31 May 2013

CD REVIEW: POÈME D’UN JOUR—Music by de Falla, Fauré, Hahn, Massenet, Obradors, & Turina (Ailyn Pérez, soprano; Opus Arte OA CD9013 D)

Ailyn Pérez: POÈME D'UN JOUR [Opus Arte OA CD9013 D]

REYNALDO HAHN (1874 – 1947): À Chloris, L’Heure exquire, Le Printemps, Si mes vers avaient des ailes, Le Rossignol des lilas, L’Énamourée; FERNANDO OBRADORS (1897 – 1945): Canciones clásicas españolas; JULES MASSENET (1842 – 1912): ‘Je suis encor tout étourdie’ & ‘Adieu, notre petite table’ from Manon; JOAQUÍN TURINA (1882 – 1949): Poema en forma de canciones; GABRIEL FAURÉ (1845 – 1924): Poème d’un jour; MANUEL DE FALLA (1876 – 1946): Siete canciones populares españolas—Ailyn Pérez, soprano; Iain Burnside, piano [Recorded at All Saints, Durham Road, East Finchley, London, UK, 14 – 16 June 2010, except for Massenet arias, which were recorded ‘live’ in recital at St. John’s, Smith Square, London, on 7 March 2012; Opus Arte OA CD9013 D]

There are in every generation artists who make débuts and those who, for lack of a better word, ‘arrive,’ their voices more or less fully-developed and their techniques already polished.  There are undeniable pleasures in encountering the work of artists who fall into either category, and as one of the great journeys of discovery in vocal music is observing the ways in which singers’ voices, artistries, and careers develop, it might be argued that finding a singer at the germination of his or her career is the somewhat more rewarding path.  Nevertheless, there is something indescribably visceral about hearing an already-excellent voice at its introduction to the public, a sense of a genuine ‘event’ that has become all too rare in Classical Music.  Such ‘events’ can be deceptive, however, as not even the greatest artists of lore emerged from their mothers’ wombs, Athena-like, arrayed with mature instincts for performance.  When on a storied February afternoon in 1974 soprano Teresa Stratas was indisposed and unable to sing Desdemona in the Metropolitan Opera’s matinée broadcast of Verdi’s Otello, New Yorkers and listeners throughout the world heard the arrival of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, a MET début almost as fêted by the MET audience as the legendary début of Astrid Varnay as Sieglinde in Die Walküre.  That Ms. Te Kanawa’s ‘arrival’ at the MET—only a month before her scheduled début—was preceded by years of preparation in her native New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, and in San Francisco and Santa Fe is somewhat less remembered.  Fine singers simply do not appear like comets in cloudless skies, having been untouched and uninfluenced by other celestial forces.  To those who closely scour the ranks of America’s best young singers, the success of this vibrant lady’s burgeoning international career is hardly surprisingly, but it is beyond question that with this début recital disc—Poème d’un jour—soprano Ailyn Pérez has arrived brilliantly in the Classical recording market.

Choosing the programme for a début recital disc is surely a difficult task for all but those singers who are, vocally speaking, ‘one-trick ponies’ with limited resources or very specific skills.  A Latina with great pride in her heritage, Ms. Pérez has winsomely alternated French selections —including arias from Massenet’s Manon, which she has sung in Valencia and with Covent Garden forces in Japan—with music by Spanish composers, and one of the most enjoyable aspects is hearing a piece as familiar as Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas sung with conviction that is authentically rather than learned-by-rote Hispanic.  Rather than accents more familiar from her own Mexican ancestry, Ms. Pérez employs the Castilian dialect appropriate to songs by Spanish composers, the distinctive enunciation of the letter ‘c’ possessing great sharpness in Ms. Pérez’s performance.  It is enlightening to hear music in Spanish sung by a soprano for whom the language is native.  Despite being close cousins of common derivation from Latin, Spanish and Italian are not interchangeable, as so many singers seem to think: the cadences of Spanish, both spoken and sung, are completely different from those of Italian, and just as singers with non-native French are often accused of failing to comprehend and respond to nuances of French texts there are dangers for singers with non-native Spanish to overlook witticisms inherent in composers’ exploitations of the lilt and niceties of pronunciation of Spanish.  These dangers never claim Ms. Pérez, whose diction remains clear even in the most difficult passages of the music, both in the Spanish and in the French selections.  There are occasional moments in French songs in which vowel sounds are slightly compromised, presumably in the interest of purifying the sound in order to facilitate placement of the tone, but these moments are few and do not detract from Ms. Pérez’s overall linguistic fluidity.  With her seemingly effortless command of effectively putting across texts in both French and Spanish, Ms. Pérez’s work on this disc brings to mind the artistry of one of her most beguiling musical forbears, Victoria de los Ángeles, who had the ability to bewitch effortlessly in either French or Spanish.

Another idiomatic peculiarity of Spanish music, especially the canciones of Obradors and Turina, is the unexpectedly demanding tessitura.  There are passages during which the most prepared singer might find herself thinking, ‘¡Ay dios mio, this is high!’  Though each song in Obradors’s Canciones clásicas españolas and Turina’s Poema en forma de canciones has its own ambiance, the songs combine remarkably to shape true cycles, with climaxes that erupt naturally along musical and dramatic fault lines.  Ms. Pérez ascends and descends with equal comfort to the range extremities demanded by all of the pieces on this disc.  Perhaps the most celebrated song cycle by a Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla’s 1914 Siete canciones populares españolas is a concentration of the essence of Spain in seven brief songs, the longest of which—‘Jota’—barely exceeds three minutes in duration.  The galant gitana rhythms of Andalucía, the sea breezes of Asturias, and the arid sunlight of Murcia flow through de Falla’s music, and Ms. Pérez’s performance makes every nuance of the texts, which with the exception of Gregorio Martínez Sierra’s verse in ‘El paño moruno’ are traditional, pulse with the vitality of Spain in its Golden Age.  On records, the Siete canciones populares españolas have been memorably sung by an uncommonly wide array of voices: the radiantly pure de los Ángeles, the earthy but impeccably poised Teresa Berganza, the unapologetically operatic José Carreras, the passionate Joyce DiDonato, the charismatic Zara Dolukhanova, and the resonant Marilyn Horne.  Ms. Pérez’s performance withstands comparison with any of these artists, her voice shimmering with power in the cante jondo passages and with wit and humor in the moments that lean more towards cante chico.

The recital begins with three selections by Reynaldo Hahn, to whose music Ms. Pérez returns later in the recital with three additional songs.  Had Bach and Händel collaborated on aria, Hahn’s ‘À Chloris’ could have been the result.  With a beautiful vocal line extended over an understated accompaniment with the simplicity of a Baroque ground bass, ‘À Chloris’ is a favorite recital number for lyric sopranos, its languid melody sensitively expressing the emotional serenity of Théophile de Viau’s text.  Ms. Pérez sings the piece with the tonal luster and command of line that a lover of Baroque music might expect from a great Almirena, Asteria, or Teofane.  A setting of a famous text by Paul Verlaine, ‘L’Heure exquire’ is representative of Hahn at the zenith of his abilities as a composer of songs, and the rapture with which Ms. Pérez sings the piece is irresistible.  Ms. Pérez successfully conveys the shifting moods of each of the Hahn songs recorded here, bringing to each vocal colors ideally suited to the texts.  Though more artists are now including his songs in their recitals than in years past, Hahn remains an underappreciated composer of art songs, his individual voice combining French attention to textual twists and turns with Italian melodic precociousness: Ms. Pérez’s singing of the Hahn selections on this disc is of such distinction as to inspire hope for even greater attention to the composer’s work.

A wonder of Gabriel Fauré’s setting of Charles Jean Grandmougin’s enigmatic ‘Poème d’un jour’ is the facility with which the composer translates the restlessness and compact but fully-realized emotional journey of the poetry into music.  In the first song, ‘Rencontre,’ Ms. Pérez brings great depth of expression to the crescendo on the climactic top F-sharp in each of the two stanzas, swelling the tone in reflection of the building ecstasy of the text.  ‘Toujours,’ the second song, rises in intensity and tessitura to a top G, Fauré’s music echoing the poet’s declaration that the loving soul can never fall away as do flowers in spring.  The ease with which Ms. Pérez sings Fauré’s churning lines detracts nothing from the dramatic effectiveness of her alert delivery of the text.  ‘Adieu,’ the final song, is something of a summary of the first two songs, the text completing its exploration of the dualities of love and nature.  Ms. Pérez’s singing captures the insouciance of both music and text, and the grace with which she sings all three songs spotlights the originality and guarded sentiments of Fauré’s music.

Recorded during her début appearance in Britain’s Rosenblatt Recital Series, the two arias from Massenet’s Manon on this disc offer a tantalizing glimpse of Ms. Pérez’s charm on the operatic stage.  ‘Je suis encor tout étourdie,’ the aria in which Manon recounts for Lescaut her wonder at all that she has observed in her journey from the convent in which she spent her early years to Amiens, receives from Ms. Pérez a brightly exuberant performance, the voice tingling with youthful excitement and the top C-sharp in Massenet’s suggested cadenza thrillingly produced.  Ms. Pérez sings ‘Adieu, notre petite table’ with excellent breath control, finely managing the diminuendo and rallentando in the penultimate phrase.  It is rare for a singer to convey the essence of an operatic rôle in recital performances of arias from that part, but Ms. Pérez’s singing—enthusiastically received by the London audience—intriguingly suggests much of Manon’s character and musical profile, along with the singer’s tender but ebullient concept of the rôle.

Supporting Ms. Pérez with playing of refinement and technical mastery both in studio and in recital, Scottish pianist Iain Burnside proves an accompanist of stimulating artistic cooperation.  ‘Dedicatoria,’ the opening movement of Turina’s Poema en forma de canciones, is Mr. Burnside’s only solo piece on the disc: the faculty and vigor with which he plays it invoke wishes for more opportunities to hear Mr. Burnside’s solo playing.  The versatility and attention to the intricacies of her phrasing with which he accompanies Ms. Pérez are wonderful, however, and the rhythmic precision of his playing is especially rewarding in the Spanish pieces.

Many recital discs offer displays of the feats of which singers are capable as vocalists.  It is far rarer that a singer—especially a young singer in the first few years of an international career—focuses on a commanding show of artistic range in a recital disc.  If the music on this disc, particularly the Spanish canciones, are not close to Ailyn Pérez’s heart, she is an unusually cogent vocal actress.  In many cases, to refer to a singer such as Ms. Pérez, whose credentials already include appearances in many of the world’s most important opera houses and receipt of the 2012 Richard Tucker Award, as promising might seem to be politely damning with faint praise: in the case of Ms. Pérez, it is the sincere articulation of expectation for the continued expansion of an already capacious artistry.  Poème d’un jour is a glamorous, enchanting recital with which one of the most enticing young singers of the current generation exclaims to the music-loving and record-buying public, ‘¡Estoy aquí!’

23 May 2013

CD REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini—NORMA (C. Bartoli, S. Jo, J. Osborn, M. Pertusi; DECCA 478 3517)

Vincenzo Bellini: NORMA (Bartoli, Jo, Osborn, Pertusi; DECCA 478 3517)

VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835): Norma—C. Bartoli (Norma), S. Jo (Adalgisa), J. Osborn (Pollione), M. Pertusi (Oroveso), L. Nikiteanu (Clotilde), R. Macias (Flavio); International Chamber Vocalists; Orchestra La Scintilla; Giovanni Antonini [Recorded in Evangelisch-reformierte Kirchgemeinde, Zürich-Oberstrass, Switzerland, during April 2011, September 2011, and January 2013; DECCA 478 3517]

Few people who love opera in general and bel canto in particular have never heard the comment made by Lilli Lehmann, veteran of the inaugural Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, that singing all three of Wagner’s Brünnhildes—in Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, respectively, all of which she sang to great acclaim—pales in comparison with singing the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma.  When Norma was presented at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time on 27 February 1890, it was Lilli Lehmann who donned the Druidess’s robes, remarkably alternating performances as Norma in the spring of 1890 with outings as Verdi’s Aida, Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, all three Brünnhildes, Wagner’s Isolde, the title rôle in Karl Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba, Valentine in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Beethoven’s Leonore, Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Rachel in Halévy’s La Juive, and Amelia in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera!  Such versatility is astounding even for an artist as legendary as Lilli Lehmann, but it was admitted on the occasion of a revival of Norma in the autumn of 1891 by an unidentified critic writing in New York’s Times that Lehmann was ‘not heard at her best in music of the ornamental kind.’  Lehmann herself would likely have argued that an assessment of Norma as ‘music of the ornamental kind’ grossly misrepresents the opera, and she would have been right: cantilena prevails in Norma, and the moments of musical filigree are unfailingly put to dramatic use with a surety lacking even in Bellini’s other mature masterworks.  Lilli Lehmann set the standard for MET Normas of subsequent generations, however, her successors in the rôle including Rosa Ponselle, Gina Cigna, and Zinka Milanov, all of whom were successful in the part on their own terms.  Maria Callas—whose MET début in 1956 was as Norma—and Dame Joan Sutherland redefined the rôle, combining the weight of voice of singers like Lehmann, Ponselle, and Milanov with flexibility in coloratura associated with lighter voices, but it was also with Sutherland’s second studio recording of Norma—also a DECCA set—that a concerted effort at returning Norma to something like what Bellini would have expected to hear began in earnest.  In the first performance of Norma in 1831, Norma and Adalgisa were sung by Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi, sisters whose voices, judged by modern criteria, were both sopranos, and casting Montserrat Caballé—a celebrated Norma herself—opposite Sutherland’s Norma produced at least a reasonable facsimile of how Pasta, admired by her contemporaries for the richness of her timbre, and Grisi, described as a dramatic soprano but considering her creation of Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani and Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale perhaps lighter of timbre than the description suggests to 21st-Century observers, sounded in the opera’s first production.  Unlike her predecessors as Norma in the decades before the advent of Callas, Cecilia Bartoli—who, in addition to the present recording, has sung concert performances of Norma in Dortmund, which provided the impetus for this recording, along with a recent staged production at Salzburg’s Whitsun Festival (in which Mexican soprano Rebeca Olvera, who sang Adalgisa in the Dortmund concerts, reprised the part) that will be reprised at this summer’s Salzburger Festspiele—is a singer who emphatically is ‘heard at her best in music of the ornamental kind.’  Whether singing the music of forgotten composers of the High Baroque or the most popular operas of Rossini, Ms. Bartoli is a reliably engaging presence, the brilliance of her bravura technique allied with a seemingly boundless artistic curiosity.  Her previous performances and recording of Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula notwithstanding, the expansion of Ms. Bartoli’s musical ambitions to include Norma was surprising.  What she endeavors to capture in this recording is the spirit of Norma as it was when the opera was new, all of the music sung in Bellini’s original keys and each of the rôles sung in a manner as close to authenticity as modern scholarship and vocal techniques allow.  Ms. Bartoli as an artist shares with the character of Norma an indomitable spirit, but Norma is a score that cannot be conquered solely by commitment.

Employing an edition of the score by Maurizio Biondi and Riccardo Minasi that contains music that may be new to many listeners, conductor Giovanni Antonini—a recorder and Baroque traverse flute virtuoso and frequent collaborator with Ms. Bartoli—approaches Norma with the fresh ears of a Baroque specialist attuned to the intricate sonorities of period instruments.  However, there is nothing pedantic in Maestro Antonini’s pacing of this performance, which in general is splendidly energetic.  The excellent players of Orchestra La Scintilla play period instruments of the time of the first performance of Norma.  Rather than making Bellini’s music sound in any way antiquated, the slightly edgy tones of these period instruments lend the music a freshness that renders Bellini’s melodic inspiration breathtakingly apparent.  There is not a single melody in Norma that is not of exceptional beauty, and Maestro Antonini consistently chooses tempi that accentuate the eloquence with which Bellini’s melodic lines develop.  Perhaps unexpectedly considering his pedigree in Baroque music, Maestro Antonini displays an instinctive comprehension of using rubato as an expressive device, judiciously broadening the pace of certain passages to great interpretive effect.  Also surprising for a specialist in Baroque repertory, in which break-neck approaches are often adopted even when detrimental to the music or excessively challenging to the performers, Maestro Antonini is unafraid of slow tempi, taking a dramatically vital scene like the opera’s finale at a speed at which its full power can unfold without dragging.  Bellini was criticized during his lifetime for being a pedestrian orchestrator, but what he lacked in innovation he made up for with considerable imagination for creating orchestral timbres that ideally support his melodic lines.  Maestro Antonini’s attention to the details of instrumental blends produces revelatory results, the prominence given to brass instruments showing the cleverness with which Bellini wrote for these instruments and perhaps hinting at one inspiration for Wagner’s appreciation of Bellini’s music.  As in many bel canto scores, the chorus is important in Norma, dramatically essential as the vocal embodiment of the social order against which the character’s trials play out and serving as the musical foundation upon which Bellini’s walls of sound are built.  The International Chamber Vocalists combine the strength of a large opera house chorus with the impeccable tonal blend of a collegiate glee club, and their contributions to this performance are consistently delightful, roused by Maestro Antonini’s direction to startling outbursts when on bellicose form and hushed sighs when their confidence is shattered by Norma’s admission of guilt.  As many of the finest recorded performances of Norma are those that document staged performances in imperfect sound and with all the blemishes introduced by the presence of dozens of bodies on a stage, the quality of the musical setting provided for this performance by the Orchestra La Scintilla, the International Chamber Vocalists, and Maestro Antonini is perhaps the highest yet heard in the opera’s impressive history on records.

It has often been said that, for a performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly to be completely successful, it should sound as though the tenor singing Goro could easily step in to sing Pinkerton if circumstances required.  Similar sentiments might be applied to the rôles of Clotilde and Flavio in Norma.  As Clotilde’s contributions to Norma are so modest, it would be folly to suggest that a singer engaged for the part could reasonably be expected to substitute as either Norma or Adalgisa should her colleagues be indisposed, but it is hardly coincidental that one of Dame Joan Sutherland’s earliest assignments at Covent Garden was singing Clotilde to the Norma of Maria Callas.  Sung in this performance by Romanian mezzo-soprano Liliana Nikiteanu, who also sang Teresa in Ms. Bartoli’s recording of La Sonnambula, Clotilde achieves greater significance than she often enjoys.  With her fine voice and excellent diction, Ms. Nikiteanu interacts wonderfully with Ms. Bartoli, convincingly conveying Clotilde’s terror in the scene in which Norma contemplates slaying her sleeping children.  Flavio has the thankless task of being the sensible sidekick of a man distracted by passion.  The ringing tones of Cuban-American tenor Reinaldo Macias, a first-place winner in the Metropolitan Opera auditions, make Flavio’s arguments more noticeable than usual.  Even the cajolery of a Flavio as accomplished as Mr. Macias cannot prevail upon his indiscrete comrade, but Mr. Macias’s voice strongly complements that of his Pollione.

The rôle of Oroveso, Norma’s father, presents enigmatic challenges, and it is interesting to note the evolution of the rôle that has occurred since the third quarter of the 20th Century.  In the early days of Norma on records, some of the greatest basses in the Italian tradition could be heard as Oroveso: Ezio Pinza in the legendary 1937 MET broadcast, with Gina Cigna as his errant daughter; Tancredi Pasero in the opera’s first studio recording, which also features Cigna in the title rôle; Giulio Neri in the 1952 Naples performance with the largely-forgotten Maria Pedrini; Boris Christoff opposite Maria Callas in the famed 1953 Trieste performance; Nicola Rossi-Lemeni in the first Callas studio recording; and Cesare Siepi in the 1954 MET broadcast with Zinka Milanov, as well as the 1970 broadcast with Sutherland.  Aside from occasional performances by artists such as Boaldo Giaiotti, Paul Plishka, and Giorgio Tozzi, Oroveso largely has not lured the accomplished basses of the past forty years into the dramatic folds of Roman Gaul.  It cannot be denied that Oroveso gives a singer little around which to wrap his creative energy, so it is a special treat to hear Italian bass-baritone Michele Pertusi, one of the most accomplished singers of bel canto bass-baritone rôles in recent years, in the part.  Though he is perhaps more associated with comic parts in the operas of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, Mr. Pertusi has proved a tremendous asset in serious rôles, as well, his smooth, easily-produced voice and native Italian diction raising the levels of authenticity in many productions.  He brings both authority and a very welcome suggestion of youthfulness to his singing of Oroveso on this recording.  Norma being the mother of small children and, taking into account historical data on life expectancies and the like, therefore presumably a young woman herself, it stands to reason that Oroveso is not necessarily an elderly man: a bit of a dull stick he may well be, not least in his implacable adherence to social mores that condemn his daughter—his only child?—and orphan his grandchildren, but he need not be a tottering old man.  Mr. Pertusi’s Oroveso is lusty in advocating war with Rome and initially stoic but undone by Norma’s admission of her fraternization with a Roman, but there is audible softening of Oroveso’s heart as his daughter goes nobly to her death, entrusting her children to his care.  Mr. Pertusi’s tones are not as orotund as those of Pinza, Pasero, or Siepi, but he is convincing as a virile Archdruid without forcing or distorting his voice.  The opera’s opening number, ‘Ite sul colle, o Druidi’ and his ‘Ah! del Tebro a giogo indegno’ in Act Two are Oroveso’s only solo opportunities, and Mr. Pertusi seizes both impressively.  Mr. Pertusi is likely the member of the cast who is most adversely affected by the lowered diapason adopted for this recording [A = 430 Hz, which is likely a close approximation of authentic pitch from the time of Norma’s first performance as it is known that Verdi composed his operas with an assumed tuning of A = 432 Hz], the roughly quarter-tone deviation from standard modern concert pitch making his music slightly more demanding on the lower register than it would be in any of the world’s major opera houses.  Mr. Pertusi proves imperturbable, contributing an Oroveso that exemplifies his best work.

Possessing one of the most thrilling voices heard in bel canto repertory during the last decade, American tenor John Osborn joins the ranks of recorded Polliones that include Franco Corelli, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti.  In the context of this performance, it might be said that Mr. Osborn combines the best qualities of all three of these illustrious forbears.  There are in Mr. Osborn’s performance senses of the dash of Corelli, the musicality of Domingo, and the vocal freedom of Pavarotti.  Pollione is admittedly perhaps not a rôle that young tenors dream of singing: virtually without warm-up, he is required to sing a tuneful but rather pompous (as befits a Roman proconsul, presumably) aria and cabaletta.  Thereafter, he is the pseudo-antagonist first against Adalgisa, then against both Adalgisa and Norma, and finally against Norma, all before having a virtually deus ex machina change of heart and resolving to share Norma’s death by immolation.  Felice Romani’s libretto does little to explain why such a man, a professed enemy of their people, would have proved so irresistible to not one but two priestesses of the Druid caste.  Mr. Osborn’s singing ably fills in the gaps, allying swaggering masculinity with moments of tenderness.  Pollione’s opening aria (‘Meco all’atar di Venere’) and cabaletta (‘Me protegge, me difende’) are as chest-thumpingly martial as any music ever composed for the tenor voice, and Mr. Osborn brings to his performance ingratiating verve and rhythmic precision.  It was perhaps cruel of Bellini to ask his Pollione for a top C so soon after his entrance, though if other Bellini operas are considered the tenor singing Pollione should be happy that it is not a note higher still.  A particularly enjoyable aspect of Mr. Osborn’s singing is the ringing accuracy of his upper register, which is given quite a workout by the embellishments that Mr. Osborn ventures in the repeats in his aria and cabaletta.  Also wonderful is the soft singing that Mr. Osborn accomplishes in his scene with Adalgisa, in which he displays a lovely mezza voce that is not over-reliant on falsetto.  Mr. Osborn more than holds his own in the great trio that ends Act One, in which Pollione is often lost in the fray between Norma and Adalgisa.  Though Pollione’s most obvious opportunities for vocal display occur in Act One, upon each of which Mr. Osborn capitalizes handsomely, his finest singing arguably comes in Act Two.  For one thing, Mr. Osborn is the rare tenor whose technique fully encompasses the rippling coloratura passages given to Pollione in his duet with Norma, ‘In mia man alfin tu sei.’  In many performances, the tenor simplifies the coloratura or merely allows Norma to sing an altered version of his lines: Mr. Osborn needs no such bypasses, and he delivers the coloratura with the precision of a first-rate Rossini tenor.  In most performances, Pollione’s last-minute decision to share Norma’s fate seems artificial at best: few singers manage to convey the cathartic purification by self-sacrifice that Bellini and Romani intended.  Mr. Osborn’s singing in the final scene is as musically poised and responsive as Bellini could have hoped for, and his dramatic instincts shape Romani’s poetry with rare grace.  There is an audible sense in Mr. Osborn’s transition from full-throated splendor in Act One to honeyed eloquence in Act Two of the development of Pollione’s character.  No other singer on records makes this evolution as apparent or as natural as Mr. Osborn does in this performance, and no one sings Pollione’s music more capably, confidently, and stylishly.

Whether for reasons of artistry or marketability, there is ample precedent for replacing singers who participated in performances of a work with other singers when the work is taken into the studio for recording.  Rebeca Olvera, the Mexican soprano who sang Adalgisa in the Dortmund concert performances that inspired this recording, was an effective, plangent-toned Adalgisa, but there is no debating that Sumi Jo, a DECCA artist of long standing and a schoolfellow of Cecilia Bartoli, is a more commercially lucrative presence.  In this case, however, what may have been primarily a business decision yields a genuine artistic triumph.  Particularly after a century of encountering the voices of singers such as Ebe Stignani, Giulietta Simionato, Marilyn Horne, and Shirley Verrett as Adalgisa, casting a preeminent Königin der Nacht, Lucia, and Zerbinetta in the rôle may seem counterintuitive.  Ms. Jo is more celebrated for the flexibility and extensive range of her voice than for its power and amplitude, of course, but as suggested before there is musical evidence to suggest that Bellini’s first Adalgisa, Giulia Grisi, may also have been more of a lyric than a dramatic soprano.  Ms. Jo is at the point in the career of a lyric coloratura soprano at which the tightrope-walk excursions into the extreme upper register—the sopracuti that, for better or worse, define a coloratura soprano’s career—are achieved with slightly greater effort than previously.  If the Königin der Nacht’s top Fs are a bit more of a challenge for Ms. Jo now than they were a decade ago, there is absolutely nothing in Adalgisa’s music, high or low, that is not completely comfortable for her.  There are both obvious and implicit ambiguities in Adalgisa’s character, the most significant of which is her breaking of her sacred vows.  When she learns that her illicit love for Pollione not only violates her commitment to chastity but also betrays her devotion to her best friend and mentor, Norma, she is torn between her desire for her lover—for whose sake she seemingly has prepared herself to abandon all that she holds dear—and her duty to her community.  Romani leaves Adalgisa as one of the most notable ‘loose ends’ in opera: after her exquisite scene with Norma in Act Two (‘Mira, o Norma’), she simply disappears.  There are no stage directions to document her presence in the final scene, so her occasional appearance in staged productions to assume guardianship of Norma’s and Pollione’s children is an entirely spurious invention of directors.  Having played her part in precipitating the tragic dénouement, does she flee into self-imposed exile?  Does she confess her own guilt, either publicly or privately, and like Aida secretly share her friends’ demise?  Does she succeed Norma as High Priestess of Irminsul?  Does she renounce her vows, marry a nice Druid boy, and live happily ever after?  No singer can solve the riddle of Adalgisa’s future in the context of a recording, but Ms. Jo provides as complete a portrait of Adalgisa as has ever been offered on records.  The foremost quality of Ms. Jo’s performance is that, the pressure of extremely high tessitura relieved, the voice is indescribably beautiful; more beautiful, in fact, than it has ever sounded on records.  The middle octave of the voice is stronger than it was previously, suggesting that Ms. Jo has blossomed into a wonderfully full lyric maturity.  In Adalgisa’s first appearance, ‘Sgombra è la sacra selva,’ Ms. Jo’s voice is that of a very conflicted young woman, her heart troubled by its own machinations.  Ms. Jo’s command of the bel canto idiom has never been in doubt, but she has never sung with more facile grace, firm tone, and dramatic involvement than in this recording.  In the subsequent duet with Pollione, ‘Va crudele, al dio spietato,’ Ms. Jo sings broadly, phrasing her melodic lines with superb breath control, and making spell-binding use of her trademark subito piano, a skill for which she credits her studies with Carlo Bergonzi.  Adalgisa’s shame, confusion, and upheaval as she discovers the truth of both her own and Norma’s relationships with Pollione are expressed by Ms. Jo by careful shading of the tone and an idiomatic use of portamento that might have been thought to be extinct among today’s singers.  The trio gains dramatic impetus from Ms. Jo’s impassioned singing, the duality of her predicament still weighing heavily on Adalgisa’s mind.  It is in the scene including ‘Mira, o Norma, a’ tuoi ginocchi’ that Adalgisa faces her greatest musical and dramatic challenges, and Ms. Jo’s singing here is a marvel.  The spun-silk sound of her voice as she begins the duet sotto voce is incredibly beguiling: it is difficult to imagine any Norma failing to be moved by her pleas.  The blend of her voice with Norma’s as they sing in thirds is lovely, and the gossamer threads of tone that she weaves as she and Norma trade melodic lines are glowing but touched with melancholy.  Throughout the performance, ascents into the upper register hold no terrors for Ms. Jo, but—somewhat unexpectedly—she proves equally undaunted by plunges into very low territory.  Having lived and studied in Italy since her teens, Ms. Jo’s Italian diction has the naturalness of a native, and her use of vowel sounds as the foundation for placing the voice is an art unto itself, a glimpse into a long-forgotten method of bel canto singing.  Ms. Jo is an exceptional artist, but even for her this performance is something extremely special.

A Norma without a capable Norma is destined for failure, an inevitable lesson that many opera companies (and a few record labels) have learned the hard way, so to speak.  In terms of vocal precedence, Cecilia Bartoli is hardly the first mezzo-soprano to take on Norma: both Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett sang the part with variable degrees of success, but Ms. Bartoli is surely the first mezzo-soprano to approach Norma as both a musical exploration and a scholarly exercise.  It should be said at the start that Ms. Bartoli’s Norma is anything but a stunt, however, and the familiar drive with which she throws herself into all of her rôles is especially evident in this performance.  It is apparent from the first notes of her entrance recitative, ‘Sedizïose voci,’ that Ms. Bartoli is in excellent voice, and the ‘bite’ of her crisp diction provides fascinating verbal inflections that illuminate Norma’s inner struggles.  ‘Casta diva,’ perhaps the textbook example of bel canto cantilena at its most inspired, is unfortunately the least persuasive portion of Ms. Bartoli’s performance.  Honed on the quicksilver bravura of Rossini, Ms. Bartoli’s technique is challenged by the extended lines of ‘Casta diva’—those long, long, long melodies so admired by both Verdi and Wagner,—suggesting that she is more comfortable in the shorter phrases of coloratura passages than in the long music paragraphs of a Bellini cavatina.  The smokiness of Ms. Bartoli’s timbre also mitigates the effectiveness of the aria’s opening, but there is increased profile to her singing of the aria as the vocal line rises in tessitura.  Using Bellini’s autograph keys and a basically come scritto approach in terms of interpolated high notes at the ends of arias and ensembles, the aria has an alluringly lower ending, without the trill that has brought so many Normas to grief.  Ms. Bartoli rips into the text of ‘Fine al rito,’ and her cabaletta—‘Ah! bello a me ritorna’—delivers her into familiar territory, the cascades of coloratura voiced with confidence and control and only the chromatic scales lacking complete mastery.  Norma’s first duet with Adalgisa conjures from Ms. Bartoli refreshingly unforced, unhurried singing, but the subsequent trio finds her appropriately breathing fire.  She handles the ascents to top C in ‘Oh, non tremare, o perfido’—so feared by Callas and other Normas of lore—with aplomb, flinging the notes out like targeted daggers.  It is in ‘Vanne, sì, mi lascia, indegno’ that a few reservations start to creep in: though Ms. Bartoli’s intriguingly dark timbre suggests dramatic strength without manipulation, there are moments in Norma at which a mezzo-soprano’s relative lack of power in and around the soprano passaggio—where so much of Norma’s music dwells—lessens the cumulative impact of the performance.  There is no question of Ms. Bartoli possessing the notes, for that she does with greater reliability than many of her soprano colleagues past and present, but the basic timbre is weakest where Norma’s music demands that it be strongest.  She leads the trio to a rousing conclusion nonetheless.  Beginning with the opening scene in which she intends to murder her children, Act Two is for Norma a expansive dramatic arc from near-madness to ritualistic purification.  Musically and dramatically, Ms. Bartoli progresses with consummate artistry from the disturbed mother tempted by filicide to the loving friend reassured and reunited with her confidante in ‘Mira, o Norma.’  Her virtuosity is at its most infallible in the coloratura passages of ‘In mia man.’  If a singer’s performance of Norma can be defined by a single moment, it is that in which she sings ‘Son io,’ the words with which she reveals Norma’s guilt to her assembled countrymen.  Perhaps because of the difficult placement of the phrase within the voice (the issue of passaggio recurring here), Ms. Bartoli’s singing of this crucial phrase is rather plain, secure but lacking the mystery and ethereal sense of release brought to it by Callas.  From this point through the end of the opera, however, Ms. Bartoli reaches dizzying heights of musical expression, beginning with an account of ‘Qual cor tradisti’ that pulses with sublimated affection.  Ms. Bartoli’s singing of ‘Deh! Non volerli vittime’ confirms Bellini’s genius in ending Norma with beautifully extended cantilena—a sort of apotheosis—rather than a display piece for the heroine.  In the final minutes of the opera, all questions of the appropriateness of a mezzo-soprano voice and of Ms. Bartoli’s voice in particular for Norma are silenced by the stilled intensity of her singing.  This is not a performance without compromise, but Ms. Bartoli creates a Norma on her own terms that ultimately taps into the lifeblood of bel canto and lyric tragedy.

Unlike the rising and falling fortunes of many operas, Norma has remained a beloved work of which an unimpeachably well-sung performance has ever been a cause for celebration.  Such works often defy the best efforts at experimentation, but this performance of Norma is not so much a test of an hypothesis as a rediscovery.  In a sense, it is like the restoration of an unusually fine piece of antique furniture: years upon years of refinishing have preserved something magnificent, but stripping away the layers of good intentions reveals the original patina, a direct link to the artistry of the past.  Accumulated traditions have made Norma an exhilarating masterwork of lyric theatre, but this recording displays what a startlingly moving work this was from the moment at which the ink dried on Bellini’s manuscript.  Zealously, grippingly sung and played, this is a Norma of intimacy and intricacy, its adherence to perceptions of performance values at the time of the opera’s creation proving not its particular historical context but its indefatigable timelessness.

Sumi Jo (left), John Osborn (center), and Cecilia Bartoli (right) duing recording sessions for Bellini's NORMA [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega, courtesy of Opernhaus Zürich and DECCA] Sumi Jo (left – Adalgisa), John Osborn (center – Pollione), and Cecilia Bartoli (right – Norma) during recording sessions for Bellini’s Norma [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega, courtesy of Opernhaus Zürich and DECCA]

22 May 2013

ARTIST PROFILE: Nikolai Schukoff, tenor

Austrian tenor NIKOLAI SCHUKOFF [Photo used with the artist's permission]

‘Endowed with a voice which for power, quality, richness and warmth, range and volume, has seldom been equaled, he displayed the highest art in the use of it.  His acting also was artistic, and dignified, and his impersonation was in every respect a regal one.’  It was thus that an unidentified correspondent for the New York Times described the Metropolitan Opera début of Polish tenor Jean de Reszke as Wagner’s Lohengrin in Chicago on 9 November 1891.  De Reszke was an uncommonly versatile artist even by the standards of his time, his repertory including lyric rôles, dramatic Verdi parts, French rôles, and Wagner heroes—even the most daunting of the last of these, Siegfried.  It was for De Reszke that Jules Massenet conceived and composed the title rôle in his opera Le Cid, in which Wagnerian power is combined with the high tessitura typical of French tenor rôles.  The balance of stamina with consistency and proper projection of tone across the entire range made de Reszke an exceptional artist, as effective in the graceful music of Raoul in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots as in the ‘heavier’ music of Wagner’s Lohengrin and Bizet’s Don José.  Among tenors of the 20th Century, perhaps only Leo Slezak was a fully legitimate heir to de Reszke’s mantle, and it cannot be doubted that the 21st Century has thus far brought no unexpected exodus of brilliant singers in the de Reszke and Slezak mold from artistic hinterlands to the world’s great opera houses.  In recent seasons, however, Austria—that gloriously fertile birthplace of music and musical genius—has given a great gift to opera lovers throughout the world, a young tenor about whom the Times critic’s opinion applies as accurately as it surely did to Jean de Reszke: Nikolai Schukoff.

Voices that combine the strength, beauty, and range on display in Nikolai Schukoff’s singing were rare in previous generations and are almost unknown among singers of his own generation.  It is, in part, this sui generis quality of his vocal gift that sets Mr. Schukoff apart from his contemporaries, but he also possesses another rare distinction, that of having an easily-identifiable timbre.  In this age in which young voices sound much alike, whether by nature or by nurture, Mr. Schukoff’s voice is fantastically different.  At some point in the recent history of music, being described as ‘different’ has assumed a misleadingly negative connotation, as though difference is somehow equated with deficiency.  The only deficiency in Mr. Schukoff’s career to date is a paucity of engagements in the United States, where his uniquely pleasing voice and ebulliently youthful but deeply-considered stage presence have been too little offered to audiences.  American audiences are notoriously fickle in choosing their favorites, of course, and their darlings are not always those singers whose performances most merit the accolades.  In that regard, Mr. Schukoff remains to many American opera lovers an undiscovered treasure.  Celebrated in Europe as, to quote Alexandra Coghlan’s New Statesman review of his Florestan in Opéra de Lyon’s Fidelio, a ‘stand-out’ artist, Mr. Schukoff is a gem of extraordinary worth who cannot long go unnoticed.

Born in Graz, the native city of Karl Böhm, Mr. Schukoff is keenly aware of Austria’s importance to Classical Music but was not greatly influenced by opera in his youth.  ‘Yes, I grew up in Austria,’ he recalls, ‘but in the countryside.  Until I start singing, I had maybe seen three opera performances.  My love of opera came through the love of music.’  Though opera was not an early influence on his musical upbringing, Mr. Schukoff was exposed to music from an early age.  ‘My father was a passionate listener [to] Classical Music, though he never listened to vocal music,’ Mr. Schukoff says.  ‘I grew up with the entire symphonic repertoire.  Later, when I did my studies in Salzburg, I realized that music—and in particular opera—are nearly vital to the Austrians.’  Even in music-mad Österreich, times have changed somewhat, he suggests.  ‘Let’s say [that] in this time music was vital to the Austrians,’ he reflects.  He recognizes, though, that Austria remains a nation unlike any other in terms of national pride in music.  ‘I am proud to come from a country in which an operatic event still can land on the front page of a daily newspaper.  Austria not so long ago was a big empire that united so many peoples, religions, and languages, and in a way I feel like a musical ambassador to this former Austria.’

Having mentioned his studies in Salzburg, it is perhaps inevitable to note that many of the finest traditions of Austrian music, musicians, and music-making became evident to Mr. Schukoff during his tenure at the Mozarteum Salzburg, where he studied with Professor Boris Bakow.  Remembering Professor Bakow as a man ‘who has a beautiful bass voice,’ Mr. Schukoff also credits him with having supervised the crucial transition of Fach that launched Mr. Schukoff’s career as a tenor.  ‘[It was he] with whom I made the change from baritone to tenor,’ he says of Professor Bakow.  ‘He always tried to make singing easy and not difficult, and his way of motivating [his students] helped me a lot in following my inner urges to musical and dramatic expression.’  Before encountering Professor Bakow at the Mozarteum, it was a piano teacher who turned Mr. Schukoff’s attention away from popular music and towards ‘serious’ vocal music.  By which artists was he most influenced as a young man?  ‘Until I started singing,’ he recollects with humor, ‘the Beatles, I think.  Then, my piano teacher planted the idea that I could have a voice, and of course my father was not against my wish to become a singer.’  Having left the Beatles to their hard days’ nights and yellow submarines, Mr. Schukoff started to explore vocal music, particularly gravitating, as he recollects, to ‘the CDs of Franco Corelli—one of [his] opera gods.’  There are, in fact, a number of similarities between Mr. Schukoff and Corelli, not least their virile tones, unmistakably masculine timbres, and matinée-idol visages and physiques.

Lina Tetriani as Norma and Nikolai Schukoff as Pollione in Bellini's NORMA at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris [Photo by Marie-Noelle Robert]  Lina Tetriani as Norma and Nikolai Schukoff as Pollione in Bellini’s Norma at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris [Photo by Marie-Noelle Robert]

Despite his youth, Mr. Schukoff has excelled in some of the most treacherously difficult rôles in the tenor repertory, including Erik in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, Siegmund in Die Walküre, Parsifal, Don José, Sergei in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, and Peter Quint in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.  He has also garnered acclaim in rôles as diverse as Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and Pollione in Bellini’s Norma.  Judging in the context of today’s tendency for young singers’ careers to start with one or perhaps two segments of the repertory—Mozart and bel canto, for instance—and gradually build upon that foundation, Mr. Schukoff’s career is exceptional and more like those of his historical forbears than the fledgling careers of his contemporaries.  ‘You never know how a career will develop,’ he shares.  ‘I remember singing with Martha Mödl just before her death, and I asked her during one performance [about the] rôles with which she started.  She said, “You know, they always say that my first role was Hänsel in [Humperdinck’s] Hänsel und Gretel, but this is not true.  It was Azucena [in Verdi’s Il Trovatore].”  That’s often the way it goes when you start singing in smaller opera companies.  The important thing is to sing all the rôles in your own voice and not to force it.’  This gets at one of the most important aspects of Mr. Schukoff’s artistry: control, of both internal and external aspects of singing.  ‘To control the quantity of performances is sometimes more important than to be cautious with more dramatic rôles,’ he says, echoing the strategy of an artist like Plácido Domingo, whose philosophy on preserving the voice centered, at least in part, on closely regulating the numbers of performances of rôles with high tessiture and alternating these with lower-lying parts.  ‘It is also important to know in which house you sing,’ Mr. Schukoff adds.  ‘Some acoustics are so bad that you’d rather refuse even if the rôle were tempting.’  For him, versatility is a key that is absolutely vital to unlocking his full potential as an artist.  ‘I try to stay a “chameleon.”  My new rôle débuts in the next few months include Foresto in Verdi’s Attila, Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, and Turridu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana.  In the summer of 2014, I will also sing Tamino again, so I try to keep a more or less healthy mixture.’

Chameleonic versatility is indeed one of the hallmarks of Mr. Schukoff’s career to date, as exemplified by the wide array of rôles in which he has captured the hearts and minds of audiences.  Asked about what aspects of his career as a singer are most personally gratifying, he responds, ‘The singing itself and the wonderful sensations you feel when everything goes as desired.’  He concedes that there are difficulties and failures, but he maintains a focus ‘to improve with each single step on stage.’  Mr. Schukoff views success as a singer as a very individual process, achieved only through discipline and understanding of one’s own unique voice.  ‘I think [that] each singer has to find his own way of planning the development of the voice, and there are no hard rules,’ he says.  ‘Flexibility is the most important factor, and you have to work on this in each step of your career.  Jon Vickers had a huge voice, but how flexible it stayed until the end!’  Maintaining this flexibility is critical to Mr. Schukoff’s determination ‘to be as true and honest as possible, to be “in the rôle.”’  This inevitably introduces an element of uncertainty into the career, however, and this is a component of the excitement of singing.  ‘Honestly, I cannot say where exactly I will be going [vocally] because sometimes it’s also fate when you get an offer for a new rôle, but there are still rôles which I will conquer soon that will lead the way—like my first Lohengrin, for example.’

Rinat Shaham as Carmen and Nikolai Schukoff as Don José in Bizet's CARMEN at Festspielhaus Baden-Baden [Photo by the Associate Press; photographer uncredited] Rinat Shaham as Carmen and Nikolai Schukoff as Don José in Bizet’s Carmen at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden [Photo courtesy of the Associated Press; photographer uncredited]

Several of the Wagner productions in which Mr. Schukoff has appeared have inspired debate among audiences and critics.  Like most singers who work in the world’s greatest opera houses, Mr. Schukoff has worked with directors whose ideas stretched the boundaries of the scores at hand.  ‘When we did the production of the MET’s Parsifal at Lyon one year before, François Girard and I struggled [for] a long time over the problem with the bow that Parsifal uses.  [The Girard production of Parsifal premièred at the Metropolitan Opera on 15 February 2013.  The production, with sets by Michael Levine and video projections by Peter Flaherty, débuted at Opéra de Lyon in March 2012, with Mr. Schukoff singing the title rôle to strongly positive reviews.]  François would rather have [had] a gun,’ Mr. Schukoff says, ‘but in the same time we wanted to be as true as possible [to what] Wagner wrote.  At the end, we decided that I [would] have neither a bow nor a gun, and it worked very well.  Here the new element of video projections was added in a perfect way.’  This ‘new element’ is, in Mr. Schukoff’s assessment, indicative of the evolution of opera during the past quarter-century.  ‘Opera has become very visual,’ he explains, ‘and we have to stay very cautious that we don’t distract too much from what opera is about—music and singing!’  The balance between musical and visual elements necessary to engage audiences and ensure the survival of opera is both delicate and elusive, Mr. Schukoff suggests.  He is adamant that the heart of the genre is in a composer’s score, however.  ‘The right way to keep opera alive is not in trying to find new, modern ways to tell the old stories,’ he muses.  ‘There are some operas that you cannot put into different times and places, [but] some work very well even in abstract interpretations.  If each moment of the opera makes sense in a new adaptation, why not?  But it has to make sense!’  For new operas, a significant part of this insurmountable need to make sense begins with the quality of the music.  ‘We have to find composers who can write listenable and bearable music and who have good instincts for drama, dramatic construction, and composition.’  For all the attention that these endeavors receive in 2013, these are not new problems, Mr. Shukoff notes.  ‘Not so many years have passed [since] we could discover new operas like Salome, Peter Grimes, or Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,’ he says, then adding a personal appeal to 21st-Century composers: ‘Please write new operas and not film music!’  All of the efforts of singers, composers, and directors are meaningless if musical education fails to entice the minds of children, Mr. Schukoff intimates.  ‘We have to bring the music to the kids!’ he argues.  ‘It is there, with children, where everything is decided.  In France, where I am living, they made a try in 830 school classrooms in problem areas: each pupil had to learn an instrument and play in the school orchestra.  You won’t believe what miracles they achieved with this!  The concentration of the pupils improved enormously, the school achievement [level] rose, and pupils who had been unable to be integrated found their way back to social life.  It is there, our future of opera!  Make music and opera indispensable for kids, make them love it, and you don’t have to worry about [whether] it is possible to relocate a Trovatore to the Gulf War period.’

In essence, education is perhaps the single most important aspect of Mr. Schukoff’s approach to singing, but there are incredibly important aspects of a singer’s education that cannot be obtained in a conservatory classroom or rehearsal room.  Dedication to educating oneself, on one’s own terms, is vital.  ‘Study, study, study!’ Mr. Schukoff says, adding that singing is ‘hard but satisfying work.  Confucius said, “Try to find work that you love, and when you have found it you will not work one single day of your life.”’  The commitment with which he sings makes it apparent that singing is for Mr. Schukoff far more than a vocation.  ‘I wake up as a singer, and I go to bed as a singer,’ he says.  ‘For me, singing is vital, and I cannot separate being a singer [from] being a private person.  My voice is a medium to transport feelings for me.’  These feelings that he seeks to communicate with audiences define not only Mr. Schukoff’s artistry but also his personality.  ‘Singing is sharing positive energy, love, beauty, hope, wonderful sensations and all that makes life so special and great,’ he says.  ‘It is true: I don’t sing for the money.  Yes, I rehearse for hours, I travel, I stay in suicide-grey hotel rooms, separated from my loved ones, I suffer anxiety, stress, and so on [because] of money, but I sing for taking the audience by the hands and leading them into a wonderful world of magic, making them forget their everyday problems for some hours, and to be rewarded with their applause if they liked it.’  Mr. Schukoff views his career as an endlessly privileged journey on which he has embarked in order to translate the experiences of his own life into musical experiences that will resonate with those who hear him sing.  ‘I keep looking each day for the beauty and harmony in the world [in order] to have something to share with my audience,’ he muses.  ‘Music is about harmony, and harmony is about living peacefully together.  Like the wolves howl together to feel strong and united in their pack, we can achieve the same in “living” music together.’

Despite having already sung several of the most daunting rôles in the tenor repertory, Nikolai Schukoff remains a young artist in the early seasons of a tremendously promising career.  That he displays such uncommon understanding of both the technical and the emotional requirements of pursuing a successful career as a singer hints at an artistic maturity beyond his years that is almost certain to continue to deepen as he takes on new challenges.  Another Austrian, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, once wrote that ‘neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius.  Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.’  Though he exhibits lofty degrees of both intelligence and imagination, both on and off stage, Nikolai Schukoff’s passion for singing and the beautifully-sung, thoughtfully-molded characters he creates for audiences fortunate enough to hear him confirm Mozart’s assertion that—for the greatest artists, at least—love is indeed the soul of genius.

Nikolai Schukoff at the curtain call after a 2008 Bayerische Staatsoper PARSIFAL, in which he sang the title rôle [Photo used with the artist's permission; photographer uncredited] Nikolai Schukoff at the curtain call of a 2008 Bayerische Staatsoper Parsifal, in which he sang the title rôle [Photo used with the artist’s permission; photographer uncredited]

The author is deeply indebted to Mr. Schukoff for his time, kindness, and candor.  To learn more about Nikolai Schukoff’s career and upcoming performances, please visit his Official Website.  Mr. Schukoff is represented by Rudolf Balmer of Balmer & Dixon.

19 May 2013

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner—DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN (Complete) [A. Dohmen, L. Watson, K. Dalayman, S. Gould, J. Baechle, T. Konieczny; DGG 479 156 0]

Richard Wagner: DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN [Thielemann, DGG]

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Der Ring des Nibelungen—Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper; Christian Thielemann [Recorded ‘live’ during performances at the Wiener Staatsoper, November 2011; DGG 479 156 0 – (14) Compact Discs plus (2) DVDs with Introductory Films]

  • Das Rheingold—A. Dohmen (Wotan), J. Baechle (Fricka), A. Reinprecht (Freia), A. Larsson (Erda), T. Konieczny (Alberich), M. Eiche (Donner), H. Lippert (Froh), A. Eröd (Loge), W. Schmidt (Mime), L. Woldt (Fasolt), A. Anger (Fafner), I. Tonca (Woglinde), U. Helzel (Wellgunde), Z. Kushpler (Flosshilde)
  • Die Walküre—K. Dalayman (Brünnhilde), W. Meier (Sieglinde), A. Dohmen (Wotan), C. Ventris (Siegmund), J. Baechle (Fricka), E. Halfvarson (Hunding), D. Ellen (Helmwige), I. Raimondi (Gerhilde), A. Reinprecht (Ortlinde), A. Twarowska (Waltraute), U. Helzel (Siegrune), M. Bohinec (Grimgerde), Z. Kushpler (Schwertliete), J. Mars (Roßweiße)
  • Siegfried—S. Gould (Siegfried), L. Watson (Brünnhilde), A. Dohmen (der Wanderer), W. Schmidt (Mime), T. Konieczny (Alberich), A. Larsson (Erda), A. Anger (Fafner), C. Reiss (Stimme des Waldvogels)
  • Götterdämmerung—S. Gould (Siegfried), L. Watson (Brünnhilde), A. Jun (Hagen), M. Eiche (Gunter), T. Konieczny (Alberich), C. Wenborne (Gutrune), J. Baechle (Waltraute), Z. Kushpler (1. Norn, Flosshilde), U. Helzel (2. Norn, Wellgunde), I. Raimondi (3. Norn), I. Tonca (Woglinde)

Recording Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is for a record label equivalent to a climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest: it is the zenith from which a label surveys its position among its rivals and appreciates an achievement that can define its reputation for a generation.  The label’s name and legendary yellow logo synonymous for many music lovers with top-quality recordings of Germanic repertory, Deutsche Grammophon’s catalogue already contains two studio-recorded Ring Cycles (those with Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker and James Levine marshalling his Metropolitan Opera forces), as well as two of the most passionately-discussed Cycles in recent history (Patrice Chéreau’s ‘Centennial’ Bayreuth Ring, conducted by Pierre Boulez, and the Metropolitan Opera’s most recent production, directed by Cirque du Soleil alumnus Robert Lepage).  With these and other DGG versions readily available, alongside dozens of Ring recordings old and new, it is indicative of Deutsche Grammophon’s commitment to remaining at the epicenter of the operatic recording industry, even in a supposedly declining market, that precious resources were dedicated to recording, producing, and releasing this souvenir of Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, premièred at the Wiener Staatsoper in November 2011.  The Staatsoper’s ‘pit band,’ from the ranks of which the players of the Wiener Philharmoniker are extracted, has not been represented on authorized commercial recordings since the pioneering DECCA Ring conducted by Sir Georg Solti, and any opportunity to hear one of the world’s finest orchestras in the music of Wagner is especially welcome.  It is unfortunate that so many elements of this Staatsoper Ring are reproduced elsewhere, not least the combination of this Ring’s conductor, Wotan, Siegfried, and Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, available on Opus Arte CD and DVD recordings of the 2008 Bayreuth Ring.  Nevertheless, any Ring, whether recorded anew or mined from forgotten archives, is a noteworthy release, and this Wiener Staatsoper Ring is a performance with many virtues, recorded with the superb clarity and natural but fastidiously-controlled sonic balance for which Deutsche Grammophon is celebrated.  Benefitting from the unique acoustical qualities of the Staatsoper, this recording is superior in terms of basic sound quality to virtually every other Ring recorded during staged performances, with several crucial scenes displaying the frisson of live performance but the sonic detail of studio recordings.

The Ring is a monumental challenge even for an opera company as storied as the Wiener Staatsoper, and one of the most interesting developments in the Classical recording industry during the past quarter-century has been the efforts of opera companies beyond the traditional ‘Wagner centers’ to mount and record their own Ring Cycles, often shattering the conventions of Wagnerian production values as derived from the stage directions in the composer’s scores.  Naturally, the degrees of success in these efforts have varied enormously, with both undisputed triumphs and spectacular failures.  Many listeners may be inclined to think it fortunate that, in the context of DGG’s new Wiener Staatsoper Ring, they encounter only the audio component of the production at hand.  The debatable merits of the stage production notwithstanding, DGG’s recording inarguably allows the listener’s attention to be focused solely on Wagner’s music, and close attention to this performance is rewarded with many felicities.  One of the most significant of these is the singing of the Staatsoper Chorus, which by Wagner’s design is heard only in Götterdämmerung.  As the vassals who assemble in the Gibichung Hall when summoned by Hagen, the gentlemen of the chorus sing with great power and command of the demanding tessitura of their music.  In the scene by the Rhine in which Siegfried recounts episodes from his youth to his hunting companions, the choristers sing with audible wonderment and, as Hagen’s snare of lies entraps and dooms Siegfried, increasing horror.  Female choristers similarly take advantage of the limited opportunities given to them with singing of distinction.  Surprisingly, the playing of the orchestra does not always rise to the level of the choral singing.  As one might expect, there are stretches of playing that equal or surpass the work of the best orchestras in the world, but there are also passages—some of them including dramatically critical Leitmotifs—that find the orchestra lacking focus, balance, and precision.  The sheer professionalism of the orchestra makes it decidedly unlikely that any lacks of preparation, rehearsal, or familiarity with the music account for these lapses in ensemble and musicality, so the logical attribution for the occasional defects falls onto the conductor.  Coordination between stage and pit reveals few hints at the causes of the orchestral pitfalls, being generally impeccable, leaving only conjecture.  Waywardness of ensemble is most noticeable—and most damaging to the musical performance—during Act One of Die Walküre, but exactness of execution is restored in Act Two, formidably so in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ Scene, and prevails throughout most of the Cycle.  Perfect Rings are rarer than genuine Brünnhilde voices, of course, and even with momentary flaws this performance displays all of the legendary hallmarks of the Wiener Staatsoper Orchestra at its most imposing: luminous string tone, richness of woodwind timbres that seem fed on Sachertorte, and the famed security of horn playing that shames the horn sections of even very fine orchestras.  Maestro Thielemann presides with the assurance of a conductor who obviously knows and understands the music very well indeed, and there are passages that reveal encouraging strokes of a master’s hand in phrasing and following the dramatic thread of a scene from beginning to end.  Tempi are uniformly well-judged, but what is missing is an audible sense of the overriding structure that makes the Ring a credible cycle rather than a series of four connected but separate operas.

The Wiener Staatsoper possesses a rich ensemble from which to draw singers for principal rôles in the Ring, and consistency of casting pays great dividends in this performance.  Portraying the Rhinemaidens in both Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, Ileana Tonca, Ulrike Helzel, and Zoryana Kushpler interact playfully but with carefully-judged tonal balance.  Ms. Helzel and Ms. Kushpler also add their voices to the band of warrior sisters in Die Walküre and to the trio of Norns in Götterdämmerung, in which capacity they are joined euphoniously by Ildikó Raimondi, who also sings the Valkyrie Gerhilde.  Complementing Ms. Raimondi’s Gerhilde, Ms. Helzel’s Siegrune, and Ms. Kushpler’s Schwertleite, the Staatsoper assembled an impressive band of Valkyries for Die Walküre, with Donna Ellen as Helmwige, Alexandra Reinprecht as Ortlinde, Aura Twarowska as Waltraute, Monika Bohinec as Grimgerde, and Juliette Mars as Roßweiße.  Ensemble in the Valkyries’ contributions to Act Three of Die Walküre is tight, with almost no individual vocal misfires and departures from pitch to distract the listener.  There is little sense of the humor that Wagner suggested was appropriate in the ‘Walkürenritt,’ but there is great vitality in the way in which the Valkyries hurl out their lines.  The cantilena-like passages in which the Valkyries beg Wotan for mercy for Brünnhilde are beautifully done, and the terror with which they receive Wotan’s pronouncement of Brünnhilde’s punishment is credibly spontaneous.  Considering that they participate in twenty of the most famous minutes in opera, it is interesting to note that so many Ring productions feature such disappointing covens of Valkyries and most welcome that the Wiener Staatsoper have cast the parts so competently.  Another secondary rôle that can be a primary source of displeasure is the unseen avian voice that communicates with Siegfried: any feelings of dread of the Stimme des Waldvogels are remedied immediately upon hearing the first notes sung by Israeli soprano Chen Reiss, a coloratura specialist whose lovely, poised tone and complete ease with Wagner’s repetitive but ever-changing music convey that, at least for a singer with Ms. Reiss’s gifts, warbling dire warnings is the most natural thing in the operatic world.  Isolated to appearances in Götterdämmerung are Gutrune and Hagen, sung in this Ring by Australian soprano Caroline Wenborne and South Korean bass Attila Jun.  Ms. Wenborne brings to Gutrune’s music, some of which is quite strenuous in the scene in which she spars with Brünnhilde, a pliant voice of size and security equal to the part.  Mr. Jun, possessing a notably black-toned voice, is a chilling Hagen despite being a somewhat cardboard presence.

Das Rheingold is the nearest of any of the Ring operas to being a legitimate ensemble piece.  In Rheingold, the listener first encounters several of the Ring’s power players, and in opera as in all other aspects of life and art first impressions are tremendously important.  There are also several characters whose only appearances in the Ring occur in Das Rheingold, however, and these rôles are largely cast from strength in this production.  Loge’s presence is suggested by Leitmotifs in the orchestra throughout the Ring, most notably in the final scene of Die Walküre, but he is only seen and heard in humanoid form in Das Rheingold, during the course of which it becomes apparent that it is Loge’s prescience inspires his manipulation of events that precipitate the dramatic progression of all that follows in the Ring.  It is unusual to encounter a baritone as Loge, a part originated by tenor Heinrich Vogl (whose rôles at the Metropolitan Opera included Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Siegfried, and Tristan, in addition to Loge), but Austrian baritone Adrian Eröd—a deservedly revered artist in Vienna—delivers the rôle with fine tone and notable musical and verbal dexterity.  Loge’s world-weariness is subtly conveyed by Mr. Eröd’s tonal shading, and the virility of his singing suggests a disarming sense of Loge’s delight in his own cleverness.  Donner and Froh can be rather dull figures, their posturing and threats of vengeance for the abduction of their sister Freia growing tiresome even in their relatively brief duration, but the parts are sung to great effect in this performance by Markus Eiche and Herbert Lippert, respectively.  Mr. Lippert is a singer most associated with Mozart repertory, but he proves himself an asset to this performance of Das Rheingold by singing boldly but within the scale of his natural instrument.  His conjuring of the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla is a magical moment, shaped by Mr. Lippert with great imagination.  Donner’s raising of the storm receives a similarly articulate and engagingly virile performance from Mr. Eiche, who returns in Götterdämmerung to sing a socially impotent but ultimately pitiable Gunther.  Alexandra Reinprecht’s bright soprano, also heard in Vienna in rôles as diverse as Marie in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment and Massenet’s Manon (and as Ortlinde in this Cycle’s Walküre), shines in Freia’s music, which often falls victim to heavier voices less capable of conveying youth and beauty, two of her qualities that most effectively play into Wotan’s bargain with Fasolt and Fafner.  Sung by Lars Woldt and Ain Anger, Fasolt and Fafner—the rather dim-witted giants who, ignorant of Wotan’s deception, agree to build Valhalla in exchange for receiving Freia as their shared bride—are nasty louts, sung with such self-congratulatory menace and petulance that Fafner’s slaying of Fasolt in their quarrel over the ring seems inevitable.  Mr. Anger’s Fafter returns—in ophidian form—in Siegfried, still almost comically evil and oily of voice.  Also encountered in both Das Rheingold and Siegfried are Anna Larsson’s Erda, a compelling portrayal that gains immeasurably from the strength of the dynamic Swedish contralto’s lower register, and the Mime of Wolfgang Schmidt.  Having sung Siegfried in several notable Ring Cycles, Mr. Schmidt finds in Mime a far more congenial assignment, the voice sounding more controlled and evenly-produced than in larger-scaled rôles.  Genuine beauty of tone is in short supply, but Mr. Schmidt convincingly provides the creepiness needed for an effective Mime.  Common to Rheingold, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung is the Alberich of Tomasz Konieczny, an impressive Polish artist who will sing Wotan in the Staatsoper’s 2013 – 2014 revival of the Bechtolf Ring.  It can be argued that Alberich is the most complex character in the Ring, trapped in a series of inept interactions with societies that exploit and then reject him.  Broken by bitterness, he pours out his hate in a curse that undermines the confidence even of the mighty Wotan, and his dogged pursuit of the ring that he has cursed but cannot cede leads to his demise.  Mr. Konieczny sings the part wonderfully, sounding beguiled by the Rhinemaidens and then genuinely shocked by their taunts, both arrogant and ashamed in his confrontation with Wotan and Loge, goading but strangely tender in his ghostly scene with his son, Hagen.  The vocal bite and dramatic depth of Mr. Konieczny’s performance bring to mind Gustav Neidlinger, the veteran Alberich of many Ring productions: equally as intriguing psychologically as Neidlinger’s famous Alberich, Mr. Konieczny’s is in several passages, including his ‘haunting’ of Hagen in Götterdämmerung, even better sung.

A foundation is laid in Das Rheingold upon which the more dramatically substantial Fricka is constructed in Die Walküre.  The Fricka met in this Cycle’s Rheingold is a calculating intellectual rather than merely a scolding consort, sung by German mezzo-soprano Janina Baechle with a thoughtfully-colored voice allied to an unwavering intensity of dramatic purpose.  The Ring may inhabit a superficially patriarchal world, but Ms. Baechle’s interactions with her siblings Donner and Froh in Rheingold make it clear that Fricka is the familial authority figure.  It is more than usually evident that Fricka’s marriage to Wotan is one of political maneuvering, a means of elevating her in power and prominence to a status that she feels that is her birthright.  This does not preclude affection for her husband, of course, but even this is something that can be used to her advantage.  Dramatically, Fricka can be interpreted as Wagner’s foil for Erda, Sieglinde, and Brünnhilde: essentially Erda’s archetypal opposite in a very basic struggle between good and evil, she also shares with Erda a certain measure of understanding of her predicament and a societal barrier to breaking free from it.  Erda and Fricka are women of vision but inaction: sharing insights into their respective environments, Erda’s global and Fricka’s more individual, they nonetheless leave action to men.  Erda’s blandishments are directed at Wotan, with the intention of spurring him to action, and Fricka bullies both Wotan and Hunding into enacting her orders.  Sieglinde moves between these camps, so to speak, going on after Siegmund’s death but by the necessity of her own death leaving fulfillment of her humble ambitions to her son, Siegfried.  Only Brünnhilde successfully tramples the boundaries of the society into which she was born by seizing control of her destiny.  Even in her seeming domination of Wotan, Fricka is merely controlling her social order rather than truly transcending it.  Ms. Baechle’s singing makes both Fricka’s exasperation and her self-righteous authority audible, the voice strongly expressive in both Rheingold and Walküre.  Ironically from a dramatic perspective, Ms. Baechle returns in Götterdämmerung as Waltraute, one of the Valkyries—Wotan’s ‘illegitimate’ daughters—Fricka so loathes as symbols of her husband’s disloyalty and fears as the people closest and most precious to him.  Ms. Baechle’s singing as Waltraute is as impressive as it is as Fricka, her voice simmering magnificently with fear and uncertainty in her scene with Brünnhilde.  As did Fricka in Walküre, Waltraute attempts to control the circumstances into which her social order has been thrust, and Ms. Baechle’s powerful singing in both rôles makes the parallel unusually clear.

Die Walküre introduces a trio of important characters who do not appear in any of the other Ring operas.  Hunding, Sieglinde’s brutal husband and Fricka’s pawn, is physically imposing enough to carry out Fricka’s commands with strength to spare and witless enough to do so without questioning any of Fricka’s motives.  The performance by American bass Eric Halfvarson conveys both of these qualities—Hunding’s brute force and dullness—in spades, the voice darkly blunt but well-focused.  Like so many of Wagner’s ‘heavy’ characters, though, Hunding is not completely devoid of touches of humor, even in his unrelenting baseness of spirit, and more desirable qualities: though he will win no awards for inducing marital bliss, it is a valid point that Hunding is, despite his utter unsuitability, Sieglinde’s rightful husband.  It cannot be said that Mr. Halfvarson’s performance is likely to evoke any special sympathy for Hunding, but his avoidance of stock villainous gestures might arouse twangs of pity for a very simplistic man who is mercilessly—and ultimately fatally—plied by a woman of superior intellect.  British tenor Christopher Ventris’s Siegmund is a familiar creation, appreciated at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples and the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in addition to the Wiener Staatsoper.  Though he sings Wagner repertory to acclaim throughout the world, Mr. Ventris’s voice is not of true Heldentenor proportions, which is not an immediate disqualification from singing Siegmund.  In fact, he sings quite capably in this performance, producing the notes in his difficult outbursts in Act One with a degree of freedom.  He phrases handsomely in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ but offers few insights into Siegmund’s inner conflicts.  In truth, this Siegmund’s heroism pales in comparison with that of his Sieglinde, so much so that he finally seems merely a Y-chromosome donor rather than a bona fide contributor to Siegfried’s dramatic and emotional genetics.  Singing Sieglinde in this performance, German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier is a veteran of many Wagner productions, having proved her merit as a Wagnerian both as Kundry and as Isolde.  Sieglinde is a daunting assignment for a mezzo-soprano, but with Ms. Meier there are no worries about the notes: she has even the most exposed top notes demanded by Sieglinde’s music in her voice, and in this performance she delivers them almost totally without strain.  Interestingly, it is the middle range of Ms. Meier’s voice that sounds slightly cautious and unsteady in this Walküre, but her lightning-intensity dramatic instincts are more flashing than ever.  The torrents of sound that she unleashes in Acts One and Two are thrilling, and she digs more deeply into the character Wagner has given her to sing than any other singer in the cast of this Ring.  Despite gorgeous music in Act One and searingly intense music in Act Two, the greatest test of any Sieglinde comes in Act Three, in her response to Brünnhilde’s plan to rescue her from Wotan’s anger, ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’  Ms. Meier delivers this passage as though singing it for the first time, the sentiment sounding like the sudden awakening of a young woman to the promise of motherhood.  Vocally, Ms. Meier scales these heights with remarkable freshness and security.  Few listeners would dispute Ms. Meier’s reputation as one of her generation’s best singing actresses: none could deny that this performance confirms that her reputation is justified.  Singers with such exalted reputations sometimes disappoint, but there is no mistaking the quality of this Sieglinde.

Also unique to the Walküre performance is the Brünnhilde of Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman, who does not sing the same part in the subsequent Siegfried and Götterdämmerung performances.  It is good to have this recorded documentation of Ms. Dalayman’s Walküre Brünnhilde, which is not available elsewhere.  [Her account of the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde is available in a recording of concert performances with the Hallé Orchestra.]  Displaying wisdom that eludes many of her colleagues, Ms. Dalayman has mostly paced her trajectory through the Wagner repertory according to the growth and development of her voice, starting her journey in rôles like Brangäne before moving into Brünnhilde territory.  She was not yet fifty at the time of this Walküre, and the voice remained on generally excellent form, exhibiting few signs of hard use.  Ms. Dalayman does not ‘taste’ the excitement of her opening Battle Cries like Marjorie Lawrence or Astrid Varnay, nor does she possess the kind of vocal athleticism of Birgit Nilsson.  She approaches her ‘Hojotohos’ unflinchingly, however, and despite a few wayward pitches she conveys the impetuosity that is central to Brünnhilde’s character.  She improves as the performance progresses, expressing gratitude for the lower center of vocal gravity in the ‘Todesverkündigung’ with firm, attractive singing.  She indicates Brünnhilde’s frustration with the defiant Siegmund but mostly misses the nuances of the Valkyrie experiencing the first pangs of human compassion.  There is ample fear in Ms. Dalayman’s singing of her first lines in Act Three, when Brünnhilde is being pursued by Wotan, and a brightened tone of triumph enters the voice when she facilitates Sieglinde’s escape.  Throughout Act Three, Ms. Dalayman offers her best singing of the performance, placing tones in the upper register with precision and authority.  The girlish affection and resignation that she brings to Brünnhilde’s defense and farewell to Wotan are touching.  Ms. Dalayman is not in this performance a Brünnhilde of legend, but she is a very good one, achieving much in a rôle that confounds even accomplished efforts.

Singing Wotan in Rheingold and Walküre and the Wanderer in Siegfried, Albert Dohmen was an eleventh-hour substitute for Juha Uusitalo.  Mr. Dohmen is a Wagnerian of proven distinction, but the three incarnations of Wotan are widely acknowledged as exceptional challenges even by Wagner’s exalted standards.  Musically, Wotan’s music veritably defines the dramatic bass-baritone Fach, the tessitura extending from bass depths to baritone heights, occasionally within the brief space of a single musical phrase.  Thankfully, Mr. Dohmen is a rare singer in whose performance Wotan’s weariness and disenfranchisement do not equate with wobbling.  There are instances, especially in Die Walküre, in which pitches are not as precise and lines not as eloquently shaped as would be ideal, but Mr. Dohmen’s voice generally sounds on good form.  He takes command winningly in Das Rheingold, greeting Valhalla with ringing tone.  There is fantastic contrast in Mr. Dohmen’s performance in Die Walküre, his live-wire nervousness in his first interview with Brünnhilde giving way to the boiling ire and boundless sadness of his arraignment and renunciation of her in Act Three.  When this Wotan takes his leave of Brünnhilde as the Magic Fire encircles her, he is already a broken man, and this is audible in the hollowness of Mr. Dohmen’s tone.  As the Wanderer, there is something very moving in Mr. Dohmen’s singing, especially in the failing Wotan’s encounter with his grandson, Siegfried.  The beauty of Mr. Dohmen’s softer singing conveys feelings more intimate than defeat and shame: there are also elements of pride and hope.  Though he was in slightly fresher voice in the 2008 Bayreuther Festspiele Ring recorded by Opus Arte, Mr. Dohmen improves upon that Cycle with these performances, in which the soul of the character is more tellingly explored.

Siegfried is sung in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung by American tenor Stephen Gould, a busy artist with as legitimate a claim to being designated a true Heldentenor as any artist singing today.  Its formidable tessitura—rising to a top C in Götterdämmerung—notwithstanding, Siegfried is, in both of his appearances, an almost impossibly long rôle, his contributions to Siegfried alone being almost triple the duration of an average Italian dramatic tenor rôle.  Stamina and meticulous knowledge of the score are equally important, the latter quality allowing the tenor to pace his performance according to cognizance of the passages during which he can rest the voice in order to reserve power for the climaxes.  In this sense, recordings of live performances are the best evidence for judging a tenor’s true capabilities for singing Siegfried, and Mr. Gould is revealed to be a clever artist who mostly makes choices that benefit his concepts of both the pre- and post-Brünnhilde Siegfrieds.  Few contemporary accounts survive of Georg Unger, the tenor who created both Siegfrieds for Wagner at Bayreuth, so it is difficult to assess the extent to which Wagner expected Siegfrieds to possess both power and tonal beauty.  Neither of Siegfried’s duets with Brünnhilde is particularly romantic in tone, repeated cries of ‘Heil!’ not creating the most seductive of atmospheres, but there can and should be great feeling in Siegfried’s death scene.  Historically, it is possible to suggest that only Lauritz Melchior approached a level of achievement as Siegfried that might be considered ideal, and Mr. Gould does not approach the sort of perfection in the parts that one longs without hope to hear.  Mr. Gould is superior to many of his contemporary rivals, however, and his performances in this Ring are more memorable than those in the 2008 Bayreuth Cycle.  In Siegfried, Mr. Gould brings adolescent petulance to his exchanges with Mime and rollicking high spirits to his combat with Fafner.  Like most Siegfrieds, he survives more than he conquers the Forging Song, but he sings with wonder when following the Stimme des Waldvogels and passion when contemplating the slumbering Brünnhilde.  Phrasing in both the closing duet in Siegfried and his opening duet in Götterdämmerung is finely-wrought, and strain in the upper register—sorely tested on both occasions—is put to dramatic use.  The Siegfried who arrives at the Gibichung Hall is a self-assured but still somewhat immature young man, and Mr. Gould makes much of the pain that Siegfried feels from the sting of his friends’ betrayal.  His flirting with the Rhinemaidens is light-hearted, and he sounds genuinely befuddled by their warnings.  The machismo of his descriptions of his youthful adventures to Hagen’s hunting party is deflated by the pierce of Hagen’s spear, and Mr. Gould provides his most subtle and beautiful singing of the Cycle in his death scene.  The world is not populated by tenors capable of singing Siegfried, but Mr. Gould gives a credible performance of some of the most punishing music in the tenor repertory.

Linda Watson’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes are both better-sung and better-recorded in Vienna than at Bayreuth three years earlier.  Like several of her colleagues in this Staatsoper Ring, Ms. Watson is a veteran Wagnerian, having participated in Ring productions throughout the world.  Dramatically, her Brünnhilde remains a work in progress, which is indicative of a welcome artistic curiosity.  Here building upon previous performances, Ms. Watson sings with greater involvement and dedication to meaningfully delivering the text than have been heard from her in past, and she achieves moments of genuine dramatic excellence.  It was cruel of Wagner to pair a fresh-voiced Brünnhilde in a duet at the opera’s end with a tenor drained by a long haul of singing in Siegfried, and Ms. Watson admittedly sails through the duet with far more energy than Mr. Gould can manage.  Soprano and tenor are more fairly matched in their duet in the Götterdämmerung Prologue, and the byplay between Ms. Watson and Mr. Gould is expert.  The top Cs that Brünnhilde is asked to produce to end both duets are in place but uncomfortable, though Ms. Watson’s upper register is mostly in good working order.  The amplitude of Ms. Watson’s instrument is most apparent in her trio with Gunther and Hagen, when the full force of the humiliated Brünnhilde’s anger is unleashed by the American soprano with snarling power.  The brightly feminine tone with which Ms. Watson describes Brünnhilde’s happiness with Siegfried to Waltraute turns imperious when the fallen Valkyrie realizes that her sister has come on ‘official business,’ so to speak.  If the greatest test for a Sieglinde is her ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ in the final Act of Walküre, the highest peak that Brünnhilde must ascend is her Immolation Scene in Götterdämmerung.  It is anything but coincidental that both scenes are musically linked by Leitmotifs, Brünnhilde’s self-sacrifice framed by the return of thematic material associated with Sieglinde that is heard at no other time in the Ring except in Sieglinde’s final scene in Die Walküre.  Not unlike the way in which Siegfried is tried by the closing duet in Siegfried, the Immolation Scene comes after Brünnhilde has been required to sing unstintingly throughout the four hours of Götterdämmerung.  Ms. Watson gives her all, loading the voice into the music fearlessly despite audible fatigue and still producing sounds of bracing efficacy in the upper register.  There are a few raw attacks to remind the listener that, despite the pulsing inevitability of the rising tessitura, this is extraordinarily difficult music.  As a vocal actress, Ms. Watson is a Brünnhilde in command of all of her faculties, sweetly lyrical in love, tempestuous in rage, and unhesitatingly firm of purpose in death.  Several of the world’s larger opera houses have recently offered their audiences Brünnhildes considerably less pleasing to the ears than Ms. Watson is in this Ring: much praise is owed to Ms. Watson for Siegfried and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes in this Ring that can be enjoyed with only miniscule reservations.

With complete Ring Cycles in the works with Valery Gergiev (leading Mariinsky forces on the theatre’s house label) and Marek Janowski (conducting the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin on PentaTone), this Wiener Staatsoper Ring from Deutsche Grammophon contributes to an unlikely embarrassment of riches being offered in homage to Wagner on the occasion of the bicentennial of his birth.  The devoted Wagnerite in 2013 is fortunate to have a plethora of Ring recordings available for study and submersion, ranging from Metropolitan Opera Cycles from early in the history of that Company’s Saturday matinée broadcasts and famous traversals of the complete Cycle by Wilhelm Furtwängler at La Scala and for RAI Roma to an array of Bayreuth Rings, the most recent to emerge from the mists of time being a 1962 Cycle conducted by Rudolf Kempe.  Though Wagnerian traditions are more firmly-entrenched in Germany than in Austria, it is surprising that the Wiener Staatsoper is not more extensively represented in the Ring discography.  Superbly recorded and presented, this Ring does not consistently capture the Staatsoper forces at the incomparable levels of greatness of which they remain capable, but its lack of any glaring weaknesses among its large cast of young and veteran singers is undeniably appreciable.  In the hearts and on the shelves of all zealous Wagnerites, there is always room for another Ring, and even without Flagstads, Melchiors, Nilssons, and Mödls this is a fine one.

Christopher Ventris (left) as Siegmund and Waltraud Meier (right) as Sieglinde in DIE WALKÜRE at the Wiener Staatsoper, November 2011 [Photo from the Wiener Staatsoper; photographer uncredited]

[Note: The DVDs including introductory documentary films for each of the Ring operas were not available at the time of this writing and therefore have not been included in this review.]