11 September 2019

September 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Ludwig van Beethoven — A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY, Volume Six (James Brawn, piano; MSR Classics MS 1470)

IN REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven - A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY, Volume 6 (MSR Classics MS 1470)LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume Six – Piano Sonatas Nos. 4 in E♭ major (Opus 7), 11 in B♭ major (Opus 22), and 12 in A♭ major (Opus 26) — James Brawn, piano [Recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 16 – 18 December 2018; MSR Classics MS 1470; 1 CD, 73:43; Available from MSR Classics and major music retailers]

The world has changed immeasurably in the 192 years since Ludwig van Beethoven died on 26 March 1827. Were he walking along the streets of Vienna today, he would encounter familiar landmarks, some of them scarred by war, but the spaces and societies that have evolved beyond their façades would little resemble the imperial city that he knew. Only in the Wienerwald, where, like many residents of the Hapsburg capital, he sought refuge from the city’s tumult and found inspiration in unspoiled nature, would Beethoven now rediscover the sights and sounds that so indelibly impacted his work. The vistas of the musical metropolis from Kahlenberg’s summit are much different in 2019 from when Beethoven last viewed them, but, having persevered through nearly two centuries of alternating decadence and deprivation, Vienna retains much of the inimitable essence celebrated by artists as diverse as the city itself.

A similar phenomenon of familiar unfamiliarity can be observed in studying, performing, and recording Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. Their genesis spanning nearly three decades, writing his thirty-two Piano Sonatas occupied Beethoven during a substantial portion of his compositional career, engendering a broad stylistic progress from Classicism learned from Haydn, Salieri, and Mozart to Romanticism prefiguring Schumann and Brahms. Attentive pianists and listeners can perceive in the early Sonatas fundamental modes of expression that Beethoven reworked and refined in his last efforts in the genre, in which a lifetime of challenging boundaries of form and technique begat formidable virtuosity. The stylistic innovations wrought by the composer in the Sonatas, more celebrated in the late scores but sometimes more conspicuous in earlier works, rival the most momentous advancements in Western culture, but, as pianist James Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey on MSR Classics avers, recognition of the marvels of the individual Sonatas is enhanced when they are assessed cumulatively, via the work of a musician who fully comprehends and conveys each Sonata’s rightful place among its brethren.

In the Twenty-First Century, when commercial considerations rightly or wrongly seem more prominent than artistic merit in many deliberations concerning the recording of Classical Music, it is exceptionally rare for a pianist to have an opportunity to record a complete traversal of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas—and still rarer for a pianist to genuinely deserve such an opportunity. Laments for the demise of the Classical recording industry having thankfully proved to have been premature, the new millennium has yielded a profusion of recordings, an unfortunate portion of which document performances that in years past would likely have been deemed unworthy of preservation. It is not without justification that some listeners whose acquaintances with Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas were fostered by revered recordings by pianists like Artur Schnabel and Wilhelm Kempff complain of a dearth of more recent performances that offer original, legitimate interpretive insights to supplement those exhibited by pianists of the past.

The Beethoven discography suffers from no shortage of idiosyncratic performances of the Piano Sonatas, but, like Schnabel, Kempff, and especially Emil Gilels, whose untimely death regrettably prevented completion of his masterful Beethoven cycle for Deutsche Grammophon, Brawn plays Beethoven Sonatas with imagination and individuality that never diminish the composer’s singular presence in the music. His previous recordings of Beethoven Sonatas evinced the efficacy of Brawn’s unmistakably intimate but commendably unaffected relationship with the music. Like Brawn’s playing of each Sonata, the present disc is both an extraordinary achievement in its own right and an aptly evocative, searching continuation of the pianist’s Beethoven Odyssey.

The sixth volume of A Beethoven Odyssey begins with a performance of Sonata No. 4 in E♭ major (Opus 7) in which both the exuberant youthfulness and the contrasting maturity of the music are intelligently accentuated. Written in November 1796 during a visit to Keglevičov palács in Bratislava, where he taught the dedicatee of Piano Sonata No. 7 and the contemporaneous Piano Concerto No. 1, Ana Luiza Barbara Keglević, the Opus 7 Sonata shares its key with some of Beethoven’s most overtly grandiose music, notably the Third Symphony and the Fifth Piano Concerto.

The composer himself christened Opus 7 as the ‘Grande Sonate’ upon its first publication in October 1797, and the expansive, unapologetically symphonic scale of the the opening Allegro molto e con brio movement here receives deft handling that fully meets the bravura and expressive demands of the music. Nevertheless, not even the most opulent passages draw from Brawn playing that overwhelms the music. In his performances of the three Sonatas on this disc, he never joins the ranks of pianists who succumb to the temptation to over-Romanticize these pieces. Instead, he demonstrates that, though Weber and Wagner are close on the horizon, not only Haydn and Mozart but also Bach and Händel meaningfully influenced the young Beethoven.

Unfailingly faithful to the composer’s instructions, Brawn responds to the ‘con gran espressione’ character of Opus 7’s Largo movement with poignant eloquence. His sapient phrasing, engagingly rhapsodic but allied with rhythmic tautness of almost mathematical precision, facilitates an organic focus on melody that lends his performance an engaging bel canto sensibility. The energetic Allegro is played with galvanizing momentum that transitions coherently to the Poco allegretto e grazioso pace of the closing Rondo. There is a suggestion in the Sonata’s final pages of the ambivalent playfulness found in Mahler’s music. Simultaneously conjuring the spirits of Prospero and Puck, Brawn effectuates an ideal balance between sun and shade—and, vitally, between past and future.

Dedicated to Fürst Lichnowsky, Kammerherr to the imperial court of Franz II, Sonata No. 12 in A♭ major (Opus 26) dates from the turn of the Nineteenth Century, when Beethoven was also completing his First Symphony. Stylistically ambitious, not least in each of the four movements being centered in the home key of A♭ major, the Opus 26 Sonata follows the example of Mozart’s K. 331 Sonata by abandoning an introduction in a fast tempo in favor of a slower movement with variations. In the performance on this disc, Brawn navigates each transformation of the principal subject in Beethoven’s ingeniously-crafted Andante con variazioni with cognizance of the way in which it propels the music’s emotional narrative.

The Sonata’s Allegro molto Scherzo and Trio are played with an appealing lightness, the difficulties of the writing conquered with palpable joy. Beethoven gave Opus 26’s third movement the title ‘Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe’ and created music that communicates feelings of tragic loss that are at once resoundingly universal and devastatingly personal. By allowing the listener to experience details of Beethoven’s writing rather than a pianist’s egotistical executions thereof, the restraint of Brawn’s performance heightens appreciation of the composer’s true intentions. In the Allegro, too, Brawn serves no master other than Beethoven. His delivery of fleet passagework is brilliant, but accurate playing of notes at a brisk speed is only a small part of his artistry. It may seem nonsensical to state that Brawn plays music, not notes, but listeners who have endured pedestrian performances by score-bound pianists can discern the difference.

When preparing his four-movement ‘Grand’ Sonatas for initial publication and when later contemplating his artistic legacy, Beethoven cited Sonata No. 11 in B♭ major (Opus 22) as his favorite among the early Sonatas. Hearing Brawn’s performance of the Sonata would likely have solidified his opinion. The unflinching boldness of the pianist’s approach to the daunting Allegro con brio emphasizes the depths of Beethoven’s exegesis of sonata form. The composer’s inquisitive dismantling, experimenting, and reassembling the sonata according to his own design pervades the movement’s exposition, and Brawn ensures that every bar of the music inhabits its proper place.

Bach, Händel, Mozart, Brahms, and Mahler wielded affinities for writing music that seems to halt the passage of time and dissect the beating hearts of human emotions, but Beethoven possessed a singular ability to imbue strikingly simple, sometimes banal melodies with tremendous expressive potency. That skill was deployed sublimely in the composition of Opus 22’s Adagio con molto espressione movement. A sibling of the slow movements in the Violin Concerto, the Fifth Piano Concerto, and the Ninth Symphony and the ‘Agnus Dei’ in the Missa solemnis, this music beguiles even in an indifferent performance. Brawn’s performance of it is a peer of Maria Callas’s singing of Amina’s ‘Ah! non credea mirarti’ in Bellini’s La sonnambula.

The ethos of the Minuetto and Minore of Opus 22 is nearer to that of a Mahler symphonic scherzo than to the formal minuets found in Haydn’s symphonies and chamber music, but, like his Bohemian contemporary Jan Václav Dusík, Beethoven integrated precepts gleaned from the work of his predecessors into his own ideas, producing music that anticipates the Nineteenth Century and recalls the Eighteenth but is unmistakably Beethoven’s work. The Sonata’s Allegretto Rondo also exemplifies the composer’s uncanny faculty for adapting the musical language of the past into his own unique dialect. Brawn’s fluency in the idiom affords uncommon clarity, his playing infusing rejuvenating transparency into music that is often muddled in overzealous performances. Fashioning his performance as a dialogue among the voices of the music’s subjects and countersubjects, Brawn presents Opus 22 not as an esoteric treatise but as a thriving musical organism.

In the first nineteen years of the Twenty-First Century, some musicians, musicologists, and music lovers have posited that the quality and importance of Beethoven’s music have been exaggerated. Admittedly, there have been performances of Beethoven’s music that support this assertion. In the course of James Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey to date, the pianist’s astounding technical acumen has accomplished many wonders, one of the most exciting of which is the spontaneity that he imparts in impeccably-rehearsed performances. This is the crucial attribute that too many performances of Beethoven’s music lack. It is possible that the significance of Beethoven’s work has been unnecessarily aggrandized, but the value of A Beethoven Odyssey cannot be overstated. This sixth volume reminds the listener that, 192 years after Beethoven’s death, his music still surprises, stimulates, and satisfies, particularly when played as it is on this disc.

04 September 2019

ARTS IN ACTION: Luck be a Lady - noteworthy rôle début to crown Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth

ARTS IN ACTION: Soprano OTHALIE GRAHAM, Lady Macbeth in Opera Carolina's November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by the artist]Lady of the hour: soprano Othalie Graham, Lady Macbeth in Opera Carolina’s November 2019 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by the artist]


Io vorrei in Lady una voce aspa, soffocata, cupa...la voce di Lady vorrei che avesse del diabolico. | I want for the Lady a harsh, throttled, somber voice...I want Lady’s voice to embody the diabolical.


It was with these words, written in a letter to librettist Salvadore Cammarano on 23 November 1848, that Giuseppe Verdi described the qualities that he wanted the voice of the eponymous thane’s consort in his ambitious operatic treatment of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to embody. Rarely in the history of opera can a composer be found to have complained of a singer’s voice being too beautiful and angelic to sing a rôle effectively, but this was the foundation of Verdi’s dissatisfaction with Eugenia Tadolini, the soprano who earned Gaetano Donizetti’s admiration with her creations and, in the cases of first Giovanna Seymour and later the title rôle in Anna Bolena, recreations of leading ladies in his operas and was engaged by Teatro San Carlo to sing Lady Macbeth in the Neapolitan première of Verdi’s Macbeth.

When Macbeth was introduced to the public at Florence’s Teatro della Pergola on 14 March 1847, Lady Macbeth was sung by Florentine soprano Marianna Barbieri-Nini, a renowned exponent of dramatic bel canto who had already created the part of Lucrezia Contarini in I due Foscari for Verdi in 1844 and would later be the first Gulnara in Il corsaro. Eighteen years after the opera’s Italian première, Verdi substantially revised Macbeth for a Paris production. His second incarnation of Lady Macbeth was first sung by Amélie Rey-Balla, a soprano whose career is sparsely documented aside from accounts of her acclaimed portrayal of Sélika in Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine. Prodigiously documented are the formidable demands of Lady Macbeth’s music, before and after the composer’s revisions: rivaling the ferocity of the vocal writing for Abigaille in Nabucco, Verdi’s musical portrait of Lady Macbeth is one of opera’s most intimidating sings.

Indicative of the work’s many difficulties is the fact that, though Il trovatore, Rigoletto, and La traviata were performed in the company’s inaugural 1883 – 1884 Season, Macbeth was not staged by New York’s Metropolitan Opera until the 1958 – 1959 Season, when a production by Carl Ebert served as the vehicle for the house début of soprano Leonie Rysanek. Already celebrated for her portrayals of Wagner and Strauss heroines (and, at the time of her MET début, already heard in New York as Lady Macbeth, courtesy of a 1958 Carnegie Hall concert performance by The Little Orchestra Society), Rysanek shouldered the unenviable task of singing the rôle originally intended for Maria Callas, whose supremacy as Lady Macbeth was established by five performances at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in December 1952—her only performances of the part. In subsequent seasons, Macbeth has been performed slightly more than one hundred times at the MET, whereas La traviata has amassed more than a thousand MET performances since 1883.

Veritable armies of singers have performed rôles like Bizet’s Carmen and Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème at the MET, but the company’s roster of Ladies Macbeth is considerably shorter, its relatively meager ranks including Americans Irene Dalis (the first mezzo-soprano to essay the rôle under the MET’s auspices), Elinor Ross, and Olivia Stapp [regrettably, the exhilarating Lady Macbeth of another American soprano, Marisa Galvany, never graced the MET stage]; the Swede Birgit Nilsson; the Ukrainian Maria Guleghina; and Russia’s Anna Netrebko, who is scheduled to reprise the rôle in the MET’s 2019 – 2020 Season. Also significant is the fact that the MET’s sole Italian Lady Macbeth to date is the inimitable Renata Scotto.

Following a much-anticipated début in the rôle with Toledo Opera in October 2019, Ontario-born soprano Othalie Graham returns to Charlotte for three further performances as Lady Macbeth with Opera Carolina. Previously heard in Charlotte as Verdi’s Aida and Puccini’s Turandot [reviewed here], Graham is an uncommon singer with a voice that is at once attractive, powerful, and flexible. Her depiction of Turandot, potentially one of opera’s most unidimensional characters, in Opera Carolina’s 2015 production confirmed that she is also a shrewdly intelligent actress who instinctively discerns the touchstones of a characterization in the rôle’s music. She is a performer whose sincerity forms the nucleus of her approach to any rôle. In an instance of felicitous casting, Graham will be partnered in Opera Carolina’s new production of Macbeth by another distinguished singing actor and bona fide Verdian, baritone Mark Rucker. It should not be unusual in 2019 for the leading couple in a Verdi opera to be portrayed by artists of color, but opera companies’ rosters still do not reliably mirror the increasing diversity of opera’s audiences.

ARTS IN ACTION: mezzo-soprano GRACE BUMBRY as Lady Macbeth in Los Angeles Music Center Opera's 1987 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Los Angeles Music Center Opera; image from the Detroit Public Library collection]La luce langue: mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry as Lady Macbeth in Los Angeles Music Center Opera’s 1987 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Los Angeles Music Center Opera; image from the Detroit Public Library collection]

Racial bias in the casting of rôles in Verdi’s operas has been prevalent since the works’ first performances, especially in the name parts in Aida and Otello. Russell Thomas’s 2017 début in the rôle in concert performances with the Atlanta Symphony welcomed an exceptionally rare Otello of color, but, regardless of the suitability of their individual voices for the character’s music, Black sopranos from Leonora Lafayette and Gloria Davy to Jessye Norman and Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez have been encouraged to sing Aida. It is narrow-minded to suggest that casting singers of color as Aida has often been based primarily upon race, but scrutiny of performance annals discloses a worrying—and continuing—pattern. Alzira has been performed too infrequently to engender casting trends, but how often have singers whose appearances reflected the character’s Andean heritage been engaged to sing Alvaro in La forza del destino? Unlike most of her sisters in the Verdi canon, however, Lady Macbeth, unquestionably a Caucasian character, has benefited extensively from the dramatic prowess of singers of color.

Defying prejudice with a triumphant depiction of Lady Macbeth opposite Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Macbeth at the 1964 Salzburger Festspiele, St. Louis-born mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry became the first artist of color to don the Lady’s crown for the Metropolitan Opera when she sang the rôle in a concert performance by MET forces in Newport, Rhode Island, on 17 August 1967. Ultimately, six of Bumbry’s seven MET Ladies were sung in tour performances: only her final MET performance of the rôle, on 4 June 1973, was sung at Lincoln Center. Praised in The Saturday Review for ‘the manner in which she conceives the character’s [in the context of Irving Kolodin’s review, Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo] place in the drama,’ Bumbry exhibited dramatic sensibilities with much in common with Othalie Graham’s artistry.

Also assuming Lady Macbeth’s mantle at the MET in 1973 was one of America’s most gifted Verdians, native New Yorker Martina Arroyo. The vitriolic psychology of the power-hungry Lady could hardly be more different from the good-humored soprano’s natural temperament, but her mastery of the music imparted the necessary duplicity. In nearly three decades with the MET, Arroyo built a repertoire that encompassed parts as diverse as Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, virtually all of the Verdi heroines then before the public, rôles in Wagner’s Lohengrin and Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Puccini’s Cio-Cio San, bringing to her interpretations welcome emotional directness. Possessing a voice capable both of delivering florid music credibly and of voicing dramatic rôles like Turandot with the requisite aural impact, Graham perpetuates Arroyo’s legacy.

Remarkably, the Lady Macbeth of Shirley Verrett (1931 - 2010), justifiably cited by many aficionados as one of the preeminent operatic portrayals of the Twentieth Century and documented on disc and film, was heard only once at the MET (15 February 1988). Like Bumbry, Verrett was a mezzo-soprano who possessed vocal range and dramatic versatility that enabled her to diversify her repertoire by singing soprano rôles. Though her MET tenure as Lady Macbeth was unfortunately limited to a single performance, her depiction still casts a long, intimidating shadow. A critic’s description of Verrett’s Leonora in a MET traversal of Donizetti’s La favorita as ‘stupendous in vocalism and amazingly believable in action’ also accurately recounts the essence of her Lady Macbeth.

ARTS IN ACTION: mezzo-soprano SHIRLEY VERRETT as Lady Macbeth (left) and baritone RYAN EDWARDS as Macbeth (right) in Boston Opera Company's 1976 production of Giuseppe Verdi's MACBETH [Photograph © by Boston Opera Company]Fatal mia donna: mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett as Lady Macbeth (left) and baritone Ryan Edwards as Macbeth (right) in Boston Opera Company’s 1976 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth
[Photograph © by Boston Opera Company]

In the context of her depiction of Lady Macbeth garnering appreciation in her homeland, soprano Margaret Tynes, who was educated in and has many ties to North Carolina, was even less fortunate than Verrett. Tynes’s MET tenure consists of only three performances, all of them of the title rôle in Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa in 1974, in which her Laca and Kostelnička were Jon Vickers and Astrid Varnay, who was also an accomplished Lady Macbeth. A pirated recording of a 1972 performance of Macbeth from the Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari affirms that Tynes was an imposing, atypically sympathetic Lady Macbeth. Like Verrett, Tynes was an adventurous singer whose solid technical footing enabled her to impress in parts as different as Amaltea in Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto and Strauss’s Salome. Again, the parallel with Othalie Graham is unmistakable.

Latina artists have also excelled as Lady Macbeth, both in and beyond North America. Though none of them enjoyed opportunities to sing the part at the MET, sopranos Nora López, Gilda Cruz-Romo, and Áurea Gomes (1942 - 2018) wielded unique traits in their performances of the rôle. Now primarily familiar only to aficionados, the Chilean López sang Lady Macbeth in a memorable 1961 Rai Torino broadcast performance, sparring excitingly with the Macbeth of Mario Sereni. In nearly fifteen years on the MET roster, her Mexican colleague Cruz-Romo refined her Verdian credentials with interpretations of Violetta in La traviata, Leonora in Il trovatore and La forza del destino, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Aida, and Desdemona in Otello, in addition to a stunning turn as Odabella in Attila with Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Lady Macbeth, Cruz-Romo was simultaneously vituperative and vulnerable. Rightly lauded with fervor in her native Brazil, Gomes was an impassioned Lady Macbeth, one whose tale was indeed ‘full of sound and fury.’

It is maddening that in 2019, when the indignities endured by people of color on every continent are more visible—and more rectifiable—than ever before, occasional productions of Porgy and Bess are still fêted as increased diversity in opera. Porgy and Bess deserves a place in the standard operatic repertory, but George and Ira Gershwin would surely have agreed that staging their work more frequently should be but a small component of the initiative to make opera more demographically inclusive. As artistic representatives of a wonderfully diverse city, Opera Carolina productions have often featured artists of color in prominent rôles, including the cast of Richard Danielpour’s and Toni Morrison’s Margaret Garner (2006); Lisa Daltirus as Leonora and Denyce Graves as Azucena in Il trovatore (2011); Gordon Hawkins in the title rôle of Nabucco (2014); and Kevin Thompson as Zemfira’s father in Rachmaninov’s Aleko (2016). Casting Mark Rucker and Othalie Graham as the sinister spouses in Macbeth perpetuates the company’s commitment to obliterating prejudices and stereotypes in the Performing Arts. Moreover, Graham’s rôle début as Lady Macbeth—a milestone for the artist, Opera Carolina, and Macbeth—honors a storied past in which ladies of several ethnicities have proclaimed that the only colors that are important in opera are those projected by the voice.

Graham and Rucker are joined in Opera Carolina’s production of Macbeth by Zaikuan Song as Banco, Valentino Buzza as Macduff, and Jonathan Kaufman as Malcolm. Opera Carolina’s Artistic Director James Meena will conduct.


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Click here to read a Voix des Arts profile of Othalie Graham.

For more information about Othalie Graham’s career and future engagements, please click here to visit her official website.

Opera Carolina’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth opens in Belk Theater at Charlotte’s Blumenthal Performing Arts Center on Thursday, 7 November 2019. Additional performances are scheduled for 9 and 10 November. Click here to learn more about and to purchase tickets for the production.

25 August 2019

RECORDING REVIEW: Mason Bates — MASS TRANSMISSION (Cappella SF; Delos DE 3573)

IN REVIEW: Mason Bates - MASS TRANSMISSION (Delos 3573)MASON BATES (born 1977): Mass Transmission – Choral Works by Mason BatesCappella SF; Ragnar Bohlin, Artistic Director [Recorded at St. Ignatius Church and Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California, USA, in January and March 2018; Delos DE 3573; 1 CD, 54:24; Available from Delos, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Whether the music being performed is a marvel of polyphony by a Renaissance master, a Bach Passion, a Händel oratorio, a crowd scene from an opera by Verdi or Wagner, or a Mahler symphony, choral singing wields a communicative power that no other mode of musical expression can duplicate. To hear a good performance of a motet by Josquin des Prez, the prisoners’ chorus in Act One of Beethoven’s Fidelio, or Hindemith’s When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d is to participate, even when listening to a recording, in a communal celebration of music’s capacity to transform sounds into emotional conduits that transcend ordinary modes of interpersonal connection.

Were their texts wordless, the choral works by American composer Mason Bates on the captivating Delos release Mass Transmission would impart engagingly provocative messages, but, like choral music itself, this tunesmith’s music divulges a notable gift for crafting music that not only conveys, complements, and heightens the meanings of words but also facilitates the listener’s comprehension of subtleties that read and spoken words can at best only partially disclose. So spiritually resonant are the pieces on Mass Transmission—and so eloquent are these performances of them—that it almost seems as though this is not music at all. Rather, Bates has made the essence of humanity audible.

Planning, polishing, and performing works in an array of genres have taken Bates from his native Richmond, Virginia, to many of the world’s most prestigious concert venues, where he has collaborated with celebrated artists and ensembles. His relationship with the Chicago Symphony has proved to be particularly fruitful, not least on disc, and the recording of the Santa Fe production his opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs—the most successful production of a new work in Santa Fe Opera’s history—garnered the 2019 GRAMMY® award for Best Opera Recording.

Also much in demand on the nightclub circuit as DJ Masonic, Bates has cultivated a rare and eclectic expertise in the mixing of sonic timbres and textures. This talent for creating musical mosaics that depict the magnificent simplicity of the complexities of life, represented by disparate aural components, permeates the works on Mass Transmission, as well as his Children of Adam, commissioned by the Richmond Symphony in celebration of the orchestra’s sixtieth anniversary and forthcoming on compact disc via a Reference Recordings release. The most daunting task faced by an insightful composer is surely that of giving life to relevant narratives with sounds that are at once original, challenging, and convincing. In the music on Mass Transmission, Bates accomplishes that task with grit and grace.

Completed in 2009, Sirens is performed here in the composer’s version for twelve-part a cappella chorus. A tremendously demanding meditation on the physical, psychological, and philosophical consequences of resistance and surrender to internal and external seductions, the piece is performed by Cappella SF with the kind of hypnotic immediacy that a choir merely singing for studio microphones cannot project. Artistic Director Ragnar Bohlin brings clear-sighted pragmatism to his conducting of this music, and the choir’s singing of the intertwining parts echoes the lucidity of his approach. It is unlikely that the San Francisco-based choristers have native speakers’ familiarity with the Greek text from Homer’s Odyssey that shapes the first segment of Sirens, but, guided by the cadences of the music, they enunciate the words as though their second home is an Athenian amphitheater.

One of the best-known literary incarnations of a cornerstone motif of German Romanticism, Heinrich Heine’s ‘Die Lorelei,’ becomes in Bates’s treatment an unsettlingly personal interlude, and the singing lures the listener into the mesmerizing intricacies of the vocal writing. The words of Pietro Arentino’s ‘Stelle, vostra mercè l’eccelse sfere’ drew from Bates’s imagination music of absorbing individuality, the inventiveness of which is appealingly accentuated by Bohlin and the singers. The text of ‘Sirinu nuqa rikunia’ is a beautiful passage in the indigenous language of the Quechua peoples of South America, a wrenchingly timely allusion in this season during which swaths of the Amazonian rain forest are burning. Quechua civilizations largely inhabited mountainous regions of their continent, but their words, evocatively set by Bates and exquisitely sung by Cappella SF, are an apt ambassador for South America’s environmental and cultural crises. ‘Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee’ from the biblical Book of Matthew is similarly current, the evangelist’s imagery receiving from the composer’s music increased, sometimes astonishing modernity. The return of words from Homer’s Odyssey in the last of Sirens’ songs precipitates a cathartic surge of emotional growth and self-awareness. Hearing this music is not a passive undertaking: this is a performance that an attentive listener will feel.

The disc’s eponymous work, Mass Transmission, was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony as a headlining work for the 2012 Mavericks Festival. Fascinatingly, its poignant texts were taken from sources as unlikely as a document published by the government of the Netherlands and the diary of a Dutch citizen residing in Indonesia. In its sequence of movements, Mass Transmission examines the ramifications of separation from the perspective of a mother and her daughter, the former in Holland and the latter a continent away on the island of Java. With his music, Bates elucidates every unexpected expressive nuance of the impersonal bureaucratic language in ‘The Dutch Telegraph Office.’ The tone of the writer’s words in ‘Java’ is sporadically reminiscent of the fragile but fiercely unflappable spirit that emerges from Anne Frank’s diary. ‘Wireless Connections’ is a modern motet of the sort that Claudio Monteverdi might have written were he living in an age of interminable profusions of words without substance or significance. Bates’s music is ever on the cusp of cacophony. In Mass Transmission, he takes sounds and words to the precipice of atonality, not as a means of forging a dull alloy of musical modernity but as a way of renewing the timeless oracle of choral music.

Vocally and interpretively, soprano Cara Gabrielson and mezzo-soprano Silvie Jensen partner their Cappella SF colleagues excellently, their artistry lending the words the honesty of genuine conversation. Though the musical idioms are very different, the playing of organist Isabelle Demers recalls Marie-Claire Alain’s performances of the music of her brother Jehan, who perished in the Second World War. Her commitment to the music is no less than the composer’s, who here provides the music’s electronica elements. Soloists, choristers, organist, composer, and conductor devote themselves to serving the words and the stories that they tell. These artists are no pantomime players: they are sensitive, sonorous surrogates in whose performances the sentiments that they express become their own.

The emotional potency of Mass Transmission is a testament to Bates’s genius in composing pieces that meaningfully realize the ‘e pluribus unum’ potential of choral music, uniting many individual voices in a single stream of sound, sometimes a deafening deluge and sometimes barely a trickle, that overcomes obstacles of difference and division. A critically important voice in the chorus of artists whose contributions fostered the success of Mass Transmission is that of recording engineer David v.R. Bowles.

A skilled engineer’s goal is to manufacture an aural atmosphere in which his work is imperceptible, eliminating the tangible and intangible distances that isolate listeners from performers. True to his reputation, Bowles achieves this spectacularly on Mass Transmission, but his work on this disc is not merely the science of turning dials and manipulating channels. His is the artistry of a creator, in addition to that of a craftsman, akin to the efforts of a master translator whose translations have their own literary merit. On this disc, Bowles’s expertise yields a recorded ambiance in which Bates’s music seems as organic a part of existence as birdsong, roaring thunder, and whispered words of love and comfort.

The ‘bonus’ inclusion of a wonderful performance of the three-and-a-half-minute jewel ‘Rag of Ragnar’ to conclude Mass Transmission begets a parable about this disc and the composer whose music it showcases. Drinking from the spring that nourished the great creators of choral music of the past, a composer might understandably hoard the refreshment gathered from those waters. He might collect and closely guard ideas with justifiable concern for the advancement of his career. There is no question that a composer’s reputation benefits from a recording of the quality of Mass Transmission, but this is not a disc that ostentatiously seeks to impress. Rather, Mass Transmission earnestly seeks to inspire. Mason Bates does not drink his fill from the fountain of inspiration and then turn away. With his music, he fills a chalice and invites every listener to savor the undiluted elixir of choral song.

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.