07 March 2009

CD REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini - I CAPULETI E I MONTECCHI (A. Netrebko, E. Garanča, J. Calleja; DGG)

VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835) – I Capuleti e i Montecchi: A. Netrebko (Giulietta), E. Garanča (Romeo), J. Calleja (Tebaldo), R. Gleadow (Lorenzo), T. Bracci (Capellio); Wiener Singakademie, Wiener Symphoniker; Fabio Luisi [recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in the Wiener Konzerthaus, April 2008; DGG 477 803 1]

For an aficionado of Baroque repertory such as myself, the past few years have been a veritable Golden Age despite the monumental struggles of the recording industry, with standard-setting recordings of Baroque works appearing at a steady pace and still more on the horizon (not least with the impending release of Alan Curtis’ new studio recording of Händel’s Alcina with the remarkably gifted Joyce DiDonato in the title role). However passionately we might debate the extent to which the precise performance practices of the Baroque are understood and replicated in modern performances, it cannot be doubted that the current musical scene is endowed with singers uniquely capable of effectively performing Baroque music, not solely in executing the often tremendously complex technical feats but also in communicating the emotional involvement, sometimes elusive, inherent in Baroque music. It is unfortunately true enough that there are few ‘great’ singers before the public now who do full justice to the standard repertory works of Mozart, Puccini, Strauss, Verdi, and Wagner, but there are extraordinary singers – artists like DiDonato; the wonderful mezzo-sopranos Romina Basso, Vivica Genaux, Sara Mingardo, and Sonia Prina; sopranos Rosemary Joshua and Sandrine Piau; tenors Mark Padmore and Kobie van Rensburg; and revelatory countertenors Max Emanuel Cencic, David Daniels, and David Hansen – who illuminate music of the Baroque in ways that convey its brilliance and soul-lifting beauty to contemporary listeners. Perhaps it would be a slight overstatement to suggest that the Flagstads and Melchiors of our time sing Händel and Monteverdi rather than Wagner (with an affectionate memory of the fact that Flagstad, of course, sang Gluck, Händel, and Purcell, if without what we now understand – or feign to understand – as appropriate stylishness with compensatory grandeur of tone and demeanor and complete conviction), but it is surely significant that an opera company such as the Metropolitan can more effectively cast a score like Giulio Cesare or Rodelinda than Aida or Tannhäuser.

The state of bel canto prevaricates between these extremes of feast and famine, as can be discerned from the current MET season with its largely disappointing Lucia di Lammermoor and the new Mary Zimmermann production of La Sonnambula, which is at least sung very well by Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez. Though success is variable, what is unwavering is the desire of singers to sing bel canto repertory, whether or not their voices are suited by nature or matters of technique and temperament to it. The glorious outpourings of melody are appreciated by audiences even when the accompanying dramas are inane, and proportions of rough singing are forgotten when the music is so beautiful. More damaging are the intentions of managements and artsits’ representatives to cast singers in bel canto works at any cost, following the examples of Callas and Sutherland in that a great Lucia is a more lasting (and more marketable) entity than a great Rusalka or Fiordiligi. Many performances of bel canto scores are bruised by inattentive singing by ambitious singers intent on enjoying star turns in works that are essentially efforts in careful collaboration among singers, orchestra, and conductor.

In previous generations, bel canto was often the link between the Baroque and later, large-house standard repertories. A singer as talented as Tatiana Troyanos was equally effective, by means of secure technique, interpretive genius, and finely-honed performance instincts, as Händel’s Giulio Cesare (and even Cleopatra, as she proved in a studio recording for DGG) and Mozart’s Sesto as she was as Strauss’ Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos) and Wagner’s Waltraute (Götterdämmerung, which she memorably sang in the MET’s 1993 Ring, shortly before her untimely death, opposite the Brünnhilde of Dame Gwyneth Jones), an expanse she spanned with stirring performances of bel canto repertory exemplified by her towering Adalgisa in Norma and a legendary Romeo opposite the Giulietta of Beverly Sills in a Boston production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi. For Troyanos – as for her colleague on the opposite shore of the Atlantic, Dame Janet Baker – this versatility was neither a stunt nor, at least on the whole, unchecked ambition. Troyanos surely understood that bel canto is by its nature the offspring of the Baroque and Classical styles as well as healing balm to the voices of those who spend their careers singing Verdi and Wagner.

It is unquestionably ambition that motivates this new recording on Deutsche Grammophon of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, however, as it is (as was the DGG Bohème with Netrebko and Villazón) sponsored and co-produced by the arts management house IMG Artists. It is not difficult to wonder, when approaching this recording, whether it is intended primarily as a fluent, competitive performance of Bellini’s setting of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (though it is important to note that Bellini’s opera is not based upon Shakespeare’s play, which was virtually unknown in Italy at the time when Bellini composed) or as an attractively-presented trinket for the souvenir shoppes where IMG’s artists appear. Still, any lover of bel canto and of Bellini in particular (among whose ranks I emphatically am, for all my affection for and devotion to Baroque music considering Norma perhaps the most perfect opera ever composed) rejoices at the appearance of a new recording produced under the auspices of a major label. Even after nearly two hundred years have passed since the opera was new, there is much pleasure to be had from Bellini’s treatment of Verona’s most famous star-cross’d lovers.

In the context of this recording, primary focus will undoubtedly be (as IMG would demand) on the Giulietta of Anna Netrebko. Ms. Netrebko has been traveling a well-publicized route through the most known bel canto heroines, her first performances following the birth of her son having been as Lucia at the Mariinsky, followed by a reprise of the role at the MET. She is now singing Giulietta in a recycled production of Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to generally positive notices. Her contributions to this recording, derived from critically-acclaimed concert performances in Vienna, are both interesting and infuriating. Technical shortcomings are almost always apparent in Ms. Netrebko’s performances of bel canto roles, and this Giulietta displays an arsenal of approximated negotiations of coloratura passages, clumsy handling of long-breathed phrases, and trills that cannot even be credibly faked. Possessing an essentially lyric voice with a dark timbre not atypical of Russian and Slavic singers and relative security throughout the range when not pushing the voice, Ms. Netrebko is not nature’s intention for a bel canto heroine, however much she, her management, and opera house administrators may wish to convince listeners otherwise. With such a voice allied with a beautiful form and generally effective stage presence, there is great potential for Ms. Netrebko to prove a splendid Natasha (as she did, to an extent, earlier in her international career) and Tatyana. Why, then, must she exploit her gifts of natural beauty and an attractive voice, as well as her extraordinary popularity, by erroneously laying claim to the bel canto heroines? There are moments of accomplished singing and dramatic gravity in this Giulietta, including a very fine account of the closing duet, but the tragedy comes from the music (evidence of Bellini’s genius) rather than the eloquence of the singing (at which Bellini would surely be disappointed). When expectations are so high and the inherent possibilities of the voice so fine, a smudged and blank performance such as this is especially exasperating. Ms. Netrebko never embarrasses herself, but a safe performance is not a rewarding performance: Giulietta demands more, and Bellini deserves more. This is not riveting music drama, but it is thrillingly beautiful, beguiling, and soul-stirring music. Ms. Netrebko’s fans, ready to forgive all in the adoration of their diva, will treasure her performance here: those who treasure Bellini’s music will listen, thankful to hear a major-league performance of what has been deemed by the operatic establishment a minor-league work, and return to the EMI recording with Beverly Sills, who despite her audible years of service appreciates both the role and her music enough to confront them seriously, openly, and with endearing emotional honesty.

Before coming to the rest of the cast, a few words concerning the choral and orchestral forces and the conducting are required. The singers of the Wiener Singakademie (a choir once directed by Brahms) contribute singing that is consistently well-blended and mostly appropriate to the varying dramatic situations. The beautifully muted singing in the choral contributions to the second-act duet for Romeo and Tebaldo suggests the ‘Miserere’ that shapes Leonora’s scene in the final act of Verdi’s Trovatore. The Wiener Symphoniker, not an ensemble with the same polish and distinction of the more famous Wiener Philharmoniker, nonetheless play very well indeed, with the frequent solo passages being played with great eloquence. The solo clarinet that opens the aforementioned duet for Romeo and Tebaldo with what is very like the slow movement of a great clarinet concerto is especially poignantly and brilliantly played. Maestro Luisi’s tempi occasionally seem rather deliberate but rarely disfigure Bellini’s musical structures or deprive the performance of impetus. Replacing Ms. Netrebko with a more assured and more psychologically involved Giulietta (Annick Massis, for instance) could perhaps have inspired Maestro Luisi to even greater command and produced a remarkable, enduring performance.

Singing Capellio and Lorenzo respectively, Tizianno Bracci and Robert Gleadow are professional and efficient without being memorable. It must be granted, however, that theirs are not roles that often produce memorable performances.

As Romeo, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča contributes a good deal of very fine singing, building upon the positive impression made by her Adalgisa (recorded in concert by Nightingale Classics) opposite the Norma of Edita Gruberová, Giulietta to the Romeo of Agnes Baltsa in a previous Covent Garden run (subsequently recorded by EMI). Not unlike Tatiana Troyanos and Dame Janet Baker, Ms. Garanča is a versatile singer whose noted roles include, along with Adalgisa and Romeo, Massenet’s Charlotte and Strauss’ Octavian. Bolstered by a refreshing freedom from mannerisms and a solid technique, Ms. Garanča succeeds in applying her bright timbre to Romeo’s darker passions. Coloratura passages are mostly delivered with aplomb, and Ms. Garanča brings considerably greater resources of taste and emotional depth to her singing than are heard from Ms. Netrebko. The two singers combine effectively for a convincing account of the final duet, however. With only the lowest portion of her range displaying slight weakness and huskiness (not unlike Leontyne Price in a role like Aïda), Ms. Garanča displays complete mastery of Romeo’s tessitura, with an exciting excursion to top C in the duet with Tebaldo. The morbidezza demanded by the role is achieved through careful attention to the text and a pointing of the sound that largely avoids stress. Without effacing memories of Giulietta Simionato, Ms. Garanča proves a credible, often exhilarating Romeo worthy of standing in Simionato’s company.

With the Tebaldo of Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja this performance achieves its greatest success. Bringing precisely the sappy, Italianate tone for which the role begs and a beautifully-placed timbre with greater weight than many of his rivals in the role, Calleja sings with expert musicality and great sensitivity from his first note to his last. Tebaldo’s first-act aria and cabaletta are delivered with swagger and vocal exuberance, characterizing the hot-blooded young man to perfection. In the second-act duet with Romeo, Mr. Calleja pours forth floods of golden tone, recalling the young José Carreras, and strikes sparks off the flint of Ms. Garanča’s impassioned singing. Learning of Giulietta’s presumed death, a veil falls over Mr. Calleja’s singing that conveys heartbreaking grief and guilt without in any way dissipating the ardor of his vocalism. Already a fixture on the world’s most important stages, Mr. Calleja nonetheless announces his presence among the best singers of our time with this performance. Even considering that his competitors include Nicolai Gedda (commanding despite being strained and past his best) and Ramón Vargas, Mr. Calleja here contributes what seems, on balance, the best Tebaldo on records by a considerable margin.

Callas and Sutherland never sang Capuleti e i Montecchi, instinctively knowing better than to venture staged performances of a wilting ingénue over whose fate she herself has little control. Callas and Sutherland also knew that bel canto is more than doe-eyed sopranos mooning over tenors and interpolating tones above top C. A great performance of a bel canto score proves that, even when listeners are treated to those interpolations in alt (as, except in a few instances, they are not in this recording of Capuleti), accomplished singing, open-hearted acting with the voice, and the shimmering beauty of the music create a truly memorable musical experience. If this Capuleti ultimately is not that, it has in Elīna Garanča a compelling Romeo and in Joseph Calleja an undoubtedly great bel canto singer.