopin on Giordano’s music, particularly the Polacca and Notturno in Act Two. Gursky played the opera’s Andante mosso opening bars with elegance that evolved first into playfulness and later into desperation and grief as Act One progressed. The performance of the Act Two intermezzo was radiant, its reprise of the theme of Ipanoff’s ‘Amor ti vieta’ phrased with fervor. Complemented in Act Three by the marvelous performance of accordionist Ezio Pelliteri and aided throughout the opera by assistant conductor Nicole Russell, Gursky shaped a fittingly fervent but sensitive traversal of Giordano’s score.

Under the leadership of Artistic Director Stefanos Koroneos, Teatro Grattacielo assembled a sterling company of artists for this Fedora, both perpetuating the company’s legacy of savvy casting and demonstrating that present hardships have only galvanized musicians’ dedication to their craft. The brief song of the piccolo savoiardo in Act Three exemplified this spirit of reawakening, the lines voiced with an apt aura of bright-toned innocence by soprano Kinneret Ely that contrasted tellingly with mezzo-soprano Eugenia Forteza’s urgent singing of the traumatized Dimitri’s responses to Fedora’s interrogation in Act One. Tenors Samuel White and Pavel Suliandziga and baritone William Desbiens projected surprising individuality in their strongly-sung portrayals of Desiré, Sergio, and Nicola, and the Lorek and Grech of baritone Michael Gracco and bass-baritone Rubin Casas were similarly enlivened by insightful vocal acting. Baritone Brian Montgomery delivered Cirillo’s lament for his slain patron wrenchingly but with welcome—and rare—restraint, and tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts and bass Rick Agster made much of Rouvel’s and Boroff’s few words, drawing impetus for their vocal colorations from the text.

IN REVIEW: soprano MARIA BREA as Olga in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]La contessa capricciosa: soprano Maria Brea as Olga in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Giordano’s music for the spirited Contessa Olga Sukarev was sung with elegance, tonal beauty, and an apt air of hauteur by soprano Maria Brea. From her first lines at Fedora’s soirée in Act Two, this was indisputably a countess who travelled in the most exclusive social circles and was accustomed to ensuring that she remains the belle of every ball. Brea sang ‘Io sono il capriccio leggero, veloce’ delightfully, contrasting with the gravitas of Fedora’s exchanges with Loris precisely as Giordano intended and producing her top As with youthful ebullience. Reacting to De Siriex’s commentary on Russian womanhood, her account of ‘Il parigino è come il vino’ was a good-natured but barbed rejoinder. Brea also lent fleeting moments of levity to Act Three, punctuating her impassioned voicing of ‘Sempre io stesso verde!’ with a shimmering top B and continuing Olga’s contest of wits with De Siriex with flippant conviction. Despite the limits on opportunities to act the rôle imposed by the pandemic, Brea’s characterization of the vivacious countess lacked nothing, the voice and the singer’s innate theatricality rendering stage antics and glittering costumes unnecessary.

IN REVIEW: baritone MARCELO GUZZO as De Siriex in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]La voce della legge: baritone Marcelo Guzzo as De Siriex in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Baritone Marcelo Guzzo was a De Siriex whose burnished, imposing vocalism matched his debonair diplomacy. Subtly commandeering the questioning of the wounded Vladimiro’s servants whilst also comforting and reassuring the devastated Fedora in Act One, Guzzo’s De Siriex sang and acted forcefully. Though it is seldom included in baritones’ recital and recording repertoires, De Siriex’s aria in Act Two, ‘La donna russa è femmina due volte,’ is one of Fedora’s few easily-excerpted numbers, and Guzzo’s undaunted mastery of its quicksilver rhythms and troublesome tessitura exuding irrepressible vitality. This De Siriex neither gloated nor goaded in his conversations with Fedora, relaying rather than sensationalizing the news of the deaths of Ipanoff’s mother and brother, for which Fedora’s accusation of her lover as her fiancé’s murderer was the catalyst. His vivid sparring with Olga in Act Three revealed impishness, jovially rendering the flirtatious rapport between the decorous diplomat and the coy countess. Guzzo voiced ‘Fatevi cor contessa!’ and ‘Lui! Cadde per l’empia sua crudeltà’ with obvious cognizance of the literal and suggestive meanings of the words. Throughout the performance, the baritone’s intelligible diction heightened the refinement of his depiction of De Siriex, but the character benefited most from Guzzo’s superb singing.

IN REVIEW: tenor JEREMY BRAUNER as Loris in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]L’amante e l’assassino: tenor Jeremy Brauner as Loris in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Like Wagner’s Isolde, the titular heroine of Fedora ultimately falls in love with the object of her pursuit of vengeance, the man responsible for the death of her betrothed, though no sorcery facilitates Fedora’s romantic attraction to the brooding Loris Ipanoff. The rôle of Loris was entrusted in the first production of Fedora to Enrico Caruso, who recorded the character’s famous aria with the composer at the piano four years after the opera’s première. This established a benchmark to which tenors’ performances continue to be compared. Following the examples of singers including Ramón Vinay, Carlo Bergonzi, and Plácido Domingo, Teatro Grattacielo’s Loris, Jeremy Brauner, started his vocal studies as a baritone and later transitioned to singing tenor rôles. There were subtle reverberations of his baritonal origins in his performance of Ipanoff’s music, as well as propitious reminders not only of Caruso but of other noted interpreters of Loris, namely Bruno Prevedi and Giuseppe Giacomini.

Brauner’s first appearance in Act Two made Ipanoff’s absence from the opera’s first act regrettable, his robust vocalism immediately raising the temperature of the performance’s simmering verismo. Wooing his Fedora with the Andante cantabile aria ‘Amor ti vieta di non amar,’ sung in recitals and concerts by virtually every tenor active since Fedora’s première, Brauner advanced Loris’s suit with ardor and a fine top A. The plangency of his singing of ‘Mia madre, la mia vecchia madre’ and ‘Vedi, io piango’ garnered the listener’s empathy as ably as it captivated Fedora’s heart.

The metamorphosis of Ipanoff from grieving son and brother to betrayed and ultimately despairing lover in Act Three sometimes elicits over-emphatic vocalism that obfuscates the wronged count’s vulnerability. Brauner’s singing never lacked power, but his characterization also limned the part’s poignant nuances. There was no artifice in his articulation of ‘O bianca madre, o buon fratello,’ Ipanoff’s anguish conveyed with affecting sincerity, and his brilliant top B♭ escalated the expressive urgency of his delivery of ‘Son qui, vicino a te.’ Brauner’s tone occasionally hardened in moments of duress, but his intonation was admirably secure throughout the range. In some performances, Loris is little more than a cipher with a famous aria: Brauner’s Ipanoff was a worthy quarry for his Fedora and a fully-formed character in his own right.

IN REVIEW: soprano MICHELLE JOHNSON as Fedora in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]La bella principessa: soprano Michelle Johnson as Fedora in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

In addition to creating the title rôle in Fedora, soprano Gemma Bellincioni was the first interpreter of Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and sang the eponymous spitfire in the Italian première of Richard Strauss’s Salome. First recorded in studio by Gilda dalla Rizza, considered by Puccini to be the ideal Minnie in his La fanciulla del West, Fedora has attracted sopranos—and a few brave mezzo-sopranos—with vastly different vocal endowments. No Fedora is more renowned than Maria Callas, whose 1956 portrayal at La Scala is rumored to have been documented on recordings that have never materialized, but no one is more closely associated with the rôle than Magda Olivero. There has been no other voice like Olivero’s, and her histrionic gifts were equally unique. Nevertheless, her Fedora is a model for fellow interpreters of the part, her shadow over the opera extending even longer than Caruso’s.

A successful Fedora might seek to emulate certain aspects of Olivero’s interpretation but must recognize that Olivero was inimitable. The foremost success of this production’s Fedora, soprano Michelle Johnson, was her intuitive formation of a portrayal of the dangerous but delicate princess that, like Olivero’s, honored Sardou and Giordano. It was especially gratifying to hear a singer at the height of her abilities as Fedora, the rôle so often being assigned to singers in the latter days of their careers, when the music’s demands, marginally narrower in compass and arguably less strenuous than those of Puccini’s heroines, mitigate reduced vocal resources. Johnson’s singing was commendably and often exuberantly free of compromise: the rôle was in the voice and performed with unflappable confidence.

Arriving at Vladimiro’s estate to assume her place as his intended bride in Act One, Johnson’s Fedora was discernibly a woman of a certain age, unquestionably in love with her betrothed but also enchanted by the prospect of being loved. Her statements to Vladimiro’s servants were genially imperious, but Fedora’s inner fragility was revealed in Johnson’s dulcet voicing of the beautiful Andantino espressivo ‘O grandi occhi lucenti di fede,’ her top A imparting the depth of Fedora’s affection. The simplicity of her singing of ‘Mio dolce Vladimiro! Sogno d’amor, di pace, di poesia!’ realized the full expressive potential of the music. As the gravity of Vladimiro’s condition became apparent, the change in Johnson’s demeanor was unmistakable, her Fedora’s amorous femininity acquiescing to primal ferocity as she probed Vladimiro’s household for information about his attack. Vowing to have justice, this Fedora’s ‘Su questa santa croce, ricordo di mia madre’ was genuinely moving, the soprano’s performance disclosing the shattered bond between Fedora’s happiness and her love for Vladimiro.

Johnson’s acting skills shone in Act Two, in which Fedora sets a trap for Ipanoff but ensnares herself when she falls in love with him. The magnitude of Fedora’s true objectives was apparent despite her feigned insouciance in the revelers’ company, her pursuit of Loris driven by verbal acuity and vocal potency. Reticence was audible in ‘Lascia che pianga io sola,’ the fractures in Fedora’s steely resolve widening into charms as she succumbed to her burgeoning love. Johnson thrillingly accepted Giordano’s challenge of an optional top C in the expansive duet with Loris, her voice soaring in ecstasy.

The caliber of Johnson’s artistry was confirmed in Fedora’s scene with De Siriex in Act Three. Learning that her implication of Loris in Vladimiro's assassination led to the deaths of Ipanoff’s brother and mother, Johnson’s Fedora was overwhelmed by the consequences of her actions. The soprano’s command of line yielded a stirring account of ‘Dio di giustizia, che col santo ciglio,’ but Johnson achieved still greater heights of operatic expression with her ruminative singing of ‘Se quella sciagurata perdutamente avesse amato Vladimiro?’ and ‘Se quell’infelice qui stesse ai tuoi piedi.’ The voluptuous voice reduced to a thread of emotion in the authentic Olivero fashion, Johnson enunciated ‘Tutto tramonta...tutto dilegua’ with harrowing earnestness. Dramatically, Johnson offered a fascinatingly complete portrait of Fedora. Vocally, she sang the rôle with an assurance that is now seldom heard in performances of verismo repertoire.

Combatting COVID-19 has altered perspectives on art and artists’ practices, the necessity of avoiding gathering for performances accentuating the desire for shared artistic experiences. There is no adequate substitute for sitting shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers in a theater, not merely hearing but feeling voices rise above an orchestra, but Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Fedora was an act of sustenance, not one of surrogacy. Its musical integrity and dramatic values overcoming the limitations of its genesis, this Fedora reaffirmed that opera thrives on—and in—strife.

25 January 2021

COVID CONFIDENTIAL: finding Floozies in small-town Virginia

Floozies Pie Shop in Louisa, Virginia [Photograph by the author]Serving bliss by the slice: Floozies Pie Shop in Louisa, Virginia
[Photograph by the author]

Is any of life’s most essential necessities more inherently operatic than food? Politics and sports are divisive, but disputes regarding particular singers and souflé recipes are the stuff of fisticuffs and irreparable rifts.

Nearly a year after COVID-19 infections were first reported in the United States, cinemas, opera houses, theaters, and performance venues of all sizes remain closed or restricted to operating with reduced capacities. The resilience of Art is undiminished, but the lives of many artists continue to be direly impacted by the ravages of a virus that has affirmed the importance of togetherness by imposing separation.

Culinary artists are also fighting for their own survival and for the solvency of the projects to which they have dedicated their studies, their time, and their savings. Among countless independent businesses adapting to the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, sister eateries Obrigado Restaurant and Floozies Pie Shop in quaint Louisa, Virginia, approach enduring a pandemic with a chef’s indomitable spirit: adjusting quantities, making substitutions when warranted, capitalizing on successes, and learning from failures, fiscal ingenuity has become an invaluable recipe, perpetually tested and tweaked.

Obrigado Restaurant in Louisa, Virginia [Photograph by the author]Commonwealth cuisine: Obrigado Restaurant in Louisa, Virginia
[Photograph by the author]

Located at 109 West Main Street in downtown Louisa, directly opposite Louisa County’s historic 1905 Courthouse, Obrigado and Floozies bring sophisticated, cosmopolitan cuisine and ambience to an idyllic rural setting within two-hour drives from Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Washington, DC. Focusing on creating flavorful combinations of responsibly-sourced ingredients that both honor Virginia’s heritage and assimilate global influences, Obrigado offers a vibrant, welcoming space in which buttermilk biscuits and bouillabaisse might be found unpretentiously sharing the spotlight. [The Spanish capital lacks the flair for preparing the dish that coastal towns wield, but paellas enjoyed by the author at Obrigado were superior in composition, preparation, presentation, and, above all, taste to those consumed in Madrid.]

Next door, Floozies prepares pies, cakes, and pastries that infuse the virtuosity of a Parisian patisserie with the soul of a Southern grandmother’s kitchen. Asking which Floozies pie is most recommendable is as futile as asking whether Verdi or Wagner is the better composer of opera. In truth, Il trovatore and Tannhäuser benefit equally from an accompaniment of pie.

Proximity to the shores of beautiful Lake Anna and the Washington metropolitan area makes ordering food and desserts from Obrigado and Floozies ideal for COVID-weary day-trippers seeking respite from suburbia. Even in the winter months, nature lovers can enjoy waterside picnics in the comfort of their cars, safely savoring restorative vistas and unforgettable food.

Louisa County Courthouse in Louisa, Virginia [Photograph by the author]Neighbor of Floozies: Louisa County Courthouse in Louisa, Virginia
[Photograph by the author]

Like many small businesses, Obrigado and Floozies have been greatly affected by COVID-19. Limits on indoor dining capacities, fluctuating prices and availability of ingredients, strict adherence to sanitation protocols, and total commitment to maintaining relaxed but safe environments for patrons and staff have resulted in modified service hours and menus. Nonetheless, Obrigado and Floozies are open, serving, accepting to-go orders, and tirelessly exploring new opportunities to engage and nourish their community.

Please support those initiatives by planning a hiatus from fast-food drive-throughs and tired take-aways. A drive into the countryside for a date with Floozies will leave every quarantine-fatigued foodie saying, ‘Obrigado!’ Talking with a mouth filled with pie is impolite, even during a pandemic, however.


Louisa is easily accessible from Virginia’s major metropolitan areas
via Interstates 64 and 95.

For more information about menus, hours of operation, and special events,
please visit Obrigado’s and Floozies’s websites.
Please also like and share Obrigado and Floozies on Facebook.

16 December 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Christoph Willibald Gluck — ORFEO ED EURIDICE (N. Tamagna, K. Piper Brown, L. León; Opera in Williamsburg, 15 December 2020)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano LAURA LEÓN as Amore, countertenor NICHOLAS TAMAGNA as Orfeo, and soprano KEARSTIN PIPER BROWN as Euridice in Opera in Williamsburg's virtual production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's ORFEO ED EURIDICE, 15 December 2020 [Image © by Opera in Williamsburg]CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK (1714 – 1787): Orfeo ed Euridice, Wq.30 (1762 Vienna version) — Nicholas Tamagna (Orfeo), Kearstin Piper Brown (Euridice), Laura León (Amore), Kinneret Ely (ensemble soprano), Alison Taylor Cheeseman (ensemble mezzo-soprano), Pavel Suliandziga (ensemble tenor), Suchan Kim (ensemble baritone); Opera in Williamsburg Orchestra; Jorge Parodi, harpsichord continuo and conductor [Benjamin Spierman, stage director; Naama Zahavi-Ely, visual designer, video editor, and producer; Eric Lamp, costume designer; Deborah Jo Knopik-Barrett, production/stage manager; Streamed performance by Opera in Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA; 15 December 2020]

Integral to the human condition is the pursuit of understanding, observing phenomena in nature and humanity and striving to discover or devise rationalizations for the inexplicable. From this impulse arose ancient civilizations’ mythologies, via which cultures analyzed the world around them in scenarios that resonated with their unique circumstances. Astronomical, geological, and climatic events beyond the scope of scientific evaluation thus became physical manifestations of interactions among gods, men, and the legions of beings neither wholly divine nor mortal; beings like Orpheus, the prophetic figure, celebrated by Pindar but ignored by Hesiod, whose mastery of song transcended human abilities. Esteemed by Horace as a tamer of savages, celebrated by Aristophanes and Euripides as the prince of poets, and dismissed by Aristotle as a figure of metaphor rather than history, Orpheus was one of Antiquity’s most influential entities.

From Jacopo Peri’s Euridice in 1600 to Philip Glass’s Orphée nearly four centuries later, opera has often turned to Orpheus as a source of inspiration. The son of the Muse Calliope and either the Thracian king Oeagrus or the god Apollo, Orpheus was reputed to have perfected the art of song and Hermes’s lyre to such an extent that even Hades and its guardians could be bewitched by his artistry. The allure of Orphic myths to composers endeavoring to charm audiences with their own arts is obvious. The symbolism of the saga of a musician utilizing his own gifts to subvert conventions must have appealed irresistibly to Christoph Willibald Gluck. Having won acclaim for his contributions to the Late-Baroque bravura style, he resolved to refashion his work for the stage to resurrect the purer aesthetics of Ancient Greek theater, preferring emotional directness to ornate vocal display. Continuing the legacy of pioneering settings of the Orpheus myth by Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, and Luigi Rossi, the Hellenic world’s most hailed musician provided Gluck with an ideal vehicle for his operatic reformation.

Gluck had lived and worked in Vienna for nearly a decade when, in 1761, he was joined in the Habsburg seat by a fellow artist who shared his vision of minimizing the excesses of Italianate virtuosity in opera, the poet Ranieri de’ Calzabigi. Exposed during an extended residency in Paris to the tragédies lyriques of Lully, Marais, and Rameau, Calzabigi regarded the opportunities for displays of vocal prowess demanded by fêted singers as perversions of poets’ and composers’ service to their Muses. In the mythological tale of Orpheus’s refusal to accept the loss of his beloved Eurydice, Gluck and Calzabigi found an aptly non-conformist subject for the azione teatrale with which they launched their ambitious collaboration. The première of their Orfeo ed Euridice in Vienna’s Burgtheater on 5 October 1762, received the imperial sanction of Empress Maria Theresa’s attendance. Two-and-a-half millennia after his first known appearances in literature, Orpheus sang anew, expanding his mythology with an opera that continues to epitomize music’s capacities for evolution and rebellion.

IN REVIEW: soprano KEARSTIN PIPER BROWN as Euridice (left) and countertenor NICHOLAS TAMAGNA as Orfeo (right) in Opera in Williamsburg's virtual production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's ORFEO ED EURIDICE, 15 December 2020 [Image © by Opera in Williamsburg]Gli amanti riuniti: soprano Kearstin Piper Brown as Euridice (left) and countertenor Nicholas Tamagna as Orfeo (right) in Opera in Williamsburg’s virtual production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, 15 December 2020
[Image © by Opera in Williamsburg]

Producing opera is ever a Herculean task: producing opera during a global pandemic is the stuff of Homerian epics. The myriad challenges of bringing artistic initiatives of any breadth to fruition in 2020 notwithstanding, Opera in Williamsburg allied an insurmountable will to perform with innovative use of technology to create a satisfying, thought-provoking virtual production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Piloted by the company’s founder Naama Zahavi-Ely, disparate components were recorded, assembled, and edited to construct a digital staging, still undergoing revision in advance of wider release in early 2021, that brought Gluck’s and Calzabigi’s drama to life more convincingly than some fully-staged productions manage to do.

Placing the opera’s action in settings evoked by her own and Tirtza Zahavi’s nature photography and elements of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych in oil known as The Garden of Earthly Delights, Zahavi-Ely’s direction and video editing lent the production admirable Classical eloquence, renouncing the sorts of senseless melodrama, so contrary to the composer’s and librettist’s intentions, that mar some stagings. The work of stage director Benjamin Spierman and production/stage manager Deborah Jo Knopik-Barrett yielded natural but discernibly expressive movement, complemented by Eric Lamp’s attractive modern-dress costume designs. The conditions under which this production was planned and curated are temporary, but the implications of the shrewd use of resources that it exhibited are lasting.

Conducting from the harpsichord, Opera in Williamsburg’s Music Director Jorge Parodi replicated the production’s urbane ethos in the musical performance. The Maestro’s accompaniment of secco recitatives was sensibly paced, maintaining momentum without rushing, and his tempi in instrumental and vocal numbers, particularly the Overture and dances, limned the gravitas of the music whilst wholly avoiding plodding sentimentality. Orchestral playing was reliably polished, the wind parts executed with unerring panache. The precision of ensemble achieved by the musicians would be commendable in the context of any performance, but it was in this virtual reading truly remarkable. Ensuring that the listener’s attention was always focused on the marvels of Gluck’s score, not on the technological wizardry of their recording of it, Parodi’s and the orchestra’s work was worthy of myth.

Consisting of the splendid quartet of soprano Kinneret Ely, mezzo-soprano Alison Cheeseman, tenor Pavel Suliandziga, and baritone Suchan Kim, the chorus sang with extraordinary balance and clarity. They began Act One with an account of ‘Ah! se intorno a quest’urna funesta’ that established an atmosphere of despair. Vividly contrasted, their forceful singing of ‘Chi mai dell’Erebo’ in Act Two was therefore all the more exciting. In subsequent scenes, the young voices intoned ‘Vieni a’ regni del riposo’ and ‘Torna, o bella, al tuo consorte’ dulcetly, projecting involvement in rather than mere comment on the drama. It is Gluck’s writing for the chorus that lends Orfeo ed Euridice much of its emotional potency, as well as its Classical authenticity, and Opera in Williamsburg’s performance offered choral singing of the necessary but hardly ubiquitous majesty.

IN REVIEW: soprano LAURA LEÓN as Amore (left) and countertenor NICHOLAS TAMAGNA as Orfeo in Opera in Williamsburg's virtual production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's ORFEO ED EURIDICE, 15 December 2020 [Image © by Opera in Williamsburg]Amore ed il sposo doloroso: soprano Laura León as Amore (left) and countertenor Nicholas Tamagna as Orfeo (right) in Opera in Williamsburg’s virtual production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, 15 December 2020
[Image © by Opera in Williamsburg]

With the well-meaning but too frequently ill-executed intention of bringing mythological accuracy to the part, modern productions of Orfeo ed Euridice sometimes assign the rôle of Amore to boy singers. Edith Hamilton would perhaps have approved of this trend, but the male Amore was written for and first sung by a female soprano, Marianna Bianchini, a noted exponent of bravura rôles in operas by Hasse, Jommelli, and Sacchini. Opera in Williamsburg followed Gluck’s example by engaging soprano Laura León to depict Amore, here presented as female. There was an appropriate suggestion of deus-ex-machina intervention in León’s delivery of ‘T’assiste Amore!’ in Act One, and she sang the aria ‘Gli sguardi trattieni’ with bright tone and easy command of the range. In Amore’s scene with Orfeo in Act Three, León imparted the deity’s sincere concern for the parted lovers, and the soprano’s voicing of ‘Talor dispera’ in the opera’s final scene sparkled. The I Dream of Jeannie mannerisms with which Amore’s conjurings were enacted seemed out of character even for the impish young god, but León sang and acted charismatically, lacking only a genuine trill.

IN REVIEW: soprano KEARSTIN PIPER BROWN as Euridice in Opera in Williamsburg's virtual production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's ORFEO ED EURIDICE, 15 December 2020 [Image © by Opera in Williamsburg]La sposa perduta: soprano Kearstin Piper Brown as Euridice in Opera in Williamsburg’s virtual production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, 15 December 2020
[Image © by Opera in Williamsburg]

Dressed by Lamp in gowns that would not have seemed out of place in Jacqueline Kennedy’s closet, soprano Kearstin Piper Brown’s Euridice exuded physical and vocal opulence. Euridice is in some performances a bloodless cipher but in this staging was a commanding presence in the drama, a woman who merited Orfeo’s death-defying devotion. In her first scene with Orfeo, Piper Brown’s Euridice blossomed with renewed life and feminity, but the joy of the lovers’ reunion was brief. Wrenchingly conveying Euridice’s dismay at her beloved’s seeming indifference, Piper Brown phrased ‘No, più cara è a me la morte’ with anguished pathos. Euridice’s aria ‘Che fiero momento!’ is one of Gluck’s most progressive pieces, anticipating Beethoven’s Fidelio and Weber’s Der Freischütz and Euryanthe, and Piper Brown possessed every quality required to sing the music superbly, rising to gleaming top A♭s. Her enunciation of ‘La gelosia strugge e divora’ in the final scene radiated jubilation. Gluck unquestionably wrote music of greater consequence for Orfeo than for Euridice, but Piper Brown’s vocalism elevated Euridice’s status both in this Orfeo ed Euridice and in comparisons with Gluck’s later heroines.

IN REVIEW: countertenor NICHOLAS TAMAGNA as Orfeo in Opera in Williamsburg's virtual production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's ORFEO ED EURIDICE, 15 December 2020 [Image © by Opera in Williamsburg]Una canzonetta di speranza: countertenor Nicholas Tamagna as Orfeo in Opera in Williamsburg’s virtual production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, 15 December 2020
[Image © by Opera in Williamsburg]

Created in the opera’s 1762 première by renowned castrato Gaetano Guadagni, Orfeo is one of Eighteenth-Century opera’s most enduring characterizations. Opera in Williamsburg’s production was distinguished by a dazzling portrayal of the rôle by countertenor Nicholas Tamagna. Wielding total stylistic acumen that encompassed effortless tones at the top of the stave and an impeccable trill, he paid homage to Guadagni by performing Orfeo’s music artfully but without artifice, the voice confidently meeting every demand of the music. His despondent cries of ‘Euridice!’ in the opening scene penetrated both the choral lamentations and the listener’s heart, palpably evincing the profundity of the despair at the core of his voicing of the aria ‘Chiamo il mio ben così.’ The scene with Amore reawakened Orfeo’s hope, and ‘Che disse! Che ascoltai!’ throbbed with astonishment and renewed energy.

The representation of the artist in conflict with the establishment in Orfeo’s journey to the underworld in Act Two spurred Tamagna to sing passages like ‘Deh! plactevi con me’ with poignant intensity, his voice assuming the enchanting mellifluence of Orfeo’s lyre. He sang the aria with chorus ‘Mille pene, ombre moleste’ and ‘Men tiranne, ah! voi sareste’ with disarming simplicity. The expressivity of Tamagna’s performance of the arioso ‘Che puro ciel, che chiaro sol’ was arresting, the beauty of his timbre rivaling Elysium’s wonders.

In the Act Three duetto with Euridice, Tamagna sang ‘Vieni, appaga il tuo consorte!’ with perceptible determination, Orfeo’s commitment to recovering Euridice from death’s clutches infusing the voice with a vein of steel. Following the breaking of the divine covenant and the second loss of Euridice, the steel was swept away by a deluge of dismay in ‘Ahimè! Dove trascorsi.’ Tamagna’s riveting singing of the widely-known ‘Che farò senza Euridice?’ justified the aria’s familiarity, but he was no less moving in Orfeo’s subsequent scene with Amore and the final reunion with Euridice. In the unlikely setting of a virtual production, Tamagna joined the ranks of history’s preeminent interpreters of Gluck’s and Calzabigi’s Orfeo.

The 1693 issuance of letters patent chartering the College of William and Mary in the colony of Virginia and John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s investment in the restoration and long-term preservation of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s were bold experiments. Perpetuating the Old Dominion’s venturesome spirit, Opera in Williamsburg’s decision to create opera during this season of worldwide hardship and heartbreak was also a courageous experiment. Like its fellow institutions in Virginia’s colonial capital, Opera in Williamsburg forged success with ingenuity, uniting artists and audiences via technology and a drive to seek refuge in music. Enjoyable and uplifting in its own right, this virtual production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice offered an invigorating reminder that, through calamities of earth and men, opera endures.

14 December 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gustav Mahler — DAS LIED VON DER ERDE (Clay Hilley, Stephen Powell; Amici Musicorum; Steven White, conductor; Opera Roanoke, 13 December 2020)

IN REVIEW: Gustav Mahler - DAS LIED VON DER ERDE (Opera Roanoke, 13 December 2020; Graphic © by Opera Roanoke)GUSTAV MAHLER (1860 – 1911): Das Lied von der ErdeClay Hilley (tenor), Stephen Powell (baritone); Amici Musicorum; Steven White, conductor [Streamed performance by Opera Roanoke, Jefferson Center, Roanoke, Virginia, USA; 13 December 2020 (recorded on 20 November 2020)]

The work of Gustav Mahler is one of Western music’s most consequential crossroads. Regarded by some musicologists and music lovers as a prophet whose scores inaugurated modernity in Classical Music and by others as a talented but over-esteemed creator of cacophonous musical behemoths, Mahler was both a man and an artist of contradictions. To the traditions of Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms he brought Jewish and Bohemian sensibilities, his singular, ever-evolving notion of an artist’s relationships with past, present, and future shaped by his own interactions with the cultures that nourished his creative impulses. In his music, Mahler fused Renaissance polyphony, Baroque counterpoint, the symmetry of Viennese Classicism, and Romantic temperament with innovative thematic development and bold instrumentation that translated the idioms of previous generations into the musical languages of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. All roads do not lead to Rome, but it can be argued that, particularly in his Symphonies, all music meets in Mahler.

His characteristic pragmatism did not lessen Mahler’s superstitious wariness of the precedent of no major composer since Beethoven having survived beyond the completion of a ninth symphony. Keen to circumvent the effects of the seeming curse on composers’ ninth endeavors in symphonic form, Mahler styled his ‘Symphonie für eine Tenor- und eine Alt- (oder Bariton-) Stimme und Orchester’ not as a conventional numbered symphony but as Das Lied von der Erde, a colossal musical essay in six movements that at once harkened back to Robert Schumann’s Szenen aus Goethes Faust and prefigured Schönberg’s contemporaneous Erwartung, composed in 1909 but not performed until 1924.

The ruse failed: following his completion of the symphony that he acknowledged as his ninth, Mahler died before finishing its successor. The 1907 publication of Die chinesische Flöte, Hans Bethge’s collection of German translations of poetry from China’s Tang dynasty, influenced Teutonic artistic circles much as Goethe’s writing had done a century earlier, and Mahler found in words written in the Eighth Century echoes of his life’s sorrows, doubts, and fleeting joys. Returned from his acclaimed début season on the podium of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Mahler spent the summer of 1907 in the Tyrolean countryside, where the vivid imagery of Die chinesische Flöte inspired the aural tableaux of Das Lied von der Erde.

The composition of Das Lied von der Erde was to some degree a means of confronting adversities that plagued Mahler in the months prior to his departure for New York in late 1907. The deteriorating political climate of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian empire ended his directorship of the Wiener Hofoper, his beloved daughter Maria was lost to illness, and his own mortality was manifested in the diagnosis of the heart condition that ended his life in May 1911, six months before Das Lied von der Erde’s world première in Munich’s Tonhalle, a structure that, as seems sadly portended by its association with this product of Mahler’s anguish, was destroyed during the 1944 Allied bombing of the Bavarian capital. Bethge’s translations of texts by Li Bai, Zhang Ji, Meng Haoran, and Wang Wei spurred the composer’s musical response to his contrasting suffering and success.

Filmed in Roanoke’s Jefferson Center on 20 November 2020, Opera Roanoke’s performance of Das Lied von der Erde adapted the power of Mahler’s score to the physical limitations and emotional implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, movingly enacting the timely conflict between hope and resignation that permeates the piece. Under the baton of Opera Roanoke’s Artistic Director Steven White, the fifteen musicians of the recently-formed chamber ensemble Amici MusicorumAkemi Takayama (violin and concertmaster), Matvey Lapin (violin), Bernard DiGregorio (viola), Kelley Mikkelsen (cello), John P. Smith IV (double bass), Julee Hickcox (flute and piccolo), William P. Parrish, Jr. (oboe and English horn), Carmen Eby (clarinet, E♭ clarinet, and bass clarinet), Scott Bartlett (bassoon), Abigail Pack (horn), William Ray (percussion), Al Wojtera (percussion), Scott Watkins (piano), Erica Sipes (harmonium and celesta), and Jeff Midkiff (mandolin)—transformed the subtleties of Arnold Schönberg’s and Rainer Riehn’s arrangement of Mahler’s opulently-orchestrated score, to which White rightly restored the crucial writing for mandolin, into expressive details that melded like stones in a mosaic to create vibrant soundscapes.

Mahler’s music demands technical prowess of the sort demonstrated by Amici Musicorum in this performance, but the musicians’ playing achieved mastery of considerably more than notes and rhythms. Even when Mahler’s original orchestrations are employed, the prevailing atmosphere of Das Lied von der Erde is often reservedly contemplative, the surging swells of sound accentuating passages of introspective intimacy. Though unfailingly effective from a musical perspective, Mahler’s complex instrumental writing sometimes emphasizes awkward phrasing in his word settings, but White ensured that Amici Musicorum’s sonic textures supported the singers’ efforts at elucidating text. Indeed, the instruments frequently seemed to communicate the words as naturally and impactfully as the voices. Midkiff’s spirited playing validated the sagacity of White’s reinstatement of the mandolin in ‘Von der Schönheit’ and ‘Der Abschied,’ and Sipes adroitly exhibited how integral the distinctive timbres of the harmonium and celesta are to Das Lied von der Erde’s sound world. The many challenges for strings, winds, and percussion were exultantly and gracefully conquered.

White’s affection and respect for the music were apparent in his discerning but unaffected handling of the score. The first and many subsequent performances of Das Lied von der Erde were conducted by Mahler’s friend and champion Bruno Walter, whose interpretation of the score is extensively documented on recordings. White’s conducting of Opera Roanoke’s Das Lied von der Erde integrated a sense of enraptured solemnity reminiscent of Walter’s performances with elements of Hans Rosbaud’s stylistic acuity and Jascha Horenstein’s fervor. His tempi were drawn from rather than imposed upon the score, his pacing closely aligned with the cadences of the text. As in all of Mahler’s symphonies, evincing the emotional gravity of the transitions of tempo and dynamics that drive Das Lied von der Erde is arguably a conductor’s paramount duty. White wholly fulfilled this responsibility, his reading of the score ennobled by selfless service to the music.

IN REVIEW: Gustav Mahler - DAS LIED VON DER ERDE (Opera Roanoke, 13 December 2020; caricature of the composer by Enrico Caruso for THE MUSICAL COURIER, 1908)Der Liedermacher: caricature of Gustav Mahler by tenor Enrico Caruso for The Musical Courier, 1908

Throughout the performance, tenor Clay Hilley sang strongly, only a few instances of compromised intonation and avoidance of Mahler’s quieter dynamic markings betraying the exertion expended in his voicing of the music. He vanquished the assault on the voice’s passaggio in ‘Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde,’ confidently projecting both the profusion of Fs, F♯s, and Gs at the top of the stave and the euphoric top B♭. Hilley articulated ‘Ein voller Becher Weins zur rechten Zeit ist mehr wert’ heartily, and his assured singing of ‘Das Firmament blaut ewig’ heightened the psychological reverberations of the text, underscoring the kinship between Mahler’s vocal lines and Wagner’s music for his Tristan. Hilley delivered the repetitions of ‘Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod’ pointedly, giving each statement unique inflections.

Baritone Stephen Powell was also tasked with overcoming difficult tessitura, and his poised singing of the pianissimo opening of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ epitomized the uniformly high quality of his work. The shimmering colorations of Powell’s voice were tailored to the nuances of the words, not least in his insightful enunciation of ‘Der süße Duft der Blumen ist verflogen.’ The baritone’s clear diction allowed the listener to appreciate Mahler’s visceral tone painting with uncommon immediacy, the poet’s symbolism illuminated by the singer’s vocal acting. Aided by White’s eloquent sculpting of the instrumental substratum, the sincerity of Powell’s voicing of ‘Ich weine viel in meinen Einsamkeiten’ fostered a poignant aura of desolation that intensified the music’s intrinsic quest for hope.

The virility of Hilley’s singing of ‘Von der Jugend’ was exhilarating, his top As secure and sonorous. In ‘Auf des kleinen, kleinen Teiches stiller,’ a passage in which Mahler expressed his desire for tranquility with a specification of ‘Ruhiger,’ the tenor lightened his voice to disclose the narrator’s vulnerability. Hilley’s vocalism grew more resilient as he sang ‘Alles auf dem Kopfe stehend,’ the bronzed patina of his tones imparting the primal wildness that lurks in the music. Wagner’s influence on Mahler’s vocal writing was again unusually perceptible, Hilley’s singing prompting thoughts of Act Two of Tannhäuser.

The descents below the stave in ‘Von der Schönheit’ rarely troubled Powell, his voice retaining resonance and focus to the bottom of the range. Particular care was devoted to his voicing of ‘Gold’ne Sonne webt um die Gestalten,’ and Mahler’s marking ‘Immer fließend’ was meticulously observed by singer and conductor in their exquisite rendering of ‘Das Roß des einen wiehert fröhlich auf und scheut und saust dahin.’ Blending beauty of tone with unwavering concentration on communicating the words, never more effectively than in this movement, Powell’s singing recalled the Lieder performances of Herbert Janssen.

Hilley’s finest singing of the performance was heard in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling,’ in which he deployed boundless energy and imagination. Here, too, his top As were produced with elan, White’s tempo—or, rather, Mahler’s tempo, precisely realized by White—facilitating congenial placement of the tenor’s upper register. The cry of ‘Horch!’ was uttered with surprising but understated spontaneity, Hilley approaching the passage with touchingly inward reflection. The song’s climactic top B♭, vigorously sung, rousingly asserted the intoxicating credo of the text and brought the journey of Hilley’s performance to a memorable destination.

Powell’s singing of ‘Der Abschied’ displayed tremendous breath control, his phrasing of the meandering lines guided by cognizance of each word’s function in the music’s cumulative narrative trajectory. An attitude of discovery suffused his account of ‘O sieh! Wie eine Silberbarke schwebt,’ metamorphosing into weariness in ‘Alle Sehnsucht will nun träumen.’ Powell’s intoning of ‘Er sprach, seine Stimme war umflort’ was tinged with cynicism, exploring an undercurrent of disquieting doubt that courses through the text and is amplified by the chromatic ambiguity of the music. Powell’s voicing of ‘Ich suche Ruhe für mein einsam Herz’ resounded with pained yearning for inner peace, and his hushed singing of the statements of ‘Ewig’ with which the song ends evoked surrender to the inevitable cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

In too many performances of Das Lied von der Erde, overabundances of reverence for Mahler’s legacy as a progressive, sometimes inscrutable musical trailblazer beget pomposity that undermines the piece’s capacity to lure listeners into an exotic world in which words and music tell stories that are both familiar and always new. Mahler’s genius should be revered and his music studied and respected, but of what real value is genius if it can only be experienced from a respectful distance? Despite the physical separation necessitated by the battle against COVID-19, Opera Roanoke’s superbly cathartic performance of Das Lied von der Erde breached the barriers that often prevent audiences from connecting with Mahler’s music on a personal level. The words are of another millennium, the music from a time not so distant but inestimably different from today, but this was unmistakably a song of our earth.


Opera Roanoke’s performance of Das Lied von der Erde can be viewed below or by clicking here.

31 October 2020

BEST ART SONG RECORDING of 2020: Benjamin Britten, Ivor Gurney, John Ireland, Roger Quilter, Ian Venables, & Peter Warlock — A LAD’S LOVE (Brian Giebler, tenor; Steven McGhee, piano; Bridge Records 9542)

BEST ART SONG RECORDING of 2020: A LAD'S LOVE (Bridge Records 9542)BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976), IVOR GURNEY (1890 – 1937), JOHN IRELAND (1879 – 1962), ROGER QUILTER (1877 – 1953), IAN VENABLES (born 1955), and PETER WARLOCK (1894 – 1930): a lad’s loveBrian Giebler, tenor; Steven McGhee, piano; Reginald Mobley, countertenor; Katie Hyun and Ben Russell, violin; Jessica Meyer, viola; Michael Katz, cello [Recorded in Drew University Concert Hall, Madison, New Jersey, USA, 27 – 29 June 2019; Bridge Records 9542; 1 CD, 70:43; Available from Bridge Records and major music retailers]

Artists’ philosophical and psychological connections with the music that they perform is an integral component of the creative process; perhaps more integral to Art Song than to any other genre of Classical Music. A singer can become immersed in the pageantry of opera and the tumult of the concert hall, but an Art Song recital offers few distractions from a singer’s relationships with the music being performed. A song does not wear a jersey displaying its name and number: the singer must communicate to the audience which position a song plays and how it functions within its team. It is suggested that the essence of a composer’s artistry is most clearly and meaningfully perceived in chamber music, in which the interactions among small ensembles of instruments sometimes reflect a composer’s perspectives on artists’ bonds with one another and humanity. Art Song is a singer’s chamber music, the domain in which the voice can find no shelter in lavish orchestrations and complex stage business. It is in a performance of Art Song that a perceptive listener can discern a singer from an artist.

The prevailing ethos of a lad’s love, tenor Brian Giebler’s and pianist Steven McGhee’s entrancing Bridge Records recording of British Art Songs composed since 1900, is the abandonment of platitudes and polite mannerisms in evaluating the passions, joys, and disappointments of youth. The first moments of a lad’s love demonstrate that Giebler possesses a beautiful, evenly-produced voice capable of communicating an expansive array of emotions, but each subsequent phrase further immerses the listener in the perceptibly personal narrative created by the young tenor’s singing. His vocalism enjoys in McGhee’s playing true musical synergy, the instruments’ sounds seeming to emerge from a single artistic personality. Neither singer nor pianist leads or follows: there is in the seventy minutes of a lad’s love a laudable unity of purpose, the artists’ serendipitous collaboration effecting performances guided not by musicians’ egos but by the temperaments of the music itself.

With the notable exception of Henry Purcell, whose work is as inclusively European as that of any of his domestic or foreign contemporaries, many composers whose lives and careers were centered in the British Isles have endured the allegation that their music is ‘too British’ to achieve lasting success and popularity beyond the United Kingdom’s borders. This charge is made even of a work as universal in scope as Sir Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, which, moreover, has sometimes been deemed too inherently Catholic to appeal to its creators’ own countrymen. Perhaps there are aspects of British cultures, histories, and landscapes that cannot be fully understood or appreciated by outsiders, but does ignorance of the county’s customs and geography lessen the beauty of a work like Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire Rhapsody?

Born in Gloucester in 1890 and laid to rest in a small borough of his native city only forty-seven years later, Ivor Gurney was, alongside Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, amongst England’s foremost poetic chroniclers of the Great War, during the course of which Gurney was twice wounded. Troubled throughout his too-brief life by recurrent mental illness, almost certainly exacerbated by his wartime experiences, Gurney often contended with pervasive melancholia that manifested in both his poetry and his music. The rare composer of Art Song who turned as frequently to his own texts as to words by other writers, Gurney brought to the creation of songs a singular sensibility for recognizing the musical potential of words.

In his singing of Gurney’s music, Giebler exhibits similar propensity, his vocalism distinguished by impeccable musicianship and reliably secure intonation. North American singers’ performances of British songs sometimes sound frustratingly pompous, as though there is a need to imitate a grandeur of utterance not found in the American personality, but Giebler approaches Gurney’s and all of the songs on a lad’s love with stylistic cogency, his interpretations kaleidoscopically expressive but never exaggerated.

Written in 1919, after the composer returned from the front, recovered from his battle injuries, and began studying with Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, Gurney’s song cycle Ludlow and Teme was inspired not by his own verses but by those of Alfred Edward Housman (1859 – 1936), whose collection of poems entitled A Shropshire Lad is as significant to British Art Song as the poetry of Goethe and Heine are to German Lieder. The texts used in Ludlow and Teme are quintessentially Housmanesque, juxtaposing conflicting human emotions with deceptively serene evocations of the English countryside. Scored for tenor, piano, and string quartet, the cycle’s seven songs disclose a fellow poet’s insightful handling of words’ intrinsic tunefulness.

In the performance of Ludlow and Teme on this disc, the string players—violinists Katie Hyun and Ben Russell, violist Jessica Meyer, and cellist Michael Katz—execute their parts with consistent technical acumen and a permeating sense of true participation in interpreting the songs, their sounds allying with the tenor’s voice and the pianist’s playing to establish in the opening song, ‘When smoke stood up from Ludlow,’ an environment of emotional sincerity. This sentimental directness persists in ‘Far in a western brookland,’ sung with expertly-managed breath control that facilitates artful phrasing. The pensiveness of Giebler’s reading of ‘’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town’ ably partners his realization of the beguiling potential of ‘Ludlow fair.’ The gossamer beauty of his voicing of ‘On the idle hill of summer’ lends the imagery of the text picturesque potency, creating for the listener a tableau of the idyllic Shropshire countryside. Into that Acadian setting comes a vulnerable youth via Giebler’s engaging, energetic ‘When I was one-and-twenty.’ The subtleties of Housman’s words and Gurney’s music in ‘The Lent Lily’ find in Giebler and his colleagues interpreters whose artistic camaraderie is uniquely suited to elucidating their shadows and smiles.

It was during his wartime service that Gurney composed ‘In Flanders,’ a setting of a haunting text by Frederick William Harvey. Here performed in an arrangement incorporating the string quartet, the song euphoniously presents a harrowing but harmonious assessment of the costs of war. The horrors of the Great War are now tempered by the passing of a century, but the emotional toll of Gurney’s experiences is felt in Giebler’s performance. His becomes the voice of lost innocence, intoning an elegy for the innumerable lives destroyed by conflict.

Giebler is joined in his performance of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 51 Canticle II by countertenor Reginald Mobley. Composed in 1952 for Britten’s partner, tenor Sir Peter Pears, and the eminent English contralto Kathleen Ferrier, the second of the composer’s five Canticles recounts Fifteenth-Century Chester mystery plays’ depiction of the Old Testament narrative of the patriarch Abraham’s willingness to obey a divine command to slay his son Isaac, a command now argued by rabbinical scholars to have been understood by Abraham as a test, Providential doctrine of the sanctity of life effectively prohibiting human sacrifice.

Giebler and Mobley prove to be worthy successors of Pears and Ferrier, the younger tenor’s timbre more ingratiating than Pears’s and both he and Mobley excelling as interpreters of Britten’s complex music. Aided by McGhee’s complete fluency in the composer’s musical language, the voices intertwine mesmerizingly when imparting God’s instructions to Abraham, the unaffected directness of their articulation of ‘That thou lovest the best of all’ lending the cruelty of the mandate profoundly personal poignancy. The youthfulness of Giebler’s tones emphasize Abraham’s humanity, lifting the biblical figure out of antiquity with a touching suggestion of a still-young father grappling with the momentousness of the task assigned to him. Nevertheless, there is an aptly Brittensian flicker of irony in Giebler’s delivery of ‘Make Thee ready, my dear darling, / For we must do a little thing.’

Mobley is but one of a number of gifted countertenors who have sung Isaac’s lines in the decades since Canticle II was first performed, but his singing in this performance demonstrates that he is one of the best. The naturalness of his singing is conspicuous: he resorts to none of the technical trickery that some of his fellow countertenors employ in their vocal production. There is little resemblance between Mobley’s and Ferrier’s voices, but the wrenching immediacy with which the countertenor sings ‘Would God that my mother were here with me!’ qualifies him as Ferrier’s peer as an intuitive musical storyteller. Throughout this account of Canticle II, paced by McGhee with unerring sensitivity to Britten’s markings and the emotional flow of the text, Mobley probes the words’ subtleties, expressing the son’s fear, disbelief, and sense of betrayal with unpretentious pathos. He, Giebler, and McGhee circumvent the pitfalls of Canticle II’s centuries-old parlance, effectuating a plaintive, superbly musical account that is never twee or didactic.

Composed during four turbulent years that witnessed the eruption of World War Two but not published as a collection until 1997, Britten’s Six Settings of W.H. Auden offer an intriguing glimpse of the artists’ working relationship. Britten’s collaboration with Auden produced works as seminal in the composer’s œuvre and in British music in general as Our Hunting Fathers and Hymn to St. Cecilia and markedly influenced other projects, notably the post-Albert Herring operas. In the performances of these Auden songs on a lad’s love, Giebler and McGhee fashion a cohesive narrative that capitalizes on the characteristic metaphysical complexities of the writer’s texts. The gentle anticipation that suffuses Giebler’s voicing of ‘To lie flat on the back’ gives way to stoic acquiescence in ‘Night covers up the rigid land.’ Nature surges through McGhee’s playing in ‘Fish in the unruffled lakes’ and ‘The sun shines down,’ complementing Giebler’s concentration on the specificity of Britten’s tone painting. Voice and piano parallel the discourse between the physical and emotional realms that enlivens ‘What’s in your mind’ and ‘Underneath the abject willow.’ The intricacies of Britten’s handling of Auden’s words are devotedly observed in their performances of this music, but Giebler and McGhee broaden the songs’ interpretive contexts by projecting rousing spontaneity.

The words of Peter Warlock’s 1922 song ‘In an Arbour Green’ were taken from a modernization of a Sixteenth-Century text by Robert (or Richard) Wever. The composer’s adaptation of the text lends the poet’s conceits contexts as relevant in 2020 as in 1922. Born Philip Arnold Heseltine, Warlock enjoyed little tranquility in the thirty-six years of his life. Like many of his songs, ‘In an Arbour Green’ was composed during the most productive period of Warlock’s career, when his creativity was spurred by time spent with Béla Bartók in Wales. The prevailing ambience of ‘In an Arbour Green’ is decidedly English, but Giebler and McGhee survey the Continental accents in Warlock’s musical idiom, especially those influenced by Gabriel Fauré. Giebler’s singing of Warlock’s compact song rivals the work of noted masters of chanson like Hugues Cuénod, the liaisons of words and music rendered with finesse.

The earliest piece on a lad’s love, Roger Quilter’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’ (Opus 3, No. 1), dates from 1905 and utilizes an oft-quoted text by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Like Gurney, Quilter possessed a gift for writing music that amplifies the meanings of words rather than merely accompanying their sounds. With this performance, Giebler and McGhee argue persuasively that Quilter achieved the summit of his artistry as a composer of songs with ‘Love’s Philosophy,’ the rhythmic pulse of the pianist’s playing echoing the cadences of the text. Singing in English sometimes elicits from vocalists open tones and over-enunciation more appropriate to musical theater than to Art Song, but the evenness of Giebler’s transitions through the passaggio facilitates wholly organic clarity of diction. His singing of ‘Love’s Philosophy’ is shaped not by artifice but by genuine affinity for Quilter’s writing.

Both John Ireland’s ‘Ladslove,’ excerpted from his 1920 – ’21 collection of songs pointedly entitled The Land of Lost Content, and his 1927 cycle We’ll to the Woods no More are also settings of verses from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Giebler and McGhee traverse ‘Ladslove’ with eloquence typical of their work on this disc, the artistic propinquity between voice and piano revealing fascinating details of Ireland’s thoughtful interpretations of words. ‘We’ll to the Woods no More’ is sung with palpable feeling, voice and piano creating a sense of solace. Tenor and pianist offer a strikingly intimate account of ‘In Boyhood,’ seeming to share memories of their own lives. Interestingly, Ireland treated the third of the texts comprising We’ll to the Woods no More, ‘Spring will not wait’ (the second and third stanzas of ‘We’ll to the Woods no More,’ the thirty-ninth poem in A Shropshire Lad), as a piece for piano that explores the moods of the text rather than as a conventional song with voice. Nonetheless, McGhee traces the melodic line with a singer’s attention to textual inflections: ‘the gold that I never see’ of which Housman wrote shimmers in McGhee’s playing.

The sole living composer whose music is sampled on a lad’s love, Ian Venables is represented by the affecting ‘Because I liked you better’ from his 2004 cycle Songs of Eternity and Sorrow (Opus 36a), performed here in its original form for voice, piano, and string quartet. Like so many of his musical ancestors, Venables found musical stimulus in Housman’s poetry. His setting of the lines ‘And say the lad that loved you / Was one that kept his word’ epitomizes Venables’s emotionally pragmatic style, advancing the legacy of Ivor Gurney, of whose estate the younger composer is a trustee, into the Twenty-First Century. His voice combining mellifluously with the pianist’s and quartet’s tones, Giebler sings ‘Because I liked you better’ with the candid warmth of a lad’s love.

Especially in an age in which funding for the Performing Arts is critically imperiled, it must never be forgotten that many proposed recording projects never come to fruition, burdening those that do with a heightened responsibility to justify their existence. The disheartening events of 2020 impose an even greater duty upon new recordings, that of providing listeners with elusive comfort, hope, and joy. Suffused with alluring, graceful singing, a lad’s love is a recital that earns the opportunity to be heard, but this is a disc that succeeds and satisfies in diverse ways. None of a lad’s love’s successes is more consequential than its declaration that song, when performed with love, can be a refuge from humanity’s horrors.