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