20 July 2009

CD REVIEW: Deems Taylor – PETER IBBETSON (A.D. Griffey, L. Flanigan, R. Zeller, C.R. Austin, L. Summers, E. Lunde; NAXOS)

Edward Johnson, Deems Taylor, and Edna St. Vincent Millay at the time of the premiere of THE KING'S HENCHMAN JOSEPH DEEMS TAYLOR (1885 – 1966): Peter Ibbetson, Opus 20: A.D. Griffey (Peter Ibbetson/Gogo Pasquier), L. Flanigan (Mary, Duchess of Towers/Mimsey Seraskier), R. Zeller (Colonel Ibbetson), C.R. Austin (Major Duquesnois), L. Summers (Mrs. Deane), E. Lunde (Mrs. Glyn); Seattle Symphony and Chorale; Gerard Schwarz [recorded during concert performances in S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, on 29 April and 1 May 1999; NAXOS 8.669016-17]

On the afternoon of Saturday, 7 February 1931, New York’s Metropolitan Opera premiered a specially-commissioned new opera by one of America’s finest composers, Deems Taylor, with the remarkable cast of tenor (and future MET General Manager) Edward Johnson in the title role, soprano Lucrezia Bori as the Duchess of Towers, and baritone Lawrence Tibbett as Colonel Ibbetson.  The commission for Peter Ibbetson followed another opera composed by Taylor for the MET, The King’s Henchman, both works having stemmed from an initiative headed by the MET’s General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza and influential Board Chairman Otto Kahn to bring more indigenous American opera to the MET.

At the time of the composition of Peter Ibbetson, Deems Taylor was among America’s most successful composers of serious music, having enjoyed in addition to the MET commission for The King’s Henchman (the libretto of which was the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay) success with concert music and musical theatre scores.  Critics who objected to the Eurocentric slant of The King’s Henchman, the basis for which was drawn from an Anglo-Saxon source related to the legend of Tristan and Yseult, were surely baffled by Taylor’s selection for the subject of his next MET opera of a Victorian British novel, George du Maurier’s Peter Ibbetson.  Taylor decided to write his own libretto for Peter Ibbetson, ultimately collaborating with British actress Constance Collier, star of a Broadway adaptation of the novel.  Du Maurier’s novel was also adapted for the cinema via a film by Henry Hathaway, with Gary Cooper as Peter.  Rather than an authentically American story, Taylor chose to set a tale of confused national identities, half-remembered childhood affections, and the ethereal, often dangerous realm – a sort of psychological Purgatory – between dreams and reality.  Despite dissent from a few critical voices, Peter Ibbetson was warmly received by MET audiences, garnering twenty-two performances over several Depression-era seasons.  Licia Albanese studied the role of Mary with Bori, but the opera was not revived at the MET during her career.

Dramatically, Peter Ibbetson explores the separation of childhood [French] friends Gogo Pasquier and Mimsey Seraskier and their eventual reunion [in Britain] as Peter Ibbetson and Mary, Duchess of Towers.  Young Gogo is claimed upon the sudden deaths of his parents by his uncle Colonel Ibbertson and, renamed Peter, is relocated to Britain.  Having become a promising architect, Peter encounters as a young man the Duchess of Towers, who is eventually revealed to be Mimsey, the closest friend of his youth who taught him to ‘dream true.’  Mimsey/Mary is married, of course, and unavailable to Peter though the deep affection from their childhood resumes as if uninterrupted.  Reacting to the Colonel’s claims that he is Peter’s biological father, Peter strikes and unwittingly kills the Colonel.  Mary’s intervention ensures that Peter’s death sentence is commuted, and for the thirty years of Peter’s imprisonment he and Mary visit one another nightly in their dreams.  When at last Mary does not come to Peter in slumber, he has already sensed that Mary has died when a friend comes to give him the news.  Peter dies, and the opera ends with an image of the again-young Peter rising to meet Mary.  Metaphorically, there are kinships with Billy Budd, George Lloyd’s Iernin, Der Fliegende Holländer, and even Delius’ A Village Romeo and Juliet in the notions of an innocent’s righteous anger leading to crime and condemnation, the emotional chasms separating cultures, the archetypal redemptive Feminine, and the development of infantile affections into absolute passions.  Taylor complicates the piece somewhat with a libretto that mixes English and French texts, with Peter largely reverting to French when he returns in the second act to scenes from his childhood, and extensive use of French folksongs.  Though fine in its own right, Peter Ibbetson just misses the mysterious profundity and brilliance of the best operas that deal with similar themes, not least Tristan und Isolde (death as the ultimate, inevitable purification of love) and Peter Grimes (sacrificial love of a woman as the salvation of a misplaced man).

Musically, there is little to identify Peter Ibbetson as distinctly or recognizably America, but there is much fine music in the score.  The dream sequences are in the vein of the Walk to the Paradise Garden in A Village Romeo and Juliet, the music not as masterful as Delius’ but nonetheless beautiful and imaginative.  Through-composed in late-Romantic tonality, the score makes use of a variety of forms and compositional techniques, including a memorable waltz in the first-act ball scene.  A folk tune that begins in the woodwinds in the second scene of Act II develops briefly into what is almost an Offenbach-esque galop.  Set pieces are few but excellent when they come.  Essentially an extended tone poem, the score nevertheless avoids the flaw displayed by many twentieth-century operas of treating voices solely as instruments within the cacophony.  Vocal lines are generally given freedom from the dense orchestral textures, and there are many beautiful if ultimately unmemorable melodies.  As with many scores, the music is at its best when the means and intended effects are simplest, as in the gorgeous and sadly brief interlude (with turns in the woodwinds straight out of Wagner; the later Storm Interlude likewise threatens to erupt into the Walkürenritt) after Mary’s and Peter’s ‘Give me your hands’ in the second act.  In structure and even in tonal content, the opera’s choral finale closely resembles the closing pages of Die MeistersingerPeter Ibbetson is not a great score in the manner of mature Mozart, Wagner, or Strauss, but it is a far finer piece than many of the operas composed in the seventy-eight years since its premiere.

The musical forces in the present recording, taken from a pair of 1999 Seattle concert performances, seem committed en masse to making the strongest possible case for Peter Ibbetson.  Choral passages are not always composed with the utmost finesse, but the Seattle Symphony Chorale bring endearing conviction to their contributions.  Especially in quieter moments, they often make very lovely sounds.  In louder, more concerted passages it is possible to wish for the sake of clarity that their numbers were slightly fewer, with a stronger complement of voices among the higher registers.  The Seattle Symphony again confirm their standing among American’s finest symphonic ensembles, playing with unperturbed excellence that illuminates Taylor’s generally uncomplicated but learned orchestrations.  The woodwinds make an especially strong showing, seizing every opportunity for melodic eloquence with relish.  Presiding over the performance is the Symphony’s Music Director Gerard Schwarz (who is also the Music Director of North Carolina’s Eastern Music Festival), whose considerable operatic experience is apparent in his coordination of choral, orchestral, and solo vocal forces.  Maestro’s Schwarz’s approach draws out the grandeur of the orchestral interludes but also allows plenty of space in which lyrical phrases are allowed to expand romantically without risking sluggishness.  Likely because of the live concert performance provenance of the recording, balances among chorus, orchestra, and soloists are not always ideal, but Maestro Schwarz capitalizes on the abilities of his performers to shape a performance that on the whole conveys something of the impact that the score had on MET audiences in the 1930’s.

Secondary roles are mostly cast from strength, with mezzo-sopranos Lori Summers and Emily Lunde as Mrs. Deane and her mother, Mrs. Glyn, singing very well.  Taking several roles, baritone Barry Johnson reveals a fine voice and a talent for differentiating various personas even in the context of a concert performance.  As the footman who announces arriving guests in the first-act ball scene, tenor John Obourn also reveals a fine voice, a lovely light tenor that would gladly have been heard more in the course of the performance.  Basses Charles Robert Austin and Eugene Buchholz, soprano Terri Johnson, and mezzo-soprano Carolyn Gronlund make the most of their small assignments.  Only tenor Paul Gudas, whose alert singing discloses a distinct wobble, falls slightly short of the standard set among the comprimario singers.

The role of Colonel Ibbetson is endowed with a de facto aria in the first act, a poetic recitation not unlike Andrea Chénier’s Improvviso.  Sung by Lawrence Tibbett, the piece is sure to have made a great effect as it is composed to show the full range of the baritone voice to advantage.  Comparisons with Tibbett are unflattering and unfair to Richard Zeller, who sings the Colonel’s music with a strong, all-purpose voice.  In fact, Mr. Zeller’s performance is very good on the whole, the menace of the Colonel brought to the fore without undue snarling.  High passages are trying for Mr. Zeller, but he never shrinks from the music even when his vocal comfort is compromised.  He rises to the first-act aria with complete dedication, the results compelling if ultimately not of Tibbett-like force.  There is little in the libretto that indicates what motivates the Colonel’s actions, but Mr. Zeller faces every challenge head-on and enacts a properly nasty personage without resorting to ugly tone.

As the dream-mongering Duchess of Towers, soprano Lauren Flanigan finds another in her series of congenially quirky roles.  Mary’s music is composed in the manner of many twentieth-century soprano roles, which is to say that the conversational passages are almost exclusively in the upper-middle register.  Occasional moments of increased passion inspire flights into the highest reaches of the conventional soprano range.  Despite occasional sustained tones that threaten to lose stability, Ms. Flanigan satisfies in all registers.  Ms. Flanigan’s tone is not consistently rounded in the tradition of Bori (or, for that matter, Albanese), but she brings great power to passages requiring descents into her lower register and displays a seemingly natural affinity for the style of the writing.  Ms. Flanigan’s career has seen her ensconced as leading prima donna of the New York City Opera, perpetuating the legacy of Beverly Sills even by taking on Sills’ greatest City Opera challenge, Donizetti’s ‘Tudor’ trilogy.  In Mary’s first-act aria, ‘I could never dedicate my days,’ Ms. Flanigan’s voice in fact sounds eerily like Beverly Sills’, a likeness than in itself indicates the fine qualities of Ms. Flanigan’s singing.  The wondrous beauty of Beverly Sills’ voice, particularly in pianissimo tones in the upper register, is missing in Ms. Flanigan’s singing, but this is not to suggest that she does not offer a beguiling performance.  The aforementioned first-act aria is capped with a magnificently pulse-quickening top C, and the instinctive use of portamento throughout Ms. Flanigan’s performance is refreshing.  Ms. Flanigan brings dignity and fervor to her delivery of Mary’s occasionally hokey lines, and in her performance the music somehow seems more distinguished than it perhaps can truly claim to be.  Though not as important as many of her other stirring performances, Ms. Flanigan’s performance in this recording can be remembered alongside Beverly Sills’ Baby Doe as a significant performance of an American operatic heroine.

In his music for the name-part, Taylor came closest to creating a role in the mold of the tenor roles composed by Benjamin Britten for Sir Peter Pears.  In Peter Ibbetson’s music, there are elements of the lovesick but slightly ridiculous Albert Herring, the not-quite-real Peter Quint, the idealistic Captain Vere, and the terrifically troubled Peter Grimes.  This performance gains immeasurably from the singing of one of the current generation’s greatest Britten interpreters, North Carolina-born tenor Anthony Dean Griffey.  Every emotional facet of the rather strange Peter Ibbetson is fully realized in Mr. Griffey’s performance, but the most arresting component of the performance is the sheer beauty of Mr. Griffey’s tone.  Possessing impressive stamina and reserves of powerAnthony Dean Griffey (photo by Harry Heleotis), the basic timbre of Mr. Griffey’s voice is very attractive, a core of lyrical sweetness softening the robust masculinity of the sound.  As Peter Ibbetson, this combination of tonal allure and firmness brings a very persuasive profile to the role.  Equally adept at conveying the young  man touchingly nostalgic for the environs he knew in his childhood and the proud man capable of violence in defense of his family honor, Mr. Griffey devotes himself vocally and emotionally to the role, a feat that is especially admirable in the context of concert performances.  Peter lacks the opportunities for solo display enjoyed by Mary and the Colonel, but he scarcely ever leaves the stage throughout the opera’s duration.  Recordings are often pale substitutes for live performances, even when their sources are ‘live,’ but it is possible in Mr. Griffey’s performance on this recording to genuinely experience Peter Ibbetson’s journey, conveyed with ringing, honeyed tone.  This is a sublime performance from a singer whose artistic stature grows with every project he undertakes.

Even a performance with as many fine qualities as this recording boasts is unlikely to return Peter Ibbetson to the repertory.  For home listening, however, this recording proves an enjoyable alternative when one tires of hearing the same Verdi and Puccini operas again and again.  Deems Taylor was a skillful composer who had keen senses of dramatic timing and careful shaping of vocal declamation.  This is not a score that is worthy to be played in the company (or instead) of the genre’s greatest masterworks, but among American operas which can unhesitatingly be said to be better?  Vanessa, perhaps, or Susannah: they are decidedly an endangered species, whichever they are.  In this recording, the performance by Anthony Dean Griffey is strong enough to suggest that Peter Ibbetson is far more than a musical curiosity.

18 July 2009

CD REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini – NORMA (B. Sills, S. Verrett, E. di Giuseppe, P. Plishka; DGG)

Bellini: NORMA (Beverly Sills, Shirley Verrett; James Levine - DGG) VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835) – Norma: B. Sills (Norma), S. Verrett (Adalgisa), E. di Giuseppe (Pollione), P. Plishka (Oroveso), D. Wallis (Clotilde), R. Tear (Flavio); John Alldis Choir; New Philharmonia Orchestra; James Levine [recorded in Town Hall, Watford, Hertfordshire, England, during July and August 1973; DGG 477 818 6]

Originally recorded for ABC Records, this studio recording of Norma is now issued on commercial compact discs for the first time by Deutsche Grammophon in a continuation of the label’s dedication to the recorded legacy of American coloratura prima donna Beverly Sills.  One of the greatest bel canto heroines, Norma was central to the repertories, both stage and studio, of Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Montserrat Caballé, so the desire to preserve Ms. Sills’ performance of the role was surely the most central raison d’être for the recording.  This Norma also introduced the record-buying public to a young conductor already making his mark at the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine.

Among sopranos who have commercially recorded Norma, only Renata Scotto (in James Levine’s second studio recording of the opera for Sony, also recently reissued as a part of Sony’s new Opera House series) is a native Italian.  The ABC/DGG recording expands the cultural cross-pollination by presenting a quartet of American singers in the leading roles.  Welcome as a large-profile celebration of native talent, it is undeniable that the Italianate qualities that permeate every page of Norma are undermined in this performance.  Never noted for his work in bel canto scores, James Levine conducts in a manner more appropriate for middle-period Verdi than for Bellini, downbeats pounded out with greater bombast than the delicate arcs of Bellini’s melodies require even when the music is robust.  [The recent evidence of Maestro Levine’s conducting in Metropolitan Opera performances of Mary Zimmerman’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor and, above all, Adrian Noble’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth suggests that Maestro Levine has found in the autumn of his career a far greater sympathy for bel canto.]  The New Philharmonia Orchestra abet Maestro Levine’s approach with gusto, playing very well and maintaining accuracy of ensemble that is rare among rival ensembles, especially those based in Italy.  Not wholly avoiding the British-inflected diction and poise for which they are known, so valuable in Händel oratorios, the John Alldis Choir sing with bite and are often superb, as in their hushed expressions of horror and disbelief at the moment in the final scene in which Norma reveals that it is she who betrayed her priestly vows.  It is not likely that a listener familiar with Norma would mistake this for an idiomatic performance in the Italian tradition, but choir, orchestra, and conductor nonetheless lay the foundation upon which a credible, effective performance of the opera could have been built.

Vocally and dramatically, the finest performance is the Adalgisa of Shirley Verrett, herself a respected Norma.  In fact, in the course of this performance it is possible to suspect that a better recording might have resulted had she and Ms. Sills exchanged roles.  It has been a matter of great discussion for the past half-century that Bellini composed the role of Adalgisa for the soprano Giulia Grisi and expected a soprano in the role.  Her successful assumptions of soprano roles notwithstanding, Ms. Verrett’s voice (especially as heard in this recording) is emphatically that of a mezzo-soprano, a firm and penetrating upper register aligned without audible breaks with a strong, deep-reaching chest register.  In this performance, Ms. Verrett makes every possible effort at lightening her tone in order to meet the requirements of the virginal Adalgisa, and the extent to which she succeeds is a testament to her considerable artistry.  Neither the florid demands of the music nor its high tessitura (even more challenging in this performance than in most, as the music is performed in Bellini’s original, higher keys) stretches Ms. Verrett beyond her means, and she produces many stunning moments, particularly in her fearless ascents to top notes.  Dramatically, Ms. Verrett offers a spirited Adalgisa, both a loyal friend to Norma and a sensual lover to Pollione.  In the trio that ends the first act, in which Adalgisa renounces Pollione’s love and entreaties to return with him to Rome, Ms. Verrett’s performance reveals strength of will and resolve atypical of Adalgisa in most performances: her faltering emotions mended by force, this Adalgisa is not a woman content with a secondhand passion.  Though lacking the easy idiomatic command of Ebe Stignani and the extraordinary stylistic acumen of Marilyn Horne, Ms. Verrett proves a convincing Adalgisa who is more than in most performances the central figure in the drama.

The secondary roles of Clotilde and Flavio are taken by Delia Wallis and Robert Tear, respectively, the latter making full use of the sturdy voice and occasionally lugubrious delivery familiar from so many performances and recordings of British repertory.  Oroveso was first sung on a commercial recording by the wonderful Italian bass Tancredi Pasero, but even he failed to make a significant impression in the role aside from singing the music with magnificent, rolling tone.  Paul Plishka’s first recorded Oroveso (he also sang the role opposite Renata Scotto and Tatiana Troyanos in Mr. Levine’s second recording) satisfies in a similar vein: the music is well-served by the young Mr. Plishka’s sturdy, secure voice, but the role makes little impact.

Pollione is sung by Enrico di Giuseppe, who brings to his task the ostensible benefit of having been the son of Italian immigrants.  Unlike the title role, Pollione is represented on commercial recordings by two of the most celebrated Italian singers of the twentieth century, Franco Corelli and Mario del Monaco, not to mention a widely-circulated Metropolitan Opera broadcast in which Carlo Bergonzi sings a thrillingly ringing, virile Pollione.  These tenors all brought considerably larger voices than di Giuseppe’s to the role, which in the context of the refined requirements of bel canto is not an immediate guarantee of success.  Far more than Bellini’s other leading tenor roles, however, Pollione is unquestionably a bravura role, his aria and cabaletta in the first act having a splendidly martial swagger befitting a Roman Proconsul.  Mr. di Giuseppe sings throughout with commitment and assurance, along with great security in the upper register (including the top C in ‘Meco all’altar di Venere,’ which the aging del Monaco did not attempt even in his studio recording for DECCA), but the voice lacks the squillo implicit in the music.  For all that he has successfully seduced two vestal priestesses – no mean feat! – Pollione’s music leaves no doubt that he is more conqueror than Casanova.  Mr. di Giuseppe’s elegance and precision are welcome, as is his generally effective clearing of his coloratura hurdles in ‘In mia man alfin tu sei’ (a challenge often eased in performances and recordings by re-assignment of the repeat of the most difficult passage to Norma), but the role does not make its full effect.  It is disheartening to find fault with accomplished, disciplined singing, and Mr. di Giuseppe sings Pollione’s music very well in terms of production of the notes indicated in the score, but a measure of the focus of Norma is lost when a performance includes a Pollione whose voice is not apt for his music.

Norma has been memorably portrayed by a variety of voices: dramatic sopranos (Rita Hunter, Zinka Milanov, and Elinor Ross), spinto sopranos (Montserrat Caballé and Leyla Gencer), dramatic coloraturas (Cristina Deutekom and Dame Joan Sutherland), and lighter coloraturas (June Anderson and Edita Gruberová).  It was Maria Callas, a singer who largely defied Fach classifications, who proved the most insightful and influential Norma of the twentieth century.  Though she shared much of Callas’ repertory, it was in lyric coloratura roles that Beverly Sills was most successful, her greatest role arguably having been Massenet’s Manon.  Opportunities for the interpolated flights of virtuosic fantasy often employed by Ms. Sills were far fewer in Norma than in other bel canto scores that she sang, limiting to a degree not only Ms. Sills’ vocal identification with the music but also her connection with a role frequently cited by singers as one of the most vocally treacherous and emotionally draining in the Italian repertory.  Significantly, Ms. Sills’ opera-house performances of Norma were few.  Ms. Sills’ technique is beyond reproach, even in the fearsomely difficult music of Norma, and she sings the complex divisions in such passages as the first-act trio and the aforementioned ‘In mia man alfin tu sei’ more impressively than many of her recorded rivals.  In the latter number, she also proves one of only two Normas on commercial studio recordings who inserts an interpolated E-flat in alt into the coda of the duet, indicative of the security of Ms. Sills’ command of her extensive upper register.  [Sutherland includes the E-flat in her first DECCA recording.  Gruberová also interpolates the top E-flat in her Nightingale recording, taken from concert performances.]  This display of an exuberantly healthy voice is harmless, but ‘Ah! bello a me ritorna,’ Norma’s first-act cabaletta, is damaged by over-emphatic embellishment that distorts the melodic line, ever a peril of Ms. Sills’ prodigious abilities.  ‘Casta diva,’ with her lines in the duet ‘Mira, o Norma’ the most lyrical music Norma is given to sing, is the most beautiful and effective portion of Ms. Sills’ performance.  As with Mr. di Giuseppe’s Pollione, Ms. Sills’ Norma is undermined most perceptibly by questions of timbre and amplitude.  Ms. Sills’ voice as recorded is a bright, occasionally edgy instrument, the tone very forward and produced on the breath.  Norma may not necessarily require a larger sound, but darker, rounder tones than were at Ms. Sills’ command prove more congenial in the music.  Dramatically, Ms. Sills’ provides efficient, never less-than-competent indications of the emotions that are inherent in the music, but discernible personal insights are almost completely absent.  Though she is a consistently responsive artist, the timbre and texture of Ms. Sills’ voice do not combine pleasingly with Ms. Verrett’s, especially when they are singing in major thirds.  What Ms. Sills does in this recording is sing Norma’s music with unflappable technical assurance.  This accomplishment cannot be attributed to many great Normas, but Ms. Sills’ Norma ultimately cannot be said to rise above merely good singing because there is in this performance no indication that Norma is in any way different from the sleepwalking Amina, the deluded Lucia, or the righteously indignant Maria Stuarda.

As in the case of EMI’s reissue of Ms. Sills’ studio recording of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi with Dame Janet Baker, this Norma is an important addition to the Sills discography.  It is not, sadly, a significant entry in the Norma discography, for all its polish and vocal security.  It is a remarkable testimony on both the quality of Norma, a surpassing quality noted even by a critic as harsh as Richard Wagner but often doubted and openly denied in latter days, and the inspired feats of vocalism and dramatic directness the score has drawn from performers that a recording as shapely and well-sung as this one fails to garner lingering affection.  As a souvenir of some of America’s finest native vocal talent, the performance is happily heard, but it is difficult to banish thoughts of what a fine recording of, say, Beatrice di Tenda this might have been.

11 July 2009

CD REVIEW: Maurice Ravel – L’ENFANT ET LES SORTILÈGES (M. Kožená, N. Stutzmann, A. Massis, S. Koch, J. van Dam, J.-P. Fouchécourt, F. Le Roux; EMI)

Maurice Ravel: L'ENFANT ET LES SORTILÈGES (EMI - Rattle) MAURICE RAVEL (1875 – 1937) – L’Enfant et les Sortilèges: M. Kožená (L’Enfant), N. Stutzmann (Maman, La Tasse Chinoise, La Libellule), A. Massis (Le Feu, La Princesse, Le Rossignol), S. Koch (La Bergère, La Chatte, L’Écureuil, un Pâtre), J. van Dam (Le Fauteuil, un Arbe), F. Le Roux (L’Horloge Comtoise, Le Chat), J.-P. Fouchécourt (La Théière, Le Petit Vieillard, La Rainette), M. Erdmann (une Pastorelle, La Chauve-souris, La Chouette); Rundfunkchor Berlin; Berliner Philharmoniker; Sir Simon Rattle [recorded during concert performances in the Philharmonie, Berlin, 24 – 28 September 2008; EMI 2 64197 2]

Collaborating with the celebrated French writer Colette, Ravel enjoyed in L’Enfant et les Sortilèges what arguably is one of the finest, most metaphorical librettos in opera.  Originally approached with the proposition of writing the text for a musical work that would be largely balletic, Colette famously completed the manuscript in only seven days.  Of the several composers under consideration, Colette was satisfied only with the notion of her text being set to music by Ravel, whose service in World War I delayed completion of the project: a first copy of the libretto mailed to Ravel on the front in 1916 was lost, a replacement ultimately reaching him in 1917.  Recognizing the merit of the text, Ravel quickly agreed to set the libretto.  Work was nonetheless slow, prompting Colette to doubt that the project should ever reach fruition.  To Colette’s delight, however, the completed L’Enfant et les Sortilèges was first performed in Monte Carlo in 1925, conducted by Victor de Sabata and featuring ballet sequences choreographed by George Ballanchine.

The beauties and novelties of Ravel’s score are numerous, and Colette felt upon hearing the opera that her text had been expanded by Ravel’s music into something truly meaningful.  The opera presents the largely symbolic story of a naughty child whose cruel treatment of creatures large and small, culminating in a nasty exchange with his well-intentioned mother, results in fanciful taunting by a veritable host of household objects and forest animals.  When the sylvan fracas spirals out of control, both a pitiful little squirrel and the child are injured: awakened to compassion by the boy’s anguish and his binding of the squirrel’s wounded paw, the frightened and suddenly regretful forest creatures struggle against their bestiality in order to summon one unison cry of ‘Maman’ to call the boy’s mother to him.  Hearing Ravel’s music, perhaps Colette was as impressed as is the modern listener by the astonishing extent to which this resolution can, in a persuasively sensitive performance, touch the hearts of an audience.  As surely as the figurative spell is broken by the animals’ recognition of the boy’s innate humanity, a spell is cast over audiences by the endearingly approachable fable of goodness righting seemingly unforgiveable wrongs.

Ravel’s music for L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is as varied and virtuosic as that for the composer’s previous opera, L’Heure espagnole.  A variety of dance rhythms are employed, not least the swinging foxtrot to which the Wedgwood teapot and china teacup sing their English and mock-Chinese duet.  The opera is shaped throughout in the manner of an extended symphonic movement, thematic development taking often whimsical forms as the story progresses.  As in all of his mature scores, Ravel makes full use in L’Enfant et les Sortilèges of the orchestra, scoring every scene with delicacy in order to maximize both musical and dramatic impact.  There are in the plaints of the Princess and the child, the lament of the squirrel, and the final scene moments of exquisite beauty, shaped by the unerring finesse of Ravel’s writing.  Logistically, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is as challenging to stage as Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen, but Ravel’s score is without question one of the musically finest and emotionally most significant French operas of the twentieth century.

The opera receives in this recording, drawn from September 2008 concert performances in Berlin’s Philharmonie, a performance that not only meets the piece’s demands but revels as much in the orchestral and vocal virtuosity as in the psychological underplay of the opera.  The Berliner Philharmoniker play with disarming command of Ravel’s cosmopolitan Gallic style, every tone placed perfectly within the musical landscape.  Individual instruments are played with technique and beauty of tone worthy of solo concert artists, and the ensemble blends with the sonorous sensuality of chamber players.  A measure of the credit for this must surely be granted to Sir Simon Rattle, conducting the performance with vigor, rhythmic precision, and involvement that, quite frankly, are all the more remarkable for being rather atypical.  More so than in any of Mr. Rattle’s other operatic recordings, he here seems so much more than a talented conductor whose nose is pressed to his score: so engaged is he in this performance, it is impossible to avoid wondering if the opera conjures memories of his own precocious childhood.  It would be difficult to praise Mr. Rattle’s work more highly than by stating that his performance rivals the classic recording conducted by Ernest Bour.  Appreciation is also due to EMI’s engineering team for the sound quality, never negatively conveying the ‘live’ circumstances of the recording, is quite simply ideal.

The performance benefits greatly from a team of exceptionally gifted artists in secondary roles.  A singer as great as Belgian bass-baritone José van Dam, still on excellent form, contributes amusingly as the Armchair and the groaning Tree.  Baritone François Le Roux, a celebrated Pelléas, is a wonderfully growling Grandfather Clock and Cat, with whom mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch duets delightfully.  Ms. Koch also proves sweetly touching as the long-suffering Squirrel.  Soprano Mojca Erdmann is especially good as the widower Bat, singing of his motherless children.  Jean-Paul Fouchécourt upholds the tradition of Hugues Cuénod and Michel Sénéchal as the Teapot, the arithmetic-spouting Old Man, and the Frog, singing with poise and offering many examples, not least in his duet with the Teacup, of perfectly-modulated head tones in the classic French manner.

In her roles as the Fire, the Princess, and the Nightingale, soprano Annick Massis sings with the brilliance of tone and attack of a true coloratura prima donna.  The music demands no less, but even among the impressive collection of singers in the discography of L’Enfant et les Sortilèges no soprano brings greater versatility or truer musicality to the music than Ms. Massis.  The security of Ms. Massis’ technique makes light work of the treacherous tessitura of her roles, leaving the singer free to focus on interpretive nuances.  Especially moving is Ms. Massis’ singing of the Princess’ plaint, perhaps the most impressive portion of a performance that is stylistically, linguistically, and above all musically gorgeous from first note to last.

Equally beguiling as the Mother, the Teacup, and the Dragonfly, contralto Nathalie Stutzmann sings with the same commitment and intensity familiar from her performances of Baroque repertory.  Ms. Stutzmann’s voice remains eerily beautiful, the depth of her tone bringing frustrated authority to the Mother, charming pique to the Teacup, and buzzing vivacity to the Dragonfly.  The only possible regret is that Ms. Stutzmann has not more to sing.

The Child – hateful, befuddled, and sincerely remorseful in turn – is sung with point and poignancy by mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená.  Ms. Kožená’s tone is bright but convincingly boyish, and there is an awareness in her performance of a transformation from a priggish to a more sensitive character.  There is little doubt that this boy’s thoughts will quickly return to mischief, but his sorrow and regret are sincere in the moment.  Most vitally, it is evident in Ms. Kožená’s performance that a good heart beats within the boy.  Vocally, there is nothing in the Boy’s music that challenges Ms. Kožená’s powers, and she enters into the spirit of the score as readily and convincingly as any of her native French-speaking colleagues.

All of these elements combine to render a thrillingly joyous and movingly painful performance of L’Enfant et les Sortilèges.  Equally prevalent are the modernity of the music and the timelessness of the fairy-tale story, qualities that are unified by idiomatic conducting and vocal performances to remind the listener that great music gets at the heart of a matter whether old or new, tonal or atonal.  Colette recognized at once that Ravel’s score for L’Enfant et les Sortilèges was great music, and this wonder-filled performance reveals anew that Colette and Ravel created a truly great work of lyric theatre.

IN MEMORIAM: Mollie Sugden, English actress (21 July 1922 – 1 July 2009)

Mollie Sugden (1922 - 2009) as Mrs. Slocumbe in ARE YOU BEING SERVED? The lines between art and camp are often indistinct, and there are performers whose work blurs the boundaries to such a degree that it is no longer possible to make facile categorizations.  Such a performer was the marvelous English comedic actress Mollie Sugden, who passed away at hospital in Guildford on 1 July.  Veteran of many celebrated British television serials, Ms. Sugden will surely be most remembered for her inspired turn on the sitcom Are You Being Served?  Ms. Sugden’s legacy proves that generous piles of chameleonic hair are just as effective as horned helmets for cultural iconography.

Born in Keighley, Yorkshire, Ms. Sugden felt early in childhood the gratification of inspiring others’ laughter.  After contributing to the war effort by working in a munitions factory, Ms. Sugden studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.  Success in radio and television quickly followed Ms. Sugden’s matriculation from the Guildhall, not least with her landing of the role of pub owner Nellie Harvey on the popular (and still running) Manchester-based serial Coronation Street.

In 1972, Ms. Sugden was cast as Mrs. Slocumbe in the BBC1 sitcom Are You Being Served?, a serial featuring an ensemble cast as eccentric salespeople in the fictitious Grace Brothers department store (inspired, it is said, by Simpsons of Piccadilly).  Essentially a parody of the Victorian class structure still prevalent in Britain in the third quarter of the twentieth century, Are You Being Served? pushed boundaries with frequent use of innuendo-laden double entendres, including Ms. Sugden’s famous, ‘Animals are very psychic; the least sign of danger and my pussy’s hair stands on end.’  In their service of Grace Brothers’ [seemingly very infrequent – was there a recession on?] clients, the cast of Are You Being Served? satirized the lingering British class stereotypes that so amused and frustrated young generations of Britons.  In Ms. Sugden’s hands, Mrs. Slocumbe was an aptly ramrod foil to the openly closeted Mr. Humphries of the late, wonderful John Inman.  Having looked down her nose on the disorder of her colleagues’ lives, it was frequently revealed with hilarity that Mrs. Slocumbe’s own life was far from being in order.  Ms. Sugden cleverly allowed hints of vulnerability to show through the cracks in her haughty demeanor.  Against expectations, Are You Being Served? ran for ten series from 1972 to 1985, ironically amassing sixty-nine episodes, and has continued to be broadcast throughout the British Commonwealth and in America, where the serial has been a bastion of popular programming for PBS stations for two decades.

The continuing success of Are You Being Served? as both a cultural phenomenon and genuinely entertaining television is a testament to Ms. Sugden’s genius for comic timing and sincerity.  It would be unjust to remember Ms. Sugden solely for Mrs. Slocumbe, which certainly was not her only and very probably was not even her best role, but Ms. Sugden’s work in Are You Being Served? is indicative of her commitment to outstanding work in an ensemble, an art that has somehow become endangered.  Many of the brightest stars are found in constellations, after all, and Mollie Sugden shone very brightly indeed.