03 December 2010

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini – STABAT MATER (A. Netrebko, J. DiDonato, L. Brownlee, I. D’Arcangelo; EMI 6 40529 2)


Rossini - Stabat Mater [EMI 6 40529 2]

GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Stabat Mater for Soloists, Choir, and Orchestra – A. Netrebko (soprano), J. DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), L. Brownlee (tenor), I. D’Arcangelo (bass); Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; Antonio Pappano [recorded in Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, 20 – 23 July 2010; EMI 6 40529 2]

When Rossini completed Guillaume Tell, his final opera, in 1829, he was in the thirty-eighth year of a life that would extend for seventy-six years.  Compared with the scores of its composer’s youth, Guillaume Tell was virtually a revolutionary score: running for more than four hours without cuts, the opera was typically Rossinian—which is to say Italianate—in its melodic grace and flamboyant orchestration, but the French Grand Opera of Meyerbeer and Halévy was equally in evidence in the music.  Perhaps sensing the transition in Italian music from bel canto to the Romanticism that would hold sway by the middle of the Nineteenth Century—the premiere of Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, was only a decade in the future at the time at which Rossini was composing Guillaume Tell,—the composer of Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Tancredi, pinnacles of their genres, ceded the field to his younger colleagues, principally Bellini and Donizetti.  From the time of the first production of Guillaume Tell in 1829 until his death in 1868, Rossini composed no more operas.

It was early in this self-imposed retirement, however, that Rossini began composition of his Stabat Mater, a setting of the Thirteenth-Century versified evocation of the sorrow of the Virgin Mary as she observes the crucifixion of Christ.  Drawing inspired settings from both Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Joseph Haydn, and even Schubert, the Stabat Mater commanded an influence in liturgical music that was propelled through the Nineteenth Century by settings by Rossini, Verdi, and Dvořák.  Commissioned in 1831 by an official of the Spanish government to compose his setting of the verses, Rossini set to work almost at once but was ultimately prevented by illness from completing the score in fulfillment of the commission.  At Rossini’s request, the Italian composer Giuseppe Tadolini (husband of Eugenia Tadolini, one of Donizetti’s favorite sopranos) completed the score, and it was in this composite version that the work was first performed in Madrid in 1833.  After a legal fracas resulting from what Rossini deemed an unauthorized publication of the composite score, Rossini composed replacements for the movements composed by Tadolini, publishing the score in the now-familiar form, with all movements by Rossini, in 1841.  Announcement of the first performance of the completed score, which took place in Paris on 7 January 1842, drew mixed responses from critics throughout Europe, one of the most vitriolic in expressing his disapproval being Richard Wagner.  Both the Parisian premiere in January and the Italian premiere in Bologna in March, conducted by Donizetti, were tremendously successful, however, and the Stabat Mater has remained among Rossini’s most enduringly popular works.

It is not now and should hardly have been surprising to critics and audiences in 1842 that Rossini’s Stabat Mater is, though far removed from his operas, an operatic work.  The negative response of Teutonic musicians and critics to this aspect of Rossini’s work is slightly perplexing, especially considering that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach—the Titan among Germanic composers of liturgical music—was largely forgotten until the middle of the Nineteenth Century.  Several of Händel’s oratorios are very similar in form and substance to his operas and indeed are now often performed in staged productions with great success.  The mature liturgical works of both Haydn and Mozart employ the same concertato techniques familiar from their own operas and the religious compositions of contemporary Italians such as Cimarosa and Salieri.  Whatever charges were made against Rossini’s Stabat Mater at the time of its creation and in subsequent generations, the score contains music of great quality, worthy of its composer at his best.  Verdi’s Requiem—said by some critics to be Verdi’s greatest opera—builds upon the foundation laid by Rossini in the Stabat Mater; a not inconsiderable legacy for a work by a composer in retirement.

Expectations for this new recording of the Stabat Mater have been very high, not least because of the accomplishments of its conductor, Antonio Pappano, in his native Italian repertory at the Royal Opera House.  It is, in fact, Maestro Pappano’s conducting that is the recording’s first obvious attraction.  His pacing of the score is deliberate but thoughtful, especially in the sense of approaching the music on its own terms: Maestro Pappano leads a performance that reveals the grandeur of Rossini’s music without seeming calculated to redeem an unjustly-criticized masterpiece.  Maestro Pappano is fortunate in having at his disposal a quartet of vocal soloists for whose sake no allowances must be made in choices of tempi, with the result that the paces at which individual numbers progress seem natural and well-judged.  Cumulatively, though, the performance lacks cohesion, a condition that is more damaging to the dramatic effectiveness of the piece than to the music.  A wonder of Maestro Pappano’s musical work is the excellent singing and playing that he draws from the choristers and instrumentalists of the Chorus and Orchestra of Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the ensembles that in decades past sometimes struggled to maintain basic levels of professionalism in made-on-the-quick opera recordings.  Singing and playing in this performance with precision and passion that would withstand comparison with La Scala forces, both Chorus and Orchestra—recorded with excellent clarity and balance by EMI’s engineers, it should be said—contribute thrillingly.

In her first phrases, the beautiful Russian soprano Anna Netrebko seems ill-suited to this music.  The voice sounds blowsy and slightly wobbly, which can likely be attributed to the actual sound of the voice rather than to its use or condition.  Little is made of the Latin text.  In ensembles, Ms. Netrebko does not consistently blend well with the other soloists.  She improves in the duet with the mezzo-soprano, ‘Quis est homo,’ however, the voice taking on greater focus.  In her aria with chorus, ‘Inflammatus et accensus,’ Ms. Netrebko comes into her own, relishing the opportunity to take command as her vocal line ascends over the choir and providing top notes that ring out brilliantly.  In the closing movement, Ms. Netrebko adapts her singing more sensitively to that of her colleagues in the solo quartet, ending the performance with greater feeling and fluidity.

Undermining Ms. Netrebko’s effectiveness in ‘Quis est homo’ to a degree is the American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who approaches even the most stringent demands of her music with complete assurance.  With floods of warm tone, a florid technique equal to the greatest coloratura singers past and present, and a trill seemingly inherited from Dame Joan Sutherland, Ms. DiDonato sings with easy splendor throughout this performance.  Blending beautifully with her colleagues, Ms. DiDonato’s contributions to ensembles are touching, and the security with which she sings her cavatina, ‘Fac, ut portem Christi mortem’ is extraordinarily impressive.  It is solely in the sense that the work of a truly great singer is invariably all the more apparent in the company of merely very good colleagues that Ms. DiDonato distorts the equilibrium in ‘Quis est homo.’  It has been the mezzo-soprano soloist who has let down many performances and recordings of the Stabat Mater, a misfortune completely avoided in this recording.

The most familiar movement of the Stabat Mater is the tenor’s ‘Cujus animam gementem,’ an unapologetically operatic aria that, with its climactic top D-flat, has proved irresistible to virtually every tenor capable of singing it—and to more than a few incapable of singing it.  Though his lines in ensembles are a credit to Rossini’s skill as a composer of four-part polyphony, the aria is the tenor’s only opportunity to emerge from his surroundings, as it were, and with singing of bright, soaring immediacy the American tenor Lawrence Brownlee emphatically claims his moment.  The fluency of Mr. Brownlee’s bel canto technique is compellingly displayed in ‘Cujus animam,’ the lilting principal theme of the aria delivered smoothly and with deceptive ease.  Bravura passages managed handily, the aria is capped with a lovely top D-flat that is sustained comfortably but not long enough to seem vulgar.  Throughout the performance, Mr. Brownlee sings with the sort of finesse that confirms his reputation as one of the leading Rossini tenors of his generation.

The Italian singer Ildebrando D’Arcangelo impresses in his aria, ‘Pro peccatis suæ gentis.’  Though billed in this performance as a bass, Mr. D’Arcangelo is decidedly more of a bass-baritone than a true bass, and his tone weakens significantly at the bottom of his range, risking inaudibility in the descending lines of ‘Eja, Mater, fons amoris.’  Mr. D’Arcangelo’s instrument is sturdy and attractive, however, and his singing exhibits a native understanding of Rossini’s idiom.  Despite the limitations of his lower register, Mr. D’Arcangelo provides an effective foundation in ensembles.

Considering the poor quality of so many performances and recordings of operatic and concert music in recent years, it is encouraging that a recording of this quality has been devoted to Rossini’s Stabat Mater.  Though neither infrequently-recorded nor poorly-served on records, the Stabat Mater is a work of which there is no single definitive recording: many recordings have inimitable qualities that are balanced or even undone by weaknesses.  The present recording is not perfect.  There are recorded performances that explore the drama of the Virgin Mother’s sorrow with greater immediacy and emotional impact despite weaker singing, for instance.  Especially with the performances given by Ms. DiDonato and Mr. Brownlee, however, this recording documents a standard of Rossini singing that makes this performance one that should be heard by all who treasure the rarefied art of bel canto.

14 November 2010

CD REVIEW: Jorge Martín – BEFORE NIGHT FALLS (W. Mason, J. Blalock, J. Garcia, S. Mease Carico, J. Abreu, J. Hall, C. Ross; Albany Records TROY 1226/27)


Jorge Martín - BEFORE NIGHT FALLS (Albany Records)

JORGE MARTÍN (1959 – ): Before Night Falls – W. Mason (Reinaldo Arenas), S. Mease Carico (Victor), J. Garcia (Ovidio), J. Hall (Mother, the Sea), C. Ross (the Moon), J. Blalock (Lázaro), J. Abreu (Pepe), C. Trahan (Port Official, Visa Official); Fort Worth Opera Chorus, Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra; Joseph Illick [recorded in Fort Worth, TX, during Spring 2010; Albany Records TROY 1226/27]

There are in virtually every age of humanity those individuals and situations that capture the popular imagination, whether within the limited scope of specific places or on a global scale.  Through oral traditions and, eventually, the endeavors of artists, these figures of collective importance are subjected to a kind of etherized immortality in which they are indefinitely preserved but are not unchanging: as the years pass, there are many cases in which the ideals for which a person is remembered become more important in the context of mythological consciousness than the facts that contributed to the legend.  There was, for instance, Cleopatra VII Philapator, the Greek queen who was Egypt’s last fully legitimate Pharaoh regnant, a woman who during her life wielded as much power and influence as did any woman on earth.  Within a century of her death, however, she was rather than an exceptional woman a figure in fanciful histories, a character in the drama that was Rome in the years before its collapse.  To a generation of American opera-lovers, Cleopatra was Beverly Sills, her Hellenic authority taking the form of brilliant displays of coloratura and interpolated top notes that shone like the summer sun on the surface of the Nile.  For lovers of cinema, Cleopatra was Elizabeth Taylor, a beguiling seductress whose lavender eyes could bend the will of Rome.  Before either Georg Friedrich Händel or Joseph L. Mankiewicz adapted Cleopatra to their artistic ends, William Shakespeare had endowed his Antony and Cleopatra with a female heroine so monumental as to seem almost caricatured and scornful but whose suicide was depicted with extraordinary tragic grandeur, an Elizabethan Liedestod.  Though undoubtedly an exceptionally cunning and educated woman to whom Homer would have been as familiar as to the greatest scholars of the European Renaissance, Cleopatra VII Philapator was almost certainly neither the graceful consort nor the timeless beauty artistic depictions of her have introduced into pseudo-historical perceptions.  The extent to which these well-intended artistic prevarications have affected the cultural legacy of Cuban dissident poet Reinaldo Arenas, the subject of Cuban-born composer Jorge Martín’s opera Before Night Falls (taken from the English title of Arenas’s posthumously-published 1992 autobiography Antes que anochezca) whose life has already been explored in a film with the same title that featured an Academy Award-nominated performance by Spanish actor Javier Bardem, is perhaps more difficult to ascertain than with a figure from the distant past like Cleopatra.  The best sources of information about Arenas, who took his own life in 1990 after a draining battle with AIDS, are his own writings, many of which are at least allegorically autobiographical and decry the atrocities of Fidel Casto’s Cuba.  The libretto of Before Night Falls, the work of the composer and Dolores M. Koch, is commendably faithful to Arenas’s own writings.  Determining whether the Reinaldo Arenas we meet in Mr. Martín’s opera is the man as he actually was can only be left to history, but what the poet’s writings and the opera establish is that Arenas was one of those men whose life, whatever the gilding of legend will make of it, was both of his own time and for all time.

Mr. Martín’s and Ms. Koch’s libretto must be commended at the start for never getting mired in the post-Revolution politics of Cuba in the Twentieth Century.  This is an opera built upon the foundation of a compelling central figure rather than an abstract political manifesto.  Politics lurks in every dark corner of the drama, of course, but the listener’s attention is focused on the impact of the political machinations faced by Arenas and the other characters in the opera.  Equally essential to the psychological construction of the opera is the issue of Arenas’s homosexuality, something that was especially dangerous in his native Cuba and remained contentious even in the United States during the final years of his life.  Mr. Martín as both composer and librettist, along with Ms. Koch, is to be praised for approaching the subject of Reinaldo Arenas with a sensitivity and honesty that elude many directors of recent productions of operas such as Billy Budd and Peter Grimes, in which characters’ implicit or presumed homosexuality has been artificially given greater importance than their humanity.  It is of considerable significance to his legacy that Arenas was a gay man, and as an aspect of his cultural genesis this story should and must be told.  As with the untold numbers of gay artists who were tortured and killed by the Holocausts wrought by Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russian, though, what is most important, indeed most poetic, about Arenas is that he was, all else aside, a man, equally remarkable and unremarkable.  The lasting meaning of Arenas’ plight as an artist is in his humanity, not his sexuality, and the valiance with which he bore his own persecution and the exasperating sorrow with which he witnessed the suffering of his fellow men.  Arenas would likely have agreed that his sexuality was an element of his life rather than its impetus, and Mr. Martín integrates Arenas’s sexuality into the opera in a manner that, without politicizing any aspect of the drama for the sake of sermonizing, honors the sense of love as an abiding necessity in the life of any man, regardless of his sexuality.  Before Night Falls is not a social treatise in operatic form charged with altering perceptions: operating within the parameters of traditional forms, Mr. Martín’s opera examines Arenas’s struggles as those of one man united with Everyman, like Rigoletto’s, Wotan’s, or Boris Godunov’s.  The libretto of Before Night Falls is, like Arenas’s own writings, colloquial and unfailingly eloquent.  One hears the voice of a beautiful, tormented man in words that he might have written himself.

Musically, Mr. Martín’s score is tonal without ever seeming dated and makes clever, understated use of many rhythms native to Reinaldo Arenas’s Cuba.  Rey’s first extended solo is sung over an engaging habanera, and even contemplative passages benefit from thoughtful rhythmic underpinning.  Unlike many of the operas written during the first decade of the Twenty-First Century, Before Night Falls is unquestionably an opera after the models of history, its tonal palette expansive and far removed from contemporary musical theatre.  It is audibly an opera of its time but none the worse for that.  There are, in fact, many passages of great beauty in the score, not least in the first-act trio for Ovidio, Rey, and Pepe, ‘Oh, our unhappy island,’ and the Epilogue, Rey’s death scene.  There is often an almost Mozartean grace in the ensemble writing, and Mr. Martín shares with Benjamin Britten the skill for making male voices, even when dominant within the aural landscape, individual and sharply characterized.  The composer largely leaves musical evocations of Cuba in the orchestra, contrasting the often-complex dance rhythms with vocal lines that are both melodically appealing and conducive to pointed delivery of the text.  Successful both musically and dramatically, Before Night Falls is among the sadly few genuine operas composed during the first decade of the new millennium that not only deserved a studio recording of its premiere production but also deserves a place in the repertories of the world’s important opera houses.

That premiere production, the result of espousal of the opera by Fort Worth Opera General Director Darren K. Woods, led to a recording that, as a document of the creation of an important opera by a cast of committed, talented young artists, is superb.  Produced for Albany Records by John Ostendorf, himself one of America’s finest singers and a veteran of many excellent recordings, the recording has excellent sound quality that preserves theatrical ambiance without sacrificing tonal or verbal clarity to reverberation.  The effect is similar to being in the first tier of an acoustically bright house, with the balance among orchestra, chorus, and soloists ideally achieved.  Mr. Martín employs the chorus almost as they would be used in a Greek tragedy: the chorus of Rey’s embittered Aunts, though tonally distant, is not unlike choruses of Furies in the operas of Gluck.  Whether as these complaining crones, as jubilant revolutionaries, or as oppressed prisoners, the Fort Worth Opera choristers, thirty-one in number, sing very well throughout the performance.  Likewise, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra play with precision and verve.  Presiding over the performance is conductor Joseph Illick, Fort Worth Opera’s Music Director.  Conducting with the zeal of advocacy that never gets in the way of the kind of straightforward music-making that lends a genuine sense of occasion to the performance, Maestro Illick brings extensive experience in mainstream repertory to his pacing of Mr. Martín’s opera.  Maestro Illick is the sort of conductor whose quiet mastery of operatic timing and the difficult balance between stage and pit is so welcome in America’s regional opera houses and, with only a few notable exceptions, so conspicuously absent in America’s larger houses.  It is evident in every note on this recording that Maestro Illick, Mr. Woods, and the Fort Worth Opera forces were as committed to Mr. Martín’s opera as the composer was to honestly and touchingly portraying his subject.

In the opera’s female roles, sopranos Janice Hall as Rey’s mother and the Sea and Courtney Ross as the Moon bring firm, lovely voices to their music.  Ms. Hall is especially moving in the aria for Rey’s mother, ‘Promise me, child.’  Mr. Martín’s music for the Sea and the Moon, symbolic figures who essentially serve as Rey’s muses, is often ethereally beautiful, reminiscent in spirit of Richard Strauss’s music for the nymphs in Ariadne auf Naxos.  The lullaby sung by the Sea and the Moon in the final moments of the opera, following Rey’s death, also conjures the Strauss of the final trio of Der Rosenkavalier and the final scene of Capriccio.  As the Port and Visa officials, Corey Trahan discloses a lovely, light tenor voice of the type that, since the heady days of Hugues Cuénod and Michel Sénéchal, has become steadily rarer.

A quartet of gifted young singers take the roles of the four men whose lives intersect most meaningfully with Rey’s in the opera.  As Victor, a commandant in the revolutionary force that ousted Fulgencio Batista and swept Fidel Castro into power in Cuba, bass-baritone Seth Mease Carico sings with the dark authority required to convey in vocal terms alone the oppression imposed upon Rey and other Cuban dissidents.  Mr. Carico is especially commanding and powerful in the Interrogation Scene that occurs after Rey has been imprisoned at the infamous Castillo el Morro, a scene that in its dramatic effectiveness and emotional impact brings to mind the scene for the title heroine and the Zia Principessa in Puccini’s Suor Angelica, as well as the tense Interrogation Scene with piano accompaniment for Giordano’s Fedora and Ipanov.  Vocally and dramatically, Mr. Carico’s Victor is rather like a young, very dangerous Scarpia.

Rey’s deliverance unto Victor and the revolutionary forces is accomplished when he is betrayed by Pepe, his childhood friend.  Sung by Puerto Rican tenor Javier Abreu, Pepe emerges as a conflicted figure whose denunciation of Rey is an act of self-preservation rather than one of direct malevolence.  Mr. Abreu possesses a lovely lyric tenor voice that brings a suggestion of sadness to even his most exuberant lines and blends beautifully with the voices of his colleagues in ensembles.  Though Pepe’s actions set in motion the horrors that pursue Rey during his last years in Cuba, Mr. Martín’s music portrays Pepe in a largely sympathetic way, and Mr. Abreu’s vocal elegance shapes a Pepe who is a decent but scared young man.

Mr. Martín and Ms. Koch elected to create a composite character to serve as Rey’s poetic mentor, a figure whose role draws upon the qualities of several important artistic influences in Arenas’s life.  This role, Ovidio, is sung by tenor Jesus Garcia, whose performances as Rodolfo in Baz Luhrmann’s Broadway production of La Bohème were widely acclaimed.  Mr. Garcia brings to Ovidio, a role that in its determined and stern but benevolent philosophizing is not unlike Seneca in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, a voice that is both youthful and suggestive of experience: there is the resignation of knowledge and understanding in his singing, a quality reinforced by Mr. Garcia’s world-weary inflection of the text.  The vigor of Mr. Garcia’s singing makes an apt impression in his role, the burnished tone with which he sings his lines suggesting the very essence of poetry.

Rey’s companion during his final years in New York is Lázaro, a man whom he befriended before his successful escape from Castro’s Cuba.  It is to Lázaro that Rey makes the shattering revelation that he has been diagnosed with AIDS, and it is Lázaro who cares for Rey during his illness.  Compared with the other characters in Rey’s life, Lázaro is a simpler man, his motives clearer and more emotional than cerebral.  As sung by young tenor Jonathan Blalock, however, Lázaro is as central to Rey’s development and ultimate transfiguration as an artist as any of the other influences in his life.  The tenderness with which Mr. Blalock sings in his scenes with Rey is immensely moving, as is the despair that floods his voice in the final scene, when his final statements of ‘Farewell’ as he is seen casting Rey’s ashes into the sea have the impact of Rodolfo’s singing of the dead Mimì’s name in the final moments of La Bohème.  Mr. Martín infuses Lázaro’s role with music of lyrical grace, and the ardent beauty of Mr. Blalock’s singing gives his performance an abiding authenticity.  With excellent diction and a voice that shimmers with a bright patina, Mr. Blalock’s performance as Lázaro gives Before Night Falls and its depiction of Rey’s isolation and decline what is finally needed for the opera to truly work: the profound expression of love, even when it is unspoken, that is required as the impetus of genuine tragedy.

In order to bring the troubled, terrific man at the center of this work to life, a singer of great charisma is required, and the premiere production was fortunate to have engaged Wes Mason, one of America’s most promising young baritones.  From his first note, Mr. Mason simply becomes Rey, enveloping himself in the role in a way that is refreshingly uncomplicated.  This is not a trick of method acting applied to singing: for two hours, Mr. Mason uses his voice to communicate Rey’s thoughts and words as though Reinaldo Arenas were taking the stage himself.  This Mr. Mason achieves not with histrionics or suspect melodramatic devices but with open-hearted, open-throated singing.  Mr. Mason’s is a powerful voice, the focused tone and vibrato sounding destined for leading roles in large houses, but this singer is also capable of disarming intimacy without seeming precious.  Vocally, Rey’s music is especially demanding in what is, overall, an arduous score, and Mr. Mason not only copes but excels.  In his exchanges with his colleagues, and particularly with Mr. Blalock, Mr. Mason is alert to the nuances of his own text and to the changing moods of the opera in general.  Mr. Mason possesses the vocal charisma necessary to impersonate Mr. Martín’s Rey, and he recreates in sound the poetry that Arenas constructed of words.

It is likely that, had he contemplated an opera about his life premiering twenty years after his death, Reinaldo Arenas would have been surprised that this musical legacy would greet a world in which Cuba remains under the fists of Castro and in which a man’s sexual preference and manner of exiting this life are still controversial.  Though he is sixteen years Arenas’s junior, perhaps Jorge Martín also would not have envisioned this in 1990, five years before he acquired the rights to set Arenas’s memoirs musically.  What Mr. Martín accomplishes in Before Night Falls is a sterling example of the fact that, no matter how horrific, debilitating, and unscrupulous the human and inhuman obstacles a man faces are, it is the dignity of the man as he faces them that are of permanent value.  It is human nature that a man who dies bravely is remembered whilst a man who lives weakly is forgotten, and there is no doubt that Reinaldo Arenas lived courageously, loved extravagantly, and died resolvedly.  All of this is evident in Mr. Martín’s score, in which the ugliness of oppression, pain, and terminal illness is omnipresent, but as an environment in which life goes on until it simply cannot go on any longer.  Mr. Martín has composed a wonderful opera that never preaches or wallows: it merely sings of what there is to be sung about a man who, like Tosca, suffered for art and for love.  It also reminds the listener of how rare this is, to focus even in art on the integrity of a man’s life rather than the choices he made in living it.  It is too soon to hypothesize about whether future generations will remember Javier Bardem or Wes Mason as Reinaldo Arenas rather than remembering the man himself, but it is to the credit of Jorge Martín, Dolores M. Koch, Wes Mason, Jonathan Blalock, Joseph Illick, Darren K. Woods, and all who were involved with the creation and recording of this opera that Before Night Falls is an experience that will not soon be forgotten.

Reinaldo Arenas

09 November 2010

IN MEMORIAM: American mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett, 1931 - 2010


American mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett, 1931 - 2010

Shirley Verrett

31 May 1931 – 5 November 2010

Again, so soon, another of the greatest voices in recent memory has been silenced by the passing on 5 November of American mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett, one of those brilliant but humble artists whose career both redefined and obliterated boundaries.  Moving with resilience between mezzo-soprano and soprano roles, she was both a celebrated Carmen and the definitive Lady Macbeth (in Verdi’s Macbeth) of her generation.

A child of the American South, Ms. Verrett was among the ranks of pioneering African-American artists—an impressive assemblage of singers that included Martina Arroyo, Grace Bumbry, Mattiwilda Dobbs, Reri Grist, Leontyne Price, and George Shirley—who followed the example of Marian Anderson by both thrilling audiences and changing perceptions in recital and concert halls and in opera houses.  When Ms. Verrett made her Metropolitan Opera début as Bizet’s Carmen on 21 September 1968—a week to the day before the MET début of Plácido Domingo, with whom she would memorably sing Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila for the Company more than twenty years later—she had already participated in the first Live from Lincoln Center and Young People’s Concerts broadcasts.

The racism that Ms. Verrett faced in her native land proved no match for the grace and wit of her personality and the abiding sincerity of her artistry.  She was content to allow the natural beauty of her voice and the uncompromising dignity of her carriage convey the activism that the adversity that she faced inspired.

During her first season at the MET, Ms. Verrett’s assignments included Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo, a role that she made her own and on which she left an indelible impact through several ‘live’ performances preserved on records and a critically-acclaimed studio recording.  In the 1973 – 74 season, one of the defining moments of her MET career came when, owing to Christa Ludwig’s indisposition, Ms. Verrett sang not only Didon (her scheduled role) but also Cassandre in Berlioz’s Les Troyens under the baton of Rafael Kubelík.  Ms. Verrett’s Didon had been heard four years earlier in a Roman concert performance conducted by Georges Prêtre and recorded for broadcast by RAI.  Along with her Eboli and her eloquent Carmen for RAI, superbly partnered by Albert Lance’s idiomatic Don José, the RAI Didon remains as a fittingly monumental legacy of Ms. Verrett’s career.

In a career at the MET that encompassed successes in such roles as Judith in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Madame Lidoine in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, Ms. Verrett also sang Neocle in the production of Rossini’s L’Assedio di Corinto in which her friend Beverly Sills made her long-awaited MET début and is perhaps the only singer in the history of the Company to have sung both Adalgisa and the title role in Bellini’s Norma on the MET stage.  She was also widely, if not unanimously, praised for her MET performances of Tosca, in a production directed by Tito Gobbi.  Appreciation was near universal for Ms. Verrett’s portrayal of Azucena in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, of which William Bender wrote in Time in 1976, ‘One would hate to see a woman as lovely as Verrett consigned forever to play a hag like Azucena, but hers is one of the memorable interpretations of the role, both visually and vocally.’

Throughout the world, Ms. Verrett was celebrated for the beauty and strength of her voice and for the intensity of her performances.  It was for the beauty and strength of her spirit that she was loved by audiences and colleagues, however.  Fine recordings, both studio-made and ‘pirated,’ are testaments to the work of an exceptional artist: a long, happy marriage and a loving family are testaments to the life of an exceptional woman.  It was as Azucena that Shirley Verrett bade farewell to the MET twenty years ago, on 2 May 1990, and it is with a joyous gratitude tinged with sadness that Verdi conveyed so well in his music that she will be remembered.

Shirley Verrett as Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's DIALOGUES DES CARMÉLITES at the MET [Photo by James Heffernan]

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – FLAVIO (T. Mead, R. Joshua, I. Davies, R. Pokupić, H. Summers, T. Walker, A. Foster-Williams; Chandos Chaconne 0773-2)

G.F. Händel - FLAVIO (Chandos Chaconne)

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Flavio, Re de’ Longobardi, HWV 16 – T. Mead (Flavio), R. Joshua (Emilia), I. Davies (Guido), H. Sumers (Teodata), R. Pokupić (Vitige), T. Walker (Ugone), A. Foster-Williams (Lotario); Early Opera Company; Christian Curnyn [recorded at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London, 8 – 12 February 2010; Chandos Chaconne 0773(2)]

Two decades have passed since the enterprising countertenor-turned-conductor René Jacobs introduced the record-buying public to Flavio, Re de’ Longobardi, an historically-based opera seria from Georg Friedrich Händel’s spring 1723 season for the Royal Academy of Music, where it was first performed four months after the premiere of Händel’s Ottone with as illustrious a cast as ever the Royal Academy assembled: the castrati Senesino and Gaetano Berenstadt, the remarkable Francesca Cuzzoni, Margherita Durastanti, Anastasia Robinson (it is likely that it was following her performances in Flavio that she clandestinely became Lady Peterborough), Alexander Gibson, and Giuseppe Maria Boschi.  Despite this glittering assemblage of vocal stars and a generally positive reception, Flavio received only twelve performances during Händel’s lifetime, eight during its first production and an additional four during a revival in 1732, and thereafter was not heard again until performed at Göttingen in 1967.  The Jacobs recording, featuring a strong cast, was a compelling first taste of Flavio for modern listeners, with both castrato roles assigned to countertenors, as is the case with this new recording in the Chandos Chaconne Series, and it revealed the opera as one of Händel’s most musically appealing and dramatically concise.  When the operas of so many lesser-known Baroque composers—many of whom were as celebrated as Händel in their times and respective corners of Europe—languish in obscurity, a second recording of any of Händel’s infrequently-performed operas is met with a measure of skepticism, especially when its predecessor on records was as fine as the Jacobs recording.

It is to the credit of conductor Christian Curnyn and his cast of young singers that this recording of Flavio matches and in several respects surpasses the earlier recording on harmonia mundi.  At slightly less than two and a half hours as recorded by Maestro Curnyn, Flavio is among the briefest of Händel’s early operas for London.  So sure is Maestro Curnyn’s pacing of the performance that it seems shorter still.  Secco recitatives, more compressed than in many of Händel’s other serious operas, are shaped with attention to the shifting emotions of the score, characters’ changes of heart given impact through rhythmic elasticity and variety in the continuo (harpsichord, archlute, and theorbo) without seeming overwrought or ridiculous.  The Early Opera Company, a period-instrument ensemble founded by Maestro Curnyn, play with virtuosity and grace throughout the performance, with flautist Lisa Beznosiuk contributing an especially eloquent performance that complements the vocalism she accompanies.  Händel’s operas do not depend upon orchestral brilliance to make their effects, but like its brethren Flavio contains musical beauties that are fully revealed by sensitive playing such as that of the Early Opera Company.  Maestro Curnyn achieves the delicate balance between maintaining the elegance and poise of Baroque-specialist music-making and allowing the music to benefit from the drive and energy more frequently employed in later repertory.  Maestro Curnyn builds upon the scholarship and devotion to the opera established in the Jacobs recording, bringing welcome fire to the bravura passages but also allowing lyrical arias to unfold unhurriedly.  Standing on its own virtues, this Flavio ably and impressively complements the Jacobs recording, a considerable achievement.

Even after three decades of scholarship and ever-increasing attention to historically-appropriate performance practices in Baroque music, the solution to the problem of casting modern singers in roles composed specifically for castrati remains elusive.  Those who advocate for the casting of female singers, mezzo-sopranos mostly (the true contralto having become a great rarity), argue that the music composed for a castrato such as Senesino requires firmness and strength in precisely the tessitura in which the voices of many countertenors are weakest.  There is an undeniable benefit, perhaps more so in the theatre than on records, in having roles sung by singers of the proper gender, however, and in his recording René Jacobs gave both castrato roles to countertenors.  Maestro Curnyn follows suit in this recording, with results that even more strongly make the case for the casting of modern countertenors as Händel’s castrato heroes.  In the role sung in the first production by Berenstadt, Flavio has less to do than the prestige of being the opera’s title character might suggest.  This is not to say that his music is without distinction and difficulties, however, and both of these aspects of Flavio’s part are realized with easy brilliance by young countertenor Tim Mead, an animated but even-toned singer whose technique encompasses all of the challenges posed by Händel’s music.  Especially in ‘Chi può mirare,’ Mr. Mead spins a headily beautiful line that, despite being in alto tessitura, maintains a suave, masculine virility.  In Mr. Meade’s performance, Flavio is a clever and ultimately magnanimous man and audibly a king in command of his realm even when indecisive.

Taking Guido, the role originated by Senesino, is another young countertenor, Iestyn Davies, one of the rising stars of opera and vocal music in the new century.  It is immediately apparent when hearing Mr. Davies in this recording that he is bringing to the music not merely a very beautiful voice but likewise one that is used with sensitivity and abiding good sense.  As with many of the roles composed by Händel for Senesino, Guido’s music is by turns excitingly bravura and meltingly sensual in nature, and it is indicative of Mr. Davies’s level of accomplishment as a singer that his technique easily masters all of the nuances of his music.  Mr. Davies consistently conveys the meaning of the words that he sings clearly and insightfully without ever jeopardizing the musical integrity of his singing.  Mr. Davies’s Guido is more of a lover and statesman than a soldier and schemer, but there is a welcome swagger in the more extroverted numbers that puts forth the character’s masculinity convincingly.  It might be ungraciously suggested that Mr. Davies’s timbre is simply too lovely to fully embody chest-thumping heroic roles, even those originally composed for castrati, and it would not be inaccurate to state that this performance will not resolve in the minds of many listeners the question of whether to cast male or female singers in Händel’s castrato roles.  What Mr. Davies unquestionably accomplishes in this recording is Händel singing that for beauty and emotional depth joins the finest examples of its kind on records.

Both of the roles originally composed for lower-voiced female singers are cast from strength, with Hilary Summers as Teodata and Renata Pokupić as Vitige.  As she has proved in many performances and recordings of a wide repertory, Ms. Summers is that rare thing among contemporary singers—a true contralto.  As Teodata, both the depth of tone and profundity of feeling familiar from Ms. Summers’s performances of Händel roles are in abundance, the voice retaining poise and color even very low in the register.  Dramatically, she never misses a psychological insight offered her by the score, also never resorting to hysterics and, singing richly and with pointing of the text, creating a portrait of a woman unashamed of either her sentimentality or her scheming.  Her lover, Vitige, is sung with vigor by Ms. Pokupić, a young mezzo-soprano born in Croatia.  Seemingly approaching her music fearlessly, Ms. Pokupić sings in a manner that is refreshingly on the breath, the color of the voice taking its impetus from the text.  Coloratura passages are delivered accurately and excitingly, the voice taking on an impressive hint of masculinity in extroverted numbers.  Excellent individually, it is perhaps in their duet that opens the opera, ‘Ricordati, mio ben,’ that these singers are most engaging.  It is rare for a Baroque opera, even one by as committed and astute a dramatist as Händel, to begin with an ensemble number, but Ms. Summers and Ms. Pokupić recognize the significance of this masterstroke of having the opera open with an almost Shakespearean parting of lovers.  Within the beauty and sincerity of their performance is the foundation upon which the opera is built, and it would be difficult not to continue listening in order to learn what the future holds for these alluring lovers.

Teodata is the daughter of Ugone, sung in this performance by young tenor Thomas Walker.  Mr. Walker’s bright tone and impressive florid technique prove equal to all of the stumbling blocks created by Händel’s score, and he does all that he can through inflection and pointed delivery of the text to connect with his basically disinteresting role.  Whatever the dramatic limitations of his role, it is a genuine pleasure to hear a tenor role in any of Händel’s operas sung by such a capable, gifted singer.

The heroine of Flavio is Emilia, another of those long-suffering and ultimately insurmountably noble women familiar from Händel’s mature operas for London.  Indeed, their company—including Almirena in Rinaldo, Asteria in Tamerlano, Rodelinda, and Teofane in Ottone—is equitable to the assortment of soprano heroines celebrated in the operas of Puccini.  Emilia has in ‘Parto, sì; ma non so poi’ one of those sublime arias that seem to suspend time, like Cleopatra’s ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ and Almirena’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’: cut from the same cloth, Händel ingeniously managed to fit each of these arias precisely to the characters and dramatic situations for which they were composed and to ornament them with careful attention to the singers for whom they were intended.  Had Händel specifically composed ‘Parto, sì’ and Emilia’s other arias specifically for her it is doubtful that Rosemary Joshua could have sounded more resplendent in them.  Bringing an uncommonly beautiful and secure voice to her performance, the Welsh-born soprano never loses her footing, vocally or dramatically.  As in so many Händel operas with castrato title heroes, it is truly the soprano heroine about whom the opera revolves: with a weak Emilia as its center of gravity, Flavio would seem lumbering and pointless despite its relative brevity and a score of very high quality even by Händel’s exalted standards.  This performance is fortunate to have at its core one of the most accomplished Händelians of recent years.  Every musical arrow in Emilia’s quiver is sharpened to extraordinary precision by Ms. Joshua’s pointed singing, which is a source of endless grace throughout the performance.  In her Chandos recordings of Partenope and Semele, Ms. Joshua had already presented her Händelian credentials.  With this recording of Flavio, she not only confirms those credentials but emerges as one of the most stylish singers of Händel heard during the ‘Baroque Renaissance’ of the past thirty years.

Completing the cast by singing the role of Lotario, Emilia’s father, is bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams, another young singer whose Händelian credentials have been well established through acclaimed performances and recordings.  Singing with imperturbable panache, this artist contributes another performance that ranks with the best recorded examples of Händel singing in the bass register.  Unlike many of the low-voiced singers currently active in Baroque repertory, Mr. Foster-Williams possesses not only the formidable technique required to execute intricate coloratura across a range of two octaves but also the vocal power to roar magnificently as his music requires.  In this performance, both the grandeur of Mr. Foster-Williams’s voice and his artistic finesse are in evidence, not least in the scene in which Lotario dies in his daughter’s presence, slain by Guido.  Mr. Foster-Williams’s performance brings to mind again the adage that suggests that there are no small roles in opera, only ‘small’ artists who fail to seize the opportunities granted by the music given them to sing.  Lotario is not a leading role in Flavio, but as sung by Mr. Foster-Williams—one of the handful of leading basses of his generation—it seems an opportunity missed not by the singer but by the composer and his librettist.

Händel’s Flavio will almost certainly never enjoy the popularity or critical acclaim of his Alcina, Giulio Cesare, or Serse.  At its best—and the score finds its composer almost always at his best—the opera rises to the level of its siblings in the Händel canon.  The concision and clarity of purpose sometimes lacking in Händel’s larger-scaled operas are hallmarks of Flavio, in which even characters who are not as they seem in certain circumstances have obvious, discernible motives.  The confusions of convoluted plot elements and hidden agendas thus set aside, performers and listeners alike are free to focus on the emotional interplay among the characters.  This is no less impressive or involving than in Händel’s most respected operas, those that have regained places in the international repertory.  The case for Flavio was convincingly made twenty years ago by René Jacobs and one of the strongest casts he assembled for a recording of an opera by Händel.  Christian Curnyn is to be respected for taking on this score about which it might have been suggested that the Jacobs recordings left nothing further to be said.  Indeed, Maestro Curnyn and his remarkable cast say the same things but say them differently, sometimes more directly and in numerous instances more touchingly.  It is difficult to fathom how Händel’s first-night cast might have shone in their creation of Flavio, but it is equally difficult to imagine in our own time that a cast with artists such as Rosemary Joshua, Iestyn Davies, and Andrew Foster-Williams giving of their best could be bettered.

An Eighteenth-century engraving by John Vanderbank showing the castrati Berenstadt (Flavio) and Senesino (Guido) and Francesca Cuzzoni (Emilia)

11 October 2010

IN MEMORIAM: Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland, 1926 – 2010


Dame Joan Sutherland; portrait by Robert Annaford

Dame Joan Sutherland

7 November 1926 – 10 October 2010

In what seems a lifetime ago, in 1994, I was a sixteen-year-old schoolboy, studying piano and violin and spending the money given to me by my parents for school lunches on the few opera recordings that were available in my area at that time.  First, there was the Philips recording of La Bohème conducted by Sir Colin Davis, with the slightly frail Katia Ricciarelli and the still-golden-voiced José Carreras.  The trap was set.  Then, perhaps a month later, there was the DECCA Fidelio, an appealing introduction to the inimitable Birgit Nilsson.  After a few weeks, the little collection expanded to include Sir John Pritchard’s recording of Raymond Leppard’s much-discussed (and much-dismissed) Glyndebourne L’Incoronazione di Poppea, surely the best recording of Carlo Cava’s unique voice and a welcome document of uncommonly passionate performances by Magda László and Frances Bible.  Still, I was not yet ready for this, and the recording—now one that I love for the seriousness with which it addresses the emotions of Monteverdi’s music—quickly changed hands.

It was another recording conducted by Sir John Pritchard that transformed opera from a casual interest, an exploration of a teenager’s curiosity, into a lifelong devotion to a magnificently strange art that manipulates reality and, at its best, changes listeners’ perceptions of themselves, their lives, and their roles within their communities.  The recording that revealed that power to this listener was of Verdi’s La Traviata, a performance shaped by a poised but direct Alfredo from Carlo Bergonzi and a Giorgio Germont as well-sung as any on records from Robert Merrill.  At the center of the performance is the Violetta of the Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland.  The critiques of Sutherland’s performance in her first recording of La Traviata are typical of those that her performances and recordings met throughout her four-decade international career.  As Violetta, Maria Callas is more enthrallingly visceral, more emotionally on the wire; Ileana Cotrubas is more delicate, more alluringly fragile; Renata Scotto is the consummate tragedienne, the perfume of a life ebbing clinging to her every utterance; Licia Albanese’s singing shimmers with femininity and doomed grace; Mirella Freni brings limpid tone, easy charm, and idiomatic delivery of text and music.  Aside from Callas, however, for which Violetta are the eruptions of coloratura in ‘Sempre libera’ as completely integrated into the vocal line, expressions of flippant but panicked joy, as in the singing of Sutherland?  By which Violetta are the dramatic demands of the Second Act more fully mastered, the voice soaring where others struggle?  Which other Violetta faces the top A’s of ‘Addio del passato’ with greater security?  For this listener, in Violetta’s music there are Callas and Victoria de los Ángeles, but first there was Dame Joan Sutherland.

Having first seen an operatic performance in 1990, the year of Dame Joan’s retirement from the stage, I never enjoyed the opportunity of hearing her remarkable voice in the space of a large theatre.  Hearing her commercial recordings, from the early Bach Cantatas and Don Giovanni to the late-career Adriana Lecouvreur and Ernani, along with dozens of ‘live’ performances, I came to cherish the opulence and power of her voice at least as much as those whose good fortune allowed them to hear her in the world’s opera houses.  Hers was the rare voice that combined Wagnerian dimensions with an astounding—perhaps even more astounding for being produced with minimal evidence of its mechanics—technique that encompassed the most difficult music in the dramatic coloratura repertory.  Hers was not the voice of the thin-toned coloratura sopranos who inhabit the oxygen-deprived environs of the stratosphere: the staccato top F’s of the Königin der Nacht were there but only just: the thrill of her Königin was the atypical power of the octave descending from top C.  Her top E-flat, a note that ignited the air in all the world’s major opera houses throughout her career, especially in Lucia di Lammermoor, rang with the authority of a dramatic soprano’s top B.  Even those who advocated for this or that soprano, who complained bitterly and sometimes loudly that her diction was poor and her acting elementary, admitted that the voice was a wondrous anomaly.  A marvel of Maria Callas’s artistry was that she could sing Brünnhilde or Kundry one night and Lucia or Norma the next and fully inhabit both performances.  With one voice, Dame Joan could enchant as Händel’s Alcina, suffer as Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, and find redemption as Puccini’s Suor Angelica.  Perhaps the words were not always ideally clear, but the music never suffered at her hands, and if she sang a role she knew where she wanted to go in it.  Guided by her husband, she knew precisely what she should sing and when she should sing it, and not just in the last seasons of her career; and that self-discipline, a mark of a great singer, resulted in audiences for her final performances perceiving not what time had taken away but what a sound technique had preserved.

There are many singers past and present whose performances, in opera houses and on records, have shaped my understanding of music.  To the influence of Dame Joan Sutherland I attribute not my knowledge of opera, such as it is, but my love for it.  It was her singing that convinced me that this brilliant, bizarre thing is not merely a diversion but a vital aspect of the complex art of humanity, a genre that perseveres because it lives in the hearts of those who love it.  She loved it, and that is audible in every recording that she made.  A voice such as hers is not made by men, whether by creation or by study; nor is it subject to imitation or duplication.  She was a woman like any other, flawed and fascinating, but neither any other woman nor any other voice will ever be Dame Joan Sutherland.


Dame Joan Sutherland as Lucia di Lammermoor, in an autographed photo presented to the author

18 September 2010

CD REVIEW: Philip Glass – ORPHÉE (P. Cutlip, L. Saffer, R. MacPherson, G. Jarman, S. Brennfleck; OMM 0068)

Philip Glass - ORPHÉE (OMM 0068)

PHILIP GLASS (b. 1937): Orphée – P. Cutlip (Orphée), L. Saffer (la Princesse), R. MacPherson (Heurtebise), G. Jarman (Eurydice), S. Brennfleck (Cégeste), J. Beruan (Poet), K. Kvach (Judge), R. Brallier (le Commissaire), D. Freedman (Aglaonice), C. Halvorson (Reporter), J. Rubio (Policeman), M. Acito (Glazier), M. Hallak (Radio Announcer – spoken role); Portland Opera Orchestra; Anne Manson [recorded during live performances at Portland Opera, November 2009; Orange Mountain Music OMM 0068]

Since the birth of opera as it now exists, the myth of Orpheus has exerted a strong influence on the creative imaginations of composers, beginning with the ‘first generation’ works of Peri, Caccini, Rossi, and Monteverdi.  The figure of Orpheus, a man in whom the fate-altering powers of music and poetry are joined in perfect synthesis, has persisted as an alluring inspiration for composers, keen perhaps to depict through their work elements of their own plights as artists struggling against adversities, archaic social conventions, and stereotypes.  The darker aspects of the Orphic myth have often been downplayed or excised altogether, emphasis on the humanity of Orpheus masking to a great extent the less pleasant aspects of an ultimately errant character who literally met his end at the hands of the Ciconian women.  As with other of his important projects for the operatic stage, however, it is not strictly from Classical mythology or traditional sources that American composer Philip Glass drew his inspiration but from Jean Cocteau’s 1949 film Orphée, an allegorical examination of the ambiguous states of life and death as applied to the myth of Orpheus through the tattered perspectives of post-WWII France.  Adapting the French text used in the opera from Cocteau’s screenplay, Glass evokes the milieu of Cocteau’s film without threatening to create merely a musical accompaniment for the film, after the manner of the music once performed in cinemas during silent films.

Though this recording was made during performances at Portland Opera in November 2009, the opera is not new.  Orphée was composed during 1991, when Glass was mourning the sudden death of his wife, and first performed at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1993.  Musically, the hallmarks of Glass’s personal style of composition are all present, principally the ‘minimalist’ device of constructing extended phrases with small, repetitive, ostinato-like musical units.  Whereas this approach has arguably lessened the impact of some of Glass’s vocal music, in Orphée the otherworldly, ritualistic progress of the drama is credibly, even movingly shaped by the ways in which Glass applies his craft to the text.  Though presented in the context of Cocteau’s conception of the story rather than Classical sources, the most influential of which is Pindar, Glass’s account of the Orphic myth compellingly traces the basic course of the Greek tragedy.  In the opening scene, Glass convincingly conjures the atmosphere of a mid-century Parisian café, the chanson and jazz scenes of post-war Montmartre suggested without being directly imitated.  Thereafter, musical figurations propel the drama along its bizarre but inexorable course, scenes transitioning organically and comfortably.  An unfortunate trend among operas composed in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First centuries is the failure for music to truly work in tandem with text to create works that coherently depict in sound the paths from beginning to end: in short, many recent operas are filled with music that merely accompanies rather than embodying the text and that never creates the kind of sound and fury necessary to draw an audience into an operatic journey in the tradition of Verdi and Wagner.  Glass does not wholly overcome this trend in Orphée, but he is more successful than in several of his other operas at giving distinct musical profiles to characters who, even when they essentially are faceless archetypes, inspire attention and interest.  If Glass has not created in this score a work of timeless beauty like Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Orphée is nonetheless a deeply personal work, one in which Glass’s individual compositional style is heard at its most accessible.  Far more than many of the operas composed during the past two decades, it is a piece deserving of revival; and likewise one that fares rather better than most of Glass’s vocal works in the audio-only format of a compact disc recording.

Recorded by Orange Mountain Music in superb sound that preserves very few distracting stage noises (the roaring motorcycle engines might ideally have been less damaging to the cochlear ducts, or—even better—evoked musically rather than literally) and contributions from the audience, this production by Portland Opera offers an excellent introduction to Glass’s opera.  The Portland Opera Orchestra play with polish and vigor under the baton of Anne Manson, an undervalued conductor who was the first woman to conduct at the Salzburger Festspiele.  The music of Philip Glass presents great challenges for a conductor in that it is largely reliant upon the conductor’s leadership for propulsion and dramatic thrust.  Maestro Manson obviously possesses an imperturbable knowledge of her musical destination, and she presides over a performance that progresses more or less coherently from the surrealistic beginning to the not-quite-cathartic end.  She understands that this is Cocteau’s and Glass’s Orpheus rather than Monteverdi’s or Gluck’s, and she is careful to avoid any suggestion of parody.  [It is worth noting that Cocteau’s film included in its soundtrack much music taken from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice.]  Maestro Manson also proves successful in this performance by approaching the opera as a straightforward musical course to be followed in a traditional, music-centered manner rather than as a ‘contemporary masterpiece’ in need of conductorial espousal and idiosyncratic endorsement.  In short, Maestro Manson displays an understanding of the necessity of presenting a performance rather than an ‘event.’  She focuses on rather than fussing over the music and allows Glass’s opera to unfold on its own terms, the musical values realized at the highest possible levels, and to say what it has to say in its own voice.

In opera, as one hopes that Mr. Glass would agree, the singing is the thing, however, and vocally this performance is built on very firm ground.  Comprised almost exclusively of young American singers, the cast is strong even in secondary roles.  Impressive in smaller roles are tenors Marc Acito as Glazier and Carl Halvorson as a Reporter; baritone José Rubio as a Policeman; and basses Jeffrey G. Beruan as a Poet, Ron Brallier as le Commissaire, and Konstantin Kvach as a Judge.  Aglaonice, Eurydice’s friend, receives a winning performance from mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman.  Eurydice herself, less significant in Cocteau’s and Glass’s version of the myth than in Classical sources and in Gluck’s opera (or, to be sure, in Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers!), is beguilingly sung by Georgia Jarman, a young soprano of great promise whose many fine performances at the Caramoor Festival include an uncommonly effective portrayal of Adina in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore opposite the Nemorino of Lawrence Brownlee.  Given by Glass less musical material with which to work than in the bel canto roles for which she is most appreciated, Ms. Jarman nonetheless offers through tonal beauty and good diction a touching Eurydice.  French diction is generally good throughout the cast, in fact; an impressive—and rare—achievement in a cast of young, English-speaking singers.

The unconventional ‘villains’ of Glass’s opera are the Princesse, a patroness of the arts, and her chauffeur Heurtebise, shadowy figures both.  Sung by renowned soprano Lisa Saffer, who brings to her performance the same intensity familiar from her performances of Händel roles, the Princesse is a character of uncertain motivation: consigned in the opera’s final moments to a fate at least superficially not unlike Don Giovanni’s for what she has proclaimed to be a sort of sacrifice for art, though she has been said to be the personification of Death, one is left to wonder whether she has been in love with a man, his art, her influence over his creativity, or coldly philosophical manifestations thereof.  Using her vibrant tone to inflect the text wittily and, when appropriate, touchingly, Ms. Saffer makes the Princesse both attractive and repulsive: like Orpheus, the listener is suspicious and even openly fearful of her strange machinations but nonetheless drawn to witness and participate in them.  The Princesse herself aptly defines this ambiguity when responding to Orphée, who has said, ‘Et on me déteste’ (‘They hate me’), by saying, ‘C’est une des formes de l’amour’ (‘It’s one form of love’).  This duality is inherent in Ms. Saffer’s performance, all the more convincingly conveyed by the cool radiance of her voice.  Heurtebise, her would-be Leporello, is sung by tenor Ryan MacPherson, an engaging young artist.  Fittingly, two roles for which Mr. MacPherson has been especially acclaimed are Peter Quint in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and the Stimme des Jünglings in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, vaguely ethereal parts that are not unlike Heurtebise.  Aside from his unrequited love for Eurydice and a presumed but far-from-certain loyalty to the Princess, Heurtebise’s reasons for his actions in Glass’s opera are even less apparent than those for the Princesse’s conniving.  What is not left to uncertainty is the quality of Mr. MacPherson’s performance, which combines dramatic intelligence with vocal skill and finesse.

The man about whom the drama of Glass’s opera is twisted, Orphée, is sung by baritone Philip Cutlip, one of the best among America’s generation of talented young singers.  Departing from the traditional depiction of Orpheus as a semi-deity among men (or, allegorically, an artist among boorish laymen), Glass’s Orphée is a significantly more earthbound character, a complicated figure of poetry, jealousy, insecurity, and latent violence.  If there is one principal way in which Orphée fails as an opera in the traditional sense it is the title character’s inability to earn genuine sympathy from his audience.  Mr. Cutlip nonetheless contributes a performance that breathes life into every nuance of Orphée’s character, positive and negative.  There is poetic yearning audible in Mr. Cutlip’s strong, attractive timbre, but the confusion of the husband and prospective father who is in love with a woman who is not is wife is also vividly depicted in Mr. Cutlip’s performance.  Mr. Cutlip is to be praised for believably portraying Orphée’s conflicting emotions without allowing the focus of his voice to be distorted or lost.  Even in a role that lacks the vocal opportunities of more conventional baritone roles, Mr. Cutlip offers a performance that is fully worthy of one of America’s finest young singers.

Vocally, though, it is tenor Steven Brennfleck as Cégeste, a younger rival poet, who impresses most with an arresting performance marked by especially beautiful singing encompassing a wide spectrum of vocal colors.  Envious of the celebration of Cégeste and his work by the populace in the first scene, Orphée is not complicit but is far from heartbroken by his young competitor’s death soon thereafter.  Mysteriously returned to life by the Princesse, Cégeste’s role in the drama is as shrouded in uncertainty as any other aspect of the opera, but in his every appearance Mr. Brennflect reveals a pliant, bright but warm-hued, and beautiful voice that can easily be imagined confronting and conquering the difficulties of Gluck’s Orphée.  Dramatic bewilderment is achieved through textural clarity rather than resorting to vocal histrionics.  It is obvious in this performance that Cégeste’s poetry, though perhaps shaped by the angst of youth, is purer than the rougher, sharper verse of the struggling, disillusioned Orphée.  Mr. Brennfleck’s performance is memorable even in an opera in which he is given nothing truly memorable to sing and is a welcome document of the work of a young tenor of extraordinary promise.

For all its inherent cycles of discovery and rediscovery, opera is in many aspects an unchanging art.  Just as was the case when Bizet’s Carmen premièred to vociferous but far-from-unanimous critical dismissal in 1875, Philip Glass’s Orphée is subject to the whims and personal opinions of audiences, critics, and musicians who either will like it or will not.  It is almost certain that, a century on, Orphée will not enjoy a place in the mainstream international operatic repertory alongside Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice: Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, a seminal work in the development of opera as it presently exists and an opera of considerable power and beauty, remains by its nature essentially a ‘specialist’ work, after all, and will continue to survive only on the fringes of the repertory.  It is not difficult to speculate that Orphée will remain Glass’ most approachable opera, however.  It is unfortunate that striving, whether intentionally or subconsciously, in the general direction of tradition is a reason for scorn and dismissal in avant garde artistic communities, by which reaching for conventional—which, in music, might also be termed universal—values is regarded as something akin to treason.  Glass has achieved in Orphée a sense of personal depth and involvement that surpasses the instances of these qualities in his other operas, and he has done so while largely maintaining his personal musical voice.  A work that appeals to populist emotional engagement is surely no more criminal than one that aims for coldly progressive genius and misses the mark.  Even if one does not quite fathom its overall meaning (having seen Cocteau’s film is of little assistance in this regard), a performance as uniformly excellent as this persuades the listener that Philip Glass, like Monteverdi and Gluck before him, has the eloquent essence of Orpheus’ musical and poetic art at the core of his creative process.

Orpheus charming wild beasts by playing his lyre, from an Imperial Roman mosaic

23 August 2010

ARTIST PROFILE: Bogdan Mihai, tenor

Romanian tenor Bogdan Mihai

When Gioachino Rossini’s Armida was premiered at Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo on 11 November 1817, the roles of Goffredo and Carlo were sung by Giuseppe Ciccimarra, a singer appreciated throughout Italy for his extensive range and bravura technique who also originated for Rossini the tremendously difficult roles of Iago in Otello and Pilade in Ermione.  Exasperatingly, it is impossible for modern musicologists and music lovers to know precisely how a voice such as Ciccimarra’s sounded: the basic flexibility and tessitura of the voice can be more or less ascertained by studying the music composed for the voice (though composers were as likely then as now to entrust singers with music that was beyond their capacities), but a legitimate aural sense of the timbre and presence of the voice is elusive.  What is certain is that these tenor voices of the early Nineteenth Century were remarkable, whether in beauty of tone, expansiveness of range, power, or combinations thereof: within the space of the quarter-century extending from Die Zauberflöte to Il Barbiere di Siviglia, tenors seized from castrati the roles of operatic heroes and romantic lovers, initiating a change in the vocal alignment of opera that persists into the Twenty-First Century.  In performances of the few bel canto scores that remained in the international repertory in the last decades of the Nineteenth Century and first decades of the Twentieth, much of this grace and vocal splendor that transformed tenors from bumbling villains, fathers, and servants into leading men had to be taken on faith.  Except for the gifted Ivan Kozlovsky, little known outside of the Soviet Union until the fall of the Iron Curtain, the art of bel canto tenor singing as it must have been during the careers of singers such as Ciccimarra, Giovanni David, and Andrea Nozzari was dormant until the emergence of Luigi Alva, Ugo Benelli, and a few other Rossini-specialist tenors in the 1960’s, a tradition that has persisted through the work of Rockwell Blake, Bruce Ford, Raúl Giménez, Chris Merritt, and Ramón Vargas to the current class of bel canto tenors that includes Barry Banks, Lawrence Brownlee, Juan Diego Flórez, and Colin Lee.  Poised to take his place among those fine singers as one of the best contemporary bel canto tenors is Bogdan Mihai.

Bogdan Mihai with celebrated soprano Mariana Nicolesco

Born in Romania, Bogdan Mihai’s earliest experiences with opera were under the tutelage of some of his homeland’s most accomplished singers.  ‘My story, it’s simple and [at] the same time, let’s say, complicated,’ he recollects.  ‘I initially started studying the violin in high school, and at the end [of my high school studies] I took voice lessons as a lyric baritone.’  It was as a baritone that Mr. Mihai began his studies at the Conservatory in Bucharest, where he studied with the celebrated baritone Nicolae Constantinescu.  ‘In that period, I was very interested [in] the vocal technique,’ Mr. Mihai reflects.  He pursued that interest through masterclasses with Rolando Panerai, Sylvia Gestzy, Ileana Cotrubas, Virginia Zeani, and Mariana Nicolesco.  The last of these was particularly influential on Mr. Mihai’s development as a young artist.  ‘She helped me a lot with many things,’ he says of Nicolesco.  ‘I attended three masterclasses with her and also two years at the Transylvania University in Braşov, where under her guidance I received my Master’s Degree in bel canto.  It was a joy because Mariana Nicolesco was one of the most important bel canto sopranos, and she told me many secrets about this style.’  Still, if there has been a single artist whose influence has been definitive in Mr. Mihai’s career, he names Mirella Freni.  ‘I attended a masterclass in Italy with Mirella Freni in 2006, and I had a revelation about my voice.  She told me that I am a tenor and, if I want to do the masterclass and be one of her students in the Accademia at Centro Universale del Bel Canto, I must start to practice as a tenor.  Thanks to her, I had a year and a half at the Accademia after receiving the Nicolai Ghiaurov Scholarship, and that changed my life forever.’

Bogdan Mihai with la Prudentissima, Mirella Freni

The art of singing bel canto is a field in which there are among singers past and present as many examples that are cautionary as those that are beneficial.  Among singers known for their work in bel canto repertory, Mr. Mihai cites as particular inspirations to his own work Alfredo Kraus, Gregory Kunde, Bruce Ford, Nicolai Gedda, Rockwell Blake, Maria Callas, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Edita Gruberová.  He also mentions as artists important to his appreciation of singing Leontyne Price and Renata Tebaldi.  ‘They all bring a message, they all have strong personalities, different techniques, styles, and expressions,’ Mr. Mihai says.  ‘I am sure that I’ve learned a lot [from] listening to their art.  It is very important to listen because you have examples of how things should or should not be done.’  He is also aware, however, of the great importance of approaching music from an individual perspective, especially in bel canto.  ‘Many times I [have] had to learn new roles alone—which is not very bad, I have to say—because in this life there are moments when you are alone, and you have to take care about your voice, technique, and everything without being supervised.’  Collaboration is nonetheless an equally important aspect of the artist’s life, and in this regard Mr. Mihai feels especially fortunate.  ‘I have to be honest and say that a lot of important projects [in my career to date] were possible thanks to my agency in Vienna, Opera4u.  I have there three great supporters in Kurt-Walter Schober, Michael Gruber, and Erich Seitter, and I thank them a lot for understanding my art and my voice without pushing me [into] things that I’m not prepared for at the moment and also for accepting all my requests.  It’s very important for an agent, opera director, and conductor to understand the singers and also to love their voices.  Without this, art becomes a business, which in my opinion is only an offense!’

Not surprisingly for a young tenor whose career is based in bel canto repertory, the role of Conte Almaviva in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia is tremendously important for Mr. Mihai.  ‘I love the part,’ he says.  ‘I made my début on the operatic stage at the Bucharest National Opera in 2007 with this role and [have] sung it many times since then.  I later sang it at the Staatsoper Stuttgart under David Parry.  Now, I’ll be at the Dresden Semperoper doing this role under Alessandro de Marchi and Riccardo Frizza, in the Deutsche Oper Berlin with Guillermo García Calvo, and at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris under the stage direction of Emilio Sagi, with Jean-Christophe Spinosi conducting.  It is a role that has opened the doors to [so many] important opera stages, and I’m very happy with that.’  Almost concurrently with the much-discussed Mary Zimmerman production of the opera at the Metropolitan Opera, Oxfordshire-based Garsington Opera presented the British premiere of Rossini’s Armida, providing Mr. Mihai with another opportunity to prove his value as a Rossini tenor of the first order.  ‘Recently I sang the roles of Goffredo and Carlo in Rossini’s Armida in the UK under David Parry and the stage direction of Martin Duncan.  It was an absolute premiere there with this opera, a sensational musical score and very difficult.  But being on stage with great artists such as Jessica Pratt [who sang Armida], for example, it’s a pleasure and you just give 100 perfect—everything.  I love to think that I’m doing this all the time because I respect the composer, the music, and the public.’  British critic Rupert Christiansen wrote in The Telegraph of being ‘impressed’ by Mr. Mihai’s performance in Armida, while David Nice wrote for The Arts Desk Ltd. that ‘perhaps the most authentic in his runs and his ring [in the voice, particularly the highest notes] was Romanian Bodgan Miahi, kicking off in flamboyant style as crusader-commander Goffredo.’

Bodgan Mihai as Conte Almaviva in Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA at the Staatsoper Stuttgart

‘For me, bel canto is everything,’ Mr. Mihai states.  ‘It’s a school in which you can learn and discover thousands of emotions and expressions.  You learn how to keep this legato, which is extremely important.  But to start in bel canto you need to go back to the old schools of the Baroque and Classical repertoires.  If you know how to sing Baroque [music], then you can sing Mozart, in whose music the lines are more subtle and versatile.  After this, you can enter into the supreme Italian bel canto, which will serve you well if you know how to approach it.’  Even at his young age, Mr. Mihai has encountered both good and less-congenial conditions under which to approach new roles and new music.  ‘At the Hariclea Darclée International Voice Competition in my country in 2007, I was asked to assist with a concert dedicated to the ‘Three Queens’ of Donizetti (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux).  The tenor that had to sing the parts in Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux got sick.  It was a shock because the concert was to be held the next day!  Mariana Nicolesco asked me if I could learn the scenes from these operas in order to save the performance.  I went out for ten minutes and looked at the scene from Roberto Devereux.  Then, they called me, and I had to go on stage and try it with the orchestra.  I learned the parts that night.  In the morning, I had a rehearsal with the pianist and in the evening the concert.  I have to say that it was a great success for everyone.  God was with us,’ he muses.  ‘I know that was something completely crazy at that time,’ he says, contemplatively.  ‘Now I remember that with pleasure, but I know that I will never do something like that again because it’s risky.’  Preparation is an extremely important aspect of Mr. Mihai’s approach to singing.  ‘It’s important to continue to study even if you have great success because studying never finishes,’ he suggests.  ‘In my opinion, the most important thing that everyone should learn is this: don’t forget the point from which you have started, even if you become a great opera star.  You have to remember to be a normal person, gentle, and to act like that.  Someone told me once that we need one life in which to learn and another one in which to sing.’  Especially in bel canto, respect for the music is paramount.  ‘Mariana Nicolesco said that the image of bel canto is like a royal eagle flying sovereign across the sky.  This is the impression that I must have when I’m singing bel canto.  You always need discipline and strong preparation to be able to sing in the bel canto style.’

Mr. Mihai describes his own technique as ‘natural and original,’ and these qualities are evident in his philosophy of singing.  ‘The most gratifying element [of singing] is the connection that I have to create with the public, making them believe what they see, what they hear—it’s very important,’ he says.  Conversely, he concedes that singing, especially in the Twenty-First Century, is not without challenges, some of them expansive and potentially damaging.  ‘The greatest challenge for me is to realize which roles I have to approach and which I must not.  As an opera singer, I always have to keep a straight line without trying to give more than my vocal possibilities and to maintain a young, natural voice without pushing.  I intend to keep my voice in bel canto as much as I can without going into heavier repertory that can destroy me.  I’m able to say no, and this is something important in a career, how and when to say no.’  This innate sense of what to sing and when to sing it, seemingly so instinctive to Mr. Mihai, eludes many young singers, especially in the formative years of their careers, when they are eager to prove themselves on the world’s greatest stages.  Still, in Mr. Mihai’s aspirations for his career, the issue of sorting out which roles he should or should not sing is uncomplicated.  With a comprehensive understanding of the abilities of his own voice at the core of his musical inquisitiveness, the foundations of his artistry are laid upon the most basic of starting blocks: music and text.  ‘You can’t be a true artist without giving attention to the music and drama,’ he insists.  ‘They are like sisters, and they can’t live one without the other.  On stage, we all try to give our best as singers and actors.  The text is very important because it gives you the right attitudes and expressions in singing and acting.  You have to feel everything that was written in the musical score and the text and also, what is very important, what is behind them.  To do this, you just have to listen to the music.  Everything is written in the musical background (in the orchestra).  Many times, you realize what you should do just by listening.  We have to serve the music with respect all the time.’

Bogdan Mihai as the Italienischer Sänger in Richard Strauss' DER ROSENKAVALIER at the Staatsoper Stuttgart

In his service to music, especially that of the Italian bel canto, Mr. Mihai brings a voice that, at first hearing, is immediately arresting in its bright but rich timbre and uncommon flexibility.  Ideal in the complex coloratura of Rossini’s leading tenor roles, Mr. Mihai’s voice also possesses the robust, ringing tone required for the less-florid but equally demanding music of Bellini and Donizetti.  Though not a role characteristic of his repertory, the Italienischer Sänger in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier provides—with its elegant, neo-Classical aria, ‘Di rigori armato’ (click here to watch a performance of the aria by Mr. Mihai, from the Staatsoper Stuttgart)—an excellent vehicle for highlighting the particular qualities of Mr. Mihai’s voice.  Smooth across a wide range, the upper register blossoms excitingly.  Unlike many tenors whose repertories are centered in bel canto, Mr. Mihai’s voice is also well-projected even at low volume, enabling the beauty of the tone to carry through a large hall without forcing or pinching the tone in the upper octave.  When employing the head resonance required to produce the extreme upper register demanded by the music of Rossini, Mr. Mihai also avoids the nasality that affects the singing of many tenors in this repertory.  Perhaps even more rarely, his singing of complex coloratura passages is not marred by aspirates, elevating his vocal technique to the level of those possessed by Lawrence Brownlee and Juan Diego Flórez.  In short, Mr. Mihai’s voice is of a quality that is worthy of comparison with the best bel canto tenors of the age.

Above all, it is the emotional connection—with the composer, the music, fellow artists, audiences, and with one’s own conceptions of art and humanity—that is at the heart of Mr. Mihai’s singing.  ‘We sing the way we are as people,’ he suggests.  ‘For example, on stage we are extremely transparent to the public, and they can observe the way we are.  The energy, the joy, and the happiness of singing opera develops in my case because I love and respect my art, my public, and the sacred music.’  Normalcy, in Mr. Mihai’s view, is important to an artist’s ability to connect with an audience not merely on an artistic level but also on a personal one.  ‘In normal life, I’m simply like everyone else.  I enjoy staying with my family and my friends and everything beautiful in life.’  Singing, he feels, is a gift that is to be treasured and shared.  ‘I thank God for every morning when I open my eyes and breathe life.  I think that singing opera is a way of thanking Him for all the joy He brings in my life.’  This joy, so vital to his personal method of succeeding in his chosen life as an artist, is evident in his music-making.  Even when he sings music expressing villainous treachery or despondent sorrow, joy is the unavoidable reaction to hearing the voice of Bogdan Mihai.

Bogdan Mihai as Ernesto in Donizetti's DON PASQUALE at the Bucharest National Opera

Heartfelt thanks are extended to Mr. Mihai for his great kindness and openness in responding to questions for this article, as well as for his patience as the author battled an extended illness.

All photographs are used courtesy of Mr. Mihai.

Click here to visit Mr. Mihai’s official website, available in Romanian and English.  Click here to read Mr. Mihai’s engaging, informative blog.

Mr. Mihai is represented by Opera4u.

16 August 2010

ARTIST PROFILE: Simon Lobelson, baritone

Simon Lobelson, baritone

The extraordinary American baritone Leonard Warren once wrote that ‘tenors are noble, pure and heroic and get the soprano, if she has not tragically expired before the final curtain. But baritones are born villains in opera. Always the heavy and never the hero—that’s me.’ This was Warren’s sarcastic assessment of his operatic career, but his own performance diary, his remarkable range (which reportedly extended to a full-throated top C that would have been the envy of many dramatic tenors), and his participation in what was undoubtedly a Golden Age of singing, especially at the MET, surely enabled him to appreciate the baritone voice for its special capacities for theatre-filling angst, soulful anguish, powerful calls to arms, and dulcet paeans to love. Yet Warren’s tongue-in-cheek remarks reflect what is, among many music lovers, a common perception, that baritones in opera are relegated to portraying villains and figures of depravity; and occasionally also brothers and fathers, though in these cases usually meddling and ill-willed rather than loving and supportive. Warren would have recognized immediately that these stereotypes are derived largely from the Verdi canon, in which baritones—even when ‘heroes’ per se—are rarely wholly sympathetic. Yet, in so many performances of operas with tenor and soprano heroes and heroines, it is the singing of a baritone that wins the collective hearts of audiences. Pamina and Tamino survive their trials and are united, the wicked Königin der Nacht disappears on a cloud of F’s in alt, and Sarastro recesses into his beloved ‘heil’gen Hallen,’ but many audiences leave a performance of Die Zauberflöte with Papageno’s plight in their hearts and his tunes in their heads. The same is true of Mercutio in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Rodrigo in Verdi’s Don Carlo, Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and of course Rossini’s Figaro. It is only rarely that the same artist sings all of these roles, but they are related by more than the fact that they were composed for the baritone voice. There is among these and so many other baritone roles in opera a thread of emotional sincerity that often eludes characters created for higher or lower voices. It would be a misleading generalization to suggest that baritones are the emotional and philosophical epicenters of opera, but it cannot be denied that in many operas when there is deeper thinking it is a baritone who has done it. In many cases carrying the weight of the opera and its ultimate effectiveness with the audience on his shoulders, whether he is singing Cavalli, Mozart, Rossini, or Puccini, what a baritone must be above all—as Leonard Warren displayed in a MET career ranging from the Herald in Lohengrin, via Rangoni in Boris Godunov and Valentin in Faust, to the great Verdi roles—is versatility of voice and sentiment.

That versatility is one of the most immediately apparent aspects of the career of young baritone Simon Lobelson. Born in Sydney and raised in Brussels, Mr. Lobelson first pursued a career in music through his studies at the University of Sydney, where his focus was principally on musicology and led to first-class honors in his Bachelor of Music degree. Thereafter studying with celebrated Australian baritone John Pringle, a particular highlight of whose illustrious career was his creation of the role of Palfreyman in Richard Meale’s Voss (the first opera by an Australian composer on an authentically Australian subject), Mr. Lobelson took the Tinkler Award in the 2003 Australian Singing Competition. This honor was followed by Mr. Lobelson’s receipt of a scholarship enabling him to pursue postgraduate studies with acclaimed British baritone Roderick Earle under the auspices of London’s Royal College of Music. Having taken part in masterclasses with renowned singers such as Sir Thomas Allen, Gerald Finley, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Philip Langridge, Mr. Lobelson further honed his craft in the Royal College of Music’s prestigious Benjamin Britten International Opera School, from which he was matriculated with distinction. Mr. Lobelson presently studies with Sir Donald McIntyre, the New Zealand-born bass-baritone whose Wotan in the famed Patrice Chéreau production of Wagner’s Ring at Bayreuth is one of the lasting cultural icons of the Twentieth Century.

‘I have learnt a huge amount from Donald in a relatively short time,’ Mr. Lobelson reflects. ‘Anybody who has done a masterclass with him will know what a difficult task master he can be. There have been some singers who have gone to see him for a lesson and been too scared to ever return. I arrived for my first lesson with him armed with my artillery of arias from Verdi to Handel. Before we even touched these, he asked me if I knew any nursery rhymes. We then proceeded to sing ‘Humpty Dumpty’ for an hour and then spent three hours on the Count’s aria from Le Nozze di Figaro.’ Mr. Lobelson pauses. ‘Did I say the Count’s aria? I meant the recitative to the count’s aria. This was all less to do with vocal production than with bending your brain around a new way of phrasing your singing. All the time, he was constantly referring back to Wagner’s didactic phrases on music-making, like “Fertig in dem mund” (Ready in the mouth) and “Die kleine noten sind die Hauptsache” (The small notes are the main thing), meaning that paying due attention to the small notes in a phrase causes the longer notes to take care of themselves. And the music for which Donald has become so famous is sung with the same kind of approach as one would sing bel canto opera. Never park ‘n bark. That is,’ Mr. Lobelson explains, ‘perfectly-formed vowels, with preceding consonants before the beat, and those that are voiced, perfectly pitched on the note, with the sound always released. [McIntyre] would demonstrate ways of achieving these goals, for example, by throwing a pair of spectacles as each note is sung, sometimes by skipping around the room to take away the temptation to accent every downbeat, and sometimes running at full speed down a hill, to show that one must lean back slightly as not to fall flat on [one’s] face. Our lessons usually last a whole day and involve a few hours of singing, lunch, a brief walk around his farm, then more work; and of course many amazing stories from his career.’ Mr. Lobelson’s work with Sir Donald McIntyre is focused not only on the development of the voice in the short term but also on potential for future expansion of both the voice and the younger singer’s repertory. ‘He has his eye on me one day singing Alberich, possibly sooner than I’d like to, but one day nevertheless,’ Mr. Lobelson says. ‘The concept that young voices can’t learn how to sing by singing Wagner (if sung properly) is a myth. [McIntyre] is currently working on his own word-by-word translation of Hans Sachs, one of his greatest roles.’ Mr. Lobelson adds, ‘And yes, he is one of he greatest Wagnerians of the past century, of which I am reminded every time I watch him singing Wotan’s farewell [in Die Walküre].’

Simon Lobelson as L'Horloge comtoise in Maurice Ravel's L'ENFANT ET LES SORTILÈGES at the Royal College of Music

The belief that singing music that is often considered too ‘large’ to be safe for young singers sorting out their voices can, when done properly, be not only beneficial but revelatory, is central to Mr. Lobelson’s development of his own voice, as well as his formal tuition. ‘Cutting my teeth on bigger repertoire in lessons was a means to learning how to sing, as I already had a fairly solid technique,’ Mr. Lobelson reflects. ‘Things like the Prologue from Pagliacci, arias from Ernani, Don Carlo, even Verdi’s Iago taught me utensils and how to apply these things to all repertoire.’ He is nonetheless cautious in his choices of repertory, especially at this juncture in his career, recognizing the dangers of taking on overtly dramatic roles and the challenges of particular venues. ‘There are even older, more established singers who don’t know better, and seem to have become too famous for the Fach system and sing whatever they like—to their great detriment,’ Mr. Lobelson states. He feels, however, that ‘there really is no set vocal escalator of baritone roles. We are all on our own paths. Some singers started singing very successfully in their late thirties—Matteo Manugerra, for one [whose formal operatic début was in 1962, when he was nearing forty: his début as Rigoletto at the Opéra de Paris came in 1966, when he was forty-one]—and launched straight into the heavier repertoire. A baritone’s career path does not always consist of, for example, Masetto then Morales then Malatesta then Marullo then Marcello then Mandrycka then Musiklehrer then Macbeth, in that order, and then the entire bass repertoire when the tops of their voices have gone haywire.’ Mr. Lobelson adds, ‘This is a classic framework, but it’s not always like this, as singers return to old roles, and then it all depends on what roles one is offered and chooses to accept.’

Mr. Lobelson is also aware of the physical dimension that has become increasingly important in opera during the past generation and its ambiguous relationship with vocal prowess. ‘I have never been offered particularly heavy roles,’ he says. ‘Renato in Ballo in Maschera once. But, then, I don’t possess a large voice, and I am only 5’7”, so often people look at me and decide what I should be singing before they’ve even heard me. The number of times I’ve been turned down for the Count because of my height!’ Mr. Lobelson muses, adding, ‘Luckily, almost all the roles I have done have suited me quite well. I think the heaviest roles I’ve sung to date were Nottingham [in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, for Spain’s Opera Valladolid] and Mittenhofer [in Hans Werner Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers], which I recently covered for English National Opera. Yes, they challenged me, but I worked it out.’ Mr. Lobelson approaches each role with careful attention to both musical and dramatic values. ‘I guess I’m always apprehensive about doing a new role, for whatever reason,’ he says. ‘I went through this with my first Figaro [in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro], Alfonso [in Mozart’s Così fan tutte], Rossini’s Figaro, and Marcello [in Puccini’s La Bohème]. I remember being apprehensive about singing [Purcell’s] Aeneas at nineteen, but I really didn’t have a clue how to sing then. I sang the role very differently ten years later. But they all came at just the right time for me. Had they come a year earlier, I don’t know if I would have done them well.’ Mr. Lobelson muses, ‘But when is the right time to sing a role? Maybe like having kids, there is never a perfect time, but you just make it work. And, indeed, roles like Marcello [in Puccini’s La Bohème] actually teach you how to sing. When all’s said and done, we’re all different, so some singer’s Papageno is another’s Wotan. But you must always sing them your way, not like anyone else (even if you think that particular “somebody else” sings it much better).’

Describing his vocal technique as ‘rich and flexible,’ Mr. Lobelson is likewise aware of the precarious nature of the voice as a product of the body. ‘Being built into our own body, the voice can be affected by many things: health, environment, and particularly state of mind,’ he says. Reflecting on the familiar statements by singers such as Luciano Pavarotti and Sherrill Milnes, who observed that their voices were both dependent and independent entities within their bodies, Mr. Lobelson states, ‘The more I get to know my own body, patterns, and voice, the more reliable my instrument becomes. But quieting those negative demons of self-belief and staying focused whilst going through day-to-day life and its requirements, ups and sometimes downs, can be challenging.’ This achievement of equilibrium between the physical and mental demands of singing is, in Mr. Lobelson’s view, a central requirement to pursuing a successful career as a singer. ‘At times the greatest challenge [to being a singer], onstage and offstage, is maintaining strong self-belief. When the applause has ended, life is art and art is life. Which reflects which, I don’t know. The works I sing, and listen to, have led me to appreciate different layers in life, people, and situations. Some of these operatic characters have taught me a bit about life and have really had a didactic influence upon me. Music, singing, and my job have opened my soul to the wonders of life. Sometimes we need to forget about “the job” and simply listen and look with new, refreshed ears and eyes.’

Simon Lobelson as the Drunken Poet in Henry Purcell's THE FAIRY QUEEN with Pinchgut Opera

In approaching any role or production, whether for the first or the fiftieth time, one characteristic is vital to Mr. Lobelson’s art: truth, musical and dramatic. ‘Know what you’re singing about, and feel the emotions in the drama at any one time. This is what will drive the music, for are you not the one creating the entire sound-world with your inner thoughts and emotions? Music is what feelings sound like,’ he suggests. Pursuing this thought, he cautions, ‘Don’t “act.” Be. Whatever you feel, if fuelled by what is being said to you (and really listen now to what the others are saying!), will ensure that you will never go wrong. Drama isn’t about standing in the right place at the right time and moving your left pectoral muscle on the fourth bar of the bassoon melisma. All that stage “business” is meaningless if not felt. The musical aspect of this will be taken care of if the dramatic and character foundation is stable.’ Mr. Lobelson admits that there are roles and specific situations in which this necessary application of one’s own emotional engagement with the music is not so easily made. ‘Some of the greatest battles are not to be won by constantly trying to get it right,’ he concedes. ‘Sometimes you win these battles when you’re simply walking down the street, or doing the washing-up. Take the focus off the singing and tone production, and don’t think of “acting.” Think of reacting and simply “being.” Emotions of opera are intimate, and many theatres are very large, but audiences can see, whether trained in drama or not, when acting is false or overdone. The tools taught to an opera singer through vocalism, movement, and acting are simply to serve at the disposal of dramatic truth.’

In addition to opera, Mr. Lobelson’s work to date has encompassed an array of concert performances, in which he has amassed a repertory of some of the most important works in choral music, including Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium and Johannes-Passion, Händel’s Messiah, and Mozart’s C-minor Große-Messe and Requiem. His approach to concert singing, especially in oratorios, mirrors his personal philosophy on singing opera. ‘Affecting people, moving them and communicating with them, is incredibly gratifying. Isn’t that at the end of the day what it’s all about?’ Mr. Lobelson says. Considering his concert repertory, he reflects, ‘I’ve stood too many times next to singers in oratorios who sing beautifully but could well be reciting a shopping list rather than singing about the crucifixion and Jesus’ trials.’ Citing a technique mentioned in Richard Miller’s book Securing Baritone, Bass-Baritone, and Bass Voices, Mr. Lobelson states that a ‘a very useful tool in order to get you out of your head and cease constantly fretting over technical matters during performance is very simply to communicate. I mean really communicate. And you know what, it works. You sing better.’ As evidence of the effectiveness of this focus on communicating through the text, Mr. Lobelson recounts his recent experience with singing Haydn’s Die Schöpfung for the first time, music which he describes as ‘a technically tricky and very extended sing, covering both ends of the vocal spectrum for the bass. From start to finish,’ he recalls, ‘I simply thought of the words, depicting the narration of God’s creation of the earth. It was incredibly gratifying to tell such a wonderful story.’

Mr. Lobelson contends that this element of communicating through the music and text of a musical score in order to present an audience with a coherent, hopefully moving story begins with attention to communicating openly and candidly with oneself. ‘Were [I to offer other singers] a single most important piece of advice, it would have nothing to do with technique or roles or vocal production or musicality,’ he says. ‘It’s not even to do with how to get employed and behave on the job. It’s more to do with that which never gets taught at colleges—state of mind, which is what gets in the way of people achieving their best. We are all on our own path. As soon as you stop enjoying the job, or become obsessive about it for the wrong reasons (the peripheral), then stop. Don’t compare yourself to other people, for you’ll always be disappointed. Why are you doing this for a living? What is it that makes you wake up every morning and do this? Is it the money? The accolade? The attractive women simply throwing themselves at you (or not)? The fame? I have come to realize very recently that if I stopped singing, that’d be OK. And this is a very challenging thought for a full-time singer to conceptualize, and indeed with which to come to terms. Were this to happen, though, I would still have music in my life, and that to me is the most important thing. It’s the reason I began singing.’ Likewise, for Mr. Lobelson neither one’s attention to one’s individual craft in singing nor the blend of respect and genuine affection for the music one sings ends when a run of performances draws to its close. ‘I get very disturbed when colleagues of mine haven’t the slightest interest in exploring music outside the rehearsal room and shoot off comments to me like, “I don’t like to listen to opera in my free time, I leave work at work,”’ he says. Thoughtfully, he adds, ‘Yes, leave the petty politics and annoyances at work, but can’t you have a passion for the job, and more importantly the music, outside work? How are you supposed to get inside a character or drama or role if you never think about this when you’re on your own? First: I love music. Second: I love opera. Third: And I love singing. In that order. And I have no shame in saying that. Great pride, actually.’

This pride, especially refreshing in a young singer, is apparent in all that Mr. Lobelson sings, in staged performances, concerts, and on recordings of repertory as varied as Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas and Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (recordings on ABC Classics of productions by Australia’s enterprising Pinchgut Opera) and Dame Elizabeth Maconchy’s The Sofa (on Chandos, conducted by Dominic Wheeler). Flexing his muscles in the tricky arena of opera in concert, Mr. Lobelson also took part in a widely-acclaimed concert performance by Chelsea Opera Group of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur with Nelly Miricioiu and Rosalind Plowright. To ‘Early Music’ roles such as Joabel in David et Jonathas and the Drunken Poet in Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, Mr. Lobelson brings natural vocal flexibility and an uncanny ability to translate this pliancy of technique into a complementary dramatic adaptability. Building upon this foundation, he comes to later repertory with the versatility that is the hallmark of a successful singer. Pensive and modest about his artistry, Mr. Lobelson downplays the fact that he possesses a voice of beauty, its timbre dark but capable of taking on a myriad of colors depending upon the role and the dramatic temperature of the music he sings. ‘I can honestly say that I have never thought of my voice as beautiful. Regardless of this, I must agree that if you don’t make a good quality sound that people will want to hear, then don’t bother,’ he says. He also emphasizes that vocal beauty is inherently subjective, as exemplified by the singing of Maria Callas. ‘Callas said that “it isn’t enough that you have a beautiful voice; you must take this voice and break it up into a thousand pieces, so she will serve you,”’ he reflects. It can be argued unto the twilight of eternity whether Callas was completely successful in reassembling her voice, as it were, but there can be little debate about the shimmering, secure tone of Mr. Lobelson’s voice and the skill with which he uses it to shape performances that, no matter what fates befall his tenor and soprano colleagues, remain in the memory.

Simon Lobelson as Junius in Benjamin Britten's THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA

Looking to the future, it is significant that Mr. Lobelson cites as artists whom he particularly admires and whose work has influenced his own understanding of singing as an art and a profession are those whose careers spanned wide repertories: foremost his teacher, Sir Donald McIntyre (whose discography includes, in addition to his famous Wagner performances, a towering account of the name-part in Händel’s Saul), as well as Dame Margaret Price (a Mozartian second to none who also proved her importance as a Verdian at Covent Garden and elsewhere—Desdemona was the role of her Metropolitan Opera début—and recorded a thrilling Isolde for Carlos Kleiber), George London (as effective as Debussy’s Golaud and Mussorgsky’s Boris as in Mozart and Wagner roles), and Philip Langridge (an incalculably important singer whose active repertory included music from four centuries in roles both large and small, in all of which his artistry shone brilliantly). This versatility, founded upon secure technique and careful attention to texts, is at the heart of Mr. Lobelson’s aspirations, which are also tempered by keen self-awareness. ‘We all have roles and repertoire we want to sing in the future,’ he says. ‘I’d love to sing the Dutchman [in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer]. And King Philip in Don Carlo. But I know I won’t. Ever. Regardless of what I will be singing when I’m fifty, there are things I do not ever want to abandon in favor of “bigger” repertoire. I hope to sing Mozart’s da Ponte operas until I die. Now, [if] that means “graduating” (or slipping?) in Le Nozze di Figaro from Figaro (which I have sung) to Count Almaviva, to Antonio, to second bridesmaid, that’s fine. Nor would I wish to lose touch with the Baroque repertoire, either. I love the music’s directness, clarity, and sound world, especially when produced by some of the top Baroque specialists in Germany, France, and Italy, for example.’ Of course, Verdi and Wagner, whose music he views as both natural and healthy when approached with the appropriate vocal acumen, are central to the work of many baritones, and Mr. Lobelson is likely to be no exception to this as his career progresses. ‘I must say that I don’t think Verdi and Wagner cause a singer to lose flexibility—if sung correctly,’ he says.

It is this notion of singing ‘correctly’ that is the conundrum—and the undoing—for many younger singers. Speaking of the power of music to wash away ‘the dust of everyday life,’ Mr. Lobelson recognizes that, as directors and managements are eager to convince audiences, a trait crucial to the survival of opera is its relevance. Yet he also acknowledges, with rare insight, that this relevance is determined internally by the artists and the audiences who witness their work. ‘Opera will always be relevant,’ Mr. Lobelson offers, ‘whether set in Jacobean England or Twenty-First Century Hong Kong. But one must never forget what it is that defines relevance.’ This, he feels, is the culmination of an artist’s work, to convey to an audience thoughtfully-rendered parts which, when properly assembled, reveal a meaningful story. That singing is a profoundly personal experience for Mr. Lobelson is evident in all aspects of his artistry, behind the curtain as much as before the footlights. Baritones are plentiful but, in one of the few things upon which opera-goers in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century will agree, good ones are not. Displaying the versatility necessary to effectively and touchingly portray a deceptive, ambitious Israelite soldier in an underappreciated Baroque opera, Mozart’s wily Don Alfonso, the treacherous, wronged Duke of Nottingham in a Donizetti rarity, and Bizet’s swaggeringly virile but too-often-hackneyed toréador, Simon Lobelson is among the best young baritones singing today, and unlike most artists of his generation he understands how he got to the point in his career that he presently enjoys. Considering his early experiences at the Royal College of Music, he says, ‘There were bigger voices, better voices, more beautiful voices, more flexible voices, and voices that could do the various things on which I’d prided myself better.’ Rather than proving a field of competition, this was for Mr. Lobelson an environment in which he gained an appreciation for the complexities of making a career as a singer that guides him as he looks to his future as an artist. Pondering, iPod in hand, as he enjoyed a vista of a serene lakeside garden in Scotland, where he was preparing to sing Escamillo in Carmen, Mr. Lobelson reflects on his journey to date as a singer. ‘[I have been] listening to the Act Two quartet finale of Die Entführung auf dem Serail. The applause has just ended. What am I thinking about now, having just heard one of the most sublime, life- and love-affirming pieces of music? Naturally, [about] love—for my family and for all the world and nature. I know that probably very soon I will forget this feeling again. But I also know with the firmest assurance that I will recall it all again when music again moves my soul.’ It is such love for music that gives life to the works of long-dead composers and, combined with the gift of a good voice and the acquisition of a durable technique, makes the work of a singer memorable. Simon Lobelson is a singer in whose work this combination is consistently audible, and for years to come his enthusiasm for his craft will be a vital element in the effort to validate the relevance of opera and concert music to audiences in the Twenty-First Century.

Simon Lobelson, baritone

The author’s deepest gratitude is extended to Mr. Lobelson for his kindness, insightfulness, and uncommon candor in responding to questions for this article.

All photographs are used with Mr. Lobelson’s permission.

Click here to visit Mr. Lobelson's Official Website.