01 February 2014

CD REVIEW: Antonio Mazzoni – ANTIGONO (M. Spyres, G. McGreevy, P. Lucciarini, A. Quintans, M. Hinojosa Montenegro, M. Oro; Dynamic CDS 7686/1-3)

Antonio Maria Mazzoni - ANTIGONO (Dynamic CDS 7686/1-3)

ANTONIO MARIA MAZZONI (1717 – 1785): Antigono—M. Spyres (Antigono), G. McGreevy (Berenice), P. Lucciarini (Demetrio), A. Quintans (Ismene), M. Hinojosa Montenegro (Clearco), M. Oro (Alessandro); Divino Sospiro; Enrico Onofri [Recorded ‘live’ in the Grande Auditorium of Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon, Portugal, on 21 and 22 June 2011; Dynamic CDS 7686/1-3; 3CD, 196:58; Available from Dynamic, Amazon, and major music retailers; distributed in the United States by NAXOS of America]

On 31 March 1755, a spectacular new opera house designed by celebrated Italian architect Giovanni Carlo Sicini da Bibiena, the Casa da Ópera do Paço da Ribeira (also called the Ópera do Tejo), was formally opened with a performance of a revised version of the Italian-born composer Davide Perez’s 1746 opera Alessandro nell’Indie.  Seven months later, on All Saints’ Day, the city of Lisbon was almost completely annihilated by an earthquake that, having also spawned fires throughout the city and a devastating tsunami, remains one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in human history.  With as many as a third of the population of Lisbon killed, the destruction of an opera house was hardly of any great importance, but from the perspective of modern musicology the loss of what was reputed to be one of the most exquisite theatres in Europe is of a significance akin to that of the bombing of the Wiener Staatsoper during World War II.  In its brief lifespan, the Ópera do Tejo presented only two operas, with a third in rehearsal at the time of the earthquake: the second and third of these were scores by Italian composer Antonio Maria Mazzoni.  Born and likely educated solely or at least substantially in Bologna, the young composer was accepted into his native city’s l’Accademia filarmonica as a tenor and was sufficiently admired to facilitate travels throughout Europe and correspondence—and perhaps studies—with the famous Padre Martini.  Furthermore, Mazzoni was the maestro di cembalo in the première of Gluck’s Il trionfo di Clelia that inaugurated Bologna’s Teatro Comunale in May 1763.  Following the successful première of his La clemenza di Tito on 6 June 1755, Mazzoni’s Antigono, a setting of a libretto by Pietro Metastasio that was regarded by his contemporaries as the author’s finest, went into rehearsal in October, with its first performance scheduled for 4 November.  Tragedy having struck Portugal three days before the intended première, there is no contemporary evidence to suggest that Antigono was ever performed during Mazzoni’s lifetime, so the 2011 production recorded by Dynamic using a modern edition of the score by Nicholas McNayr may well have been the opera’s first.  Whether here making its modern or its absolute première, Antigono is an opera that merits attention and admiration, and this recording preserves a performance that introduces the score to the 21st Century in barnstorming fashion.

Both chronology and his basic compositional idiom place Mazzoni in the generation of composers whose music spanned the period of transition between the late Baroque of Händel and Vivaldi and the Italian Classicism of Boccherini, Cimarosa, Jommelli, and Salieri.  Though Mozart was not born until almost three months after the thwarted première of Antigono, there are many passages in the score that display the progressive style often attributed almost solely to the young Mozart.  The fusion of Baroque and Classical elements is brought to the fore by the playing of Divino Sospiro, the enterprising period-instrument ensemble—thirty-three players strong for this performance, including the continuo complement—founded in 2003 by Italian conductor Massimo Mazzeo.  The basso continuo is provided with energy and imagination by Miguel Jalôto on harpsichord and organ, harpsichordist Riccardo Doni, harpist Margret Köll, and Pietro Prosser on theorbo, their playing individually and collectively enlivening secco recitatives and providing a sturdy foundation for the playing of Divino Sospiro.  Bolstered by generally excellent wind playing, Divino Sospiro give a splendidly stylish performance of Mazzoni’s score, maintaining flexibility and lean textures even in the music’s most daunting passages.  There are more than a few daunting passages, in fact, and the instrumentalists’ playing is consistently impressive.  A specialist in ‘transitional’ repertory like Antigono, Enrico Onofri is the principal conductor of Divino Sospiro, and the players respond to his leadership with fervor.  Maestro Onofri occasionally sets tempi that challenge the principals unnecessarily, but the cumulative effect of the rapid-fire bravura displays and hairpin turns in the drama is undeniably engaging.  It is obvious that Maestro Onofri has a keen ear both for instrumental timbres and for highlighting the inventive ways in which Mazzoni matched orchestral figurations with nuances of the texts of arias.  Maestro Onofri’s forthright approach to the score ensures that coloratura pyrotechnics are mostly put to expressive use, and he seeks the dramatic consequence even of scenes that are in danger of being overwhelmed by furious virtuosity.

Like the pair of operas that preceded it at the Ópera do Trejo, Antigono was to have been performed by perhaps the finest cast that could have been assembled in Europe in 1755—all of them but the singer of the title rôle castrati.  A tale of the typical operatic complications of a love triangle entangling the ruling houses of Egypt, Epirus, and Macedonia, Metastasio’s deliciously poetic text inspired Mazzoni to flights of musical fancy that make extraordinary demands of all of the singers’ techniques.  Argentine countertenor Martin Oro’s voice now seems to be produced with greater effort than in past, but his livewire dramatic instincts are undiminished.  Singing Alessandro, the King of Epirus [not to be confused with Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror], a rôle intended for the famous castrato Senesino, Mr. Oro has only one aria [in this edition of the score, at least], the passionate ‘Sai qual ardor m’accende’ in Act Two, which he sings powerfully, but his lively interplay with his colleagues in recitatives is very enjoyable, his scheming as engaging as his sincerity.  To Clearco, captain of Alexander’s guard and Demetrius’s friend, Mazzoni gave two sharply-contrasted arias, ‘Di due ciglia il bel sereno’ in Act Two and ‘Guerrier, che i colpi affetti’ in Act Three, both of which Catalan soprano María Hinojosa Montenegro sings with lovely, firm tone and keen involvement.  Like Mr. Oro, she, too, brings complete commitment to her singing of recitatives.

Ismene, the ‘other woman’ of sorts, Antigonus’s daughter, is naturally in love with his enemy, Alexander, and her predicament inspired Mazzoni to write for her some of the best music in the opera.  Musically and dramatically, Ismene has much in common with Ilia in Mozart’s Idomeneo, and Mazzoni obviously sympathized as deeply with Ismene as Mozart did with Ilia.  From her first aria in Act One, ‘Di vantarsi ha ben ragione,’ Portuguese soprano Ana Quintans sings sublimely, the tone compact but glimmering with emotion.  The wounded bitterness of Ismene’s aria in Act Two, ‘Perché due cori insieme,’draws from Ms. Quintans a flood of pained utterance that sparkles in the silvery light of her timbre.  The gentle irony of ‘Che pretendi, Amor tiranno,’ Ismene’s aria in Act Three, suggests that the character’s joyful spirit is dampened but not crushed by misfortune, and the element of girlishness in Ms. Quintans’s singing is disarming.  Ms. Quintans here gives the kind of performance that inspires questions of why she is not more frequently heard on disc and gratitude for the preservation of her unfailingly elegant singing of Ismene’s music in equal measures.  Gratefully heard, too, is the singing of Italian soprano Pamela Lucciarini as Demetrio, whose music was composed for another great castrato, Caffarelli.  Demetrio is introduced in Act One with the anguished ‘A torto spergiuro,’ in which he declares his quest to preserve his honor at all costs: Ms. Lucciarini’s singing of the aria conveys determination and a sense of dignity, unsettled only momentarily by circumstance.  The curtain is brought down on Act One by Demetrio’s ‘Contro il destin,’ a martial number as heart-poundingly effective in context as Manrico’s cabaletta ‘Di quella pira’ in Verdi’s Il trovatore.  Ms. Lucciarini sings the aria with impressive florid technique and broad strokes of heroism: the vocal range is that of a female soprano, but the dramatic profile is that of a very proud prince intent on fulfilling his destiny and filial duty.  The aria ‘Piango, è ver’ in Act Two is captivatingly sung, Ms. Lucciarini’s voicing of the phrase ‘ma permesso è al cor d’un figlio questo tenero dover’—‘the heart of a son is permitted this tenderness’—exuding waves of legitimate emotion.  Act Two ends with the opera’s sole duet, ‘Non temer/Per pietà,’ in which Demetrio and Berenice, whom he loves despite the fact that she is betrothed to his father, are parted by their shared fate, and Ms. Lucciarini caresses Demetrio’s vocal lines with tones of quiet despair.  ‘Già che morir degg’io,’ the aria in which the condemned Demetrio bids Berenice farewell in Act Three, is sung by Ms. Lucciarini with great depth of feeling.  Throughout the performance, Ms. Lucciarini sings with ringing abandon, clearing all of the hurdles in Demetrio’s music with flair.

One of the most insightful interpreters of Baroque repertory, especially Händel’s operatic heroines, British soprano Geraldine McGreevy here gives a resplendent performance of Mazzoni’s Berenice.  The character’s opening aria, ‘Io non so se amor tu sei,’ establishes Berenice as the opera’s most sensitive character, and Ms. McGreevy imbues her singing with a wealth of sentiment without ever placing a single note beyond the boundaries of perfect stylishness and good taste.  The potent expressivity of ‘È pena troppo barbara’ is delivered with both forcefulness and the inherent augustness of a princess, Ms. McGreevy’s timbre regal but winningly feminine.  There is an air of haughtiness in Ms. McGreevy’s delivery of ‘Basta così,’ but she joins Ms. Lucciarini with tones of growing affection in ‘Non temer/Per pietà.’  ‘Berenice che fai?’ in Act Three is the most engrossing scene in the opera, and the music’s refined but enraptured articulation of Berenice’s edge-of-calamity situation is limned graciously by Ms. McGreevy’s lofty phrasing.  There are a few notes at the top of Ms. McGreevy’s range that are not produced with ideal freedom, and there are passages in which she sounds slightly uncomfortable, perhaps because the tempi make unreasonable demands on her breath control.  Ms. McGreevy remains a marvelously communicative artist, however, and she provides moment after moment of luminous singing.

In 1755, the renowned tenor Anton Raaf was at the height of his career, his artistry having earned him a prominent place in the milieu of the fledgling Ópera do Trejo.  Though Raaf’s departure from Lisbon before Antigono went into rehearsal necessitated the title rôle being entrusted to the slightly older Gregorio Babbi, it is likely that Mazzoni composed the part with the special characteristics of Raaf’s technique in mind.  The prodigious bravura demands of Mozart’s first version of the aria ‘Fuor del mar’ suggest that Raaf remained on splendid form a quarter-century later when, at the age of sixty-six, he created the eponymous hero in Idomeneo, and Mazzoni’s music for the name part in Antigono combines the daunting coloratura familiar from the tenor rôles in Händel’s and Vivaldi’s operas with the huge compass of the tessitura of French haute-contre rôles, creating a musical profile of almost absurd difficulty.  Raaf and Babbi were surely phenomenal virtuosi, but it is unlikely that either of these esteemed gentlemen could have sung the part of Antigono more stupendously than American tenor Michael Spyres.  Phrasing from the start with the regal authority of a tormented monarch, Mr. Spyres seizes the reigns of this performance at his first entrance and maintains control until the last note.  In Antigono’s first aria, ‘Tu m’involasti un regno,’ Mr. Spyres’s bravura singing is staggering, and his traversal of three octaves—ascending in the cadenza of the second strophe to an incredible G5 (a fifth above the traditional tenor top C), produced with a perfectly-judged voix mixte—is marked by the uniform attractiveness of his tone.  Mr. Spyres’s singing of ‘Sfogati, o ciel, se ancora’ is no less assured, and his account of ‘Dì, che ricuso il trono’ gleams with proud nobility.  Mr. Spyres’s singing is consistently enticing, even in the extremes of Antigono’s tessitura, and his imaginative treatment of recitatives adds an enjoyable dose of testosterone to the performance.  Breath-taking as his stratospheric top notes are, it is the evenness of his tone that is the most memorable aspect of his singing.  A complete artist, Mr. Spyres appropriately dominates the performance.

This recording of Antigono confirms both that Mazzoni’s music deserves to be heard and why it is almost certain to remain a rare guest in the world’s theatres.  Even among the ranks of today’s best artists, singers capable of doing justice to the vocal writing in Antigono are extremely rare, and the greatest accomplishment of this performance of the opera is the universally high quality of the singing.  There is much wonderful music in Mazzoni’s score, and the clarity of the recorded sound provided by Dynamic and the paucity of distracting audience and stage noises allow the full gamut of Mazzoni’s inventions to be heard and appreciated.  What is most immediately heard and appreciated, though, is the singing of a cast who charismatically triumph in music of more than just historical importance.  The resurrection of Antigono is a fitting musical memorial to the thousands of people whose lives were lost in the earthquake that uprooted the opera’s first production, and this recording is a compelling document of the singing of a matchless tenor in his early prime.