27 February 2013

CD REVIEW: J.S. Bach—JOHANNES-PASSION (Bostridge, N. Davies, Sampson, I. Davies, Mulroy, R. Williams; Polyphony; Hyperion CDA67901/2)

Johann Sebastian Bach: JOHANNES-PASSION - Polyphony [Hyperion CDA67901/2]

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Johannes-Passion—I. Bostridge (Evangelist), N. Davies (Christ), C. Sampson (soprano), I. Davies (countertenor), N. Mulroy (tenor), R. Williams (baritone, Pilatus); Polyphony, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Stephen Layton [Recorded in All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, 10 – 13 April 2012; Hyperion CDA67901/2]

After nearly two centuries of scholarship that began with the enthusiasm of Felix Mendelssohn for the rediscovered Matthäus-Passion, the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach continue to offer challenges for which there are many suggested but no definitive solutions.  Recent opinion among historically-informed-performance practitioners advocates the ‘one voice per part’ approach now familiar from several notable recordings of the Passions and Cantatas.  Even in the cases of composers whose lives and compositional processes are far better documented than Bach’s, there are undeniable limitations to latter-day musicians’ abilities to fully reconstruct and execute composers’ original intentions.  Furthermore, there are many instances—such as those involving music composed for castrati—in which a composer’s inaugural performance conditions could not be exactly re-enacted were they known.  The music of Bach poses unique challenges in that the dearth of information about the specific performance conditions to which the composer’s works were subject when new offers modern interpreters opportunities for individual choices, some of which discard tradition solely for the sake of generating discussion.  Maestro Stephen Layton brings to Bach’s Johannes-Passion his own unique tradition, developed through performances with Polyphony, that tempers decades-old conventions with respectful innovations.

One of Maestro Layton’s most compelling decisions is performing the second stanzas of several chorales a cappella, with the instrumental accompaniments played only on the first stanzas.  Any objections to this practice are averted by including recordings of these chorales with full accompaniments as appendices, but hearing the a cappella versions within the context of the narrative is refreshing.  The beautifully contemplative quality brought to the music by the a cappella singing is very touching.  The singing of Polyphony is of exceptional musicality, the voices blending expertly without any of the parts being lost or given undue prominence.  In the turba choruses, the Polyphony choristers sing with stinging dramatic profile without sacrificing accuracy.  The power that Polyphony can summon is remarkable for a relatively small ensemble, and the tonal amplitude sounds precisely right for the Johannes-Passion, avoiding the anaemic sound of single-voice-per-part performances and the over-loading of the performances of the mammoth choirs of the past.  Polyphony respond with complete dedication to Maestro Layton’s leadership, shaping the performance with attention to detail that never distorts the cumulative progress of the performance.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment offer playing of consistent refinement and virtuosity, accompanying chorus and soloists with rapt musicality and tonal beauty.  Choristers and instrumentalists display the kind of musical integrity that the music of Bach demands but, even in this age of attention to historically-appropriate performance practices, so infrequently receives.

In terms of solo singing, this is one of most successful recorded versions of Johannes-Passion.  Carolyn Sampson, the soprano soloist, is a familiar presence in Baroque music, and her singing of the soprano arias in this performance confirms that she is a tremendously gifted singer.  The music for all of the aria soloists in Johannes-Passion is so melodically beguiling that it can seem deceptively simple to the casual listener.  A performance as assured as Ms. Sampson’s might further this illusion: she sings her music so capably that she seems to encounter no difficulties.  Her music is far from an easy sing, however, and the brilliance of Ms. Sampson’s singing leaves even some very accomplished rivals on other recordings in the shade.

Technical acumen is also demanded by the music for the tenor soloist, and it seems from his performance on this recording that his arias extend Nicholas Mulroy—the Evangelist on Dunedin Consort’s new recording of Johannes-Passion—to the limits of his considerable technique.  Mr. Mulroy’s is an attractive voice, produced with liquid ease, however, and the sense of strain audible in some of his music’s most challenging passages movingly coveys the anguish of the texts.  It is no longer as common as it once was for tenors to sing both the Evangelists and tenor solos in Bach’s Passions, and indeed the requirements of the roles are quite different.  In order to effectively perform the tenor arias in Johannes-Passion, it is necessary not to make them sound easy but to make them sound heartfelt.  Mr. Mulroy achieves this palpably, facing the most daunting passages in his music honestly and honorably.

Baritone Roderick Williams is familiar to music lovers from many fine performances and recordings of an extremely varied repertory, some of the finest amongst which are his sterling contributions to recordings of songs by British composers.  Here singing the bass arias and the role of Pontius Pilate, Mr. Williams provides the open-throated security and open-hearted directness for which he is appreciated.  Pilate is an important and ambiguous presence in the Passion narrative, both his proclamation of having found no fault during his interview with Christ and his ultimate delivery of Christ unto the hands of the Jews for crucifixion receiving powerful settings by Bach.  Mr. Williams delivers Pilate’s lines with complete attention to their significance but without any suggestion of the cardboard villain offered by many singers.  In the bass arias, Mr. Williams is unusually elegant.  Bach’s bass arias cover a great deal of vocal territory, both in terms of bravura and tessitura.  Many modern singers are stretched by the lower and upper extensions required by Bach’s music, but Mr. Williams emerges unscathed, the lower register consistently warm and burnished and the highest notes reached with freedom.  Mr. Williams provides an example of Bach singing that ranks with the best on records.

Perhaps most impressive among the soloists is countertenor Iestyn Davies, whose performance of the alto arias is exquisite.  Completely absent in Mr. Davies’s voice are any signs of the characteristic ‘hoot’ heard in the singing of many English-speaking countertenors.  Missing, too, are the clumsy register breaks too often heard in countertenors’ performances of lower-lying music.  Bach’s music in Johannes-Passion does not plumb the lowest contralto depths, but Mr. Davies commands the tessitura winningly, producing firm, rounded tones in his lowest register without resorting to vulgar excursions into chest register.  As his music ascends, Mr. Davies’s voice unfolds with rare beauty, the tone silvery but never cold or androgynous.  In many performances of Johannes-Passion, the alto arias can be dreaded lapses in musical continuity: like much Baroque music, they are somewhat awkward for many modern singers, depriving mezzo-sopranos of opportunities to air their upper registers and challenging the few true contraltos with difficult approaches to higher lines.  Mr. Davies makes the alto arias in this performance gems that are eagerly sought.  So many young singers must be painstakingly coached through the music of Bach.  In this performance, Mr. Davies sounds as though he was born with Bach in his voice.

The role of Christ in Johannes-Passion is a monumental challenge.  Musically, passages of recitative give way to flowing arioso and bouts of coloratura that take the voice through a wide range to sepulchral lows.  Dramatically, a delicate balance must be found in order to maintain the dignity of the part without hectoring.  The danger in casting the part is that many of the lighter-voiced baritones and basses who specialize in singing Baroque repertory lack the declamatory power needed to sing Christ effectively and can only fake the lowest notes.  Singers who possess ideal weight of tone in the lower register often sing larger-scaled repertory, however, and can but approximate the florid singing.  Neal Davies is a welcome artist in whose voice these disparate qualities are combined.  Singing with the technical strength familiar from his acclaimed recording of Händel’s Saul, Mr. Davies brings the necessary gravitas to Christ’s music without sounding as though he is singing Hagen.  Mr. Davies sounds thoroughly comfortable in Christ’s music, an enviable accomplishment, and he phrases with obvious understanding of the text.  Some of the most famous baritones and basses of the past century have recorded Christ, and it is a testament to Mr. Davies’s talents that, in addition to more than holding his own among celebrated competitors, he offers a performance in this Johannes-Passion that both has enough power to please traditionalists and displays attention to historical nuances that will appeal to adherents to ideals of Baroque performance practices.

Ian Bostridge has ever been a singer who finds individual, sometimes idiosyncratic solutions to musical problems.  The Evangelist in Johannes-Passion is a role of operatic proportions that nonetheless demands unique qualifications in terms of vocal size and color.  So unique are these qualifications that there arose during the 20th Century a veritable Fach for ‘Evangelist tenors,’ enveloping artists of the calibre of Kurt Equiluz, a superbly gifted tenor who sang a wide repertory but is likely best remembered as an ideal Evangelist in Bach’s Passions.  The tessitura of the Johannes-Passion Evangelist is uniformly high, unnervingly so for many traditional lyric tenors and indeed also for Mr. Bostridge on a couple of occasions.  The particular demand of the Johannes-Passion Evangelist is a pliable, heady timbre that avoids nasality and falsetto.  There is a slightly darker, more throaty sound to Mr. Bostridge’s voice than is common in singers of the Evangelist, but he adapts his voice to the part with skill and charm.  If the singer portraying Christ is charged with sounding determined and dignified without seeming petulant or self-righteous, the Evangelist is faced with choosing whether he is merely telling a story or actively participating in it.  Mr. Bostridge’s Evangelist is at the center of his narrative, achieving peaks of dramatic intensity before the pulsing turba choruses.  He rips into coloratura passages with command that seems as appropriate to Monteverdi’s Orfeo as to Bach’s Evangelist, and musical values are kept at an unquestionably high level.  Pursuit of dramatic verisimilitude occasionally compromises approaches to higher notes, with Mr. Bostridge sounding almost as though he has been taken by surprise by a few of Bach’s quicksilver ascents into the tenor’s upper register.  The singer’s German diction is crisp without seeming overwrought, though vowels can threaten nasality as Mr. Bostridge leans into the text.  Mr. Bostridge is a very musical singer, however, and this pays great dividends in Johannes-Passion.  His success in creating a character rather than just narrating from the sidelines of the drama is compelling, and in combining this with a capable, confident execution of the music Mr. Bostridge proves a probing and deeply intelligent Evangelist.

One of the wonders of Bach’s Passions is the way in which, even in flawed but feeling performances, they can touch the hearts of listeners regardless of religious affiliations.  Bach was a Lutheran writing for Lutheran congregations, but his Passions achieve universality through the towering emotional directness of the music rather than by the dogma of their texts.  Whether Christ is a Messiah, a prophet, or merely a man, he is in Bach’s Johannes-Passion a calm but disturbing source of musical perfection in an environment of profoundest imperfection.  It is impossible to know what symbolic associations beyond Christian liturgy the Passions may have held for Bach, but the prevailing aura of Johannes-Passion is not Christianity but humanity.  It is humanity that is abundantly present in this performance.  Maestro Layton and his expert team of soloists, choristers, and instrumentalists do not seek to stage a tent revival: rather, they convey through some of the most glorious music ever composed that men live, love, suffer betrayals, face the scorn of those who are meant to love them, endure judgments, and die, all with hope that there is greater purpose to these travails.  This Johannes-Passion does not demand spiritual ears, but it is an uncommonly spirited performance of one of the masterworks of Western music.

14 February 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner—DIE WALKÜRE (Stemme, Pape, Kampe, Kaufmann, Gubanova, Petrenko; Mariinsky MAR0527)

Wagner: DIE WALKÜRE [MAR0527]

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Die Walküre—N. Stemme (Brünnhilde), R. Pape (Wotan), A. Kampe (Sieglinde), J. Kaufmann (Siegmund), E. Gubanova (Fricka), M. Petrenko (Hunding), Z. Dombrovskaya (Gerhilde), I. Vasilieva (Ortlinde), N. Evstafieva (Waltraute), L. Kanunnikova (Schwertleite), T. Kravtsova (Helmwige), E. Sergeeva (Siegrune), A. Kiknadze (Grimgerde), E. Vitman (Roßweiße); Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev [Recorded in Mariinsky Concert Hall, Moscow, during 06.2011, 02. and 04.2012; Mariinsky MAR0527]

Throughout 2013, the bicentennial of the birth of Richard Wagner will be celebrated by the operatic community, with performances of Wagner’s operas in virtually all of the world’s important opera houses and several new recordings planned.  The recent release of a recording of Tannhäuser—in which Nina Stemme, the present Walküre’s Brünnhilde, sings Elisabeth—continues Pentatone’s celebratory series of Wagner operas conducted by Marek Janowski, a series that will culminate in recordings of the Ring operas, recorded in concert.  Similarly, the Mariinsky Orchestra’s recording of Die Walküre launches a complete Ring, with release of the complementary Rheingold scheduled for autumn 2013.  Based upon the level of achievement in this Walküre, it must be hoped that the Mariinsky Ring does not suffer the same fate as DECCA’s effort with the Cleveland Orchestra and Christoph von Dohnányi, aborted after unimpressive sales of the Rheingold and Walküre performances.  Recordings of Die Walküre are certainly not in short supply, though, and even in the year in which Wagner’s bicentennial is celebrated it is possible to question the wisdom and desirability of recording the Ring anew, especially considering the expense incurred both by the record labels and the potential purchasers.  The vital consideration, then, is whether there are singers or conductors whose performances of Wagner’s music deserve to be preserved.  Only a few minutes into Act One of the present recording, the entrance of Siegmund gives notice that this recording is one that all Wagnerians will want to hear.

During the twenty-five-year tenure of their Artistic Director, Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky Orchestra has been transformed from an ensemble appreciated almost exclusively for its performances of Russian music to a celebrated orchestra with a rich repertory—and discography—of international works.  In 2003, Maestro Gergiev presided over the first performance of the complete Ring presented in Russia for more than ninety years, a milestone in his leadership of the Mariinsky.  In the present Walküre, compiled from concert performances, the members of the Mariinsky Orchestra justify the esteem in which they are held by the international musical community.  Bringing the individual strengths gained from sterling performances of Russian opera to the music of Wagner, the players embrace the very different idiom with evident dedication, producing playing that rivals that of the greatest German and Austrian orchestras.  Nonetheless, this Walküre unfolds with a sonic ambiance very different from that of Bayreuth, with its notorious covered pit, or the Metropolitan Opera.  Recording the opera during concert performances partially accounts for this, but much of the difference can be attributed to both the orchestra and Maestro Gergiev.  Collectively, there is considerable brilliance in the orchestral playing, with particular honors going to the woodwinds and brass.  Russian repertory is littered with resplendent passages for woodwinds and brass, and the Mariinsky reeds and horns play with assured intonation rivaled only by their Wiener Philharmoniker counterparts.  No exposed passage embarrasses an instrumentalist, and the balance of the recording allows even the lowest bass grumblings consistent clarity.  The harps, often harmonically critical in Wagner’s music, are granted welcome prominence within the sonic landscape, and the high woodwinds in the ‘Zauberfeuer’ music glisten, highlighting the evolution of Loge’s musical transformation into fire.  Motifs that in many performances are unearthed by only the most attentive and practiced ears break the surface of this Walküre, supplying new insights even in a scene as musically sparse as the ‘Todesverkündigung.’  As a result of the balance of the recording, the orchestra occasionally overpowers the singers, which is not uncommon in performances of Die Walküre, whether staged or presented in concert.  The overall acoustic of the recording is slightly unnatural, but the dynamic range and richness of sound are very rewarding.

Maestro Gergiev brings to this Mariinsky Ring a wealth of experience as a Wagnerian in the world’s greatest opera houses, in addition to a lauded Mariinsky recording of Parsifal.  Pacing performances with an aim of producing a recording is a tricky business, one that has undermined the best work of fine conductors.  Thus far, the Wagner recordings in the Pentatone series have been of one-off concerts, whereas the Mariinsky Walküre is compiled from a series of performances: though recording a single performance introduces greater opportunities for debilitating blunders, recording multiple performances can create nightmares for producers, engineers, conductors, and casts by necessitating a consistency of approach that can prove elusive.  It is to the credit of the engineers involved with this recording that the editing is absolutely unobtrusive.  Maestro Gergiev maintains a firm grip on the reins, achieving the consistency necessary to theoretically elucidate an individual concept within the context of a recording compiled from multiple performances over a prolonged period of time.  Tempi for the most part are slow, allowing passages that are often rushed to unfold with exceptional clarity.  With committed singing from the cast, lapses in dramatic cohesion are mostly avoided, though musical phrases are often given prominence that threatens to stall narrative progression.  Musically, Maestro Gergiev’s attention to color in the orchestra recalls Ring performances conducted by Herbert von Karajan, but the sense of Wagner’s characters evolving, gradually but inexorably, towards their respective fates is shortchanged.  Scenes do not always unfold along traditional lines under Maestro Gergiev’s baton, but there are few idiosyncrasies that compromise the integrity of Wagner’s dramaturgy: the root of the problem seems to be an absence of personal engagement with the score on the part of Maestro Gergiev.  The care given to orchestral balances and logical if not always conventional phrasing produces an interesting Walküre and bodes well for the other installments of Maestro Gergiev’s Ring, musically: dramatically, considering that the challenges of the other Ring operas are more daunting than those of Walküre, greater focus on momentum will be paramount.

The Mariinsky’s Valkyries—Zhanna Dombrovskaya as Gerhilde, Irina Vasilieva as Ortlinde, Natalia Evstafieva as Waltraute, Lyudmila Kanunnikova as Schwertleite, Tatiana Kravtsova as Helmwige, Ekaterina Sergeeva as Siegrune, Anna Kiknadze as Grimgerde, and Elena Vitman as Roßweiße—are a formidable clutch of warrior maidens, their tones occasionally strident but little troubled by the wobbles that often affect Slavic voices.  The ‘Walkürenritt’ is exciting but not without humor.  The voices combine effectively in the cantilena-like passages in which the Valkyries plead with Wotan for clemency for their sister, and the abandon with which high notes are attacked reminds that these girls are happiest in the heat of battle.

Bass Mikhail Petrenko is a menacing presence as Hunding, his oily voice slithering through Wagner’s music with chilling precision.  The irony of Hunding’s false chivalry in granting Siegmund temporary asylum from both elements and enemies is evident in every note that Mr. Petrenko sings.  The intelligence of Mr. Petrenko’s singing makes Hunding less of a dolt than he is in many performances, with the sense that he is less Fricka’s puppet than an opportunistic mercenary.  His exchanges with Sieglinde in Siegmund’s presence drip with sarcasm, suggesting that this Hunding is the sort of abusive spouse whose crimes are always just out of sight.  Musically, Mr. Petrenko commands Hunding’s text and tessitura with complete security.

It is interesting to note that the Fricka of this performance, Ekaterina Gubanova, sang Giovanna Seymour in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 – 2012 production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.  Though Donizetti’s music is vastly different from Wagner’s, bel canto credentials are anything but a disqualification for singing Wagner.  It is well documented that Wagner hoped for bel canto ideals to extend to the singing of his music, though admittedly his vocal lines often suggest otherwise.  If Ms. Gubanova’s voice seemed slightly ungainly in Giovanna Seymour’s music, it is entirely in its element in Fricka’s.  To her credit, Ms. Gubanova’s Fricka is more womanly and audibly a wronged wife, wounded to the quick by her husband’s philandering, than many Frickas, but her baleful pronouncements to Wotan are voiced with dire authority.  This is a Fricka who is not merely a consort but a powerful goddess in her own right, pursuing her own agenda.  In order for Wotan’s denunciation of Brünnhilde to be completely convincing, Fricka must be a towering figure whose demands cannot be denied, and in this regard Ms. Gubanova’s performance is completely successful.  The phrasing is not unfailingly idiomatic, but the voice is fully capable of delivering the role with aplomb.  Top notes are granitic but solid, hurled out with defiance.  The equalization of vocal registers required to sing bel canto lines eloquently is in evidence throughout Ms. Gubanova’s performance, which ultimately amounts to a fiery, fierce Fricka.

The Wotan of René Pape is an intriguing compromise.  Mr. Pape is a bass singing a role that requires a bass-baritone voice, and the fact that several of Wotan’s highest notes, especially those in Act Three, push the singer to the very limits of his range cannot be overlooked.  While many prominent Wotans lack ease on high, Mr. Pape’s struggles with the extreme top of the tessitura undermines climaxes.  When the music stays low, however, Mr. Pape delivers a wonderfully assured performance, shaping many of the lower-lying phrases in Act Three with ease and greater firmness of tone than many singers bring to these passages.  Mr. Pape’s native German diction is very welcome, and though his is not an exceptionally nuanced or insightful concept of his role he recognizes Wagner’s often eloquent matching of musical lines to the conversational flow of text.  Perhaps the most involving aspect of Mr. Pape’s performance is his audible embarrassment at his favorite daughter witnessing his subjugation to his wife: not unlike Rigoletto’s reaction to Gilda’s first encounter with him in his jester’s garb, Wotan’s reaction to Brünnhilde’s confusion at his crumbling beneath Fricka’s unanswerable arguments is crucial to the opera’s ultimate conclusion.  Seeing her father’s will dominated by his wife’s awakens Brünnhilde’s desire to continue Wotan’s agenda and precipitates her fall.  Mr. Pape’s anger when confronting Brünnhilde after her rescue of Sieglinde is mild, sung with attention to vocal rather than dramatic values, but his farewell to his daughter is poised and poignant.  If Mr. Pape’s Wotan is not one for the ages, worthy of mention in the same breath with Friedrich Schorr and Hans Hotter, it is handsomely though not perfectly sung and convincingly balanced between virility and resignation.

If her soaring Leitmotif is to be interpreted literally, Sieglinde is the seed from which Brünnhilde’s self-sacrifice, the destruction of the gods, and the rebirth of humanity are grown.  It is interesting to note how few completely satisfying Sieglindes there have been in the years since Die Walküre was first performed in 1870, and it is delightful to hear from Anja Kampe a performance that comes so near to total mastery.  A veteran of several acclaimed Ring productions, Ms. Kampe knows her way round Sieglinde’s music, and she exhibits the acumen required to focus the voice appropriately for each scene.  In a sense, Sieglinde is similar to Verdi’s Violetta, each of Walküre’s three acts making different demands upon the singer: in Act One, Sieglinde awakens to true love with music of lyrical ecstasy; her terror in Act Two is depicted in rocketing dramatic lines; desperation and exultation in her final scene take her soaring to the top of her range.  In Act One, the infusion of warmth into Ms. Kampe’s voice as she converses with Siegmund makes audible Sieglinde’s recognition of her brother.  The sadness with which she sings of her life with Hunding is supplanted by radiant joy as she contemplates her flight with Siegmund, Ms. Kampe’s crisp diction contributing meaningfully to her persuasively excited singing.  Unfortunately, Maestro Gergiev’s approach chips away the foundations of the dramatic arcs that Ms. Kampe strives to build, but she makes her points movingly nonetheless.  In Act Two, Ms. Kampe’s Sieglinde battles fear, doubt, and uncertainly without resorting to stridency.  Sieglinde’s greatest challenge comes in Act Three, however, in the brief but unforgettable outpouring of ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’  Ms. Kampe builds to this climax with gleaming tone and a power that temporarily threatens to upset her refreshing security, but she manages to re-focus the voice and scale the heights with commendably sure intonation.  It is apparent from the strength with which she takes her leave in Walküre that this is a Sieglinde who will brave any hardship in order to safely deliver her son.  Ms. Kampe enters the company of Sieglindes who both earn sympathy and emerge from their vocal and dramatic trials with glory.

Much of the interest in the Metropolitan Opera’s Robert Lepage production of the Ring centered on the Siegmund of Jonas Kaufmann.  Mr. Kaufmann is without question one of the most significant singers of the current generation, and his forays into Wagnerian repertory have mostly been undertaken judiciously as the voice has darkened and expanded.  In comparison with Lohengrin, in which role Mr. Kaufmann was acclaimed prior to his inaugural Walküre performances, Siegmund’s tessitura is markedly lower, accessing Mr. Kaufmann’s burnished, baritonal lower register.  Natural diction shapes Mr. Kaufmann’s musical phrasing, enabling him to focus on the technical challenges of the music.  There is a touching simplicity to the Siegmund who stumbles into Hunding’s hut in search of shelter, and the sense of wonder that Mr. Kaufmann brings to Siegmund’s increasing cognizance of his ancestry is disarming.  Siegmund is no ‘holy fool’ like Parsifal, but there is more poetry in Mr. Kaufmann’s performance than in many Siegmunds.  This is not to suggest that any power is lacking in Mr. Kaufmann’s singing: in the context of concert performances, he brings impressive power to climaxes without forcing the voice.  At Maestro Gergiev’s tempo, Mr. Kaufmann’s ‘Winterstürme’ is an expansive performance, the tone beautifully bronzed and completely steady.  Steadiness is also an impressive hallmark of Mr. Kaufmann’s singing in the ‘Todesverkündigung,’ where the low tessitura poses daunting challenges for many tenors.  The boldness and unflinching focus of Mr. Kaufmann’s performance recall the acclaimed Siegmund of Jon Vickers.  Mr. Kaufmann’s timbre is leaner than his Canadian forbear’s, but he has little to fear from comparison with the best Siegmunds of past generations.  It can be debated whether Wagner repertory is natural territory for Mr. Kaufmann, but there are few instances in which hype proves as justified as in the case of this Siegmund.

Brünnhilde is a role in which the success of any Hochdramatischer soprano is measured.  In Die Walküre, the soprano singing Brünnhilde endures tremendous vocal ordeals—the infamous battle cry with which she makes her entrance demands trills and takes her, within a few bars, to top C—and has the difficult task of credibly portraying a free-spirited immortal whose brush with humanity engenders her own mortality.  In her initial interview with Wotan, the voice must possess the sharp edge of her father’s spear.  When she appears to Siegmund as the harbinger of death and destiny, her vocal lines inhabit the low tonal world of the man whom she addresses, presenting perilous choices of registers and vocal placement.  As she reveals Sieglinde’s pregnancy and plans the despondent mother’s escape, she must display spot-on intonation.  Perhaps most difficult is the necessity in her final scene with her father of audibly transforming from playful girl who has never suffered reproach to a troubled, remorseful figure who will wake in Siegfried fully a woman.  Few are the sopranos who accomplish these feats.  That Nina Stemme achieves almost total success, singing each scene almost as if she were checking requirements for a first-rate Brünnhilde off of a list, is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this Walküre.  When the young Brünnhilde greets her father at the start of Act Two, it is obvious that this is a maiden who enjoys nothing more than doing Wotan’s bidding on the battlefield.  She is audibly confused and exasperated by Wotan’s response to Fricka’s ultimatum, however, and her uncomplicated psychology is shattered by her observation of Siegmund’s love for Sieglinde.  After triumphantly rescuing Sieglinde and the unborn Siegfried, Ms. Stemme’s Brünnhilde stoically faces Wotan’s bitterness, offering her defense imperturbably.  Ms. Stemme is one of the few Brünnhildes heard in recent years whose voice is genuinely worthy of the role in terms of vocal amplitude, and her singing on this recording is a rare example of a Wagner performance for which no apologies must be made.  Ms. Stemme’s is a large but also an attractive voice, and she sings with near-native command of the text.  It is clear from her first notes that this Brünnhilde is no shrinking violet but also no mindless harpy.  Intelligence and emotional directness are central to Ms. Stemme’s performance.  While she does not achieve the dramatic wonders remembered from the Brünnhildes of Martha Mödl and Dame Gwyneth Jones, Ms. Stemme sings more securely and beautifully than either of her esteemed predecessors.  Her interpretation of Brünnhilde will likely deepen with time, but it is a great gift to Wagner on the occasion of his 200th birthday to have a Brünnhilde as imposing, impressive, and thoroughly capable as Ms. Stemme recorded in her prime.

Despite significant drawbacks, it would be churlish to regard this Walküre as a missed opportunity.  A recording that preserves the superb singing of Nina Stemme, Anja Kampe, and Jonas Kaufmann in clear, well-balanced sound is a major addition to the Wagner discography.  By many Wagnerians’ assessments, Die Walküre is the most dramatically straightforward of the Ring operas, however, and the one that works best on its own, without benefit of the accompanying operas in the tetralogy.  No matter how excellent the quality of singing is in any performance, the task of building a compelling Walküre does not fall solely to the singers, and in this regard it is regrettable that the worthy singing of the principals does not enjoy the dramatically alert setting it deserves.  Perhaps there is something valid to be said for leaving room for improvement.  That is emphatically done in this recording, but this Walküre is still a vehicle for wonderful Wagner singing and, on those terms alone, is likewise an auspicious beginning to what is likely to be a divisive but endlessly fascinating Ring.

12 February 2013

DVD REVIEW: Kyong Mee Choi—THE ETERNAL TAO (J. Zavala, B. Jungwirth, A. Anich, M.-K. Chen, N. Williams; Ravello Records RR7866)

THE ETERNAL TAO (Ravello Records DVD RR7866)

KYONG MEE CHOI: The Eternal Tao, A Multimedia Opera—J. Zavala, B. Jungwirth, S. Stein, A. Hull, J. Jablonski, C. Ballantyne (voices); A. Anich, M.-K. Chen, N. Williams (dancers); Ensemble Dal Niente; Michael Lewanski [Recorded in performance at Ganz Hall, Roosevelt University, Chicago, Illinois, on 22 October 2010; Ravello Records DVD RR7866]

In The Magic of Opera, George Marek—a frequent contributor to the Metropolitan Opera’s broadcast intermission features—wrote that opera ‘does not call so much for an imaginative ear as for an imaginative eye, an eye which can see beyond little absurdities toward great truths.’  This is perhaps true now more than ever, as the visual elements of opera productions are increasingly central to audiences’ operatic experiences.  Even before the work of Richard Wagner changed perceptions about the forms and functions of opera, French librettist Eugène Scribe wrote of his conception of opera as the genre in which all means of artistic expression—musical, visual, and poetic—are united in a single endeavor and, in the most rarefied instances, refined into a timeless monument of Total Art.  Many recent productions of traditional repertory operas reveal through their efforts at updating classic settings a damaging distrust of works of the past: in order to be appreciated by audiences in the 21st Century, an opera composed two hundred years ago must be made ‘relevant’ by transporting its action and transforming its characters to places and persons recognized by even the least perceptive patron in the internet age.  This philosophy surely confuses entertainment with enlightenment, at least in part, and introduces the danger of distorting not only the impact of an opera but also the reasons for its endurance.  What, then, of the ‘imaginative eye’ of which George Marek wrote?  Have the ‘great truths’ as expressed in music survived four centuries of operatic invention, intuition, and revision?

Based upon Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (道德經 in its traditional form), The Eternal Tao—the work of composer, visual artist, choreographer, director, and producer Kyong Mee Choi—is a ‘multimedia opera’ that, eschewing the conventional narrative structures of Western opera, seeks to examine the ‘great truths’ pursued in Tao Te Ching, notably those of virtue, integrity, and universal humanity.  Absent are the named characters and linear dramas familiar from the works with which most opera lovers are acquainted, but The Eternal Tao compellingly combines visual arts, dance, and music in an exploration of the most basic elements of the human experience.  The Eternal Tao reveals that Kyong Mee Choi is an artist of exceptional gifts, foremost among which is an uncanny ability to create a work that, though profoundly different from the operas of Verdi and Wagner, realizes the ideals towards which composers of old endeavored.

Recorded in performance at Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall, Ravello’s DVD presents The Eternal Tao with the superb video quality that the stirring visuals demand, allied with rich, well-defined sound.  Ensemble Dal Niente, the musicians who in this performance play Eastern and Western instruments, traditional and non-traditional, offer virtuosic playing of great eloquence and technical accomplishment are are recorded with a careful balance rare for recordings of live performances.  Conductor Michael Lewanski presides with authority but flexibility.  Musical values are considerably higher than in many performances of contemporary works, and the difficulties of the score are faced with conviction and complete dedication.

So exceptional is the ensemble in this performance that all of the dancers and singers deserve individual mention.  Dancers Allison Anich, Mei-Kuang Chen, and Natalie Williams move with grace in choreography that is stylized but also refreshingly natural, suggesting Oriental cultures without imparting any particular cultural point of view.  Soprano Samantha Stein, mezzo-soprano Allison Hull, tenor Jeff Jablonski, and baritone Chad Ballantyne are the Chorus, their voices blending hauntingly.  Mezzo-soprano JulieAnn Zavala sings with impressive accuracy and fearlessness, bringing to her lines an attractive voice that is consistently focused and secure throughout the range.  The standout performance among the vocalists comes from baritone Brad Jungwirth, whose strong, handsome voice rings out dashingly even in the most complicated passages.  Voices are employed as instruments in the ensemble, and Mr. Jungwirth unflinchingly manages lines with great rhythmic complexity.

The visual elements created by the composer for this production are evocative and often stunningly lovely, color used with the vibrancy, delicacy, and nuance of the great Impressionists.  Indeed, this is a production of almost extravagant beauty: it is extremely rare to encounter equitable visual appeal in a production of a traditional, canonical opera.  Visuals are never used merely as attractive backdrops, however.  Carefully coordinated with the musical aspects of the production, the visual projections enhance the work of the dancers and vocalists by serving as an evolving panoply of emotions in color.

Musically, Kyong Mee Choi’s idiom is decidedly modern but not without hints of influences from both Eastern and Western music of the 20th Century and earlier.  As in the music of many Eastern cultures, percussion is central to the sound world of The Eternal Tao, but the composer writes for percussion with a fluency and variety quite unlike that heard in the works of other contemporary composers.  Compared with a piece like Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, in which authentic Asian percussion instruments were deployed with artistry but to sometimes distracting effect, use of percussion in The Eternal Tao is both refined and dramatically arresting.  There are moments of startling dissonance, but these give way to passages of surpassing beauty, aptly reflecting the myriad struggles and successes of life.  Perhaps the most impressive element of the musical score of The Eternal Tao is the way in which Kyong Mee Choi has created tonal motifs that give the work continuity but also seem spontaneous.

The Eternal Tao exemplifies the concept of ‘performance art,’ integrating all of the aspects of traditional opera—music, dance, and visual arts—into a remarkable experience that, however unconventional in terms of operatic traditions, grips with its journey through the eloquent verse of one of the most integral works of world literature.  In a sense, text is the unifying element of The Eternal Tao: visual components depict the moods of each excerpt from Tao Te Ching, musical lines are adapted to the sounds of the words, and dance movements flow with the natural cadences of the language.  Kyong Mee Choi has created in The Eternal Tao a powerful example of how opera can transcend not just the conventions of four centuries of operatic composition but also the limitations of language and culture.  It is rare that a splendid contemporary work receives a performance worthy of its merits: The Eternal Tao has been especially fortunate in not just enjoying the espousal of Roosevelt University in mounting a fantastic production that leaves little to be desired but also receiving the gift of a first-rate DVD presentation from Ravello Records.  Kyong Mee Choi obviously possesses the ‘imaginative eye’ of which George Marek wrote, and her Eternal Tao offers glimpses of elusive ‘great truths’ among tableaux of biting originality and resplendent humanity.

A scene from THE ETERNAL TAO [Photo from the Roosevelt University production]

06 February 2013

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Celebrating Black History Month in Music

Marian Anderson posing with her mother on the occasion of her Metropolitan Opera début as Ulrica in Verdi's UN BALLO IN MASCHERA

Throughout the 20th Century, the world’s opera houses and concert halls were among the most progressive institutions in terms of integrating artists of all races and creeds into their performances.  Though American theatres and especially New York’s Metropolitan Opera lagged behind European musical institutions in the engagement of artists of color, the MET début of Marian Anderson on 7 January 1955, as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, was a watershed moment in the history of Civil Rights in the United States and for minority artists throughout the world.  Even now, artists of color continue to constitute a lamentably small minority in comparison with Caucasian musicians, but their work has been irrefutably critical to the musical life of the past seventy years.  On an individual note, my own opera-going experiences have been meaningfully shaped by performances by minority singers: a tremendously memorable African-American Carmen; a moving and vocally brilliant South Korean Gilda; a powerfully machismo Tamerlano who happens to be gay.

To adapt the centuries-old axiom, artists of color in the 21st Century stand on the shoulders of giants.  The color of an artist’s skin is less likely to be a deciding factor in the development of his or her career in 2013 than it would have been in 1953, but the very fact that it is possible only to say ‘less likely’ rather than ‘never’ is a testament to the absolute necessity of celebrating minority involvement in the Performing Arts, both past and present.  In recognition of Black History Month, celebrated during February in the United States, I am proud to honor the work of twelve artists of color, all of whom have achieved the highest levels of artistic integrity through hard work, perseverance, and discipline.  Singers such as Martina Arroyo and Shirley Verrett need no introduction to opera lovers, but in an arts community that sadly turns its back on the past more each day, these ladies must be recognized not only for their achievements as artists but also for the shining example of their character.  These twelve are artists whose work is of great significance to me as a musician and a music lover.  They are people whose art has the power to transcend race, gender, religion, and sexual preference.  Rather than being a white man listening to a black singer, when I am in the company of Martina Arroyo, even on records, I am simply a man, listening not to a soprano but to Aida herself.

Martina_ArroyoMartina Arroyo (soprano) – Possessing one of America’s most exquisite voices, Martina Arroyo thrilled audiences throughout her career but inexplicably does not enjoy a commercial recorded legacy that reflects her importance to opera.  Thankfully, recordings of live performances document her finest work, perhaps none more tellingly than her thrilling 1972 La Scala Aida.  Writing of a MET performance, critic Harriett Johnson suggested that Ms. Arroyo’s voice ‘is at its best as Aida,’ and her singing at La Scala—opposite colleagues as accomplished as Fiorenza Cossotto and Plácido Domingo—is of a quality that rivals the finest Aidas ever recorded.  A lady of indomitable spirit and self-awareness atypical of great singers, she brought to roles that defeat even very fine singers commitment, intelligence, and a sense of humor that made her a beloved figure in the international musical community.  Since her retirement, Ms. Arroyo’s presence has been sorely missed among the ranks of Verdi singers, now more than ever, but her devotion to guiding America’s young singers through her Foundation continues her quest for uncompromising musicality.

North Carolina-born contralto Carol BriceCarol Brice (contralto, 1918 – 1985) – Born near the author’s residence, just east of Greensboro, North Carolina, Carol Brice was a remarkable contralto whose dulcet voice contributed memorably to Fritz Reiner’s 1946 recording of Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo.  She was also featured in the premiere recording of Marc Blitzstein’s opera Regina, as well as the celebrated 1976 Houston Grand Opera production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which was subsequently recorded (and which remains, in the opinions of many listeners, the definitive performance of the opera).  Ms. Brice possessed a voice of great richness, allied with a carefully-schooled technique that enabled her to sing a wide repertory ranging from Bach to 20th Century music; and to shine in musical theatre, where her natural grace was particularly evident.  A truly exceptional native daughter of North Carolina, no artist is less deserving of the neglect that Ms. Brice receives from the State that first heard her beautiful tones.

Soprano Lisa Daltirus as Leonora in Verdi's IL TROVATORELisa Daltirus (soprano) – One of the most exciting voices heard in America’s opera houses during the past decade, Lisa Daltirus excels in Verdi repertory, continuing the legacies of Martina Arroyo and Leontyne Price in roles like Aida and Leonora in Il Trovatore.  The power of her interpretation of Puccini’s Tosca has captured the imaginations of audiences and the acclaim of critics, confirming that she is an actress of both poise and passion.  Writing of her Tosca for New York Grand Opera, performed in Central Park in 2002, New York Times critic Anne Midgette stated that ‘on a warm night in Central Park, when the heavy air seems just under blood temperature, it takes a lot to give you chills.  And yet at least one listener felt them when Lisa Daltirus made her first entrance.’  The beauty and reliability of her upper register are hallmarks of a great technique, and she is a treasure of American music who deserves to be heard in all of the world’s best opera houses.

Soprano Gloria Davy as Verdi's Aida

Gloria Davy (soprano, 1931 – 2012) – The wonderful Gloria Davy, a soprano with a glorious spinto voice that filled many of Europe’s theatres with rounded, bronzed sound, is another artist whose importance, especially as a Verdi singer, is overlooked.  Acclaimed in German-speaking Europe while opportunities for singers of color were still few in the United States, Ms. Davy sang Verdi heroines opposite many of the finest singers of the era, not least in Berlin.  In 1958, following a celebrated concert performance of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena for the American Opera Society, Ms. Davy became the first African-American artist to sing Aida at the MET, where she sang a further fourteen performances.  Sadly, Ms. Davy was largely overlooked by record labels, and even recordings of live performances featuring her artistry are difficult to find.  Thoroughly worth the search is a recording of a 1961 Aida from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, in which Ms. Davy’s soaring Aida—sung auf Deutsch—loves the Radamès of Jess Thomas and endures the scorn of the Amneris of Christa Ludwig.

Coloratura soprano Mattiwilda DobbsMattiwilda Dobbs (soprano) – A coloratura soprano of great charm and vocal acumen whose début at the Metropolitan Opera as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto made her the first African-American soprano to be engaged by the company, Mattiwilda Dobbs possessed a silvery timbre that recalled the coloratura songbirds of the early 20th Century but with greater power and flexibility.  Following her MET début, Ronald Dowd wrote in Musical America of Ms. Dobbs’s ‘beautifully schooled voice of considerable size and innate musicianship of the highest order.’  Unlike many artists of color of her generation, Ms. Dobbs made a number of fine recordings (most of which remain available), perhaps the most treasurable of which preserves her lovely Leïla in Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles, conducted by René Leibowitz.  The freshness of Ms. Dobbs’s singing sparkles even in the least sonically impressive of her recordings.

Soprano Reri GristReri Grist (soprano) – Likewise a delightfully charming singer with a formidable coloratura technique, Reri Grist enjoyed a considerable career at the Metropolitan opera, débuting in 1966 as Rosina in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and retiring from the house in 1978 as Sophie in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.  Loved in Vienna and acclaimed throughout Europe, Ms. Grist sang Oscar in two of the most lauded recordings of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, as well as a moving and refreshingly accurate Gilda opposite the idiosyncratic Duca of Nicolai Gedda.  Ms. Grist was noticed early in her professional career by Igor Stravinsky, who invited her to sing the title role in his opera Le Rossignol in Washington, D.C.  Few roles could have been more appropriate for such a lovely singer than that of an operatic nightingale.

Soprano Lenora LafayetteLenora Lafayette (soprano, 1926 – 1975) – Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the early death of Lenora Lafayette deprived the world of a phenomenal voice.  Substituting for an indisposed colleague, Ms. Lafayette became the first African-American to sing at London’s Royal Opera House when she took the title role in Verdi's Aida in 1953.  Ms. Lafayette’s portrayal of Aida is preserved in a performance recorded for German radio and conducted by Clemens Krauss, revealing a firm, beautiful voice and a ravishing top C.  Regrettably, this extraordinary American voice was infrequently heard in the United States and never at the MET, cancer preventing Ms. Lafayette from conquering the stages of her native land.

Tenor George ShirleyGeorge Shirley (tenor) – ‘Here is a sensitive musician, an expert actor and an intelligent artist who approaches every assignment with taste and resourceful technique.’  This was Robert Sabin’s assessment in Musical America of George Shirley’s MET début as Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte in October 1961, an occasion that introduced MET audiences to the first African-American tenor to sing leading roles in that house.  Mr. Shirley’s artistry was well served by his even, unfailingly elegant lyric voice, the beauty of which remained unimpaired until his retirement from the stage.  Though Mr. Shirley was not recorded as widely as his achievements deserved, his Idomeneo in Sir Colin Davis’s earlier Philips recording remains the standard by which performances of the role are judged, one of the very few performances of the role—on stage or on records—in which all of Mozart’s challenges are met with style to spare.  Mr. Shirley sang his distinguished Pinkerton opposite such famed MET Cio-Cio-Sans as Dorothy Kirsten, Licia Albanese, Gabriella Tucci, Teresa Stratas, Renata Scotto, and Pilar Lorengar.  After retiring from opera, Mr. Shirley began a teaching career at the University of Michigan, where he remains one of America’s most respected Professors of Voice.

Tenor Kenneth Tarver [Photo by Joan Tomas]Kenneth Tarver (tenor) – In many ways the natural successor to George Shirley, Kenneth Tarver possesses a lyric tenor voice of great beauty and extensive range, ideally suited to bel canto.  A versatile performer, Mr. Tarver’s performance of Iopas’s ‘O blonde Cérès’ in Sir Colin Davis’s LSO Live recording of Les Troyens is one of the finest examples of lyric tenor singing on records, crowned with a gorgeous top C that has its appropriate place as the zenith of Berlioz’s musical phrase rather than merely being a display of a singer’s upper register.  Equally impressive in the title role of Opera Rara’s recording of Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira, as Giacomo in Rossini’s Donna del lago (also on Opera Rara), and as Don Ottavio in René Jacobs’s harmonia mundi recording of Don Giovanni, Mr. Tarver is a dashing presence on stage and on records, his artistry built upon the foundation of an uncommonly sound technique.  American music lovers are indebted to Mr. Tarver for his ideal accounts of Songs by Charles Ives, recorded for NAXOS: even among some of America’s best singers, Mr. Tarver’s work stands out compellingly.

Tenor Russell ThomasRussell Thomas (tenor) – Like many of the great American singers of the past, Russell Thomas made his MET début in a minor role, in his case the Herald in Verdi’s Don Carlo.  His Malcolm in Adrian Noble’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth two years later heralded the addition of a wonderful (and sorely-needed) tenor voice to the MET’s roster.  Mr. Thomas recently sang Offenbach’s Hoffmann to great acclaim, and his ringing voice will be heard in Opera Rara’s forthcoming studio recording of Donizetti’s Belisario.  One of the most promising singers of the current generation, Mr. Thomas possesses a strong, honeyed voice that conjures memories of artists of previous generations such as Gianni Raimondi, whose singing combined security, sweetness of tone, and excellent projection.  Mr. Thomas has only just begun a journey through what seems destined to be a great career.

Mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett in the title role of Bizet's CARMENShirley Verrett (mezzo-soprano, 1931 – 2010) – Like Ms. Arroyo, the incomparable Shirley Verrett is remembered with great fondness by opera lovers in the United States and abroad.  It was as Bizet’s Carmen that Ms. Verrett was first heard at the MET in 1968, but her MET career spanned a wide array of both mezzo-soprano and soprano roles.  She performed the remarkable feat of singing both Cassandre and Didon in the MET premiere of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in 1973, replacing an indisposed Christa Ludwig in the latter role.  It was noted by Alan Rich in New York Magazine that she had ‘stunning triumph[s] in both roles.’  Mr. Rich went on to write that Ms. Verrett was ‘glorious to behold’ and sang in a manner that ranked ‘as one of the great personal “tours de force” in the company’s 90-year history.’  She also sang Judith in the first MET performances of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (which, in the MET’s first production, was paired with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi!).  In 1975, Ms. Verrett sang Neocle in Rossini’s L’Assedio di Corinto, the opera in which Beverly Sills—a frequent colleague—made her MET début.  The opera was Ms. Sills’s vehicle, but Ms. Verrett earned her share of the laurels.  ‘A particularly demanding example [of Rossini’s music] is Neocle’s “E d’un trono alla speranza,” which requires high Cs and very difficult coloratura passages from the mezzo-soprano.  Shirley Verrett tore into it with commendable sang froid.  I don’t ever recall hearing anything like it,’ Manuela Hoelterhoff wrote in The Wall Street Journal.  Similar sentiments of wonder greeted virtually all of Ms. Verrett’s MET performances, including her Madame Lidoine in the MET premiere of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.  Her Norma possessed the dignity requisite of a Druid priestess, and her Tosca smoldered with passion and jealousy.  Ms. Verrett retired from the MET after performances of Azucena in Verdi’s Il Trovatore in 1990, when she was praised for the continuing good condition of her voice.  There are those who debate the wisdom of Ms. Verrett’s performances of soprano roles, but there is no question that hers was an awesome, once-in-a-generation voice or that she was one of the greatest Americans of the 20th Century.

Conductor Willie Anthony WatersWillie Anthony Waters (conductor) – One of the most devastating blows dealt to the American musical community by the ‘Great Recession’ was the closure of Connecticut Opera, where Willie Anthony Waters conducted more than thirty productions during his twelve-year tenure as Artistic Director.  A consistently-inspired conductor of both unfamiliar repertory—Franchetti’s Cristoforo Colombo, for instance—and operatic warhorses, Maestro Waters possesses baton technique and rhythmic precision that are rare among conductors trained after 1950.  In addition to his acclaimed conducting, he has nurtured the voices and careers of many young singers and has lent his talents as a coach and conductor to the Martina Arroyo Foundation.  Indicative of Maestro Waters’s gifts for intelligent, insightful conducting and management of voices was his leadership of New York City Opera’s 2003 revival of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men, in which he thoughtfully paced Anthony Dean Griffey’s fascinating Lennie.  Anne Midgette wrote in the New York Times that Maestro Waters ‘echoed the humanity of Mr. Griffey’s portrayal with warm energy in the orchestra.’  Also writing for the Times, Bernard Holland wrote that the Martina Arroyo Foundation’s 2007 production of Così fan tutte ‘owed ultimate success to its conductor, Willie Anthony Waters.’  Displaying an encyclopædic knowledge of operatic and orchestral repertories, as well as intimate acquaintance with and understanding of voices past and present, Maestro Waters is among the ranks of America’s most brilliant native-born conductors, one whose work frankly shames that of many of the conductors who regularly appear on the podiums of America’s orchestras and opera houses.