24 November 2011

IN MEMORIAM: Soprano Sena Jurinac, 1921 - 2011


Soprano Sena Jurinac as Elisabetta in Verdi's DON CARLO


24 October 1921 – 22 November 2011

The goal of writing for Voix des Arts which I pursue with both greatest pride and strongest zeal is that of objectivity.  There are subjects about which even the most dedicated of writers cannot maintain objectivity, however, and for me one such subject is the wondrous soprano Sena Jurinac, who passed away on 22 November at the age of ninety.  Few artists have shaped my musical perceptions or affected my understanding and appreciation of music as powerfully as Ms. Jurinac, whose voice will remain in my mind’s ear among the most priceless artistic treasures of the Twentieth Century.

I was only four years old when Ms. Jurinac gave her final performance and so never heard her ‘live,’ and I recall neither when nor in what music I first heard her voice.  What I shall never forget, derived solely from recordings of her performances, is the impact of her focused, gorgeous tone in music by Mozart and Richard Strauss.  As Tchaikovsky’s Tatyana, even singing in German, Ms. Jurinac combined the intellectual insights of Russian singers like Galina Vishnevskaya with vocal beauty and security seldom heard from Slavic singers.  As Puccini’s Cio Cio San, she was all the more moving and ultimately pathetic for carrying herself with such dignity, like a true Japanese, and soaring over Puccini’s dense orchestration with sounds of doomed triumph.  As Strauss’s Octavian, she poured out sound that was aurally equivalent to the gleam of the eponymous silver rose, proving the proud but passionate young aristocrat to the core.  As Tosca, she was magisterial, nagging but frail and the consummate prima donna, and as Jenůfa she was tormented and ultimately transcendent.

In the music of Mozart, Ms. Jurinac offered in virtually every performance that she sang a veritable masterclass in the art of poised rendering of the Salzburg prodigy’s music.  This affinity for the music of Austria’s most famous composer perhaps accounted in part for the affection for Ms. Jurinac that developed in music-loving Vienna, where she was for a generation one of the brightest stars of the Wiener Staatsoper and one of the artists whose brilliance resurrected the Company after the Second World War.  As Ilia in Idomeneo, she was from the start a broken woman in search of healing through renewed hope and new love.  As Elvira in Don Giovanni, she was too much in love to accept the betrayal she felt so keenly.  As the Contessa in Le Nozze di Figaro, she was sustained by memories of the wooing of her Conte.  In hindsight, what impresses most in Ms. Jurinac’s singing of Mozart repertory is her ability to be expressive, accurate, and unfailingly stylish without in any way altering the voice with which she sang the music of Beethoven and Wagner.  A ‘period’ approach is not required when timeless artistry informs a singer’s work.

For me, to hear the voice of Sena Jurinac is to understand why, after nearly three thousand years, the myth of Orpheus remains meaningful.  She was an artist for whom music was the natural expression of human emotion and the path to Olympus.  The integrity and intensity with which she sang were remarkable even in an age of superb singers.  On this day on which Americans express thanks for blessings of happiness, health, and comfort, fervent thanks are offered for the life and career of the irreplaceable Sena Jurinac.

25 October 2011

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - IL TROVATORE (A. Palombi, L. Daltirus, D. Graves, M. Corvino) – Opera Carolina, Charlotte, NC; 23 October 2011

Denyce Graves and Antonello Palombi in Verdi's IL TROVATORE at Opera Carolina [Photo from jonsilla.com]

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Il Trovatore – Antonello Palombi (Manrico), Lisa Daltirus (Leonora), Denyce Graves (Azucena), Michael Corvino (Conte di Luna), Kristopher Irmiter (Ferrando), Jessie Wright-Martin (Inez), Brian Arreola (Ruiz); Opera Carolina Chorus, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Belk Theatre, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte, North Carolina; 23 October 2011]

No one wants to be that guy who, after seeing the production that is the current rage, shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘I just didn’t get it.’  Even in America, where tradition retains a firmer grasp on operatic stages than elsewhere, there are numerous shrugs in the lobbies and stairways of opera houses.  One of the most endearing aspects of Opera Carolina’s production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore (designed by John Boeshe, directed by Jay Lesenger, and lit by Michael Baumgarten; seen at the Belk Theatre in Blumenthal Performing Arts Center) was that there were no conspicuous efforts at making the opera ‘relevant’ or ‘accessible’ as is now so often the case: this was merely an opera by Verdi, and a very good one whether or not one can embrace the much-criticized libretto, given a stirring performance.  There was a clear message to operatic America: if you have tired of attending performances that you do not understand, of operas that you thought you like, come to Charlotte and renew your devotion.

Opera Carolina’s production made effective use of projection technology, employing projected backdrops with minimal physical scenery to conjure the scenic settings of Verdi’s drama.  While this arguably went slightly too far on a few occasions, especially in the fiery projection that turned a beautiful canyon into what seemed a scene of horrific inferno during Azucena’s Act-Two description of her mother’s actions, there were evocatively beautiful scenes, not least the convent setting that occurred later in Act Two: the physical set, comprised of two large pillars flanking an enormous crucifix, framed projections of the cloister’s courtyard against a starry sky.  The opera’s Spanish setting was always apparent, and the prison setting for the opera’s final scene was also especially beautiful.  Costumes were stylish and appropriate, Azucena’s bohemian clothing suggesting both majesty and hardship and Leonora’s luxurious gowns evoking nobility and providing splashes of color in the fading world she inhabits.  The production was refreshingly simple in its obvious aim at presenting Verdi’s opera as the composer intended.

The principal singers were given a firm foundation upon which to build a powerful performance.  The Charlotte Symphony played with sensitivity and brio, with strong showings by the brass and woodwinds.  The Charlotte audience deserve a reprimand for their collective failure in etiquette, though: a passage as beautiful as the prelude to Leonora’s scene that opens Act Four, gorgeously played, was virtually inaudible until its final bars because of the audience’s chatter.  Maestro James Meena led a firm performance that mostly maintained order and produced good balance between stage and pit.  Especially in the first half of the opera, tempi in certain passages lacked momentum and seemed unnecessarily cautious, though the performance avoided any sense of dragging.  The Opera Carolina Chorus sang wonderfully throughout the performance, proving most effective in halves, as the nuns in the final scene of Act Two and the monks in the magnificent ‘Miserere.’  The celebrated ‘Anvil Chorus’ was suitably rousing, and from start to finish the choristers sang with security, control, and polish far superior to those typical of the house choruses of smaller companies.

The comprimario rôles of Inez and Ruiz were taken by singers active in Charlotte-area music education, soprano Jessie Wright-Martin and tenor Brian Arreola.  Both proved effective performers, with Mr. Arreola appropriately bringing his finest singing of the afternoon to his brief scene with Leonora at the beginning of Act Four.  Bass Kristopher Irmiter, announced as suffering from an indisposition, nevertheless sang firmly as Ferrando, capably launching the performance with his here’s-what-you-need-to-know aria.

Baritone Michael Corvino brought a convincingly frustrated and ultimately defeated stage presence to the Conte di Luna, his reaction to learning in the final bars that he has just sent his own brother to execution enacted with emotional legitimacy.  Throughout the performance, Mr. Corvino sang with pointed, secure tone, giving his all with a voice slightly small for his assignment.  Still, the Conte’s ‘Il balen del suo sorriso’—as demanding and rewarding an aria as Verdi (or any other composer) created for the baritone voice—was given a fine performance, the tricky ornaments and treacherous ascents into the highest register negotiated handily.

Arguably the production’s most provocative element was the presence of dynamic mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Azucena.  It cannot be denied that Azucena is an atypical and, in vocal terms, unusually challenging assignment for Ms. Graves.  There were moments of obvious discomfort, notably in the extreme upper register (though a fine B-flat was summoned for the last bars of the opera), and some technical niceties of the role—the trills in ‘Stride la vampa,’ for instance—were unobserved.  What cannot be underestimated, though, is the extraordinary richness and depth of Ms. Graves’s voice.  Hearing her as Azucena was something like what it would be to hear Erda in Verdian guise: Ms. Graves’s voice, as awe-inspiring and mysterious as a glacial lake, seems almost like a primordial sound escaping from some chasm in the earth.  When not under pressure, she produced some notably lovely tone, as in ‘Ai nostri monti,’ which was also phrased with great feeling.  Azucena’s defiance of the Conte in Act Three was as monstrous as her unraveling in Act Four was dismaying, and the maniacal laughter with which she welcomed the realization of her vengeance was stirring if dramatically unnecessary.  In Ms. Graves’s performance, it was more obvious than in many performances of the rôle why Verdi originally intended Azucena to be his opera’s central character.

With such a mother—biological or adopted—as Ms. Graves’s Azucena, Manrico could hardly have avoided being a brooding but explosive personality, and these qualities were brilliantly conveyed in the performance of Italian tenor Antonello Palombi.  Opera Carolina are to be congratulated for bringing Mr. Palombi to Charlotte, for in doing so they introduced their audience to one of the finest Italian singers of his generation and a Manrico superior to almost any singing with the world’s major opera companies.  A veteran of La Scala and many first-rank European houses, Mr. Palombi brought to Manrico a timbre that unconditionally qualified him for the rôle and an energy that never flagged.  First heard from off-stage in the serenade ‘Deserto sulla terra’ (capped in the authentic Italian manner with an interpolated top B-flat, of course), Mr. Palombi’s voice filled the house with gleaming tone.  Once seen, he was the hot-blooded Spanish lover to his core, singing with passion that never threatened to become vulgarity.  Mr. Palombi sang Manrico’s difficult but entrancing ‘Ah sì, ben mio’ with considerable grace, a surprising and refreshing effort from a generally burly and high-spirited Manrico.  ‘Di quella pira’ was sung manfully, with the kind of chest-thumping virility—and pulse-quickening top notes—that the music demands but so seldom receives in this age of ‘thoughtful’ productions.  If there is anything that Verdi makes obvious about Manrico it is that he is a man of action rather than thought, and Mr. Palombi delivered on this premise in spades, giving a formidably accomplished and ringing performance of what seems, owing to its deceptive but unstinting melodiousness, an easy rôle; one that defeats many of the tenors who attempt it.  Mr. Palombi triumphed.

The universal veracity of the aphorism suggesting that behind every good man there is a good woman will be left to debate, but it was beyond doubt that Opera Carolina’s magnificent Manrico was supported by a world-class Leonora.  Soprano Lisa Daltirus, whose first Trovatore was sung only a few seasons ago for Connecticut Opera (the loss of which is one of the greatest blows of the current recession), sang with the poise, technique, and beauty of tone necessary for her rôle and for the Verdi soprano repertory in general.  Given music that never relaxes in its technical demands, Leonora is one of the most difficult rôles in the soprano repertory, and Ms. Daltirus’s accomplishment was remarkable in making the music sound not easy, but natural.  Few rôles offer entrance music as vocally perilous as Leonora’s ‘Tacea la notte,’ but Ms. Daltirus hit the musical ground running: shaping both her opening aria and cabaletta with elegance, she soared through the trio that closes Act One to a ringing interpolated top D-flat.  Her singing in the Act Two finale was similarly impressive, but Ms. Daltirus rose to greatest heights in Act Four, in which Leonora’s demands are most daunting.  In the exquisite ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee’ Ms. Daltirus phrased Verdi’s long lines and executed the trills with uncommon grace, and she drew the audience into her cadenza, which became an almost cathartic climax (and which quieted even the chattiest members of the audience).  Both here and later, in her final scene, Ms. Daltirus’s singing of pianissimo passages in her highest register elicited audible gasps of admiration from the audience, especially in the melting tones of her singing of ‘Prima che d’altri vivere.’  Most remarkable was her singing during the ‘Miserere,’ one of Verdi’s most innovative and dramatically perfect scenes.  Passionately interjecting into the solemn invocation of the off-stage monks, Ms. Daltirus sang with the kind of abandon and commitment to music and text that make issues of the relevance of opera unimportant and frankly idiotic: here was a woman, as real as any in Renaissance Spain or 21st-Century North Carolina, her betrothed imprisoned and facing certain death, and the sacrifice of her own life at hand.  Conveying this meaningfully through music is the achievement solely of a true artist, and Ms. Daltirus’s success was complete.

Il Trovatore is one of those operas that audiences know that they are supposed to hate, with its heart-on-the-sleeve melodrama, implausible situations, and unrelenting tunefulness; or else it is an opera in which some elusive ‘deeper meaning’ must be sought.  Opera Carolina did Verdi the favor of assembling an exceptionally top-drawer cast and offering Trovatore in a production that presented the story without exaggeration or psychological preening.  Azucena, Manrico, and Leonora are not figures who ponder human evolution, the intricacies of Existential relationships, or world peace: they are simple people, blessed by the genius of Verdi with music of unforgettable beauty, and Denyce Graves, Antonello Palombi, and Lisa Daltirus gave them burning life.

Soprano Lisa Daltirus, Opera Carolina's Leonora in Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photo from Seattle Opera]

26 July 2011

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel [attributed] – GERMANICO (S. Mingardo, M. G. Schiavo, L. Cherici, F. Fagioli, M. Staveland, S. Foresti; dhm 88697860452)

G. F. Händel (attributed) - GERMANICO [dhm 88697860452]

GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759) attributed: Germanico, Serenata a sei – S. Mingardo (Germanico), M. G. Schiavo (Agrippina), L. Cherici (Antonia), F. Fagioli (Lucio), M. Staveland (Celio), S. Foresti (Cesare); Chorus and Ensemble Il Rossignolo; Ottaviano Tenerani [recorded at Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Vicenza, Italy, 9 – 19 November 2010; deutsche harmonia mundi/Sony 88697860452]

In 1706, the young Georg Friedrich Händel traveled to Italy, likely at the invitation of Gian Gastone de’ Medici, a member of the powerful and famous family whose influence and widespread patronage of the arts had established Florence as the musical epicenter of south-of-the-Alps Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries.  Before leaving Hamburg, where he had benefited from association with some of Teutonic Europe’s finest musicians, Händel composed his first operas, including Almira, the premiere of which was conducted by the accomplished composer Reinhard Keiser.  It was in Italy that the fonts of opera—then an art form scarcely a century old—ran most bountifully, and it can be assumed that Händel’s encounters with musicians of the calibre of Arcangelo Corelli and the famed poet Antonio Salvi (whose libretti were set by Händel, Porpora, and Vivaldi) enriched his understanding of the union of music with text.  Likewise, the young Saxon’s rumored liaison with the soprano Vittoria Tarquini surely—if it occurred—influenced his appreciation and knowledge of the operatic voice.  It is also likely that Händel first heard the voices of castrati in Italy, there having been none of their kind in Hamburg.  Ever quick to capitalize on his opportunities, in a matter of months Händel had composed his first genuinely Italian opera (making use of two castrati among the cast), Rodrigo, which premiered in Florence in 1707.  Agrippina, now acknowledged as an early masterwork in Händel’s catalogue, followed soon thereafter, its first performance being given in Venice in 1709.  Following the path that led to his greatest achievements, Händel traveled to London in 1710, where in the next year he composed Rinaldo, his first great masterpiece and the first opera in Italian written especially for the British stage.

What Sony and deutsche harmonia mundi offer in this recording is Germanico, a serenata a sei that is purported to be one of the earliest works composed by Händel in Italy.  It is conceded by the conductor of the recorded performance, Ottaviano Tenerani, in his liner notes that there is no mention of Germanico or a similar title in any of the known Händel catalogues or correspondence.  Maestro Tenerani summarizes his own examinations of the sources for the score, as well as the non-autograph manuscript which he discovered in the library of the Fondi Pitti Teatro at the Conservatorio ‘Luigi Cherubini’ in Florence.  There is also commentary on the watermarks and binding of the manuscript, as well as extensive citing of an annotation of the manuscript as the work of ‘Hendl’ (a presumed Italian transliteration of Händel) in the same hand as is found in the manuscript itself.  What there is not, unfortunately, is anything substantial or irrefutable that identifies this score as the work of Händel.  Serenate were frequently pasticcio works assembled from the scores of different composers, and even an uncommon degree of musical continuity—which is not found in Germanico as recorded—is not always indicative of the work of a single composer.  Händel was especially gifted at assimilating the music of other composers with his own.  Even in Almira, there are flashes of the operatic composer that Händel would become in Rinaldo, Rodelinda, Giulio Cesare, and Tamerlano: there is little in Germanico that is identifiably Händelian, though in fairness this could also be said of Rodrigo.  The music of Germanico is very much that of the Italy of Bononcini, and even Cavalli is invoked in certain passages.  It should have been wiser to have pursued the course traveled by Andrea Marcon in his concert tour and studio recording of Andromeda liberata, another serenata which, in its case, may or may not be wholly or partially the work of Vivaldi: assemble a committed cast, inspire everyone involved to give of his or her best, and allow the music to speak for itself.  Sony and Maestro Tenerani largely succeed in these aims, but with all of their evidence concerning the music’s authorship being circumstantial at best it was decidedly irresponsible to choose to market Germanico as the exclusive work of Händel.

Whatever the merits of his scholarship, Maestro Tenerani presides over a performance that, despite stylistic challenges, is unfailingly musical.  Secco recitatives are handled capably if inconsistently: some passages are approached as they might be in performance of later Händel operas, while others are shaped in a manner more akin to that heard in the operas of Steffani and other Italian composers of the later 17th Century.  It is impossible to judge the extent to which this is necessitated by the vocal line as indicated in the manuscript, but even this introduces a suggestion that the music was composed or compiled by several hands.  Instrumental balances, which rely heavily upon the archlute, theorbo, and inauthentic guitar, are fine, as are tonal blends in ritornelli.  The instrumental ensemble of Il Rossignolo play excellently throughout, with an especially fine showing by the trumpets in Germanico’s martial simile aria ‘Acceso dal lampo,’ which is also the aria that sounds most like mature Händel.  The Il Rossignolo choristers, only twelve in number, sing well but—perhaps because of being recorded slightly too closely—are occasionally too much of a good thing.  In a Serenata of this type, almost certainly intended for private performance in the palace of a nobleman, choral movements would have been sung by the soloists in coro.  Here, the lusty singing of the chorus risks seeming more appropriate to Donizetti than to a Baroque serenata.  It is encouraging to hear young Italian choristers singing with precision and crisp articulation, however.

A rewarding aspect of a serenata like Germanico is that, except in very rare cases, it was almost certainly composed to order, as it were, for a specific venue, a specific audience, and a specific ensemble of performers.  Musically, this generally dictates relative equality among singers, though noblemen with the resources to commission works from the best composers of their times often also had favored singers who responded to invitations sweetened by prospects of significant financial compensation.  Though—not surprisingly—what might be considered on balance the finest music in Germanico is assigned to the title role, what is immediately apparent as the score’s best aria (the lovely ‘Nuovi raggi e luci nove’) is for Celio, a tenor role.  [It should be stated here that, as Maestro Tenerani’s liner notes make no mentions of transpositions, it can only be assumed that all roles are sung in the present recording in the appropriate registers as suggested by the manuscript.  The recording, incidentally, is pitched at a’ = 415 Hz.]  This is at least tangentially (or, perhaps, coincidentally) interesting when it is recalled that Händel launched his career as a composer of operas in Hamburg, where a legion of exceptionally-gifted tenors took the heroic roles assigned elsewhere in Europe—and most prominently in Italy—to castratiBravura demands in Germanico are fairly evenly-distributed, and in general the level of musical distinction is high.  Apart from passing phrases, which the great Saxon could himself have borrowed from his contemporaries, there is nothing in Germanico that is unmistakably Händelian.

The lower-voiced male soloists make positive impressions.  Tenor Magnus Staveland sings the aforementioned ‘Nuovi raggi e luci nove,’ in which Celio celebrates the new dawn heralded by Germanico’s victory over Arminius, with great care for its lyricism.  This is the sort of aria that—like ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ in the legitimate Händel repertory—would benefit from an unornamented execution of its da capo: this Mr. Staveland does not supply, but his ornaments are largely tasteful and avoid unnecessarily (and unmusically) distorting the harmonic progressions.  His voice is one of quality, and he enlivens his contributions to secco recitatives engagingly.  Bass Sergio Foresti’s handsome voice does not truly encompass the lowest notes of Cesare’s (Tiberius, that is) music, but he sings powerfully.  His command of his divisions is wonderful, and the combination of crisp diction, secure tone, and excellent technique make Mr. Foresti’s singing on this recording (and elsewhere) very enjoyable.

The sopranos, Maria Grazia Schiavo as Germanico’s wife Agrippina and Laura Cherici as his mother Antonia, are familiar from many productions of Baroque operas during the past decade.  Both artists here acquit themselves admirably, singing with bright, forward tone and techniques equal to their tasks.  Their timbres are sufficiently individual to make differentiating between them in secco recitative—and, indeed, in the rapid-moving progression of arias—easy.  To Agrippina falls the beguiling aria ‘Dormite, sì, dormite,’ which Ms. Schiavo sings enchantingly, the rounded beauty of her tone and completeness of her phrasing counting for much.  Both she and Ms. Cherici are well-versed in the idiom of the Händel-or-whomever music of Germanico.

The young countertenor Franco Fagioli, Argentine by birth, is quickly assuming his place among the finest singers of his Fach.  Unlike those of many of his countertenor colleagues, especially those of the past, however, Mr. Fagioli’s voice is a true alto, his lowest notes shaped with hints of chest resonance without being baritonal and his upper register well-supported and mostly free from the ubiquitous countertenor ‘hoot.’  His début recital disc of music by Händel and Mozart, made after his victory in the 2003 Bertelsmann Competition, announced the arrival of a significant young artist, and his singing in Germanico furthers the progress of that artistry.  Already having proved himself as an Händelian of considerable integrity in the studio recording of Händel’s Berenice (EMI/Virgin, conducted by Alan Curtis), Mr. Fagioli sings Lucio’s music in Germanico with the dignity and impeccable virtuosity required by the role.  The aria ‘Bella sorte con destra felice,’ like a pair of Germanico’s arias offered on the recording in two slightly differing versions, draws from Mr. Fagioli exceptionally poised, beautiful singing.  Hearing this performance whets the appetite for hearing Mr. Fagioli in the great alto castrato roles of Händel’s mature masterpieces, those composed for Carestini and Senesino.

Whether presenting music by composers famous or forgotten, any recording that offers an opportunity to hear the voice of Sara Mingardo is welcome.  Simply put, Ms. Mingardo is one of the most interesting singers active today, and her voice is one of the finest of the past quarter-century.  Furthermore, this is not an observation that requires an ‘Early Music’ qualification: whether singing Monteverdi or Mahler, Ms. Mingardo is an artist capable of exquisite achievements, the beauty of her voice being seconded by an astounding technique.  Both elements of her singing, the tonal splendor and the technical mastery, are evident throughout her performance on this recording.  Whether as passionate spouse, doting son, or triumphant warrior, Ms. Mingardo’s Germanico is convincing, the loveliness of the singing in no way detracting from the impression of masculinity.  The first disc ends with the dramatic ‘Acceso dal lampo,’ a ripping martial aria worthy of comparison (no matter the identity of its creator) with the famous ‘Venti, turbini, prestate’ and ‘Or la tromba in suon festante’ in Rinaldo.  Ms. Mingardo’s singing of this aria, the divisions negotiated with the kind of ease that wins the admiration even of listeners for whom this sort of vocal display seems superfluous, is magnificent, surpassing the work of almost all of her contemporaries and rivaling Marilyn Horne for technical aplomb and sheer tonal impact.  Hearing a performance such as Ms. Mingardo gives on this recording, Händel might well have been proud to have composed Germanico.

Naturally, the looming question posed by this recording is whether Germanico is the work, solely or partially, of Händel.  Is this the first operatic work that the young Händel composed in Italy or one to which he contributed to some extent?  That is a question that cannot be answered, and unfortunately the value of this recording will be lessened in the views of some listeners by the fact that Sony are assiduous in at least suggesting that Germanico is an authentic Händel score.  If this recording is approached as a performance of newly-discovered music from the time during which Händel was resident in Italy, however, it richly rewards the listener’s investments of time and interest.  The talented cast sing with the commitment that they might have brought to a recording of what was confirmed to be a genuine, rediscovered Händel opera, and—with artists of the calibre of Sara Mingardo and Franco Fagioli—that alone makes recording Germanico a worthy enterprise.  The recording and its marketing bring to mind Verdi’s response when asked about his opinion of tenors interpolating top Cs in ‘Di quella pira’ in Trovatore: ever protective of his own music, Verdi reluctantly endorsed the interpolations, provided that the tenors ensured that their top Cs were good ones.  If a score of dubious authorship is to be recorded and marketed as something it cannot be proved to be, it is of paramount importance that the recording be a good one.  In that regard, Germanico is thoroughly successful.

Mezzo-soprano Sara Mingardo

24 July 2011

IN MEMORIAM: American baritone Cornell MacNeil, 1922 - 2011


American baritone Cornell MacNeil (1922 - 2011) as Verdi's Rigoletto


24 September 1922 – 15 July 2011

‘Sometimes an artist can plug along year in and year out without any breaks.  Then, with a whoosh, he’ll go right to the top.  Cornell MacNeil, Minneapolis-born baritone, has just taken that dizzying ride.  On March 5 [1959] the thirty-four-year-old singer made his successful European début at La Scala in Milan [as Don Carlo in Verdi’s Ernani], and Saturday night [21 March 1959, substituting for Robert Merrill] he made an unexpected but equally well received Metropolitan début in the title role of Verdi’s Rigoletto.  Mr. MacNeil came through superbly.’  It was thus that Eric Saltzman of the New York Times described the Metropolitan Opera début of baritone Cornell MacNeil, who passed away on 15 July in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Possessing a voice of exceptional size and range, Mr. MacNeil was destined from the beginning of his career for the great Verdi baritone roles.  He was equally accomplished in verismo roles, however, not least Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca and Tonio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci: his singing (and recording) of the Prologue from the latter opera was indicative of the power and extension of his singing, the monologue unfailingly capped with a top A-flat rivaled only by Leonard Warren.  As Scarpia, Mr. MacNeil could prove both seductive and sadistic without pushing the voice beyond its capacities.  Likewise, as Rance in Puccini’s Fanciulla del West, Mr. MacNeil was the embodiment of the cynical sheriff of the American West, toughened by hardship but softened by his need for Minnie’s acceptance.  It was in the music of Verdi, though, that Mr. MacNeil’s voice shone most brilliantly.

Rigoletto, the role of Mr. MacNeil’s MET début, was a part for which he had particular vocal and dramatic affinity, making fullest use of his skills for conveying cruelty and compassion within the space of a single bar.  Mr. MacNeil recorded Rigoletto twice, first opposite Dame Joan Sutherland and Renato Cioni and later—much differently—opposite Reri Grist and Nicolai Gedda.  Both recordings preserve notable performances, the voice more youthful on the DECCA recording with Sutherland and the dramatic presence more impressive on the later EMI recording with Grist.  In vocal terms, Sutherland and Grist were very different daughters, but Mr. MacNeil adapted his vocal resources to his surroundings, proving not only his vocal resilience but also his sensitivity to the requirements of a specific performance.

Criticized early in his career for haphazard treatment of Italian, a language that he did not yet speak, the opulence of Mr. MacNeil’s voice was never doubted.  Fortunately, NAXOS recently reissued on compact discs the 1950 recording of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, the opera in which Mr. MacNeil made his professional operatic début, enabling listeners in the 21st Century to appreciate the quality of voice that this singer possessed from the outset of his career.  Mr. MacNeil once recalled in an interview that he had been singing since the age of twelve, however, his youthful voice having been heard often over the radio.

The extraordinary voice of Cornell MacNeil was last heard at the MET as Scarpia on 5 December 1987, a matinée broadcast performance in which his colleagues were Hildegard Behrens and Ermanno Mauro.  Along with a number of fine recordings, studio and ‘pirated’ broadcasts, Mr. MacNeil leaves a towering legacy: in retrospect, he may indeed have been the last legitimate Verdi baritone heard at the Metropolitan Opera in the 20th Century.  That, eleven years into the new century, the emergence of a true Verdi baritone is still awaited, the passing of Cornell MacNeil is a new reminder of what has been lost in the past quarter-century.

Cornell MacNeil as Scarpia in Puccini's TOSCA at the MET, 1985, opposite Montserrat Caballé [Photograph by James Heffernan/MET]

08 May 2011

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti – LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX (E. Gutiérrez, S. Costello, L. Tézier, M. Pizzolato, A. Corbelli; Opera Rara ORC43)


Gaetano Donizetti: LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX [Opera Rara ORC43]

GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Linda di Chamouix – E. Gutiérrez (Linda), S. Costello (Carlo), L. Tézier (Antonio), E. Sikora (Maddalena), M. Pizzolato (Pierotto), A. Corbelli (Marchese), B. Szabó (Prefetto), L. Botelho (Intendente); Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Sir Mark Elder [recorded during concert performances in the Royal Opera House, 7 & 14 September 2009; Opera Rara ORC43]

First performed in Vienna in 1842, Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix has often been likened to Verdi’s Luisa Miller, the pastoral drama with which the older composer provided a valedictory summation of the grand art of bel canto.  With its sense of bucolic order disrupted—or, rather, complicated—by intrusions of cosmopolitan ideals, the pangs of unexpected affections, unwelcome and unsavory attentions, and the inevitable operatic misunderstandings, Linda di Chamounix also has much in common with Bellini’s La Sonnambula, another beautiful score in which the clouds of a distracted mind clear in order to reveal a sun-drenched horizon at the final curtain.  In its juxtaposition of Arcadian and urban sensibilities, Donizetti’s opera pursues a theme shared in operas as diverse as Verdi’s La Traviata and Mascagni’s Lodoletta: there are in these scores, and especially in Linda di Chamounix, prevailing senses of the inherent ‘goodness’ of the simplicity of rural life and the tempting ‘wrongness’ of the city.  There is in Linda di Chamounix, as there is in Carmen, an endearing evocation of the maternal hearth as the shelter from pain, expressed by Donizetti in music of often exceptional beauty.  Hearing this recording—which hardly enters a crowded field, the only other commercial recordings being the Philips set masterfully conducted by Tullio Serafin, a later effort with the marvelous Mariella Devia in the title role, and a Nightingale recording (taken from concert performances) with ‘house’ prima donna Edita Gruberova as Linda—inspires regret that Linda di Chamounix is not performed more frequently, in fact: though not comparable in terms of dramatic impact to Anna Bolena, Lucia di Lammermoor, or Roberto Devereux, there is in a sincere performance of Linda di Chamounix something quite touching, and the quality of the music reminds the listener that Donizetti’s skills remained tremendously impressive even when the composer’s inspiration was not at its greatest.

As ever with Opera Rara releases, the presentation of this recording of Linda di Chamounix, compiled from a pair of concert performances that, separated by a week, opened the Royal Opera House’s 2009 – 2010 season, is exemplary.  The extensive liner notes by Jeremy Commons not only place the composition and first performance of Linda di Chamounix in historical context within Donizetti’s career as a composer but also, as is typical of booklets enclosed with Opera Rara releases, document critical reception to the opera’s first night, offer biographical information concerning the singers who created the leading roles, and evaluate musical discrepancies among printed editions of the opera and the score as it is known to have been performed in Vienna in 1842.  Notes of the quality consistently provided by Opera Rara increase the listener’s enjoyment of the music at hand by providing insights that heighten the academic experience of hearing an unfamiliar score, and in times of crumbling financial support for artistic ventures Opera Rara are to be heralded for refusing to lower the standards of their productions.

It is upon the quality of the music and the accomplishment with which it is performed that the success of an opera recording is based, however, and in this regard it could be argued that Opera Rara’s new Linda di Chamounix faces its task with a considerable challenge.  The Royal Opera House is a famously difficult venue in which to record, whether under studio conditions or in performance.  Opera Rara posted their engineers at Covent Garden twice before, for their recordings of Donizetti’s Dom Sébastien and Roberto Devereux, both—like Linda di Chamounix—performed in concert.  In both of these instances, the balances achieved on the edited recordings were generally good, with the occasional lapses in focus that are virtually inevitable in recordings of live performances.  The sound with which the choral singing and orchestral playing in Linda di Chamounix is reproduced is excellent, the many felicities of close harmony in the singing of the Savoyard youths who travel to Paris to seek their fortunes and the frequent bursts of color and eloquence in the orchestral scoring evident even at fortissimo.  Throughout the performance, both the full Covent Garden chorus and the smaller ensemble extracted from their ranks for the voices of the Savoyard youths sing with passion and precision.  Several of the solo lines for Savoyard youths reveal that some of these choristers are not yet ready for larger assignments, but they are unfailingly convincing as young, slightly awestruck country lads and lasses.  Under the direction of Sir Mark Elder, one of Britain’s finest conductors of recent years, the Covent Garden orchestra play with the technical aplomb and care for sonorities expected of them since the beginning of their association with Antonio Pappano.

The most vital element of any performance of a bel canto score, no matter how elegant its orchestration or choral movements may be, is the solo singing.  The smaller roles in this recording of Linda di Chamounix are all taken by capable singers, with a part as small as L’Intendente taken by Luciano Botelho, a young Brazilian tenor who has earned considerable interest in Britain, as well as having been lauded for his Giacomo opposite the Elena of Joyce DiDonato in a Swiss production of Rossini’s La donna del lago.  Excellent as the Calvinist clergyman il Prefetto is Romanian bass Bálint Szabó, a compelling young singer with an impressive bel canto résumé to his credit (including a much-praised performance in Bellini’s Puritani in an Athens production that also featured Eglise Gutiérrez).  Mr. Szabó is the modern sort of bel canto bass, which is to say that his voice is leaner and lighter in color and weight than basses of old, and there seemingly are restrictions on the reach and strength of his lower register.  The security of his tone and ways in which he uses text meaningfully are impressive, however, and he produces gratifying sunbursts of sound at the upper extremity of his range.

Central to the drama of Linda di Chamounix are Linda’s parents, sung in this performance by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Sikora and baritone Ludovic Tézier.  Donizetti makes it clear that, to a great extent, Linda’s emotional security is reliant upon her relationship with her parents and especially her mother, whom she adores.  Linda’s mother is far more significant to the opera dramatically than musically, but her lines are sung with involvement and beauty by Ms. Sikora.  Mr. Tézier brings very handsome tone to Antonio, Linda’s father, and his voice has both the suavity and heft required by his music.  Mr. Tézier is the most recent in a small but distinguished line of French baritones with voices truly suitable to Italian repertory, and he shares with an artist like Robert Massard a talent for adapting the nuanced delivery of text to the more open sounds of Italian vowels.  Nonetheless, Mr. Tézier’s denunciation of Linda in Act Two and reconciliation with her in Act Three are not as touching as they could be: whether this is a result of the concert setting is debatable, but as bel canto singing Mr. Tézier’s performance cannot be faulted.  Indeed, it is an uncommon joy in opera to encounter parents who sing attractively and without wobbling: how delightful it would be to have parents of the quality of Ms. Sikora and Mr. Tézier in a performance of Hänsel und Gretel!

Italian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato, still in the early years of an expanding international career, has thus far pursued a wide repertory, with excursions into Baroque music [a recording of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater in which Ms. Pizzolato sings opposite Anna Netrebko was released by DGG earlier this year] as well as bel canto and later Italian music.  In this performance, Ms. Pizzolato sings Pierotto, the hurdy-gurdy-playing orphan who is Linda’s companion and confidant; a role surprisingly but memorably sung in the Serafin recording by the wonderful Fedora Barbieri.  At heart, Pierotto is the quintessential Italian street urchin, as much a cousin to the organ-grinders who haunted Italian streets in the Nineteenth Century as the Savoyard youth the libretto stipulates him to be.  Dramatically, his function in Linda di Chamounix is great: it is Pierotto’s song that leads Linda in her delirium from Paris back to her alpine home.  Musically, Pierotto seems almost a brother of Cherubino, his contributions to ensembles of perhaps greater importance than his solo lines.  Ms. Pizzolato, with an alluringly dark voice and a rapid vibrato that conjures aural reminders of mezzo-sopranos of the past, sings Pierotto’s music with unfailing energy and lovely, pointed tone.  Perhaps most remarkable in a fine performance is Ms. Pizzolato’s singing in the scene in which Pierotto and Linda finally reach their native village after an arduous journey from Paris.  By coloring the voice, Ms. Pizzolato expresses through Pierotto’s few words all of his frustration, annoyance, exasperation, and—finally—almost desperate relief at having reached his home.  Ms. Pizzolato’s command of the requisite idioms, both musical and linguistic, is complete, and the completeness of her performance indicates that, for lovers of Italian opera, hers is a name to remember.

Alessandro Corbelli’s is a name already familiar to those who have heard performances or recordings of Italian opera buffa during the past twenty years.  Especially celebrated for his performances of Rossini roles, Mr. Corbelli sings the role of the Marchese di Boisfleury in Linda di Chamounix, a lascivious roué whose designs on Linda are decidedly less than pure.  Musically, the Marchese is related to Dulcamara and Don Pasquale, an obvious—and quite amusing—homage to Rossini.  Mr. Corbelli’s tone is starting to loosen slightly, but he remains a genuine opera buffa stylist, his skill in singing complex patter unaffected by the passage of time.  His performance in Linda di Chamounix is a feast.  The comedy of the Marchese’s feckless wooing is fully realized without compromising musical integrity, with Mr. Corbelli singing firmly and sounding as though he is having a truly grand time.  His Marchese is the classic, slightly-befuddled dirty old man, his mind racing with unholy intentions with which his body cannot quite keep pace but his heart ultimately good.  Among many treasurable assumptions, this is one of Mr. Corbelli’s most enjoyable performances.

Eglise Gutiérrez as Linda di Chamounix at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Cuban-American soprano Eglise Gutiérrez captured the attention of many American opera lovers with her singing of Amina in an Opera Orchestra of New York concert performance of Bellini’s La Sonnambula in 2008.  The ease and fluidity of her coloratura singing impressed New York audiences, prompting Vivien Schweitzer to write in the New York Times that Ms. Gutiérrez ‘sang (often in a stratospherically high range) with graceful phrasing and dynamic control.’  Interestingly, grace and dynamic control are less apparent in Ms. Gutiérrez’s singing of Linda di Chamounix, in which role she made her début at the Royal Opera House.  Ms. Gutiérrez certainly possesses a beautiful voice which, in moments of involvement during Linda di Chamounix, sparkles excitingly.  Dramatically, though Ms. Gutiérrez is obviously an astute singer with a keen sense of the momentum of the music she sings, her performance suffers markedly from the effects of murky diction.  In moments of heightened passion, often in duet with Carlo or Antonio, Ms. Gutiérrez’s words are suddenly clearer, and the voice rings out with something like the authority befitting a bona fide bel canto diva.  Throughout much of the performance, and unfortunately in Ms. Gutiérrez’s extensive upper register, the sound has far less presence and even threatens to disappear in ascending passages.  Comparing this with Opera Rara’s other recordings derived from concert performances at Covent Garden, it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which this can be attributed to the obstacles posed by recording in this venue.  The heroines in Opera Rara’s other Covent Garden recordings—Nelly Miricioiu in Roberto Devereux and Vesselina Kasarova in Dom Sébastien—have very different voices and methods of vocal production, making any judgment concerning the effects of the space on the sound of Ms. Gutiérrez’s singing conjecture at best.  Nerves are sure to have affected Ms. Gutiérrez on the occasion of her Covent Garden début, and it is possible that she was treading cautiously in a difficult aural environment.  Whatever the factors that undermined her basically excellent singing were, Ms. Gutiérrez’s performance as a whole is not effective enough to inspire sympathy for Linda’s emotional struggles, though her famous aria ‘O luce di quest’anima’ and the innovative mad scene are managed with careful attention to vocal shading.  Nevertheless, there is much good singing, and Ms. Gutiérrez remains an unusually promising soprano.

The irony of the performance is that, in the end, sympathy for Linda is inspired, principally because the singing of American tenor Stephen Costello—who also sang at Covent Garden for the first time in these concerts—is so superb that it seems inhuman to fail to share Carlo’s affection for his disillusioned paramour.  Carlo has in Act Two the romanza ‘Se tanto in ira agl’uomini,’ an aria that is as languidly beautiful as any that Donizetti composed [during a famous La Scala production, Alfredo Kraus was compelled to encore the romanza in every performance], and Mr. Costello rises to this challenge with a voice that combines strength with plangent beauty, singing in broad phrases that highlight the Bellinian scope of the melody.  In his love duet with Linda, reprised in the final scene to deliver her from her madness, Mr. Costello is the very model of a young man burning with love, longing for an embrace from his beloved, and sighing pensively when she shyly repulses him.  The heartbreak that Carlo expresses when he returns to Linda’s village and learns of the grief and suffering his actions have caused her, a scene reminiscent of the final act of I Puritani, is touchingly conveyed by the ardor of Mr. Costello’s singing.  In more extroverted music, his swagger and vocal accuracy are thrilling, revealing a young man who may be deeply in love with a peasant girl but who is also a proud aristocrat.  There are passing moments of strain and caution born of nerves and instances in which top notes are approached from below in a sort of vaulting exercise familiar from the singing of many sopranos, but even when there are suspicions that the voice is being pushed rather hard there is great enjoyment to be had from Mr. Costello’s singing.  In opera, there are singers who sing very well and those who sweep an audience along with them in experiencing the drama of a score, even in a concert performance: singers who achieve both of these accomplishments are very rare, but in this recording Mr. Costello achieves this with singing of beauty, security, and ringing sincerity.

Like so many of the operas revived and recorded by Opera Rara, Linda di Chamounix will almost certainly never replace more popular, financially-viable pieces like Lucia di Lammermoor and L’Elisir d’Amore in the repertories of the world’s better opera houses.  It is significant that an artist as important to bel canto as Tullio Serafin felt it appropriate to conduct Linda di Chamounix and to record it for posterity, however.  There is something to the opera that is deceptively charming.  The charm is deceptive because a preliminary reading of a plot summary or the libretto raises concerns: this is surely just another insipid bel canto travesty with a crooning tenor and a soprano warbling away in her highest register in the obligatory mad scene.  This recording, both engaging and slightly disappointing, does not overwhelmingly argue for an increase in the value of Linda di Chamounix within the Donizetti canon.  The ears rejoice and the heart falters when Stephen Costello sings, though, and ultimately it should be almost impossible to dislike a performance with so many positive aspects that inspire an excellent young singer to give of the best of his art.

[L to R] Bálint Szabó, Ludovic Tézier, Alessandro Corbelli, and Stephen Costello in LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

23 April 2011

ARTIST PROFILE: Jonathan Blalock, tenor


Jonathan Blalock, tenor [Photo used with Mr. Blalock's permission]

Alfredo Kraus, a paragon of bel canto grace and one of the most consistent artists of his generation, once said that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing,’ that you must ‘decide whether you want to service the music and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’  Maestro Kraus was the rare artist who achieved both of the aims of which he spoke: possessing a technique that enabled him to sing not merely serviceably but superbly throughout a long career, he also earned the admiration of lovers of the tenor voice throughout the world, his repertory encompassing the operatic roles for which he was renowned and many of the tenor roles in the zarzuela repertory of his native Spain.  There is in virtually every artistic genre a sense of the dichotomy of which Maestro Kraus spoke, however, especially in the environment that exists for the performing arts in the Twenty-First Century; the choices that face a young artists of whether to pursue a path that leads to a career as what might be termed a connoisseurs’ artist or one that leads to the perhaps more lucrative popularity of aggressive management and marketing.  Despite his remarks, Maestro Kraus was among the ranks of those singers who are fêted by musical cognoscenti and commoners alike, the natural quality of his voice supported by the exceptional power of his technique.  It was this latter quality that was developed in accordance with those choices at the start of his career of which he spoke.  As anyone who attends performances at any of the world’s regional opera companies or conservatories could attest, it quite frankly is a myth that there are no good voices to be heard now.  There may even be a greater number of promising young singers than at any time in past, especially in the United States, but it would be impossible to deny that there are fewer extraordinary talents and major careers now than, say, in the 1950’s, when Sir Rudolf Bing could call upon an uncommonly fine roster of American singers, old and young, to build casts around his foreign stars.  It is therefore doubly exciting when a young singer emerges who possesses both a fine voice and evidence of a thoughtfully-formed technique.  It is that excitement, along with hints of the vocal and technical acumen of the irreplaceable Alfredo Kraus, that greets performances by American tenor Jonathan Blalock.

Still in the early stages of his career, Mr. Blalock already has to his credit the creations of leading roles in a critically-acclaimed operas, Lázaro in Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls and Stevie in Michael Dellaira’s The Secret Agent.  The path that led Mr. Blalock to these accomplishment began, as he recalls, in utero.  ‘I loved music from before the time I was born,’ he says.  ‘My mother says that when I was still in the womb, I would kick to the rhythm of her piano playing.’  Opera and concert music were not important influences in Mr. Blalock’s formative years, however.  ‘Music was a powerful force in my childhood.  It was not the symphonies of the concert hall but the hymns of the neighborhood Baptist Church.’  This, along with having grown up in North Carolina, is an experience that he shares with the celebrated tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, whom Mr. Blalock cites as an invaluable influence on his decision to pursue a career as a singer.  ‘My entire perspective turned around when I met Anthony Dean Griffey,’ he says.  ‘His recital at UNCG absolutely changed my life.  He only sang two songs, but he imbued them with more emotion than most performers can mine from three hours of music.’  Mr. Blalock recollects that his earliest musical goals, shaped by his experiences with singing in church, were centered on choral music.  ‘My original goal was to be the next Robert Shaw, conducting choirs and possibly teaching college as well.  I studied piano [during undergraduate studies], and I began training at UNCG for a Master’s Degree in conducting.’  It was important to Mr. Blalock that, in order to prove an effective choirmaster, he understand the voices over which he would preside.  ‘I began studying voice with Dr. Carla LeFevre.  She got some flack for teaching a non-voice major,’ he recalls.  ‘It was sort of against the rules, but I’m glad she gave me a chance.  At first she thought I was absolutely hopeless, but after a few months of frustration in her studio, she looked up at me and said—to her and my surprise,—“You know, I think I would actually pay money to hear someone sing like that.”  I credit Dr. LeFevre with teaching me the fundamentals of singing.  She is still a close mentor, a wonderful mix of teacher, sister, mother, and friend.’

Jonathan Blalock and Wes Mason in the World Premiere of Jorge Martín's BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, Fort Worth Opera, 2010 [Photo by Ellen Appel]

Mr. Blalock reinvented himself as a novice singer at the age of twenty-three, an age at which—as he notes—he had already fallen behind many of his fellow artists.  ‘Most of my peers had been studying voice for seven or more years at that point,’ he remembers.  ‘I had a lot of catching up to do.  I struggled with the thought of pursuing a career that seemed so absolutely egocentric.’  This was also a conundrum with which his encounter with Anthony Dean Griffey proved beneficial.  ‘[Mr. Griffey] shared the story of how he grew up singing in a rural North Carolina church—like me—and originally pursued sacred music.  He spoke of how he dedicated his life to encouraging young singers and to strengthening and preserving music in North Carolina Education for the next generation.  He then ended his session the way he ends every one of his recitals, with a simple but beautifully heartfelt rendering of “This Little Light of Mine.”  An hour in his presence not only made me want to be a better artist but also a better person.  That event taught me that singing isn’t always a selfish art: it can actually cause the world to be a better place.’  This Mr. Blalock also learned from his work with Fort Worth Opera General Director Darren Woods and stage director David Gately.  ‘Honestly,’ Mr. Blalock says, ‘I never had the chance to sing leading roles at UNCG.  I was still so green, and other students in the program were much further along in their development.  But Darren Woods had the guts to take a huge chance on me.  While visiting UNCG to judge a competition, he heard me sing in a masterclass.  He gave me a full scholarship and a huge role—Nico in Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata—at Seagle Music Colony.’  This experience contributed significantly to Mr. Blalock’s understanding of the importance of his stage deportment.  ‘I learned a great deal about how to carry myself on the stage.  I’m generally a laidback guy, but David Gately taught me how to be an Athenian warrior.  It’s always wonderful when teachers and mentors will be honest with a young singer.  While I was a studio artist at Fort Worth, [Mr. Woods] would shoot straight with me.  He would say, “You’re flapping your arms around too much,” or, “You lost your focus and stared blankly with ‘singer eyes’ during that coloratura passage.”  I’m always yearning to improve, but I can’t fix it until I know exactly what is broken.’

Emotional honesty is, in Mr. Blalock’s view, perhaps the most important single quality that a musical performance must possess in order to be truly meaningful—and, in a sense, one of those things that is often broken and in need of repair.  ‘Sometimes I think [that] the best training takes place not in a studio but on the stage.  Colleagues who have mastered their form have taught me by example.  I’ve learned by watching the fragile, hypnotic manner in which Elizabeth Futral descended the staircase in Lucia’s mad scene or the indomitable Wes Mason’s depiction of Reinaldo Arenas as he bravely fought tyranny and sickness with such indescribable strength and passion.’  Building on these examples, Mr. Blalock sets as his foremost goal in singing the fostering of open, genuine communication with his audience.  ‘In my opinion, it is imperative for a singer to know why he or she sings,’ he states.  ‘My number-one goal is to communicate.  It is a challenging task because too many nuisances can get in the way: fear, technical imperfections, health, language, etc.  But my hope is to make every note I sing beautiful and honest enough so that, even if just for a few seconds, someone in the audience can connect with me, forget his worries, and experience deep joy.’  He adds, ‘The most meaningful compliment I’ve received after a performance hasn’t been, “Wow, I was so impressed by what your voice can do,” but, “Your singing touched me deeply.”’  The tools Mr. Blalock employs in pursuit of his goal of establishing communication with his audience are directly related to that core value of emotional honesty.  ‘Before a performance, I always try to forget about everything else and just focus on keeping my singing free and expressive.’  Central to his focus on the freedom and expressivity of his singing is his understanding of the requirements of the music that he sings.  ‘Every physical and musical gesture must have purpose,’ he suggests.  ‘This past summer, before singing the role of Tonio [in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment], I coached some of it with Joan Dornemann [the repsected coach and Assistant Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, as well as co-founder and Artistic Director of of the International Vocal Arts Institute].  After I sang through the second aria [‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’], she asked me why I was adding a high C-sharp at the end.  Honestly, I didn’t have a good reason except that I liked it and thought it was impressive.  But, after revisiting the piece, I realized that the text and the music didn’t call for a climax at that point: the intent should have been much more intimate in that moment.  So I did something that was very atypical for a tenor: I decided not to sing the high note in the performance!’  It is this dedication to the emotional core of the music at the expense of the obvious effect that is surely at the heart of the choice of which Alfredo Kraus spoke and which Mr. Blalock makes for his commitment to offering audiences performances that convey an abiding sincerity.

Jonathan Blalock as Tonio in Donizetti's LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT, Tel Aviv, 2010 [Photo courtesy of Mr. Blalock]

Mr. Blalock cautions, too, that deriving personal joy from the thrill of performing cannot be the sole impetus for pursuing a career as a singer.  ‘It’s not enough to love performing.  You must also love the process,’ he says.  ‘The road to the stage is a long one full of countless lessons, coachings, and stagings.  It takes so much more hard work than I ever could have imagined.  But in the end it provides a joy so overwhelming [that] I could hardly imagine doing anything else.’  That road to the stage is something of which Mr. Blalock is keenly aware and upon which he reflects with insight into his own development as an artist.  ‘Lázaro [in Before Night Falls] was a stretch for me, but I worked extremely hard in my preparation, and I believed that I was up to the task.  People always worry [about whether] a young singer is ready vocally, but most people never bother to wonder whether the singer is ready dramatically.  Tony Griffey taught me the old mantra that says, “Don’t sing to impress: sing to express,” and [that is] possibly the most important lesson I’ve ever learned about performing.’  His senses of freedom, expressivity, and the desire to communicate, along with the security of his technique and plangent beauty of his timbre, have guided Mr. Blalock in choices of repertory.  ‘The role in Before Night Falls provided a wonderful chance for me, but also the great operas of Händel, Rossini, and others provide limitless possibilities for innovative ornaments and cadenzas.  It’s thrilling to sing something that is centuries old and surprise the listener with something never heard before,’ he says.  ‘Comic roles such as Almaviva [in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia] have been wildly enjoyable for me,’ he continues.  ‘Right now, my voice is most appropriate for the –ino and –ano roles in Mozart, Donizetti, and Rossini.’  ‘Secretly,’ he confides, ‘I would love to sing something tragic where I could bellow passionately and then die on stage.  Something like Cavaradossi comes to mind, but my voice just isn’t the right fit for that.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to eventually expand my repertoire to the lighter Puccini roles of Rinuccio and Rodolfo.’

Jonathan Blalock as Fenton and Kathryn Lewek as Nannetta in Verdi's FALSTAFF, Mercury Opera Rochester, 2011 [Photo courtesy of Mr. Blalock]

The work of young singers will ultimately prove one of the most influential factors in the success of opera in the decades to come.  Directors, especially during the past twenty-five years, have contributed to the debate about how best to shepherd opera through the perils of deteriorating economic conditions and ever-changing fads by creating operatic productions that have generated praise and derision in almost equal proportions, all in pursuit of an elusive ‘relevance’ that will ensure the survival of opera.  Mr. Blalock believes that the future of opera is in many hands, with an examination of the reasons why opera has endured these past four centuries at its heart.  ‘I believe that the viability of opera depends on a number of factors,’ he offers.  ‘I think that opera companies should continue trying to find new ways of presenting the classics.  It shouldn’t be just for the sake of being “hip,” but rather it should be an effort to continue to dig into those treasured old operas in search of new jewels of artistic creativity.  On the other hand,’ he adds, ‘I always appreciate it when companies make an effort to educate their audiences.  When looking at opera with a new perspective, we can truly see how timeless much of it is.’  Fortunately, it is apparent when witnessing any of Mr. Blalock’s performances or listening to his recording of Lázaro in Before Night Falls—an opera that, despite its dramatic situations that are unique to its time and place, is not at all unlike Idomeneo, Stiffelio, or Peter Grimes in its moving depiction of an individual’s isolation and suffering—that he recognizes that the single greatest assurance of the immortality of opera is the continuing collective effort of young singers to make composers’ scribbles on yellowing pages breathe in sighs and snarls that caress audiences’ ears and set their pulses racing.

Jonathan Blalock as Howard Boucher in Jake Heggie's DEAD MAN WALKING, Fort Worth Opera, 2009 [Photo courtesy of Mr. Blalock]

As his comments suggest, Mr. Blalock’s voice at this time in his career is an even, ringing lyric tenor, possessing a richness that fills long bel canto lines with warmth and also a brightness that aids the singer in projecting the sound effectively.  With the centered beauty of his voice complemented by his handsome appearance, Mr. Blalock is a compelling stage presence, and his acting is nuanced without being overcomplicated.  Above all, his singing is an audible blend of natural talent, consummate artistry, and good sense.

‘I’ve seen the way the universal language of music can bring together people of different generations, disparate races, and various cultures,’ Mr. Blalock muses.  ‘When all the elements of a performance combine effectively, it produces a joy so intense that it transcends boundaries of time, language, and religion.’  At the hands of an effective artist, that joy is shared equally by the artist and his audience.  There is an eternal debate about what qualities contribute to the creation of a great artist.  There are singers who possess great voices.  There are singers who possess remarkable skills of interpretation.  There are also singers who exhibit exceptional wisdom in choosing what in some cases may seem narrow repertories.  Alfredo Kraus might have added that there are great singers and also popular singers.  In the early morning of what seems destined to be a long, well-judged, and rewarding career, Mr. Blalock has already acquired the circumspection that inhabits the psyches of the greatest artists.  ‘I think [that] a quote from my friend Jake Heggie’s wonderful opera Three Decembers sums up my feelings [about singing],’ he says.  ‘”What I found on the stage is what every person desires: not escape, but connection.  Greed, pride, and yearning dissolved by the power of dreams.”’  If the power of dreams if what is at the epicenter of singing for Mr. Blalock, it is the power of transcendence that his voice brings to those who hear him.  There is another passage from the work of Jake Heggie that is apt, these lines from his song ‘Facing Forward,’ recorded by Frederica von Stade and Joyce DiDonato: ‘Let it go.  Let it out of your heart.  Set it free.  Let it be a part set apart and maybe then you will see.’  It is with the skill of a master technician and the heart of a great artist that Jonathan Blalock sets free the sparkling tones nature has given him, and it is through hearing that his listeners are made to see.

Jonathan Blalock as Stevie in Michael Dellaira's THE SECRET AGENT, New York, 2011 [Photo by Richard Marshall]

The author’s heartfelt gratitude is extended to Mr. Blalock for his kindness, as well as the candor and thoughtfulness with which he responded to the questions that formed the basis for this article.  Thanks are also due for Mr. Blalock’s kind permission to use the photographs featured in this article.

Please click here to visit Mr. Blalock’s Official Website.

Mr. Blalock will return to North Carolina in December 2011 to sing in Händel’s Messiah with the Winston-Salem Symphony.  Performances are scheduled for 13 and 14 December at 7:00 PM.

13 April 2011

CD REVIEW: CIRQUE–Songs by Auric, Milhaud, Poulenc, & Sauguet (Céline Ricci, soprano; Daniel Lockert, piano; Sono Luminus DSL-92125)


CIRQUE: Céline Ricci, soprano, & Daniel Lockert, piano (Sono Luminus DSL-92125)

GEORGES AURIC (1899 – 1983), DARIUS MILHAUD (1892 – 1974), FRANCIS POULENC (1899 – 1963), HENRI SAUGUET (1901 – 1989): Songs – Céline Ricci, soprano; Daniel Lockert, piano [recorded at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California, 19 – 20, 22 August 2009 and 23 – 25 August 2010; Sono Luminus DSL-92125]

Comparing the vocal recital discs released during the first eleven years of the new millennium with those that shaped the course of the first century of sound recording is a largely dispiriting undertaking.  It would be easy to suggest that the proportion of recital discs with artistic rather than commercial goals has decreased or that the goals of recital discs and those who plan and create them have changed as the dynamics and demographics of audiences receptive to such discs have evolved, and indeed compelling support for these arguments could be produced without difficulty.  To apply a less complex analysis to the situation, it might said that the joy has gone out of recording recital discs.  When one hears recordings of art songs by Adelina Patti, of Brahms Lieder by Elisabeth Schumann, or—more recently—of overlooked Verdi songs by Dame Margaret Price, it is impossible to imagine these artists as commercially-minded businesspeople with one eye on the till.  These recitals were evocations of the qualities that made the singing of these artists memorable and also valuable souvenirs of their personalities as both performers and individuals.  Except in some few rare cases, it is this essence, the intangible but always audible sense of the mirth of singing, that is missing from vocal recital discs now.  Delightfully, Cirque, this recital of Twentieth-Century French mélodies by soprano Céline Ricci and pianist Daniel Lockert, is one of those exceptions, a remarkable recital in which the experience of performing the music included on the disc is approached with the same direct, uncomplicated delight that might accompany one’s walk along the Seine in the early morning, turned out of a café at the closing hour, the last chill of night clinging to the river, and the smell of baking bread spilling into the streets.

A few words of caution are necessary when approaching this disc.  Listeners wanting or expecting the safe, uninflected singing and cautious, easily-ignored playing heard on so many recent recital discs will be disappointed or surprised in turn.  The singing offered in this performance by Céline Ricci, an exciting French soprano now resident in San Francisco, is authoritative without being stilted or inaccessible for the casual listener.  One lesson learned from recent recital discs is that a Francophone name on the cover does not ensure the elegant phrasing and placement of vowels expected in the heady days of Régine Crespin, Michel Sénéchal, and Gérard Souzay.  In the case of Ms. Ricci, however, the art of French singing as exemplified by the great French-speaking artists of the past, including the inimitable Edith Piaf, not only survives but thrives.  In her singing of each song on this disc, Ms. Ricci displays the instinctive marriage of music to text that is crucial to the effective singing of French mélodies.  Especially impressive is her mastery of the incredibly difficult—even for native speakers of French—application of nasalization as a function of inflection rather than mere pronunciation, a skill that eludes many fine singers but which in Ms. Ricci’s singing sounds disarmingly natural.  Furthermore, Ms. Ricci possesses precisely the sort of forward, bright timbre that unpretentiously reveals the nuances of this music without making of each song a grandiose act of artistic piety.  The Passions of Bach are perhaps meant to be revered: the songs on this disc, gems of their genre though they are, are surely meant to be experienced, to be sung if not actually in the cabaret then with its irrepressible ebullience.  In that regard, Ms. Ricci’s performance is as delightful, intoxicating, and slightly stinging as fine champagne.

The songs and vocal music of Milhaud and Poulenc are hardly unknown, both on recordings and in recital halls.  It is especially welcome to hear the songs offered in this recital (and, outside of France, to hear vocal music by Poulenc that is not associated with nuns en route to the guillotine), however, and the songs of Auric and Sauguet are very welcome, especially in performances as spirited as those offered by Ms. Ricci.  The texts of these songs, composed to verses by poets of the stature of Jean Cocteau (and at this juncture a few words of praise are due to Sono Luminus for the excellent—and sadly atypical—articles in their liner notes about the poets whose words are sung in this recital), are uncommonly fine, equal in linguistic richness and dramatic impact to the Goethe and Heine texts beloved by Teutonic composers.  In a recital that has no misfires, Ms. Ricci’s singing of Auric’s ‘Huit Poémes de Jean Cocteau’ is a superb traversal, both vocally and dramatically, of a sequence of songs that explores the emotional space of a Winterreise with simpler gestures and far more smiles.  In his five-song sequence ‘La Voyante,’ Sauguet proves himself the equal of Poulenc in shaping musical structures around the points made by spiky texts.

Wonderfully pulse-quickening is Daniel Lockert’s account of Erik Satie’s previously-unrecorded ‘Rag-Time Parade,’ a barnstorming piece that will inevitably conjure for American listeners aural memories of the music of Scott Joplin.  Throughout this recital, Mr. Lockert accompanies Ms. Ricci with the symbiosis required to enrich the musical experience.  One danger of this music is that its approachability somehow creates a mirage that suggests that these pieces are easy to play: the unencumbered virtuosity of Mr. Lockert’s playing does not dispel the confusion, his command of the idiom so complete as to make this seem to be music that merely happens rather than having to be rehearsed and performed.  When one is virtually unaware of the diligence and skill deployed in a pianist’s playing, not least in the context of his accompaniment of a vocal recital, one is hearing the work of a first-rate artist.

One need not be a connoisseur of Twentieth-Century French vocal music in order to enjoy this recital.  Admittedly, this is not repertory that one is likely to hear sung by the over-promoted, just-off-the-Tarmac singers whose recitals delight their followers and whose bland recordings win praise in the press.  There is the sense in every note of this recital that this was a very personal journey for Ms. Ricci, one not so much of nationalistic identity but more of individual artistic curiosity and temperament.  This is unquestionably among the finest vocal recital discs of recent years, its novelty and caution-be-damned attitude as thrilling as the firecracker brilliance of Ms. Ricci’s singing.  Most vitally, this disc is simply great fun.

31 January 2011

IN MEMORIAM: Welsh soprano Dame Margaret Price, 1941 - 2011

Dame Margaret Price, 1941 - 2011

Dame Margaret Price

13 April 1941 – 28 January 2011

From the fertile land of Wales that reared Sir Geraint Evans and Dame Gwyneth Jones grew one of the most arrestingly beautiful voices ever heard in the music of Mozart, Schubert, and Richard Strauss; that of Dame Margaret Price, whose passing on 28 January not only silenced a glorious voice but also extinguished a warm, unpretentious spirit.

Born in Blackwood, Wales, Ms. Price endured a childhood malady of her legs that caused her pain throughout her life, and she often took on the care of her handicapped brother.  It is impossible to know the extent to which music was a comfort to Ms. Price during the difficult earliest years of her life, but her formal studies of music were begun before her sixteenth birthday, and she became a member of the famed Ambrosian Singers during her time at the Trinity College of Music.

Initially trained as a mezzo-soprano, Ms. Price made her formal operatic début as Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro at Welsh National Opera in 1962.  Her career at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where her progress was impeded by Sir Georg Solti’s reluctance to entrust leading roles to Ms. Price, was solidified by another performance as Cherubino, one in which she substituted on short notice for the celebrated Spanish mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza.

Following her success at Covent Garden, Ms. Price established herself in Germany, where she formed an artistic partnership with Otto Klemperer that led to her first leading role in an opera recording, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte.  Mozart roles remained central to Ms. Price’s repertory throughout her career.  She eventually recorded a poised, ethereally beautiful Contessa in Le Nozze di Figaro for Riccardo Muti and a sterling Pamina in Die Zauberflöte for Sir Colin Davis, along with a refreshingly dignified Donna Anna in Don Giovanni for Sir Georg Solti—for whom, ironically, she made several superb recordings.  On records, Ms. Price also proved an exceptionally touching exponent of the role of Wagner’s Isolde, recorded for Carlos Kleiber but never sung in the theatre.  Equally remarkable was her singing on several recordings of music by Händel, especially a sublime performance of Saul conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras.  It might be argued by purists that Ms. Price’s voice was not an ideal instrument for the music of Händel, but by which period-specialist soprano have the vocal lines of the Saxon master been more exquisitely sung?

Despite an operatic career that took her to the Metropolitan Opera, where she débuted as Verdi’s Desdemona on 21 January 1985, La Scala, and the Wiener Staatsoper, it was in Lieder repertory that Ms. Price’s voice perhaps shone most resplendently.  In the Lieder of Brahms, Schubert, and Richard Strauss, the tonal beauty and emotional sincerity in Ms. Price’s performances proved irresistible, both in recital halls and on records.  None of Ms. Price’s Lieder recordings displays her voice more fittingly or impressively than her account of Schubert’s ‘Der Hirt auf dem Felsen.’  Easily meeting the demands of the song’s difficult, two-octave tessitura, from a resonant lower register to a ringing, unforced top B that would be an uncommon blessing in many performances of Fidelio, Ms. Price renders every nuance of the turbulent text with understated brilliance.

Possessing a voice that was a full, centered lyric soprano, Dame Margaret Price was an artist whose commitment to technically-secure, meaningful music-making rivaled the standards set by legendary sopranos of the past: Maria Müller, Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and Lisa della Casa, for instance.  She was among the greatest artists of her generation, and her voice will surely reveal to future generations the dignity of Mozart heroines who smile through tears and the inner peace that supports the soaring melodies of Richard Strauss.

16 January 2011

CD REVIEW: SOL Y LUNA–Sephardic Music performed by Brio (J. Lemos, S. Rosenberg, M.A. Ballard, D. Mallon; Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-92118)


SOL Y LUNA - Sephardic Music performed by Brio (Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-92118)

SOL Y LUNA: Sephardic music performed by Brio – J. Lemos (countertenor), S. Rosenberg (guitars, recorder, Persian flute), M.A. Ballard (viola da gamba, rebec), D. Mallon (percussion) [recorded at Ayrshire Farm, Upperville, VA, 10 – 12 March 2010; Dorian Sono Luminus DSL-92118]

It is now to the mists of time and—perhaps worse—the dictates of conjecture that the precise origins of Sephardic music are lost.  Likely stemming from roots cultivated among the Jewish communities of medieval Spain and having as a primary impetus in its development the expulsion of Jews from Spain by the Inquisition in 1492, the tradition of Sephardic music developed during the five subsequent centuries to incorporate cultural elements from virtually the entire Mediterranean basin.  Scholars debate the influence of Muslim musical traditions on Sephardic music, especially in Turkey and north Africa, and recently some few scholars have postulated that much of the known Sephardic repertory may be inauthentic in the sense that the songs were composed to conform with perceptions of Sephardic tradition rather than having sprung organically from it.  This distinction is potentially of an historical significance, of course, but to what extent is the musical integrity of the Sephardic repertory undermined?  The concerti composed by the violinist Fritz Kreisler and initially presented as works by Vivaldi are now accepted and admired as Kreisler’s own work.  How many opera-goers cover their ears or flee the auditorium when, say, the arias in La Cenerentola that were not composed by Rossini are sung?  Should Brahms’s Symphonies be less important works of art were it discovered that they were actually composed by a struggling conservatory student rather than the master composer in his full maturity?  This is not to dismiss the importance of a work’s—or, in this case, a repertory’s—genesis, but the true value of music surely depends more upon its effect on those who hear it than upon the circumstances under which it was created.  Applying this criterion, the body of Sephardic music available to modern performers and listeners is especially deserving of preservation, presentation, and enjoyment, whether the individual songs were composed by men or women performing and writing in the shadows of cathedrals, mosques, or synagogues.

Founded in 2002 by Early Music specialist and Chairman of the Music Department of the College of Charleston Steve Rosenberg, Brio is a chamber ensemble dedicated to thoughtful performance of Sephardic songs and what might be called the medieval ‘troubadour’ repertory.  To this music, Brio bring both historical circumspection and decidedly modern perspectives, audibly putting forth the notion that, whatever their collective provenance, these songs are living, breathing organisms, not relics of antiquity that must be approached with gloves and hushed tones of reverence.  The philosophy employed by Brio would seem to be that Sephardic music is best celebrated by performing it full on, without the artificial shows of historical accuracy that pass for appropriate ‘style’ in many camps, and focusing on the emotional immediacy of each song.  The dividend paid by this investment of artistic resources is that most prized of traits: relevance of the musical experience to the Twenty-First-Century listener.  In Brio’s hands, these are not songs of medieval Spain, of expelled and reviled people, or of any specific times or places: these are songs of love and loss, beauty and pain, and the shared emotional reactions of humanity to common predicaments.  The validity and musical merit of this approach have never been more apparent than in Brio’s new disc of Sephardic songs, Sol y Luna.

From the opening notes of the first song on the disc, ‘Yo m’enamori,’ the listener is transported to Andalucía, the finely-detailed playing of the guitar, the rattling of the castanets, and the seductive cadence of the voice suggesting the whirl of the wind in the caves of Sacromonte.  It would be impossible to select any of the tracks on the disc, instrumental or vocal, for particular praise, so high is the quality of the performances in general.  Whether wistful or exuberant, the mood of each song is evoked through vocal and instrumental nuances derived unpretentiously from the text.  When performing music conveying such vital passions, there is always the danger of seeming quaint, of seeming to sing of these sentiments rather than from them.  In this recording, there is no doubt that the emotions of this music are felt, and thus the psychological environments of these songs are palpable to the listener.

Playing recorder, Persian flute, and an array of Renaissance guitars, Brio’s founder Steve Rosenberg shapes each song with ears, mind, and heart focused on reflecting the poetic twists of the texts in sound.  Each song is given a distinct profile, a ‘sound world’ that honors its origins, whether Spanish, Israeli, or Turkish, but also creates a refreshing vitality.  Mr. Rosenberg’s playing is technically astute and possesses the rhythmic ‘snap’ that is required to draw the listener into each song.  The bass lines of the songs are drawn with complementary intuition by Mary Anne Balllard, playing viola da gamba and rebec, a bowed instrument derived from Arab models and popularized in Europe during the Renaissance (a scene in Don Quijote depicts a shepherd’s serenade accompanied by a rebec).  To these ingredients are added the aromatic spices of the sounds made by a veritable orchestra of percussion instruments played by Danny Mallon, whose mastery of the castanets is particularly impressive.  The sounds created by this trio of exemplary musicians combine to create a dialogue that interacts with the vocalism rather than merely supporting it.

The voice of South American countertenor José Lemos is marvelously ambiguous: both smoky and almost celestially pure, the timbre of Mr. Lemos’s voice seems specially-tailored for the troubadour and Sephardic music of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.  When expressing fervent piety, the voice glows with radiance.  Songs of sadness and loss inspire elements of darkness and heaviness despite the downy lightness of Mr. Lemos’s vocal technique.  Love songs draw from Mr. Lemos’s voice a smoldering, almost scandalous sensuality.  Singing in the ‘composite’ language (influenced by both Spanish and Jewish dialects, with contributions from hosts of other linguistic idioms) Ladino, the crispness of Mr. Lemos’s diction is very rewarding in this music, and only the absence of the distinctive consonant formations of Castilian reveals that he is not a native Spaniard.  Mr. Lemos’s accomplishments in operatic repertory, ranging from the operas of Lully and Händel to Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, are unfailingly memorable, and he brings the same vocal focus and dramatic precision familiar from his operatic roles to the music on this disc.  These songs are not conceived in his performance as operas in miniature, however: in complete accord with Mr. Rosenberg, Ms. Ballard, and Mr. Mallon, Mr. Lemos presents each song in this recording as a moment in life, some of them to be proclaimed in sunny plazas, some to be carried by the breeze on moonlit nights, and some to be whispered into ears under cover of darkness.

That Sephardic music is an underexplored vein of artistic gold is evident from the splendid music-making on this recording.  Perhaps the greatest achievement of this disc, though, is the unique spontaneity of the singing and playing, making a tradition that may be as old as the Alhambra seem not just new but perceptibly evolving.  The performances by Brio brim with energy and the joy of uniting the threads of common cultural and emotional exchanges inherent in the diversity of music.  Stevie Wonder famously sang that ‘just because a record has a groove don’t make it in the groove.’  Whether heard as an expressive account of music in a centuries-old tradition or as a vital experience of a new, ever-changing genre, Sol y Luna is gloriously in the groove.

Countertenor José Lemos