25 August 2009

ARTIST PROFILE: Stephen Costello, tenor (winner of the 2009 Richard Tucker Award)

Stephen Costello, American tenor On 7 September, the 2009 – 10 Royal Opera (Covent Garden) season will be launched with the first of two concert performances of Gaetano Donizetti’s rarely-performed opera semiseria Linda di Chamounix, seemingly absent from London stages since a 1963 performance at the St. Pancras Town Hall.  Boasting an exciting cast including Cuban-American soprano Eglise Gutiérrez (in her Covent Garden début), Mariana Pizzolato, Ludovic Tézier, Alessandro Corbelli, and Luciano Botelho, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, the concerts will be recorded for commercial release by Opera Rara.  Making his Royal Opera House début in the role of Carlo will be one of the finest young tenors presently before the public, Stephen Costello, 2009 recipient of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award.

A native of Philadelphia, Mr. Costello graduated in 2007 from that city’s renowned Academy of Vocal Arts after having already earned an incredible plethora of distinctions: First Prize in the 2006 George London Foundation for Singers Competition, First and Audience Prizes in the Giargiari Competition, and First Prize in the Licia Albanese Puccini Foundation Competition, in addition to the Academy of Vocal Arts’ Opera Club Award.  Surely the most precious prize Mr. Costello earned during his studies at AVA is the hand of his beautiful wife, soprano Ailyn Pérez, with whom he frequently performs.

Prior even to his graduation from AVA, Mr. Costello achieved considerable successes within a six-month period in 2006 with his début in staged opera as Rodolfo in La Bohème at Fort Worth Opera and his European début at Opéra National de Bordeaux as Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore.  Since that time, Mr. Costello’s repertory has expanded with critically-acclaimed performances of roles by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, Mascagni, and Puccini, and even the Steuermann in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer (opposite the towering Holländer of James Morris).

Mr. Costello first captured the collective attention of the American opera-going public on 13 November 2005 at Carnegie Hall with his swaggering account of the Fisherman (who, in the spirit of the score, has his share of top C’s) in an Opera Orchestra of New York concert performance of Rossini’s sprawling Guillaume Tell.  Critic Robert Levine wrote in a review of the performance on ClassicsToday.com that Mr. Costello ‘was graceful as a fisherman who sings a lovely serenade in the first act (with its own pair of high Cs!).’  The journey of one of American’s most beautiful voices was launched.

Among even the finest native-born American singers of previous generations, the road to the Metropolitan Opera almost invariably wound through dozens of smaller European houses and regional companies in North America.  Instances such as that encountered on 6 December 1941, in which at short notice the young Astrid Varnay made her MET début as Sieglinde in a performance of Die Walküre opposite the Brünnhilde of Helen Traubel, are rare, a sort of cosmic alignment of destiny and necessity.  Far more often, the young American singer’s entrance into the MET roster is less heralded, like that of James McCracken as Parpignol in the Company’s 21 November 1953 performance of La Bohème.

The MET’s 2007 – 2008 season began on 24 September 2007 with the premiere of Mary Zimmerman’s much-discussed new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.  Singing the name-part for the first time at the MET was French coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay, whose flight from sanity was brought on by her slaying of Lucia’s arranged husband Arturo, sung by Mr. Costello in his MET début.  Anthony Tommasini wrote in the 26 September edition of the New York Times that ‘an appealing young tenor, Stephen Costello, had a solid Met debut as the well-meaning Arturo.’  Writing on MusicalCriticism.com, John Woods expanded on Mr. Tommasini’s thoughts, noting that ‘a very strong impression was made by the young Stephen Costello as Arturo, which is no mean feat in such a small role.’  Freelance writers, bloggers, and listeners who heard the performance on the MET’s Sirius radio channel echoed this praise and took note of the MET début of an important artist.

Much as in the case of Astrid Varnay more than six decades earlier, destiny and necessity aligned on 25 October 2007, when neither of the tenors headlining the Zimmerman Lucia (Marcello Giordani and Giuseppe Filianoti) was contracted to sing his role.  Young California-born tenor Todd Wilander made his MET début as Arturo, and Mr. Costello was promoted to the role of Edgardo.  The evening’s performance was likewise broadcast over the MET’s Sirius radio channel, relaying into homes across America and throughout the world the emergence of a remarkable artist.  Singing opposite the ethereally beautiful Lucia of the astonishingly gifted French soprano Annick Massis, an artist whose warmth of voice and personality created a Lucia very different from Natalie Dessay’s embodiment of the role, Mr. Costello rose magnificently to the challenge of singing such an important role at such a young age with America’s most significant opera company, sounding nowhere in the score finer than in Edgardo’s Tomb Scene at the end of the evening.  From that evening, Mr. Costello’s career has spanned the globe in an array of electrifying performances in a myriad assortment of roles.

Stephen Costello as Edgardo and Annick Massis in the title role of Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at the Metropolitan Opera.  Photo by Ken Howard I recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Mr. Costello concerning the progress of his career to date, his musical interests and inspirations, and some of his future plans.

The first things that are apparent, both from hearing Mr. Costello sing and from speaking with him even briefly, are his genuine affection and enthusiasm for singing.  The contrasting wit and humility with which he speaks of his approach to singing reveal not only an astute musical mind but also an unwavering commitment to the art of bel canto, whether in Donizetti, Verdi, or French repertory.

Perhaps it is cruel to suggest that many singers do not exhibit the same intelligence that Mr. Costello exudes in performance and in conversation.  [How gladdened was the heart of this literary scholar to learn that Mr. Costello prepared for his performances as Cassio in Verdi’s Otello at Salzburg by re-reading Shakespeare’s play!]  Jibes about cognitive disabilities among opera singers aside, Mr. Costello’s comments disclosed perhaps the most vital knowledge that should be possessed by any singer, that of the management of his own voice.  The lure of Werther is powerful, for instance, but the title role is safely stored away for future consideration.  Verdi’s Otello is regretfully conceded as an impossibility, even for some point on the distant horizon of Mr. Costello’s career.  [This might seem an obvious distinction, but it eluded Luciano Pavarotti, whose voice was similar in size and reach to Mr. Costello’s: Pavarotti at least confined his attempts at Otello to concert performances.]

Fresh from having enjoyed great success in June as Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi at the Festival dei due Mondi at Spoleto (Italy), Mr. Costello looks forward to reprising the role at Covent Garden in October, again opposite the Schicchi of Sir Thomas Allen, whom he describes as a ‘fantastic’ performer who brings great slyness and vigor to his interpretation of Schicchi.  [An interview from Italian television in which Mr. Costello shares his insightful thoughts on the role of Rinuccio in Woody Allen’s production, seen at Spoleto, is posted at the end of this article.]  Mr. Costello also spoke glowingly of a recent Ancona production of Rigoletto in which he was reunited with the ‘wonderful and kind’ Annick Massis, and of working with legendary (and legendarily divisive) conductor Riccardo Muti in the Salzburg production of Otello.  ‘I wonder how he will be received at the MET,’ Mr. Costello said of Maestro Muti, who will conduct for the first time at the MET in February in a new production of Verdi’s Attila.  ‘He is amazing.’

As he considers the next five years of his international career, bel canto continues to have a large presence in Mr. Costello’s diary, supplemented by later and contemporary repertory.  He will return in March 2010 to Dallas Opera, scene of his triumphs as Leicester in Maria Stuarda and the title role Roberto Devereux, to sing Ishmael in the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s opera Moby Dick.  He will take on the challenging role of Sir Riccardo Percy in another of Donizetti’s ‘British’ operas, Anna Bolena, to open the MET’s 2011 – 12 season (opposite, as it is rumored now, Anna Netrebko), following performances of the role in Dallas.  Débuts are scheduled for San Francisco Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and the Wiener Staatsoper (in another of his fine bel canto portrayals, Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore).  Mr. Costello remarked that singing bel canto ‘feels comforting for [his] voice.’  He continued by saying, ‘I wake up in the morning after singing bel canto and feel good.’  The seasons ahead offer many opportunities for good mornings.

Stephen Costello as Leicester in Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA at Dallas Opera

A theme that I have often examined as both a writer and a musician is that of the solitude endured by the artist in the pursuit of his art.  Viewing this as a matter of the proportions presented in Schubert’s Winterreise is perhaps to overinflate the significance of the issue, but every great artist makes sacrifices in order to give of himself.  In many instances, these sacrifices are most poignantly felt in the inherent difficulties of forming, nurturing, and maintaining meaningful relationships when one or all parties are frequently away or mired in work.  I was very touched in speaking with Mr. Costello by his comments regarding his wife.  Their careers separate them for occasionally extensive periods of time: he is here and she is there, but they are nonetheless always with one another emotionally.  Such support and contentment is at the heart of a truly sublime artistic partnership, and the happiness that results cannot fail to find voice in Mr. Costello’s singing.

The tradition of American singing that produced Eugene Conley and James McCracken, Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker, George Shirley and Vinson Cole is gloriously continued in Stephen Costello.  Possessing a voice with a bright but plangent timbre, even throughout a considerable range that extends to a refulgent upper register, and laden with darker undertones, Mr. Costello already enjoys a career marked by accolades from both critics and audiences.  With both a voice brimming with potential and genuine insightfulness to his credit, he is poised to be the leading tenor of his generation.

Ailyn Pérez as Mimì and Stephen Costello as Rodolfo in Puccini's LA BOHÈME

Sincerest thanks to Mr. Costello for his time, kindness, and candor.

Thanks also to Neil Funkhouser of Neil Funkhouser Artists Management, by whom Mr. Costello is managed.  Click here to view Mr. Costello’s official profile on the website of Neil Funkhouser Artists Management.

24 August 2009

CD REVIEW: Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky [Чайко́вский] – YEVGENY ONEGIN [Евгений Онегин] (Y. Mazurok, T. Milashkina, V. Atlantov, Y. Nesterenko; alto)

Tchaikovsky: YEVGENY ONEGIN (alto) PYOTR ILYCH TCHAIKOVSKY / Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский (1840 – 1893): Yevgeny Onegin / Евгений Онегин, Op. 24: Y. Mazurok (Yevgeny Onegin), T. Milashkina (Tatyana), V. Atlantov (Lensky), Y. Nesterenko (Gremin), T. Sinyavskaya (Olga), T. Tugarinova (Larina), L. Avdeeva (Filippyevna), L. Kuznetsov (Triquet), V. Yaroslavtsev (Zaretsky); Chorus and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow; Gennady Cherkasov [recorded in Radio Studio 5, Moscow, in 1984(?); alto 2007]

In 1979, the officially sanctioned record label of the Soviet Union, Melodiya, brought together four of the Bolshoi Theatre’s leading singers – Yuri Mazurok, Tamara Milashkina, Vladimir Atlantov, and Yevgeny Nesterenko – with Mark Ermler, a popular conductor at the Bolshoi who would briefly serve as the Company’s Music Director two decades later, to record Tchaikovsky’s towering masterwork of lyric theatre, Yevgeny Onegin.  Both Mazurok and Atlantov had recorded their respective roles before, along with Tamara Sinyavskaya’s Olga, in a studio recording of Onegin conducted by the great ‘cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and featuring his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, as Tatyana.  Critical response to the Melodiya recording was largely unfavorable, particularly when the new set was compared with the Rostropovich recording and the 1956 performance conducted by Boris Khaikin in which the unsurpassed Tatyana of the youthful Vishnevskaya was preserved.  The circumstances under which the present recording was made therefore remain somewhat mysterious.  Released, according to the accompanying liner notes, for the first time outside of Russian by the alto label in an indisputably good mastering by Paul Arden-Taylor, this Yevgeny Onegin may be fresh to the field despite its vintage.

An examination of the forces involved in the recording and the venue in which the performance is said to have been recorded introduces further questions.  An admired professor at the Moscow Conservatory for nearly fifty years, Gennady Cherkasov (1930 – 2002) was for an extended period the de facto artistic director of the musical enterprises of USSR Radio and Television, and the bulk of his recordings were made either with USSR Radio forces or the Moscow Philharmonic.  The matter of the provenance of this recording is further complicated by the fact that the choral and orchestral forces of the Bolshoi Theatre, the cited performers in this performance, were most often recorded in that Theatre, their manners of singing and playing having been trained specially for the acoustical ambience of the Bolshoi.  If truly recorded in Moscow’s Radio Studio 5 under Maestro Cherkasov’s baton, it would be far more likely that the chorus and orchestra would have been those of the USSR Radio.

There remains, too, the obvious question of why another recording of Yevgeny Onegin with the same principals recorded by Melodiya in 1979 (three of whom, as previously noted, had recorded their roles in 1970 for Rostropovich) would have been thought artistically necessary or commercially viable.  A compact-disc reissue (from LP transfers) of the 1979 Yevgeny Onegin by an independent European label erroneously cited Gennady Cherkasov rather than Mark Ermler as the conductor of that recording, a mistake detected and revealed to the record-buying public by the French publication Diapason.  Is it possible, then, that a similar unintentional corruption is responsible for the ambiguous information concerning the present release?  Even if this is the case, what information suggested to the editorial staff of that small European label that Cherkasov could have been the conductor of the performance in question?  Unfortunately, information concerning the recording’s principal artists is sketchy at best, as is often the case with singers whose careers were mostly made in theatres in the Soviet Union, and comprehensive discographies of Yevgeny Onegin offer few clues.

Sadly, the Rostropovich Yevgeny Onegin, originally recorded for EMI, was available only briefly on compact discs in France in a transfer by the Chant du Monde label, a release that was likely quite limited and is now virtually impossible to find.  Though Melodiya have recently reissued many of their classic operatic recordings, the 1979 Ermler Yevgeny Onegin has thus far been passed over in justifiable preference for the Khaikin recording with Vishnevkaya’s near-ideal Tatyana.  Having heard only murky-sounding excerpts from Ermler’s recording on a compact disc clandestinely transferred from a scratchy LP is a poor standard for comparison when trying to determine whether the performance issued by alto is, in fact, the Ermler recording in another guise.  There is, after all, a precedent for this sort of duplicity in Melodiya’s catalogue: the voice of George London was dubbed over the master tapes of an earlier recording of Boris Godunov with Ivan Petrov, conducted by Alexander Melik-Pasheyev, in order to manufacture a souvenir of London’s triumphant Bolshoi performances as the troubled tsar.  Comparing those dim-sounding excerpts from Ermler’s performance with the present recording, there are reference points that suggest both that the two recordings do indeed contain the same performance.  Whatever the truth concerning this ‘new’ Onegin from alto may be, the recording presents the casual musical detective with a muddle of which Dame Agatha Christie could have been proud.

If this is the 1979 Ermler recording, resuscitated and re-attributed to Gennady Cherkasov, the performance proves more interesting than critical response to the original Melodiya issue indicated.  Though a national institution, it must be admitted that the Bolshoi forces are not to Russian repertory what the orchestras and choirs of La Scala and the Wiener Staatsoper are to their respective national traditions.  Precision of attack and accuracy of intonation are not always readily evident in Bolshoi performances, but instances of sloppiness are often easily forgotten when the results of imperfect execution are exciting, idiomatic performances.  Except perhaps in the ball scene and the final confrontation between Onegin and Tatyana, Yevgeny Onegin is not a score in which overt excitement is paramount.  An element of the irony inherent in the score is found in Tchaikovsky’s juxtaposition of the passionate emotional tempests that rage internally with the pastoral scenes, quaint country manners, and courtly demeanors that mask them.  Even a scene as poignant as the duel in which Onegin kills Lensky is stark and bitter rather than outwardly impassioned.  The Bolshoi forces understand this irony, the chorus taking particular care to sing with refinement and understatement that are not always obvious weapons in their arsenal.  A few instances of suspect intonation and haphazard balance aside, the orchestra play very well indeed, the woodwinds especially making amends for many of the sins of their Soviet predecessors.  Above all, the singing and playing are quintessentially Russian, a valuable quality even in a score by a composer as innately cosmopolitan as Tchaikovsky.

Based upon his pedigree, there is no reason to think that Maestro Cherkasov should not have had Yevgeny Onegin well in hand.  His recorded work reveals a capable technician with a flair for handling complex orchestrations on large scales.  Whether it is his work or Ermler’s, there are many fine points to this performance.  The great third-act Polonaise is paced superbly and is integrated into the flow of the performance – as it rarely is – as music ideal for dancing.  Atypically, the listener very much gets the sense of the curtain rising on a ripping party in progress.  Prince Gremin’s aria also stays within the natural progression of the performance, avoiding the common pitfall of being an action-stalling star turn.  The final scene builds momentum gradually, reaching its climax without running out of steam or seeming vulgar.  Earlier on, there are occasional lapses in judgment: far too much is made of the couplets of Monsieur Triquet, for instance, which in this performance are treated almost as exalted utterances from a Gluck opera.  The sense that tragedy looms is palpable, but the humor – ironic or otherwise – of the scene is lost, as well as its charm.  Fortunately, such missteps are infrequent and largely afflict moments of lesser importance.  If the Letter Scene is somewhat deliberate, it at least avoids the almost hysterical rushing heard in many performances.  The performance as a whole, whether it is conducted by Ermler or Cherkasov, is effective and enjoyable without being exceptional.  It gracefully avoids the idiosyncrasies imposed on the music by ‘star’ conductors, however.  Despite some truly memorable vocal performances in the opera’s recorded history, it is interesting to note that no single maestro lingers in the memory as the ideal conductor of Yevgeny Onegin.

Smaller roles on this recording are mostly entrusted to capable artists, producing assured performances.  Mezzo-soprano Tamara Sinyavskaya, another Onegin veteran, is a rather fruity Olga but one well within the drama, complementing her sister Tatyana rather than audibly seeking to outshine her.  Tatyana Tugarinova and Larisa Avdeeva are authoritative as Larina, Olga’s and Tatyana’s mother, and Filippyevna, their nanny, as only singers immersed in the Russian tradition can be.  As Monsieur Triquest, tenor Lev Kuznetsov sings his music as though auditioning for the Simpleton in Boris Godunov, but his voice is steady and pleasant.

The Prince Gremin of Yevgeny Nesterenko is less ostentatious than is often the case.  In particular, Nesterenko sings the beautiful third-act aria with tenderness that, for once, meaningfully depicts the aging Prince’s affection for his young wife.  Nesterenko’s voice is in good condition, and as with so many Slavic artists he is perceptibly more in his element here than in his recordings of non-Russian repertory.  Nesterenko’s is not a Gremin who touches the heart with special insights or uncommon dignity, but the performance is refreshingly free of the disproportionate grandstanding that is as common among recordings of the role as among theatrical performances.

The Onegin of Polish-born baritone Yuri Mazurok is a well-documented creation: recorded in the studio for Rostropovich and Ermler, perhaps for Cherkasov, and again for Vladimir Fedoseyev (for Moscow Radio) and Emil Tchakarov, it is impossible to have explored the Onegin discography in the final quarter of the twentieth century without encountering Mazurok’s interpretation of the title role.  In this performance, Mazurok’s seasoned familiarity with his role is evident, and admittedly an element of routine is discernible.  Mazurok’s voice is well-proportioned for his music, however, and he does not over-sing the role.  Onegin is a dangerous part in that it demands a careful balance of intellectual involvement and easy, beautiful vocalism: lured into the trap of focusing his attention solely or mostly on ‘interpreting’ the role, a baritone can easily overlook the fact that Onegin’s music is quite demanding.  Though it is possible to question why Mazurok’s portrayal of Onegin merited preservation on so many recordings, it is a well-considered, idiomatic performance that, in this recording at least, impresses.  The requisite arrogance is there, but not in quantities great enough to render the character unredeemably off-putting, and the abandon with which Mazurok sings the final scene appropriately conveys Onegin’s desperation.  If not a bar-raising Onegin, this is nonetheless a very good one that outclasses performances by many baritones more famous for the role in the West.

By the time of this recording, whether it was 1979 or 1984, Vladimir Atlantov had a decade of experience in heavy dramatic tenor roles behind him.  Atlantov was for nearly two decades the Bolshoi’s leading portrayer of Verdi’s Otello, a role he performed at the MET on three memorable occasions in the spring of 1994.  Following in the tradition of the brilliant (if politically unsavory) Georgi Nelepp, Atlantov emerged in the early 1970’s as Russia’s finest spinto tenor, his voice blessed with an Italianate ring and a thrilling upper extension.  Hermann in Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama, a role considerably more demanding than Lensky, was perhaps Atlantov’s finest role.  Lensky, usually the property of more lyric voices (not least the fine Russian tenor Ivan Kozlovsky and, especially in German-language performances, the great Slovenian tenor Anton Dermota), was nonetheless a frequent role for Atlantov during the early years of his career in Russia.  His singing in this performance is slightly too large for the music despite laudable efforts at reducing the thrust of the voice, particularly in the upper register.  Unfortunately, this conscious attempt at singing the role on an appropriate scale leads to occasional insecurity and reliance on falsetto: to his credit, Atlantov knows that Lensky should have a modulated, honeyed tone in precisely the part of the voice in which Atlantov’s power and squillo were so impressive in dramatic roles.  Atlantov’s Lensky is without question more passionate than poetic, but he is a credible presence in the drama.  Though neither the great second-act aria nor the duel scene finds Atlantov at his best, his contributions to the scene in which Onegin incites Lensky’s jealous anger, leading to the duel, by flirting with Olga – Lensky’s most declamatory music in the score – are exhilarating.  Though falling short of the standard of the finest lyric tenors in the role, Atlantov’s Lensky in this recording is an alert, convincing performance by one of Russia’s greatest singers.

This recording of Yevgeny Onegin brought Atlantov together with his wife, Tamara Milashkina, an accomplished and admired soprano for whom Tatyana was a frequent role during her Bolshoi career.  Most of the critical commentary by Western observers throughout Milashkina’s career – or what was known of her work through her Melodiya recordings whilst she sang behind the Iron Curtain – was harsh, with writers objecting even in considering her early recordings to a voice that they heard as dull, matronly, and worn.  She was a favorite with Soviet audiences, however, and in addition to earning acclaim in the expected Russian roles was for more than a decade the Bolshoi’s Tosca of choice.  [She was, in fact, twice  recorded as Tosca; in Russian in either 1964 or 1967, depending upon which source one consults, and in Italian in 1976, opposite Atlantov’s Cavaradossi.]  Milashkina’s voice (as recorded, at least) was not an exquisitely beautiful instrument after the models of Marcella Pobbe and Renata Tebaldi, but her recordings are almost entirely free of the ‘Slavic wobble’ that infests the singing oTamara Milashkinaf many sopranos born east of the Danube.  Like her colleagues in this performance, Milashkina approaches her role honestly and with complete preparation.  The tingling intensity of Yelena Kruglikova and the young Vishnevskaya is absent, but subtlety informs Milashkina’s singing throughout the performance.  If Tatyana does not undergo in Milashkina’s hands either the sexual awakening depicted by Kruglikova or the intellectual transformation so vividly portrayed by Vishnevskaya, she is a less reticent girl from the start, a slight hint of slyness asserting itself in the more inward moments.  Milashkina does not attempt to create a complicated psychological drama in the Letter Scene but instead focuses on observing all of Tchaikovsky’s instructions and loading the voice into her lines with precision.  Here and elsewhere in her performance a tendency to deliver expansive lines as a series of individual phrases is bothersome, and there is a slightly pallid quality to the highest tones (though this may result as much or more from the engineering than from Milashkina’s vocal estate).  What Milashkina offers is a Tatyana sung without gimmicks, a straightforward performance that holds few surprises but also few disappointments.

As recently as forty years ago, opera aficionados expected to hear Russian operas sung in Russian only by Russian-born or –trained singers.  Record collectors knew the classic Melodiya recordings sung in Russian and otherwise enjoyed local performances of Russian repertory in their own vernacular languages.  This was likewise the case in Russia, where all performances at the Bolshoi – regardless of the origins of the scores – were sung in Russian until virtually the end of the Soviet era.  Increasingly since the cultural and political liberation of the Eastern Bloc, however, artists from all nations, trained after a fashion that minimizes nationalistic distinctions, sing operas from all sectors of the operatic repertory in their original languages.  Compelling arguments exist on both sides of the issue of preferring original-language performances in major opera houses, but there is an undeniable benefit in hearing an opera like Yevgeny Onegin sung in Russian, the linguistic rhythm of the music honored.  A significant measure of the stylistic integrity of the score is lost when it is performed by non-Russian singers singing in Russian, no matter how well they sing or how meticulously they have worked out their diction.  With that consideration in mind, this recording of Yevgeny Onegin is valuable as one of the last examples of the once-plentiful performances derived from the nationalistic, repertory-based system prevalent in the first three quarters of the twentieth century.  Hopefully, the sophistication gained from the newer, international method of singing means that Soviet-era recordings are no longer summarily dismissed as provincial.  There are to this recording of Yevgeny Onegin whiffs of the steppes and perhaps even of bourgeois frustration, but these would not have been foreign to Tchaikovsky.  A committed performance such as this, idiomatically sung and enacted by singers who both knew their music and how to sing it, proves surprisingly competitive.  All that remains is for some musical Miss Marple to sort out the precise details of the Who, What, When, Where, and Why.

21 August 2009

IN MEMORIAM: Hildegard Behrens, German dramatic soprano (9 February 1937 – 18 August 2009)

Hildegard Behrens as Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera As even her most frenzied admirers accepted in the final years of the 1970’s that Birgit Nilsson’s dominance in the Hochdramatische repertory – especially Strauss’ Elektra and Färberin and Wagner’s Brünnhilde and Isolde – was drawing to its natural close, both opera lovers and the managers of the world’s opera houses searched the ranks of young singers for a suitable successor to Nilsson in German dramatic repertory.  The protean vocal abilities of Nilsson seemed, and indeed have proved to be, not merely once-in-a-generation but once-in-a-century.  Nonetheless, musical voices as significant as Elektra’s and Brünnhilde’s could not fall silent upon Nilsson’s retirement.  During the last two decades of the twentieth century, there surely were respectable, idiomatic performances of German dramatic operas throughout the world, but among the heroines of those performances the undoubted mistress of the Hochdramatische repertory was Hildegard Behrens, who passed away unexpectedly in Tokyo on 18 August.

Born on 9 February 1937 in the town of Varel in Lower Saxony, Behrens pursued a career in jurisprudence before devoting herself to singing.  Initially studying voice in Freiburg, Behrens made her formal operatic debut there in 1971 as the Contessa in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, inauspiciously launching an important career in dramatic roles with success in Mozart.  Following further acclaimed performances in Freiburg, Behrens was invited to join the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf, where she gradually progressed to larger, more dramatic roles, culminating with Marie in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, a role with which she remains associated.

It was while rehearsing Wozzeck in Düsseldorf that Behrens first encountered the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, the galvanizing force behind the developments and destructions of several noteworthy operatic careers.  Impressed by Behrens’ Marie, Karajan invited her to Berlin to audition for the 1977 Salzburg Festival production of Strauss’ Salome.  Rewarded with the title role, Behrens enjoyed a triumph at Salzburg and took her success into the recording studio.  Behrens’ Salome on EMI, with Karajan stalwarts José van Dam and Agnes Baltsa as Jochanaan and Herodias, remains after more than thirty years one of the finest entries in the opera’s competitive discography.

In the meantime, Behrens made her formal debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on 15 October 1976 as Giorgetta in Puccini’s Il Tabarro, part of a complete performance of Il Trittico in which Neil Shicoff also made his MET debut (as Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi).  [Behrens had first appeared at the MET two weeks earlier, on 1 October, in a ‘MET Marathon’ gala concert in which she sang Elisabeth’s ‘Dich teure Halle’ from Tannhäuser.]  A further 169 performances followed during the next two decades, ranging from Mozart’s Elettra and Donna Anna and Beethoven’s Leonore, through Santuzza and Tosca, to Brünnhilde in all three of her guises, Isolde, and Berg’s Marie.  It was as Marie that Behrens bade farewell to the MET a decade ago, on 24 April 1999.

Despite myriad successes in Wagner and Strauss roles throughout the world, not least in Munich and Vienna, it is likely as the centerpiece of Otto Schenk’s legendary MET Ring Cycle – on stage, on records, and on video/DVD – that Behrens will be most  remembered, at least in Wagner repertory.  Though it might seem cruel to suggest that a singer’s interpretation of a role was largely unchanging throughout her career, in Behrens’ case this is indicative of the fact that she had thoroughly prepared the role (or, in the case of Brünnhilde, the three roles) prior to offering her interpretation to the public.  In Die Walküre, Behrens’ Brünnhilde Hildegard Behrens as Brünnhilde in the MET's Otto Schenk production of DIE WALKÜRE bounded onto the stage in the second act, the very vocal and dramatic embodiment of the young, impetuous favorite daughter of a god.  Few Brünnhildes have been more magisterial without being matronly in the Todesverkündigung, and few have expressed the girl’s heartbreak at being cast off by her father more pathetically or with greater sincerity.  In Siegfried, it is virtually impossible to name a Brünnhilde, remembering even Florence Easton, who awakened to love with greater wonder and tonal beauty.  Enduring what she perceives as shattering betrayal and sacrificing herself to union in death with her consort, Behrens’ Brünnhilde became in Götterdämmerung both the archetype and that thing she represents: the Eternal Feminine who offers herself as an instrument of redemption.  Both Nilsson and Varnay sang the three Brünnhildes with greater vocal abandon (and, to be frank, more voice), but Behrens meaningfully personified the post-modern Brünnhilde, first and always a sensitive, emotionally intense woman.

Fortunately for posterity, Behrens was recorded in most of her finest roles: Agathe in Weber’s Der Freischütz (DECCA; Kubelík), Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio (DECCA; Solti), Strauss’ Elektra (Philips; Ozawa, and Naïve; Layer) and Salome (EMI; Karajan), Wagner’s Isolde (Philips; Bernstein) and Brünnhilde (all three roles – DGG; Levine, and EMI; Sawallisch), and Berg’s Marie (DGG; Claudio Abbado).  It is my personal opinion, however, that no recording captures the essence of Behrens as a performer more thrillingly than Sir Georg Solti’s studio recording of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, in which Behrens sings the fascinatingly complicated role of the Färberin.  In this performance, Behrens’ Färberin progresses with rare eloquence and psychological directness from the petulant shrew of her first appearance to the woman who understands herself and accepts her role as the divinely-blessed procreator in the final scene.  Behrens conjures many moments of brilliant, richly touching singing, the voice responding with complete commitment to the intricacies of her interpretation and the upper register gleaming and free.  A vital component to an audience’s reaction to the Färberin is that, for all her faults, we must respect her, strive to understand her motivations, pity her, and ultimately embrace her (the role was based to an extent on Strauss’ wife Pauline, after all).  Even in the impersonal environment of the recording studio, Behrens creates a multi-dimensional character who exasperates and intoxicates but inspires genuine affection.  Such was the nature of Behrens’ artistry.

The position that Hildegard Behrens will occupy in the line of great Hochdramatische singers is a matter for debate.  What is more certain is that Behrens was for a generation of opera lovers the definitive Brünnhilde.  For me, Behrens was my first Brünnhilde, the intriguing impetus who inspired me to explore the earlier Brünnhildes of Flagstad, Traubel, Varnay, Mödl, Nilsson, and Dame Gwyneth Jones.  It is not merely sentimentality that secures for Behrens a prominent place in my affections.  Even when singing with a voice less imposing than those of many of her finest older rivals, Behrens possessed the endearing ability to aim her performances squarely at the collective hearts of her audiences, and she rarely missed her mark.  In our digital age, legacies are increasingly insignificant, but it is comforting and exciting to imagine that another magnificent voice now rings through Walhalla.

Hildegard Behrens, 1937 - 2009

16 August 2009

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Once More to the Pyramid – A Vindication of Verdi’s AIDA

Aida_Cover_Ricordi Central to the repertory of every middling and greater opera house in the world, and especially to that of the Arena di Verona, Aida is one of the pillars upon which Verdi’s legacy rests and has proved perennially popular with audiences since its first performance in Cairo on 24 December 1871. The principal roles – Aida, Amneris, Radamès, and Amonasro – have attracted all the greatest singers with voices to do them justice (and more than a few who lacked appropriate voices), and Ramfis and the King are gift-roles for basses young and old.

In essence, the plot of Aida is typical of nineteenth-century Italian Grand Opera, meaning that there will (or should) be big voices in full cry, foot-stomping choruses, overlapping love interests, melodramatic conflicts enacted in the respective singers’ upper registers, and the death of at least one of the principal players. Easy as these conventions are to parody and ridicule, particularly from a post-Wozzeck, post-Death in Venice perspective, Aida presents big-boned, red-blooded Grand Opera at its least ridiculous, with genuine dramatic tension (and it is important to note in this regard that the story, despite claims to the contrary by Sir Elton John and his Aida lyricist Tim Rice, originated with Verdi and his librettist, Antonio Ghislanzoni) integrated with musical refinement. The Prelude to Aida is as delicate and ethereally melodic as that to Traviata and indeed anticipates the Richard Strauss of Capriccio and Intermezzo. Throughout the score, Verdi composed with attention to the opportunities for each of the principals to express ideas both grandiose and intensely personal in contrasting declamatory and lyrical music. With Radamès’ ‘Celeste Aida’ and Aida’s ‘Ritorna vincitor’ and ‘O patria mia’ Verdi created three of Italian operas most enduring ‘hit tunes,’ but as with Azucena in Trovatore almost two decades earlier Verdi devoted his greatest care on his music for Amneris, who he recognized as the most interesting and important character in the opera.

In my own opera-going and –hearing experience, it has been on Amneris that my appreciation of Aida has centered. The first scene of the final act contains in the increasingly heated interview between Amneris and Radamès the finest music in the score, in my view, and one of the greatest scenes in the Verdi canon. The Judgment Scene which follows can too easily be a ‘star turn’ for an ambitious Amneris (as it was when I attended a performance of Aida at the Metropolitan Opera in 2007), but an insightful mezzo-soprano who avoids (or, at least, avoids overdoing) histrionics can legitimately steal the performance from even a very fine Aida and Radamès. Despite an honest appreciation for the music and rather more than that for the aforementioned scene for Amneris and Radamès, I nonetheless have consistently failed to see through the highly-adorned, Amazonian body of Aida in order to perceive the heart of the piece. The appeal of a well-rendered story involving an ultimately fatal love triangle is understandable, but I have thought La Forza del Destino more emotionally intense, Don Carlo more profound in its juxtaposition of public and private conflicts, Otello more resolutely passionate and moving, and Falstaff more direct and honest. A pervasive and longstanding admiration for Verdi’s music notwithstanding, Aida has somehow remained just beyond the span of my operatic peripheral affections.

Prejudices, even when based on personal convictions derived from careful study and hours of listening, are dangerously sharp arrows in the quivers of opera lovers. Such an arrow it is that I have long aimed at the considerable bulk of Aida, a legitimate target in my sights as a merely good opera masquerading as a great one. One of the most profound delights to be had from opera is encountering in some medium an impetus to reconsider one’s prejudices, whether it is exposure to a previously unknown score, re-acquaintance after a period of abstinence with a particular work or performance, or discovery of an inspired performer or performance. Having been wrong is never an admission that is easily made, but a vital aspect of the evolution of opera is the alteration of one’s perceptions. After all, Francesca Cuzzoni and Giuditta Pasta initially rejected, respectively, arias as sublime as ‘Falsa immagine’ (in Händel’s Ottone) and ‘Casta diva’ (in Bellini’s Norma): it can be safely stated that operatic posterity collectively applaud their changes of heart.

In October 1961, the Japanese broadcaster NHK recorded for broadcast on Japanese television a production of Aida conducted by Franco Capuana at Tokyo’s Bunka Kaikan concert hall (where again next month Aida will be performed, in a touring production from La Scala). The production assembled a cast that boasted native Italian singers in all of the principal roles, a relative rarity even in 1961. Long available in various audio-only releases on compact discs, as well as in video format on VHS and DVD, I recently heard for the first time the performance of 16 October, and in a real sense it was as though I was hearing Aida anew.

Basses Silvano Pagliuca and Paolo Washington are impressive as the King and Ramfis, both singing with tonal assurance and warm, Italianate tone. The King’s music is not of tremendous importance to the opera as a whole, but it is very welcome to hear it sung by a voice that does not emanate from a superannuated singer. Ramfis’ role is significant, and Paolo Washington’s singing fully honors his part in the drama. Spared a wobbly Ramfis (as far too many performances are not), the course is set for an effective, idiomatic Aida.

Thus enters Radamès, opera’s archetypal lover-warrior, sung in Tokyo by Mario del Monaco. Radamès was a staple of del Monaco’s repertoire and a role in which his unique manner of bronzed trumpeting, produced by his employment of a controversial method of singing with an artificially lowered larynx, shone to maximum advantage, the exciting squillo extending to the top B-flats of ‘Celeste Aida.’ Subtlety was not among del Monaco’s greatest strengths, but the visceral power inherent in his singing could make an imposing effect in Aida. In this performance, del Monaco was somewhat off his best form: indeed, the absolute prime of his voice was just a few years past, and softer inflections and dynamics were fewer than they had been a few years earlier. This is nonetheless a representative performance by an important singer in one of his best roles, and not Mario del Monaco as Radamès, Teatro alla Scalaeven Franco Corelli sang Radamès with the dash and abandon del Monaco displays in this performance. There is stiffness in ‘Celeste Aida,’ but Verdi must surely accept some responsibility for that: the placement of a character’s only aria ( and, at that, one of the most famous arias in Italian opera) within moments of his first entrance has earned the composer countless curses from tenors. The hurdle of the aria successfully cleared, del Monaco settles into a trajectory of increasing dramatic intensity as he encounters first Amneris, then Aida, and finally Amonasro. In the final Tomb Scene it is possible to long for a somewhat less full-throated approach, but del Monaco avoids the roaring heard from some tenors – and also the falsetto purring of some tenors determined to ‘go gentle into that good night.’ In Radamès final-act encounter with Amneris, del Monaco’s singing exudes precisely the sort of clenched-fists, masculine exasperation demanded by the music. Though in a general sense this is not del Monaco at his best, this is unquestionably a very fine performance of Radamès.

Aldo Protti is a singer to whom his career was perhaps kinder than has been the skewed hindsight of posterity. A long-serving baritone valued in Italy for his consistency and reliability, Protti was a contemporary of Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Tito Gobbi, and Ettore Bastianini, these last being far more familiar names to twenty-first century opera lovers (and record buyers). Protti’s work was not overlooked by European opera companies and important record labels, though, and the notion that Protti was not an artist of the order of Gobbi or Warren should not suggest that his career was second-rate. In fact, Protti possessed a baritone voice of ample proportions, the tone steady and rounded in the manner required for successful assumption of Verdi’s towering baritone roles, especially Rigoletto, Amonasro, and Iago. Evidence suggests that what Protti lacked was the individuality brought to the task of singing by artists like Gobbi and Giuseppe Taddei. The Amonasro preserved in this Tokyo Aida nonetheless is the work of an excellent singer at the height of his powers. Aldo Protti as Rigoletto, Teatro alla ScalaEven baritones who are greater ‘artists’ than Protti often portray Amonasro as a frustratingly one-dimensional figure, with either tenderness or menace to the fore. In Protti’s performance, Amonasro is both a loving father, the moments of paternal concern for Aida being very beautifully done, and a fiercely proud king determined to have bloody revenge. Rarely among performances of the role, Amonasro’s moments of dramatic stress do not equate in Protti’s performance to stretches of vocal stress: Protti has the measure of the part within his grasp and is never caught out scrambling for notes or clutching at cheap effects. The formidable arcs of the Nile Scene are spanned with barrel-chested ease, and the gloating victor who ensnares Radamès in his treasonous trap is genuinely frightening without resorting to snarling or ugly tone. Those interested in operatic esoterica are fond of stating that this or that overlooked, underappreciated, or forgotten singer would be a great star were he or she singing now. To make such a statement about Protti would trivialize the success and significance of his four-decade career, but hearing this Amonasro gives cause to re-examine Protti’s work.

Hearing Giulietta Simionato as Amneris is the musical equivalent of viewing canvases by Velázquez at the Prado: there is the indescribable validation of encountering the work of a great artist in precisely the setting in which it is most radiant. Simionato was only five years away from curtailing her career at the time of this Tokyo Aida, but her years of service are audible only in the complete authority she brings to the performance. With a plethora of recorded performances available, Simionato’s Amneris is a known quantity, the quality of which was extraordinarily unchanging throughout her career. Simionato’s Amneris in this performance finds the great singer at the summit of her art, fully revealing both the regal demeanor of the jiltGiulietta Simionato as Amnerised daughter of Pharaoh and the vulnerability of a woman very much in love. Power is the means by which Simionato’s Amneris reacts to her thwarted affections rather than the target at which she aims: this Amneris is a lioness thirsty for blood, but her rage is born of a perilously deep wound made palpable to the listener by Simionato’s singing in the final act. In the crucial Judgment Scene, Simionato rises to tragic grandeur by singing with anguished poise, the voice very beautiful despite the intensity of the music. It is easy to sense beneath the evenness of Simionato’s singing the heart of Amneris beating wildly, her emotions collapsing on themselves as she perceives the inevitability of Radamès’ condemnation. The full weight of the woman whose lover must go to his death crashes down on Amneris at once, and in Simionato’s performance the listener too endures this agony. Thrilling and moving in equal measures, Simionato’s performance is a remarkable example of the artistry of one of the twentieth century’s finest singers and an Amneris that rewards Verdi’s faith in the impact of the role.

Aida has been sung by many of the finest and most celebrated sopranos in the years since the opera’s creation: Arangi-Lombardi and Milanov, Callas and Tebaldi, Leontyne Price and Martina Arroyo, and Dame Gwyneth Jones and Rita Hunter. Each of these singers brought special qualities to Aida, and lovers of Aida and of individual singers debate at infinite length and with oversized passions the matter of which of these (and countless others) was the finest Aida. In many ways, Aida is the quintessential soprano role in that she requires emotional involvement, an uncompromised gift for ensemble singing, and the full two octaves of the soprano range extending to a mercilessly exposed top C in ‘O patria mia.’ Aida is also a role in which merely great singing is not a guarantee of success. It must be stated, however, that great singing in Aida’s music is a sadly rare commodity, especially in twenty-first century performances. Perhaps the most glowing – and least expected – success of this Tokyo Aida is the performance of the title role by Gabriella Tucci, a soprano remembered as a largely utilitarian singer with a pair of much-discussed recordings to her credit. Tucci was a versatile singer with an upper register extending to E-flat in alt for Gabriella Tuccibel canto roles such as Elvira in Bellini’s Puritani and Verdi’s Gilda. As captured by studio microphones, the voice seems expansive but not particularly large, with a slightly fluttery vibrato that brings to mind several famous Spanish singers. NHK’s microphones reveal the full richness and vibrancy of Tucci’s voice, however, the security of her tone and technique expanding into every bar of Aida’s music. Simply put, Tucci is a magnificent – and, for me, revelatory – Aida. From her first entrance, Tucci’s Aida displays the same ambiguity Simionato brought to Amneris, both a royal personage and a woman wholly in the throes of love. Vocally, the accuracy and attractiveness of Tucci’s singing are astonishing considering the circumstances of a staged performance. Dramatically, Tucci suffers nothing from comparisons with her more famous rivals and improves upon the work of most of them owing simply to her innate understanding of the organic progressions of the vocal lines and idiomatic sincerity. This is an Aida who wears her heart on her sleeve, so to speak, without condescending to the notion of expressing the most delicate emotions in music of grand proportions. As such, Tucci proves the rare Aida who completely earns the distinction of being the opera’s name-part, a woman who is the center of the drama rather than a guileless victim of it. Tucci’s Aida is a performance that cannot have been oft equaled before or since.

A central theme of Aida explored by Verdi is the dichotomy that exists with Aida and Amneris. The conflict that seizes them and alters the course of Aida’s destiny stems not from their differences but from their similarities, a fact that Verdi understood completely. It is not merely a matter of two women loving the same man, for that is common enough as much in everyday life as in opera. Amneris is an heiress of the royal house whose love is oppressed by circumstance: Aida is a woman in love whose royalty is undermined by misfortune. It has been a lack of audible comprehension of the significance of this ambiguity that has impeded my surrender to the power of Aida. Singers committed to their art and to the roles at hand, Simionato and Tucci understood that complex feats of acting were not required in order to make Aida relevant. As with all the greatest operas, everything that must be said is in the music. Simionato’s Amneris and Tucci’s Aida sing as though their lives depend upon every utterance. Simple as it seems but elusive as it is, this is the poignant epicenter of Aida. Hearing Simionato’s spent, broken Amneris praying for peace as the voice of Tucci’s martyred Aida soars to heaven, I finally sensed in a long-delayed catharsis why so many tears have blurred views of painted pyramids.