22 May 2010

CD REVIEW: Ruggero Leoncavallo – I MEDICI (P. Domingo, C. Álvarez, D. Dessì, R. Lamanda, E. Owens; DGG 477 7456)

Ruggero Leoncavallo: I MEDICI (P. Domingo, C. Álvarez, D. Dessì, R. Lamanda; DGG 477 7456)

RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919): I Medici – P. Domingo (Giuliano de’ Medici), C. Álvarez (Lorenzo de’ Medici), D. Dessì (Simonetta Cattanei), R. Lamanda (Fioretta de’ Gori), E. Owens (Giambattista da Montesecco), V. Kowaljow (Francesco Pazzi), C. Bosi (Bernardo Bandini), A. Kotchinian (L’Archivescovo Salviata), F.M. Capitanucci (Il Poliziano); Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Coro di Voci Bianche della Scuola di Musica di Fiesole; Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Alberto Veronesi [recorded in the Teatro Comunale, Florence, during July 2007; DGG 477 7456]

Why?  Even the most ardent admirers of the world’s busiest tenorissimo surely utter this question to themselves when they see another new recording of a forgotten score with their idol at the top of the cast list.  First from DGG there was the studio recording of Isaac Albéniz’s Pepita Jiménez that left many critics and listeners wondering which was more embarrassing, the opera or the performance, though it had to be conceded that our leading man’s singing was the best part of the recording.  Then, there were new versions of zarzuelas recorded in performance in Spain, most notably the Teatro Real production of Luisa Fernanda, valuable documents of Señor Domingo’s work in the musical tradition inherited from his padres and, in general, redolent of the theatre but as well-recorded as many studio sets.  A studio recording of Puccini’s Edgar followed; not quite a forgotten score, it is true, and one with a recording of a legendary Carnegie Hall concert performance with Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Scotto available to anyone who wanted to hear it.  Now there comes this studio recording of Leoncavallo’s long-buried I Medici, utilizing a ‘critical revision’ edited by Graziano Mandozzi and published by Ricordi in 1993.  This critical revision was undoubtedly prepared in order to mark the centenary of the opera’s premiere at Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme (where Pagliacci also had its premiere) on 9 November 1893, with Francesco Tamagno—Verdi’s first Otello—as Giuliano de’ Medici.  Perceived by critics and touted by its composer as an Italianate homage to Wagner, I Medici was not successful at its premiere and was heard very infrequently (if ever) thereafter until a 1993 concert performance—also marking the opera’s centenary—by the forces of Alte Oper Frankfurt with Giuseppe Giacomini as Giuliano.

So, again, why?  Even if one is tempted to doubt the underlying artistic merit of the tenor’s recorded exploration of operatic esoterica, one thing for which Plácido Domingo must be congratulated is his ability to secure the collaboration of Deutsche Grammophon in making commercial recordings that surely have decidedly limited aspirations for financial success.  When even Juan Diego Flórez, one of his generation’s most important singers and one very much in his prime, must content himself with few-and-far-between ‘live’ recordings, the influence that Mr. Domingo continues to enjoy is palpable.  Later this year, a new recording of Giordano’s Fedora with Maestro Veronesi presiding over Angela Gheorghiu’s Fedora and Mr. Domingo’s Loris is due for release.  Perhaps, then, the true question is, why I Medici?  With a libretto by the composer, it is a standard-issue veristic tale of amorous entanglements, murders, and conspiracies involving the Church, and it has the undoubted strength of ending with a lynching.  Leoncavallo’s music has Wagnerian pretentions, and unfortunately this is precisely how it sounds; lesser-quality Leoncavallo with an ostentatious vein of Wagner—pasticcio and direct quotes—injected into the flesh.  The score of course lacks the stinging passion of Pagliacci but also the uneasy charm of his Bohème and the wistful pathos of Zazà, but even lesser-quality Leoncavallo is still Leoncavallo, and there are in I Medici moments in which one glimpses the musical distinction of the composer of Pagliacci.

It is to the credit of Alberto Veronesi, with whom Deutsche Grammophon have embarked on an informal verismo series, that these moments in which the music in I Medici seems better than it truly is are relatively plentiful.  Conducting the combined choruses of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and Voci Bianche della Scuola di Musica di Fiesole (a children’s ensemble) and the orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Maestro Veronesi conducts the recording, which followed a performance at the 2007 Puccini Festival (mounted for the 150th anniversary of Leoncavallo’s birth), with grace and the good sense to keep things moving when Leoncavallo’s pseudo-Wagnerisms threaten to impede musical and dramatic progress.  Portions of the score obviously regarded by the composer as ‘purple passages’ are allowed to develop naturally but unsentimentally, with Maestro Veronesi gauging his tempos to respect the capacities of his singers.  If not quite the equals of their La Scala counterparts or even their Maggio Musicale ancestors, the Florentine singers and players have Leoncavallo’s idiom—even when it is somewhat diluted on a Wagnerian palette—in their musical mitochondria.  Leoncavallo gives the choristers a good deal to do, and they meet every demand set before them.  Praise is due to Deutsche Grammophon’s engineers for capturing the work of singers and players alike in spacious but detailed sound.

As in most verismo scores, the lion’s share of the musical challenges in I Medici is assigned to the quartet of principals, but the opera relies more than most of Leoncavallo’s other works on reliable singing in supporting roles.  The conspirators against the Medici brothers are sung with gleeful relish by Italian tenor Carlo Bosi (Bernardo Bandini), Armenian bass Arutjun Kotchinian (L’Arcivescovo Salviati), and Ukranian bass Vitalij Kowaljow (Francesco Pazzi).  The minimal contributions of il Poliziano are stylishly done by Italian baritone Fabio Maria Capitanucci.

The historical role of Giambattista da Montesecco, a captain in the Papal army who has been entrusted with the task of assassinating the brothers Medici, is sung by American bass-baritone Eric Owens, an exciting singer whose operatic repertory extends from Monteverdi and Händel to Twenty-First-Century works.  Mr. Owens made his Metropolitan Opera debut in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, but he was especially lauded by MET audiences for his performances as Sarastro in the Julie Taymor production of Die Zauberflöte.  As Montesecco, Mr. Owens cleverly and chillingly embodies the role of the Holy See’s ruthless assassin, conveying the sinister sliminess of the part through the coloration of his voice.  Leoncavallo conjures Montesecco’s cutthroat sound world by peppering his vocal lines with frequent descents to a sepulchral lower register.  The cumulative tessitura of the music seems slightly too low to be completely comfortable for Mr. Owens, leading to a ‘dead’ sound (which, to be fair, is perhaps unduly emphasized by the recording perspective) in the voice.  This is not inappropriate for a character who is an agent of death for hire, but the role surely shares with most villains in Italian opera the tendency to be most effective as an instrument of evil if also deceptively charming and beautiful.  Nonetheless, among basses of the past few decades only Kurt Moll and Cesare Siepi could have brought to the role an ideal blend of vocal depth and tonal warmth, and in fact Mr. Owens sings the role as well as any active singer is likely to have done.

The famous de’ Medici, Lorenzo, is sung by Spanish baritone Carlos Álvarez, a singer with celebrated portraits of Verdi and verismo roles in his repertory.  Mr. Álvarez’s voice has always seemed to lack on records the impact that it can have in an opera house, where the wide vibrato on his topmost tones is mitigated by the space in which the tone can expand.  The voice has a ruggedly handsome timbre that suggests authority, but in this performance Mr. Álvarez’s approach is too conventionally blunt and hectoring.  His character is a man with a target on his back, but he is also Lorenzo de’ Medici, the patron of Botticelli, da Vinci, and Michelangelo, and whose charisma was sufficient to stifle the Papacy-backed insurrection that took the life of his brother Giuliano.  One hears the brute force in Mr. Álvarez’s performance but not the charm and diplomacy that made Lorenzo de’ Medici more powerful in his Florentine Republic than the Pope.  Mr. Álvarez’s actual singing of the notes cannot be faulted, but his one-dimensional performance is disappointing.

The somewhat hapless love interests of Giuliano de’ Medici are a pair of Arcadian maidens, one of them loved by Giuliano but—predictably—both of them in love with him.  Both are tragic heroines in a sense, one condemned to die of consumption in Giuliano’s arms in the third of the four acts and the other widowed by the man who impregnated her but never truly requited her love and destined to give birth to a future Pope.  Leoncavallo’s intention was to contrast the roles by assigning the withering consumptive, Simonetta, to a lyric soprano and the stronger, ultimately maternal Fioretta to a heavier, more dramatic voice.  The effectiveness of this is undermined to a degree in this performance by the casting of Daniela Dessì as Simonetta.  Ms. Dessì is a lyric soprano who at this point in her career, not unlike Mirella Freni before her, has several seasons of dramatic roles to her credit.  Singing heavier repertory has taken a toll on Ms. Dessì’s voice, especially in the extreme upper register, which is apt to loosen slightly under pressure.  Ms. Dessì sings with abandon, however, thrusting the voice into the highest notes with exciting attack.  If the results are not always as thrilling as one would like them to be, Ms. Dessì at least gives a performance that suggests that she regards the opera as something more than a tattered score that had been collecting dust for more than a century.

If Simonetta is I Medici’s Nedda, it might be said—to borrow from a traditional association—that Fioretta is its Santuzza.  Sung by Italian mezzo-soprano Renata Lamanda, who surprisingly does not list Santuzza among the dramatic mezzo-soprano roles in her repertory, Fioretta receives a performance of musical and dramatic conviction.  There is in the baleful sound of Ms. Lamanda’s voice a sense of the dejection of unrequited love, and she pursues her quest of loving a man who is not truly in love with her with convincing vocal ardor.  There are a few instances of clumsy handling of register shifts, but Ms. Lamanda’s experience with a role such as the Principessa in Adriana Lecouvreur serves her well in Leoncavallo’s music.  Ms. Lamanda avoids making Fioretta seem a shrew, a danger which appears large when one reads the libretto.  The nature of her role does not distract Ms. Lamanda from indulging in old-fashioned, eyes-on-the-melodic-line Italian singing, an approach of which Leoncavallo would surely have approved.  The timbre is not distinctive but is pleasant and forceful when required, and Ms. Lamanda contributes an effective performance of her role.

The parallels between the repertories of Francesco Tamagno, Leoncavallo’s first Giuliano de’ Medici, and Plácido Domingo suggest that Giuliano should be a near-ideal role for Mr. Domingo—or perhaps that it would have been earlier in his career.  It is clear almost at once that Giuliano was the focus of Leoncavallo’s most studious musical interest, an effort at creating his own Siegfried or Tannhäuser.  The wonder of Mr. Domingo’s performance is that he manages the challenging tessitura of the role with an assurance that is undeniably impressive for a tenor who was six months past his sixty-sixth birthday at the time at which the recording was made.  This is not to suggest that the music is managed without strain, for the effort required to produce many of the higher tones is almost painfully audible.  The vibrato has unraveled slightly, but the bronzed, burnished quality of the tone remains intact.  After more than four decades of service, Mr. Domingo’s timbre remains immediately recognizable, a trait that is increasingly rare among his often anonymous-sounding younger colleagues.  Mr. Domingo is not in this performance an astonishingly insightful interpreter, but his earnestness and attention to musical values are decided assets.  On the whole, Mr. Domingo offers a performance that, while perhaps not fully justifying the expense of a studio recording for this work, proves that his voice and versatility remain impressive despite the unavoidable diminishments wrought by time.

It is certainly possible to appreciate the reasoning that compels many younger singers to long for Mr. Domingo to step aside.  Hearing the quality of singing of which he remains capable, however, it is also possible to appreciate why he continues singing as his seventieth birthday approaches.  Had Mr. Domingo recorded I Medici in the early years of his career, with Montserrat Caballé as Simonetta, Fiorenza Cossotto as Fioretta, Sherrill Milnes as Lorenzo, and Cesare Siepi as Montesecco, he might have managed to convince his listeners that the opera is an overlooked gem.  This recording misses that mark but is an enjoyably honorable effort.

Ruggero Leoncavallo

ARTIST PROFILE: Christophe Dumaux, countertenor

Countertenor Christophe Dumaux [Photo by David Bachmann]

When visiting Bologna in August 1770, the English music historian and author Charles Burney wrote in his famous journal of meeting the world-renowned castrato Farinelli, ‘I cannot describe the pleasure it gave me to see this extraordinary personage, who had so enchanted all Europe by his uncommon powers.’  It is indeed a testament to the remarkable quality of Farinelli’s singing that Burney, from whose pen came some of the most astute assessments of Farinelli’s singing during his London tenure as primo uomo of his tutor Niccolò Porpora’s Opera of the Nobility, should have written so exuberantly of him more than three decades after his voice had last been heard in Britain.  Farinelli was unquestionably among the finest castrati of the Eighteenth Century, a member of an unintentional fraternity of singers who inspired some of the most demanding and emotionally poignant music of the Baroque and early Classical periods.  One of the greatest challenges faced by artists involved with the Baroque renaissance that emerged in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century was the necessity of making decisions about how and by whom music composed for castrati would be sung.  In the occasional performances of works like Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Händel’s Giulio Cesare prior to the 1970’s, roles composed for castrati (principally Nerone and Ottone in the former and the name-part in the latter) were typically transposed for tenors, baritones, or basses, enabling preservation of the gender identities of the roles at the expense of the composers’ concepts of musical integrity.  The heightened sensibilities of the Baroque renaissance led to ever-broadening efforts to present Baroque and early Classical scores in performances that adhered to their composers’ original intentions, not just by using instruments and playing techniques from these periods but by restoring Monteverdi’s, Händel’s, and their contemporaries’ operatic heroes to the vocal registers for which they were composed.

Some twenty years before the Baroque renaissance reached its zenith, two unique artists emerged who paved the way for Baroque specialists to realign the music composed for Eighteenth-Century castrati with male singers possessing the appropriate vocal registers.  In Britain, there was Sir Alfred Deller, a remarkably unique artist whose work in the sacred and secular music of Bach and Händel revitalized the legendary British choral tradition and whose revelatory performances of John Dowland’s Elizabethan songs and the music of Henry Purcell not only refocused the attention of Twentieth-Century British musicians on the music of their collective past but also inspired Benjamin Britten to compose the role of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whose music recalls Purcell, for him.  In America, there was Russell Oberlin, an equally important and perhaps even more effective artist whose voice, in contrast to Deller’s falsetto, was a genuine high tenor in the tradition of the French haute-contre.  Neither Deller nor Oberlin enjoyed extensive opera-house careers despite being regarded as pioneers in singing castrato roles at the original pitches.  Comparing their sounds, Deller’s voice was ethereal, a sexless timbre that could seem almost inhuman, whereas Oberlin’s voice was similarly pure but firmer and more centered, capable of reaching soprano heights but always obviously emanating from the throat of a man.  The combined influence of these two artists set the stage for the advent of the modern countertenor in the subsequent generation, when the doors of the world’s opera houses opened to singers such as James Bowman, René Jacobs, Jeffrey Gall (the first countertenor to sing a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera), Jochen Kowalski, and, another few years on, David Daniels and Andreas Scholl.

Christophe Dumaux as Unulfo in Händel's RODELINDA on the occasion of his Metropolitan Opera debut, 2 May 2006 [Photo by Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera]

It is upon the foundation laid by these esteemed singers that the career of young French countertenor Christophe Dumaux has been built.  ‘The first one I want to quote [as an influence on my career] is James Bowman, with whom I [took part in] a master class,’ Mr. Dumaux reflects: ‘then René Jacobs, and later Andreas Scholl and David Daniels.  I [was] brought up with the recordings of all these artists, and I [have been] lucky to work with them in my career.’  It was opposite the Bertarido of Andreas Scholl in Händel’s Rodelinda that Mr. Dumaux made his Metropolitan Opera debut on 2 May 2006, a performance that prompted Bernard Holland to write in the New York Times that Mr. Dumaux’s MET debut heralded the arrival of another ‘first-rate countertenor.’  In an age in which first-rate countertenors are perhaps more plentiful than first-rate Verdians and Wagnerians, there are nonetheless exceptional qualities in Mr. Dumaux’s singing that set him apart.

The son of musical parents, Mr. Dumaux’s first explorations of the family craft were as a cellist.  ‘My cellist experience was a passion, and at that time [in my life] I didn’t want to become a musician,’ he recollects.  ‘The cello was at first a hobby, but [during] the same period I began to sing in a chorus, and I realized that my experience in an orchestra brought me a kind of humility [that enabled me] to begin my career as a singer.  To my mind, these two worlds are completely different.’  After studying singing in his native France and taking part in a student production of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, Mr. Dumaux made his professional debut as Eustazio in Händel’s Rinaldo in Montpellier at the Festival de Radio France in 2002, in a production conducted by René Jacobs and recorded by harmonia mundi.

 Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo in Händel's GIULIO CESARE at the Opéra de Lausanne, with Charlotte Hellekant as Cornelia and Max Emanuel Cencic as Sesto

An important milestone in Mr. Dumaux’s career followed in 2005, when he participated in the rapturously-received David McVicar production of Giulio Cesare at the Glyndebourne Festival, singing Tolomeo, a part that has become in the brief space of five years a signature role that Mr. Dumaux has sung to great praise with opera companies throughout Europe and the United States.  The role of Tolomeo epitomizes Mr. Dumaux’s approach to his art, which in his own assessment is centered on maintaining a sense of spontaneity.  ‘Each time I am on stage I try to make my character evolve,’ Mr. Dumaux says.  ‘I try to convey to the audience the dark, complex sides of the character, such as for Tolomeo, who is both Machiavellian and at the same time charming.  Indeed, I’ve sung Tolomeo more than eighty times, and each time I try to bring something new to the character.’  Mr. Dumaux’s success in achieving spontaneity is apparent in any of his performances as Tolomeo.  Of his performance in the November 2007 outing of the McVicar production at Chicago Lyric Opera, conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, Steve Smith wrote in the New York Times, ‘The countertenor Christophe Dumaux brought a penetrating voice and a thrilling physical athleticism to the role of Tolomeo, Cleopatra’s conniving brother and co-ruler.  His interactions with Ms. de Niese [soprano Danielle de Niese, who sang Cleopatra] mixed salaciousness with adolescent contrition in a manner both fascinating and repellent.’

Not surprisingly, the music of Händel occupies a large place in Mr. Dumaux’s repertory.  ‘I am open to all repertories,’ he says, ‘but I prefer when the music had specially been composed for countertenors – even if Händel composed not for countertenors but for castrati.’  Music both earlier and later than Händel is also vital to Mr. Dumaux’s career and artistic development, however.  ‘I’ve recently sung [the Voice of Apollo] in Death in Venice by Benjamin Britten in the Theater an der Wien.  Next year, I’ll be in a new contemporary creation composed by Bruno Mantovani, called Akhmatova, at the Opéra de Paris. I have received scores by Jonathan Dove, and I am very interested in this music and hope to sing this repertory very soon.’  Even while possessing a welcome and obviously intuitive musical curiosity, Mr. Dumaux is aware of the natural boundaries of his voice at this time in his career, bringing uncommonly insightful judiciousness to his choices of repertory.  ‘Before accepting a contract I always look at the score, and if this [role] doesn’t fit me I prefer to refuse the role rather than to risk running into trouble vocally.  I have refused many roles; for instance, Nerone in L’Incoronazione di Poppea.  I am very interested in this role thanks to the duality and complexity of the character, but unfortunately I don’t have sufficient high notes at this moment [in my career].  Maybe I’ll get them in few years, and my voice will allow me to sing this part.  In 2011, I am [scheduled] to sing the title roles of Giulio Cesare and Rinaldo, and I think that both of these experiences will happen in suitable moments in my career.’  Mr. Dumaux adds, pensively, ‘Generally, I prefer to sing secondary roles in order to avoid trouble with a primary one.’

Christophe Dumaux as Cavalli's Giasone in Mariame Clément's production for Vlaamse Opera [Photo by Annemie Augustijn, Vlaamse Opera]

His considerable success in leading roles is evident from the recent recording of Händel’s Orlando, previously reviewed on this site, in which Mr. Dumaux brings both intensity and tonal beauty to his performance of the title role, however.  Another recent success was in the name-part in Mariame Clément’s evocative production of Cavalli’s Giasone for Vlaamse Opera.  Critic Bernard Schreuders wrote on ForumOpera.com that Mr. Dumaux, ‘who continues to improve, enacted a Giasone as camp as one could wish, both seductive and detestable, and he brought off with panache tessitura that is dangerous for a countertenor.’  Of Ms. Clément’s production, Mr. Dumaux says, ‘The director [Ms. Clément] chose not to place the action in the [era of Classical] mythology but in a post-Apocalyptic setting in order for the spectator to interpret the story and place it in the period that he wants.’  Though a potentially controversial business, Mr. Dumaux feels that a certain degree of artistic license among directors is crucial to introducing younger audiences to opera.  ‘I think that the most important [things] are to adapt classic repertories to modern situations and, more particularly, to attract young people to operas; and also to try to stop some of the prejudices that concern [young people’s perceptions of] opera. That’s why, even in Baroque repertory, some directors update the sets and costumes and make the operas more approachable to young people.’  This progressive attitude towards the presentation of opera is consistent with Mr. Dumaux’s personal philosophy of singing, which he characterizes as being based upon ‘pleasure and rigor.’

Above all, it is Mr. Dumaux’s view that striking a balance between one’s lives on and off the stage is the most critical component of an individual’s artistry.  ‘The state of mind influences the voice a lot,’ he suggests, ‘and [I believe that] if the strength [of mind] is absent there is no way to sing in a good way.  The most gratifying element of singing for me is to really enjoy being on stage and giving pleasure to the audience.  The day when I no longer enjoy being on stage, I’ll stop my career.  Indeed, the greatest challenge of this career for me will be to enjoy the stage for another twenty years and more!’  Realizing, respecting, and managing the impact that a career as a singer has on one’s personal life and relationships are the other elements of the balance for which Mr. Dumaux strives.  ‘I spent a lot of time to dedicate my life to music, far away from my family and friends.  This cost me a lot, so I realized that my private life is more important than music and now I succeed in reconciling both my private life and music.  Music is a passion, but my biggest passions are life and spending time with those I love.  If I have to refuse some contracts to spend more time with my family, I don’t hesitate.’  The almost indiscernible core of his artistry is this ability to give everything to his audience in the course of a performance but to resume a refreshingly ‘normal’ life when the applause ends.  ‘When I am on stage I am not Christophe Dumaux anymore: I am entirely the character.  But when the performance is over, the character is left on stage.’  This, in Mr. Dumaux’s view, is the way in which a thoughtful artist survives the sacrifices he makes for his art.

Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo in Händel's GIULIO CESARE at the Opéra de Lille, with Charlotte Hellekant as Cornelia [Photo by Frédéric Iovino]

It is this emotional centeredness that allows such a thoughtful young man to portray threatened, tormented, and sometimes unhinged characters with fiery brilliance.  As with any singer, however, it is the voice that demands primary attention, and Mr. Dumaux’s modesty cannot obscure the fact that his is a vibrant, beautiful voice that is meant for leading roles.  Unlike those of many of his rivals, Mr. Dumaux’s voice is a true alto, even from the bottom of his range in baritonal chest resonance to the bright top and without the slightest hint of femininity.  His is unquestionably a masculine timbre, and an heroic one that is well-suited to the alto castrato leading men in the operas of Händel and his contemporaries.  Though the actual timbres and ranges are not at all alike, there is something in the sweet but stirring sound of Mr. Dumaux’s voice that is reminiscent of some of the headily beautiful voices of generations past, voices such as those of Georgi Vinogradov and Léopold Simoneau.  As with these artists, the intensity of Mr. Dumaux’s singing is derived organically from his consummate musicality and dedication to thoughtful, idiomatic delivery of text.  He is content to follow composers where they lead him and, in making these journeys repeatedly, to find new insights and nuances at every turn.  As he suggests, each performance is a new creation such that even a role that he has sung more than eighty times is approached with a combination of experience and inquisitiveness rather than with a carefully-sorted-out impersonation that is employed repetitively, unchanged, and then stored away like a costume until it is required again.

Mr. Dumaux is a rare countertenor who, possessing a voice of exceptional quality, a solid technique, and an impressive understanding of himself as a man and an artist, one can imagine enduring in his craft to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of his professional debut.  Perhaps more remarkably, Christophe Dumaux is the even rarer countertenor one can truly imagine oneself wanting to hear for decades to come.

Christophe Dumaux in the title role of Händel's ORLANDO at the Théâtre Municipal de Tourcoing

Heartfelt thanks are extended to Mr. Dumaux for his wondrous grace, kindness, and candor in responding to the questions that formed the basis for this article.

Sincere thanks are also extended to Mr. Dumaux’s manager, Ms. Claire Feazey of IMG Artists Paris, for her dedicated assistance and to Ms. Marie Kalaghabian, Vocal Division Intern at IMG Paris, for her assistance with providing photographs used in this article.

Click here to visit Mr. Dumaux’s profile on the IMG Artists Paris website.

06 May 2010

IN MEMORIAM: Italian mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato, 1910 - 2010

Italian mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato (1910 - 2010) as Santuzza in Mascagni's CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA


12 May 1910 – 5 May 2010

The life and work of the remarkable Italian mezzo-soprano Giulietta Simionato, who passed away in Rome a week before she would have marked her 100th birthday, are too familiar to require detailed recounting.  She was, especially during the last two decades of her nearly-forty-year career, the reigning Italian dramatic mezzo-soprano in all of the world’s principal opera houses, her performances as Azucena (in which role she débuted at the Metropolitan Opera, opposite Carlo Bergonzi, Antonietta Stella, and Leonard Warren) and Amneris remaining unsurpassed standards more than forty-four years after her retirement in 1966.  She was also a pioneer in singing Rossini’s Rosina in the original mezzo-soprano keys in an age in which the role had been appropriated by coloratura sopranos and in singing La Cenerentola, which aside from the famous Glyndebourne production with Spanish mezzo-soprano Marina de Gabarain was ignored until another Spaniard, Teresa Berganza, espoused the opera in the 1970’s.

From a purely personal perspective, Giulietta Simionato was an exceptional artist, which is to say that she was an artist of exceptions.  In my view, the role of Santuzza in Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana requires a dramatic soprano – except for Giulietta Simionato, whose voice was of such richness and expansive security in the upper register that it could easily encompass the merely technical aspects of the role while tearing into the dramatic flesh of the opera with special intensity.  Good as the work of many international singers has been in the role, Bizet’s Carmen possesses a quintessentially French insouciance that is best enacted by French singers – except for Giulietta Simionato, whose Carmen seduces with sultry arrogance and an alluring integrity even when sung in Italian.  Valentine in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, first sung by the much-discussed French soprano Cornélie Falcon, demands a powerful singer of the elusive Fach named for its creator – except for Giulietta Simionato, whose performances (albeit sung in Italian) of the role in the famous 1962 La Scala production with Dame Joan Sutherland and Franco Corelli, audibly from the timbre of the voice the work of a mezzo-soprano, shone like meteors even in a very starry firmament.  [Maria Callas, who was perhaps closer than any other singer active in 1962 to being a true Falcon, entered into negotiations with La Scala to sing Valentine in the Huguenots production, but nothing came of it.  Could even La Divina have sung the role more magnificently than Simionato?]

It was opposite Maria Callas, at La Scala in 1957, that Giulietta Simionato enjoyed one of her greatest triumphs, as Giovanna Seymour to Callas’ Anna Bolena.  In interviews conducted after her retirement, she often cited her performances as Giovanna Seymour in 1957 as the pinnacle of her career, and hearing any of the available recordings of the 14 April performance reveals at once the work of an incomparable singer at her breathtaking best.  The La Scala production of Anna Bolena was also a milestone in Callas’ career, and hearing the two singers dueling with their voices in the great duet for Anna and Giovanna – the incredible anger and betrayal of Callas’ Anna as she accuses Simionato’s Giovanna of being the rival for whom Enrico has spurned and condemned her and the horrified guilt and sorrow of Simionato’s Giovanna, a woman who knows that she is soon to be Queen, still riveting after so many years – is to hear the interaction between two artists for whom the music was a genuine conversation, not between a Queen and her would-be usurper but between two women, both of them ambitious but desperately frightened, who loved the same man.  It is not the art that conceals art or, as Leoncavallo put it, art that is a slice of life: it simply is life that, for those moments in the hands of great artists, happens to take place in song.

There is no more charming recording of Giulietta Simionato than her account with baritone Ettore Bastianini of ‘Anything You Can Do’ from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, part of the gala sequence in Herbert von Karajan’s DECCA recording of Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus.  Making her entrance with a sepulchral ‘Reverenza’ (a reference to her success as Mistress Quickly in Verdi’s Falstaff), this is a singer who is not afraid to poke fun at herself.  Her interactions with Bastianini in exaggeratedly-accented English are delicious: the jewel is surely when she responds to Bastianini’s assertion that he ‘can live on bread and cheese’ with the deadpan line, complete with absurdly-trilled r, ‘so can a rrrrrrat!’  It is cute, it is genuinely hilarious – above all, it is the essence of Giulietta Simionato.

As a modest collector of operatic memorabilia, principally photographs of singers whose work I admire, one of my most cherished possessions is a rare photograph (reproduced below), taken on the stage of La Scala in 1963, showing Giulietta Simionato as Santuzza on her knees at the feet of Franco Corelli as Turiddu, their expressions so passionate and yet so natural.  This description might apply with equal validity to Simionato’s artistry: as passionate as the fiery core of the earth and as natural as breathing.

BRAVA, Giulietta, grazie, e addio.

Giulietta Simionato and Franco Corelli in CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA at La Scala, 1963

CD REVIEW: André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry – ANDROMAQUE (K. Deshayes, M.R. Wesseling, S. Guèze, T. Christoyannis; Glossa GCD 921620)

Grétry: ANDROMAQUE (Deshayes, Wesseling, Guèze, Christoyannis; Glossa GCD 921620)

ANDRÉ-ERNEST-MODESTE GRÉTRY (1741 – 1813): Andromaque – K. Deshayes (Andromaque), M.R. Wesseling (Hermione), S. Guèze (Pyrrhus), T. Christoyannis (Oreste), M. Heim (Phœnix), É. Hache (une Greque), E. Hurtrait (un Greq); Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles, Chœur du Concert Spirituel; Orchestre du Concert Spirituel; Hervé Niquet [recorded at Salle Henry Le Bœuf, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, in October 2009, in conjunction with concert performances in Brussels and Paris; Glossa GCD 921620]

To all but those who are specialists in French opera of the late Eighteenth Century, the Belgian-born composer André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry is most remembered for a score that he did not compose: the opera Pikovaya Dama (or The Queen of Spades), in which Tchaikovsky quoted the aria ‘Je crains de lui parler la nuit’ from Grétry’s Richard Coeur-de-lion as the Old Countess recalls her fast-and-loose youth in Paris.  Richard Coeur-de-lion was widely considered the masterpiece of its composer, who was a seminal figure in post-Rameau French music and some of whose fifty or so operas held French stages until the end of the Nineteenth Century (a record that the operas of Puccini are only just achieving, by comparison).  With Tchaikovsky’s appropriation of ‘Je crains de lui parler la nuit’ and the adoption of another aria from Richard Coeur-de-lion, ‘O Richard, o mon roi,’ by Royalists during the French Revolution, Grétry’s influence seems merely topical from an historical perspective, but his music was almost universally admired during the late Eighteenth Century, particularly the operas Zémire et Azor (recorded for French EMI/Pathé by the wonderful Mady Mesplé) and La caravane du Caire (which is similar in theme and certain efforts at ‘local color’ in scoring to Die Entführung aus dem Serail, though Mozart’s opera was not heard in France until fifteen years after the premiere of La caravane du Caire), and exerted a considerable influence over the composers active in France during the 1790’s and first two decades of the Nineteenth Century, especially Luigi Cherubini and Étienne Méhul.

The young Grétry honed his craft – as did many young composers in the Eighteenth Century – by studying in Italy, having been inspired by hearing the operas of Baldassaro Galuppi and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi in his native Liège.  During his five years in Italy, Grétry studied with Giovanni Battista Casali, maestro di coro at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, one of the last composers of unaccompanied polyphonic choral music in the tradition of Palestrina.  Learning more by absorption than by academic prowess, Grétry returned to France with understanding of the prevalent Italian operatic forms of the time.  Having devoted himself upon his return to the French opéra comique, still in its formative stages, with his best works like Zémire et Azor (which is based on the ‘beauty and the beast’ legend) and L’amant jaloux (the music and text of which are thought to have influenced Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte in their work on Le Nozze di Figaro), Grétry produced recognizably French works that built upon the examples of Rameau but also introduced Italianate elements such as complex coloratura.

Taking up the tradition of French tragédie lyrique inherited from Lully and Rameau, no composer was more influential in France during the latter half of the Eighteenth Century than Christoph Willibald von Gluck, whose ‘reform’ operas of the 1760’s and 1770’s sought to purge the music of the French lyric theatre of Italianate excesses and return to a style of utterance that aspired to the dramatic purity of Classical Greek theatre.  The extent to which Grétry was directly influenced by Gluck’s work is impossible to ascertain, but the controversial success of the premiere of Gluck’s Armide, in which his ideals of reform were fully explored, in 1777 may well have played a decisive role in Grétry’s decision to accept the commission to compose his first tragédie lyrique, sadly the only one of his several efforts in the genre which seems to have performed.  Grétry’s Andromaque was conceived as an ambitious setting of the famous literary tragedy by Jean Racine, and legal wrangling with the Comédie Française, by which institution the performance rights to Racine’s play were held, delayed the first performance of Grétry’s opera – which had entered rehearsals as early as 1778 – until 6 June 1780.  The opera did not manage to win either the unfettered appreciation of audiences or the praise of critics, by whom it was particularly condemned for its profusion of choruses, which led to the charge that the score was more an oratorio than an opera.  Grétry and his librettist, Louis-Guillaume Pitra, made significant alterations to the opera, most notably replacing Racine’s tragic ending (which is retained in the present recording) with a happier finale, in advance of a revival of the opera in 1781.  After this second run of performances, which won the favor of audiences, Andromaque seems not to have been performed again until the concert performances in October 2009 upon which this recording is based.

Listeners who are familiar with Grétry’s opéras comiques will encounter an entirely different sound world in Andromaque, one with similarities to the music that Gluck was contemporaneously composing for Paris but even stronger ties to Rameau’s mid-century operas.  The style of vocal declamation is similar to that heard in Gluck’s two operas on the myth of Iphigénie, with fast-paced recitative developing into brief but emotive arioso.  In an opera that runs for slightly less than ninety minutes (as recorded) even with the customary ballet, there is no room for long-winded arias and ensembles.  Though never reaching the level of inspiration achieved by Gluck in his finest operas for Paris, Grétry proves in Andromaque that he possessed a sensitive understanding of the tragédie lyrique tradition, composing music that is apt for the dramatic situations and unfailingly attractive if not ultimately memorable.  The Ouverture is perhaps the weakest number in the score, but the opera’s three acts move at a swift pace and contain much music that, while not distinctive, is never less than enjoyable.

The recording by Le Concert Spirituel and Hervé Niquet, renowned for their enterprising performances and recordings of French Baroque repertory, gives an impressive introduction to Grétry’s score.  Maestro Niquet and his instrumental ensemble are as comfortable in Andromaque as in the music of Charpentier, Lully, or Marais, shaping the music with articulation born of their experience with Baroque music but attentiveness to the stylistic nuances of Grétry’s music, which in this case is curiously suggestion of his forbears, his contemporaries, and his musical successors all at once: it is possible to hear the cornerstones laid by Rameau as well as the framework built by Gluck, but there is also the feeling that Les Troyens is not too far distant on the horizon.  This is perhaps to give Grétry’s musical inventiveness greater credit than it truly deserves, but Andromaque is a score in which there are subtle stirrings of Romanticism, perhaps more by chance than by intention.  Maestro Niquet’s leadership is alert to this sense of the opera being of both past and future, and the singers and musicians of Le Concert Spirituel – the former increased by the participation of Les Chantres du Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles – sound devoted to their tasks and to Grétry’s music throughout.

The quartet of principal soloists assembled for the concerts and recording is excellent and, ideally for Grétry, comprised of singers with experience in both Baroque and later repertories.  Dramatically, the pick of the lot is Greek baritone Tassis Christoyannis, a singer whose fiery reGreek baritone Tassis Christoyanniscorded performances (especially of Bajazet in Tamerlano) in mdg’s series of Händel operas have been thrillingly virile displays of technically-assured singing.  Given leaner material with which to work as Orestes in Andromaque, Mr. Christoyannis scales back the power of his singing, unleashing the full frisson of his voice only when required by the dramatic situation.  Having succumbed to the demands of Hermione, whom he loves, Orestes is complicit in the slaying of Pyrrhus.  By the time that Pyrrhus has fallen to Greek swords, however, Hermione realizes that she was not in full command of her reason when she directed Orestes to kill Pyrrhus, and Orestes brings the opera to a close with his own crushing grief and madness.  The brutality of this dénouement is conveyed with complete sincerity by Mr. Christoyannis, whose vocal quality fully equals the dramatic swagger of his singing.

The catalyst of the tragic actions that lead to Orestes’ madness is Hermione (the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy), sung with characteristic intensity by Swiss mezzo-soprano Maria Riccarda Wesseling, who is also a veteran of many fine productions and recordings of Händel operas.  There is a darkness aroSwiss mezzo-soprano Maria Riccarda Wesseling [Photo by Emilio Brizzi]und the edges of Ms. Wesseling’s tone that allows her to suggest pathos without causing her vocal lines to droop.  Whereas she has sometimes  struggled to maintain steadiness as Händel heroes, the music that Grétry composed for Hermione gives her the opportunity to fully express her femininity.  Hermione’s music is not of the difficulty of what she frequently sings in Händel roles, and perhaps this relative simplicity focuses the impact of Ms. Wesseling’s voice, uniting the purity of her technique with the emotional directness of her manner of singing.  In truth, Hermione’s music does not plumb the depths of passion suggested by her text, but the integrity of Ms. Wesseling’s performance closes the psychological gaps in Grétry’s music with heartfelt, beautiful singing.

Grétry gave some of the best music in Andromaque to Pyrrhus, the victim of Hermione’s jealousy and Orestes’ misplaced vengeance.  The role receives a very fine performance in this recording by young French tenor Sébastien Guèze, a tremendously promising singer who alternated with Roberto Alagna in the 2007 premiere production by Opéra Municipal de Marseilles of Vladimir Cosma’s Marius et Fanny and won the appreciation of Gounod fanciers throughout the world with a beautifully-sung Roméo in a Concertgebouw performance of Roméo et Juliette broadcast over Netherlands Radio.  The youthful pliancy of Mr. GuèzFrench tenor Sébastien Guèze [Photo by Lucile Leber]e’s tenor is very appealing, and he enters into his part in Grétry’s tragedy with touching conviction.  Throughout his performance, Mr. Guèze’s tone is refreshingly even, without the ugly or barely-concealed breaks at the passaggio that mar the singing of many young singers.  Mr. Guèze’s voice is a bright but rich lyric tenor, with sweetness and freedom in the upper register that are reminiscent of some of the most refined French tenors of past generations, not least the sublime Michel Sénéchal.  Mr. Guèze’s voice is of proportions larger than Sénéchal’s, allowing him to comfortably sing roles like Rodolfo in La Bohème, but he shares his artistic ancestor’s affinities for pointed delivery of text and musical expression that touch the heart even when the music he sings is not of the highest quality.  With this performance, Mr. Guèze manages not only to convince the listener that Grétry was a composer who, in his music for Pyrrhus, aspired to the heights reached by Rameau and Gluck but also that his own voice is among the finest tenors of his generation.

The title role is entrusted to French soprano Karine Deshayes, who at relatively short notice replaced Dutch soprano Judith van Wanroij in both the concerts and recording sessions.  Like her colleagues in this performance, she sings a varied repertory: celebrated in Europe for her work in Baroque music, she made her début at the Metropolitan  Opera in 2006 as Siebel in Gounod’s Faust.  As AndroFrench soprano Karine Deshayes [Photo by Vincent Jacques]maque, Ms. Deshayes brings a youthfully vibrant voice that hovers, like those of some of the great exponents of tragédie lyrique of bygone years (Dame Janet Baker and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, for instance), between mezzo-soprano and soprano tessituras.  The absolute security of her voice is upset by none of the demands placed on it by Grétry’s music, and if there is not the last measure of grandeur that one expects from a figure such as Andromache – the grieving widow of Trojan hero Hector (who, in a tangential nod to Rameau, was descended from Dardanus) whose perseverance in her grief and determination to safeguard her son precipitate the tragic actions of Racine’s play and Grétry’s opera – that is to be credited to the composer rather than the singer.  Ms. Deshayes’ performance is touching and sung with complete confidence, making the most of the music that Grétry gave her: one can ask for nothing more.

It must be conceded that Grétry’s Andromaque is not the forgotten masterpiece that some of the other scores resurrected by Hervé Niquet and Le Concert Spirituel have proved to be, not least the marvelous Sémélé of Marin Marais.  As always, though, the artists involved with this recording have given of their best, and Glossa’s engineers have provided typically first-rate sound to complement the artists’ performances.  It is interesting to hear Grétry’s efforts at tragédie lyrique, which was as much a part of his musical heritage as the opéras comiques for which he is remembered, and of course a vital and sometimes thrilling element of the Period Practice movement is encountering carefully-prepared, expertly-executed performances of imperfect works.  Andromaque is an imperfect work in that its style did not draw from Grétry the brilliance and wit that flow so charmingly through his opéras comiques, and if the music of Andromaque displays no startling individuality it also avoids parody and facile imitation.  Andromaque is clearly the product of an important composer who merely was not working within his element.  The opera receives from Maestro Niquet, Le Concert Spirituel, and a team of excellent singers a performance that maximizes its eloquence and minimizes its deficiencies – in short, the best possible introduction for Twenty-First-Century listeners.

04 May 2010

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini – L’ITALIANA IN ALGERI (M. Pizzolato, L. Brownlee, L. Regazzo, B. De Simone; NAXOS 8.660284-85)

Rossini - L'ITALIANA IN ALGERI (Pizzolato, Brownlee, Regazzo - NAXOS 8.660284-85)

GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): L’Italiana in Algeri – M. Pizzolato (Isabella), L. Brownlee (Lindoro), L. Regazzo (Mustafà), B. De Simone (Taddeo), R. Gonzalez (Elvira), E. Giannoulidou (Zulma), G. Mastrototaro (Haly); Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir, Cluj; Virtuosi Brunensis; Alberto Zedda [recorded ‘live’ at the Kursaal, Bad Wildbad, Germany, during the XXth Rossini in Wildbad Festival; 2, 3, & 5 July 2008; NAXOS 8.660284-85]

Though it premiered at Venice’s Teatro San Benedetto on 22 May 1813, when its composer was less than three months past his twenty-first birthday, L’Italiana in Algeri was Gioachino Rossini’s eleventh opera, following closely on the heels of the acclaimed premiere (also in Venice, at the famous Teatro La Fenice) of Tancredi.  The role of the barnstorming Isabella was first sung by Italian contralto Marietta Marcolini, who with her participation in the L’Italiana premiere created the fourth of five roles that the young Rossini composed for her.  Also present in the first-night cast of L’Italiana was the celebrated bass Filippo Galli, a talented and versatile singer for whom Rossini composed several of his most demanding basso roles and who also created the role of Enrico (Henry VIII) in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in 1830.

Musically, L’Italiana in Algeri is enlivened by the clever way in which its young composer employed traditional aspects of Classically-inspired opera seria, a then-rapidly-declining genre with a pedigree extending back to the Italian operas of Händel, within the confines of the dramma giocoso (a categorization that it shares with Mozart’s Don Giovanni) he was creating to the libretto of Angelo Anelli.  The frenetic pace and famous crescendo of Rossini’s maturity are already present in L’Italiana in Algeri, but the score benefits from a melodic preciosity that is remarkable even among Rossini’s operas.  The two cavatinas for Lindoro, ‘Languir per una bella’ in the First Act and ‘Oh come il cor di giubilo’ in the Second, possess beautiful melodic lines that are as reminiscent of Mozart as of Italian bel canto.  Here, however, a measure of uncertainty creeps in: it is well known that the secco recitatives and Haly’s famous aria ‘Le femmine d’Italia’ were not composed by Rossini but by an anonymous collaborator (whether the collaboration was necessitated by the speed of the opera’s creation, which required less than a month at most, by details of the first production that are lost to history, or by other circumstances remains a matter for debate), perhaps the Italian composer Luigi Mosca, an older contemporary of Rossini whose own setting of Anelli’s libretto for L’Italiana in Algeri was first performed in Milan in 1808.  Bolstered by the fact that Rossini composed the virtuosic aria ‘Concedi, amor pietoso’ to replace 'Oh come il cor di giubilo’ for a later production of L’Italiana in which the original Lindoro, Serafino Gentili, reprised his part, modern scholarship suggests that the lovely original aria may also have been composed by someone other than Rossini.  [Despite its dubious authorship, ‘Oh come il cor di giubilo’ is preferred in the present performance.  Performances of ‘Concedi, amor pietoso’ are available as an appendix to Jesús López-Cobos’ recording of L’Italiana in Algeri, on which it is sung by tenor Raúl Giménez, and on recital discs, notably the DECCA collection of Rossini Arias sung by Juan Diego Flórez.]  There is not in ‘Oh come il cor di giubilo’ the obvious falling-off in quality apparent in the numbers composed for La Cenerentola by Luca Agolini, so its composer – whether Rossini, Mosca, or a forgotten third party – took pains to match the aria in both style and musical integrity with the rest of the score.  A testimony to the genius of the young composer, L’Italiana in Algeri is the rare early bel canto comic opera that is both filled from beginning (in this case, a rollicking Overture that remains a concert favorite) to end with first-rate music and, in a good performance, can prove genuinely funny.

Fortunately for listeners, a good performance is precisely what the opera receives in this recording, derived from three performances at the Twentieth Rossini in Wildbad Festival in Germany during July 2008.  Orchestral playing by the Virtuosi Brunensis, the ensemble with which NAXOS recorded their splendid account of Rossini’s Tancredi with Ewa Podleś and Sumi Jo, is excellent, benefiting from the fine-tuning of period-instrument practice but very much adapting their approach to Rossini’s idiom.  The singing from the members of the Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir – variously portraying eunuchs, pirates, and slaves – is similarly impressive, precise but also conveying a grand sense of fun (and, when appropriate, of dread and mock heroics).  Presiding over the performance is Italian maestro Alberto Zedda, a tireless advocate of the music of Rossini as its composer intended it to be performed who celebrated his eightieth birthday six months to the day before the first performance that contributed to this recording.  Like the performances of Karl Böhm, Otto Klemperer, and Tullio Serafin at similar ages, Maestro Zedda’s spirited leadership of this recording of L’Italiana in Algeri suggests the work of a man trying to prove his vitality.  After a career that has yielded many worthy performances of Rossini operas (including the aforementioned NAXOS Tancredi), no proof of Maestro Zedda’s mastery of the repertory is required, but this recording proves anew that few conductors active today share the same idiomatic grasp of Rossini’s music that Maestro Zedda has at his command.  Maestro Zedda knows instinctively when his influence is required to keep things moving and when the music flows without manipulation.  The singers are given support consistently sensitive to their own needs and the requirements of the music.  As in most of Maestro Zedda’s performances, interpolated top notes at the ends of numbers are mostly eschewed in favor of presumably more authentic flourishes on high within the internal ornamentation of arias and ensembles.  Maestro Zedda understands how Rossini worked as a composer, and his leadership ensures that this performance of L’Italiana in Algeri ‘works’ both musically and theatrically.

Unlike many productions of bel canto operas, this Rossini in Wildbad production enjoyed the work of uniformly good singers in secondary roles.  As Elvira, wife of the philandering Mustafà, Tenerife-born soprano Ruth Gonzalez sings with secure tone and pointed diction, managing to convey exasperation without seeming an annoying shrew.  Zulma, Elvira’s slave and confidante, receives a performance of charm from Greek mezzo-soprano Elsa Giannoulidou, her contributions to ensembles inspiring the wish that Rossini – or, considering the troublesome provenance of L’Italiana in Algeri, someone – had graced her role with an aria.  Italian bass Giulio Mastrototaro ideally captures the spirit of Haly’s (but not Rossini’s) aria in praise of the wily women of Italy, ‘Le femmine d’Italia,’ and elsewhere adds delightfully to ensembles.

Italian bass Bruno De Simone has made a specialty of basso buffo roles in bel canto operas and has sung Taddeo in L’Italiana in Algeri throughout Europe, including at the prestigious festival devoted to the operas of Rossini in his hometown of Pesaro.  This experience is evident in Mr. De Simone’s wonderful comic timing, exercised to maximum effect in ensembles and in a well-sung account of Taddeo’s aria, ‘Ho un gran peso sulla testa.’  If Mr. De Simone’s tone is no longer rock-solid, his performance never falters.

Mustafà is one of those roles that if played for laughs can seem unbearably insipid and if played as an humorless tyrant quickly becomes insufferable.  It is the sort of part that, like Verdi’s (or Salieri’s, Balfe’s, or Nicolai’s) Falstaff, requires both comedy and dignity in order to prove wholly effective.  Italian bass Lorenzo Regazzo is faItalian bass Lorenzo Regazzomiliar with the traditional roles of basses as tyrants and villains in Italian opera from his considerable work in Baroque music.  Mr. Regazzo’s Mustafà is a relatively straightforward performance with none of the foolishness that mars many performances of the role.  On balance, Mr. Regazzo’s Mustafà may be too straight-laced for those listeners who prefer Rossini’s buffo roles enacted on a broader scale, but there can be few complaints about Mr. Regazzo’s singing.  Mr. Regazzo is admittedly stronger in the role’s bravura passages than in roaring and bawling, but his tone is secure throughout the range.  He knows his way round the role, and his command of Rossini’s tricky coloratura is several notches above what most of his rivals achieve (the incomparable Samuel Ramey excepted).  This Mustafà’s beylik may be somewhat tame, but it is on sound musical footing.

With two fine arias and engaging contributions to ensembles to his credit, the role of Lindoro is a gift to a leggiero tenor with the bravura technique required for Rossini.  Most modern exponents of Rossini’s tenor roles are essentially lyric tenors who, through careful study, have cultivated coloratura ability: the true tenore di grazia, noted as much for a firm grasp of the lowest notes of the tenor range as for comfort in the vocal stratosphere, is virtually a musical unicorn in the sense that there are people who believe that they have encountered them but closer inspection reveals that what they actually witnessed were rather more ordinary equines with some extraordinary qualities.  Even in a field prominently populated by a world-renowned singer, American tenor Lawrence Brownlee is anything but ordinary.  With an ever-increasing repertory of Rossini roles in his vocal arsenal (including Rinaldo in the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere production of Armida by Mary Zimmerman), Mr. Brownlee has emerged during the past American tenor Lawrence Brownlee [Photo by Marty Umans]five years as one of the finest  Rossini tenors of his generation – and, as his performance as Lindoro in this recording attests, rightfully so.  Mr. Brownlee’s voice is warm but bright and seemingly produced with liquid ease that defies the difficulty of the music he sings.  In Lindoro’s music, Mr. Brownlee’s voice fizzes with idiomatic authority in coloratura passages, reaching formidable heights of virtuosity that never detract from the natural attractiveness of his tone.  Dramatically, Mr. Brownlee’s Lindoro is filled with touching longing for freedom and love but avoids sentimentality: he wears his heart on his sleeve, to be sure, but he is content in his big moments to thrust his hands into his pockets and let his music do the emotional heavy lifting.  This sort of thoughtful restraint is always welcome in Rossini’s comic operas, but it is Mr. Brownlee’s vocalism that demands one’s attention and ultimately wins one’s affection.  Both of Lindoro’s arias receive exceptionally poised, fleet-footed performances (though it is a pity that a very well-recorded cough mars the beginning of ‘Languir per una bella’), setting a new standard in the music.  This is exceptionally fine Rossini singing that rivals even the best singing of Mr. Brownlee’s competitors in bel canto repertory.

Musically and dramatically, the climax of L’Italiana in Algeri is the heroine Isabella’s second-act rondo, ‘Pensa alla patria,’ an exhortation to Mustafà’s Italian slaves to think of their fatherland and trust in Isabella’s commitment to deliver them from their servitude.  This description might give the impression of an ostentatiously grand utterance, something more appropriate to Fidelio than to a Rossini dramma giocoso.  Isabella’s rondo is an instance of Rossini’s use of an overtly opera seria style, but the wit of Rossini’s deployment of coloratura reveals the aria to be a worthy sister to Rosina’s ‘Una voce poco fa’ in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Angelina’s ‘Non più mesta’ in La Cenerentola.  When one first hears Mr. Brownlee’s Lindoro, a nagging doubt that any performance could likewise offer an IsItalian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolatoabella to match him arises.  From her first note, Italian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato – also a superb Malcolm in NAXOS’ live-from-Wildbad recording of La Donna del Lago (indeed, the finest aspect of that recording) – erases that doubt with a performance that meets the standard of Mr. Brownlee’s Lindoro note for thrilling note.  Like Mr. Regazzo, Ms. Pizzolato has extensive experience in Baroque music, but she also participated in masterclasses given by Anita Cerquetti and Magda Olivero, from whom she surely learned much about adapting one’s singing to the varying styles of different repertories.  Ms. Pizzolato has proved very fine indeed in Cavalli and Händel on disc, but she proves anew in this performance that Rossini’s idiom poses no challenges that are too much for her.  Her voice is dark-hued but ideally mobile, dealing expertly with the fearsome coloratura of her arias.  She is careful to articulate every note in her roulades, an effort that contributes to her nuanced reading of the text without seeming pedantic.  Her singing of the great rondo is commanding, the culmination of a performance that is, quite simply, Rossini singing of the highest quality.  When will the world’s most important opera companies realize, as NAXOS did from their inception, that the very famous singers are in many cases not the very best?

Aside from the cough that accompanies the opening strains of Lindoro’s ‘Languir per una bella,’ a few of its cousins from the throats of audience members and perhaps musicians, and occasional bumps, the sound engineered by NAXOS is excellent, even in passages of secco recitative.  It is also in secco recitatives that the balance seems most noticeably artificial, however: the continuo harpsichord, played very capably by Gianni Fabbrini, comes at the listener from an acoustical perspective identical to that in which the singers are framed, as if the singers were positioned around the harpsichord for a recital.  Balances are otherwise carefully-engineered to keep all of the singers front and center, with the orchestra and chorus given equal but never undue prominence, the final product suggesting a concert more than a staged performance with the typical changing perspectives imposed by theatrical blocking.  Editing has also been expertly done, which is to say that one is not aware that it has been done at all.  Despite occasional too-close perspectives, there is enough space around the voices to suggest their natural resonance.  All things considered, it is an admirably-rendered recording of live performances, another example that the lower prices of NAXOS recordings do not indicate lower production values.

L’Italiana in Algeri has not been recorded as frequently as some of Rossini’s other operas, especially Il Barbiere di Siviglia, but has been more fortunate than most of them in accumulating a small discography of recordings that are all competitive.  It is difficult to chose among Simionato with Valletti, Berganza with Alva, Valentini Terrani with either Benelli or Araiza, Horne with Palacio, Baltsa with Lopardo, and Larmore with Giménez.  NAXOS’ recording enters a field that is not crowded but is unusually distinguished, and it is wonderful (because it is so atypical) that – thanks to the singing of Marianna Pizzolato and Lawrence Brownlee – a recording made in the Twenty-First Century can more than hold its own.