23 June 2009

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – DIE WALKÜRE (M. Harshaw, O. Edelmann, M. Schech, R. Vinay, B. Thebom, K. Böhme; Living Stage)

Margaret Harshaw as Brünnhilde in DIE WALKÜRE at the Metropolitan Opera Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) – Die Walküre: M. Harshaw (Brünnhilde), O. Edelmann (Wotan), M. Schech (Sieglinde), R. Vinay (Siegmund), B. Thebom (Fricka), K. Böhme (Hunding), B. Amparán (Schwertleite), G. Lind (Helmwige), R. Elias (Siegrune), C. Ordassy (Gerhilde), H. Krall (Ortlinde), M. Moll (Waltraute), M. Lipton (Grimgerde), S. Warfield (Rossweisse); Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera; Dimitri Mitropoulos [Metropolitan Opera broadcast of 02.02.1957; Living Stage LS1058]

This performance is not new to the discography, and the present release by Living Stage is likewise not new to the shelves.  Preserving the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of 2 February 1957 of the Herbert Graf production of Die Walküre (first performed in 1948), this recording commemorates the Ring season in which both Marianne Schech and Wolfgang Windgassen made their MET debuts and in which – in the broadcast performance recorded here – Ramón Vinay sang his first MET Siegmund.  The Wagnerian pedigrees of the Walküre cast fit well into what was a momentous season that also witnessed the MET debuts of Maria Callas (as Norma), Carlo Bergonzi (as Radamès), Irene Dalias (as Principessa Eboli), Mary Curtis-Verna (as Leonora in Trovatore), and Martha Mödl (as Brünnhilde in Siegfried).  An established entity, then, this recording merits the interest of even a casual Wagnerian for the insights it provides into the Wagner culture of the MET during one of the Company’s periods of glory.

The wonder to a listener approaching this performance in 2009 is that, in 1957, the cast assembled by the MET for Walküre was considered slightly disappointing, especially as Astrid Varnay was the reigning Brünnhilde at Bayreuth (and a familiar presence at the MET since 1941), and Birgit Nilsson was already singing the three Brünnhilde roles at Covent Garden (and had sung the Walküre Brünnhilde in San Francisco in 1956).  Furthermore, Dimitri Mitropoulos was celebrated as a champion of contemporary music rather than as a Wagnerian.  Reviews of the 1957 Ring center on respectable but not resplendent singing and unfortunate costuming, but it is significant that the Metropolitan Opera Record Club recorded excerpts from Walküre during the 1957 run with Margaret Harshaw, Blanche Thebom, and Hermann Uhde (substituting for Otto Edelmann as Wotan), under Mitropoulos’ baton; perhaps not viewed as a top-flight cast by the standards of the day but one nonetheless worthy of documentation.

Thus it was in 1957, and even more worthy those players seem now.  It was written in 1957 that Mitropoulos conducted Walküre as though he were eager to get home to his dinner, rushing the music in a manner that conveyed disinterest more than excitement.  There are moments in which the music is pushed to extremes, not least in passages in the final act in which the put-upon Walküren (an impressive if not well-blended sorority including Rosalind Elias, Martha Lipton, Sandra Warfield, Belén Amparán, and Carlotta Ordassy) cannot keep pace with their music.  This inevitably leads to untidiness of ensemble, which is a tremendous pity as the Walküren en masse make an audible effort at preserving musical accuracy.  In many other portions of the score, however, Mitropoulos allows the music to flow at a natural pace, even bringing welcome expansiveness to passages of great emotional significance: the Todesverkündigung, Sieglinde’s lament (‘Nicht sehre dich Sorge um mich’), and Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde are only the three most obvious examples.  Mitropoulos’ leadership of this performance may well lack the grace of Clemens Krauss, the gravity of Wilhelm Furtwängler, and the visionary drive of Hans Knappertsbusch, but Mitropoulos presides over a performance that, occasional missteps notwithstanding, offers a deeply-felt, fulfilling Walküre.

On the whole, the MET Orchestra play well for Mitropoulos, missing the monumental tonal solidity learned from Mahler (and still discernible on the wartime Walküre broadcast that preserved a characteristic Brünnhilde from Helen Traubel and Astrid Varnay making her MET debut on a moment’s notice as Sieglinde) and the later eloquence gained under Levine’s tenure but still proving an accomplished ensemble capable of great feats of virtuosity.  The brass players are particularly fine, making a beautiful showing in their crucial accompaniment to the Todesverkündigung that all too easily can seem a cacophony of automobile horns (and far too often does just that).  With only a few misfires from trombones and tubas and occasionally questionable intonation from high strings, the orchestra phrase the performance with that innate understanding of Wagner’s music that has been second nature at the MET since the Company’s inaugural Lohengrin in 1883.

With his performances of Hunding in the 1957 revival of Walküre, German bass Kurt Böhme bade farewell to the MET after a brief career at the house of only two seasons.  Böhme was celebrated throughout Europe for Wagner and Strauss roles (Strauss even stated that he considered Böhme the ideal Baron Ochs) and was a frequent presence at Bayreuth, where his most admired Ring role was Fafner.  Not yet fifty at the time of this MET Walküre, Böhme sings with intelligence and palpable menace, thrusting his deep, coal-black sound into Hunding’s music with abandon.  The voice is not beautiful (as, indeed, it never was, judging from Böhme’s many recordings), but the role does not truly require tonal beauty.  Slightly more regrettable is the conventional characterization, Hunding seeming in Böhme’s performance a stock villain rather than the hurt, rightfully vengeful figure that he can be.  Musically, though, little is missing, and the performance benefits from a Hunding who is a genuine presence in the drama and not merely a guileless pawn of Fricka’s coercion.

Long remembered for her Brangäne in Kirsten Flagstad’s studio recording of Tristan und Isolde, American mezzo-soprano Blanche Thebom gave her first MET house performance (her first performance with the Company was as Brangäne in a MET tour performance in Philadelphia two weeks earlier) as Fricka in 1944, opposite Traubel’s Brünnhilde and Rose Bampton’s Sieglinde.  Thebom returned to Fricka during many of the seasons between her 1944 debut and this 1957 performance (including the 1948 debut of the Graf production), ultimately singing the role for the last time at the MET in 1958.  From her first entrance in this 1957 performance, it is evident that Thebom has lost none of her tonal luster.  Richly imperious, she establishes Fricka as a duly regal consort for Wotan.  The staunchest of Wotans could hardly refute the arguments of such a Fricka, yet Thebom achieves this unanswerable authority through careful placement of the tone rather than hectoring.  More than a decade after her MET debut, Thebom again proves that she is at home in German roles and, moreover, often beats the formidable Teutonic mezzo-sopranos of her time at their own game.

As previously noted, the 1957 revival of Walküre provided German soprano Marianne Schech with the opportunity for her MET debut as Sieglinde.  In the context of recordings, Schech is often considered an essentially ‘utilitarian’ soprano of whom generally acceptable but rarely exceptional performances can be expected.  In this performance, Schech is not revelatory in the sense that Varnay was at her MET debut, but she is an above-average Sieglinde.  As much as any character’s in the Ring, Sieglinde’s is a fearsomely challenging tessitura, residing in the first act mostly in the lower octave of the voice but requiring in the second and third acts the soaring upper register of a true soprano.  Under the right circumstances, lyric voices have proved effective as Sieglinde, but Schech restores to the role the proper dramatic dimensions.  Like Böhme’s, Schech’s voice cannot truthfully be termed beautiful in a traditional sense, but she sings beautifully as Sieglinde, phrasing the great melody of ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ (among Wagner’s most sublime inspirations and perhaps the single most significant Leitmotif in the Ring, resolved in the final moments of Götterdämmerung) broadly despite Mitropoulos’ refusal to linger on the climactic top notes at the zeniths of the lines.  The loneliness projected by Schech in the first act, the desperation and terror in the second, and the instinctive longing to save her unborn child in her final scene contribute to a complete portrayal of Sieglinde.  In a sense, Sieglinde is the subtle nucleus about which the Ring undulates: it is the love that she has awakened in Siegmund that inspires Brünnhilde to her decisive act of defiance, and it is her tragic delivery of the infant Siegfried unto Mime that shapes the progression of the the cycle to ultimate purification.  Attentive in many of his scores to the notion of the sacrificial woman as a force of social absolution and moral benediction, Wagner exultantly extols the virtue of Sieglinde’s sacrifice in the final moments of the Ring, after Brünnhilde’s immolation has felled Walhalla and restored the ring to the Rhinemaidens.  Schech brings to her performance the sort of passion and involvement with both music and text that meaningfully convey the personal drama of the character and honor her symbolic significance in the Ring.  This Schech accomplishes with a strong, focused voice that is never taken short at either end of her range.  She is a Sieglinde fully worthy of her surroundings and one who, on examination undertaken with the benefit of hindsight, achieves more than many famous sopranos managed in the role.

The career of Chilean tenor Ramón Vinay was from start to finish an act of compromise.  Having launched his career as a baritone, Vinay eventually undertook the most demanding Verdi dramatic tenor and Wagner Heldentenor roles before returning in the Indian summer of his career to baritone roles.  It is likely that, as with Leonard Warren, the upper notes of the tenor register were present in the voice (even if dormant, as it were) from the beginning: coloration of the tone and perhaps an early compression of the range were surely the factors that determined Vinay’s early classification as a baritone.  [It was far more widely understood among singers and vocal pedagogues of the young Vinay’s time, it should be stated, that possession of notes above top A-flat does not of its own accord render a singer a tenor.]  Even in tenor roles, Vinay’s voice retained a dark, burnished sound that – unlike the voices of most baritones transformed into tenors, Bergonzi excepted – was both powerful and beautiful.  As Verdi’s Otello, there were both uncontrollable rage and extraordinarily tragic vulnerability in Vinay’s timbre.  This same combination of raw energy and warm humanity is audible in Vinay’s MET Siegmund, a performance of no little eloquence that cannot have failed to differ extensively from Windgassen’s, the MET’s alternating Siegmund in the 1957 revival.  In Vinay’s performance, Siegmund is perceptibly developed from a brutish young man on the run to a more mature figure experiencing the blossoming of love for the first time.  This is not to suggest that Vinay’s performance is without moments of brutality, for there are instances – most destructively in the Todesverkündigung – of explosive delivery and shouting.  Vinay wrote in his memoires of the difficulties Siegmund poses for tenors, stating that it is a role that he could have sung more easily as a baritone than as a tenor.  It is in the extreme lower register that many Siegmunds are caught out, but Vinay of course manages the lowest lines of the role without difficulty.  Outbursts in the upper register are muscular but not strained.  Even in his least refined moments, Vinay is a dignified Siegmund, both the hero and the lover.  Vinay responds with interest and engagement to his Sieglinde and Brünnhilde and, all things considered, provides despite – or, rather, as a result of – his compromises a truly distinguished performance.

The American artist Margaret Harshaw, encouraged by Sir Rudolf Bing to expand her repertory to include the principal Wagner soprano roles as a successor to Helen Traubel, still holds the record for having sung the most Wagner roles at the MET owing to having taken both mezzo-soprano and soprano roles (and even contralto roles such as La Cieca in Gioconda, which she sang opposite Zinka Milanov).  Heard here as Brünnhilde at something close to her prime, Harshaw brings complete vocal security to her task.  A few notes at the very top are produced with considerable effort, but Harshaw compensates for the rare moments of stress by bringing a disarmingly girlish tone to her performance.  For all that Brünnhilde is undeniably a ‘big girl’ part, there is no reason (other than the necessity implicit in casting sopranos who can cope with the music) that the hair under the horned helmet should be touched by grey.  After all, it is his aunt who Siegfried will extract from her fiery slumber in the next installment of the Ring, and any conscientious Siegfried must surely prefer that his Brünnhilde at least not sound like a decaying hag.  [To ask that she also not look like a decaying hag might be too ambitious.]  Harshaw sings in this performance with every sign of robust vocal health.  Like Vinay, the deep foundation of her voice serves her well in the Todesverkündigung, where Brünnhilde’s vocal lines climb gradually from a start in the lowest register.  In her two great interviews with her father, Harshaw’s Brünnhilde sings with poignant comprehension of the events unfolding before her, pleading her case before her father’s judgment in the final act to heartbreaking effect.  It is rare for a Brünnhilde to genuinely touch the heart in Walküre, but Harshaw accomplishes this by dedicating herself unashamedly to the music.  Harshaw’s interaction with Brünnhilde’s sisters following the Walkürenritt is an exercise more in camaraderie than in commandeering, and her exchanges with Sieglinde suggest true interest rather than the sense put forth by many singers of merely enacting a part in a specific destiny.  Harshaw’s strengths create a compelling, completely satisfactory Brünnhilde who, at least for the benefit of having such an attractive performance recorded for posterity, extinguishes quiet longing for Nilsson or Varnay.

When Kirsten Flagstad recorded the third act of Walküre for DECCA in the same year as this MET performance, under Sir Georg Solti’s baton, with Austrian bass-baritone Otto Edelmann as Wotan (and also with Marianne Schech as Sieglinde), she stated that Edelmann’s was the most purely beautiful instrument she had heard in Wotan’s music.  Though tarnished at times by overemphatic barking, much of that sterling beauty is evident in Edelmann’s Wotan in this broadcast.  A measure of the tragedy of the role that eluded Edelmann in the studio is present in the setting of a staged performance.  Vocally, Edelmann’s performance is remarkable, easily encompassing the considerable tessitura of the role and producing a clutch of ringing top notes that are all the more impressive considering that Edelmann was also a celebrated Baron Ochs (complete with low E).  Dramatically, Edelmann is both granitic and broken in his second-act scene with Fricka and the last-act denunciation of Brünnhilde.  Abandoning his favorite daughter to sleep upon the rock, Edelmann’s Wotan achieves a poignant sorrow that only just misses profundity.  In Edelmann’s performance, it is already possible to sense at the end of Walküre that redemption is not possible for Wotan.  Slight quibbles aside, it is impossible to not be grateful for this recording of a great but too-little-documented singer at the height of his powers in a congenial role.  Moreover, Edelmann offers a Wotan who stands with the best in terms of vocalism.

Sonically, this recording is typical of similar recordings of MET broadcasts from the 1950’s.  There are bumps, thumps, and minor disturbances from stage, pit, and house.  There are also instances in which, likely owing to staging business, voices wander far away from the microphone(s): several lines from various Walküren in the first scene of the final act are virtually inaudible, for example.  On the whole, these are very insignificant flaws that will only lessen the appeal of this recording if the listener demands the antiseptic silence of the recording studio.  Far greater inconsistencies than these are happily endured in order to enjoy a performance such as this.

In the course of a long MET career, Astrid Varnay only sang the Walküre Brünnhilde with the Company four times, one of which was in a tour performance in Boston.  Birgit Nilsson’s first MET Walküre Brünnhilde was sung in 1960.  In 1957, the MET entrusted the Walküre Brünnhilde, the most iconic of the three incarnations of the role, to Margaret Harshaw, a stalwart ‘house’ Wagnerian who could be relied upon for competent, committed performances.  Competency in Wagnerian roles being a sadly rare commodity now, what seemed merely sufficient in 1957 seems in 2009 little short of sublime.  Harshaw and the idiomatic cast with which the MET surrounded her brought to Walküre a sense of ensemble music-making that is almost invariably lacking in current performances.  Even more importantly, there is in this 1957 broadcast an omnipresent atmosphere in which the listener feels that this music matters.  How many performances in 2009 manage to convince an audience for four hours that incest, filial disobedience, domestic squabbles, and the dissolution of family units are truly, universally significant?

15 June 2009

CD REVIEW: AIR – Music for Harp, Flute, Viola, and Strings by Claude Debussy & Tōru Takemitsu [武満 徹] (Yolanda Kondonassis, harp; Joshua Smith, flute; Cynthia Phelps, viola; Oberlin 21; TELARC)

AIR: Music for Harp, Flute, Viola, & Strings by Debussy & Takemitsu CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918): Danses sacrée et profane for Chromatic Harp & String Orchestra (1904), Syrinx for Solo Flute (1913), Sonata for Flute, Viola, & Harp (1915) – TŌRU TAKEMITSU [武満 徹] (1930 – 1996): And then I knew ‘twas Wind for Flute, Viola, & Harp (1992), Toward the Sea II for Alto Flute, Harp, & String Orchestra (1981), Air for Solo Flute (1995); Yolanda Kondonassis, harp; Joshua Smith, flute; Cynthia Phelps, viola; Oberlin 21 [recorded January 2008, Warner Concert Hall, Oberlin Conservatory of Music (Oberlin, Ohio); TELARC 80694]

Even before coming to the music in this fascinating recital, it is wonderful to note that a portion of the proceeds from the sales of this disc are donated to global environmental causes, contributing to the conservation of the landscapes and natural resources so meaningfully evoked in the music recorded here.  The artists and TELARC are to be commended for this act of solidarity, recognizing that neither Music nor Nature thrives without the inspiration and intervention of the other.

In a broad sense, Impressionistic depictions of nature and the elements of nature in humanity are at the heart of this recital.  The dual serenity and crushing force of the sea are never far from the surface in Debussy’s music, and the Takemitsu pieces on this disc were chosen carefully in order to maximize continuity of focus.  Though the influence of the Frenchman on the Japanese composer is keenly felt, the musical idioms are not redundant: the Debussy pieces inhabit an early-twentieth-century world of modernist but still-luxurious harmonies while the Takemitsu works are starker, the tonal structures largely centered on diatonic matrices.

Oklahoma-born harpist Yolanda Kondonassis plays superbly throughout, especially in her fleet performances of Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane, in which she is capably backed by Oberlin 21, an ensemble of some of the Conservatory’s finest string players under the direction of Bridget-Michaele Reischl.  One of the foremost harpists of her generation, Ms. Kondonassis brings wide-ranging experience in all reaches of the harp repertory to this performance, displaying a keen sense of preserving the innate structures even of music of great rhythmic complexity.  In the music of both Debussy and Takemitsu, Ms. Kondonassis takes care to bring lyricism to the fore, exploring with a virtuoso’s ease the exquisite melodic threads that bind these works.  Furthermore, Ms. Kondonassis proves a chamber musician of great sensitivity, responding with instinctive grace to her collaborators’ playing.

Cynthia Phelps, principal violist of the New York Philharmonic, likewise displays considerable gifts for the intimate interaction of chamber music, seeming both to sense the touch of the harpist’s fingers and to breathe with the flautist.  Especially in the Debussy Sonata and Takemitsu’s And then I knew ‘twas Wind, Ms. Phelps plays with liquid tone that calls to mind the Emily Dickinson poem from which Takemitsu drew his title: ‘Like Rain it sounded till it curved / And then I knew ‘twas Wind.’  It is always an immense pleasure to hear a fine violist in music not composed by Telemann or Berlioz, and Ms. Phelps’ performances on this disc not only grant that pleasure in great quantities but also confirm that she is among the finest violists of our time.

Equally responsive in his solo and ensemble pieces is Joshua Smith, principal flautist of the Cleveland Orchestra.  Seamus Heaney wrote of the flute that ‘its sound releases something naturally untamed, as if a squirrel were let loose in a church.’  There is a sense of this in Mr. Smith’s playing of his solo pieces on this disc, an element of spying through music on nature at its most rhapsodically and gorgeously disarrayed.  The immediately arresting aspect of Mr. Smith’s playing is the uncommonly expansive scope of his phrasing, every note given full value but equally integrated into the broader progressions of the music.  In the title track and Debussy’s Syrinx, Mr. Smith plays with beauty of tone that, without undermining the inventiveness of the music, focuses the listener’s attention on the intricately-wrought textures of the pieces.  The metaphysics of music are tested and vindicated in Mr. Smith’s playing, which reveals as compellingly as possible that designations of French or Japanese, Impressionistic or post-Modern, tonal or atonal are inherently and triumphantly insignificant.

Born on opposite sides of the planet, Debussy and Takemitsu displayed in their music a shared understanding not only that water is a common denominator to both life and livelihood but also that music is an organic extract from nature.  The human voice is a bestial din, just as the flute’s voice is a fettered wind.  Music is a manipulation of nature’s sensory elements, and this disc presents that timeless contrivance at its most intriguing.  With playing of a quality that belies the difficulties of the music, the performances in this recital celebrate the musicality of simply being alive.  It is sad that this is missing from so many performances and recordings.

[Click here to purchase this disc from Concord Music Group, the American distributor for TELARC discs.']

14 June 2009

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Sleeper, Awake; or, Why are there top E’s coming from the grist mill? [An Examination of LA SONNAMBULA on Records]

Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, as Amina Two occurrences in opera during the past year have perceptibly revived interest in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, at least to the extent to which it had waned in the decades following Callas’ and Sutherland’s last efforts at concerted sleepwalking: the Mary Zimmerman production of the piece unveiled at the Metropolitan Opera on 2 March and the release of the much-anticipated L’Oiseau Lyre recording of the opera with Cecilia Bartoli and Juan Diego Flórez (who also fronted the MET production, alongside Natalie Dessay).  Perhaps what this reveals most tellingly is that, even in this age of Baroque revival (to which both Bartoli and Dessay have contributed both on stage and on disc), bel canto remains commercially viable and indicative of a company’s artistic health.

Unlike many bel canto scores that are now occasionally revived, Sonnambula never completely disappeared from the world’s collective repertory.  In the decades following its premiere at Milan’s Teatro Carcano on 6 March 1831, when the roles of Amina and Elvino were created by Giuditta Pasta and Giovanni Battista Rubini, the opera was championed by many of the greatest coloratura sopranos, not least Sweden’s Nightingale Jenny Lind (pictured above, as Amina) and the celebrated Adelina Patti.  As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, Sonnambula maintained its presence in the repertory, enjoying performances by Lina Pagliughi and Lily Pons.  At the middle of the twentieth century, Amina encountered her most notable interpreter since the rarefied days of Pasta and Malibran: Maria Callas.  Bringing to the role musical precision and intense dramatic insight, Callas transformed Amina (as she did Lucia) from a docile canary into a woman of genuine, heartfelt passions.  Dame Joan Sutherland answered this interpretive brilliance with vocal virtuosity of an order that, frankly, was probably unknown even to Pasta.  The decades since the glory days of Callas and Sutherland have been entertained by a string of Aminas who, inspired by (or simply seeking to duplicate) their celebrated forbears, sought to pursue a course that unified dramatic credibility with vocal exuberance, singers such as Anna Moffo, Renata Scotto, Edita Gruberová, June Anderson, Mariella Devia, and most recently Natalie Dessay.

The very term bel canto explains to a large extent its appeal to audiences of all eras.  The essence of opera since its founding, however much scholars and critics want to dissuade the ‘enlightened’ listener from realizing it (because, it seems, modern audiences are meant to respond to music on a level much deeper than that inhabited by shallow melodies), has been beautiful singing.  As both orchestras and opera houses grew larger throughout the nineteenth century, voices also expanded to fill the vast spaces of the music composed for them and the cavernous halls into which they were meant to project it.  Wagner surely understood and valued bel canto as well as any Italian composer (and filled even his most Teutonic scores with exquisite passages of genuine bel canto: listen to the performance of the great Quintet from the 1962 RAI Torino broadcast of Meistersinger, sung in Italian by Giuseppe Taddei, Luigi Infantino, Bruna Rizzoli, Carlo Franzini, and Fernanda Cadoni; this ideal Don Pasquale cast proves that Wagner was at least as adept at bel canto ensemble-writing as Donizetti or Bellini), but the dimensions of his orchestrations led to an emphasis on volume (rather than projection) that, by the middle of the twentieth century, left most singers shouting, even in less muscular music.  To audiences accustomed to the bellowing of misguided Wagnerians and the extroverted manner of singing popularized by the Italian verismo, bel canto remains the essence of ‘old-school’ vocalism, the sort of honeyed singing to which everyone’s Grandparents listened on their Edison phonographs on Sunday afternoons.

In a detailed examination of the relationship between Wagner and bel canto the legacy of Callas looms large.  Her mastery of bel canto repertory is perhaps better remembered than her performances as Brünnhilde (in Die Walküre), Isolde, and Kundry.  She sang all of these roles (as well as her bel canto, Verdi, and verismo parts) with a plethora of vocal colorations and inflections, but with her one voice.  It would be absurd to suggest that Amina’s sleepwalking scene is as dramatically significant and emotionally effective as Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, Brünnhilde’s Todesverkündigung, or Isolde’s Liebestod, but Callas understood Bellini’s musical characterization of Amina and made it riveting on its own terms.  Whether one responds positively, negatively, or not at all to Callas’ vocalism, it cannot be denied that Callas rendered a great service to music by revealing, more than any other artist of her generation, that bel canto is meaningful, moving music when approached with careful attention to its natural boundaries.  Callas rescued Sonnambula from a half-century of elephantine chirping and demanded that the musical world evaluate Amina on her own merits; no Sieglinde or Marschallin, but much more than a smart rustic costume and a recital of vocal acrobatics.

More than three decades after Callas’ death, her Amina is still the standard to which others are compared.  Even in the context of the recent Zimmerman production at the MET, Natalie Dessay’s performance was critiqued by many parties on the basis of its likenesses to and departures from the Callas Standard.  Debilitating as it may seem to Aminas of younger generations, it is also an encouragingly healthy indication of the extent to which Callas built public affection for (and knowledge of) Bellini’s score.  Contemporary audiences, informed by the Callas Standard, naturally expect the trills and interpolations above top C, but they also know that Sonnambula can and should touch them.  Amina should and must inspire affection: the ingredients are sorted in Bellini’s music, and the successful Amina needs only to mix them and present the finished confection to her audience.

On records, Sonnambula is as dominated by Callas as it was in twentieth-century theatrical productions.  With several ‘live’ recordings (including a La Scala performance conducted by Leonard Bernstein and a legendary performance from the Edinburgh Festival, recently released by Testament using tapes from the personal collection of Walter Legge) in circulation, central interest nonetheless remains on the studio recording for EMI, conducted – rather prosaically, on the whole – by Antonino Votto, with whom Callas frequently collaborated.  It is easy to express regret that the studio recording could not have been conducted by Tullio Serafin, with whom Callas achieved perhaps her greatest bel canto triumphs (and who coached Callas early on, not only in bel canto but also in  her Wagner roles), but recollections of Serafin’s recorded work in scores of themes and proportions similar to Sonnambula (his Philips Linda di Chamounix with Antonietta Stella, for instance, or the EMI L’Elisir d’Amore with Rosanna Carteri and Luigi Alva) suggest thatMaria Callas as Amina at the Edinburgh Festival, 1957 Serafin’s genius was not consistently engaged in pastoral scores.  What matters most in the EMI studio recording is Callas, however, and she is wonderful.  Recorded in 1957, the performance finds Callas on stirringly steady form, the upper register generally firm and free from the wobbling that dismays many listeners.  Vocally, Callas has the role in the palms of her hands: every technical challenge is not only met with almost casual ease but mined for gems of emotional significance.  Here as elsewhere in her bel canto performances, Callas’ chromatic scales are things of wonder, articulated with precision that is astonishing.  Callas also ventures slightly more interpolated ornamentation than she typically employed in her bel canto performances, particularly decorating cabalette with subtle but beautifully effective deviations from the printed vocal lines.  Perhaps most significantly, Callas portrays an Amina for whom pathos is inherent rather than implicit.  One does not pity Callas’ Amina because her situations are pathetic but because one senses that the woman herself is aware of her own plight.  Unlike the wilting responses of other sopranos, Callas’ Amina reacts to Elvino’s denunciation with disbelief and even carefully-judged flashes of suppressed anger, legitimate (and dramatically engaging) feelings derived organically from the score.  Callas feels as much as she sings Amina, and after more than a half-century this remains revelatory.

Five years before EMI recorded Callas in Sonnambula, the opera had (as with many of its brethren in the Italian mainstream repertory) as its introduction to records a performance by Radio Audizioni Italiane (RAI), recorded for posterity by CETRA.  Though occasionally compromised by muffled acoustics, the CETRA recording preserves three wonderful performances.  Amina is sung by Brooklyn-born soprano Lina Pagliughi, who impresses and moves with the charming girlishness of her performance despite being already in her mid-forties at the time of the recording (Callas, by contrast, was in her thirty-fourth year at the time of her EMI studio recording but sounds considerably more mature than Pagliughi).  Pagliughi lacks the pinpoint precision in coloratura brought to Amina by Callas but scores innumerable points with the poised beauty of her singing and the fullness of her tone in the lower register.  Her Elvino is Ferruccio Tagliavini, the honeyed sound of whose tenor suggests the rustic but poetic young landowner to the life.  Despite instances of the overemphatic delivery that sometimes detract from Tagliavini’s work, his singing is delightful throughout, the high tessitura (softened slightly by downward transpositions, as are employed to various degrees in every recording discussed here) posing few difficulties.  Perhaps the most rewarding performance on the CETRA recording is the Rodolfo of Cesare Siepi, only a few years into his international career.  Even when he is a bit distant dramatically, the exquisite beauty, security, and shapeliness of Siepi’s singing win the day.  CETRA gave Sonnambula a fine welcome to records with a performance that continues to give great pleasure.

Dame Joan Sutherland, an astounding vocal artist whose subdued performing temperament was perhaps better-suited to Amina than to many other of her bel canto heroines (which were unfailingly brilliantly-sung), recorded Sonnambula twice, on both occasions for DECCA.  The earlier recording, in which Sutherland was partnered by Nicola Monti’s Elvino and Fernando Corena’s slightly-too-buffo Rodolfo, captured Sutherland in her early prime, the complex coloratura rendered even more astonishing by adventurous embellishment and the top notes bursting like brightly-hued fireworks, challenging DECCA’s engineers.  Much has been written about Sutherland’s poor diction, but it neither seems as bothersome on recordings as perhaps it was in opera houses nor in any way Dame Joan Sutherland as Amina at the Metropolitan Opera, March 1963 lessens the impact of the voice.  In both of her recordings of the opera, Sutherland’s Amina is more resigned than exuberant, but Sonnambula withstands this approach.  The later recording found Sutherland on typical late-career form, the diction more pointed and the tone loosened but the technique gloriously unimpaired by the passage of time.  The later performance unites Sutherland with Nicolai Ghiaurov’s Rodolfo, a disappointing creation that threatens to undermine the opera as a whole, and the Elvino of Luciano Pavarotti.  Pavarotti brings suavity, commitment, and bright tone to Elvino, but even he must employ transpositions in order to manage the role.  Pavarotti sings well and was only marginally off his best form, but the implicit promise of a considerable gain in distinction over the earlier performance with Monti is only partially realized: Pavarotti’s is surely the more golden voice, but Monti shows greater acquaintance with the style required for singing Bellini’s music.  Neither recording is as vivid as various pirated recordings of Sutherland singing Amina in staged performances, but either recording – particularly the earlier – serves nicely as a souvenir of a phenomenal singer in a congenial role that figured prominently in her career.

After the release of Sutherland’s second DECCA recording there followed a few recordings of La Sonnambula that mixed adequate and inadequate elements.  The ARTS label recorded a performance with Austrian would-be coloratura prima donna Eva Lind, William Matteuzzi, and Petteri Salomaa: what can be said of the performance when Salomaa’s Rodolfo is the only vocal contribution of note?  OPUS recorded a performance using the forces of Radio Bratislava that preserves credible singing from the Elvino, tenor Jozef Kundlák, and Rodolfo, bass Peter Mikuláš.  Soprano Jana Valášková’s Amina is problematic: the voice, generally attractive, is placed under too much pressure to be enjoyable, and bel canto style is mostly missing.  The recording is damaged most significantly by the insensitive conducting of Ondrej Lenárd, who rigidly keeps time as though he were leading a military band.  Nightingale, dedicated to preserving the work of Edita Gruberová in her roles ignored by the large record labels, recorded her Amina with the Elvino of Catalan tenor José Bros and the Rodolfo of Italian bass Roberto Scandiuzzi.  Gruberová’s singing, though she is a consummate mistress of the requisite bel canto technique, is pallid and lovely in virtually equal measures, and she does not bring any great originality to her role.  Bros is capable but sorely tested by the high tessitura, many of his highest notes taking on a pinched quality.  Scandiuzzi is likewise competent, singing better than on many of his recordings, but dramatically blank.

A far more persuasive effort was offered by NAXOS, a recording of a concert performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw with bel canto specialist Alberto Zedda conducting Luba Orgonasova, Raúl Giménez, and Francesco Ellero d’Artegna.  An understated (and, it might be argued, underrated) diva, Orgonasova offers an uncommonly graceful Amina.  Though she lacks the dramatic fire of Callas and the supreme vocal endowment of Sutherland, Orgonasova sings with refreshing purity and ease, bringing genuine pathos to Amina’s music without seeming coy or artificial.  Giménez, admired for his performances of Rossini roles, matches Orgonasova’s eloquence, singing Elvino’s [transposed, as noted before] music with great involvement and tone that remains attractive even when under stress.  Rodolfo as sung by d’Artegna seems slightly more aloof (which is not necessarily to say dull) than in other performances, but d’Artegna possesses a genuine basso voice and sings with dignity.  Despite its budget-label auspices, this is a very fine Sonnambula that comfortably withstands comparisons with rival versions featuring starrier names.

A quartet of fine Aminas not commercially recorded also merit mention.  Recorded by RAI as the soundtrack for an Italian television broadcast, Anna Moffo proves a slightly pedestrian Amina who nonetheless sings the music very well, rightly being the central interest in a performance that also features the Rodolfo of the fantastic but woefully underappreciated Italian bass Plinio Clabassi.  Italian bel canto powerhouse Mariella Devia is also a remarkably fluent Amina in a Como production recorded by Nuova Era.  Neither her Elvino nor Rodolfo – Luca Canonici and Alessandro Verducci, respectively – commands the vocal or dramatic fluidity displayed by Devia, but the performance hangs together quite well.  Available on compact disc from private collectors, a Brussels concert performance offered the soprano of recent years perhaps most naturally gifted for Amina, Sumi Jo.  The performance does not find Jo at her absolute best, with shrillness occasionally affecting the topmost notes, but she sings with barnstorming virtuosity and a bracing sense of the joy inherent in the role.  Partnered by a generally pleasing Elvino from Antonino Siragusa and a bumbling Rodolfo from Michele Pertusi, Jo offers a sweet but spirited Amina who dominates a thoroughly enjoyable Sonnambula.  Singing the role with Eve Queler and her Opera Orchestra of New York (as Renée Fleming did just before her ascent to stardom), Cuban-born soprano Eglise Gutiérrez brought an Amina of tremendous vocal acumen to Carnegie Hall, where she was supported by Dmitry Korchak’s ringing Elvino and Ferruccio Furlanetto’s humorous but genteel Rodolfo.  Given time to hone her skills and develop what her Carnegie Hall performance reveals to be an already attentive approach to the role, Gutiérrez may prove to be another of the memorable Aminas.

Both of the stars of the MET’s Mary Zimmerman production have recorded La Sonnambula, Natalie Dessay having been first to the task with a Virgin recording compiled from rehearsals, concert performances, and patch-up sessions.  Much-discussed in the wake of her performances in the Zimmerman production (which received vociferous disapproval from the first-night MET audience), Dessay brings to the Virgin recording a voice on good form, generally fresh-sounding, and supported by a technique accustomed to dealing with music even harder and higher.  Her MET performances revealed that Dessay’s concept of Amina has deepened somewhat since the Lyon sessions recorded by Virgin, but the earlier performance is commendable for the dash and freedom of the singing.  Dessay has often spoken of being ‘inspired’ by Callas, and there are elements of light and shade evident in Callas’ performances of Amina that Dessay brings to her own work.  It has often been suggested that nationalistic styles of singing are largely extinct, but Dessay is in many ways a classically French soprano, exhibiting great attention to textual nuances and a slight edge to the top voice.  Especially this latter quality can be troublesome in Italian bel canto, in which purity of line demands evenness throughout all vocal registers, but Dessay largely avoids the pitfalls of bringing a voice with a drop of vinegar to music that exudes wine.  Dessay has a capable Rodolfo in Carlo Colombara, but her Elvino is hugely disappointing.  Though the liner notes accompanying the recording claim that Elvino’s music is restored to Bellini’s original keys, eliminating adaptations and transpositions, Francesco Meli in fact sings virtually the same lowered lines that other recorded Elvinos have sung.  Unfortunately for listeners and even more so for Dessay, he only just manages the role, sounding strained and dry of voice throughout.  In duets and ensembles, particularly those in which Elvino and Amina sing answering phrases (as in the duet that follows ‘Prendi, l’anel ti dono’), Dessay’s command of the music makes Meli’s efforts sound all the more amateurish.  This is a great pity, for combining Dessay with an Elvino worthy of partnering her could have produced one of the best Sonnambula recordings.

The MET achieved a triumph by doing just that, pairing Dessay’s Amina with the Elvino of Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, a bel canto specialist who goes from strength to strength.  Flórez, too, has recorded his Sonnambula role, but in an unusual and argument-provoking context.  Following concert performances in Switzerland, Flórez was recorded by DECCA’s ‘early music’ branch L’Oiseau Lyre in a performance played on period instruments and conducted by Alessandro de Marchi, whose principal experience in opera has been with Baroque scores.  The performance also makes use of an edition of the score prepared for the celebrated Spanish mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran, whose tessitura was of course lower than that of Pasta, the first Amina.  What astonishes most on first hearing the recording is the extent to which transpositions were not required in order to tailor Sonnambula for Malibran’s lower center of vocal gravity, with many passages remaining as written in the standard, Pasta version of the score.  For the most part, however, Elvino’s music is subject to the same transpositions imposed elsewhere.  As in his MET performances, Flórez sings superbly, the size and color of his voice ideal for Elvino’s music.  He possesses, moreover, the finest florid technique of any tenor who has recorded Elvino.  Passages that were tonally beautiful but messy for Tagliavini have both beauty and accuracy in Flórez’ performance, and his voice is both more even throughout Elvino’s tessitura and more pliable than Pavarotti’s.  Vocalism takes priority over drama, but Flórez is one of those rare singers whose timbre inherently suggests passion and poetry.  Ildebrando d’Arcangelo brings a fine, handsome voice to Rodolfo, more baritone than bass: everything is in place, even if the lowest notes of the role are faked.  There is much to enjoy in de Marchi’s conducting, and the period instruments are often amusing in a positive sense (with the exception of some annoyingly overused wind chimes: this particular Swiss village seems somehow touched by the mistral).  The point upon which discussion centers in this performance is the assumption of Amina by mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.  Though recently dedicated to her project of exploring music composed for and made famous by Maria Malibran, Bartoli has also increasingly explored traditional soprano roles (including Händel’s Almirena, recorded for DECCA, and Semele).  Bartoli of course has an impressive bravura technique, but her rapid-fire articulation of divisions in Rossini arias does not employ the same method of singing required for Amina’s coloratura.  Bartoli is not entirely successful in making the requisite transition, aspirating passages that demand perfect legato, but she nonetheless contributes an effective, touching performance that is never less than idiomatic.  Dramatically, there is a measure of applying vocal effects (whispers, little explosions of color and volume, and the like) when simple good singing would suffice.  In her duets with Flórez, however, Bartoli lets both her voice and the music do their work without impediments, and the results are ravishing, the voices combining more effectively than in any other recorded performance.  It is difficult to compare Bartoli’s Amina with Callas’ or Sutherland’s, but it would also be difficult to deny that this is an extremely fine Sonnambula.

More than any particular singer’s whims, it is the disarming beauty of Bellini’s melodies that keeps Sonnambula in the hearts of audiences and record-buyers.  Sonnambula is not an opera like Le Nozze di Figaro or La Bohème that can survive bad singing, but it is also more fortunate than most Italian scores in that it has received no commercial recording that is a complete failure.  Callas’ Amina remains a moving experience and a fitting memorial to Bellini’s art.  No single recording fulfills all of the score’s demands, but how fortunate Sonnambula is to have enjoyed so many honorable efforts.

 Natalie Dessay as Amina and Juan Diego Flórez as Elvino in the Metropolitan Opera production by Mary Zimmerman, March 2009

08 June 2009

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – IDOMENEO (R. Croft, B. Fink, S. Im, A. Pendatchanska, K. Tarver, N. Rivenq, L. Tittoto; Harmonia Mundi)

Idomeneo_cover Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 – 1791) – Idomeneo, re di Creta, K. 366: R. Croft (Idomeneo), B. Fink (Idamante), S. Im (Ilia), A. Pendatchanska (Elettra), K. Tarver (Arbace), N. Rivenq (Gran Sacerdote), L. Tittoto (Voce); RIAS Kammerchor; Freiburger Barockorchester; René Jacobs [recorded during December 2008 in the Immanuelskirche, Wuppertal (Germany); harmonia mundi HMC 902036.38]

With Idomeneo, first performed in Munich in January 1781, Mozart announced himself as the most significant German-speaking composer of operas in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. On the surface an example of the opera seria form that was old-fashioned even in 1781, Idomeneo is a seminal work that fuses the finest elements of the Baroque with both French innovations and the Viennese Classicism of which Mozart was the consummate master, creating a score that impresses with its sophistication and moves with its eloquence. It is clear from Mozart’s correspondence with his father than he set out to compose an opera that would be revolutionary in the sense that it would assimilate elements old and new to make full use of the remarkable orchestral and vocal resources at his disposal. Thankfully, both scholarship and public appreciation of Idomeneo have advanced to such degrees that it is no longer necessary to argue the case for Mozart’s success in achieving his goal. Idomeneo is without question among the greatest works of both its composer and its form, and furthermore is one of the greatest works of art created during the eighteenth century.

The circumstances of the composition and first performance of Idomeneo are thoroughly documented elsewhere. It is of great importance to note, however, that even the forces employed in the inaugural production of Idomeneo represented a fusion of old and new. The orchestra for which Mozart composed Idomeneo, to a commission from the Elector of Bavaria, was by many contemporary accounts the finest in Europe, an ensemble comprised of acknowledged virtuosi whose mastery of music-making extended to both the stile antico and the more harmonically progressive style of Mozart and his contemporaries. Mozart was well-acquainted with the orchestra, understanding how he could compose music of tremendous difficulty without exceeding the ensemble’s capacities. For the title role, Mozart was given the famous tenor Anton Raaff, sixty-six years old at the time of his creation of Idomeneo and a veteran of the High Baroque, having studied in Bologna with the famous castrato Bernacchi and sung in the company assembled in Madrid by Farinelli. Against Mozart’s objections, Idamante was created by the Italian castrato Vincenzo del Prato. Mozart’s intention had been to draw an obvious contrast between the ‘old’ world of Idomeneo and Arbace (created by Domenico de’ Panzacchi, at the time of Idomeneo’s premiere one of the highest-paid tenors in Europe) and the ‘new’ world of Idamante, Ilia (created by Dorothea Wendling), and Elettra (who, incidentally, is encountered in Mozart’s opera some time after having enacted the matricide famously depicted in Richard Strauss’ opera; Mozart’s Elettra was created by Elisabeth Wendling, sister-in-law to the first Ilia). Mozart was bitterly disappointed by the poor acting skills of Raaff and del Prato, as well as their pallid efforts at enlivening recitatives. Feeling that this undermined many of his intended dramatic effects, Mozart made many changes to the score during the rehearsals prior to the first performance.

To a great extent, René Jacobs returns in this recording to Mozart’s first thoughts, which he justifies in his extensive liner notes as an homage to the unjustly criticized libretto by Gianbattista Varesco, chaplain of the Salzburg court chapel. The merits of Varesco’s work notwithstanding, there is great musical value in hearing Mozart’s unedited intentions for the first production of Idomeneo, not least in the context of a studio recording. Mr. Jacobs enjoys in this undertaking a cast among whom there is not a single weak link, giving him an advantage in coming to Idomeneo that even Mozart did not enjoy.

Mr. Jacobs has of course already presided over acclaimed and occasionally controversial recordings of Mozart’s da Ponte operas and La Clemenza di Tito, and the same Baroque-rooted intelligence and performance practices that shaped those recordings are brought to Idomeneo, in which it could be argued that a Baroque-leaning approach is considerably more apt. Conducting the splendid Freiburger Barockorchester, Mr. Jacobs achieves orchestral balances that seem inherently right for the music and even in some instances challenge the ideal proportions achieved in the Deutsche Grammophon recording conducted by Karl Böhm (who, of course, conducted modern instruments). Woodwind and brass textures are especially luminous, revealing details of orchestration obscured in other performances and highlighting with great intelligence the links with Gluck’s ‘reform’ operas. The orchestral playing throughout is of the highest quality, and Mr. Jacobs, even allowing for a few idiosyncrasies along the way (such as a fortepiano continuo, defensible from an academic perspective and rarely obtrusive, though Mozart surely employed harpsichord continuo), paces the performance with insight and obviously genuine affection, granting space in which the music can develop unhurriedly and the superb playing of the orchestra can make maximum effect.

As has not often been the case in the history of Idomeneo on records, secondary roles are cast from strength. Singing Arbace (which, contrary to casting traditions, is emphatically a tenor role, as is proved here), American tenor Kenneth Tarver brings the same security, virtuosity, and tonal beauty he brings to bel canto roles, singing Arbace’s ‘old-fashioned’ divisions with great panache. Judging from the music Mozart composed for Arbace and the stature of the singer who first performed the role, Arbace requires a singer who could, should fate dictate, be called upon to sing the title role. Mr. Tarver is just such a singer, following his Don Ottavio in Mr. Jacobs’ Don Giovanni with a performance of equal polish and grandeur. Should Jacobs ever record Die Entführung aus dem Serail, what a magnificent Belmonte Mr. Tarver could be. As the Gran Sacerdote, French baritone Nicolas Rivenq brings his strong voice, a familiar presence in Baroque music who also figured prominently in Jean-Claude Malgoire’s traversal of the da Ponte operas. In the brief contributions of the Gran Sacerdote, Mr. Rivenq sings with due gravity and attention to style. Italian bass Luca Tittoto brings a less imposing instrument to his duties as the Voice (from the depths, as it were) but is likewise both stylish and effective.

Wonderfully evocative and seemingly tasting every spicy note of Elettra’s fiery vengeance music, Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska brings to her performance a no-holds-barred technique that encompasses both the lyrical and the dramatic aspects of Elettra’s music. Elettra is possibly the opera’s most interesting and fully human character, a woman with a past who not only loves but deludes herself with visions of a beautifully romantic, requited passion. Elettra’s tragedy in Idomeneo is that these delusions are all too painfully put to an end when Idamante and Ilia are united. This disappointment sends Elettra into an unhinged fury, her exit aria a stuttering expression of exploding jealousy and rage. Even there, it is possible to sense a vulnerable core in this woman, pursued by the Furies, for whom normalcy and repose are impossible. Ms. Pendatchanska expresses this psychological depth even as she launches vocal pyrotechnics, singing with the poise of Julia Varady (for Böhm) and the abandon of Pauline Tinsley (on Sir Colin Davis’ first recording of the opera): an extraordinary performance from an engaging and always interesting artist.

South Korean soprano Sunhae Im proves, as she has in other assignments in Mr. Jacobs’ recordings, that she possesses a voice of ideal proportions for Mozart’s mature operas, the tone completely even throughout the range and the registers impeccably equalized. As Ilia, on whom Mozart lavished music of exquisite beauty, Ms. Im sings with distinction that surpasses even her own high standards. Ms. Im immediately convinces the listener not only of Ilia’s profound sorrow but also of her royal lineage, and ultimately of the hope and joy she finds in her love for Idamante. In recitative, aria, and ensemble, Ms. Im sings with elegance recalling the greatest Mozart singers of the past. The voice, though not substantial, is of great quality, and Ms. Im applies that voice to a winningly stylish performance that fully justifies Ilia’s place at the center of the drama.

American tenor Richard Croft is an accomplished artist with wide-ranging credentials, acclaimed in Europe for his wonderfully vivid performances of Händel roles and also lauded for his 2008 MET performances as Gandhi in Philip Glass’ Satyagraha. Vocally, Idomeneo is undoubtedly more closely related to Händel’s tenor roles than to Glass’ Gandhi, but Mr. Croft brings to Idomeneo the same inner conviction that Gandhi requires. Idomeneo is a conflicted man, a war hero who in a moment of weakness strikes a bargain with Neptune for his own delivery from harm. The god’s sentence is the imposition of human sacrifice, made crueler (and more overtly operatic) when it becomes obvious that the victim of that sacrifice must be Idomeneo’s son. There are undeniable parallels with the Biblical account of Abraham, but Idomeneo is a considerably more flawed man than the tested but unflappably faithful Patriarch. Mr. Croft, largely free of vocal defects, is able to concentrate on bringing out Idomeneo’s foibles by varying his tone throughout the performance to suggest the inconsistent emotions that inspire Idomeneo’s private and public actions. The great aria ‘Fuor del mar’ is performed here in its first, more florid version, and Mr. Croft delivers the piece with no little swagger. Nevertheless, here and elsewhere a slightly larger, more naturally imposing sound would be welcome. It is impossible to know how Anton Raaff’s voice sounded, especially in his sixty-sixth year, but it is also impossible to imagine that Mozart would not be pleased with the involvement and emotional directness Mr. Croft brings to his performance. Commanding as his arias are, Mr. Croft is at his best in ensembles, in which he displays a rare gift for precisely executing his own vocal lines while also listening interestedly and vitally to his colleagues. This is a performance that differs fundamentally from other recorded Idomeneos (by artists as diverse as Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Philip Langridge, and Wieslaw Ochman) but, taken as a whole, is one of the most musically and spiritually fulfilling performances on records.

As in many other of his recorded performances, Jacobs’ trump card is the Idamante of Argentine mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, a singer who seems incapable of recording a performance that is short of fantastic. Ms. Fink’s is one of those voices that defies characterization: dark without being heavy, convincingly masculine when required without being raspy, and above all consistently beautiful. As is well known, Mozart later adapted the role of Idamante for tenor for a Viennese performance, and it was in this adaptation that the opera was reintroduced to audiences during the twentieth century, an effort in part at distancing Idamante from his origins as a castrato role. Increasingly, productions have sought to return to Mozart’s original scoring by casting a female singer as Idamante, though almost always feeling the need to justify this decision with tedious academic exposition. As is almost always the case in opera, great singing is its own justification, and no doubt can remain about the perceptiveness of either Mozart’s or Mr. Jacobs’ decision to cast a high voice as Idamante after Ms. Fink’s performance is heard. Singing with tone both regal and movingly restrained, Ms. Fink brings to Idamante great depth of feeling, touching every emotional thread in the role without resorting to histrionics. Ms. Fink displays great tenderness in her scenes with Ilia and Idomeneo: she also rejects Elettra without hectoring and is all the more moving for it. Every technical requirement of the role is met with both voice and grace to spare, and every note seems to emanate from an absorbing and detailed but never lugubrious understanding of the role. Ms. Fink’s Sesto was the reliable, resplendent foundation upon which Mr. Jacobs built his Clemenza di Tito, and Ms. Fink’s Idamante is similarly the psychological epicenter of this Idomeneo. In addition to being gorgeously and idiomatically sung, Ms. Fink’s Idamante is perhaps the finest performance among all of Mr. Jacobs’ Mozart recordings and is, even considered alongside some legendary predecessors, a truly classic example of Mozart singing.

To state that this Idomeneo seems in cumulative analysis greater than the sum of its parts is to unfairly suggest that there are deficiencies among those parts. Mr. Jacobs conducts a performance in which orchestra, chorus, and soloists share a common goal of bringing life and passion to the music before them, and this ensemble investment of tonal and emotional resources pays impressively rich dividends. Every singer is equal to the task Mozart has devised, and in Bernarda Fink the performance boasts an Idamante of wondrous beauty and finesse. It is possible even when the individual components are of dazzling attractiveness that the whole can prove disjointed and ugly. The puzzle is sorted out here, though, and the lovely pieces are assembled into a brilliant Idomeneo.