21 March 2013

IN MEMORIAM: American mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, 1913 - 2013

American mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens (1913 - 2013)

Risë Stevens

11 June 1913 – 20 March 2013

‘She is vocally and dramatically one of the best—perhaps the best—“Octavian” seen here in many years, possessed of a fine vocal equipment intelligently used and of a stage presence and acting ability far above the usual “operatic” standards.’  This was the assessment of Edwin H. Schloss in the Philadelphia Enquirer of a MET performance of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier in the City of Brotherly Love on 22 November 1938.  The Marschallin was sung on that occasion by the celebrated Lotte Lehmann, and—as Mr. Schloss wrote—the ‘debutante whom last night’s audience took especially to its heart was a young American mezzo, Risë Stevens.’

Three weeks later, Ms. Stevens, who passed away on 20 March just weeks short of her hundredth birthday, brought her gifts to the Old MET in New York, where she sang Thomas’s Mignon for her house debut on 17 December 1938.  ‘Add Risë Stevens to the ever-lengthening roll of first-rate American opera singers,’ wrote Oscar Thompson in The Sun.  ‘In her debut as Mignon at the Metropolitan on Saturday was much to indicate that, with normal experience and artistic growth, she will have a real contribution to make to the lyric theater of these times.’  This is a prophecy that Ms. Stevens’s brilliant career gloriously fulfilled.

Ms. Stevens sang an impressively varied repertory during her tenure at the MET, extending from lyric mezzo roles like Octavian and Mignon to the operas of Richard Wagner, in which she sang Erda in Das Rheingold and Siegfried and Fricka in Die Walküre.  Four roles perhaps revealed Ms. Stevens’s talents at their most compelling, however: Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Orlovsky in Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, Bizet’s Carmen, and Saint-Saëns’s Dalila.

On 31 January 1952, Ms. Stevens headlined the opening night of a new MET production of Carmen by Tyrone Guthrie, a production that would prove a watershed in the history of the Metropolitan Opera.  Critical to the success of the production was the performance of Ms. Stevens, a Carmen of complementary grace and toughness and a virtually unique vocal command of the role.  Having already sung Carmen at the MET since 1945 and having recorded the role in a compelling studio performance conducted by Fritz Reiner, Ms. Stevens established herself as the definitive Carmen for a generation of opera lovers.  In addition to the Reiner studio recording, Sony and the Metropolitan Opera have released a recording of the 16 February 1952 broadcast performance in which Ms. Stevens’s Carmen is memorably partnered with the Don José of Richard Tucker.  Ms. Stevens’s is a Carmen who confronts fate with passion that never undermines a sense of integrity.  The same could be said of her Dalila, who seduces without descending to baseness; her Orlovsky, who charms without hamming; and her Cherubino, who melts with young love without seeming a spineless sap.

In addition to her brilliant career in opera, Ms. Stevens was also a star of cinema and the Broadway stage.  Her turn in the film of Oscar Straus’s Chocolate Soldier opposite Nelson Eddy endeared her to Hollywood and to lovers of movie musicals, and her recording of Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark is one of the greatest musical theatre recordings of the 20th Century.  More importantly, Ms. Stevens excelled in the roles of wife and mother.  She and her husband Walter Surovy were married from 1939 until his death in 2001.  Mr. Surovy was a promising actor in his native Austria before World War II, but he eventually devoted himself to carefully managing his wife’s career.  Ms. Stevens’s son Nicholas followed in his parent’s footsteps by becoming an actor.

As important as her contributions to opera were Ms. Stevens’s contributions to humanity.  She was one of the last of a rarefied breed of singers equally devoted to their craft and to fulfilling the expectations of those who appreciated their work.  Even at the height of her fame, Ms. Stevens was at heart a singer, dedicated to capably and, whenever possible, memorably performing the music of great composers and to approaching both her career and her life with honesty, humility, and humor.  Perhaps it seems a matter of semantics to state that Ms. Stevens was a singer.  Too many of today’s opera singers are not content to be singers: they are—or pretend to be—artists, creatures who separate themselves from ordinary folk and interact with their perceived inferiors only with the greatest reluctance.  Society and technology in 2013 are vastly different even from 1961, when Ms. Stevens last sang at the Metropolitan Opera, but the hearts of music lovers are largely the same.  A true operatic artist is a singer who not only has the appropriate insouciance for Carmen’s habanera but also has smiles and kind words for the throngs of admirers that await her at the stage door.  In the sense that she sang with a voice of beauty and presence, acted with charisma worthy of a Hollywood starlet, and welcomed the affection of even the least exalted fan of her work, Risë Stevens was one of America’s few true artists.

Risë Stevens as Gluck's Orfeo [Photo by Bender, Metropolitan Opera, 1955]

09 March 2013

CD REVIEW: Hans Kox—DORIAN GRAY (Langridge, Nolen, Visser, Alexander; ATTACCA 2012.130.131)

Hans Kox: DORIAN GRAY [ATTACCA 2012.130.131]

HANS KOX (born 1930): Dorian Gray—P. Langridge (Dorian Gray), T. Nolen (Lord Henry), L. Visser (Basil Hallward), R. Alexander (Sibyl Vane), J. Blinkhof (James Vane), J. Bröcheler (Sir Thomas), D. Winkler Prins (Lady Gladys), C. Harvey (Lady Narborough), J. Workum (Lady Agatha), H. Versloot (Lady Victoria); Radio Kamerorkest; Hans Kox [Recorded ‘live’ in Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam, by KRO Radio, 6 December 1982; ATTACCA 2012.130.131]

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote that ‘there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’  This sentiment, expressed in one of the brilliant aphorisms in which Wilde characteristically epitomized humanity, seems even more pointed in the context of this performance of Hans Kox’s opera Dorian Gray, recorded by KRO Radio in 1982 but never before released commercially.  Mr. Kox’s Dorian Gray proves an opera emphatically worth talking about, and it receives on this recording the kind of performance of which any composer might dream for his work.  Without suggesting any commentary on the state of music in general and the wiles of promoters, managers, and opera house administrators in particular, Dorian Gray is a work of such quality as to inspire questions of why so much rubbish is aired upon the world’s operatic stages today when works of genius and legitimate artistic merit are deprived of opportunities to seize the public’s collective imagination.

ATTACCA must be congratulated and thanked for making this performance of Dorian Gray available to the public.  The composer himself provided the wonderfully literary libretto for the opera, and one aspect of this performance that is immediately apparent to the listener is the clarity with which the text is sung, even by singers who are not native speakers of English.  Throughout much of the performance, it is not necessary to follow the printed libretto, the composer’s typed manuscript of which is reproduced in the booklet that accompanies the recording.  Musically, the text is set with clever attention to inflections of speech, and the conversational flow of the narrative is natural and unimpeded even in passages of great vocal difficulty.  Mr. Kox’s compositional idiom is individual but not without audible influences of composers such as Benjamin Britten, whose Peter Quint is a distant cousin—musically and dramatically—to Mr. Kox’s Dorian Gray.  Mr. Kox’s talent for orchestration is apparent: particularly impressive is the composer’s writing for the harp, which is frequently employed contrary to tradition to build tension, memorably so in the opening ‘Temptation’ Scene.  Throughout the opera, Mr. Kox uses instruments, individually and in ensemble, to heighten the drama, orchestrating imaginatively and supporting the vocalists without overwhelming them at climaxes.  Mr. Kox’s music in Dorian Gray is approachably tonal but never derivative, simplistic, or old-fashioned.

This performance benefits greatly from the composer’s conducting.  Important composers have not always proved effective conductors, but their understanding of musical requirements—both in their own and in their colleagues’ scores—is often beyond reproach.  Mr. Kox conducts with an ideal combination of passion and precision, shaping scenes to maximum dramatic effect and giving his cast space for vocal and textual expansion.  The players of the Radio Kamerorkest reveal themselves to be musicians of great accomplishment, playing Mr. Kox’s often challenging music with confidence and panache.

Dorian Gray also enjoys in this performance as capable a supporting cast as could be assembled for any opera.  Tenor Jan Blinkhof, appreciated as Puccini’s Calàf, Tchaikovsky’s Hermann, and Wagner’s Tristan, brings ringing tone and great involvement to the role of James Vane, brother of the actress with whom Dorian falls in love.  Bass Joep Bröcheler sings Sir Thomas with power.  The secondary female cast—soprano Djoke Winkler Prins as Lady Gladys, soprano Christine Harvey as Lady Narborough, soprano Joy Workum as Lady Agatha, and alto Hélène Versloot as Lady Victoria—are similarly excellent, breathing life into their lines and singing Mr. Kox’s music with laudable musicality.

In order to depict the character as Oscar Wilde wrote her, the singer taking the role of Sibyl Vane must bring both glamor and vulnerability to her performance.  Sibyl is among Wilde’s most intriguing but—significantly in a tale in which symbolism is critical—least archetypal heroines, likened in Wilde’s novel to Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Wagner’s Venus.  Sibyl is an idealist whose life is shattered by an imprudent affection for a man who seems to understand her but ultimately perceives her only within the context of his own life.  Ironically, Sibyl almost seems to be a prototype for Wilde’s devoted friend Ada Leverson, his ‘Sphinx’ whose sister Sibyl was briefly Puccini’s lover.  Mr. Kox perfectly captures the essence of Wilde’s Sibyl in his music, writing for the character passages of simple grandeur that, at least in their dramatic effectiveness, bring to mind Cilèa’s music for Adriana Lecouvreur.  Sung in this performance by the wonderful and inexplicably underappreciated American soprano Roberta Alexander, Sibyl is the emotional heart of the opera, a lightning rod of a character who is a foil to Dorian’s decadence, Basil’s staunch morality, and Lord Henry’s extravagance.  Ms. Alexander is a singer whose credentials extend from stylish performances of Baroque music to thrilling adventures in 20th Century repertory, her technique equally comfortable with Händel and Goldschmidt.  In the music of Mr. Kox, Ms. Alexander’s voice shines, the difficult vowel sounds of English never impeding her placement of tones.  Ms. Alexander’s command of the tessitura of Sibyl’s music is absolute, and her dramatic instincts are unerring.  Few important sopranos at the peaks of their careers take risks with new operas, but few sopranos possess the vitality and artistic curiosity that shape Ms. Alexander’s work.  If accepting an engagement to sing Sibyl in Dorian Gray represented any sort of risk to Ms. Alexander, she encounters nothing in Mr. Kox’s score that she is not capable of conquering.  In the ‘Torment’ Scene, Ms. Alexander’s singing is tremendously exciting, strongly conveying the horror and disillusionment that drive Sibyl to suicide.  Ms. Alexander summons precisely the ethereal sound needed in the closing ‘Reconciliation’ Scene, when she appears to the demented Dorian and recalls him to a semblance of self-cognizance by reciting Shakespeare’s 53rd Sonnet.  Throughout the performance, Ms. Alexander sings with beauty, power, and the elusive magnetism of true star quality, befitting an important actress.  In a sense, Sibyl Vane is a sister of Tosca, caught up in the same contest between art and reality.  Ms. Alexander’s performance in Dorian Gray is a great achievement by a remarkable artist.

Basil Hallward, the artist who paints the fateful portrait of Dorian Gray, is sung by bass Lieuwe Visser, a dynamic Dutch artist whose voice is strong and characterful throughout a wide range.  The exasperation that he brings to the opening scene in which he completes the painting and endures Dorian’s and Henry’s exchange about making a Faustian bargain for eternal youth is palpably expressed through Mr. Visser’s pointed delivery of the text.  Throughout the performance, Mr. Visser sings with complete commitment, tackling every quirk in Mr. Kox’s writing for Basil with aplomb.  Despite being Wilde’s ‘moral compass’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is possible to interpret in Basil’s infatuation with Dorian an unsavory element of character.  Mr. Kox introduces this ambiguity into his music for Basil, and Mr. Visser brings an air of mystery—almost mysticism—to his performance.  Musically, there are passing hints of Bach in Basil’s lines, suggesting the character’s formality and moral uprightness.  Mr. Visser brings a sly humor to his performance, as well, lending slightly greater humanity to Basil than he enjoys in Wilde’s novel.  There is in Basil’s frequent descents into the lowest regions of the bass voice something of the knell of death, musically foreshadowing the fact that Basil will ultimately die at Dorian’s hand.  Mr. Visser sings excellently throughout the performance, shaping his character meaningfully and intelligently providing vocal and dramatic contrast to the unhinged Dorian and Lord Henry.

American baritone Timothy Nolen, acclaimed in both operatic and musical theatre roles, finds in Lord Henry an especially congenial part for his robust voice and dynamic dramatic presence.  Wilde’s Lord Henry is a tempter who lacks the smarmy wit of Goethe’s Mephisto but possesses in spades the power of slimy insinuation that repels the reader as much as it draws Dorian into his world of immorality.  In Mr. Kox’s opera, Lord Henry is a figure who, like Nick Shadow in Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress, cajoles, badgers, and incites as situations require.  This ambiguity of character is depicted by Mr. Kox in music of vitality that fizzes with aristocratic ennui.  In Mr. Nolen’s performance, Lord Henry is more than a devil in disguise, however: he is an enigmatic man with his own peculiarities and half-glimpsed agendas.  Dramatically, Mr. Nolen strikes an ideal balance between menace and civility in what could easily become an over-the-top characterization.  Musically, he brings a voice on awesome form to Mr. Kox’s lines, singing with dark mahogany tone and verbal bite that bring Lord Henry to life alarmingly.  In the opening scene, so off-hand is Mr. Nolen’s delivery that it almost seems that Lord Henry has merely observed rather than having instigated Dorian’s fall.  A performance of the quality given by Mr. Nolen would be a credit to any composer’s music: in Dorian Gray, it serves Mr. Kox, Wilde, and Lord Henry with startling fidelity.

In composing music for Wilde’s chameleonic title character, Mr. Kox took on a task as daunting as that faced by Britten when he determined to breathe musical life into the principal characters of Melville’s Billy Budd.  The dramatic conundrum of Dorian is that, in the sense that his moral deterioration is his own doing, he is both protagonist and antagonist.  Any composer whose music is worth the paper on which it is printed understands that, in order to be captivating in performance, a complicated, morally compromised character must also be beguiling: audience engagement is crucial to the success of an opera, and those characters who repulse do so most effectively when they likewise charm.  Mr. Kox has succeeded capitally in creating in Dorian Gray a character who both shocks and seduces.  Given music of fearsome difficulty and spikiness, but frequent beauty, Dorian is an appalling figure who ultimately inspires a strange sympathy.  Mr. Kox’s music portrays Dorian’s debauchery and psychological instability with manic energy and punishingly frequent flights into the tenor’s upper register, and one of the glories of this recording is that it finds the late Philip Langridge on truly stunning form.  Indeed, Mr. Langridge never sounded better than in this performance, in which his slender, brightly-hued voice moves through Mr. Kox’s music like molten silver.  The facility with which Mr. Langridge delivers the repeated ascents above the staff is breathtaking, and as ever his musical phrasing and English diction are standard-setting.  Furthermore, Mr. Langridge sings both sensitively and flamboyantly, creating a portrait of Dorian that exploits every opportunity in Mr. Kox’s score and credibly conveys Wilde’s character.  Mr. Langridge was an artist who could captivate in Monteverdi, Janáček, or Britten: as Hans Kox’s Dorian Gray, he gives a performance that, in its own context, is as significant as Martinelli’s Otello, Melchior’s Lohengrin, and Björling’s Roméo.

When Hans Kox completed Dorian Gray in 1974, the first performances of Tippett’s Knot Garden and Britten’s Death in Venice were still fresh in the minds of musical Europe.  Though Mr. Kox is a Dutch composer, Dorian Gray is an English opera in every way except the country on its creator’s passport.  Translating Oscar Wilde’s philosophical aestheticism into musical expression would be a virtually impossible task for any but the most insightful and musically astute composer.  In Dorian Gray, Mr. Kox offers credentials that establish him as an opera composer equal with the greatest among his counterparts past and present.  Sadly few standard-repertory operas enjoy recordings of the quality of this performance of Dorian Gray, in which there are no leak winks among the cast.  Recorded with clarity and sonic depth, this performance succeeds as few operatic recordings manage to do, and preserving the best work of a commendably consistent cast, especially the resonant Roberta Alexander, ATTACCA’s recording is a tribute to the genius of Hans Kox and Oscar Wilde and a fittingly glorious memorial to Philip Langridge.  Wilde once wrote that ‘nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.’  Dorian Gray proves to be an opera of tremendous value, and a recording of wonderful music that unites the composer with a team of exceptional musicians is priceless.