23 November 2013

CD REVIEW: Jake Heggie & Gene Scheer – HERE/AFTER, Songs of Lost Voices (S. Costello, J. DiDonato, N. Gunn, T. Trevigne; PentaTone PTC 5186 515)

Jake Heggie & Gene Scheer - here/after (PentaTone PTC 5186 515)

JAKE HEGGIE (b. 1961) and GENE SCHEER (b. 1958): here/after, Songs of Lost Voices—S. Costello (tenor), J. DiDonato (mezzo-soprano), N. Gunn (baritone), T. Trevigne (soprano), E. Gorlova (soprano), A. Traughber (soprano); C. Wincenc (flute), D. Walker (flute), J. González Granero (clarinet), D. Harms (violin), M. Teicholz (guitar), E. Miland (cello); The Alexander String Quartet; J. Heggie (piano) [Recorded at the Scoring Stage, Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California, 4 – 11 September and 5 – 6 October 2012; PentaTone PTC 5186 515; 2 SACDs, 130:33; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, and major music retailers]

It is likely that the events and aftermath of 11 September 2001, a day on which so many aspects of life in the United States and throughout the world changed in ways large and small, will reverberate in American culture for decades to come.  Until the last pair of eyes that witnessed the falling of the World Trade Center towers is closed by death, images such as those of that day cannot be forgotten.  Like photos of the dead at Antietam, the flaming vessels in Pearl Harbor, and the starved children of Ethiopia, perhaps these, too, will someday be things that only haunt the pages of history books.  Memorializing the events of 09.11 is a task of fearsome enormity.  Even after more than a decade, the wounds of the losses of life, peace of mind, and a complacent innocence still bleed at the slightest injury, real or perceived.  One of the greatest insights displayed in this recording of music by composer Jake Heggie and poet Gene Scheer is their exploration of the delicate notion of ownership of tragedy.  Whose right is it to weep in dark hours for pain that is still fresh, and whose duty is it to turn away in respect?  here/after is not so much a collection of music that seeks to commemorate specific events or individuals as it is a discussion in song of the complex, often confounding ways in which humans and their societies cope with tragedies they are powerless to prevent or ignore.  There are in here/after as many smiles as there are tears, and in this dichotomy, this coexistence of joy and sorrow in the expression of grief, is the heart of this music.  Having collaborated on a widely-acclaimed operatic setting of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Mr. Heggie and Mr. Scheer are assured masters of the art of uniting texts with music that celebrates rather than undermining the richness of ambivalence, and the varied music on here/after—varying in form but wondrously consistent in quality—reveals the finest elements of both the composer’s and the poet’s work.  If 09.11 has assumed the connotation of a sort of American Holocaust, the bittersweet reflections of here/after remind that this tragedy, both uniquely public and stingingly private, is neither isolated nor debilitating.  Whether they are the struggles of insular communities or of whole nations, these ‘times that try men’s souls’ find in the music of here/after voices with which to sing of memories best honored by looking inward and moving forward.

The instrumental pieces on here/after, Soliloquy and Fury of Light for flute and piano, are evocative exhibitions of Mr. Heggie’s gifts for constructing melodic strands with an almost Baroque sensibility, his understanding of both traditional and innovative ways in which instruments interact sonically shaping the eloquent refrains of his compositional style.  Beautifully played by Mr. Heggie and flautist Carol Wincenc, Soliloquy is a paraphrase of the thematic material of ‘Beyond’ from Pieces of 9/11.  Few composers working today write for the flute as fluently as Mr. Heggie, and Soliloquy is a compelling dialogue between flute and piano that preserves the spirit of ‘Beyond’ but takes the development of the theme in new directions.  Fury of Light receives from Ms. Wincenc and Mr. Heggie a performance of staggering intensity, both players immersing themselves completely in the music’s depictions of fire.  Cleverly integrating themes from his operas Moby-Dick and Three Decembers, Mr. Heggie created what is essentially a flute sonata of the elegance and controlled angst all but extinct since the death of Ravel.  The ‘Elegy’ and ‘Meditation’ movements of Fury of Light radiate the burning intensity of the subject matter, and the outer movements—‘Fast’ and ‘Very Fast’—glisten with inventiveness that derives great impact from Ms. Wincenc’s and Mr. Heggie’s enthusiastic playing.

Written for mezzo-soprano and string quartet, Camille Claudel – Into the Fire recalls the day on which the French sculptor and muse of the better-known Auguste Rodin was confined to the Ville-Évrard asylum.  Mr. Scheer’s poetry movingly conveys the uncanny lucidity of Claudel’s insanity as she takes leave of sculptures in her studio, and Mr. Heggie provides melodic lines that dig into the nuances of the language with sounds that are both unmistakably modern and mildly suggestive of the tonal world of Debussy, with whom Claudel was erroneously rumored to have shared a liaison.  The playing of the Alexander String Quartet—violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarborough, and cellist Alexander Walsh-Wilson—conveys every subtlety of Mr. Heggie’s music, each player’s virtuosity making easy going of series of very difficult passages.  The restless dignity of ‘L’Age Mûr,’ the cycle’s penultimate movement, is poignantly conveyed by the Quartet.  Nothing short of this perfection from the Quartet would be suitable as accompaniment for the magnificent singing of mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato.  Mr. Heggie pays homage to Ms. DiDonato’s consummate mastery of Baroque and bel canto repertories by giving her coloratura passages and even a trill—which, as hardly needs to be articulated, she delivers with a display of technique so remarkable that these feats sound no more difficult than breathing.  More importantly, Mr. Heggie gives Ms. DiDonato music that calls upon every shimmering color in her voice, inspiring her to a performance of touching restraint and impeccable vocal warmth.  There is something very moving about hearing this great singer voice lines like ‘Last night, I went to sleep completely naked, / I pretended you were holding me’ in ‘Prelude; Rodin’ and ‘I understand. / I must be very still. / Thank you for remembering me’ in ‘Epilogue: Jessie Lipscomb visits Camille Claudel, Montdevergues Asylum, 1929.’  Memorable as Ms. DiDonato’s performances in the world’s opera houses are, her singing in Camille Claudel – Into the Fire is truly unforgettable.  Rôles like Rossini’s Rosina and Cenerentola are the natural habitat of a stage creature with Ms. DiDonato’s talents, but she is equally in her element in Mr. Heggie’s music.  It was usual for composers of Ms. DiDonato’s typical repertory to write specifically for the abilities of individual singers, but 21st-Century composers mostly compose generic vocal lines with ambitions of hearing their music sung as frequently as possible.  Camille Claudel – Into the Fire will surely resound with the unique qualities of many different voices in future, but Ms. DiDonato gives a performance that, like the sentiments of which she sings, is for the ages.

Pieces of 9/11: Memories from Houston is the centerpiece of here/after, and in this cycle Mr. Heggie and Mr. Scheer come as near to capturing a genuine glimpse into the American psyche in the hours and days following the events of 09.11 as any artists might hope to achieve.  The collective disbelief, anger, and fear of a nation is given profound weight in Mr. Scheer’s texts, nowhere more piercingly than in ‘Lessons.’

I was at school preparing my classroom / when the children arrived that morning.  / At 10am I took them outside for recess, / another teacher ran over to me and screamed: / “Is this what you people do?”

Mr. Scheer does not shrink from depicting the cruelty, bigotry, and hatred that were as much a part of the horror of 09.11 as the attacks themselves.  In response, Mr. Heggie does not eschew tonal harshness, and the cumulative power of Pieces of 9/11: Memories from Houston is considerably strengthened as a result.  There can be strange beauty even in unspeakable atrocities, but grief is rarely pretty.  The singers in Pieces of 9/11: Memories from Houston are supported by superb playing by flautist Dawn Walker, violinist Dawn Harms, guitarist Marc Teicholz, and cellist Emil Miland, an ensemble whose every note is aimed at the emotional core of the music.  Sopranos Ekaterina Gorlova and Ashley Traughber sing with lovely tone and an audible sense of occasion that the music deserves.  Soprano Talise Trevigne created the rôle of Pip in Moby-Dick in its 2010 Dallas Opera première, and her familiarity with the work of Mr. Heggie and Mr. Scheer tells in every phrase that she sings, both in Pieces of 9/11: Memories from Houston and Rise & Fall, in which she is accompanied by Mr. Heggie.  The silvery beauty of her timbre is very effective in both cycles, and the unaffected simplicity of her delivery of Mr. Scheer’s texts allows the incisiveness of the words to emerge in unexpected ways.  Ms. Trevigne is completely credible as the voice of ordinary people reflecting on what was likely the most harrowing day of their lives.  She is similarly adroit at artful traversal of the changing sensibilities in the course of a woman’s life in Rise & Fall, finding in Mr. Heggie’s vocal lines opportunities for deliciously feminine singing.  Baritone Nathan Gunn is also a strong presence in Pieces of 9/11: Memories of Houston, the ringing masculinity of his timbre contrasting persuasively with the sopranos’ voices.  Mr. Gunn matches Ms. Trevigne’s shrewd weighting of texts, his clear diction granting simple thoughts wider astuteness, and his hardy tones impart a sense of there being inherent strength even in the perceived weaknesses of sorrow and guilt.  Mr. Gunn also sings commandingly in A Question of Light, a fractured voyage of discovery inspired by works in the Dallas Museum of Art.  The candor of Mr. Gunn’s singing evinces a stirring undercurrent of wistfulness in Mr. Heggie’s music.  Both in Rise & Fall and A Question of Light, Mr. Heggie proves to be a peer of Benjamin Britten in the perspicacious accompaniment of his own music.

It is demonstrative of the merits of both the music and the performance that Friendly Persuasions: Homage to Poulenc is as striking in its shorter duration as the more substantial song cycles on here/after.  Accompanied by Ms. Wincenc on flute, Mr. Miland on cello, the composer at the piano, and José González Granero, principal clarinetist of the San Francisco Opera, Mr. Heggie’s and Mr. Scheer’s charismatic study of four individuals’—legendary harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, eminent baritone Pierre Bernac, childhood friend Raymonde Linossier, and poet Paul Éluard—interactions with the composer Francis Poulenc crackles with wit and the sort of tongue-in-cheek humor tinged with melancholy so characteristic of 20th-Century French art.  Landowska’s command in the first song to ‘for God’s sake, / finish my concerto’ is hilarious and delivered with disarming levity by tenor Stephen Costello, whose singing throughout Friendly Persuasions is enticingly warm-hearted.  Like Ms. Trevigne a veteran of Moby-Dick, in which he created the rôle of Greenhorn (Melville’s Ishmael), Mr. Costello drenches Mr. Heggies music with the same flood of honeyed tone with which he might infuse the music of Donizetti or Puccini.  His diction is admirable in both English and French, and his unpretentious delivery makes even the ‘fa la la las’ in the Bernac song lusciously enjoyable.  When darker sentiments intrude in the Linossier and Éluard songs, the latter sophisticatedly asserting the broken trust of World War II, Mr. Costello expands his tone invitingly.  Fascinating as Mr. Costello’s interpretations of these songs are in terms of drama, it is the sublime beauty of his voice that is the most appealing aspect of his performance of Friendly Persuasions.  Though they were not originally composed for Mr. Costello, these four songs are gifts to an intelligent lyric tenor, and after hearing Mr. Costello’s singing of them it is virtually impossible to imagine any other voice intoning them more immaculately.

Almost none of the song cycles composed in the 20th and 21st Centuries has joined the great Lieder of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf in the standard repertory.  It might be argued that exquisite performances by important artists make stronger cases for pieces of music than they sometimes deserve, but this can be countered by the suggestion that, in the best cases, artists are prompted to the best performances of which they are capable by the virtues of the music before them.  The latter is emphatically true of the performances on here/after.  Each of the works included on this recording, expertly produced by Steve Barnett and engineered by Preston Smith, receives a standard-setting performance, but these are not topical works that, having been ideally performed and recorded for posterity, can be shelved and forgotten.  Singing as they do on here/after, Joyce DiDonato and Stephen Costello could make collegiate fight songs sound like High Art, but it is the music of Jake Heggie that draws from them performances that rival the Lieder recordings of Dame Janet Baker and Fritz Wunderlich.  This is not music for wallowing in dolorous memories: these are songs—and these are performances—that transform the most basic, the most searingly intimate convictions of individuals into expositions of the complex but often surprisingly comforting propensities of universal humanity through the refining fire of music.

22 November 2013

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach – WEIHNACHTSORATORIUM (K. Watson, I. Davies, J. Gilchrist, M. Brook; Hyperion CDA68031/2)

Johann Sebastian Bach - WEIHNACHTSORATORIUM (Hyperion CDA68031/2)

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio), BWV 248—K. Watson (soprano), I. Davies (countertenor), J. Gilchrist (Evangelist – tenor), M. Brook (Herod – bass); Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Stephen Layton [Recorded in Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, UK, on 10 – 14 January 2013; Hyperion CDA68031/2; 2CD, 151:49; Available from Amazon, directly from Hyperion, and from major music retailers]

Few compilations of repurposed music have been as embraced by musicians and listeners as Johann Sebastian Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium has been in the years since it was reintroduced to audiences in 1857.  Created for celebration of Christmas-season liturgies at Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche and Thomaskirche in the winter of 1734 – 1735, Bach’s score made use of music composed for several secular cantatas and two of his Passion settings, perpetuating a standard practice for the composition of large-scale works that was frequently employed both by Bach and virtually all of his contemporaries.  Though musicologists of years past suggested otherwise, it is clear from the carefully-constructed dove-tailing of key progressions and musical forms that Bach conceived the Weihnachtsoratorium as a single work in six parts rather than a series of cantatas with incidental seasonal associations.  What cannot be known is whether Bach, much of whose music did not circulate widely during his lifetime beyond the artistic centers in which he worked, had any expectation of the preservation and future performance of his oratorio for Christmas 1734.  Like the scrapping of the original plan to dismantle the Eiffel Tower after its service in the 1889 World’s Fair, however, the notion of disassembling such a monument in Western sacred music now seems criminal.  The stylistic unity of the individual parts is a tremendous testament to Bach’s genius for the complex mathematics of sustaining thematic elements across wide musical landscapes.  In this regard, the Weihnachtsoratorium is hardly less impressive as a continuous pursuit of dramatic and musical threads from start to finish than Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen; considerably smaller in scale, of course, but also filled with some of its composer’s most memorably beautiful music.  No music in the Western canon more exhilaratingly conveys cathartic joy than the festive strains of ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage,’ proclaiming the birth of the Savior into an oppressively sinful world, and even among Bach’s works there are few evocations of hope and rapt spirituality more affecting than ‘Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben.’  The disparate origins of the individual cantatas notwithstanding, there is not one page of the Weihnachtsoratorium that does not contain music of exquisite quality.  It is the kind of score that inspires insightful musicians to give of the best of which they are capable, and the artists assembled by Hyperion for this recording devote their collective intelligence and musicality to giving a remarkable performance of Bach’s music.  Many excellent performances of the Weihnachtsoratorium have been committed to disc, but the best among them can only match the high standards achieved in this recording: these are artists who both understand and love the music of Bach, and their efforts welcome the listener, regardless of his beliefs, into the true spirit of the Christmas season.

The inviolable heights of excellence that Bach maintained throughout his music for the Weihnachtsoratorium are all the more apparent in a performance as consistently accomplished as this one, and much of that consistency can be attributed to the unerringly stylish leadership of Stephen Layton.  Maestro Layton here proves anew the depth of his instincts for Baroque music, whether it was originally composed for Leipzig or London.  Though a true masterpiece, the Weihnachtsoratorium is not a work that is immune to ill-conceived or indifferently-executed conducting: the subtle shifts in mood from the extravagantly celebratory to the raptly contemplative are far more effective when a conductor is attentive to the musical means employed by Bach to convey them.  In terms of both essential musicality and complete comprehension of the ways in which Bach propels the Christmastide narrative with distinct rhythms and key progressions, Maestro Layton’s pacing of this performance wants for nothing.  The critical differentiations of instrumentation among the six parts, defined by alternating deployments of trumpets and woodwinds, are deftly handled without the broader architecture of the work being obscured.  Unusually for a performance of any of Bach’s oratorios, there are no tempi that seem anything but ideal for the music.  Integral to the success of Maestro Layton’s conception of the score are the marvelous performances by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.  Producing precisely the weight of tone that fills Bach’s choral music without danger of either the anemic sounds of the recently-fashionable single-voice-to-a-part practices or the elephantine travesties of Victorian performances, the Trinity College choristers sing in carefully-inflected but natural-sounding German.  Drawing upon the best elements of the legendary British choral traditions, the blend achieved by the Choir is excellent, with ‘spotlighting’ of individual voices within the choral textures completely avoided.  The purity of boys’ voices is suggested in the sopranos’ singing, but the absolute security of intonation and wider range of dynamics possible with adult female singers are especially welcome in this music.  Ever one of the most elegant period-instrument bands, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment lend the best of their musicianship to this performance, responding to the broad outline and the intimate details of Maestro Layton’s leadership with commitment.  Mastery of Bach’s style is expected of an ensemble acclaimed for historically-appropriate playing, but the players of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment confirm that they are not merely impeccably-trained musicians: in this performance of the Weihnachtsoratorium, they are fully-fledged participants in the drama, their individual and collective contributions combining with the solo and choral singing and Maestro Layton’s inspired leadership to weave from Bach’s musical threads an extraordinarily beautiful fabric.

Such admirable frames are so often spoiled by imperfect portraits by soloists, and an enormous debt of gratitude is owed to those who planned this recording for engaging a quartet of soloists among whom there is no disappointment.  Though intermittently prone to turning slightly blowsy in the highest reaches of her music, the voice of soprano Katherine Watson shimmers attractively, particularly in the ‘echo’ aria ‘Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen’ in Part Four.  Ms. Watson handles ‘Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen’ in Part Six sensitively, and her contributions to the trio ‘Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen’ in Part Five are radiant.  Matching Ms. Watson with rounded tones at the opposite end of the vocal spectrum is bass Matthew Brook.  Starting with his singing of ‘Großer Herr, o starker König’ in Part One, Mr. Brook offers a charming, forthrightly-sung performance of the music for bass.  The beautiful duet with soprano in Part Three, ‘Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen,’ is sumptuously sung by both Ms. Watson and Mr. Brook, and the bass’s singing in the sublimely inventive scenes with chorus in Parts One and Four is aptly filled with wonderment.  Mr. Brook’s voice is moderately stronger at the top of his range than at the bottom, but he approximates nothing in his negotiation of the music.  The only possible criticism of Mr. Brook’s performance is that he is in Part Six a decidedly genial Herod, with little suggestion of ambiguous intent in his instructions that the Christ child be found so that he, too, might ‘worship’ him.  Musically, though, Mr. Brook’s singing is consistently impressive.  Of a quality that soars past even very fine performances on previous recordings of the Weihnachtsoratorium is the singing of countertenor Iestyn Davies.  Taking the alto solos with a rare combination of stylishness, grace, and limpidly beautiful tone, Mr. Davies sings with complete command of the tessitura of his music.  The ethereal sheen of Mr. Davies’s upper register is tremendously effective, as is the unaffected but poised manner in which he sings.  Among performances of his arias that aim for the emotional hearts of the music and unfailingly find their marks, Mr. Davies’s singing of ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh’ in Part Two—at nearly eleven minutes in duration, the most extended aria in the oratorio—is especially memorable.  In fact, every moment of Mr. Davies’s performance is unforgettable: even in comparison with other recordings by this gifted young singer, who goes from strength to strength, this Weihnachtsoratorium is an imposing achievement.

Any narrative, regardless of its subject, recounted as poignantly as by James Gilchrist’s Evangelist in this performance cannot fail to captivate the listener’s imagination.  Bach’s telling of the Christmas story does not rely as greatly upon the Evangelist as do his Passion settings, but much of the cumulative impact of this performance of the Weihnachtsoratorium comes from Mr. Gilchrist’s soulful, sonorous singing.  Mr. Gilchrist is one of the few tenors singing today for whom mastery of the treacherously high tessitura of Bach’s Evangelist rôles is second nature rather than a carefully-managed stunt, and the unstinting freedom with which his diamond-bright voice flows through the Evangelist’s recitatives is one of the supreme pleasures of this recording.  Mr. Gilchrist proves equally adept at navigating the lower centers of vocal gravity in the tenor arias.  The exhortation to the ‘shepherds abiding in the field’ in Part Two, ‘Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet,’ is broadly sung, and the focus that Mr. Gilchrist brings to his singing of ‘Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben’ in Part Four is hypnotic.  ‘Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken’ in Part Six is also touchingly sung by Mr. Gilchrist.  Both the Evangelist’s music and the tenor arias being sung by the same singer is not as unusual in performances of the Weihnachtsoratorium as in those of Bach’s Passions, but a performance as thoroughly distinguished as Mr. Gilchrist gives on this recording is rare in any repertory.

Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium has fared better on records than many Baroque masterpieces, its discography preserving performances by most of the 20th and 21st Centuries’ finest Bach singers and conductors, as well as notable outings by singers for whom Bach’s music was atypical repertory.  Just as there are in any generation great singers and great voices but only a minuscule population of artists in whom both distinctions are united, there are many performances of Bach’s music that either uphold high artistic standards or fully explore emotional niches but few that manage to accomplish both tasks with equal skill.  This the present Hyperion recording achieves with unforced elegance and refinement.  Scholarship joining hands with the timeless quest to reveal the deepest essence of a composer’s music, this performance seeks the truest power of art, the elusive ability to transcend all of the boundaries of politics, religions, and societies in a journey to the unguarded recesses of the human psyche.  Whether the individual listener believes that it was a man, a Messiah, or a myth that was born in Bethlehem two millennia ago, this recording celebrates Bach’s message of rebirth and renewal in ways that need not be taken on faith.

16 November 2013

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – OBERTO (A. Gans, F. Lombardi Mazzulli, M. Custer, N. Reinhardt, N. Intxausti; Oehms Classics OC 959)

Giuseppe Verdi - OBERTO (Oehms Classics OC 959)

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio—A. Gans, F. Lombardi Mazzulli, M. Custer, N. Reinhardt, N. Intxausti; Chor und Extrachor des Stadttheaters Gießen; Philharmonisches Orchester; Michael Hofstetter [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Stadttheater Gießen, Hesse, Germany, in December 2012; Oehms Classics OC 959; 2CD, 121:53; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, and major music retailers]

With the première of Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio at La Scala in November 1839, the operatic career of Giuseppe Verdi was launched.  The product of four years of work during which the young composer gained vital exposure to the cut-throat politics of opera but also suffered the losses of both his young daughter and his infant son, who died less than a month before the opera’s first performance, Oberto was not an extraordinary triumph, at least not in comparison with an opera like Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, which premièred at La Scala in 1833, but the success of its run of fourteen performances was sufficient to motivate La Scala’s impresario, Bartolomeo Merelli, to commission three further operas from the twenty-six-year-old Verdi; a commission that produced Un giorno di regno, Nabucco, and I Lombardi alla prima crociataOberto also provided Verdi with his first contact with the politically outspoken librettist Temistocle Solera, who eventually provided Verdi with the libretti of five of his early operas, including the reactionary Giovanna d’Arco, Nabucco, and Attila, all of which dealt with struggles for freedom from oppression.  Oberto, too, has its dire situations, but these are the tribulations of individuals within their specific society rather than universal plights of nations.  Though it was performed in a number of Italian theatres in the years immediately following its première, Oberto soon disappeared, overshadowed by the series of mature masterpieces that started a decade later with Luisa Miller.  Interestingly, though, Oberto reveals many of the defining hallmarks of Verdi’s greatest scores, albeit in simpler, less refined forms: the bel canto of Bellini and Donizetti is the mold into which Verdi poured his creative energy, but already the flow of his genius began to overwhelm conventions.  Oberto shares kinship with the Bellini of Il pirata and the Donizetti of Poliuto, but the seeds of Otello and Falstaff are also sown in the pages of Verdi’s inaugural score.  Released in celebration of the Verdi Bicentennial, Oehms Classics’ new recording, taken from concert performances, supplements a strong but sparse discography and provides intriguing glimpses both of Verdi’s raw genius and of the deserved prominence that the composer would ultimately command in the development of 19th-Century Italian opera.

Oberto is a challenge for conductors because it ideally requires a thorough grounding in the art of bel canto and an intimate knowledge of Verdi’s unique style.  Conduct Oberto like Bellini or Donizetti, and there is a risk of robbing a performance of the energy that is emblematic of Verdi’s compositional idiom: approach the score solely from the perspective of Verdi’s later operas, and the opera’s succinct beauty can be obscured.  This is not to imply that Oberto is a ‘difficult’ score, but it is one that subtly asks for a conductor to approach his or her task with comprehension of its places in both the process of Verdi’s coming of age as a composer and the course of Italian opera in general.  As in any of Verdi’s operas, rhythm is the force that drives the score, and the dramatic effectiveness of a performance relies mightily upon the conductor’s success in setting propulsive but appropriate tempi.  Michael Hofstetter derives from his considerable experience with Baroque repertory a reliable skill for shaping musical paragraphs with an ear for the individualities of phrasing, and his pacing of this performance of Oberto is exemplary.  Tempi are quick enough to avoid any hints of falling victim to the temptation to linger sentimentally over the Bellinian melodic lines, but the singers are never left gasping for breath.  Maestro Hofstetter achieves the necessary balance of treading gracefully through the score’s lyrical passages without shortchanging the pages that require greater excitement.  The excellent singing and playing of the Stadttheaters Gießen musicians match the level of Maestro Hofstetter’s alert conducting.  The voices are the focus in a performance of any Verdi opera, and the voices in this account of Oberto are given a consistently impressive musical foundation upon which to build their performances.

The supporting rôle of Imelda, Cuniza’s confidante, is sung by Basque soprano Naroa Intxausti, a small lady with a tremendous talent.  Imelda’s part is small, but Ms. Intxausti’s presence in the performance is large, her singing firm of tone and simmering with dramatic fire.  The histrionic intensity of Ms. Intxausti’s performance is complemented by Norman Reinhardt’s beautiful singing as Riccardo.  Like Radamès’s ‘Celeste Aida,’ Riccardo’s aria ‘Già sorto è il giorno’ cruelly tests the tenor within minutes of curtain-up, with virtually no opportunity for warm-up.  Mr. Reinhardt sings the aria with élan, and his performance builds impressively from this superb start.  The voice is is not of the proportions typically encountered in Verdi’s tenor rôles, even in the early operas, but Mr. Reinhardt proves fearless without forcing the voice, bringing off several thrilling ascents into his light but perfectly-supported upper register.  It is to his credit as a singing actor, as well as to the intrinsic beauty of his voice, that he holds his own so winningly alongside a formidable Cuniza in their extended duet in Act One.  ‘Ciel che feci,’ the romanza in Act Two in which Riccardo reacts with horrified disbelief to the fact that he has killed Oberto, also receives from Mr. Reinhardt a radiant, stirring performance.  Dramatically, Mr. Reinhardt is fully convincing as an inconstant lover without ever seeming truly treacherous, his compact tone palpably conveying youth and emotional sincerity in his moments of greatest distress.

Verdi did not long adhere to the models of Bellini’s Norma and Adalgisa and Donizetti’s Rosmonda and Eleonora, ultimately preferring to contrast his leading female characters more along the lines of Leonora and Azucena in Il trovatore and Élisabeth and Eboli in Don Carlos, but in Oberto he created a pair of wonderfully vibrant leading ladies.  The long-suffering Leonora is sung by soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, whose vibrant voice moves through Verdi’s melodies with relative ease.  Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli’s voice is small even for early Verdi, and despite her earnest efforts at artfully adapting her voice to the music there are passages in which she is audibly over-parted.  However, there are also passages in which Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli’s lovely tone and excellent technique produce impressive singing, particularly in Leonora’s florid music.  ‘Oh potessi nel mio core,’ Leonora’s cavatina in Act One, inspires Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli to an especially fine stretch of singing.  She capably—if not always comfortably—takes the high lines in ensembles, and her singing in the Rondo Finale brings the opera to a rousing close.  There are moments in which the music demands more voice than Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli can supply, but there are far more moments in which her singing succeeds on its own terms.  She is partnered by the Cuniza of mezzo-soprano Manuela Custer.  Early Verdi is not the repertory for which Ms. Custer is most renowned, but she has never sounded better on records than in this performance.  Ms. Custer’s extensive experience in Baroque and bel canto repertories tells in every phrase that she sings in Oberto, her command of coloratura and mastery of phrasing providing minute after minute of superb singing.  She sings top As and B-flats that any Amneris might envy, and though her voice is also slightly smaller than what the listener acquainted with Verdi’s operas might expect to hear in the music she is the complete mistress of her rôle.  Fine as she is in Cuniza’s duet with Riccardo and the subsequent trio with Leonora and Oberto in Act One, it is in ‘Oh, chi torna l’ardente pensiero’ in Act Two that Ms. Custer’s performance reaches its zenith.  Her artistry encompassing an unyielding grasp of bel canto style and precisely the sort of graceful abandon required for early Verdi, she gives an account of the aria that is a veritable masterclass in the singing of Verdi’s music, her expertly-judged cadenza crowning an incredible display of musicianship.  Ms. Custer’s Cuniza is one of the dishearteningly few tributes to the Verdi Bicentennial truly worthy of that honor and the reason why this Oberto should be heard by every listener with an affection for the composer’s music.

The title rôle, the first of Verdi’s great parts for the bass voice, is energetically sung by Adrian Gans.  There are occasional suggestions that Mr. Gans is consciously endeavoring to emulate the larger sound of a singer like Samuel Ramey, but he mostly adapts his own voice—slightly more baritone than bass in basic timbre—to the requirements of Verdi’s music.  In both the duet and trio in Act One, Mr. Gans sings powerfully, employing the conversational nuances of the text to convey dramatic purpose.  In his aria in Act Two, ‘L’orror del tradimento,’ Mr. Gans expresses the full emotional impact of Oberto’s desire to enact vengeance on Riccardo.  Ignazio Marini, the bass for whom Verdi composed Oberto, also created the title rôle in Verdi’s Attila, and there is a close kinship between Oberto and the better-known operatic leader of the Huns.  The kind of snarling grandiloquence needed for an ideal portrayal of Oberto does not come as naturally to Mr. Gans as the aristocratic reserve by which it is tempered, but his singing grows more assured as the performance progresses.  Ultimately, Mr. Gans’s firm, focused singing proves very satisfying, and he is a subtle but credibly formidable Oberto.

Verdi was not a Wunderkind like Mozart or Mendelssohn, but Oberto proves that he had honed his craft to a remarkable degree by the time of the première of his first opera.  Indeed, Oberto is more recognizably Verdian than Die Feen, Wagner’s first completed opera, is Wagnerian.  The influences of earlier generations of Italian bel canto are identifiable in virtually every page of the score of Oberto, but the opera is unmistakably the older brother of Nabucco, Attila, and even Simon Boccanegra and Falstaff.  This performance of Oberto aptly approaches the opera from the perspective of its origins in the traditions of bel canto but also explores the headwaters of the rivers of inspiration that Verdi would sail throughout his career.  Musical history lessons are important and sometimes enjoyable, but the proof in the Verdian pudding is in the singing.  This Oberto is a feast for the operatic palate, each member of the fresh-voiced cast utilizing every ingredient of his or her respective technique in order to prepare a gourmet performance, and it preserves in Manuela Custer’s Cuniza one of the finest examples of Verdi singing recorded in recent years.

10 November 2013

CD REVIEW: Benjamin Britten – WAR REQUIEM (E. Magee, M. Padmore, C. Gerhaher; BR-Klassik 900120)

Benjamin Britten - WAR REQUIEM, Op. 66 (BR-Klassik 900120)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): War Requiem, Op. 66—E. Magee (soprano), M. Padmore (tenor), C. Gerhaher (baritone); M. Hanft, organ; Tölzer Knabenchor; Chor und Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks; Mariss Jansons [Recorded ‘live’ in the Philharmonie im Gastieg, Munich, 13 – 15 March 2013; BR-Klassik 900120; 2CD, 87:00; Available from Amazon, BR Shop, ClassicsOnline, and major music retailers]

As the years pass and the ranks of veterans grow ever smaller, the personal stories of World War II are being lost to history.  The global implications, the inhuman atrocities, and the tales of gallantry remain part of the collective conscience, but the intimate experiences of the War—sweethearts saying goodbye, soldiers dying in their comrades’ arms, mothers burying sons and daughters, children never knowing their parents—are fading from memory.  When he was commissioned to compose a large-scale choral work for the 1962 consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, Benjamin Britten was perhaps mindful of the degenerative effects of time and prosperity on recollections of deeply individual hardships.  A lifelong pacifist, Britten incorporated the poetry of Wilfred Owen, the eloquent literary voice of World War I who fell on the Belgian Front a week before the armistice was signed, into his setting of the Latin liturgy, surely inspired to a significant degree to use Owen’s poignant words to remind generations to come—generations for whom armed conflicts would hopefully be nothing more than paragraphs in history books—that wars are not mere sporting by politicians.  Whether Britten was cognizant as he composed the score, which he dedicated to friends who served and in two cases died in the War, that the War Requiem would ultimately be one of his most enduring works is impossible to know, but the reception of the work’s first performance cannot have failed to convince the composer that his music had reached the hearts of a generation still scarred by air raids, rations, and neighborhoods reduced to ruins.  That the War Requiem is one of the greatest works not only of Britten’s career but of the entire canon of 20th-Century choral music is revealed by its continuing appeal to audiences throughout the five decades since its creation.  Perhaps it is now for many audiences a sentimental memorial to the parents and grandparents whose bravery and resilience were only partially understood.  In this year in which Britten would have marked his hundredth birthday, performances and recordings of the War Requiem are also celebrations of one of the most significant composers of the 20th Century.  This performance by Mariss Jansons and the forces of the Bayerischen Rundfunks honors Britten and the spirit in which the War Requiem was conceived, bringing together a trio of superb soloists and musicians of the highest order to sound anew, in Owen’s words, the ‘bugles calling for them from sad shires.’

The propulsive, unsentimental conducting of Mariss Jansons aptly conveys the stark beauty of Britten’s music.  Though it is approachable in a way that many of the masterpieces of 20th-Century choral music are not, the War Requiem is not ‘easy’ music: with complicated rhythms, sparse harmonic language that can make accuracy of intonation difficult for choristers, and angular melodic lines, Britten’s score presents challenges to all artists involved with a performance.  There are also challenges for the listener, whose ear must seek in Britten’s evocations of the din of war the subtler sounds of peace.  His familiarity with the music of Purcell lent Britten a facility for word-setting that eluded many of his contemporaries, and indifferent though he may have been to the traditional liturgical implications of the Requiem text he displayed great insight in his matching of both the Latin texts and especially the Owen verses to music that highlights meaning without obscuring the clarity of the words.  Maestro Jansons, who has recently honored the Verdi Bicentennial with stirring performances of the Messa da Requiem, brings similar mastery to his conducting of this performance of the War Requiem.  Stylistically, Britten’s and Verdi’s idioms could hardly be more different, but Maestro Jansons clearly recognizes the kinship between these monumental works by composers for whom the workings of conventional religion were suspect at best.  Maestro Jansons’s approach to the War Requiem allows full expression of the work’s spirituality without risking dissolution into didactic politicizing or doleful wallowing.  Melodic strands are individualized but paced from the perspective of comprehension of their places in the overall structure of the score.  Dramatic outbursts by the soprano soloist, cantorial passages from the tenor soloist, and choral episodes both intimate and grandiose are managed with equal skill, the firm rhythmic pulse of Maestro Jansons’s conducting proving particularly vital in the ‘Dies iræ’ and ‘Libera me.’  Both the performance as a whole and the inherent effectiveness of Maestro Jansons’s concept of the War Requiem, as well as his execution thereof, could hardly have such poignant impact without the superb recorded sound provided by BR-Klassik: balances are rendered carefully within a warm, resonant acoustic, and only the enthusiastic applause at the end of the performance betrays the ‘live’ circumstances of the recording.

There is indeed much in the singing and playing of the Tölzer Knabenchor and the Chor and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks to applaud.  Despite their achievements in a large repertory, mastering Britten’s writing for boys’ choir in the War Requiem cannot be an effortless task even for the boys of the Tölzer Knabenchor, but the beauty and emotional immediacy of their singing in this performance are breathtaking.  These are no cold angelic voices pontificating from on high: these are the voices of fully-engaged participants in the horrors of war and the comforts of the peace that come after, children displaced and disinherited by events over which they have no control.  The boys’ singing in ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ is poised and intensely beautiful but not merely for the sake of being pretty.  There are always risks involved with writing for boys’ voices, and Britten makes great demands of the boys’ choir in the War Requiem—demands that are met magnificently by the Tölzer Knabenchor.  In the first three decades of their existence, when they were under the direction first of Eugen Jochum and then of Rafael Kubelík, the choral and orchestral forces of Bayerischen Rundfunks made sterling contributions to the discographies of several major record labels, a tradition that was continued under Sir Colin Davis and Lorin Maazel.  Since Maestro Jansons took the helm of the Orchestra in 2003, the global economic downturn has reduced or in some cases eliminated opportunities to record for major labels, so Bayerischen Rundfunks joined some of their enterprising musical counterparts by launching a ‘house’ label in order to spotlight the exceptional work that the BR musicians continue to do.  This performance of the War Requiem—not a work in which the BR forces might have been expected to exude total confidence—confirms that both the choristers and the instrumentalists have absorbed the legacy of decades past and perform on superb form.  The BR choristers match the top-quality singing of the Tölzer Knabenchor, maintaining perfect intonation even when direly tested by Britten’s part writing.  The choral singing is supported by an awesome account of Britten’s score by the BR Symphonieorchester, every player knowing his or her part and executing it confidently.

Singing the soprano solos composed for Galina Vishnevskaya but first sung by Heather Harper, Emily Magee is a tremendous asset in this War Requiem.  Hers is not the sort of instrument for floating tones in the upper register, but she sings with power and far greater security than many of the sopranos heard in this music, occasional moments of uncertain intonation notwithstanding.  A few of the part’s highest notes are not completely comfortable for Ms. Magee, but the drive with which she places tones above the staff is arresting.  Lyric sopranos have sung the music with success, but Ms. Magee’s is the kind of voice that forcefully conveys the ultimate triumph of peace.  Mark Padmore fills the tenor lines written for Sir Peter Pears with his usual intelligence and plangent tone.  Like Pears, Mr. Padmore is an accomplished practitioner of the art of English Song, and much of the emotional directness of his performance is derived from the fluidity with which he sings Wilfred Owen’s verses.  Settling quickly after a slightly shaky start, Mr. Padmore unites his verbal acumen with polished-gold tone.  He is as insightful an interpreter of Britten’s music as Pears and has a more beautiful voice, and these qualities combine in a moving performance of the tenor solos.  Christian Gerhaher’s voice and artistry are often compared to those of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for whom Britten conceived the baritone solos, and he ably honors his countryman’s history with this music by singing warmly.  When the vocal lines take him above the staff at full volume, Mr. Gerhaher’s tone occasionally loses its firm core, but his singing is mostly lovely and sure of pitch.  Only a few of his enunciations display a slight accent, and he phrases thoughtfully throughout the performance.  In passages in which Britten set the tenor and baritone lines in duet, Mr. Gerhaher complements Mr. Padmore captivatingly.  Mr. Gerhaher does not shrink from a suggestion of harshness in the voice when delivering some of Owen’s darker lines, but his singing repays the trust that Britten placed in the famously sensitive artistry of Fischer-Dieskau.

Sir Winston Churchill wrote that World War II was ‘no war of chieftains or of princes’ but rather one ‘of people and of causes,’ of countless heroes ‘whose names will never be known, whose deeds will never be recorded.’  Now, almost seventy years after the end of the War, the perspicacity of Churchill’s observations is more apparent than ever.  Despite his very different perspective, Benjamin Britten also possessed a comprehension of the War as both a machine of unparalleled destruction and a thief that robbed him of beloved friends.  The pain and bitterness of loss were woven into every page of the War Requiem, but they were tempered by a pragmatic sense of survival; not so much a product of conventional faith as of the very British notions of picking up, dusting off, and carrying on.  Before the false concept of ‘closure’ gained currency in psychological discourse, the honorable response to devastation was to rebuild and renew, and these are the qualities with which Britten endowed his War Requiem.  Britten created an appropriately noble commemoration of the nameless heroes of his own and all times, and this radiant Bayerischen Rundfunks performance reveals that the War Requiem’s musical homage to the unrecorded deeds of those who sacrifice in the pursuit of peace is as inspiring in Munich as in Manchester, Minneapolis, or Manila.

08 November 2013

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti – BELISARIO (N. Alaimo, J. El-Khoury, R. Thomas, C. Roberts, A. Miles; Opera Rara ORC49)

 Gaetano Donizetti: BELISARIO (Opera Rara ORC49)

GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Belisario – N. Alaimo (Belisario), J. El-Khoury (Antonina), R. Thomas (Alamiro), C. Roberts (Irene), A. Miles (Giustiniano), J. Sporsén (Eudora), P. Hoare (Eutropio), E. Price (Eusebio), M. Bundy (Ottario), D. Jeffery (Centurion); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Sir Mark Elder [Recorded at BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, in October 2012; Opera Rara ORC49; 2CD, 124:53; Available from Opera Rara, Presto Classical, and all major music retailers]

Thoroughly, memorably satisfactory performances of bel canto operas are as rare today as honest politicians—and as welcome when they unexpectedly appear.  Not so many seasons have passed since the Lucias of Beverly Sills or Dame Joan Sutherland could be partnered on any given night with the Edgardos of Carlo Bergonzi, Nicolai Gedda, Sándor Kónya, or Richard Tucker.  Perhaps they were not Pastas or Rubinis, but these singers knew and loved bel canto and possessed both the requisite techniques and sufficient respect for the music to dedicate themselves to delivering stylish performances.  There are excellent bel canto singers active today, of course, but instances in which groups of them are assembled in casts for Bellini or Donizetti operas are strangely few.  Are an Adalgisa with no coloratura and a strangulated Roberto Devereux really considerably less expensive for an opera company than good ones?  Bel canto suffers more in the 21st Century than ever before, it seems, from the supposition that this repertory requires star singers in order to be viable: worry first about filling seats and then about meeting the demands of the music, and if one of these aims must be sacrificed it is better to sing poorly to a full house.  The history of Opera Rara proves, however, that, when sung not just competently but enthusiastically and devotedly, bel canto repertory both is a star in its own right and creates stars of its own accord.  Any number of sopranos can get through a rôle like Donizetti’s Maria de Rudenz, but only a mistress of the idiom like Nelly Miricioiu can truly make the part her own, and Opera Rara’s studio recording gave her the ideal setting in which to offer a masterclass in dramatic bel canto singing.  The talented team at Opera Rara have now given this same gift to Donizetti’s Belisario, bringing together a cast of today’s most talented bel canto singers and crafting a performance that sweeps the boards, artistically and technically.

The technical strengths of this recording arise from the work of Opera Rara’s engineers, Neil Pemberton, Drew Leckie, and Susan Thomas.  They faced a daunting assignment: sonic excellence is the expectation rather than the exception with Opera Rara recordings, but the best of their skills were engaged in producing a dynamically wide-ranging recording that benefits from near-ideal balance and a natural, slightly dry acoustic that credibly replicates the sound of a small theatre.  As has also become customary for Opera Rara releases, Belisario is accompanied by an article by Jeremy Commons by which the attentive reader will be both educated and entertained.  Even among Donizetti’s lesser-known operas, Belisario is something of an enigma, its musically uneven but dramatically innovative score largely overlooked during the Donizetti revival of the 1950s and ‘60s.  The opera’s resurgence in the 20th Century was due to interest in the lead soprano rôle by Mara Zampieri and, most significantly, Leyla Gencer.  Compared with Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor, Belisario is not a masterpiece, but the efforts of Opera Rara have often revealed that Donizetti’s ‘forgotten’ operas are finer scores than those of his less-remembered contemporaries—and, indeed, than those of subsequent generations that enjoy greater popularity.  Thus it is also with Belisario.  There are passages, even pages, of the opera that lack inspiration, but of how many composers’ scores except the mature operas of Mozart can that not be said?  There are many pages in Belisario that rival the best of Donizetti’s work, however, and there is an obvious effort by all of the personnel involved with this recording to ensure that the score receives uniform distribution of the deep trove of resources.  A listener would not expect a Violetta to sing haphazardly until reaching ‘Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’io t’amo’ and ‘Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core,’ her two great outpourings of melody, but many performances of bel canto operas do just that, taking flight only in the moments of greatest fame or distinction.  There are moments in Belisario when Donizetti’s genius is more apparent, but the levels of musical and dramatic execution in this recording are consistently high from beginning to end.

One of the finest if least-heralded theatrical conductors working today, Sir Mark Elder presides over this performance of Belisario with passion and precision.  His keen ear for rhythm provides a firm foundation for the performance, and the depth of his understanding of both the similarities and differences of the styles of the mature Donizetti and the young Verdi is evident.  In many ways, Belisario is a close relative of Nabucco, both in terms of the basic structure of the narrative and in the sharply-contrasted musical profiles of the characters.  Donizetti’s opera mostly lacks the contemporary political and religious subtexts of Nabucco but shares many of the complicated, ultimately unanswerable questions of Verdi’s work.  Maestro Elder shows a firm hand in guiding the development of Donizetti’s carefully-conceived thematic arcs, but he is also a confident, cordial friend to the singers.  Melodic lines are granted the flexibility that they need in order to expand organically without distorting the dramatic progression of scenes.  Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Maestro Elder’s conducting in this performance is the way in which be balances clean articulations of rhythmic figurations with seemingly effortless commands of dynamics, balance between orchestra and singers, and idiomatic phrasing of Italianate melodic lines.  Such accomplishments are far from effortless, of course, and Maestro Elder’s expert leadership contributes significantly to the success of this recording.  Led respectively by Renato Balsadonna and Tomo Keller, the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra also perform excellently, not least by responding so readily to Maestro Elder’s baton.  The BBC Singers evoke the grandeur of Imperial Byzantium with singing of compelling vigor.  The choristers are given nothing of the melodic fecundity of Nabucco’s ‘Va, pensiero sull’ari dorate,’ but the Senators’ Chorus in Part One, ‘Che mai sarà,’ is a stirring number, faintly resembling in its basic structure the Council Chamber Scene in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.  Whether plotting rebellion or decrying betrayal, the choristers maintain a sturdy, unstintingly musical presence throughout the performance.  The demands of Donizetti’s score find not one of the players of the BBC Symphony Orchestra unprepared, and the reliable quality of the orchestral playing further enhances the cumulative impact of the recording.

Another quality typical of Opera Rara releases (and sadly atypical of other labels’ recordings) is the uniformly high level of talent among the singers cast in supporting rôles.  Belisario is an opera in which there truly are no insignificant rôles, and even the unnamed Centurion comes forward in the penultimate scene with the critical news that Belisario has been mortally wounded in battle.  Thankfully, a singer as capable as Darren Jeffery is on hand to fill the Centurion’s lines with forceful tone befitting the gravitas of his statements.  Eutropio, duplicitous head of the Imperial guards and combatant for Antonina’s favor, and Eusebio, the warden of the Imperial prison, are sung with ringing tones by Peter Hoare and Edward Price.  Michael Bundy is a suitably martial Ottario, leader of the rebels, and Irene’s confidante Eudora is beautifully sung by Julia Sporsén.

The rôle of the Byzantine Emperor Giustiniano is sung by bass Alastair Miles, a frequent participant in Opera Rara projects and one of the most important exponents of bel canto singing in Britain.  In recent seasons, there were occasional signs of the effects of time and a rigorous career in Mr. Miles’s singing, but in this performance these traits are little in evidence.  Donizetti did not give Giustiniano a concerted aria, but Mr. Miles takes advantage of every opportunity offered him, infusing his pronouncements with focused, suitably regal tone.  Passages at neither the very top nor the bottom of the voice come as easily as in the past, but it is heartening to hear Mr. Miles again singing so well.

Irene is an usual seconda donna in that she, rather than Antonina, is the opera’s sympathetic female protagonist.  Subjected to the cruel workings of fate and her mother’s covert political manipulations, she suffers greatly and, in one of the defining characteristics of bel canto, in music of considerable beauty.  Irene’s scene with her blinded father in Act Two, culminating in the duet ‘Ah! se potessi piangere,’ is the emotional climax of the opera, the situation of the faithful daughter reunited with her humiliated father—so familiar from mythology and in opera—inspiring Donizetti to extraordinary heights of pathos and musical inspiration.  Camilla Roberts scales these heights imaginatively, phrasing with an audible understanding of the art of bel canto and shaping her performance with an effecting sense of womanly dignity.  Ms. Roberts’s Irene is a mercilessly put-upon woman but not one who lashes out in vengeful anger or who demurely accepts the hands she is dealt.  Indeed, Ms. Roberts proves as spirited in up-tempo passages as she is moving in more lyrical moments.  Neither her artistry nor her voice is more eloquently deployed than in the scene with Belisario, when Irene takes her wounded father under her protection.  Warmly feminine and secure throughout the performance, Ms. Roberts’s voice here takes on the slow-burning intensity of a heroine of Greek tragedy.  Ms. Roberts occasionally sounds cautious in approaching the top of her range, but the voice is full and lovely, and her singing is a credit to the performance.

Tenor Russell Thomas takes a rôle that could all too easily be a standard-issue operatic caricature—that of the child long lost but miraculously found at the most opportune time—and transforms it into a vocal and dramatic tour de force.  Even the scene in which, his Greek ancestry having been revealed, he is taken into his father’s household as a replacement for the missing son is managed without the slightest hint of parody.  Donizetti set the scene with absolute sincerity, of course, and Mr. Thomas performs his part in it accordingly.  It is obvious in every line that Mr. Thomas sings in this performance that his is a voice that should be heard in all of the world’s important opera houses.  In Alamiro’s aria and cabaletta that open Part Two, Mr. Thomas sings with virile security and brilliant tone that would be welcome in any of Donizetti’s operas; or, indeed, in any of Verdi’s.  Alamiro is not called upon for any great philosophical discourses, but he is a hero with an insightful nature, and Mr. Thomas’s performance glows with honesty and open-hearted emotion.  Keeping with the nature of the music, interpolated top notes are few, but Mr. Thomas’s excursions into his freely-produced upper register are thrilling.  Even very young singers without idiosyncrasies and mannerisms are rare today: Mr. Thomas impresses most by the unaffected simplicity of his singing.  This is not to suggest that Alamiro’s music is an easy sing, but the facility with which Mr. Thomas sings it is testimony to the well-schooled completeness of his technique.  In every scene in which he appears in Belisario, Mr. Thomas sings with an ideal combination of power and grace—an auspicious launch to what will hopefully prove a long and fruitful career before the microphones.

Also at the dawn of an especially promising recording career is soprano Joyce El-Khoury, who sings Antonina with a dramatic abandon that might seem old-fashioned to listeners accustomed to the anemic singing heard in so many recent performances of bel canto repertory.  Indeed, Ms. El-Khoury’s performance is refreshingly ‘old-fashioned’ in the sense of bringing to the rôle the kind of take-no-prisoners intensity that was a hallmark of Leyla Gencer’s singing of Antonina.  Bel canto leading lady she is, but a delicate songbird Antonina is not, and Ms. El-Khoury discloses at her first entrance that hers will be a performance that neglects none of the character’s less glamorous elements.  She also neglects none of Donizetti’s musical demands, filling her performance with stretches of wonderfully stylish singing.  Antonina makes her entrance with ‘Sin la tomba è a me negata,’ the first music of real distinction in the score, and Ms. El-Khoury makes it clear that Antonina’s emotions run hot.  First sung by Caroline Ungher, who also created Donizetti’s Parisina and Maria de Rudenz, Antonina is an intriguing figure whose influence, like that of Fricka in Die Walküre, is more felt than heard, her appearances being confined to Parts One and Three.  That she is so omnipresent in this performance is indicative of the strong impression made by Ms. El-Khoury’s singing.  Antonina’s final aria and cabaletta are blazingly sung, Ms. El-Khoury putting even Donizetti’s most demanding vocal writing at the service of her wide-eyed dramatic instincts.  Musically, Ms. El-Khoury encounters no challenge to which her technique is not equal.  The dark-amber timbre of her voice is very attractive, especially as the sunlit ascents of Donizetti’s melodic lines access her glowing upper register.  Like Klytämnestra, Antonina’s political ambitions are upset by the reappearance of a presumed-dead son, though Antonina presumably had no hand in her child’s fate (her hatred of her husband is inspired at least in part by her belief that their son was slain on his order), and destiny delivers one last blow by Belisario’s untimely death thwarting her quest for absolution.  It is perhaps misleading to suggest that Antonina is a ‘broken’ woman, but Donizetti gave her poised, beautiful music that complicates interpretations of the part as either a straightforward bel canto heroine or an evil villainess.  Ms. El-Khoury shares Leyla Gencer’s talent for emotionally-charged dramatic bel canto singing, and she manages to make Antonina an even more sympathetic figure than Gencer achieved in Venice and Bergamo, all while singing with formidably sure technique and controlled fire.

The title rôle receives from baritone Nicola Alaimo a performance of musical and dramatic potency.  Making his entrance into the opera in the manner of Rossini’s—or, even more spectacularly, Verdi’s—Otello, as the triumphant warrior returning to his native land, Belisario receives both from Donizetti and from Mr. Alaimo suitable pomp and circumstance.  Mr. Alaimo joins Mr. Thomas in a monumental account of the duet ‘Sul campo della gloria.’  Belisario’s disbelief and offended exasperation upon being accused and condemned echo Anna Bolena’s ‘Giudici…ad Anna,’ and Mr. Alaimo’s performance brims with barely-concealed rage.  In the scene in which the blinded Belisario is reunited with Irene, recalling the devotion of Antigone to Oedipus, Mr. Alaimo sings with tremendous feeling.  Dramatically, this scene foreshadows many similar scenes of life-altering interaction between parents and their children—or, in one instance, a would-be daughter-in-law—in the operas of Verdi: Rigoletto and Gilda, Germont and Violetta, Boccanegra and Amelia.  Musically, it is a testament to Donizetti’s genius that his music for Belisario and Irene inhabits the same exalted environment as that of Verdi for his celebrated familial confrontations.  Mr. Alaimo responds to Ms. Roberts’s example with long-breathed phrasing and an alert presentation of text.  Mr. Alaimo’s excellent diction is of great importance throughout the opera, and the naturalistic but unaffected manner in which he delivers both Belisario’s surprise at learning that Alamiro is his son and the character’s death scene is richly rewarding.  Mr. Alaimo’s voice is not extraordinarily beautiful like that of Giuseppe Taddei, who was one of the most notable exponents of the part in the 20th Century, but he proves a subtle, moving Belisario whose gifts for bel canto provide countless moments of gratifying singing.

During the past few seasons, a listener might be forgiven for having forgotten that bel canto both literally and figuratively means ‘beautiful singing.’  With the increasing focus on crowding the world’s stages with pretty faces regardless of the quality of the voices that pass through them, it is inevitable that the traditions of bel canto, which rely upon handsomeness of tone rather than attractiveness of figure, should suffer.  From that perspective, the operas espoused by Opera Rara’s initiatives are not as rare as the performance traditions they uphold.  More so than many of the works that hover in the peripheries of the repertories of the world’s opera houses today, Belisario is an opera that deserves to be heard on the most important stages and that deserved a recording of the highest possible quality.  Fulfillment of the former goal may remain unlikely, but Opera Rara’s efforts have produced a Belisario to be treasured by lovers of genuine bel canto.  Stylish bel canto singing may be fighting for its life in many theatres, but in Opera Rara’s projects and in the throats of Nicola Alaimo, Joyce El-Khoury, Russell Thomas, Camilla Roberts, and Alastair Miles it is alive and well.

06 November 2013

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – OTELLO (A. Antonenko, K. Stoyanova, C. Guelfi, J. F. Gatell, M. Spyres, E. Owens; CSO Resound, CSOR 901 1301)

Giuseppe Verdi: OTELLO (CSO Resound CSOR 901 1301)

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Otello—A. Antonenko (Otello), K. Stoyanova (Desdemona), C. Guelfi (Iago), B. di Castri (Emilia), J. F. Gatell (Cassio), M. Spyres (Roderigo), P. Battaglia (Montano), E. Owens (Lodovico), D. Govertsen (Herald); Chicago Symphony Chorus, Chicago Children’s Choir; Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Muti [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, Chicago, Illinois, on 7, 9, and 12 April 2011; CSO Resound, CSOR 901 1301; 2CD (also available in SACD format), 136:03; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, directly from CSO, and major music retailers]

In the 2013 World Cup of Opera, with its dueling Bicentennials, Germany seems to have advanced to a considerable lead over Italy.  With widely-discussed releases by labels large and small, documenting the work of respected conductors past and present, the works of Wagner have enjoyed greater prominence in the recent discography than those of his fellow milestone celebrant, Verdi.  Considering the essentially lyric, Italianate core of the basic training to which young singers are subjected, it seems counterintuitive to suggest that there are now more Wagner singers deserving to be recorded than there are similarly-meritorious Verdi singers, but perhaps there is at least a modicum of validity to this supposition.  Few singers display an affinity for Verdi repertory comparable to Nina Stemme's suitability for Wagner's heroines, for example, and the lion's share of truly world-class operatic portrayals in recent seasons—Eric Owens's Alberich in the Metropolitan Opera's Robert Lepage Ring, for instance—have been created in Wagner repertory.  The operas of Verdi nonetheless remain the foundation upon which the seasons of virtually every major opera house are built, even if the performances ultimately are inadequately sung.  There are seasons at theatres beyond Germany and Austria in which there is nary a Wagner opera to be found, but a season in any of the world's larger repertory companies without a production of Rigoletto, La Traviata, or Il Trovatore is unusual.  To the lover of Verdi's operas disappointed by the paucity of good-quality recordings released in celebration of the birthday boy from Busseto and to those wearied by half-hearted performances of Italian repertory in general, this recording of Otello by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti is cause for rejoicing.  The performance on this recording, captured in sound of demonstration quality by engineers of the Orchestra's house label, is a precious instance of all members of a large musical team being fit, focused, and dedicated to the task of making music at the highest possible level of excellence.  Every kick in this Otello does not find the net, but it scores several pulse-quickening goals for Team Italy.

The personnel of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are no strangers to recording microphones.  Under the leadership of Sir Georg Solti, CSO's operatic outings were often recorded, either in concert or in studio, including a controversial 'live' recording (taken from concert performances and ‘patch’ sessions in Chicago and New York) of Otello in which the title rôle was sung for the only times in his career by Luciano Pavarotti.  CSO forces also hold the distinction of having participated in the first fully digital recording of a complete opera, Beethoven's Fidelio with Hildegard Behrens.  The storied traditions of superb musicianship by both the Chicago Symphony's choristers and instrumentalists are gloriously upheld in this performance of Otello.  In the opera's opening scene, the terror of the Venetian populace is powerfully conveyed by the choral singing, which never loses its intensity or admirable clarity of ensemble.  Well-trained and amply-rehearsed choral singing has ever been a reliable aspect of Chicago Symphony performances, and both the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus sing strongly and with unflagging dramatic energy under the direction of Duain Wolfe.  The ladies' singing shimmers with poise, femininity, and an attractive element of aloofness—these are refined, pious ladies among preening courtiers and rough-hewn mariners, after all—in their exchanges with Desdemona, and the men's depictions of those conspirators and seamen are equally credible.  The youngsters of the Chicago Children’s Choir, prepared by Josephine Lee, sing with professionalism that belies their youth, charmingly extolling Desdemona’s virtue and seeking her favor.  The CSO players also make a fantastic showing.  On the whole, Verdi does not receive the respect that he deserves for the intelligence and innate dramatic sense of his orchestrations, particularly in his later operas: from the first note of the score, the orchestra is a vital participant in Otello, not merely an accompanist.  The tempest with which the opera opens receives a ferocious performance from the CSO, and throughout the performance the instrumentalists impress with moment after moment of extraordinary playing.  Strings, woodwinds, and brass all play superbly, and the exposed passages for harp and mandolin are executed better than on almost any other recording.  The conducting of Maestro Muti merits much of the credit for the overall effectiveness of this recording.  Having proved a divisive figure in some of his endeavors, Maestro Muti proves himself through his conducting of the performances recorded by CSO Resound to be one of the few conductors active today in possession of a legitimately idiomatic command of Verdi’s music.  Under Maestro Muti’s baton, it is apparent that Otello is the work of a composer whose career spanned the entire spectrum of 19th-Century Italian opera, from bel canto—and, however much listeners allergic to the music of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti wish to deny it, there are delicious remnants of bel canto in Otello, not least in Desdemona’s music in Act Four—to the strongest stirrings of Romanticism.  Maestro Muti’s conducting also leaves no doubt that Otello is an opera that premiered less than thirteen years before the turn of the 20th Century.  Hard-edged passages like those that open the opera and depict Otello’s bending to Iago’s insinuations in Act Two mingle organically with lyrical scenes like the celebrated Love Duet in Act One, the ‘cello-led introduction to which is gorgeously played, and Desdemona’s innocent pleading for intercession for the falsely-maligned Cassio.  Pacing the performance with the sure hand of absolute acquaintance with the score’s shifting moods, Maestro Muti here conducts one of the finest recordings of his career.

If the value of a performance of Otello were decided solely on the merits of its supporting cast, this recording would soar to preeminence in the opera's discography.  To the gifted Barbara di Castri falls the unenviable task of balancing Emilia's devotion to her mistress, Desdemona, with her position as the consort of the duplicitous Iago.  Though she has little more to do, musically, than Flora in Traviata or Ines in Trovatore, Emilia has a sharper dramatic profile than these ladies, and Ms. di Castri seizes every opportunity offered to her, singing committedly and with attractive femininity.  Otherwise, the environment in which the fates of Desdemona and Otello play out is dominated by testosterone.  The Herald of David Govertsen and Montano of Paolo Battaglia are strong performances.  Having Eric Owens on hand as Lodovico is an exceptional luxury, and every line that he sings bristles with intelligence and the excitement of the visceral impact of his granitic voice.  Interestingly, Lodovico has fared very well on records, but no one has sung the rôle more engagingly than Mr. Owens.  Much the same can be asserted about the tenor rôles of Cassio and Roderigo.  The former part is taken delightfully by Juan Francisco Gatell, a frequent collaborator with Maestro Muti.  More often encountered in Mozart repertory and the early 19th-Century music for which Maestro Muti is so zealous an advocate, Mr. Gatell finds in Cassio a Verdi rôle that, like Fenton in Falstaff, is ideal for his voice.  His light, almost boyish timbre makes Cassio an even more than usually sympathetic figure, his innocence never doubted.  For lovely, ringing tone, Michael Spyres's singing as Roderigo could not be improved.  A fantastic interpreter of the title rôle in Rossini's Otello, Mr. Spyres does not face similar bravura hurdles in Roderigo’s music, but the simpler vocal lines allow the beauty of his tone to glisten all the more.  Dramatically, he projects every quality required of an ideal Roderigo.

The most chilling Iagos are those who connive with charm rather than blunt force, and in that regard this performance loses a bit of ground.  From his first entrance in Act One, Carlo Guelfi’s Iago veritably trembles with menace.  This is a valid interpretation of the rôle, of course, but it leaves little room for the sort of disclosure of the character’s ambiguities that deepened the psychology of an Iago such as Tito Gobbi’s.  Still, it is now relatively rare to hear an Italian baritone in the part, and Mr. Guelfi’s verbal fleetness produces many moments of frighteningly-conveyed malevolence.  The famous ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’ in Act Two is broadly sung, but here and elsewhere in his performance Mr. Guelfi’s upper register is prone to spreading.  The basic timbre of the voice is pewter-hued, which limits the extent to which Mr. Guelfi can alter the colorations of his tone in order to reflect the ever-changing aspects of Iago’s public and private personas.  Neither Shakespeare nor Verdi makes explicit the true motivations for Iago’s malfeasance: political maneuvering is certainly an important aspect of Iago’s actions, but destruction such as Iago instigates is rarely born merely of politics.  Racism is implied as potently in Otello as it is directly depicted in The Merchant of Venice, but missing from Arrigo Boito’s libretto are Shakespeare’s suggestions—likely Iago’s inventions—that Otello seduced Emilia prior to his clandestine marriage to Desdemona.  Nevertheless, Verdi’s music seeks the inspiration for Iago’s bitterness where any Italian might first explore: the heart.  Whether or not Iago physically desires Desdemona, there can be little doubt that, considering that he regards his own wife as property, he covets Otello’s possession of her.  Mr. Guelfi’s Iago bullies more than he beguiles but is ultimately an effective if unvarying purveyor of cruelty.  Vocally, Mr. Guelfi lacks the trills that Verdi asks of Iago, though he at least makes efforts to fake them, but he is little troubled by the part’s range.  Mr. Guelfi is not an Iago who challenges the memories of great Iagos of the past, but he is one who sings one of Verdi’s most demanding baritone rôles without embarrassment.

Though the ‘Verdi soprano’ is an unique and elusive species of singer, Desdemona’s music has been successfully sung by an array of voices: glowing with the opulent tones of Renata Tebaldi, Dame Margaret Price, and even Dame Joan Sutherland, Desdemona’s often delicate vocal lines have been filled equally beautifully by leaner voices like those of Victoria de los Ángeles, Rosanna Carteri, Teresa Żylis-Gara, and Raina Kabaivanska.  Even as her vast repertory expands to include parts like the title rôle in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, Krassimira Stoyanova retains a firmly lyrical core in her voice, enabling her to keep in her active repertory the Mozart and bel canto rôles that many sopranos eschew as they take on heavier parts.  [As recently as October 2013, she sang highly-acclaimed performances of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at the Wiener Staatsoper.]  When she brought her Desdemona to the Metropolitan Opera in March 2013, she confirmed her Verdian credentials to audiences who first heard her as Violetta in La Traviata in 2001.  The performance preserved on this recording of Otello is nothing short of authoritative.  Perhaps the most important quality that a credible Desdemona must display is graceful femininity, and this Ms. Stoyanova imparts effortlessly.  In ‘Già nella notte densa,’ the love duet in Act One, she floats tones very attractively, infusing passages like ‘Ed io t’amavo per le tue sventure e tu m’amavi per la mia pietà’ (‘And I loved you for your struggles and you loved me for my compassion’) with burning but never vulgar passion.  In Act Two, Ms. Stoyanova is a model of gentility, her defense of Cassio sincere but suggesting—to stable, unpolluted minds, at least—nothing more than the innocent interest of a friend.  The elegance with which she manages the ascending lines of the frequently-marred concertato in ‘D’un uom che geme’ is remarkable, and she and Maestro Muti collaborate to ensure that Desdemona’s phrasing is the spine of the scene, as it should be.  This Desdemona is no shrinking violet, however, and Ms. Stoyanova raises the dramatic temperature of the performance with compelling flashes of indignation in Act Three.  Publicly mocked, accused, and brutalized by Otello, Ms. Stoyanova’s Desdemona audibly experiences disbelief, terror, and crushing shame: Otello is a man of a class beneath her, little more than a savage, whom she has loved despite the objections of the society by which her morals were shaped, and how dares he to repay her faith in his goodness and capacity for self-improvement with baseless charges?  Her recriminations are not facile tears but injections of steely resolve and impenetrable dignity.  The whole of Act Four finds Ms. Stoyanova performing with the acumen of a truly great singing actress, the quietude of the ‘Ave Maria’—stirringly sung—giving way to the shock of Otello’s betrayal and calm but not complacent recognition that there is no escape from death.  An occasional wiriness at the extreme top of the voice detracting nothing from the effectiveness of her singing, Ms. Stoyanova produces secure, garnet-colored tone throughout the performance.  It is rare today that an important singer enjoys an opportunity to be recorded at her best in an appropriate rôle.  Ms. Stoyanova was clearly sensitive to this boon and rose to it with a performance of Desdemona that satisfies on every level.

Aleksandrs Antonenko also sings a large variety of rôles, supplementing the Slavic and verismo repertories for which he is perhaps most acclaimed with performances of parts like Pollione in Bellini’s Norma, which he recently sang at the MET.  Otello is the sort of rôle to which the burly strength of his voice is better suited, though it is hoped that he will be judicious in expanding his repertory of dramatic rôles that he elects to sing in large theatres.  Concert performances are safer ground, musically and dramatically, but the example of his illustrious predecessor in a Chicago Symphony Otello, Luciano Pavarotti, proved that careful husbanding of resources and sympathetic placement of microphones are inadequate substitutes for possession of the legitimate voix du rôle.  The legitimacy of Mr. Antonenko’s engagement is established at Otello’s first entrance, with his stentorian singing of ‘Esultate!’  From that start, he seizes command throughout Act One, singing broadly.  Mr. Antonenko follows Ms. Stoyanova’s lead in the Love Duet, softening his tone convincingly.  In Act Two, the incredulity with which he receives Iago’s ill-conceived tidings is subtly but powerfully conveyed, his outbursts in his interview with Iago before Desdemona’s entrance forcefully depicting both the solidity of his faith in his wife and the decaying effect of Iago’s lies.  When Mr. Antonenko unleashes the full power of his voice in ‘Sì, pel ciel marmoreo guiro,’ the results are thrilling.  In general, his singing is shorter on tonal shading than on raw vigor, but he phrases with sufficient imagination to avoid sounding one-dimensional.  In Act Three, Mr. Antonenko’s Otello surrenders himself to rage, and violence seems the sole thought possible for the broken mind encountered in Act Four.  Still, there is tenderness in his interaction with Desdemona even as he forces the life out of her body.  There is little poetry in Mr. Antonenko’s singing, but there is a moving stamp of tragedy.  The aptness of his voice for the part is evident in the relative security with which Mr. Antonenko sings Otello’s music, his top notes mostly well-supported and landing squarely on the indicated pitches.  If those who love the opera are fortunate, there is perhaps one great Otello in each generation of singers.  It is premature to make any proclamations about the sovereignty of Mr. Antonenko’s portrayal of the complicated, conflicted Moor, but this performance indisputably advances his candidacy.

Such is the allure of the score that many people who do not fancy the operas of Verdi reluctantly confess affection for Otello.  In its purest essence, Otello is one of the finest examinations of the themes that inspired both Shakespeare and Verdi to their best work: arrogance, compassion, envy, insecurity, prejudice, and trust.  If, as so many directors and producers who turn their hands to the genre suggest, opera must be relevant, which themes are more recognizable to 21st-Century audiences than these; and which opera in the standard repertory deals more insightfully with them than Otello?  Already in his eighth decade when he got round to starting work on Otello, Verdi retained unerring instincts for the theatre, but gone were the oversized emotions and dramatic caricatures of his earlier operas.  What remain in Otello are the very real struggles of decent people against both internal and external forces that they cannot overcome.  As much stupidity has been written about Otello as about any great work of art, about hidden meanings and subversive subtexts, but what Verdi wrote about, as surely as did Wagner, was the universal human journey towards death and the ways in which love alters the path.  On the whole, this recording offers a winning account of this tremendous score, one that features a Desdemona superior to almost any other singing today and a supporting cast never surpassed on records, and if there is any conductor in the world today who knows Otello as thoroughly and conducts it as masterfully as Riccardo Muti does in this performance, let him come forth and prove it.

02 November 2013

CD REVIEW: HÄNDEL INSÓLITO – Arias for Coloratura Baritone & Harpsichord (E. Barragán-Géant, baritone; Géant Records)


GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Händel Insólito – Arias from Atalanta, Berenice, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Joshua, Partenope, Rinaldo, Semele, Serse, Tamerlano, and the Dettingen Te Deum—Emiliano Barragán-Géant, coloratura baritone and harpsichord [Géant Records; 1CD, 57:30; Available on demand from Amazon]

Thinking of a conceit popular for many years with writers concerned with musical topics, it is tempting to suggest that Händel Insólito is not anyone’s grandmother’s recital of Händel arias.  Unless one is very young or the branches of one’s family tree are bent by progenitors of the likes of Dame Emma Kirkby and René Jacobs, however, it is not likely that the proverbial grandmother was too concerned with recitals of Händel arias.  For young singers starting their careers in the past quarter-century, even those with no particular affinities for Baroque music, Händel repertory has offered a rich treasury from which to pluck choice gems for auditions, and endeavors in Händel repertory have become almost standard fare for many singers, though with results of uncertain quality.  What is certain is that Händel Insólito is unlike any of the other Händel recitals released in recent years.  Accompanying himself with his own arrangements for harpsichord of Händel’s often elaborate orchestrations, Venezuelan coloratura baritone Emiliano Barragán-Géant delivers thirteen of Händel’s most sublimely-crafted arias with sovereign musicality that is audibly at the service of a deep love for Händel’s music.  Transposing rôles for vocal registers other than those for which Händel composed them is a familiar practice, though thankfully one that has become less common during the past three decades, but the singular power of Mr. Barragán-Géant’s performances on Händel Insólito is the uncanny way in which he makes all of the selections on the disc—even those originally composed for castrati—very much his own, not merely adapting the tessitura to a manageable range but genuinely reinventing the music so that it sounds utterly natural in his voice.  All recordings of Händel repertory, vocal and instrumental, should exhibit such affection for the music!

Mr. Barragán-Géant’s voice is an unconventional instrument.  Described by the singer himself as being poised between the traditional baritone and tenor registers, his singing on Händel Insólito takes the voice across a wide range.  Excursions into tenor territory are mostly secure and effective, but a few of the lowest notes interpolated at the ends of B-sections stretch Mr. Barragán-Géant beyond the bottom extremity of the voice’s comfort zone.  His technique encompasses sonorous expansion of Händel’s cantilena lines, and his command of coloratura is frequently dazzling.  Ornamentation is sometimes extravagant but largely tasteful.  Providing his own accompaniments, Mr. Barragán-Géant sets tempi that enable him to execute even the most demanding divisions accurately.  A bizarre element of his performances of the bravura showpiece arias on Händel Insólito, however, is the way in which tempi are distorted in order to quicken the pacing of coloratura passages.  If this is an expressive device, perhaps intended to depict the excitement of the texts, it is employed too frequently to be consistently meaningful.  If, as seems more likely, this is an idiosyncrasy of the singer’s technique, it is hoped that it can be smoothed out.  Rhythmic precision is tremendously important in the music of Händel, who was no less influenced in his composition of vocal music by the dance forms of the High Baroque than his contemporaries in France and Italy, and the singer’s manipulations of tempi distract from the brilliance of Mr. Barragán-Géant’s uncommonly crisp delivery of coloratura passages.  It is a pity, too, that he did not enjoy access to a top-quality harpsichord on which to accompany his singing.  The arrangements are unfailingly inventive, preserving details of Händel’s scoring that are typically lost in keyboard-only accompaniments, but Mr. Barragán-Géant’s witty reductions of the music should have been even more impressive if played on an expertly-crafted double-manual harpsichord.

The bravura arias offered on Händel Insólito receive performances from Mr. Barragán-Géant that astonish, caveats concerning tempi notwithstanding.  Cesare’s ‘Presti omai l’Egizia terra’ from Giulio Cesare, the title character’s ‘Se bramate d’amar chi vi sdegna’ from Serse, Tamerlano’s ‘A dispetto d’un volto ingrato’ and Leone’s ‘Nel mondo e nell’abisso’ from Tamerlano, Caleb’s ‘See the raging flames arise’ from Joshua, Demetrio’s ‘Sì tra i ceppi’ from Berenice, and the justifiably celebrated ‘Venti, turbini, prestate’ from Rinaldo are all sung with startling immediacy and compelling sense of drama.  Technically, Mr. Barragán-Géant storms through the coloratura passages with extraordinary flexibility, making even of the formidably challenging ‘Venti, turbini, prestate’ easy going.  Among these selections, only Leone’s aria from Tamerlano and Caleb’s explosive aria from the oratorio Joshua were composed for low male voices, but the superb technical acumen of Mr. Barragán-Géant’s singing ensures that even the arias composed for castrati—Senesino in the case of Giulio Cesare, Andrea Pacini in Tamerlano, Nicolini in Rinaldo, Domenico Annibali in Berenice, and Caffarelli in Serse—sound as though they were created specifically for his unique talents.  All of Cesare’s haughtiness is conveyed in ‘Presti omai l’Egizia terra,’ and the sting of Tamerlano’s fury emanates from every roulade in ‘A dispetto d’un volto ingrato.’

Wonderful as Mr. Barragán-Géant’s singing of the showpiece arias is, it is in his singing of the slower arias, those magnificent, time-halting expressions of life-or-death emotions at which Händel excelled, that his gifts sparkle most alluringly.  Meleagro’s arioso ‘Care selve,’ composed for the soprano castrato Gioacchino Conti and a recital favorite of singers as diverse as Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and Renata Tebaldi, is one of those melodic inventions so raptly beautiful that, like ‘Lascia ch’io pianga,’ it can sound coy.  Sung as Mr. Barragán-Géant sings it, without artifice, and of course remembering that the arioso is sung in Atalanta by a male character, it is grippingly effective.  The oft-hackneyed ‘Ombra mai fu’ is also here sung simply, Mr. Barragán-Géant finding the emotional core of Xerxes’ zany paean to his favorite plane tree.  Somnus’s ‘Leave me, loathsome light’ from Semele is one of Händel’s most glorious arias for a low male voice, and Mr. Barragán-Géant sings it superbly, though the descents into the vocal abyss are not entirely managed with ideal freedom.  First sung by alto castrato Antonio Bernacchi, Arsace’s ‘Ch’io parta?’ from Partenope is one of those moments in a Händel opera when life-changing sentiments suddenly erupt from music of sublime simplicity, and Mr. Barragán-Géant pours his own heart into expressing Arsace’s love for Rosmira.  ‘Vouchsafe, o Lord’ from Händel’s 1743 Dettingen Te Deum is sung with focus and intensity of expression, the voice elegantly sustaining Händel’s long-breathed phrasing.  The zenith of Mr. Barragán-Géant’s singing on Händel Insólito is his performance of ‘Cara sposa, amante cara’ from Rinaldo.  As Rinaldo laments the absence of his true love Almirena, Mr. Barragán-Géant bares his soul to the listener, his voice never sounding more beautiful than when singing of Rinaldo’s longing for his kidnapped wife.  So radiant is Händel’s music in ‘Cara sposa’ that, for the ten minutes of the aria’s duration, nothing else in the world matters except Rinaldo’s sorrow: so heartfelt is Mr. Barragán-Géant’s singing of the aria that whatever concerns complicate the listener’s life temporarily fall away, and for those few minutes composer, character, singer, and listener unite in a way that is possible only in music.

Händel Insólito is a recital that deserves to have been recorded with Les Arts Florissants, the Freiburger Barockorchester, or another of the period-instrumental ensembles that shine in the music of Händel.  Sadly, Classical Music and Opera are now more than ever sports for the privileged and well-connected, both for those who seek to make careers as artists and for those who hope to enjoy their work.  Having studied in his native Venezuela, Canada, the United States, and Britain, Emiliano Barragán-Géant has fortunately enjoyed opportunities both to refine his voice and to share it with appreciative audiences.  This recital of Händel arias is more enjoyable than many efforts by less gifted but more famous singers, but to an extent it seems an opportunity missed despite the remarkable level of artistic achievement.  It is unfortunate and dishearteningly ironic that, in an age in which the music of Händel is more widely appreciated than at any other time since the composer’s death, a recital of Händel arias as memorable as Händel Insólito is not promoted by a major record label under the auspices of which its captivating sounds would extend to all corners of the music-loving world.  Occasionally flawed but never deviating from absolute commitment to the music, Händel Insólito is an effort by a talented young singer who seeks incendiary dramatic and musical verisimilitude rather than cold perfection.  The same might be said of Händel’s operas, and Emiliano Barragán-Géant gets nearer to the composer’s heart than almost any other singer yet recorded.