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