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)