27 October 2008

IN MEMORIAM: Gianni Raimondi, Italian tenor (13 April 1923 – 19 October 2008)

The death of Gianni Raimondi on 19 October further distances today's audiences and opera-lovers from the heady days of Italian tenor singing that charmed and thrilled audiences in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Coming from the tradition that produced Caruso and Gigli, the young Raimondi shared Italy’s stages with Ferruccio Tagliavini and Giuseppe di Stefano. Later, sharing the bel canto repertory with Carlo Bergonzi and the young Luciano Pavarotti, Raimondi conquered the world’s major houses with his beautiful, evenly-produced tone, exciting upper register, and stylish singing.

Born in Bologna in 1923, Raimondi’s earliest successes were in and near his native city, in Rigoletto and Don Pasquale. Raimondi took one of the six tenor roles in Rossini’s Armida (and proved virtually the only one of the six who adequately and gracefully rendered his role) in the famous 1952 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino production which featured Maria Callas in the title role. This was the first in what would ultimately become an extensive list of collaborations between the Bolognese tenor and the great soprano.

Following the success of his performance in the Florentine Armida, Raimondi sang his début performances in London and Paris in 1953. He returned to Italy in 1954 and made his début at Naples’ Teatro San Carlo with another collaboration with Callas in Lucia di Lammermoor. Two further productions featuring Callas offered Raimondi his first of many opportunities to enjoy great acclaim at La Scala: the 1956 Visconti production of La Traviata, the occasion of Raimondi’s house début (substituting for di Stefano), and the much-praised 1957 production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.

Building upon further successes in Italy and throughout Europe, Raimondi made his MET début in 1965 as Rodolfo in La Bohème opposite the Mimì of Mirella Freni, also making her house début. In two seasons with the MET, he also sang Puccini’s Cavaradossi and Gounod’s Faust.

Raimondi was invited to the Wiener Staatsoper by Herbert von Karajan, where he made his début as Alfredo in a production of La Traviata that featured the beguiling Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani and baritone Rolando Panerani. Raimondi also sang Rodolfo in a Staatsoper production of La Bohème under von Karajan’s baton and again opposite Freni’s trademark Mimì that remains available on both CD and DVD.

Italy was the center of Raimondi’s career, however, and his performances in virtually every Italian city where opera was sung on a professional level expanded his repertory to include nearly all of the Verdi lyric tenor roles. Displaying wisdom that exceeded that of many of his rivals, Raimondi refused to take on the more glamorous but potentially damaging heavier roles of Manrico (Il Trovatore), Alvaro (La Forza del Destino), Radamès (Aïda), and Otello. Raimondi also obstinately refused to learn the cabalettas for his characters in Rigoletto and La Traviata, traditionally cut but increasingly included in productions as Raimondi’s career progressed.

On records, Raimondi was unfortunately largely overlooked in favor of the more known (particularly in American and Britain) di Stefano, Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, and Carlo Bergonzi. Pirated recordings of Raimondi in most of his Verdi and bel canto roles exist, however. In any of its guises (my own personal favorite owing to its significantly improved sound quality being the recent Myto Historical release) the La Scala Anna Bolena remains an impressive performance though, to be fair, Raimondi was not at his absolute best and lost a great deal of his music due to extensive cuts. Raimondi’s Alfredo in DGG’s studio Traviata with the Violetta of the young Renata Scotto remains competitive. His single finest recording, in my opinion, is a CETRA (now reissued by Warner/Fonit) performance of La Favorita with the stunningly effective Leonora of Fedora Barbieri (along with the aging Carlo Tagliabue and the sepulchral Giulio Neri). Raimondi’s singing of ‘Spirto gentil,’ one of Donizetti’s simplest but most memorable melodic inspirations, is substantial proof of the communicative power of opera, and his timbre throughout is as golden, as filled with that intangible essence of Italianate slancio, and as seductively beautiful as any sound to be heard on records. This Favorita preserves a great performance by a great singer and not only withstands comparison with but triumphs over Pavarotti’s singing of the same role on a later DECCA studio recording.

Possessing an exceptionally beautiful natural timbre that could be both suave and powerful, Raimondi mastered the art of projecting effectively into large houses. Perhaps more significantly, he sang largely without artifice and relied upon the glorious sound at his command to impersonate opera’s most dashing heroes.

26 October 2008

IN MEMORIAM: Horst Stein, German conductor (2 May 1928 - 27 July 2008)

Born in 1920 in the German town of Elberfeld (now a district of the city of Wuppertal, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia), Horst Stein was a mechanic’s son who benefited significantly from his youth in the same city that produced Hans Knappertsbusch and Günter Wand. Attending both Frankfurt’s Musikhochschule and Köln’s famed Conservatory, Stein studied composition with Philipp Jarnach and conducting with Wand prior to returning to Wuppertal to accept an appointment as répétiteur. This led to Stein’s first appointment as the Music Director of a leading opera company, at the Hamburg State Opera in 1951.

Stein honed his skills as a Wagnerian at Bayreuth, where from 1952 he worked alongside Knappertsbusch, Clemens Krauss, Joseph Keilberth, and Herbert von Karajan. Much admired by Wolfgang Wagner, Stein would eventually conduct 138 performances at Bayreuth encompassing all of Wagner’s mature scores except Der Fliegende Holländer and Lohengrin, including the 1983 Bayreuth Centenary production of Die Meistersinger. Stein notably mastered shaping the tonal textures produced by Bayreuth’s orchestra to match the unique acoustics of the Festspielhaus and was also instrumental in facilitating Norbert Balatsch’s transition into the directorship of Bayreuth’s chorus. Wolfgang Wagner especially relied upon Stein’s reliability and firm leadership in launching his own production of Der Ring des Nibelungen during the 1970 – ’75 Festivals.

One of the greatest controversies of Stein’s Bayreuth career was his replacement for three performances during the 1976 Festival and the entire run of performances during the ’77 Festival of the legendary conductor Carlos Kleiber in Tristan und Isolde. Audiences bitterly disappointed at being denied the opportunity to hear the firebrand Kleiber conduct Wagner’s most passionate score expressed their displeasure with Stein’s less eccentric conducting, a view mostly shared by the press. Stein’s admirers praised the strength and steadiness of his leadership and suggested that Kleiber’s conducting of Tristan und Isolde during the 1975 Festival produced little of genuine interest and threatened to undermine the careful construction of Wagner’s score.

Stein’s Bayreuth appearances were supplemented by an especially fruitful career with the Wiener Staatsoper, where he conducted more than 500 performances. Among Stein’s most famous assignments at the Staatsoper was the much-acclaimed production of Verdi’s Don Carlo starring Franco Corelli, Gundula Janowitz, Eberhard Wächter, Shirley Verrett, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Martti Talvela.

Stein also held chief conductor positions with the Suisse Romande, Bamberg Symphony, and Basle Symphony orchestras, in addition to conducting performances by the Berlin, London, and Vienna Philharmonics, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Japan’s NHK Symphony Orchestra.

On records, Stein proved an apt and celebrated interpreter of the orchestral works of Max Reger, the often deceptive symphonies of Anton Bruckner, and the piano concerti of Beethoven. My own personal favorites among Stein’s discography are a studio recording for the German branch of EMI of Bizet’s Carmen, sung in German, with Christa Ludwig, Rudolf Schock, and Hermann Prey, in which Stein summons a surprising degree of Gallic charm and renders an appropriate, superbly-sung Carmen with what is essentially a Lohengrin cast; and a 1970 performance of Tristan und Isolde, recorded ‘live’ from the stage of the Wiener Staatsoper, with Ingrid Bjöner and Hans Beirer as the lovers, Ruth Hesse as Brangäne, Walter Kreppel as Marke, and Otto Wiener as Kurwenal, a performance that impresses because of its shapeliness and restraint, allowing the moments of great passion to explode from the surrounding music.

Stein is largely remembered as one of the last members of the expiring breed of the German Kapellmeister, a term that has unfortunately taken on negative connotations. Stein exemplified the best qualities of the Kapellmeister tradition: thorough education, deep knowledge of the repertory, easy rapport with players and singers alike, complete commitment, and an inherent ability to allow the music before him to take shape as the composer intended without imposition of personal idiosyncrasies or egotistical distortions. Stein’s deep-rooted professionalism is a quality that would be tremendously useful in any of the world’s great opera houses today.

25 October 2008

IN MEMORIAM: Peter Glossop, British baritone (6 July 1928 - 7 September 2008)

A humble son of Yorkshire, Peter Glossop rose through the ranks of small English opera companies to become the rare British baritone to enjoy an international career as a renowned interpreter of the Verdi baritone canon.

Born and raised in Sheffield in the north of England, Glossop’s first involvement with opera was in his native Yorkshire. Glossop came to London as a chorister at Sadler’s Wells, where he was appointed after only a few years one of the principal artists of the company. Glossop’s Covent Garden début came in 1961 as Demetrius in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Blessed with a robust voice with a firm, reliable upper extension, Glossop quickly won acclaim in the great Verdi roles, eventually singing his standard repertory of Macbeth, Don Carlo in Ernani, the Conte di Luna in Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, Rodrigo di Posa in Don Carlo, and Iago in Otello in the world’s greatest opera houses. Glossop remains the only British baritone to have sung the principal Verdi roles at La Scala.

Glossop’s 1971 début at the Metropolian Opera was as Scarpia in Tosca. Glossop’s MET career expanded his repertory with performances as Verdi’s Falstaff, Berg’s Wozzeck, Mr. Redburn in Britten’s Billy Budd and Balstrode in Peter Grimes. In the years preceding his retirement from the operatic stage in 1987, Glossop also gave critically-acclaimed performances as Mandryka in Richard Strauss’ Arabella, Pizarro in Beethoven’s Fidelio, and the title character in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer. Glossop’s final performance was in Los Angeles as Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

It is primarily as a Verdi singer that Glossop is remembered, not least owing to his collaboration with Herbert von Karajan in the famous Salzburg production (and subsequent film and studio recording) of Otello featuring Jon Vickers and Mirella Freni. In addition, Glossop recorded a definitive account of Verdi’s first version of Macbeth with Rita Hunter, released on CD by Opera Rara. Glossop’s recorded legacy also reflects a varied career, with performances ranging from Purcell’s Aeneas and Berlioz’s Chorèbe (Les Troyens) to Elgar’s Caractacus and German’s Earl of Essex (Merrie England).

An extroverted personality known for a lively temperament and a fondness for cavorting with the ladies, Glossop brought these same qualities to his operatic performances, creating larger-than-life portraits of troubled characters who were nonetheless capable of wrenchingly tortured pathos. The most important consideration is that, as one can hear on any of his recordings, the voice was magnificent, a beautiful natural timbre combined with a snarling power that projected thrillingly even in large theatres.
Glossop, who suffered with throat cancer during the last years of his life, is survived by his two daughters.

CD REVIEW: Bernd Alois Zimmermann - DIE SOLDATEN (E. Gabry, A. de Ridder, C. Nicolai, Z. Keleman; WERGO)

Bernd Alois ZIMMERMANN (1918 – 1970) – Die Soldaten: E. Gabry (Marie), L. Synek (Gräfin de la Roche), A. de Ridder (Desportes), C. Nicolai (Stolzius), Z. Keleman (Wesener), et. al.; Gürzenich-Orchester Köln; M. Gielen [recorded 21-22.02 & 2-3.03.1965 in the Großer Sendesaal of Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln, following the world premiere of the complete opera on 15.02.1965; WERGO Edition Bernd Alois Zimmermann WER 6698 2]

From the perspective of this writer, the first thing to be written is that this is not the sort of opera by which I expect to be taken in. Modernity and atonality are not traits that attract me to a score and entice me to listen. Admittedly, I have recently been on an atypical journey through contemporary theatrical scores—Daron Aric Hagen’s Bandanna (scored for voices with wind ensemble and Mariachi band!), Francesco d’Avalos’ Maria di Venosa, and Laurent Petitgirard’s fascinating Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man. These scores are considerably more accessible to a listener firmly grounded in tonality, however, than a preliminary examination of the accompanying materials (which outline Zimmermann’s twelve-tone structures in great detail, with superb facsimiles of both the autograph and printed scores) and a slight familiarity with Zimmermann’s music would suggest Die Soldaten to be.

Whose surprise could have been greater than mine, then, when upon listening for the first time to WERGO’s 1965 recording of Zimmermann’s tremendously difficult score, made only days after the first performance of the complete opera at Cologne, I not only appreciated but actually enjoyed the performance? The first positive attribute of the opera is its libretto, drawn from an eighteenth-century ‘homonymous drama’ by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz which also inspired an opera from Zimmermann’s contemporary Manfred Gurlitt. In the same vein as Büchner’s (and, eventually, Berg’s) Wozzeck, Lenz’s drama has as its subject the inherent inhumanity of military life and conflict (which, as in Wozzeck, does not necessarily involve the battlefield). Gurlitt produced a score that owes much to Schoenberg, Webern, and their Viennese school of ‘modernism.’ What Zimmermann created was a considerably further-reaching score, neither more nor less ‘modern’ in the strictest musical sense, involving complex twelve-tone motives, myriad sound effects, integration of recorded music, and vocal styles ranging from the angular patterns familiar to English-speaking listeners from the later works of Tippett to melodic arcs similar to Italian bel canto.

In fact, it is the varied and startling beauty of the singing in this performance that compels attention and ultimately inspires affection for Zimmermann’s score. For Marie, his heroine of sorts, Zimmermann envisioned an atonal Königin der Nacht, spiky coloratura taking her to dizzy heights in the second act. Initially skeptical of the casting of Edith Gabry in the role, not least because of her fortuitous position as the wife of Cologne’s General Music Director István Kertész, Zimmermann succumbed to the allure of Gabry’s absolute commitment to the score and the lovely timbre (honed in more traditional repertory) she brought to her task, eventually adapting portions of the score to accommodate a moderately lowered tessitura for Gabry’s benefit. The results are often sublime, producing vocal lines of eloquence that resemble those of Strauss’ Aminta (Die Schweigsame Frau), Kaiserin (Die Frau ohne Schatten), and Zerbinetta (Ariadne auf Naxos). Gabry sings magnificently, bringing a bright tone to music of often fearsome difficulty and negotiating extraordinarily challenging intervals with poise and the appearance of ease. Were one to encounter a performance of this caliber in traditional repertory in any of the world’s great opera houses today, a star would be born instantaneously; deservedly so.

Equally impressive is Anton de Ridder, remembered as a specialist in Italian roles in German-speaking theatres during the third quarter of the twentieth century. Singing his difficult role in Die Soldaten with the same grace and pointed tone with which he might have approached Donizetti’s Edgardo or Verdi’s Alfredo, de Ridder sings wonderfully, striking sparks with Gabry in their scenes together and creating a memorable character who both attracts and repulses.

Also making strong impressions are Zoltán Keleman and Gerd Nienstedt, who bring to Zimmermann’s dark score the same fearlessness, intelligence, and vocal acuity familiar from their Bayreuth performances. Due special mention is tenor Albert Weikenmeier, sounding audibly aged but facing without fear or compromise (or, ultimately, failure) the punishingly high tessitura of his role.

Supervising from the pit is Michael Gielen, that champion of twentieth-century music who—with, among other ensembles, the Cincinnati Symphony, of which he served as Music Director in the 1980’s—also mastered the tricky symphonies of Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mahler. Gielen conducts from the first with a discernible sense of being at the helm of the maiden voyage of a contemporary masterpiece, but he completely avoids the common pitfall of treating the score as a monument carved in stone. Gielen seems to phrase the score’s jagged musical paragraphs in step with the players of the superb Gürzenich Orchestra and breathes with his singers, creating a rapport between stage and pit that is all the more astonishing considering that the score also demands coordination with pre-recorded montages. Gielen serves the composer, who supervised both the Cologne production and this recording, with irreproachable honor: higher praise is not possible.

A formidably difficult piece to stage with its requirements of split scenes, film projections, and careful arrangement and deployment of loudspeakers throughout the house, Die Soldaten at first glance seems a score that would best be both seen and heard. This recording, captured in monaural sound that not only belies its age but serves as a model of its kind with which one imagines that Walter Legge would have been well pleased, proves that the opera can be equally effective as an audio-only experience. The people one meets in this opera are almost uniformly unpleasant, with even the ‘good’ characters having undercurrents of suspect morality and insecurity, but the challenging beauty of Zimmermann’s music convinced this listener that this is an inescapable component of humanity and, if one turns one’s perspectives on their heards, there is great poetry to be found in it.

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini - LA BOHÈME (N. Amsellem, M. Haddock, F. Capitanucci, G. Jarman; TELARC)

Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924) – La Bohème: N. Amsellem (Mimì), M. Haddock (Rodolfo), F. Capitanucci (Marcello), G. Jarman (Musetta), D. Sedov (Colline), C. Schaldenbrand (Schaunard), K. Glavin (Benoit/Alcindoro), B. Howard (Parpignol); Gwinnett Young Singers, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus; Robert Spano [recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center during September 2007; TELARC 80697]

Another recording of La Bohème. Groan. Yes to the former, but in this case not too much of the latter. It is easy to wish that the efforts that went into the recording and release of this Bohème, taken from concert performances given in Atlanta in September 2007, had been applied to another score, one more in need of a competitive recording in digital sound (Manon Lescaut seems an obvious candidate). It is not easy, however, to assemble a credible, competitive Bohème, and that is what Robert Spano and TELARC have achieved.

In many respects, this Bohème, recorded under similar conditions, displays in abundance precisely what the performance on DGG with the starrier pairing of Netrebko and Villazón lacks: a pervasive sense of young lovers in love, of desperate but not devastating poverty, of the gaiety of even troubled existence in the company of friends. In short, this performance is alive, and not merely because there are more audible signs of an audience (including welcome laughter) and efforts at simple staging effects than in the DGG recording. Bohème is not an inexorable progress to tragedy in the manner of a Gluck opera. The ultimate power of Bohème’s pathos is in the speed at which Mimì’s condition deteriorates from her entrance in the final act: we have known since her first appearance in Act One that she is very ill, but we have no reason to suspect that she will not recover. Her new love for Rodolfo demands that she recover. Rodolfo knows in those final moments of the fourth act that she is doomed but is nonetheless stunned when the realization that Mimì has died overtakes him. In this response beats the heart of Bohème and the reason that even hardened opera aficionados listen, even if in secret: there is always that impossible suspension of knowledge and reality and that hope that this is the performance when the love of two charmingly struggling young Bohemians will conquer death. There is in Spano’s performance a disarmingly naïve clinging to hope that both bolsters the inner acts of the opera and underlines the tragedy of Mimì’s death all the more effectively. In this performance, Bohème emerges as what it emphatically is: a beautifully romantic tale with a sudden, annihilating tragic ending. Villazón understood this in the DGG performance but was singing into a veritable void. Spano and all his cast fully comprehend the nature of the score and collectively touch the heart endearingly, defying the fact that this may be the thousandth time one has heard the opera.

Norah Amsellem, veteran of the first Metropolitan Opera performance I attended (a 1997 Carmen, in which she sang Micaëla), proves a capable, thoroughly charming, and ultimately very moving Mimì. Gifted by nature with a voice less opulent than Netrebko’s (to restrict comparison merely with her most recent recorded rival) Amsellem uses her warm timbre, clear diction, and natural sense of portamento to craft a Mimì who is both delicate and passionate. The flood of tone at the climax of her aria, as Mimì laments the fact that the flowers she embroiders lack the fragrances of the real blossoms after which they are modeled, raises the temperature in the frigid garret. It is not difficult to comprehend why a virile young poet is so immediately taken with a woman whose simplest thoughts are inherently poetic when her music is sung with such keen placement of the tone. Thereafter, she brings the perfect combination of shy slyness and wide-eyed amazement to the love duet, given a performance here that is both sensual and intimate. Amsellem makes beautiful contributions to the second act fracas, making touching things of her comments to Rodolfo about her observations that Marcello and Musetta remain madly in love with one another and her pity for them. The third act, a cruel test for any Mimì, brings occasional lapses in firmness, evident mainly in a noticeable but scarcely bothersome loosening of the vibrato at the top of the range in moments of stress, but Amsellem’s resources of wit, feeling, and involvement never fail her. In the final act, Amsellem is equally poignant in Mimì’s fierce battle to cling to life and in her final surrender. When this Mimì dies, one senses that a light has been extinguished, musically and emotionally: one almost imagines all the flowers in Paris, real and embroidered, withering in sympathy. Amsellem’s voice may not withstand detailed comparisons with the greatest Mimìs of the past, but her performance surpasses those of many more famous sopranos and gets at the heart of Puccini’s sweetly assured seamstress.

Marcus Haddock, whose impressive MET début as Gounod’s Faust I witnessed, offers a compelling performance and is very much a member of a tight ensemble rather than a leading tenor going through the paces of a leading tenor role. Haddock shares Amsellem’s clear diction and gratifyingly forward placement of tone. Unlike Villazón on DGG (who utilized a downward transposition), Haddock sings ‘Che gelida manina’ in the autograph key and produces a firm top C mostly free from strain. Haddock’s Rodolfo is in love with poetry and with the very notion of being in love, but Mimì translates his poetic visions into glorious reality. As noted, Haddock combines with Amsellem for an uncommonly enjoyable performance of the love duet that ends the first act. Haddock brings genuine feeling to his contributions to the second act, in which Rodolfo is too often lost in the crowd. Aided by Spano, Haddock gives due emphasis to the line in which Rodolfo introduces Mimì to his friends and says that, though he is a poet, she is poetry. When sung with sincerity and appropriately honeyed tone, is there any more touching sentiment in opera? The third act also brings the greatest trials for Rodolfo, vocally and dramatically, and the heroic undertones of Haddock’s voice serve him well. Variously jealous and petulant, Haddock’s Rodolfo is nonetheless as quick to forgiveness as he is to anger. The sense of relief in Rodolfo’s tone when he and Mimì resolve to remain together through the winter is touchingly honest. Haddock fully explores the dramatic turns of the final act without resorting to overwrought histrionics. Rather than the cries of a wounded artist, Haddock’s final voicings of Mimì’s name are the exasperated words of a young lover, a frightened and shattered Orpheus calling to his disappearing Eurydice. Haddock lacks an easily-identifiable, distinctive timbre, but this is a distinctive, distinguished, completely idiomatic Rodolfo.

Spano and his Atlanta forces surrounded Amsellem and Haddock with a team of expert Bohemians. Georgia Jarman proves a magnificent, nearly revelatory, Musetta, singing with poise, charm, pointed but attractive tone, and diction that only occasionally strays from the high standard set by Amsellem and Haddock. Jarman begins her famous waltz insouciantly, tossing off her purposefully deceptive gaiety, and delivering climactic top notes with pinging precision. Taken as a whole, the waltz ensemble receives from all involved one of its finest performances on records. Fabio Capitanucci, a singer previously unknown to me, is a Marcello who responds with eloquence to Rodolfo, Mimì, and Musetta. A measure of nostalgia is perhaps missing from Marcello’s last-act duet with Rodolfo, but Capitanucci sings throughout with nuance and well-placed tone. It is, of course, a true pleasure to hear a native Italian in the role. Bass Denis Sedov is one of the better Collines to be encountered in recent years: while pointing the text with cleverness, Sedov’s tone is also capable of unfurling magnificently in a manner befitting a great ‘bear’ of a character. Beginning with Monteverdi’s Seneca, philosophers seem to require bass voices that can roll voluptuously into the depths without becoming lugubrious. Kevin Glavin revels in his double assignment as Benoit and Alcindoro, articulating both characters without caricature or the unnecessary bluster with which many singers of these roles seek to disguise vocal shortcomings. Completing the team of principals is Christopher Schaldenbrand, whose performance as Schaunard confirms his reputation as one of American’s finest young baritones. This is a singer who can reach the lowest notes of his role to, along with Colline, anchor ensembles and can also encompass the role’s highest notes without shouting or forcing. It is surely ironic that Schaunard, the musician of the group, so seldom receives a truly musical performance. Schaldenbrand supplies musicality in abundance, however, and delivers his retelling of the melodrama involving the English Milord, the parrot, and the poisoned parsley with an increasingly-annoyed wit that is genuinely funny. In this, Schaldenbrand brings to mind the wonderful John Reardon, but Schaldenbrand’s voice is more beautiful and his theatrical instincts show greater savvy.

It is well known that Robert Spano has wrought wonders with the Symphony during his tenure in Atlanta. To state that the Atlanta Symphony here plays unobtrusively may seem unkind, but it is intended as a tribute to the complete security of the playing. There is none of the symphonic preening that one often hears from great orchestras in this score. The Symphony, guided by Spano, simply play the score with grace, color, and perfect timing, never forgetting that they are accompanying—rather than competing with—a team of singers who are enacting a very human drama. Director Norman Mackenzie also deserves a word of praise for the excellent balance among the child and adult choristers. Above all, though, it is Spano who brings this performance together, conducting with mastery that never draws attention to itself but shapes a sequence of four brief acts that eloquently move from first love to unmitigated celebration and then from resignation and suspicion to bitter reunion and extraordinary sadness. It is disheartening to note how many world-famous conductors with casts of world-famous singers fail to make this journey in the space of La Bohème’s two hours. Spano and his cast achieve a performance that, if not displacing the classic recordings with Albanese and Gigli, de los Angeles and Björling, both entertains and inspires. Taken on its own merits, it is a performance to cherish, and moreover one that proves that casts of brand-name singers often do not create the same magic provided by people who simply care about the story they are telling.

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini - LA BOHÈME (A. Netrebko, R. Villazón, B. Daniel, N. Cabell; DGG)

Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924) – La Bohème: A. Netrebko (Mimì), R. Villazón (Rodolfo), B. Daniel (Marcello), N. Cabell (Musetta), S. Degout (Schaunard), V. Kowaljow (Colline), T. Bracci (Benoit, Alcindoro, un Doganiere), K. Connors (Parpignol), G. Häussler (Sergente dei doganieri), N. von der Nahmer (un Fanciullo); Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Kinderchor des Stadttheaters am Gärtnerplatz, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; B. de Billy [recorded ‘live’ during concert performances during 04/2007 at the Philharmonie im Gastieg, Munich; DGG 477 660 0]

The first question that occurs to any opera aficionado, no matter how strong his affection for Puccini and his seminal works, concerns why there could possibly be a need in the Bohème-saturated and struggling operatic recording market for another performance of the composer’s tale of love and death in Paris. One possible answer is posed by the fact that the recording, beautifully recorded by Deutsche Grammophon and mastered by their top-drawer team at Emil Berliner Studios, is co-produced by IMG Artists, the arts representation house. Can there be any further doubt, then, that this recording is intended, first and foremost, as an act of publicity to capitalize upon the press generated by the recording’s stars?

Whether or not one likes it, there is considerable attention and a palpable sense of an ‘event’ wherever Anna Netrebko appears. During her now-legendary Salzburg Festival run in La Traviata, eager Salzburg shopkeepers hastened to display ‘Netrebko shops Here’ signs ere the beautiful Russian diva could fully depart their establishments. Netrebko’s appearances at the MET, whether as Gounod’s Juliette or Donizetti’s Norina, have unfailingly produced box-office pandemonium. Surely, however, Netrebko is arriving at the moment in her career at which serious-minded opera connoisseurs begin to question whether the voice justifies the hype.

The evidence of Netrebko’s recorded Mimì leaves this question largely unanswered. Perhaps the voice suffers somewhat in comparison with the woman as Netrebko is an extremely beautiful woman and an often compelling actress. The voice, however, is prone to losing focus and absolute grasp of the pitch. An aspect of Netrebko’s Salzburg Violetta that bothered me was her tendency to offer punctuated phrases rather than broader paragraphs of both vocal identification and character development, and this Mimì shows little improvement in that regard. Netrebko’s voice is lovely, and this counts for much, perhaps more so in Puccini than in the scores of other composers. The voice is rounded, steady, and audible throughout. The tone is often very dark, lending the character a certain aspect of maturity that is not unwelcome. Were this an interpretive device rather than an indication of a capable but unexceptional singer bringing her one basic vocal color to the role it could be appreciated more emphatically. Netrebko brings nothing to Mimì that has not been heard before and, in sum, sings in a generalized manner that is effective as satisfying vocalism but somewhat less than that as music drama. Where, for instance, is the wide-eyed wonder at falling in love in the first act that Mirella Freni displayed as vividly on records as in the theatre? Where is the playfulness Albanese brought to her subtly erotic teasing of Rodolfo as they depart for the Café Momus? Where is the tragic grandeur that Tebaldi brought to the third act? Where are the pallor of death so clear in Callas’ singing and the irrepressible longing for survival implicit in Scotto’s performance of the final scene? That Netrebko’s Mimì fails to ascend to the Pantheon which houses the interpretations of her celebrated predecessors is not unforgiveable. What is damaging to the performance, however, is that one ultimately fails to connect emotionally in a deeply meaningful way: this Mimì is simply a nice girl with a pretty voice who unfortunately takes ill and dies too young. One is sad for her fate but, when she has embroidered her last delicate flower, does not truly miss her all that much.

Lauded throughout the world since her victory in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, young soprano Nicole Cabell has enjoyed the doors of nearly all of the world’s major opera houses opening to her. DECCA were quick to sign her on for their most recent recording of Porgy and Bess (conducted by John Mauceri—the most compelling reason to hear the recording), and Opera Rara have recently brought out a studio recording with Cabell in the title role of Donizetti’s Imelda de’ Lambertazzi, following acclaimed concert performances in London. Here singing Musetta, Cabell shares with Netrebko an all-purpose approach to her performance, singing without significant difficulty but also without nuance or particular distinction. One can argue that Musetta is essentially a one-dimension role, her prayer in the final act notwithstanding, and Cabell does not dispel this notion. Her phrasing is square and unimaginative, but she remains a very young singer. Tonally, again rather like Netrebko, the voice is attractive without being exceptional. Truly memorable Musettas are few indeed, and Cabell renders her part without managing to join their ranks.

Boaz Daniel sings Marcello with a voice that seems small for the role but brings involvement and commitment to his performance. Bass Vitalij Kowaljow (try saying that after a ripping evening at the Momus!) brings solidity and some humor to Colline. Smaller roles are mostly taken with professionalism, to generally good effect.

Meriting special mention is young baritone Stéphane Degout as Schaunard. It must be said that Schaunard is not an ideal assignment for Degout’s voice, which possesses a remarkably lovely hue that reminds one of the baritones of the classic French school. Degout nonetheless approaches his performance with careful inflections, masterful coloring of the tone, and genuine joie de vivre. The beauty of Degout’s voice and integrity of his performance in an unlikely role remind one that Schaunard was also an early role for another sublime baritone on the brink of a great career: Hermann Prey.

The jewel of this Bohème is the Rodolfo of Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón. Like that of his leading lady, Villazón’s tone is also dark, but he is almost wholly successful in avoiding (and, at worst, minimizing) the nasality that is prominent in many Latin tenors. There is youth bursting from every line that Villazón utters, and the fact that Rodolfo is a poet is not lost on Villazón. There is greater technical care in Villazón’s singing than has sometimes been the case, and signs of strain and forcing are very rare. Villazón’s performance is shaped by an impetuosity that seems derived first from joy and then from despair, and the performance as a whole is improved and enlarged by his participation. Whether a very fine Rodolfo makes a complete Bohème palatable remains debatable, but Villazón’s performance is the undoubted success of this recording.

Choristers and orchestra acquit themselves with dignity and technical skill, nearly matching their famed Viennese rivals and missing little of the passion brought to the score by Italian performers. DGG have given them a recording of near-demonstration quality in which to display their prowess.

Bertrand de Billy, a conductor of eloquence and poise, is unfortunately not altogether successful at La Bohème. Recognizing their importance and emotional significance (and sometimes the fact that they merely are fantastic tunes), de Billy elongates certain passages: a different cast might well have responded with increased involvement and heightened attention to the text. In this case, however, the performance occasionally drags, seeming weighted down by attempts at underlining points of musical and dramatic reference that should be obvious. Still, de Billy has an ear for orchestral sounds and a talent for manipulating the orchestras under his command to produce textures that support the singers in ways that suggests an uncommon affinity for conducting opera. There is not quite so much evidence of this accomplishment in this performance, but de Billy presides effectively over a Bohème that fulfils half of its hyped promise.

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - TAMERLANO (D. Daniels, P. Bardon, P. Domingo; Washington National Opera, 2 May 2008)

Georg Friedrich HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759) – Tamerlano: D. Daniels (Tamerlano), P. Bardon (Andronico), P. Domingo (Bajazet), S. Coburn (Asteria), C. Huckle (Irene), A. Foster-Williams (Leone); Washington National Opera Orchestra; William Lacey [Washington National Opera, 2 May 2008]

Those of you who will read this should know from the start that, in general, my heart beats most fondly for the Baroque. Perhaps mine is one of those that are sometimes called ‘old souls,’ or perhaps I merely long for the inherent simplicity and continuity of an order in which our lives play out in recitative, speeding to a climax and then pausing to allow us to sort out our emotions in arias that reflect our innermost reactions to our circumstances. I thrill to the war cries of Manrico, weep with Wotan as he bids Brünnhilde farewell, sigh with Lucia as she recalls meeting her lover by the fountain, share Mélisande’s agitation when her ring has gone down the well; but cardboard Baroque characters intrigue and engage me most meaningfully because, in the finest cases, their music aspires to sublimity.

Any production of a Händel score by a major opera company (presumably with resources to do the piece justice) is therefore cause for celebration. When it was official that Plácido Domingo would follow his ‘star turn’ as Bajazet in Händel’s Tamerlano at Teatro Real in Madrid (where he shared the role with American tenor Bruce Ford) by bringing his performance to a new production at one of his home bases, Washington National Opera, my enthusiasm was limitless. It decidedly was not, then, a lack of enthusiasm that impeded my enjoyment of the 2 May performance of Tamerlano.

Musically, the performance ranged from the basically acceptable to the superb. The reduced orchestra of Washington National Opera did their considerable best but could not disguise the fact that, the presence of several Mozart scores in their repertory notwithstanding, this was decidedly foreign territory for them. Still, the woodwinds made an especially fine showing, with excellent work from the bassoon and clarinets (Tamerlano having been among the first operatic scores, and perhaps the most important of its period, to make use of the latter, then-new instrument). There were moments of untidiness among the strings, not least in the exposed fugal passages of the overture. The orchestra as a whole would doubtlessly benefit from interaction with a few ‘period’ players, particularly in tightening their collective attacks on Händel’s finely-honed rhythms.

For ‘period’ continuo, Washington National Opera fielded pairs of harpsichords and theorbos. These instruments and their respective players contributed effectively to secco recitatives but tended to get somewhat lost in all but the slow, ‘pathetic airs’ (with which, admittedly, Tamerlano abounds). There were questions of balance throughout the rehearsal period, and some credit is due for partially solving the problems of translating ‘period’ sounds into tones that remain mellifluous and ostensibly ‘authentic’ while also filling the requirements, in terms of amplitude, of a modern house considerably larger than that for which the opera was composed. Performing at modern (a = 440 mHz) rather than ‘period’ (a = 415 mHz, in most cases) pitch helped in this regard, brightening the sound and facilitating greater projection into the large auditorium.

Maestro William Lacey conducted capably but at times sluggishly. Lyricism went better than vehemence, and rhythms were sometimes slack in the fiercely-sprung ritornelli. Maestro Lacey generally shaped secco recitatives effectively, rarely losing momentum. One way in which Lacey was remarkably successful was in highlighting the string figures in aria accompaniments throughout Tamerlano, making it more than usually apparent that, though nearly sixty years would pass between them, Idomeneo was very near on the horizon.

Vocally, the center of the evening was Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, singing the role of the hapless Greek prince Andronico, about whose tribulations in love and politics the plot gyrates (far more so than about the title tyrant). From first note to last, recitative and aria, Bardon missed nothing, musical or dramatic. The Werther-esque brooding imposed upon the character by the production grew wearying, but the commitment of Bardon’s acting and the velvety beauty of her singing convinced that perseverance would be rewarded: ultimately, it should have been very difficult to remain indifferent to Andronico’s plight as conveyed by Bardon’s performance. This made all the more unfortunate several instances in which, thanks to badly-timed and frankly stupid colloquial translations in the projected supertitles, Andronico’s lamenting words drew waves of laughter from the audience.

Asteria, the object of Andronico’s affection (and Tamerlano’s lust), was sung by soprano Sarah Coburn, in one of her most high-profile assignments with a major American company to date, building upon her success at the Metropolitan Opera in Tan Dun’s The First Emperor. The investment WNO made in this young artist paid considerable dividends, with Coburn delivering a superb performance of Asteria’s great aria ‘Cor di padre,’ one of Händel’s greatest inspirations for Francesca Cuzzoni (and employed here—wisely, I think—as in Händel’s first draft of the score to end the second act). Throughout, Coburn sang with poise and burnished tone, combining with Bardon for a ravishing account of their final-act duet ‘Vivo in te mio caro bene.’

Young British bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams made much of little as Leone, taking advantage of his interpolated aria to offer high-octane singing. Elsewhere, with his contributions confined to recitative and the bass line in the closing rhetorical coro (essentially a quartet for the surviving principals), Foster-Williams’ dedicated performance could do little to disguise the fact that Leone is essentially an uninteresting hanger-on. Nonetheless, the voice was absolutely first-rate, and Foster-Williams’ performance proved especially memorable.

More significant dramatically is Irene, Tamerlano’s rightful betrothed, sung by mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle, a two-season veteran of the Domingo-Cafritz program for emerging artists. Huckle’s Irene was very much in the picture dramatically, looking stunning in the Prada-style costume in which she made her first entrance. Vocally, Huckle’s performance was more variable: moments of fluency alternated with struggles with the coloratura of her arias. In essence, Huckle’s seemed to be a voice of genuine quality being put to the test of a role for which it is not ideally suited.

The prevailing question concerning Plácido Domingo’s assumption of Bajazet is surely, Why? Why, at the age of sixty-seven, after having sung 125 roles in the world’s major houses, take on a role as challenging and vocally different from his latter-day repertory of Parsifal and Siegmund? There is no other obvious answer than that Domingo does this because he can: the resources are at his command, and there remains the house-filling audience willing to accompany him on this adventure. It was just that: an adventure. Any Baroque purist hoping to hear the sort of Bajazet one remembers from Alexander Young or expects from Mark Padmore was ultimately disappointed but hopefully not incapable of enjoying what was in many ways a very fine performance. Domingo flubbed his first aria but recovered with aplomb and thereafter gave a performance of integrity. Domingo made his approach to the coloratura work, and several of his attempts at trills were surprisingly successful (as, to be fair, were his youthful efforts at trilling in Don Carlo, Il Trovatore, and the Verdi Requiem). Bajazet’s duet with his daughter Asteria was another stand-out moment in the performance. In other commentaries, Domingo’s performance of Bajazet’s famed death scene (following his off-stage act of suicide) has been likened to Verdi’s final scene for Otello, for which Domingo was long celebrated: it is a viable comparison, but Domingo’s moving performance of Bajazet’s death brought his staunchly dignified Samson more to my mind. One is prepared to forgive Domingo much for his bravery in singing this role at this juncture in his career, but in the event very little forgiveness was required to enjoy the strength, beauty, and abandon of his performance.

Singing the ubiquitous title role was American countertenor David Daniels, arguably the finest and most famous countertenor presently before the public. In general, Daniels is a very successful interpreter of Händel’s alto castrato roles, which he has sung in houses large and small throughout the world to near-universal acclaim. Tamerlano, unfortunately, is not an ideal role for Daniels, not least in that the music for the spoiled, petulant Emperor never allows an opportunity for Daniels to provide the lyricism he is capable of bringing off with such striking and, among countertenors, atypical beauty. Händel’s Tamerlano is one-dimensional, and Daniels’ performance could not overcome this. Daniels may well prove more effective in the role in a smaller house, where the temptation to force to ensure suitable volume would be lessened. All told, however, Daniels’ performance was thoroughly capable and, of course, expertly sung but did not offer him the opportunity to transport the audience with his finest qualities.

Only the slightest mention of the silly, modern-dress (with Asteria and Bajazet is some sort of unspecific, pseudo Ottoman costumes that seemed discarded from a provincial production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail) production by Chas Raider-Shieber is required. The production did nothing to provide settings of time and place to elucidate the characters’ actions and motives. One does not expect a production of Tamerlano to convincingly recreate ancient Samarkand, but would-be-chic (or is that would-be-sheik?) vagaries do not suffice. The production undermined the emotional significance of characters and consequently one’s concern for them. Unfortunately, even a deep personal affection for a score cannot redeem a production that does not seem to understand or respect it. What Washington National Opera understood is that Tamerlano requires singers with intelligence, fluid technique, and beautiful voices, and in this respect the production exceeded expectations.

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Harpsichord Recital by Jory Vinikour (College of Charleston, 7 April 2008)

The first thing that must be said about the recital given by eminent harpsichordist Jory Vinikour at the College of Charleston on 7 April 2008, is that this was the sort of performance that proved beyond contention that there are no archaic instruments, only performers who fail to comprehend that at their own fingertips is the critical ability to transcend eras and styles to shape performances that excite, entice, and enlighten.

Mr. Vinikour, an American-born Fulbright Scholar now resident in Paris, offered a performance that explored repertory ranging from music originally composed for the Elizabethan virginal (an instrument at which the unsullied Sovereign herself is reported to have been little short of a virtuoso) by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) to a new work from young French composer Régis Campo (born 1968), a piece on which the ink was practically still wet. That Mr. Vinikour pursued this tremendously varied repertory with such complete technical mastery is testament to his consummate virtuosity: that he also managed to present this program as a single arc, with no breaks in continuity or jarring disjoints in style, is evidence of considerable insight and artistry.

Virtuosity in any performance at the harpsichord is—or should be—a forgone conclusion as the music for the instrument, with its unique ‘plectrum’ response and limited capacity for sustained tones, is almost invariably of a certain difficulty. Even so, playing of the technical skill displayed by Mr. Vinikour is surely rare. With a prominent career as soloist, accompanist (to celebrated artists including countertenor David Daniels, soprano Annick Massis, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, with whom Mr. Vinikour collaborated on the acclaimed Archiv/Deutsche Grammophon disc Music for a While), répétiteur, and conductor, Mr. Vinikour has assimilated and mastered all the elements necessary to developing a musical talent of the first rate. Mr. Vinikour’s playing in Charleston was poised and unperturbed but also rewardingly passionate: rather than seeming a recital of centuries-old music from which our capable performer blew the dust just prior to taking his seat before the keyboard, the performance emerged as an invigorating showcase of an instrument, consigned in America largely—and sadly—to continuo for secco recitative, with limitless possibilities. This was a performance in which, the technique (as with Martha Argerich at her best) beyond reproach and the fingers unfailingly falling where they should, poetry could be created in sound.

Especially impressive, to both this writer and to the audience of attentive students and members of the musically-sophisticated Charleston community (home, after all, to the prestigious Spoleto Festival), were the contemporary compositions offered. Graham Lynch’s (born 1957) Admiring Yoro Waterfall was, despite its decidedly post-Stravinsky idiom, a piece of intense beauty, shimmering sounds cascading across the range of the instrument. Mr. Vinikour’s playing of this piece seemed to suspend time and also revealed that gorgeous lyricism need not compete unfavorably with rapid-fire bravura passages in music for the harpsichord. Perpetuum Mobile, composed by the aforementioned Mr. Campo, was a superb affair of contrasting intensity and sublimity, colors shining through Mr. Vinikour’s playing like light and shadow on a harsh but incredibly beautiful landscape. Similarly, Toccatas by Harold Meltzer (born 1966) pursued thematic ideas across a broad canvas, developing upon the models of Bach and Pachelbel. The two latter pieces were both dedicated by their composers to Mr. Vinikour, and it was easy to share what surely were delighted reactions by these composers at hearing their music played with such elegance, suavity, and aplomb.

In addition to the two pieces originally composed for the virginal by Thomas Tomkins, the balance of the recital consisted of suites by Baroque composers Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer (1656-1746) and Pancrace Royer (1705-1755), respectively, both of them containing music typical of the Baroque era that might best be described as barnstorming, music that highlights the virtuosity of the performer. Mr. Vinikour managed to convey much more than mere display, however.

The performance was brought to a close with an encore consisting of music by the French master of the keyboard François Couperin. To this Mr. Vinikour brought nothing short of complete authority, capping in an exuberant manner an evening that fully revealed the expressive possibilities of the harpsichord, not only in its ‘native’ Baroque repertory but also in music that challenges both player and audience with its modernity. Without having the luxury of considerable experience with solo harpsichord performances, I daresay nonetheless that this is a rare occurrence, and Charleston is to be praised for having hosted it and envied for having enjoyed it.

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Stefano Landi - IL SANT'ALESSIO (P. Jaroussky, M.E. Cencic, A. Buet, X. Sabata; Rose Hall, New York, 29 October 2007)

Xavier Sabata as la Madre and Max Emanuel Cencic as la Sposa in Stefano Landi's IL SANT'ALESSIO [Photo © Les Arts Florissants]STEFANO LANDI (1587 – 1639): Il Sant’Alessio—P. Jaroussky (Alessio), M.E. Cencic (Sposa), A. Buet (Eufemiano), X. Sabata (Madre), D. Guillon (Curtio), J. Lemos (Martio), L. De Donato (Demonio), J.-P. Bonnevalle (Nutrice), P. Bertin (Nuntio), T. Wey (Roma, Religione), R. Angel (Adrasto); La Maîtrise de Caen, Orchestra & Chrous of Les Arts Florissants; William Christie [Rose Hall, Lincoln Center, New York; 29 October 2007]

Lincoln Center brought extraordinary grace to its ‘Great Performers’ series at the beautiful Frederick P. Rose Hall (housed in the TimeWarner Center at Columbus Circle) by featuring the French period-instrument band Les Arts Florissants, conducted by early music paragon William Christie, in a semi-staged performance of Stefano Landi’s (1587-1639) religious opera Il Sant’Alessio (Saint Alexis).

Composed to a libretto by Giulio Rospigliosi (later to be elected Pope Clement IX) for the 1631 Roman carnival season, Landi’s opera traces the [likely apocryphal, more or less] story of the Fifth-Century Roman Saint Alexis, who—according to legends prevalent in Catholic literature since the Tenth Century—was destined, as the only son of a prominent Roman Senator, for a life of privilege. Betrothed to a Roman girl of the highest rank, Alexis nonetheless fled Rome before the end of his nuptial ceremony, pledging love and fidelity to his new bride, in order to pursue a life of piety and poverty in the East. Alexis sailed for Syria and, reaching the town of Edessa on foot upon landing in Syria, lived there for seventeen years by begging. His holiness recognized and publicized by a sacristan at the Church of Our Lady, where he begged, Alexis again fled, taking passage on a ship bound for Tarsus. The ship was blown off course, however, and landed along the Italian coast. Alexis therefore returned to Rome, finding his parents still alive and his wife still faithful to him. Without revealing his identity, Alexis sought and was granted permission to live as a penitent beneath the staircase leading to his father’s house. Alexis remained there for another seventeen years, begging alms in the streets of Rome, praying in the city’s churches, and enduring harsh treatment from his father’s servants. After these seventeen years had passed, Pope Innocent I celebrated Mass in the presence of the Holy Roman Emperor, and a celestial voice was heard during the service instructing the Pope to seek out a holy man in penitence beneath the stairs of the house belonging to Alexis’ father: this holy man would pray for Rome and bring the favor of God upon Rome, the Pope, and the Emperor. Both Pope and Emperor sought the man and found Alexis in his penitent’s rags dead beneath the threshold of his father’s house, a document in his hand revealing his true identity.

This story, rich in imagery and celebration of the sanctity of suffering, provided Landi an opportunity for providing music of beauty, power, and deeply moving pathos. Composing in an idiom similar to that heard in scores by Monteverdi and Cavalli, Landi conjured a sound world that is both appropriately somber (without being sluggish or dull) in the sorrowful scenes and delightfully playful and dance-like in the ‘comic’ scenes in which the scornful servants torment Alessio. Perhaps even more than in his pioneering recording of the work for ERATO [recorded in 1995; recently re-released by Warner Classics in a clamshell box, item no. 2564 69935-6; a recording of the current production, in its fully-staged form directed by Benjamin Lazar and featuring the same cast seen in New York, has been released on DVD by Virgin/EMI], Maestro Christie proved the consummate master of this score, shaping every scene with attention to its creative instrumentation, emotional significance, and importance within the larger structure of the narrative. Conducting from the harpsichord and regal, Maestro Christie led his Les Arts Florissants players through a performance that filled the theatre with gorgeous sounds of uncompromising virtuosity and unflagging vigor.

The vocal performance began with Swiss countertenor Terry Wey, singing the role of Roma (Rome; he returned later in the performance as Religione) with lovely, rather slight tone and expert style, including the evening’s most impressive effort at the early Baroque trillo. The following scene in which Alessio’s father Eufemiano (superbly sung by bass Alain Buet) and Adrasto (sung by tenor/sometimes countertenor and would-be pop idol Ryland Angel), newly returned from the East, conversed about Alessio’s presumed whereabouts was touching as it revealed the first evidence of the family’s deep grief for Alessio’s loss, which would develop so wondrously in the scenes to come. Mr. Buet sang throughout with dignity and ingratiating tone, portraying through the coloring of his voice the anguish of a father still grieving for the loss of his son after many years. Mr. Angel held up his end of the bargain in this and his subsequent scenes and sang adequately if without true distinction.

As the menacing Demonio intent upon luring Alessio off his course of piety and penitence, bass Luigi De Donato sang with vehemence and great verve, compensating for a lower register that occasionally disappeared as it descended into the lowest notes of the role. He was splendidly abetted by the Les Arts Florissants chorus, who were joined by the children’s choir of La Maîtrise de Caen in impersonating personages celestial, infernal, and terrestrial.

One point of great interest in the performance is that it featured eight countertenors, all in important roles, approximating the conditions under which the opera might have been first performed in Rome, with the Papal ban on women taking part in stage productions within the Vatican realms. In addition to Mr. Wey, countertenors performed the roles of Alessio’s Mother (Madre) and Wife (Sposa), and their Nurse (Nutrice); his father’s servants Curtio and Martio; and the messenger (Nuntio) who soothes Alessio’s father and eventually proclaims Alessio’s death. Significantly, Alessio was also sung by a countertenor, at least in part a nod to the fact that the title role was likely first sung by Landi’s former pupil, soprano castrato Angelo Ferrotti.

Casting a countertenor as Alessio had both negative and positive effects. One of the unfortunate aspects was that, by necessity, the role must be subjected to downward transpositions, most notably in Alessio’s great questioning monologue [Act 2, scene V: ‘Alessio, che forai?'] which in Landi’s manuscript builds—atypically for the period in which it was composed—to a soprano top C. This was offset, however, by the legitimacy of having a male singer in a male role, even if the original tessitura and sanctity of the part suggest that a female singer might prove a more effective modern alternative (the role was sung, at original pitch, in Christie’s ERATO studio recording by soprano Patricia Petibon). The unquestioned success of the casting was in the extraordinary effective and vocally beguiling performance given by French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, a rising star in Europe whose singing in New York more than justified the acclaim. Mr. Jaroussky phrased with finesse and offered an engagingly ethereal timbre that without manipulation suggested Alessio’s solemnity. Mr. Jaroussky also ventured tones higher (if not quite what Landi’s original manuscript dictates) than what one normally expects from a countertenor, producing lovely if occasionally pressed top G’s and spinning phrase after phrase that filled the theatre with beautiful sound. It was a performance that both honored the inspired nature of the music and confirmed the emergence of an important artist.

As the comic servants Curtio and Martio, countertenors Damien Guillon and José Lemos sang and acted their roles with no little charm, Mr. Guillon displaying great comic timing and Mr. Lemos bringing to his role a voice of exotic beauty far greater than it required. Their scenes were welcome respites from Alessio’s trials and his family’s grief. Pascal Bertin, a singer of warm poise and aptly grave demeanor, brought integrity to Nuncio’s pronouncements despite occasional lapses in intonation.

Alessio’s Mother and the Nurse were sung by Xavier Sabata and Les Arts Florissants veteran Jean-Paul Bonnevalle, respectively. Mr. Sabata imbued his performance as Alessio’s long-grieving Mother with great sorrow, coloring his voice with subtlety and nuance and singing throughout with touching sincerity and great tonal allure. Mr. Bonnevalle also sang well as the Nurse, maintaining a firm grasp on the phrasing and secure tone and increasing the hope that he will continue to take larger roles in Les Arts Florissants productions.

The great success of the performance, however, both vocally and dramatically, was young countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic as Alessio’s persevering Wife. More than any of his colleagues, Mr. Cencic fully justified the decision to cast male singers in female roles as Landi and his contemporaries presumably would have done by singing with tone of truly remarkable beauty and never condescending to the notion of portraying a female character. In fact, the presiding dramatic success of Mr. Cencic’s performance was that his character’s gender was secondary to the depths of sorrow expressed through song. Vocally, Mr. Cencic offered everything that countertenors’ detractors suggest that they cannot supply: absolute control across a wide dynamic range, expert coloration of the tone to explore the nuances of the text, and a prevailing sense of the voice being entirely ‘right’ for the music it sang. Both in solos and in ensembles, Mr. Cencic sang with such exquisite and melting beauty that it was impossible to fail to feel the sorrow of his character, and the tears his performance inspired among the audience were plentiful. It was a performance that equally enraptured and broke the heart and will remain forever in the memory: it was also a triumph for a rare but truly important artist.

It is always an ‘event’ when Les Arts Florissants appear in New York, and Il Sant’Alessio fully deserved this distinction. In Maestro Christie, New York found a conductor and musicologist still at the height of his powers, never bogging down music of such contemplative beauty and insight with academic posturing or idiosyncratic theorizing. With Mr. Jaroussky, New York nodded its collective approval of an increasingly valued and lauded artist. In Mr. Cencic, New York and the American musical scene, ever slow to accept even the finest countertenors, encountered one of those exquisitely priceless sources of a soul-enriching experience in which, for those few minutes, nothing in all the world mattered so much as an abandoned wife’s pain.