21 December 2009


Geraldine Farrar as Suor Angelica and Flora Perini as the Zia Principessa in the world premiere of Puccini's SUOR ANGELICA [Photo by White Studio]

Among composers who applied their talents to the quest for glory in the opera house, there are few who did not produce works, whether juvenilia or simply troublesome or uninspired, that they later preferred to ignore or deny.  Mozart, for instance, was little concerned during his work with Lorenzo da Ponte in the 1780’s with the pre-Idomeneo Italian operas of his earlier career, and despite noting the remarkable achievements represented by these scores as works of an uncommonly prodigious youth later audiences and musicologists have largely validated Mozart’s neglect of these operas.  Far rarer, however, are instances in which a score greatly prized by its composer is, though met with a measure of success, ultimately dismissed by critics and public alike, whether on dramatic or musical grounds.  In these cases, questions are invariably raised concerning the integrity of the affected composers’ instincts.  How is a situation in which a composer dearly loves a score at which ‘serious’ musicians and music lovers snicker to be interpreted?  Can the musical sensibilities of a composer whose sentimentality fosters lasting affection for an otherwise derided score be trusted?  Giacomo Puccini having held the score dearest among his creations notwithstanding, Suor Angelica remains almost a century after its premiere a divisive and, to many opera lovers, embarrassing work.

Geraldine Farrar as Suor Angelica [Photo by White Studio]

Even in the wake of its world premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on 14 December 1918, with a cast that included Geraldine Farrar as Angelica and Flora Perini as the Zia Principessa, Suor Angelica was a much-debated opera.  Critic W.J. Henderson wrote of the score in The Evening Sun that the music ‘is almost always metronomic, dull, drilling upon its theme with the persistence of a dentist at a tooth.  There is no blood or bone to it, no strength to uphold the…concept.’  Mr. Henderson went on to praise Geraldine Farrar for providing, through dignified acting and imperfect singing, ‘what good impression the short tragedy made.’  Other contemporary critics likewise focused their notices on the strengths of Miss Farrar’s performance rather than on the score itself, while receiving mostly positively the verismo blood and thunder of Il Tabarro and the vaudevillian comedy of Gianni Schicchi, Suor Angelica’s companion pieces in Il Trittico.  It was decided almost immediately that Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi functioned better without what Mr. Henderson called the central ‘andante,’ Suor Angelica.  In the ninety-one years since its first night at the MET, Suor Angelica has received (through the Saturday matinee performance on 12 December 2009) seventy-four performances at the MET, all of them in complete presentations of Il Trittico: Gianni Schicchi has been performed 138 times, while La Bohème received its 1,208th MET outing on 10 January 2009 (it returns to the MET’s repertory for nine more performances in spring 2010).  The sopranos who have sung Angelica at the MET form an exclusive sorority: following Miss Farrar, Gilda Cruz-Romo, Teresa Zylis-Gara, Renata Scotto, Teresa Stratas, Diana Soviero, Barbara Frittoli, and Patricia Racette.

Barbara Frittoli as Suor Angelica in Jack O'Brien's 2007 MET production [Photo by Ken Howard]

The gestation of Il Trittico and of Suor Angelica in particular was difficult.  Based upon Puccini’s correspondence with his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, it is surmised that Puccini began considering composing a triptych of one-act operas as early as 1904, following the great success of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890) and the premieres of his own Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904).  With commitments to New York for La Fanciulla del West (1910) and Vienna for La Rondine (1917; the premiere took place in Monte Carlo due to World War I), Puccini’s diary was consumed even without the distractions of the lingering effects of a near-fatal automobile accident suffered in 1903 and the 1909 scandal resulting from his wife’s wrongful accusations of adultery against their maid, the maid’s subsequent suicide, and a successful and much-publicized lawsuit brought against Puccini’s wife by the maid’s family.  Moreover, the death of Ricordi in 1912 brought Puccini’s work to a virtual halt.  Puccini worked at his Trittico, however, freed from Ricordi’s objections to the nature of the composition.  The disruption of all aspects of European life by WWI made a Continental premiere for Trittico virtually impossible, so when the success (ensured by the participation of Emmy Destinn, Enrico Caruso, and Pasquale Amato, with Arturo Toscanini conducting) of Fanciulla del West led the MET to accept the work, Puccini agreed to the New York premiere.  The composer was keen from the start that Trittico should be performed complete (that is, with all three operas in place and in the designated sequence) and was appalled by the notion that any of the Trittico operas should be extracted and performed alongside the works of other composers.

Puccini expressed on many occasions, including to Giovacchino Forzano (his librettist for Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi), that Suor Angelica was his favorite not only of the Trittico operas but among all his works to date.  As he composed Suor Angelica, Puccini drew upon his family’s long tradition as composers of liturgical music in his hometown of Lucca, as well as further exploring the vein of the dichotomy inherent in affairs of church and individual that he had tapped so memorably in Tosca.  Puccini was closely acquainted with monastic life, his sister Iginia having been resident for forty years at the time at which he was composing Suor Angelica at the Augustinian convent at Vicopelago.  Puccini often visited his sister, who eventually became Prioress, and made a gift of a harmonium (still in use) to the convent.  The oft-told story of Puccini playing the score of Suor Angelica to his sister (who was known in her order as Suor Giulia Enrichetta) and her community at the convent, most of whom were moved to tears by the music, is perhaps apocryphal, but it is certain that Puccini brought first-hand knowledge and genuine respect to his operatic depiction of convent life.

the Monastero della Visitazione di Vicopelago, where Puccini's sister Iginia was an Augustinian Prioress

Both musically and dramatically, it has often been suggested that Suor Angelica is too saccharine to be taken seriously.  Without question, the presentation of miraculous redemption in the final scene (surely envisioned by Puccini as a profoundly moving coup de théâtre) both exploits the theme of maternal love that was at the heart of the final act of Madama Butterfly and defies logic and Roman Catholic dogma.  Even looking beyond the obvious parallels with Massenet’s 1902 Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, however, this is not an infrequent theme in opera.  The self-sacrificial Senta is the instrument of presumed (and equally implausible) redemption in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer, and his Brünnhilde – a deeply-flawed woman – ends the Ring with a similar sacrifice that not only redeems errant mankind but also restores natural order and severs the bonds between men and corrupt, philandering gods.  To consider Angelica only among her Puccini brethren, there is also Tosca, another deeply faithful woman forced by circumstance to sin and suicide.  Despite her crimes, Tosca’s final cry of ‘O Scarpia, avanti a dio!’ suggests that she anticipates at least having the opportunity to plead her case before the Divine Judgment: damnation is not a forgone conclusion.

In a sense, Angelica might be viewed as a synthesis of Puccinian and Wagnerian womanhood.  What if, like Sieglinde in Die Walküre, Tosca had learned as she prepared for her fatal jump from the parapet that, unmarried and already an unwilling murderess, she was expecting Cavaradossi’s child?  Might not the religious Tosca, prolific in her adoration of the Madonna, have taken refuge in a religious order following the birth of her unfortunate child, too damaged to be a proper mother to her child but too connected to abandon him through death?  Pursuing this idea, perhaps the Zia Principessa is Puccini’s Fricka, the stern representative of the ‘proper’ family for whom preservation of traditional order trumps compassion.  It has been said that Puccini’s depiction of Angelica’s salvation is grotesque in its sickly effort at inspiring tears and disregard for the Catholic implications of her suicide.  Does not Wagner make it implicit in the closing bars of Götterdämmerung by prominently restating the motif to which Sieglinde – perpetrator of incestuous adultery and intended suicide – sang ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ that she, perhaps more meaningfully than Brünnhilde, has been the instrument of redemption by sacrificing her happiness and finally her life for her child?  Almost any scholar would argue that Wagner’s music in Götterdämmerung is more sophisticated, more important than Puccini’s in the final scene of Suor Angelica, but can it be said to be more heartfelt?

Sincerity is at the heart of Suor Angelica.  By all accounts, Puccini was not a religious man, but there is not in Suor Angelica even the slightest hint of parody (as is decidedly not the case in Tosca).  Much has been made of the incongruity of a nun, the participant in a life dedicated to contemplation of Scripture, achieving salvation after commission of the mortal sin of suicide.  The Church is respected, even venerated through subtle suggestions of mysticism, in Suor Angelica, but Puccini’s emphasis is laid unquestionably on Angelica as a woman, as an individual rather than an anonymous portion of a cloistered whole.  When Angelica rejects the notion that she still harbors connections with the world outside her convent, the other Sisters mutter their disagreement as if to reiterate that, for all her piety and surrender to the uniformity of her monastic community, Angelica remains an individual.  To some extent, this is an inversion of Butterfly’s rejection by her family when she adopts Christian beliefs in order to conform with her new husband’s lifestyle.  For Angelica, inclusion in her monastic sisterhood resulted from exclusion from her own family: as with Butterfly, exclusion from the comfortable family unit intensifies the connection with her child, all the more pitifully in Angelica’s case as she only has conjured images of a child she has not seen since his infancy.  Puccini does not attempt psychological profundity in his portrayal of Angelica’s grief, focusing instead on the emotional impact of her receipt of the news of her child’s death.  Puccini nonetheless avoids even marginally portraying the convent (or, by association, faith) as restrictive: oppression enters the opera with the Zia Principessa and, after her departure, remains only in the form of Angelica’s grief.  Throughout the opera, there is no artifice in Puccini’s depictions of Angelica’s suffering.  Her repentance in the final scene is genuine, and salvation is her reward.  It is what might be called an ‘artist’s rendering’ of Providence rather than an ecclesiastical depiction, but it is not effacingly cloying.

Austrian/Croatian soprano Sena Jurinac as Suor Angelica at La Scala

Musically, it is not difficult to underestimate the sophistication of Puccini’s score.  Though both Suor Genovieffa (in her recollection of her Arcadian pursuits prior to entering the convent) and the Zia Principessa (in her exhortation to penance) enjoy prolonged, subtly-developed melodic lines, the only true aria in Suor Angelica is the heroine’s ‘Senza mamma,’ the mother’s formidable lament – requiring ascents to exposed top A’s not unlike the climax of Butterfly’s famous ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ – upon learning from her aunt of her son’s death.  It cannot be denied that Puccini’s efforts at tone-painting are sometimes inconsistent and amusingly literal (the braying of donkeys as the alms sisters approach in Suor Angelica being a typical example) and that there are instances throughout his scores of motivic devices that are strange and inappropriate (of which the recurrence of Colline’s ‘Vecchia zimarra’ in the final bars of La Bohème can be cited).  Puccini’s use of musical symbolism was more careful in Suor Angelica, however.  The prevailing motif is that of flowers, which under Angelica’s care adorn both the paths of the living and the graves of the dead, bring relief to the ill, and finally grant Angelica release from life.  Metaphorically, flowers might be interpreted as extensions of faith in their inherent incarnation of the Biblical notions of sewing and reaping and also as representations of the metaphysical Trinity of life, death, and resurrection.  Puccini avoids overloading his musical depictions of the flowers that are crucial to Angelica’s existence within the convent with effects that distort the focus of the music.  Instead, the score depicts Angelica’s perceptions of her flowers, the woodwinds in the opera’s first scene expressing the wonder Angelica feels as she supervises the growth of her charges.  Later, as she prepares the herbal instrument of her death, Angelica’s agitation is calmed by the comforting presence of her floral escape, conveyed by the strings.  It might be argued in this regard that the compactness of Suor Angelica is very much in its favor: there is little opportunity, in the opera’s fifty or so minutes, for either extravagances or shortcomings.  Puccini’s caution with the tonal palette in Suor Angelica rendered a score that depicts his heroine’s increasingly inexorable fate without imposing on it unwarranted grandeur or obvious social commentary.  The delicacy of the scoring, even in moments of greatest emotional (and tonal) catharsis, emphasizes the sincerity of Puccini’s approach.

Often regarded as a poor companion to her sisters among the heroines of Puccini’s mature operas, Suor Angelica is nonetheless perhaps the most dramatically honest of Puccini’s creations.  It might be argued that the melodramatic trials depicted by Puccini in other operas were already in Angelica’s past: Puccini encountered her as she commenced her ‘end game,’ when all that remained for her was to lose her one connection with human existence, necessitating a directness that was not required of his maidens whose stories are told over three or four acts.  The collective cognoscenti scoff at those who weep for Angelica as she is miraculously reunited with her son and at Puccini for having devoted his art to telling her story.  Were it obvious that Puccini’s affection for Suor Angelica was based solely in sentimentality, a measure of contempt might be justified.  His heart having been engaged so genuinely, though, Puccini produced a score that, for all its supposed flaws, applies an impressionistic array of pastel colors to a black-and-white tale of suffering, loss, and salvation.  When the music is as beautiful as it often is in Suor Angelica, is it so wrong for us to remember those we have loved who have gone wrong but pursued hope to redemption and to shed a tear for a nun who, like the Blessed Mother she venerates, follows her son to heaven?

Patricia Racette as Suor Angelica at the Metropolitan Opera [Photo by Ken Howard]

09 December 2009

ARTIST PROFILE: Tyler Duncan, baritone

Tyler Duncan, baritone

The approach of the end of a year is a time conducive to reflection, to evaluating all aspects of life, giving thanks for things gained and remembering things lost.  The arts community, as any other sector of society, has suffered much during 2009, with institutions throughout the world struggling with the repercussions of the global recession.  Cuts in subsidies, eroding endowments, and the loss of support from patrons facing their own individual economic debacles have led to staff reductions, abbreviated or cancelled seasons, and the disruption of programs.  2009 has likewise brought sadness with the passing of many much-lauded, much-loved artists.  Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Art, however, is its ability to endure despair by if not being at least conjuring what Emily Dickinson called ‘the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.’  Music transcends adversity by supplying, in a sense, an eternal source of optimism, assimilating all the sorrows of the past in a voice that sounds in the present and reverberates into the future, that (as again Emily Dickinson wrote) ‘sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.’

Vital to the renewing spirit of music is the emergence of young artists who, honoring and absorbing the traditions of previous generations, reveal anew the hypnotic power of song.  There are musical works so perennially alluring or finely-crafted that they survive without lasting damage prolonged periods of artistic drought, but even the most sublime scores are refreshed by the work of committed, insightful artists.  Every successive generation of singers must face the suspicions of a community that, in many cases, clings to the past, longing for the restoration of a just-within-the-reaches-of-memory Golden Age when, as has often been stated, there were real voices.  Nevertheless, the finest voices of any age are evident to those who hear them, and new facets of singing are revealed.

Many of the ‘new’ facets of singing revealed to audiences during the past quarter-century have, somewhat ironically, been among the earliest jewels of the operatic genre.  Returning to the music of Monteverdi, Cavalli, Händel, Vivaldi, and their contemporaries has created hosts of opportunities for young artists.  Thankfully, the efforts of many younger artists in Early repertory have also lessened the divisive impact of the work of many early Baroque-specialist pioneers: the most exceptional singers of the past twenty-five years have provided compelling evidence that the works of Bach, Berlioz, Berg, and Britten can be sung beautifully and expressively by a single voice.  One of the finest of those adventurous single voices belongs to Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan, an artist as comfortable vocally and dramatically in Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers or a Bach cantata as in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro or Mendelssohn’s Elias.

Born in British Columbia, Mr. Duncan began his studies at Vancouver Community College as a jazz singer.  The transition to classical music was born, in part, of circumstance.  ‘I really wanted to sing but couldn’t get regular voice lessons,’ Mr. Duncan recollects, ‘so [I] switched to classical singing, and that was that.’  This change of emphasis led him to formal vocal studies at the University of British Columbia.  ‘UBC was a place that let me develop at my own pace,’ he says.  Under the tutelage of James Fankhauser and David Meek in voice and Rena Sharon in song interpretation, Mr. Duncan started to shape his career.  ‘I wasn’t involved in that much opera, but focused on song and oratorio [repertory] until my voice was able to handle the “bigger stuff,”’ Mr. Duncan recalls.  His attention to Lieder repertory was rewarded with several prestigious honors, including Third Prize in the 2005 Walter W. Naumburg Foundation Voice Competition (in which Mr. Duncan joined a roster of celebrated prize-winners including Shirley Verrett, Barbara Hendricks, Dawn Upshaw, and fellow Canadian Lois Marshall), a prize from the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation Song Competition, and Third Prize in the 2003 ARD International Music Competition (previously won by Jessye Norman, Francisco Araiza, and Thomas Quasthoff).

Mr. Duncan is conscious of the fact that defining the ‘bigger stuff’ to which he referred can be difficult.  ‘I have always been careful not to take on things that were too vocally taxing for me at a young age,’ he states.  ‘That being said, a song recital can be more taxing emotionally and vocally than many operas, and I tried to do as many of those as I could.’  Among artists whose work strengthened Mr. Duncan’s affection for Lieder repertory, the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – celebrated throughout his long career for championing German Lieder in recitals and dozens of recordings – looms large.  ‘My first huge inspiration came from the vast library of Fischer-Dieskau recordings in the library at UBC.  Something in me was very drawn to this repertoire,’ he muses.  Mr. Duncan also cites as an early influence on his perceptions of singing the work of Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.  ‘I had the opportunity to hear him live in recital several times in Vancouver.  His ability to word-paint in both operatic and song repertoire is one of the things that I love in his singing.’

Participation in a masterclass with the acclaimed Dutch soprano Elly Ameling at the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme in Aldeburgh led to invitations for Mr. Duncan to take part in the 1999 and 2001 sessions of the Franz-Schubert-Institut in Baden bei Wien, focusing on Lieder interpretation by studying with such renowned artists as Madame Ameling, Helmut Deutsch, Hans Hotter, Rudolf Jansen, and Robert Tear.  Whilst continuing his studies in Germany, Mr. Duncan also enjoyed opportunities to work with the remarkable German mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender and his legendary predecessor in Lieder repertory, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Tyler Duncan performing in the final concert of the 2001 Franz-Schubert-Institut in Baden bei Wien, Austria

As his career has expanded to include work in both opera and oratorio, Mr. Duncan has pursued a goal of using singing as an intensified means of communication.  ‘Making a text understood through singing in a way that connects with your audience’ is, in his view, the most important aspect of an artist’s endeavors.  This focus on communication not only facilitates deeper interaction with both music and audiences but can also allow a measure of freedom in overcoming the difficulties of particular scores or productions.  Mr. Duncan says, ‘I think if you are true to the text and your interpretation of it, and your technique is solid, you will be heard and you will be seen.  I enjoy both traditional and modern adaptations in opera.  What I don’t enjoy is a gimmick, when a director has one little Idea and builds an entire staging around it. What’s even worse is any production, be it modern or traditional, that doesn’t stay true to the music.’  This applies, to some extent, to singers, as well, he suggests.  ‘Be yourself: you are enough.’

Mr. Duncan has already enjoyed collaborations with many fine conductors (Kent Nagano), ensembles (Montréal Symphony, Philharmonia Baroque, Toronto Symphony, and Tragicomedia), and institutions (Berkshire Choral Festival, Boston Early Music Festival, Halle Händel Festival, and Princeton Festival), and it is within the context of collaborations that he measures the success of his career to date and looks to the future.  ‘I have a long list of conductors, directors and companies I would love to sing for,’ Mr. Duncan says.  ‘I’m hoping that as my voice grows I won’t lose the ability to cover a very broad spectrum of repertoire that includes modern, Romantic, Baroque, and music of all eras.  My goal is to never lose the lyric side of my singing.  One must, of course, sing what fits the voice, and not make the voice fit to what it is not destined for.’  Mr. Duncan launches 2010 with performances that pursue his goal of maintaining flexibility: Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers in New York and Venice, Bach’s cantata ‘Ich habe genug’ (BWV 82) with Toronto’s Tafelmusik, Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten in Calgary and Houston, Vaughan-Williams’ Five Mystical Songs with Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall, and Bach’s Matthäus-Passion in Amsterdam and Johannes-Passion at the Baldwin Wallace Bach Festival in Ohio.  His recordings due for release include works by Purcell and Giacomo Carissimi’s oratorio Jepthe on the ATMA label and John Blow’s Venus and Adonis on cpo, a souvenir of the acclaimed 2008 Boston Early Music Festival Production.

 Tyler Duncan (Adonis) and Amanda Forsythe (Venus) in BEMF's production of Blow's VENUS AND ADONIS [Photo by David Walker]

As with virtually all artists of the highest caliber, it is evident in Mr. Duncan’s work that singing is, for him, far more than a profession for which he was suited by natural gifts.  ‘I can’t believe I get to do this for a living and meet such wonderful people,’ he says, one of those wonderful people he has encountered in his career to date being his wife, pianist Erika Switzer.  ‘I do enjoy putting singing away when I’m at home and enjoying some down time, reminding my wife to smell the roses once in a while (all this after practicing, of course), [but] I hope that this is only the beginning.’

The dramatic alertness and sharp but never distracting stage presence that Mr. Duncan brings to his work suggest that the success he has enjoyed in his career thus far is indeed only the beginning.  Built around a solid core, his tone possesses both richness and thrust, qualities that enable him to perform his wide-ranging repertory with integrity.  His pointed diction and commitment to Lieder repertory have already brought comparisons with Fischer-Dieskau, but Mr. Duncan’s timbre is darker, with subtler overtones, and his technique more agile than those of his famous predecessor.  This flexibility allied with the beauty and reach of his voice make Mr. Duncan’s mastery of the Verdi baritone repertory seem certain.

In her aria ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ (‘I lived for art, I lived for love’), Puccini’s Tosca expresses an idealized artist’s creed.  In expressing his own views of the nature of his career, Mr. Duncan says, ‘Art, health, and love are as essential in life as air.  When a piece of the pie is missing, we just don’t function properly.’  Mr. Duncan’s performances combine art, the audible health of the voice, and an obvious love for singing; an impressive recipe prepared by a young artist fully in command of his gifts.

Tyler Duncan with his wife, pianist Erika Switzer

Special thanks are extended to Mr. Duncan for his kind contributions to this article and for use of his photographs.

Click here to visit Mr. Duncan’s official website.

Tyler Duncan is represented in North America by Matthew Sprizzo and in Europe by Erika Esslinger (Germany) and Ariëtte F.C. Drost (Netherlands).

01 December 2009

IN MEMORIAM: Helen Watts, CBE, Welsh contralto (7 December 1927 – 7 October 2009)

Helen Watts, CBE, Welsh contralto (1927 - 2009)

In an age in which momentary success can be propelled by relentless media coverage into instant stardom, the work of superb artists can be easily overlooked simply because their careers are focused on quietly pursuing the goals for which they were trained, seeking the fulfillment of achievements won through fastidious study and hard work.  The virtue of reliability, a rarity not merely among artists but among collective humanity, is seldom the calling-card of a famous singer.  It is, however, the cornerstone upon which the foundations of genuinely great singers’ legacies are laid.

With the passing of Helen Watts, CBE, on 7 October, the British musical establishment lost one of its most reliable singers, though she had been in retirement since 1985.  The broader musical firmament lost a wonderful artist, and three generations of the record-buying public lost a trusted, beloved friend upon whom they knew they could rely for beautiful, touching singing no matter which composer’s name was on the record’s cover.

Ms. Watts was born in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, Wales, the daughter of a pharmacist.  Despite early signs of musical gifts, Ms. Watts’ goal was to pursue a career in psychotherapy.  She nonetheless enrolled at the Royal Academy of Music and joined both the BBC Singers and the chorus of the Glyndebourne Festival.  She enjoyed an early success in a 1953 concert performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice: impressed by her singing as Orfeo, the Welsh conductor Geraint Jones recommended Ms. Watts to Sir Malcolm Sargent, who engaged her to sing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach during the 1955 Proms.  During her career, she would return to sing at the Proms a further twenty-five years, taking on repertory ranging from Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner to Britten, Tippett, and Schoenberg.

Versatility was a defining characteristic of Ms. Watts’ operatic and concert work, both on stage and in the recording studio.  She made her debut with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in 1965 as the First Maid in Richard Strauss’ Elektra, a role she had sung in Salzburg the previous year at Herbert von Karajan’s invitation.  Ms. Watts’ tenure at Covent Garden encompassed roles as diverse as Erda in Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Siegfried, Mrs. Sedley in Britten’s Peter Grimes, and Sosostris in Sir Michael Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage, a role in which she excelled in the house and on records.  Under the direction of Raymond Leppard, Ms. Watts sang Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea for Scottish Opera.  She also enjoyed great success at the 1971 Salzburg Festival in the castrato role of Farnace in Mozart’s Mitridate.  She triumphantly returned to her native land in 1969 to sing Mistress Quickly opposite the Falstaff of fellow Welshman Sir Geraint Evans for Welsh National Opera.  Ms. Watts maintained a concert repertory that was equally vast, singing well-received recitals and concerts that included a still-discussed 1970 performance of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder at Carnegie Hall with Sir Georg Solti.

Ms. Watts inherited the mantel of a prestigious tradition of British contralto singing that produced Dame Clara Butt, Kathleen Ferrier, and Gladys Ripley.  Both Ferrier and Ripley died just as Ms. Watts’ career was beginning, creating a void that she filled with artistic integrity and confident dignity.  Naturally for a British singer of her generation, the music of Benjamin Britten was central to Ms. Watts’ career.  She sang in the British premiere of the Cantata Academica and memorably sang both Spring Symphony and the title role in The Rape of Lucretia (in which she alternated during a 1964 tour of the Soviet Union with the young Dame Janet Baker, under the composer’s direction).  The music of Sir Edward Elgar was likewise prominent in Ms. Watts’ repertory: her recording of the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius set a lasting standard despite formidable competition.

It is perhaps in the music of Händel that Ms. Watts proved most memorable, however.  She joined the ranks of the Handel Opera Society in 1958, first singing Didymus in Theodora and Juno in Semele before taking the title role in Rinaldo.  On records, Ms. Watts was the Händelian par excellence of her generation, having recorded Messiah four times (the most celebrated of these recordings being the Philips set with Sir Colin Davis, though she was in equally good voice and perhaps even more touching for Raymond Leppard on ERATO) and contributed to L’Oiseau Lyre’s groundbreaking recording of Sosarme a superb performance of the role of Melo that towers over that of Sir Alfred Deller in the name-part.  Ms. Watts finest achievement in Händel repertory is likely her performance of David in a 1962 Vienna performance of Saul conducted by Møgens Wöldike, recorded in concert, in which she sang David’s lament for Jonathan (‘O Jonathan!  How nobly didst thou die’) with profundity, dolorous but beautiful tone, and palpable emotional engagement that have never been equaled by any other David on records, male or female.

Ms. Watts was awarded the Commander of the British Empire distinction in 1978 in recognition of her service to British music.  Her husband, violist Michael Mitchell, died in 2007.

Few artists have contributed so significantly to the musical life of a nation or amassed so considerable a discography with the grace and unpretentiousness Ms. Watts brought to her work.  Much of her career traced the path that led from performing traditions inherited from the nineteenth century to the ‘historically-informed’ practices of the last decades of the twentieth century, spanning just in her Bach performances the approaches of successive generations of conductors from Sir Malcolm Sargent to Helmuth Rilling.  It might be argued that, from a musicological perspective, unparalleled progress was made during the course of Ms. Watts’ career in the realization of Baroque music as its composers presumably conceived it.  That, a half-century after many of her recordings were made, listeners return – not just sentimentally but sure of the bountiful musical rewards – to Ms. Watts’ performances confirms that, however much practices and conceptions of how certain repertory should be performed change, the true style of any music is found in the commitment with which it is sung.  Helen Watts understood this instinctively and dedicated herself wholeheartedly to every score that was placed before her.  What an invaluable virtue this reliability truly was.

Cover of the original Philips LP edition of Sir Colin Davis' recording of MESSIAH, featuring Helen Watts