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]