19 August 2019

August 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Gioachino Rossini — GIOVIN FIAMMA (Levy Sekgapane, tenor; Prima Classic PRIMA002)

August 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Gioachino Rossini - GIOVIN FIAMMA (Levy Sekgapane, tenor; Prima Classic PRIMA002)GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Giovin fiammaLevy Sekgapane, tenor; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Giacomo Sagripanti, conductor [Recorded in Bayerischer Rundfunk Studio 1, Munich, Germany, 26 February – 3 March 2018; Prima Classic PRIMA002; 1 CD, 63:54; Available from Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

If one’s objective is to ignite impassioned debates amongst opera lovers, there is no spark more certain of starting confrontational conflagrations than the assessment of Fächer. Since the premature decline of the celebrated Cornélie Falcon’s vocal prowess precipitated the search for fellow exponents of the Fach that now bears her name, the business of categorizing voices according to subjective parameters has been a contentious endeavor. Though some species are critically endangered, nature’s falcons remain considerably more plentiful than opera’s Falcons, yet suggesting that Maria Callas was perhaps a Falcon provokes volleys of indignant dismissal from advocates of spinto, drammatico d’agilità, and other Fächer. A marvel of the human voice is that a physiological apparatus of unchanging basic construction produces such a remarkable array of voice types. Extraordinary, too, is the capacity of ears to hear identical sounds so differently.

Encompassing nearly a century of musical invention, ranging from rôles like Oronte in Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina and Mozart’s operatic protagonists to parts in Giuseppe Verdi’s early operas, bel canto writing for the tenor voice engendered a variety of Fächer, some of which are now erroneously cited interchangeably to describe singers whose voices likely little resemble those of their Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century counterparts. Terms such as tenore di grazia, tenorino, and tenore contraltino are used to characterize voices that are produced with resonance that differs markedly from that described by contemporaries of the tenors who worked with Händel, Gluck, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. With too many singers and their admirers now confusing volume with vocal amplitude, connoisseurs’ discussions of a singer’s Fach are complicated by misinformation, misconceptions, and ever-decreasing familiarity with the storied traditions of past generations of singers. A young singer cognizant of his own Fach and confident in his place in the lineage of the masters of the music he sings is uniquely equipped to set the opera world ablaze, renewing opera’s cauldron with a young flame.

Making his solo recording début with Giovin fiamma, the second release from Prima Classic, South African tenor Levy Sekgapane upholds the standard of excellence established by the label’s first disc, Marina Rebeka’s splendid Spirito [reviewed here]. The admirably clear, focused, natural aural perspective that so faithfully conveyed the beauty of Rebeka’s voice on Spirito here enables the listener to experience the tenor’s voice not as it sounds on his previous recordings, an enjoyable but flawed performance of Donizetti’s Enrico di Borgogna and contributions to Amor fatale, Marina Rebeka’s disc of Rossini scenes, but as it blossoms in a hall with a good acoustic. [Sekgapane is also featured as Erster Priester and Erster Geharnischter on Deutsche Grammophon’s new recording of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.]

It is apparent that Giovin fiamma is not a disc that has been made to sound good by artful engineering: rather, a pleasing ambiance was organically achieved and then recorded with tremendous fidelity. Sekgapane thus provides the listener with a recital of some of Gioachino Rossini’s most daunting music for the tenor voice in which emphasis is placed on every aspect of the singer’s artistry. This is music that requires and, in the performances on this disc, receives showmanship, but Sekgapane sings with a palpable exuberance that distinguishes Giovin fiamma as a young singer’s invitation for the listener to join him on his artistic journey.

The repertory explored on Giovin fiamma makes comparisons with celebrated Rossini exponents including Ugo Benelli, Rockwell Blake, Juan Diego Flórez, Lawrence Brownlee, and Javier Camarena inevitable, but the voices that Sekgapane’s singing on this disc most meaningfully recalls are those of his countryman Colin Lee, the abrupt cessation of whose career is one of the most regrettable misfortunes in opera’s recent history, and the fantastic American tenor Kenneth Tarver. As heard here, the young tenor’s vocalism exhibits qualities akin to the innate nobility and poetic phrasing of Tarver’s singing, as well as the crystalline clarity of Lee’s articulations of bravura passages. The trait that marks Giovin fiamma as the work not merely of an exceptionally gifted singer but also of a discerning, disciplined artist is likewise one of the disc’s principal sources of pleasure for the listener: a pervasive sense of a singer with a thorough understanding of his vocal abilities.

Perception of this connection between singer and music is intensified by the support that Sekgapane receives from conductor Giacomo Sagripanti. Perpetuating the aesthetic fostered by the conducting of Alberto Zedda and Jesús López-Cobos, Sagripanti maintains fidelity to both the letter and the spirit of Rossini’s music without jeopardizing Sekgapane’s artistic individuality. Benefiting from the unerring musicality demonstrated by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester, here enlivening Rossini’s orchestrations as effervescently as any Italian orchestra might do, Sagripanti paces the pieces on this disc with insightful—and unquestionably well-rehearsed—comprehension of their hazards for singer and instrumentalists. Nonetheless, it is Sekgapane’s visage on Giovin fiamma cover, and the young tenor earns that pride of place. Devoting this first solo outing to a thoughtfully-conceived tribute to Rossini and three of the tenors whose voices inspired the composer, Sekgapane creates for himself a worthy presence in their company.

Few singers have influenced opera’s evolution as tangibly and enduringly as did Spanish tenor Manuel García (1775 - 1832), first with his own performances and later via his rôle in shaping the careers of his progeny, celebrated daughters Maria Malibran and Pauline Viardot and son Manuel, whose voice was declared inferior to his father’s but whose much-read tome on the art of singing continues to be regarded as an invaluable resource for students of bel canto. During his own career as a singer, the elder Señor García created several rôles for Rossini, foremost in familiarity to Twenty-First-Century audiences among which is Conte d’Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia.

Sekgapane logically begins his survey with Conte Almaviva’s bravura tour de force from Act Two of Barbiere, ‘Cessa di più resistere,’ a piece so demanding—and, undoubtedly to the chagrin of many interpreters of Rosina and Figaro, so exhilarating when sung well—that it was routinely omitted from performances of Barbiere by the early 1820s. Ever a savvy judge of the potential effectiveness of his own music, Rossini devised new homes for music from ‘Cessa più resistere’ in Adelaide di Borgogna, first performed in December 1817, and, most famously, as ‘Non più mesta,’ the heroine’s rondò finale in La Cenerentola. Propelled by a conspicuous evocation of the young aristocrat’s amorous ardor, Sekgapane’s rousing performance of ‘Cessa più resistere’ both validates the unmusical justifications for cutting the aria and, when sung with this sort of virtuosic panache, makes its customary excision seem little short of criminal.

The rôle of Lindoro in L’italiana in Algeri was created in the opera’s 1813 Venetian première by Serafino Gentili, but García’s interpretation of the part in Lisbon in 1819 ensured that Lindoro and his music became forever associated with the Spanish tenor. Even without aural evidence of the particular virtues that García brought to his performances of the rôle, Sekgapane’s singing of Lindoro’s ‘Languir per una bella’ on this disc challenges his artistic ancestor’s dominance. This is also true of the sample of the younger tenor’s portrayal of Don Ramiro, the prince in search of a suitable bride in La Cenerentola. Like Lindoro, Don Ramiro was first sung not by García but by a lesser-known tenor, Giacomo Guglielmi. García’s first Ramiro was likely heard in London two years after Cenerentola’s première in Rome, in a production supervised and conducted by Rossini.

Don Ramiro’s scene in Act Two of Cenerentola exemplifies a style of assertive writing for the tenor voice that Rossini would employ with sensational impact in Arnold’s ‘Asile héréditaire’ in Act Four of Guillaume Tell. The scale of Don Ramiro’s ‘Sì, ritrovarla io giuro’ is less heroic than that of Arnold’s music, but Sekgapane’s voicing of the music from Cenerentola is aptly electrifying. Don Ramiro shares with Verdi’s Manrico a resolve to find the woman he loves at any cost, but Sekgapane resists the temptation to sing—or, more accurately, over-sing—‘Sì, ritrovarla io giuro’ as a bel canto ‘Di quella pira.’ Sekgapane conveys Don Ramiro’s determination with sparklingly precise fiorature, perfectly-placed top notes, and dramatic impetus drawn from the music.

The voice of Scottish tenor John Sinclair, the first interpreter of the rôle of Idreno in Semiramide, was characterized by Nineteenth-Century chroniclers in terms not unlike those employed to recount the singular qualities of French haute-contre singers. Upon his return to England after a brief period of study with Rossini and the première of Semiramide at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, Sinclair was praised for his smooth delivery of passagework and expert management of an upper register that extended without strain to F5. His singing was also criticized for being excessively effeminate. Diverging from Sinclair’s example in that regard, Sekgapane’s singing of Idreno’s ‘Ah, dov’è, dov’è il cimento?’ imparts stirring bravado, lending the character greater machismo than he often wields. It is improbable that the capabilities of singers as prodigiously gifted as John Sinclair and Manuel García were not taxed by ‘Ah, dov’è, dov’è il cimento,’ but neither the aria’s tessitura nor its coloratura overwhelms Sekgapane’s technical adroitness.

Contemporary appraisals of his performances indicate that Giovanni David (1790 - 1864) could not equal the stage deportments and theatricality of the most talented of his rivals, but his harshest critics acknowledged that few if any other singers of his time matched the brilliance of his vocalism. Perhaps this dichotomy accounts, at least in part, for Rossini allocating the rôle of Rodrigo rather than the name part in his setting of Otello to David. Veritably offering a seminar on the art of acting with the voice, Sekgapane prefaces the recitative that precedes Rodrigo’s ‘Ah, come mai non senti’ with declamatory authority, but it is his handling of the aria that verifies his mastery of Rossini’s writing for David. In this performance, the words are used not merely as sources for the vowels needed to produce a pleasing stream of sound but also as a catapult that hurls the character’s motivations into the dramatic fray. Sekgapane is more comfortable above the stave than below, but his lowest notes are fully, genuinely sung and integrated into the vocal line.

Contrasting markedly with the primal atmosphere of Otello, Act Two of Rossini’s La donna del lago begins with ‘Oh fiamma soave,’ a sublime aria sung by Giacomo, the Scottish king who masquerades—not implausibly, history relays—throughout much of the opera as Uberto di Snowdon. The man’s regal bearing is apparent in Sekgapane’s account of the piece. Capitalizing on Sagripanti’s apposite tempo, the tenor projects each note and phrases each roulade with purpose, limning the sentiments of the text with engrossing specificity.

The profusion of top Ds that makes Ilo’s ‘Terra amica, ove respira’ from Act One of Zelmira hard going for many singers poses no great hardship for this tenor. Sekgapane craftily trades the final written top D for an interpolated ascending passage cresting on a sustained top C, sung with the indefatigable brio heard in all of the performances on Giovin fiamma. Vitally, Sekgapane’s singing discloses an aptitude for capturing and maintaining the listener’s interest by expressing the feelings that provoke the dizzying divisions. The first rôle that David created for Rossini was Narciso in Il turco in Italia, and Sekgapane commemorates the inauguration of that momentous partnership with a resplendent voicing of Narciso’s ‘Tu seconda il mio disegno.’ Listeners who are inclined to question the psychological perspicacity of Rossini’s musical portraiture should scrutinize the immediacy with which Sekgapane animates the lovelorn Narciso’s music: this is irrefutably the work of an intuitive interpretive artist, but the materials with which he draws a compelling sketch of Narciso were provided by Rossini.

The final selection on Giovin fiamma, the Duke of Norfolk’s scene from Act Two of Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, is presented in homage to Andrea Nozzari (1776 - 1832), who sang the rôle of the Earl of Leicester in the opera’s first performance. Information in Nineteenth-Century annals concerning Nozzari having later portrayed Norfolk, who was created in Elisabetta’s 1815 première by Manuel García, is ambiguous, but it is wholly plausible that he accepted the advancement in rank from earl to duke in the sixteen years between the opera’s première and his retirement from the stage. [Incidentally, Juan Diego Flórez included the scene on a disc of arias sung by Giovanni Battista Rubini, whose portrayals of Norfolk are extensively documented.] From the first bars of his golden-toned enunciation of ‘Deh! troncate i ceppi suoi,’ the legitimacy of Sekgapane’s association with this music is affirmed, however. Always adhering to standards of period-appropriate tastefulness, the intensity of his voicing of Norfolk’s ‘Vendicar saprò l’offesa’ transforms his performance from a demonstration of a young singer’s vocal health into a pulse-quickening depiction of an ambitious nobleman’s chicanery. Nevertheless, the purest essence of Rossini’s art was in Nozzari’s time and is still the fluidity of the vocal writing, and the caliber of Sekgapane’s singing on this disc warrants the distinction of being described as bel canto.

For the star tenors celebrated on Giovin fiamma, there was no heavier repertoire with which to contend. Only after the advents of Verdi, Wagner, and verismo, after revisiting the music of the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century with perceptions influenced by larger orchestras and larger theatres, was it determined that tenors who sing Rossini’s Conte Almaviva, Don Ramiro, and Idreno should not also sing Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio and Max in Weber’s Der Freischütz. It is ironic that singers whose careers were limited by swaths of today’s standard repertory having not yet been written were also less inhibited by strict definitions of Fächer and their boundaries. [Josef August Röckel, Beethoven’s first Florestan in the 1806 revision of Fidelio, sang several Rossini rôles in Vienna, including Lindoro in L’italiana in Algeri, and his son later worked as Rossini’s assistant in Paris.] As Manuel García, Giovanni David, and Andrea Nozzari would surely have attested, the health and longevity of a voice rely upon its owner first cultivating a reliable technical foundation and then building a repertoire that the technique can support. The carcasses of ruined voices that litter the paths to the world’s great opera houses confirm that too many young singers are not being taught or allowed to listen to their own voices. Giovin fiamma is therefore a ray of hope. With these performances of some of Rossini’s most difficult music, Levy Sekgapane professes that he is a singer who both literally and figuratively knows and respects his own voice.

17 June 2019

CD REVIEW: Poul Ruders — THE THIRTEENTH CHILD (S. Shafer, T. Mumford, A. Sewailam, M. Boehler, A. Kent, D. Portillo, A. Rosen, A. Evans; Bridge Records BRIDGE 9527)

IN REVIEW: Poul Ruders - THE THIRTEENTH CHILD (Bridge Records BRIDGE 9527)POUL RUDERS (born 1949): The Thirteenth ChildSarah Shafer (Lyra, Princess of Frohagord), Tamara Mumford (Gertrude, Queen of Frohagord; Ghost of Gertrude), Ashraf Sewailam (Drokan, Regent of Hauven), Alasdair Kent (Frederic, Prince of Hauven; Toke, Prince of Frohagord), David Portillo (Benjamin, Prince of Frohagord), Matt Boehler (Hjarne, King of Frohagord), Alex Rosen (Corbin, Prince of Frohagord), Amber Evans (choral soloist); Bridge Academy Singers, Odense Symfoniorkester; David Starobin and Benjamin Shwartz, conductors [Recorded in Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, USA, and New Rochelle Studios, New Rochelle, New York, USA, during September 2016 and December 2018; Bridge Records BRIDGE 9527; 1 CD, 77:50; Available from Bridge Records and major music retailers]

When his opera L’Orfeo premièred in Mantua in 1607, within mere days of the landing of the first party of successful English settlers in what would become the colony of Virginia, can Claudio Monteverdi have imagined that, 412 years later, not only would opera remain a thriving art form but that tomes would have been written about how L’Orfeo and his other surviving operas should be performed in the Twenty-First Century? Scholars debate whether short-lived composers including Mozart and Bellini expected their operas to be studied and appreciated by future generations, and there are many lamentable examples, among whom Rossini is one of the most familiar, of composers witnessing the waning of interest in their music. Wagner surely intended to be discussed by future listeners and musicologists, but perhaps he did not envision the virtues and vices of his operas being debated no less vehemently—likely more so, in fact—in 2019 as at the time of his death in 1883. If the important composers of the past considered the notion of opera’s future, how might they have dreamed that opera would sound in 2019?

It is likely that opera can survive on a diet of familiar works, but the genre’s appetite for new music must be fed in order to ensure that opera will thrive throughout and beyond the Twenty-First Century. It cannot be denied that innovation is not always welcomed, however. A maddening paradox of opera in the new millennium is that, in many instances, those listeners who dismiss current trends in staging standard-repertory works as unacceptable also reject new works. Professing to advocate for the perpetual vitality of opera, some connoisseurs argue both that long-admired scores should be shelved until singers and conductors capable of equaling acclaimed performances of past generations can be found and that most new works are not worthy of sharing stages with beloved classics.

All listeners, novices and aficionados, have likes and dislikes and the right to defend them, but opera quickly stagnates without new voices and new music. Since the label’s inception, Bridge Records releases have given listeners opportunities to discover new works in an array of genres, introducing or deepening acquaintances with accomplished composers, musicians, librettists, and lyricists. The present release, The Thirteenth Child, is a masterfully-recorded continuation of the label’s initiatives, but it is not merely the product of a concerted effort to affirm the merits of contemporary music. This project is the apotheosis of a personal crusade to create an opera not as an academic exercise in joining words with music but as a rejuvenation of the theatrical aesthetics that characterize the works that shaped the first four centuries of opera’s history.

Adapted from Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s story ‘Die zwölf Brüder,’ Danish composer Poul Ruder’s two-act opera The Thirteenth Child is a setting of an atmospheric, wonderfully singable libretto by Becky and David Starobin, the founders of Bridge Records. Under their guidance, this world-première recording, the release of which coincides with the opening of the opera’s inaugural production at Santa Fe Opera on 27 July 2019, gives the opera a truly memorable début.

The vocal music conducted by David Starobin and the superlative playing of the Odense Symfoniorkester, by which ensemble The Thirteenth Child was commissioned in partnership with Santa Fe Opera, led in Act One by Starobin and in Act Two by Benjamin Shwartz, there is not one passage of the score that seems haphazardly paced. The opera advances with cinematic celerity that incites both Starobin and Shwartz to conducting of gripping urgency. Throughout the performance, maintaining the intelligibility of the text is paramount. The result of this concentration on the impact of the words is a drama that ensnares the listener’s heart.

The operatic tapestry woven by the Starobins from the threads of the Grimms’ story unfurls in music that is by turns mesmerizing, wrenching, moving, and, in the opera’s final scene, uplifting. Born on the bustling island of Zealand in the Baltic Sea, Ruders turned to composition after studying the organ. From that start, a trajectory that is often audible in this score, he has forged a career that, with The Thirteenth Child, has engendered five operas. With each of these works, Ruders has exhibited an exceptional faculty for recounting profoundly human experiences in music that heightens their universality.

As its Grimmsian provenance suggests, The Thirteenth Child is fantastical, but the score is always rooted in a plausible emotional reality that is reinforced by transitional Interludes. Ruders eschews obvious, coy allusions and effects: the metamorphosis of the princes of Frohagord into ravens exerts a temptation to indulge in Wagnerian pastiche that many composers would find irresistible, but Ruders devises his own musical language for this and all of the opera’s dramatic exploits. That language, closely allied with the Starobins’ words, evokes an enigmatic, ritualistic realm in which discordant hostility ultimately cannot vanquish melody.

It is not surprising that considerable care was employed in casting this recorded performance of The Thirteenth Child, but engaging artists with uniformly exemplary qualifications for their rôles is rare in any repertoire. Soprano Amber Evans impresses as both chorus master of the Bridge Academy Singers and soloist, and her example clearly influenced the elegant, ideally-balanced singing of the choristers. Bass Alex Rosen’s voicing of Corbin, one of the ill-fated Princes of Frohagord, is handsomely forthright, his unaffected approach to the part conveying the frustration of a strong youth prostrated by ungovernable circumstances.

Few singers embody the musical and temperamental meanings of tenore di grazia as fully as tenor David Portillo. Acclaimed as an interpreter of Baroque, Classical, bel canto, and modern music, he possesses an appealing, flexible voice, the technical acumen required to use it properly, and an unfeigned charisma that endears his characterizations to audiences. As Benjamin, the youngest Prince of Frohagord, in The Thirteenth Child, Portillo provides a beam of light that brightens the decaying, Cimmerian environment engendered by Hjarne’s suspicions and uncertainty. United in Act Two with Lyra, the sister whose existence was hidden from the Princes, Benjamin realizes that the girl will fall victim to her brothers’ longing for vengeance. Singing ‘I must hide you’ with a torrent of fraternal affection, the tenor traverses the range of the music effortlessly, his upper register shimmering.

Portillo delivers Benjamin’s riddle with boyish playfulness, slyly shepherding his brothers to the discovery of Lyra. Transformed into a raven, Benjamin receives a mortal wound whilst freeing Lyra from flames that threaten to consume her. Portillo voices Benjamin’s dying words, ‘I hardly knew my parents’ love, yet felt complete in brotherhood,’ with touching sincerity. The Grimm story indicates that Benjamin was named for the biblical son of Jacob whose honesty and loyalty restored his brethren to the good graces of their wronged brother Joseph. In The Thirteenth Child, Benjamin’s sacrifice precipitates the opera’s lieto fine, and Portillo’s portrayal makes the young man’s modest but pivotal valor poignantly credible.

First heard in the music accompanying Hjarne’s funeral in the second scene of Act One, the voice of tenor Alasdair Kent is extraordinarily beautiful. In both the music for Frederic, Prince of Hauven, and the few words sung by Toke, Prince of Frohagord, Kent sings gloriously, his golden tones drawing their patina from his sparkling diction. When Frederic returns in the third scene of Act Two, the tenor persuasively expresses the prince’s yearning in his account of ‘For seven years I searched in vain.’ Later​, ​entreating the duplicitous Drokan to watch over the mute Lyra, Kent’s Frederic sings ‘Keep my beloved safe’ with tenderness and integrity that only the basest villain could betray. The brief, soaring phrases with the liberated Lyra in the opera’s final scene are projected with fearlessness and intonational accuracy. In longevity, Kent’s parts in The Thirteenth Child are not extensive, but his ringing, regal vocalism gives this performance its romantic hero.

Bass Matt Boehler copes courageously and securely but not always comfortably with the sepulchral tessitura of Ruder’s music for Hjarne, King of Frohagord. Manipulated by Drokan’s duplicitous warnings about his sons’ plots to usurp his throne, Hjarne is goaded into a state of Lear-like delirium in the throes of which he trusts no one, and Boehler utters the king’s raving ‘I gave them life’ with sputtering ire. This contrasts tellingly with the haunting loveliness with which he voices ‘The night air groans.’ Like many historical kings, Hjarne’s most powerful enemy is his own weakness, but in Boehler’s performance there is dignity even in the king’s most manic moments.

Drokan, Regent of Hauven, is the sort of irredeemable schemer who in a silent film might affix helpless maidens to railroad tracks. In fact, he resorts as his final misdeed in The Thirteenth Child to binding Lyra to a bonfire. The character’s one-dimensional pursuit of power notwithstanding, bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam portrays Drokan as a man of Machiavellian cunning. Preying upon ​Hjarne​’s insecurity with insinuation, this Drokan is a model of false concern.

Sewailam’s voice echoes the perilous duality of the character’s words: frighteningly thunderous in anger, his singing can also be cajolingly soft. The jealous malevolence that erupts in his voicing of ‘Their house endures with each new child’ unmasks Drokan’s perfidy. The listener knows the calculating regent’s intentions before they become apparent to those he seeks to harm, of course, and he is in Sewailam’s performance unsettlingly chameleonic, alternately suave and sinister. The bass-baritone’s voice is perfect for the part, his granitic timbre and emphatic delivery filling Drokan’s veins with coldly fiendish blood.

Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford is one of today’s most versatile singers. Unlike versatile singers who personify the cliché of being jacks of all trades and masters of none, Mumford excels in many musical styles. To their company she adds Ruders’s music for Gertrude, whom she will also portray in the Santa Fe Opera production of The Thirteenth Child. Enacting the confusion and horror of the queen’s response to ​Hjarne​’s bizarre ranting and unprovoked repudiation of their children, Mumford sings first ‘Lilies, red with blood, their beauty ever flowers’ and then ‘What is this madness?’ with musical and verbal immediacy, disclosing a queen’s poise, a wife’s alarm, and a mother’s anxiety.

Mumford’s phrasing of ‘O’, your sweetness dulled his rage’ in Gertrude’s death scene recalls the cadences of John Dowland’s doleful lute songs. Aided by suitably spectral electronic reverberation, she eerily intones the pronouncements of Gertrude’s ghost, dismay suffusing her singing of ‘My child, what have you done?’ when Lyra guilelessly destroys the lilies that are the Hofmannsthal-esque symbols of the princes’ existence. Alive and dead, Gertrude is the voice of reason in an increasingly unhinged domain. Mumford’s vocal prowess and theatrical savvy magnify this matriarch’s domination of a patriarchal world.

The thirteenth child of the opera’s title, Princess Lyra unwittingly jeopardizes the lives of the brothers she has never known and atones for her mistake by submitting to seven years of silence. Soprano Sarah Shafer interprets the rôle without artifice, evincing the princess’s innocence with singing of gossamer purity. Learning from her dying mother of the wrongs endured by the brothers she has never met, Lyra resolves to find and help the twelve princes. A guitar emerges from the instrumental ensemble to animate the accompaniment to ‘Oh, mother, your hand still warm, guide me,’ lending this music the communicative spirit of a troubadour’s ballad, and Shafer’s performance focuses on the text.

The soprano’s demeanor in the scene in which Gertrude’s ghost appears to Lyra is convincingly unnerved, but the voice remains glowingly resilient. Mourning the death of Benjamin, who gives his life in order to save Lyra from Drokan’s machinations, Shafer’s voice throbs with emotion as she sings ‘Benjamin! Do not go!’ The catharsis of the restoration of the princes’ birthright and Lyra’s joyous reunion with Frederic is all the sweeter for its brevity. Shafer’s voice rockets above the stave with the brilliance of a fireworks display, but Ruders does not prolong the celebration. There is a sense of reclaimed equilibrium: Lyra is eager to carry on, living rather than extolling normalcy. If the quality of Shafer’s singing in The Thirteenth Child were normal in performances of contemporary operas, their paths to acceptance might be far less arduous.

In some ways, it is now more difficult than ever before to bring a new opera to the stage, not least in terms of securing financial support. Perhaps contributing to a lasting work of art is no longer viewed as being as meaningful a return on an investment as it once was, or perhaps it is more gratifying to back projects that are more visible than operas are in the Twenty-First Century. From its earliest birth pangs in the Sixteenth Century, though, operatic innovation has relied not upon the espousal of the masses but upon the vision and daring of a small community of artists and their advocates. There are many variables in the equation that determines an opera’s success, yet, as The Thirteenth Child demonstrates, the computation is simple. The common denominator among memorable operas old and new is an engaging story told with words and music to which performers and audiences respond. Performed with the enthusiasm that this recording exudes, The Thirteenth Child is a score in which progress raises its voice like a lily lifting its head to welcome a new day.

14 June 2019

June 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: W. Leigh, N. Rorem, V. Kalabis, & M. Nyman — 20TH CENTURY HARPSICHORD CONCERTOS (Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Cedille Records CDR 90000 188)

IN REVIEW: Walter Leigh, Ned Rorem, Viktor Kalabis, & Michael Nyman - 20th CENTURY HARPSICHORD CONCERTOS (Cedille Records CDR 90000 188)WALTER LEIGH (1905 – 1945), NED ROREM (born 1923), VIKTOR KALABIS (1923 – 2006), and MICHAEL NYMAN (born 1944): 20th Century Harpsichord ConcertosJory Vinikour, harpsichord; Chicago Philharmonic; Scott Speck, conductor [Recorded in Wentz Hall, Naperville, Illinois, USA, on 3 November 2016 (Nyman), Feinberg Theater at Spertus Institute, Chicago, Illinois, USA, on 5 March 2018 (Leigh and Kalabis), and Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA, on 8 May 2018 (Rorem); Cedille Records CDR 90000 188; 1 CD, 75:42; Available from Cedille Records and major music retailers]

Whether his musical curiosity encompasses five centuries or five months of artistic innovation, each listener develops unique sensibilities that are influenced by performances that inspire, intrigue, and educate. The jazz lover is unlikely to forget his first hearing of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five.’ For the rock ’n roll enthusiast, an introduction to the pioneering recordings of Sister Rosetta Tharpe can have the impact of a spiritual awakening. Buddy Holly, Bill Monroe, Mahalia Jackson, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles all changed the ways in which music is created and heard, cutting records that altered their own and other genres. The recorded efforts of these and countless other trailblazers, some widely acclaimed and others barely remembered, form an artistic legacy that parallels and in some cases propels the evolution of human societies.

Even if only Western cultures are considered, the diversity of the vast spectrum of genres and forms that collectively constitute what has somewhat cavalierly been designated as Classical Music is astounding, and every genre, form, and individual work has performance and recording histories that shape listeners’ perceptions of the music. Recordings like Artur Schnabel’s cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas, Pau Casals’s early account of Bach’s cello suites, Bruno Walter’s 1938 performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and Maria Callas’s first Tosca created standards by which the merits of other performances of these and similar works are measured.

Determining which performances shoulder the responsibility of primacy is anything but a perfect science, what is definitive to one pair of ears sounding disastrous to another, but there are recordings that demand that listeners discard their assumptions and prejudices. Cedille Records’s ambitious new recording of Twentieth-Century works for harpsichord and orchestra lures listeners out of Eighteenth-Century salons and transports them to an aural world in which Igor Stravinsky is closer at hand than Domenico Scarlatti. With one notable exception, the pieces on this disc are not new to recordings, but these electrifying performances inaugurate a new chapter in the harpsichord’s still-developing narrative.

There are perhaps fewer milestones in the history of recording music for the harpsichord than in other instruments’ discographies. From Wanda Landowska’s pioneering performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations to George Malcolm’s recording of Poulenc’s Concert champêtre with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the first half-century of the harpsichord’s tenure before recording microphones produced many performances in which obvious good intentions were ultimately mitigated by increased awareness of stylistic anachronisms. For some listeners, the very notion of Twentieth-Century music for harpsichord might seem inherently oxymoronic, a misconception that this disc seeks to remedy. Significantly, the music on this does not approach the harpsichord as an antiquated instrument that must be adapted to modern idioms. This music exploits the modernity of which the harpsichord has been capable since its emergence in its most familiar form in the Sixteenth Century.

It is not merely by right of monopoly that Chicagoland-born harpsichordist and conductor Jory Vinikour’s survey of Twentieth-Century music for harpsichord and orchestra assumes a place of great prominence in the harpsichord’s discography. His mastery of the instrument’s typical Baroque repertoire has been manifested in performances in a plethora of critically-acclaimed performances and recordings, but Vinikour is no less committed to championing the work of contemporary composers who write for the harpsichord. With this disc, he advances the initiative exemplified by his GRAMMY®-nominated recording Toccatas [reviewed here]. The harpsichord’s basic mechanism of tonal production is unchanging, whether the music being played is by a composer born in 1650 or in 1950, but Vinikour’s immersion in the divergent styles of the music on this disc yields spellbinding performances. To some listeners, these pieces may seem like curiosities. Vinikour reveals them to be cornerstones of Twentieth-Century writing for the harpsichord.

Expertly led in these performances by conductor Scott Speck, the musicians of the Chicago Philharmonic prove to be nimbly adaptable exponents of the disparate styles of the works on this disc. Chicago is home to another, more known large-scaled instrumental ensemble, but, as the Philharmonic’s playing affirms, notoriety does not always equate with superiority. Conductor and musicians devise consistently logical solutions to the music’s problems, one of the most important of which is that of maintaining proper balances between the harpsichord and a modern orchestra. Excessive or ill-managed electronic manipulation of the harpsichord’s timbre can result in harsh, unnatural sounds, but this disc’s engineering achieves a near-ideal acoustical balance between harpsichord and orchestra, a particularly commendable accomplishment considering that the recording sessions utilized three different venues.

Speck conducts each piece with perceptible comprehension of its musical infrastructure, his commands of stylistic shifts and thematic development facilitating the Philharmonic musicians’ crisp executions of difficult ensemble passages. The works on this disc are more overtly symphonic in basic construction than earlier music for harpsichord and orchestra, requiring particularly sympathetic collaboration between harpsichordist and conductor. The efforts of Vinikour, the Chicago Philharmonic, and Speck here impart an inviolable unity of purpose, their shared dedication to elucidating the many felicities of this music manifested in performances enriched and emboldened by each musician’s contributions.

Completed in 1934, eight years before World War II claimed the thirty-six-year-old composer’s life, Walter Leigh’s Concertino for harpsichord and strings is an attractive, accessible piece with bucolic charms that never linger beyond their capacities to entice. This is not to suggest that the Concertino lacks sophistication, however. Its musical language assimilates accents from a number of influences into an identifiably individual dialect, both discernibly cosmopolitan and unmistakably English. Vinikour and his colleagues perform the Concertino’s opening Allegro movement with consummate skill, the clarity of their ensemble playing aided by Speck’s sensible, supportive pacing. The movement’s elaborate cadenza, not unlike that in the first movement of the fifth of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, provides Vinikour with an opportunity to display his virtuosic prowess, which he wields with restraint appropriate for this unpretentious score.

Leigh’s central Andante begins with an extended unaccompanied passage for the harpsichord that is reminiscent of the sarabandes found in the music of Georg Friedrich Händel and Jean-Philippe Rameau. His expertise in playing Baroque music is especially evident here, but the fluidity of his phrasing demonstrates commensurate comprehension of the essential tenets of bel canto. Hints of Antonio Vivaldi’s concerti echo in the concluding Allegro vivace movement, enlivening the music with a rustic exuberance.​ This performance of Leigh’s Concertino concludes with a surge of controlled spontaneity, harpsichord and orchestra conversing with the familiarity of beloved friends.

Here made commercially available on disc for the first time, Ned Rorem’s Concertino da Camera dates from 1946, when the composer was only twenty-three years old. The tunefulness of the piece contrasts with a metaphysical profundity that reminds listeners that the horrors of World War II remained open wounds as the ink dried on Rorem’s score. His introductory Allegro non troppo movement is characterized by writing for the instrumental ensemble that is both energetic and subtly elegiac, the melodic momentum of the music escalated by the scintillating figurations for cornet and flute. The Chicago Philharmonic musicians play their parts with passion and precision, the transitions among instruments navigated by both composer and conductor with the organic eloquence of similar effects in Mozart’s Divertimenti and Serenades.

The long melodic lines of the Molto moderato that momentarily still the dramatic tumult of Rorem’s Concertino da Camera like an operatic intermezzo receive intelligent handling in this performance. It can be argued that the harpsichord’s manner of tonal production is not conducive to lyricism, but an integral component of Vinikour’s artistry is an unusual ability to effectuate expressive legato playing despite the limitations of an instrument’s tonal prolongation. Vinikour plays poetically, evincing genuine emotion in the dialogue between harpsichord and orchestra. In the Presto, too, the music’s quest for resolution is driven by Rorem’s vivid writing for the cornet, which is delivered with galvanizing aplomb. The Concertino da Camera is a youthful work but in no way an immature one, and the performance of it on this disc spotlights the prodigality of invention that has distinguished Nyman’s music throughout his career.

In the final years of his life, Czech composer Viktor Kalabis and his wife, celebrated harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková (1927 - 2017), formed a friendship with Vinikour, and, thirteen years after Kalabis’s death, the mutual respect of that relationship continues to permeate the harpsichordist’s performances of the composer’s music. Kalabis’s Harpsichord Concerto might have been written to showcase Vinikour’s singular blend of technique and heart. In the Allegro Leggiero that begins the Concerto, the rhythmic exactitude of Vinikour’s trills allies with the crystalline brilliance of his playing of bravura passages to beget stark, sometimes abrasive aural tableaux. The movement ends with a Wagnerian halo of high strings, recalling the gossamer sounds of the Vorspiel to Act One of Lohengrin. Speck’s intuitive conducting discloses the wealth of beauty in the music without dulling its jagged edges.

Launched by a mournful phrase for solo violin that grows more agitated when it recurs, the slow movement of Kalabis’s Concerto, marked Andante, is disquietingly ambiguous. Morose and menacing at once, the music is intriguingly intimate even at its most extroverted., The brusque chords with which the harpsichord makes its entrance are played with unstinting attack. Vinikour’s performance transcends the technical demands of the music, finding in its outbursts of fury and frustration a captivating emotional chronicle. There are moments in the Concerto’s Allegro vivo movement that bring the music of Samuel Barber to mind, but Kalabis’s work clings to originality, not least in the ferocious writing for the harpsichord. In the first of the movement’s oasis-like interludes, the exchanges among the strings’ pizzicati with the harpsichord’s isolated chords is given conversational immediacy: Vinikour and the Chicago Philharmonic musicians wage battle with passion and civility, ending the Concerto with an affectingly straightforward rendering of Kalabis’s ambivalent synthesis of conflict and accord.

Michael Nyman is justly esteemed as one of Britain’s most gifted contemporary composers. Like his colleagues whose music is featured on this disc, Nyman has written successful works in many genres, his ingenuity exhibited in vocal and instrumental music. The writing for the solo instrument in his through-composed Concerto for amplified harpsichord and strings occasionally suggests a vocal line, and Vinikour plays Nyman’s music with aptly ‘singing’ tone. The Concerto’s first sequence (crotchet = 120 - 144) has the complexity of a Bach toccata, and harpsichordist, orchestra, and conductor unleash a torrent of sound in the piece’s cacophonous, almost bellicose segments.

The allure of Vinikour’s lyrical phrasing lends the broad melody of the più mosso section unexpected tenderness, and the reminiscences of the keyboard works of Claude-Bénigne Balbastre in the lilting meno mosso episode of Nyman’s Concerto benefit from this harpsichordist’s acquaintance with the Baroque master’s music. Representative of Speck’s insightful negotiations of Nyman’s changes of tempo is his seamless shift into the music marked crotchet = circa 100. Ostinati emerge as the pulse of the music during the Concerto’s final minutes, and this performance triumphs as few traversals of similar music manage to do at exploring the psychological subtexts of inevitability and temporal claustrophobia that repetitive devices can convey. In Vinikour’s performance, the three-minute cadenza is a both personal examination of the Concerto’s emotional currents and a recapitulation of the musical questions for which the post-cadenza finale proposes answers.

The most consequential question asked by the music on this disc is whether, in this age of large orchestras and performance venues designed to physically and acoustically accommodate them, the harpsichord remains a viable, relevant conduit for composers’ creative impulses. With the performances on this disc, Jory Vinikour establishes that the harpsichord is not a period instrument. Rather, it is a semicolon instrument, one that, after decades of pause, rightly inspires new clauses of composition.

06 June 2019

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner & Richard Strauss — LISE DAVIDSEN SINGS WAGNER AND STRAUSS (Lise Davidsen, soprano; Decca 483 4883)

IN REVIEW: LISE DAVIDSEN SINGS WAGNER & STRAUSS (Decca 483 4883)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883) and RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Lise Davidsen sings Wagner and StraussLise Davidsen, soprano; Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor [Recorded in Henry Wood Hall, London, UK, 28 – 29 September and 6 – 7 October 2018; Decca 483 4883; 1 CD, 63:55; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

It can be argued—even, in this instance, by a member of their ranks—that a significant measure of the most mesmerizing magic of opera eludes Twenty-First-Century listeners. Ears that have heard the great voices of the past solely as digitalized streams of sound emanating from speakers or coursing through headphones can have only an imperfect understanding of the boundless energy of Lauritz Melchior’s Siegfried, the engrossing intimacy of Maria Callas’s Tosca, the visceral impact of Birgit Nilsson’s Turandot, and the crestfallen charm of Carlo Bergonzi’s Nemorino. Conscientious study and careful listening can deepen an acquaintance with opera’s past, but observation never equals experience. Just as some natural phenomena cannot be adequately described to those who have not seen them, there are musical marvels that can be fully appreciated only by those who heard them in the flesh. As it might be colloquially put, grasping the momentous importance of certain events in operatic history requires that you had to be there.

As the decades continue to separate listeners from the performers and performances that they cite as definitive, today’s singers are increasingly compared, often unfavorably, to artists whom neither they nor their analysts have ever heard except via recordings. There is always value in assessing the merits of an artist’s work in the context of similar achievements by acclaimed artists of prior generations, but is there any true validity in dismissing a singer’s interpretation of a piece or a rôle because it is judged to be inferior to a performance by a long-dead artist whose preeminence is now affirmed exclusively by recordings? Does the artistry of an aspiring Siegfried meaningfully benefit from the singer being said to be no Melchior by someone who never heard Melchior? Without neglecting the models of history, must it not be more nurturing to artists and advantageous to the continued vitality of opera to principally base assessments of singers upon their own efforts? Genuinely great artists rarely publicly disparage the work of their colleagues and successors: a component of their greatness is perhaps the realization that success should be determined by how accurately and appropriately a singer performs a piece of music, not by how closely that performance emulates another artist’s interpretation.

As vocal longevity is a crucial gauge of the efficacy of a singer’s technical foundation, it is premature to proclaim Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen the heir apparent to the legacies of her legendary predecessors in the repertoire sampled on this captivating Decca release, the music of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. As a Scandinavian singer with an affinity for works by Wagner and Strauss, it is inevitable that Davidsen will endure comparisons with other Nordic artists who similarly excelled, singers including fellow Norwegians Kirsten Flagstad and Ingrid Bjoner, Swedes Birgit Nilsson, Berit Lindholm, and Siv Wennberg, and the Finn Anita Välkki. The collective influence of these artistic ancestors is unavoidable (and should not be avoided), but Davidsen has proved in her career to date to be a singer who approaches music without preconceptions. The extensive performance histories of the works on this disc are too consequential to be ignored, but Davidsen’s singing is that of an artist who is destined to create her own history.

It is indicative of Davidsen’s potential that, for her first recital disc, she was given the gift of collaborating with the Philharmonia Orchesta and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. The prominence of music by Wagner and Strauss in her repertoire notwithstanding, Davidsen is a versatile artist: she demonstrated impressive mastery of late Classicism in her singing of the title rôle in the 2017 Wexford Festival production of Cherubini’s Medea, for example, and her Metropolitan Opera début, scheduled for 29 November 2019, will be as Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya dama. Not least in his capacity as the Philharmonia’s principal conductor, Salonen’s work manifests a kindred artistic inquisitiveness, and he shares with Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein the boon of bringing a composer’s sensibilities to the podium.

In the performances on this disc, the same concentration on setting tempi that aid both composer and singer and supporting the voice by identifying its proper place within orchestral textures that characterize his conducting of a work like György Ligeti’s Le grand macabre also permeate his pacing of these pieces by Wagner and Strauss. The virtuosic panache with which the Philharmonia musicians respond to Salonen’s leadership is not surprising, but playing of this caliber on a recording of this nature is uncommon. Many fine recital discs have been recorded with merely competent orchestras and conductors. Nonetheless, a Monet canvas looks out of place in a mass-produced frame, and Salonen and the Philharmonia offer Davidsen’s musical portraiture the opulent presentation it deserves.

On 25 July 2019, Davidsen will expand her Wagnerian credentials when she débuts at the Bayreuther Festspiele as Elisabeth in a new production of Tannhäuser. Anticipating that milestone, she launches this disc with a radiant account of the music with which Elisabeth makes her entrance at the start of Act Two, ‘Dich, teure Halle, grüß ich wieder.’ The immediacy of her singing fosters a rush of theatrical energy, plausibly imparting to the listener the irrepressible excitement of an earnest young woman greeting the space in which her future is to be determined. The soprano’s voice retains its rich patina and certain intonation from the bottom of the range to her sonorous top B.

Some Elisabeths are comfortable either in ‘Dich, teure Halle’ or in the exquisite prayer to the Madonna in Act Three, ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau! Hör mein Flehen.’ Davidsen sings the latter as beguilingly as she sings the former, the expressivity of her vocalism enhanced by the eloquence of her phrasing. Every listener who believes that the essence of Wagner’s aesthetic is bombast without beauty should hear ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau.’ Listeners who believe that singing Wagner’s music requires power at the expense of pulchritude should hear Davidsen’s singing of Elisabeth’s music.

One of the most-discussed opera productions of 2018 was Katie Mitchell’s evocatively modern staging of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, the musical nucleus of which was Davidsen’s beautifully-sung, movingly unaffected portrayal of the Prologue’s Prima donna and the mythological heroine into whom she metamorphoses in the Opera. The dramatic profile of Davidsen’s interpretation of her rôles in the Aix-en-Provence Ariadne auf Naxos transitioned from the aloof but slyly endearing singer of the Prologue to the despondent but dignified woman scarred by betrayal.

It is a woman of genuine psychological depth rather than a one-dimensional archetype who emerges in the soprano’s account of Ariadne’s monologue ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ on this disc. She displays an invaluable talent for using vocal effects to complement the emotional subtexts of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s words, but it is the confident ecstasy of her handling of Strauss’s music that bewitches. Singing forcefully when the composer so dictates, she never forces the voice. Ariadne has been sung credibly by voices as diverse as those of Maria Reining, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Leontyne Price, and Montserrat Caballé. Davidsen’s performance of ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ amalgamates the best traits of Ariadnes of the past with her own distinct artistry.

Composed and first published in 1894, the four Lieder that constitute Strauss’s Opus 27 were initially devised with piano accompaniment and later orchestrated by the composer. These are four of Strauss’s most familiar songs, but Davidsen does not rely upon tradition to supply interpretive nuances. Rather, she is guided by the texts, finding within the words of each Lied its musical and sentimental cadences. She voices ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ with ethereal grace, her tones unerringly placed and seemingly effortless. Strauss orchestrated ‘Ruhe, meine Seele!’ in 1948, contemporaneously with his composition of his Vier letzte Lieder, and the kinship between the works is here made poignantly conspicuous. In their performance of ‘Cäcilie,’ Davidsen and Salonen faithfully observe Strauss’s ‘Sehr lebhaft und drängend’ marking, producing an account of the song that rivals long-praised recordings of the piece.

Robert Heger’s orchestration of ‘Heimliche Aufforderung’ receives a reading that feels both profoundly personal and aptly timeless, soprano and conductor fostering an environment of musical symbiosis in which their trust of one another—and of the music—yields unfiltered emotional directness. At least two recordings of Strauss conducting his orchestral arrangement of ‘Morgen!’ survive, and the performance on this disc has much in common with the earlier of Strauss’s recordings, a 1941 traversal with tenor Julius Patzak. Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay’s artful playing of the violin solo echoes the subtleties of Davidsen’s navigation of the song’s melodic line. Like Patzak, Davidsen lends the song an understated urgency, voicing the words ‘und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stummes Schweigen’ with compelling probity.

‘Wiegenlied,’ the first of the five Lieder of Opus 41, was completed in 1899, the year in which Strauss’s much-admired tone poem Ein Heldenleben was first performed. The atmosphere of the song could hardly be more different from that of the tone poem, but Davidsen finds in the lullaby a vain of slumbering heroism that her unwavering intonation awakens. A setting of a text by Swiss writer Betty Wehrli-Knobel, the song ‘Malven,’ composed in November 1948, was the last piece that Strauss completed. Instead of submitting the piece for publication, the composer presented the manuscript to Maria Jeritza, the Moravian soprano who created the title rôle in Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Unknown until after Jeritza’s death in 1982, ‘Malven’ was given its public première by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Martin Katz in 1985. Wolfgang Rihm’s orchestration is employed for Davidsen’s performance of the song, which glows with the ‘himmlischen Licht’ evoked by the text.

The culmination of the composer’s career-long passion for the soprano voice, Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder were completed in 1948, when their creator was eighty-four years old, and first performed on 22 May 1950, eight months after Strauss’s death. To view the Vier letzte Lieder from the perspective of Strauss’s most enduringly popular opera, Der Rosenkavalier, the songs have been sung in the seven decades since their première by Marschallins, Octavians, and Sophies, but the task of introducing the songs to the public was entrusted in fulfillment of one of Strauss’s final wishes to Kirsten Flagstad.

Despite the recommendation of the doyen of German repertory at The Metropolitan Opera, Artur Bodanzky, that the Marschallin be among the rôles that she should prepare before offering her services in New York, Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio was the only part in an opera not by Wagner that Flagstad ultimately sang at the MET. Strauss greatly admired Flagstad but had not heard her voice since conducting a 1933 Bayreuth performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in which she was the soprano soloist. In the subsequent fifteen years, Flagstad’s instrument had lost some of its youthful flexibility. When Flagstad sang the first performance of the Vier letzte Lieder in 1950, hers was the voice of a late-career Brünnhilde and Isolde, heavier than a voice like that of the composer’s wife Pauline for which the Lieder were likely conceived, but the beauty and earnestness of her singing, qualities that overcome the poor sound of the recording of the occasion, revealed the wistful glories of the penultimate fruit of Strauss’s musical storytelling.

Flagstad’s colleagues in the world première of Vier letzte Lieder were the Philharmonia and celebrated conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Under Salonen’s direction, today’s Philharmonia musicians play Strauss’s score with a synthesis of Romanticism and modernity. Salonen does not overlook the fact that, though they are resolutely tonal and accessibly tuneful, the Lieder are mid-Twentieth-Century works, written in the year that Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Arnold Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw were first performed.

The Lieder are here performed in the sequence that has become customary rather than the order in which Flagstad sang them, beginning with ‘Frühling.’ Though its companions remained in her repertoire, Flagstad did not return to ‘Frühling’ and substituted the G two tones lower for its top B in the première. As in ‘Dich, teure Halle,’ Davidsen soars to the B exultantly. The vernal lightness that challenges the prevailing melancholy of the Lieder is only partially realized, but the freshness of the soprano’s singing appealingly brightens the soundscape. Horn soloist Nigel Black contributes hauntingly to a sublime reading of ‘September’ in which Davidsen’s vocal depiction of the warmth of Indian summer is gradually muted by the words’ crepuscular sobriety.

Visontay’s violin is a source of comforting beauty in ‘Beim Schlafengehen.’ The expressive acuity of Davidsen’s performance here reaches its apex, the voice engaging in a duet of such tender discourse that the ears almost attribute words to the horn’s replies. Few composers have evinced the resigned relief of a wanderer at a journey’s end more serenely than Strauss did in ‘Im Abendrot.’ Salonen and Davidsen dedicate themselves to serving the text without surrendering to the temptation to impose metaphysical complexities on Strauss’s musical treatment. At its core, this is simple music, its meandering harmonies progressing inexorably to the fading trills with which it gives way to silence. Rather than battling the orchestra as some singers do, Davidsen listens to the instruments’ voices and adds her sound to the theirs like a bird joining a flock migrating towards an inviting sunset. This is not easy music, however, and Davidsen deftly and intrepidly meets its demands; an accomplishment of which only an excellent voice bolstered by a superlative technique is capable.

Nordic voices are often said to possess a timbral coolness that recalls the frigid climates that nourished them, but Scandinavia is also the land of the Northern Lights. It is this blazing wonder of nature that the singing on this disc mirrors. Virtually every listener has personal favorite interpreters of the music on this awe-inspiring disc, and the intention of this release undoubtedly is not to mimic or supplant them. This is a recording that should be appraised on its own terms, not as a competitor but as a peer of the great recordings of the past. With these dazzling performances of music by Wagner and Strauss, Lise Davidsen exclaims to the world, ‘Hier bin ich!’

IN REVIEW: Soprano LISE DAVIDSEN in the title rôle of Festival d'Aix-en-Provence's 2018 production of Richard Strauss's ARIADNE AUF NAXOS [Photograph by Pascal Victor / artcompress, © by Festival d'Aix-en-Provence]Strauss songstress: soprano Lise Davidsen in the title rôle of Festival d’Aix-en-Provence’s 2018 production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos
[Photograph by Pascal Victor / artcompress, © by Festival d’Aix-en-Provence]

03 June 2019

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti & Giuseppe Verdi — VERDI ● DONIZETTI (Michael Fabiano, tenor; Pentatone PTC 5186 750)

IN REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti & Giuseppe Verdi - VERDI ● DONIZETTI (Pentatone PTC 5186 750)GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848) and GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Verdi ● DonizettiMichael Fabiano, tenor; London Voices; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Enrique Mazzola, conductor [Recorded in St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London, UK, August and September 2018; Pentatone PTC 5186 750; 1 CD, 57:03; Available from Pentatone, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Assessing the technical and artistic merits of voices is a divisive endeavor in any context, but in the realm of aficionados by whom voices and music written for them are revered it can be dangerous. This assertion seems ridiculous, but it should be remembered that as earnest a proponent of important voices as Schuyler Chapin, General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera for four tumultuous seasons in the 1970s and one of opera’s true gentlemen, received death threats from New York’s organized crime families for suggesting to the aging Renata Tebaldi that she might consider singing a few carefully-selected mezzo-soprano rôles. His dual aims were prolonging the career and preserving the legacy of one of opera’s greatest singers, but the reaction to what some of the soprano’s admirers perceived as an unforgivable affront is indicative of the fervor with which aficionados debate the virtues and vices of voices and the singers who brandish them.

It is unlikely that any singer in the history of opera has garnered universal acclaim or condemnation. Wagnerians who recognize no idols other than Kirsten Flagstad allege that Birgit Nilsson’s singing was cold and mechanical: Nilsson’s champions assert that Flagstad’s characterizations were inert and matronly. Perceptions of artistry are as subjective as those of natural wonders: there are always observers who regard the Grand Canyon as an over-hyped hole in the ground. Like the river that carved the Grand Canyon, voices can sometimes seem like ungovernable forces of nature, functioning independently of their owners’ artistic impulses, but the finest voices are managed with meticulous control that requires intellectual engagement matching the caliber of the natural instrument. That tenor Michael Fabiano has a voice with a rare ability to enthrall is unmistakable, but his singing’s power to inspire what in opera can be regarded as universal appreciation is evidence of artistic acuity of the sort for which listeners yearn.

Since being selected as the 2014 recipient of the prestigious prize awarded by the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, Fabiano has assumed a prominent rôle in the generation of young American tenors whose work furthers Tucker’s initiatives to cultivate, celebrate, and encourage artistry of the highest order among America’s singers. During his three-decade MET career, Tucker excelled in a varied repertoire that encompassed Ferrando and Tamino in Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte, Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, and many of Verdi’s and Puccini’s leading rôles for tenor.

In the trajectory of his career to date, Fabiano has exhibited artistic kinship with Tucker, having enjoyed success in rôles that formed the foundation of his forebear’s career. With his début recording for Pentatone, expertly engineered to place the voice in a vibrant but remarkably clean acoustical space, Fabiano examines the artistic kinship that linked Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi via the work of the tenors who sang their music. Through his performances with Arturo Toscanini, Tucker had a direct connection to Verdi: though he was born after Tucker’s untimely death, Fabiano honors his memory ​by continuing the legacy of advancing respect both for opera in America and for American singers in the opera community by singing with musicality and artistic integrity that pay homage to Tucker, Toscanini, and the heritage they sustained.

The study of history relies upon chronologies, but the evolution of music has rarely been straightforwardly linear. That bel canto existed long before it was refined by Donizetti is apparent in the almost Bellinian vocal line of a piece like Oronte’s aria ‘Un momento di contento’ in Händel’s Alcina: proof of bel canto’s survival far beyond the careers of Donizetti and Verdi can be found in the music of Philip Glass—though repetitive, the writing for Gandhi in Satyagraha embodies a bel canto aesthetic—and Jake Heggie. It is not difficult to erroneously glean from musicological analysis of Italian opera in the Nineteenth Century that, with his post-Nabucco operas, Verdi wrote the obituary for true bel canto, but this disc guides the listener to the discovery of a vastly different reality.

Though it can be argued that in propelling operatic expressivity towards verismo Verdi obliterated the formulaic tenets of bel canto, it cannot be denied that a piece like Rodolfo’s oft-excerpted aria from Verdi’s Luisa Miller is a paragon of bel canto grace. One of Fabiano’s most notable triumphs in Verdi repertory was his unapologetically romantic portrayal of Rodolfo in San Francisco Opera’s 2015 production of Luisa Miller, and he revisits the character’s music by opening this disc with deftly-delivered accounts of the recitative ‘Oh! fede negar potessi’ and aria ‘Quando le sere al placido.’ Liberated from the necessity of projecting a column of sound into the vast expanse of a space like that of San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, the tenor’s singing of the aria is here more nuanced than it was in San Francisco. Shifts in dynamics and vocal coloring are more pronounced, and the immediacy of his verbal articulation is undiminished. Fabiano approaches the aria not as a showpiece but as a moment of reflection in Rodolfo’s dramatic development, accentuating the manner in which Verdi integrated the subtle hues of bel canto into the bolder tones of his musical palette.

The Duca di Mantova in Verdi’s Rigoletto is another rôle in which Fabiano has won praise from both critics and audiences, not least in Claus Guth’s 2016 Opéra de Paris production. On stage, Fabiano is a Duca whose actions disclose inner conflict: credible as a dangerously seductive cad, his interpretation of the part also conveys a redeeming vulnerability, intimating that the Duca’s debauchery is driven as much by desperation born of the loneliness of his position as by libido. In this recorded performance of the Duca’s most famous music, ‘La donna è mobile,’ the focus is primarily on the aria’s musical impact, but the tenor’s singing imparts compelling dramatic impetus. Sounding alluringly youthful but wearied by the demands of his rank, this Duca’s commentary on the fickleness of women and their affections seems empirical rather than cynical. Vocally, Fabiano brings a bronzed, virile timbre to the music, lending even the flippant cadenza uncommon gravitas.

Following his Festival début as Alfredo in La traviata in 2014, the title rôle in Donizetti’s tale of Christian piety, conjugal love, and martyrdom in Imperial Rome, Poliuto, endeared Fabiano to Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s discerning patrons anew in 2015. Glyndebourne’s Poliuto was conducted by Enrique Mazzola, whose marshaling of the stylishly sonorous vocal and instrumental forces of London Voices and the London Philharmonic Orchestra contributes indelibly to the success of this release. With the conductor’s support, the tenor offers a performance of ‘Veleno è l’aura ch’io respiro’ that is genuinely communicative, his diction heightening the aural impact of the words. The momentum with which he advances the melodic line in ‘Fu macchiato l’onor mio’ confirms the potency of the composer’s theatrical savvy. Fabiano sings the cabaletta ‘Sfolgorò divino raggio’ with ardent swagger that elucidates the skill with which Donizetti adapted the principles of bel canto to his own unique dramatic sensibilities. The tenor is in easy, exhilarating voice in all of the selections on this disc, but his singing of this music from Poliuto is a valuable document of his mastery of bel canto.

From the lean lyricism of Ferruccio Tagliavini to the Wagnerian heft of Jon Vickers, a surprising array of voices have effectively sung Verdi’s music for Gustavo—or his American alter ego Riccardo—in Un ballo in maschera. The blend of light-hearted jocundity, amorous zeal, and inviolable commitment to duty that makes Gustavo difficult to portray convincingly suits Fabiano’s stage persona, by which the joyous facets of even the most tragic figures are illuminated. In his singing of ‘Forse la soglia attinse’ and ‘Ma se m’è forza perderti’ on this disc, the relationship between Fabiano and Richard Tucker is especially meaningful. An integral component of Tucker’s memorable interpretation of Riccardo was his capacity for plausibly shouldering the weight of the affairs of state that trouble the man without overshadowing the ebullience that is the core of his charisma. Fabiano achieves this, too, the duality of Gustavo’s constitution manifested in his candid, unreserved vocalism. His dedication to fully realizing the dramatic potential of every rôle that he depicts can occasionally lead Fabiano to sing too strenuously, but his earnestness in this miniature portrait of Gustavo never overwhelms his innate musicality.

Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is a part that Fabiano sang with the gusto that has become a hallmark of his artistry even when he was a student at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, and his returns to the character in the Spring 2018 revival of the MET’s Mary Zimmerman production and in Opera Australia’s July 2018 staging disclosing the thoughtfulness with which he continues to hone his interpretation of the rôle. In the performance on this disc, a deluge of anguish surges in his voicing of ‘Tombe degli avi miei,’ the despair of a young man reeling from his beloved’s betrayal evoked in the singer’s febrile phrasing. The poise of his singing of ‘Fra poco a me ricovero’ contrasts tellingly with the angst of the preceding recitative, reflecting the solemnity that Edgardo feels amidst the tombs of his ancestors. The inviolable security of the tenor’s intonation throughout the range gives his Edgardo greater strength than some interpreters of the music can muster, again revealing the narrowness of the musical divide between Donizetti and Verdi.

At this juncture in his career, the younger tenor’s voice does not possess the pulse-quickening thrust at the very top that his illustrious predecessor’s voice wielded, but, in the performance of the recitative ‘Qual sangue sparsi’ and aria ‘S’affronti la morte’ from the 1862 St. Petersburg version of Verdi’s La forza del destino that is one of this disc’s musical zeniths, Fabiano’s timbre is often arrestingly reminiscent of Franco Corelli’s. Fabiano’s forays into heavier Verdi repertory have thus far been confined to the title rôle in Don Carlo, but this performance of Alvaro’s death scene, excised when Verdi revised La forza del destino for its 1869 La Scala première, provides a tantalizing preview of future endeavors. Though La forza del destino is unquestionably a more coherent work in the 1869 guise that is typically preferred in modern stagings, the beauty and brawn of Fabiano’s traversal of ‘S’affronti la morte’ grant credence to the efficacy of Verdi’s first thoughts on the opera’s ending. Fabiano’s vigorous but appropriately-scaled singing also reminds Twenty-First-Century listeners that, two decades before the première of La forza del destino, the first Alvaro, the Roman tenor Enrico Tamberlik, made his operatic début as Gennaro in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgina, another rôle that Fabiano has sung with great success.

First performed at Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater in 1843, Maria di Rohan is deemed by some musicologists to be Donizetti’s finest score despite the neglect from which it is only beginning to emerge. A compact, fast-moving drama, the opera is indisputably distinguished by some of its composer’s most thrilling and emotionally affecting music. The brilliance of Fabiano’s performance of Chalais’s brief aria ‘Alma soave e cara’ is wholly worthy of the music: the voice intertwining with a lovely flute obbligato, the sentiments of the text are entrancingly limned with bel canto sensitivity.

Aside from Nabucco, which has clung to popularity with audiences, Verdi’s early operas sadly have not sustained the attention that they received in conjunction with 2013’s celebrations of the Verdi bicentennial. Charges that the scores that came before the transformative triumvirate of La traviata, Rigoletto, and Il trovatore—pieces that are now frequently denigrated, as well—are musically inferior to the composer’s later masterworks are not unfounded, but there are abundant pleasures to be found in the early operas, foremost among which is a profusion of unforgettable Italianate melodies that no other composer’s efforts have surpassed.

Unlike its fellow products of Verdi’s ‘galley years,’ Ernani continues to be performed with relative regularity, including at the MET, where, in 101 performances between 1903 and 2015, the title rôle has been sung by an impressive progression of lauded tenors including Giovanni Martinelli, Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti. Proving himself to be a splendidly-qualified prospective Ernani [rôle débuts as both Ernani and Gustavo in Un ballo in maschera are planned for future seasons], Fabiano sings ‘Odi il voto’ with a bona fide Verdian line, and his reading of the cabaletta ‘Sprezzo la vita’ resounds with heroic fortitude. Here and in all of the performances on this disc, ascents above the stave are always evocations of the character’s predicament rather than demonstrations of the singer’s ego.

Jacopo Foscari, the younger half of the eponymous Byronic protagonists of Verdi’s I due Foscari, is a rôle for which Fabiano’s emotive immediacy is ideal, and he sings both ‘Notte, perpetua notte’ and ‘Non maledirmi’ with attention to detail that uncannily adheres to the requisite bel canto idiom whilst also emphasizing the ingenuity with which the young Verdi transcended conventionality. Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, premièred at La Scala in 1839, and, though its first production was lukewarmly received, the promise apparent in the score was sufficient to prompt La Scala’s management to commission Verdi to compose two additional operas for the theater. On disc, Fabiano’s best-known rival in Riccardo’s music is Carlo Bergonzi. In these performances of ‘Ciel, che feci!’ and ‘Ciel pietoso,’ he does not yet equal Bergonzi’s finesse, but the voice, very different from Bergonzi’s, withstands comparison with the most exalted standards of Verdi singing.

Fabiano is one of the few living tenors of international renown who can boast of singing Corrado in a complete performance of Verdi’s Il corsaro [the 2014 Washington Concert Opera performance in which he portrayed Corrado is reviewed here]. He is unlikely to have plentiful opportunities to return to Corrado’s music, making the inclusion of a scene from Il corsaro on this disc all the more welcome. Fabiano voices both ‘Ah sì, ben dite’ and ‘Tutto parea sorridere’ handsomely, his burnished tones engendering an impression of maturity atypical for a singer who has only recently celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday. The cabaletta ‘Pronti siate a seguitarmi’ is a prototype for Manrico’s ‘Di quella pira’ in Il trovatore, and Fabiano sings it with the swashbuckling masculinity of an important Manrico in the making. He has captivated audiences with his portrayals of rôles including Gounod’s Faust, Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, Jean in Massenet’s Hérodiade, Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, and Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème, but his singing on this disc establishes the operas of Donizetti and Verdi as this stage animal’s musical natural habitat.

Activist, indefatigable advocate for Arts education, aviation enthusiast, avid sports fan, and debonair man about town, Michael Fabiano revives the jet-setting glamour of opera’s storied past in an era in which not even the greatest artists escape the scrutiny of naysayers armed with internet access and social media accounts. Glamour is a vital aspect of the operatic experience, perhaps more so in today’s age of high-definition cinecasts than ever before, but the most basic ingredient in an operatic feast is the same now as it was when Donizetti and Verdi were testing their musical recipes: the voice. The sounds made by Fabiano on this disc are those of a major voice that is already extraordinary but not yet in its prime. That is to say that, building upon the accomplishment of this fantastic recording, the best is yet to come for this artist who, like Donizetti and Verdi, is redefining opera.

IN REVIEW: Tenor MICHAEL FABIANO in the title rôle of San Francisco Opera's 2016 production of Giuseppe Verdi's DON CARLO [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Verified Verdian: tenor Michael Fabiano in the title rôle of San Francisco Opera’s 2016 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]