29 March 2014

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti – RITA (DEUX HOMMES ET UNE FEMME) [K. Karnéus, B. Banks, C. Maltman; Opera Rara ORC50]

Gaetano Donizetti - RITA (DEUX HOMMES ET UNE FEMME) [Opera Rara ORC50]

GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Rita (Deux Hommes et une Femme)—Katarina Karnéus (Rita), Barry Banks (Pepé), Christopher Maltman (Gasparo); The Hallé; Sir Mark Elder, conductor [Recorded at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK, in September 2012; Opera Rara ORC50; 1CD, 63:43; Available from Opera Rara, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

The history of Gaetano Donizetti’s Rita is a cautionary tale of the myriad of non-musical machinations that can keep an opera from the stage despite its merits. Poor Rita fell victim to perhaps the most ferocious circumstances imaginable, those of quarrelling relatives. In fact, the manic tribulations endured by Rita in the two decades between its completion in 1841 and its first performance in 1860 could almost have been the inspiration for the libretto of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi! The product at least in part of a chance encounter with Gilbert Vaëz, who contributed to the French libretti of Lucie de Lammermoor and La favorite, Rita provided Donizetti with a stopgap to distract him from the anxiety created by the wait for delivery of a long-awaited libretto for a commission from La Scala. It may have been a short-lived diversion: Vaëz contended that the famously prodigious composer toiled over the opera for eight whole days, and Donizetti’s correspondence—excerpted in the informative liner notes by Francesco Bellotto, who collaborated on the critical edition of the score—hints that Rita’s gestational period may indeed have been brief, though precisely when in his creative chronology that period may have occurred remains open to interpretation. At any rate, with the completion of the score began a path to performance that stumbled over obstacles of opera house politics, competing interests, and feuding heirs. When Rita finally reached the stage of Paris’s Opéra-Comique in 1860, it was not in Donizetti’s and Vaëz’s original form, Deux hommes et une femme, but with the subtitle Le mari battu, and after the traumatic journey the score endured it may well have felt like a ‘beaten husband.’ The handful of performances of the opera in the years since its première have mostly offered the public bowdlerizations of the Italian translation that Donizetti prepared for a production at Naples’s Teatro del Fondo that never came to fruition. At long last, Opera Rara—ever a source of innovative efforts at revisiting rather than revising overlooked gems of bel canto—have given Rita an opportunity to parade before the footlights in the clothes her composer cut for her, and what a chic lass she proves to be!

The authentic Rita has the Gallic tartness of citron pressé and much in common with the spirit of Auber’s Le toréador and even Ravel’s L’heure espagnole. Believing that her rightful husband Gasparo has been drowned at sea (and wasting no effort on mourning the loss), Rita has married the ne’er-do-well Pepé, who suffers every sort of indignity at her hands. Denied his presumed watery escape from Rita, Gasparo returns to his wife’s inn, fired by hope, to verify the veracity of a rumor that she has died. Pepé may not be the brightest stella in the cielo, but when he recognizes the name on Gasparo’s passport he concocts a plan: how better to unload an unwanted wife than by a timely reunion with her miraculously restored-to-life husband? The problem is that Gasparo already has designs on a Canadian girl. When the matter is not resolved via gaming and drawing straws, Gasparo provokes a fight he knows he cannot and does not want to win. Having beaten one lout of a husband and been beaten by the other (abuse begets abuse, after all), Rita is beguiled by what she perceives as Pepé’s sudden burst of macchismo, and thus reconciled with the lesser of two evils she is content to allow Gasparo to stay dead, married—unhappily, it seems certain—under the Maple Leaf. All’s well that ends well, then; not so well, perhaps, but quiet for a while, at least. In the hands of many composers, this story might well have inspired a tedious, heartless farce, but Donizetti crafted a delicious romp filled with music of top quality that makes the score a worthy little sister of La fille du régiment.

​Having set about the business of righting the wrongs to which Rita was subjected during the past 160 years, Opera Rara sealed the deal by recording a performance in which every piece of the musical puzzle falls into place with naturalness and rollicking high spirits. Under the confident, consistently stylish leadership of Sir Mark Elder, the impeccably-trained musicians of The Hallé play with such sheer fun that they might be mistaken for the residents of an Italian opera house pit—except, that is, for the indefatigable accuracy of their playing. Nothing that Donizetti asks of them is an insurmountable challenge, and Maestro Elder makes no demand that they do not meet as though it were as easy as playing scales. Owing to the dedication of both orchestra and conductor, a thoroughly engaging atmosphere is established: the piquant aromas and clinking glasses of a roadside inn ripple through the performance. Maestro Elder conducts with an easy grasp of Donizetti’s style, and the dependable sophistication of his pacing of the performance enables the cast to focus on getting inside their rôles. Rita was created by Constance-Caroline Fauré-Lefèbvre, who sang the old woman Taven and the trousers part of the shepherd Andreloun in the première of Gounod’s Mireille and was a veteran of Opéra-Comique productions of operas by Adam, Auber, and Meyerbeer. A more suitable 21st-Century stand-in for Fauré-Lefèbvre than Swedish mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus could not have been found. In her opening number, ‘De mon auberge ainsi,’ Ms. Karnéus sets the tone of the performance at once: mastering every technical aspect of her music, she portrays a stern but not unfeeling woman very much in full governance of her own fate. Dramatically, if there is a defect in her performance it is that it seems unlikely that any man would have given this Rita a beating without receiving a trouncing in return. Most importantly, Ms. Karnéus meets every requirement of Rita’s music and does so with technique, charisma, and vocal beauty to spare. Seagoing Husband Number One, Gasparo, is sung with zest and a healthy dose of philandering swagger by baritone Christopher Maltman. Through vocal means alone, he creates a character who seems sure to have tormented poor Rita and given her a few blows for her trouble. Mr. Maltman’s vibrato sounds looser than in past, perhaps a result of microphone placement, but the muscular magnetism of his singing is unimpeded. His account of Gasparo’s Couplets, ‘Mon ménage pour modèle,’ a statement of his credo on the ‘appropriate’ treatment of women (beat them if they need it, but never knock them out), is sung with snarling good humor and ringing conviction. Husband Number Two, the pushover Pepé, is cannily sung by tenor Barry Banks, whose slender and slightly nasal but hearty voice rockets through Donizetti’s vocal lines with sparkle and wit. He sings Pepé’s air ‘Tra la la la la la la la la la…Je suis joyeux comme un pinçon’ with exuberance that he can barely contain, his delivery of the lines ‘Moi je suis veuf…sans que ma femme ait rendu l’âme’ (‘I am a widower…though my wife has not yet given up the ghost’) bursting with bumptious self-satisfaction. Mr. Banks remains one of the finest exponents of high-flying bel canto tenor rôles, and his Pepé is far more than a weak-willed sap. All three principals display admirable diction, spoken and sung, and there is none of the shameless mugging in their delivery of the dialogue that can cheapen comedy. It is in the ensembles that the cast sing most persuasively. Rita’s duet with Pepé, ‘C’est elle, je frémis,’ simmers with bumbling panic, annoyance, and exasperation, and both Ms. Karnéus and Mr. Banks exhibit perfect comic timing. The duets for Pepé and Gasparo, ‘Il me vient une idée’ and ‘Ô chère âme! Chère femme,’ bristle with subtly menacing sparring, but there can only be so much mettle in a fight in which neither combatant wants to prevail. The facility with which Mr. Banks and Mr. Maltman blend their very different voices is a testament to both gentlemen’s artistry. The centerpiece of the opera is the trio in which each character’s schemes are unveiled, ‘Il est manchot,’ and the singers relish the opportunity to trade vocal barbs with the jocularity of Savoyards. The curtain is brought down handily with ‘Mais il faut à mon programme,’ in which Gasparo and Pepé resolve their dispute—to their satisfaction, at least, if not quite to Rita’s. In comparison with Donizetti’s great masterpieces, this is an insubstantial entertainment, but the singing of these two men and one woman gives substantial pleasure.

Whatever the dimensions of its score, no opera by Donizetti thrives without excellent singing, and Katarina Karnéus, Barry Banks, and Christopher Maltman give Rita a performance that finally gives the opera the unblemished outing it deserves. They even manage to make of a free-willed harridan, a pusillanimous idiot, and a intemperate womanizer interesting, three-dimensional, and affable characters. In the end, this is a performance in which it seems that each character gets what she or he deserves: laudably, so, too, do Donizetti and his long-suffering Rita.

CD REVIEW: VERDI – Opera Arias (Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano; ORFEO C 885 141 A)

VERDI - Krassimira Stoyanova, soprano (ORFEO C 885 141 A)

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Verdi – Arias from Aida, Il trovatore, Giovanna d’Arco, Un ballo in maschera, Luisa Miller, La traviata, Don Carlo, La forza del destino, and OtelloKrassimira Stoyanova, soprano; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Pavel Baleff, conductor [Recorded in Studio 1, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich, Germany, 1 – 6 July 2013; ORFEO C 885 141 A; 1CD, 74:12; Available from Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Violetta in La traviata, Liù in Turandot, Nedda in Pagliacci, Micaëla in Carmen, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Mimì in La bohème, and Desdemona in Otello: for the few sopranos capable of singing such varied music at all, this array of rôles might reasonably represent the span of an entire career. For the remarkable Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, however, this is merely the measure of a dozen years’ work at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Her 2003 performance of the title rôle in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena with Opera Orchestra of New York was described in the New York Times as ‘consistent and deeply felt,’ and her portrayal of the wronged queen at the Wiener Staatsoper in 2013 revealed that neither the consistency of her vocalism nor the deep feeling of her singing has been at all diminished by the intervening decade. Her uncompromising singing and searing dramatic energy in Covent Garden’s 2012 production of Yevgeny Onegin left no doubt that Tchaikovsky’s genius was fired in a very personal way by Tatyana’s innocence, sexual awakening, and ultimate dedication to duty. In Vienna, where she is as much prima donna assoluta as any soprano in the past quarter-century has had any legitimate claim to be at any opera house in the world, she recently sang Dvořák’s Rusalka with fulsome tone that summoned memories of Gabriela Beňačková. Whether singing the title rôle in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, Rachel in Halévy’s La Juive, Alice Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff, or Richard Strauss’s Ariadne, she finds within her voice the unique sounds that each composer’s music requires. In her quest to seek the inspiration for her performances of such a broad repertory in the scores and her individual responses to them, she is an old-fashioned soprano in the very best sense: she identifies the emotional core of a character and trusts her technique to provide a musical foundation upon which a moving theatrical experience can be built. The nine rôles sampled on Verdi are approached with all the hallmarks of this fascinating singer’s artistry: technical acumen, dramatic poise, and emotional directness. In comparison with singers of past generations, this is not a conventional Verdi soprano voice, but, in comparison with today’s singers, who sings Verdi’s soprano rôles more satisfyingly?

Enjoyment of even a magnificent vocal recital disc is undermined by lifeless accompaniment and conducting, and Ms. Stoyanova is fortunate to enjoy the accompaniment of the Münchner Rundfunkorchester and the conducting of Pavel Baleff. The Rundfunkorchester players consistently produce stirring sounds, their command of the shifting idioms of Verdi’s music, spanning forty-two years of his long career, proving so natural that it seems that the current of Verdian style flows as perceptibly in the Isar as in the Po or the Tevere. Sonorities are matched to the sound world conjured by each aria, and the accuracy of intonation displayed by all sections of the orchestra provides ideal support for Ms. Stoyanova’s singing. Maestro Baleff achieves the delicate balance of shaping each aria with attention both to its specific musical requirements and to the broader context of its operatic setting and avoiding the generalization that thwarts the dramatic aspirations of many recital discs. In a great performance, a great singer can rise above catastrophes in the orchestra pit, but Ms. Stoyanova has the good fortune on this disc to have an orchestra and conductor who complement the substantial felicities of her singing rather than distracting from them.

From the first notes of her soaring account of ‘Ritorna vincitor,’ Ms. Stoyanova creates an Aida who is alluringly feminine but not to be trifled with. The bassoon’s support of the vocal line highlights the burnished quality of Ms. Stoyanova’s lower register, which she manages throughout the performances on this disc with admirable evenness that is maintained by a general avoidance of chest register. The fortissimo top B♭ is sung with impressive freedom, but the pinnacle of Ms. Stoyanova’s performance is her command of line in ‘Numi, pietà,’ in which she delivers the climactic ascent to top A♭, the triplet figurations, and the turn with complete mastery of Verdian style. Both of Leonora’s arias from Il trovatore are included, and Ms. Stoyanova’s technical aplomb in the dramatic coloratura requirements of the music proves very enjoyable. Trills do not come naturally to her, but she makes credible efforts at producing the sustained trills in ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee.’ She wisely prefers the oppure in the aria’s closing bars, taking the ascent to top C with distinction but eschewing Verdi’s written phrase cresting on D♭. The singing of the ascending chromatic scale in the cadenza is slightly pedestrian, but the loveliness of the top B♭s counts for much. The gloomy atmosphere of ‘Tacea la notte’ suits Ms. Stoyanova’s basic tonal color, and she infuses her performance of the aria with a sense of breathless tension that never undermines her superb breath control. Neither she nor the orchestra observe Verdi’s pianissimo marking on the phrase beginning with ‘e versi melanconici,’ undermining the effectiveness of the indicated crescendo on the phrase leading to the top B♭, but the unease of the music is compellingly conveyed. The top C in the cadenza is slightly wiry but secure and accurate of pitch. The cabaletta ‘Di tale amor’ is sung with power and grace, the staccati spot on and integrated into the vocal line with consummate skill. The repeated trills on F at the top of the staff are only sketched, however, and here Ms. Stoyanova’s generally clear diction noticeably falters. Nevertheless, both of Leonora’s arias are given effective performances that are far superior to the singing of most sopranos active in Verdi repertory today.

‘O fatidica foresta’ from Giovanna d’Arco, a bucolic piece in which Giovanna reminisces about the former simplicity of her life, is beautifully sung by Ms. Stoyanova, her performance crowned with a ravishing top A♭. Contemplation is central to the pair of arias from Don Carlo, as well, and Elisabetta’s ‘Non pianger, mia compagna, sung to the Countess of Aremberg after Filippo has banished her from court for having left his consort unattended, is one of the most radiantly-sung selections on the disc. The sadness in Ms. Stoyanova’s singing is tempered by a visionary sense of Elisabetta returning vicariously to her native France through her exiled lady-in-waiting. Elisabetta’s monologue ‘Tu che la vanità conosce,’ perhaps Verdi’s single most inspired scene for soprano, is sung with apt majesty, Ms. Stoyanova reaching great heights of dramatic expression with her confident negotiations of the music’s mood changes. She is given an exceptional orchestral setting from which to emerge, the mysterious, slightly menacing tones of the horns seeming almost like primordial sounds borrowed from the opening pages of Das Rheingold. From the opening F♯ at the top of the staff, the soprano phrases with natural understanding of the ways in which Verdi employed vocal intervals to increase dramatic momentum. The phrases in the middle of the voice in which Elisabetta sings of her elicit love for Carlo, her stepson, are injected with warmth and tenderness, and the restatement of the principal theme in the aria’s final section builds to ringing top A♯s in the coda. Nuanced realization of changes of emotional pace also renders Ms. Stoyanova’s performance of ‘Pace, pace, mio dio’ from La forza del destino an eminently satisfying experience. Here, the flute, harp, and cellos build an eloquent foundation upon which the singer unfurls long-breathed melodic lines of great beauty. If there is not quite enough dynamic contrast in the long-held opening ‘pace,’ it is sung with an absolute steadiness that compensates. The critical pianissimo top notes are unerringly placed, and the cries of ‘fatalità’ are voiced with credible trepidation. The concluding top B♭ is a brilliant tone, perfectly produced.

The sustained dramatic expression that Ms. Stoyanova brings to Desdemona’s ‘Canzone del salice’ (‘Willow Song’) and ‘Ave Maria’ from Otello is arresting, the tone at once tragic and gleaming, and the contrast with the equal dramatic impetus that she lends to the title heroine’s ‘Tu puniscimi, o Signore’ from Luisa Miller is telling. Ms. Stoyanova’s adherence to Verdi’s rhythms—a sole fermata on a top A where none exists in the score notwithstanding—reveals the intelligence with which Verdi retooled traditional elements of bel canto for new dramatic purposes. Only the approach to the top B in the aria’s cadenza is ungainly, and for this the composer must share the blame. Amelia’s ‘Morrò, ma prima in grazia’ is gorgeously sung, the singer managing to convey in the aria’s four minutes so much of the character’s misfortune. The solo cello ‘duets’ with Ms. Stoyanova to heartrending effect, and the darkness of the singer’s timbre is again matched by the orchestral playing. The aria’s top C♭ is powerfully but gracefully voiced.

If none of the other selections on this disc passed muster, Ms. Stoyanova’s exquisite performance of Violetta’s ‘Addio del passato’ from La traviata would ensure her legacy as one of the 21st Century’s finest Verdi singers. Preceded by as effective a reading of Germont’s letter as has ever been recorded, with no stagey melodrama marring the simplicity of the letter’s text, she sings the aria in a voice already touched by death but also suffused with unaffected resilience and hope. From Germont’s letter she has received what she theretofore lacked—a reason to live. Few singers convey this shift in Violetta’s will as palpably as Ms. Stoyanova does on this disc. The poignant repetitions in the melodic line are employed as indications of Violetta’s strengthening resolve, but the exhaustion that Ms. Stoyanova portrays in the dramatically desperate but vocally assured top As at the ends of both stanzas leaves no doubt that Violetta’s renewed desire for life has come too late. Strangely, though, there is something enormously comforting in Ms. Stoyanova’s singing: hers is neither a fatalistic nor a delusional Violetta clinging to hopeless joy. Rather, she is a good-hearted woman seeking happiness wherever she can find it and accepting sadness as the price that sometimes must be paid for carefree moments. In many performances of La traviata, ‘Addio del passato’ goes for nothing because Violettas either lack the vocal resources to sing the music with the understated intensity that it demands or choke the scene with contrived efforts at manufacturing tragedy. Ms. Stoyanova’s luminous, uncomplicated singing finds the tragedy that already exists in the music. Nothing more is required.

When the fortunes of many of the world’s opera houses rely so heavily upon the operas of Verdi, it seems counterintuitive that the first fourteen years of the 21st Century have been populated by so few singers capable of doing the composer’s soprano heroines justice. Perhaps Verdi’s operas have in recent years become like Shakespeare’s plays: modern audiences acknowledge them as important works of art without truly understanding the qualities that contribute to their greatness. Versatility among modern singers has often produced artists of basic competence but no true individuality or identification with a particular repertory. The versatility that Krassimira Stoyanova has been displayed in her international career to date is little short of miraculous, but her singing on Verdi verifies what audiences throughout the world have observed: hers is not the lush voice of a Muzio, Ponselle, Tebaldi, or Arroyo, but it is an instrument of great quality over which she exercises near-perfect control. These technical qualities to her credit, she is an artist who finds in Verdi’s heroines women with whom she connects with personality and passion. A soprano can hardly be a prima donna assoluta without a few Verdian arrows in her quiver, and those that Krassimira Stoyanova fires at listeners both in opera houses and on this disc are sharpened by incisive singing and reliably find their targets, whether launched from Joan of Arc’s France or Desdemona’s Venice.

26 March 2014

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach – JOHANNES-PASSION (J. Gilchrist, M. Rose, E. Watts, S. Connolly, A. Kennedy, C. Purvues; AAM Records AAM002)

Johann Sebastian Bach - JOHANNES-PASSION, BWV 245 (AAM Records AAM002)

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): Johannes-Passion, BWV 245 (1724 version)—James Gilchrist (Evangelist), Matthew Rose (Christ), Ashley Riches (Pilatus), Elizabeth Watts (soprano soloist), Sarah Connolly (alto soloist), Andrew Kennedy (tenor soloist), Christopher Purves (bass soloist), Philippa Hyde (Ancilla), Richard Latham (Petrus), James Geer (Servus); Choir of the Academy of Ancient Music; Academy of Ancient Music; Richard Egarr, direction and harpsichord [Recorded at Saint Jude-on-the-Hill, London, UK, 1 – 5 April 2013; AAM Records AAM002; 2CD, 104:37; Available from AAM, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Two of the few things upon which virtually all people with musical inclinations agree are that Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the supreme artistic geniuses of both his own time and all of human history and that his Passions are the monumental foundations upon which the subsequent masterworks of Western choral music were constructed. In the esteem of those for whom Mozart is superfluous, Beethoven bombastic, Brahms uninspired, and Mahler pompous, Bach remains original and undeniably important; a talent slightly too pedagogical, perhaps, but a legitimate and individual one nonetheless. The problem with Bach's Passions is that, since they were rediscovered and returned to circulation by Mendelssohn in the first half of the 19th Century, neither musicians nor musicologists have known quite what to make of them. Just enough details of the circumstances of their genesis are known with relative certainty to empower substantive performances, but the many unanswered questions leave holes in the understanding of these enthralling works that generations of performers and scholars have sought to fill with a dizzying array of ideas. As the catalysts of progress, ideas are invaluable, but in the context of recordings they grow thin upon repeated hearing. The performance nourished by ideas alone is prone to weakness, and the discriminating listener may ultimately prefer robust ignorance to an informed anemia. This recording of Bach's Johannes-Passion by the venerated Academy of Ancient Music thus fills an unspoken need. The project has no shortage of ideas, but the animation and organic flow of the performance liberate the listener to follow the current of the music without feeling compelled to take notes for a quiz on 'authentic' performance practices. There is more to authenticity than gut strings, valveless horns, and unequal temperament. There is authenticity of spirit, of course, and there can be little doubt that Bach's underlying agenda in the Johannes-Passion was to bring the congregations for whom the music was created closer to their faith. The apparent agenda of this recording is to bring the listener closer to Bach, and all of the tools of historically-informed practices are merely the mechanics by which musical wonders are wrought. It is a parable of sorts: filling the mind with the academia of period-appropriate techniques enables commendable stylishness, but only opening the heart to the intricacies of the music beyond key signatures and chord progressions permits the kind of connection between composer and performer than can be discerned by the listener for whom whether the orchestra is tuned to a = 392 Hz or a = 415 Hz is no more significant than the color of the conductor's hair. Few performances and even fewer recordings of Bach's music meaningfully unite ideas and ideals, and in its mastery of this elusive chemistry alone this recording of the Johannes-Passion is an artistic triumph.

Directed from the harpsichord by Richard Egarr, whose mastery of the keyboard music of Bach has been revealed in acclaimed recordings of the great works of that repertoire, the performances of the choristers and instrumentalists confirm that the Academy of Ancient Music’s long-standing adroitness in Bach’s music has only grown more impressive in the forty-one years since the ensemble’s founding. Joining Mr. Egarr, organist Alastair Ross, harpsichordist Jan Waterfield, and lutenist William Carter form a continuo battery that propels the performance from peak to peak without momentum ever being sacrificed to effects imposed upon rather than drawn from the score. The string playing is consistently warm-toned and formidably secure of intonation, the blends achieved among the violins, viola, violone, and cello creating walls of sound in extroverted passages and soulfully delicate sonorities in moments of greatest feeling. Reiko Ichese’s playing of the viola da gamba obbligato in ‘Es ist vollbracht’ is gorgeous, and the viole d’amore are played with eloquent virtuosity by Pavlo Beznosiuk and Jane Rogers. The glowing tone that Joseph Crouch coaxes from his cello in the bass aria ‘Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen’ creates a compelling dialogue with the singer, and the wind players—Rachel Brown on flute, Alfredo Bernardini on oboe and oboe da caccia, Lars Henriksson on oboe and oboe d’amore, and Ursula Leveaux on bassoon—give performances of uncompromising excellence. Despite the presence of many accomplished period-instrument ensembles on today’s Early Music scene, few performances of either of Bach’s canonical Passions enjoy orchestral playing of the unvarying quality offered by the Academy of Ancient Music players, but it is nothing less than the superb choral and solo singing deserve.

One of the most heated debates in Baroque music involves contrasting arguments about the sizes of choirs that are ideal for Bach’s music. In recent years, the prevailing preference in performances (and recordings) of the cantatas and Passions, rooted in aggressive scholarship that has focused on cryptic markings in Bach’s manuscripts and the often extravagant complexities of his contrapuntal writing that are so difficult for larger choirs to articulate cleanly, has been for one-to-a-part or similarly small ensembles. Among the few direct or incidental details of Bach’s professional life that are beyond question are the facts that, during his tenure in Leipzig, Bach significantly expanded the choir school over which he presided [the Thomanerchor, the standing choir of the Thomaskirche—one of the four churches of which he was de facto Music Director in his capacity as Thomaskantor—employed sixteen boy choristers at the time of Bach’s death] and that the spaces for which his Passions were composed were anything but small. Anyone who knows Bach’s Passions and has stood in the Nikolaikirche, where the Johannes-Passion was first performed in 1724, or the Thomaskirche can but marvel at the supposition that, even if supplemented by the soloists, a mere handful of voices filled these sanctuaries with the immense sounds that his orchestrations suggest that Bach wanted in the powerful opening chorus and turba numbers. Sixteen strong for this recording, the dimensions of the AAM Choir incorporate scholarship with a level-headed realization of the needs of the music. The choristers launch the performance with a persuasive account of ‘Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm in allen Landen herrlich ist,’ the bold sounds that they produce filling Bach’s vocal lines excitingly. The cutthroat intensity of their singing of ‘Jesum von Nazareth’ is thrilling. Starting with a poised, credibly congregational account of ‘O große Lieb, o Lieb ohn alle Maße,’ the choristers bring fervor but touching simplicity to the chorales. Their singing of ‘Christus, der uns selig macht’ at the start of Part Two pulses with guilt, and the phrasing in ‘Ach großer König, groß zu allen Zeiten’ underscores the awe of the text. The irony conveyed in ‘Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig’ is bracing, and the sheer brutality of ‘Kreuzige, kreuzige’ creates unnerving tension. In ‘Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen’ and ‘Mein teuer Heiland, laß dich fragen,’ the bass arias with chorus, the Choir’s singing is spellbinding. Ending the performance with the same energy and wide-ranging expressivity with which it began, the choristers sing ‘Ach Herr, laß dein lieb Engelein’ spiritedly. It is not often that a recording of any dramatic work, sacred or secular, plays out with the same impact that it might brandish in a live performance, but it also is not often that a choir sings Bach’s music with the integrity and unpretentious artistry that AAM’s choristers devote to this performance of Johannes-Passion.

Completing the circuit established by the exceptional performances of the orchestra and choir, the solo singing strikes electric sparks that ignite the fuel generated by their colleagues’ probing musicianship. The smaller parts of the Ancilla, Petrus, and the Servus are taken with distinction by soprano Philippa Hyde, baritone Richard Latham, and tenor James Geer, each of whom gives an assured performance of music that is often sung inadequately. Baritone Ashley Riches sings commanding as Pilatus, his firm voice, burly timbre, and broadly-inflected delivery of text ably conveying Pilate’s pride, indignation, exasperation, and ultimate bewilderment in his judgment of Christ. His singing of Pilate’s ‘Nehmet ihr ihn hin und kreuziget ihn; denn ich finde keine Schuld an ihm’ crackles with annoyance with the single-mindedness of the crowd, and the cynicism of ‘Sehet, das ist euer König’ is depicted with a striking darkening of the tone. Christopher Purves artfully adapts his Herculean voice to the scale of Bach’s music, and his technique proves equal to the most strenuous demands of the bass arias. He sings ‘Betrachte, meine Seel, mit ängstlichem Vergnügen’ with dignity, and his performances of both of the arias with chorus are subtle but gratifyingly red-blooded. One of the most elegant young artists of his generation, tenor Andrew Kennedy sings ‘Ach, mein Sinn, wo willt du endlich hin’ with passion that seems to issue directly from a broken heart, his beautiful timbre suffused with torment derived from the text. ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ is sung with similar insightfulness, and the arioso ‘Mein Herz, indem die ganze Welt bei Jesu Leiden gleichfalls leidet’ glistens with sadness and shame, Mr. Kennedy cladding the phrase ‘was willst du deines Ortes tun’ in his most incandescent tones. Having devoted much of her creative energy during recent seasons to denser music like that of Mahler and Richard Strauss has only deepened the flair and dramatic concentration with which mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly sings the music of Bach. The naturalness of her phrasing in tandem with the oboes in ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sünden’ is peerless, and she wittily uses the rhythmic figurations to impart a sense of the freedom evoked in the text. The profundity that Ms. Connolly brings to her performance of ‘Es ist vollbracht,’ the weight of feeling never upsetting her preservation of the integrity of the vocal line, is wrenching. The breadth of sorrow is tempered by a captivating element of spiritual victory, communicated by the unsentimental simplicity of Ms. Connolly’s utterance and the unassailable pulchritude of her voice. Soprano Elizabeth Watts aspires to Ms. Connolly’s accomplishments in phrasing with her assured performance of the aria with flute ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls,’ which she manages with bright tone and precision. She sings ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren’—one of Bach’s most beautiful arias for soprano—with confidence and commitment, shaping the phrase ‘dein Jesu ist tot’ with poised dignity that reaches the heart without indulging in unseemly sentimentality.

The finest interpreters of the rôles of Christ and the Evangelist have found in Bach’s music the struggles, suffering, and resilience of men, not symbols or archetypes. Among British singers, perhaps no bass has come nearer to perfection in his portrayal of Christ than Gwynne Howell. Making even the somber authority of his singing a component of an affecting vulnerability, bass Matthew Rose rivals Howell’s heroic but refreshingly human performance. Mr. Rose is a Christ who sounds genuinely hurt by the accusations he faces, and there is an acutely emotive suggestion of weariness in his performance. This is a Christ unafraid to express doubt, fear, and uncertainty—and, thus, one of very personal charisma and relevance. In ‘Stecke dein Schwert in die Scheide,’ Mr. Rose’s Christ seems stung by Peter’s violence: his admonishment is disquieted rather than scolding. Throughout the performance, Mr. Rose looks beyond the obvious qualities of Bach’s characterization of Christ, bringing an individual interpretation that proves fascinating. Vocally, not one note of Christ’s music is beyond Mr. Rose’s capacity, and he encounters no technical challenge that he is not capable of meeting. When the voice must move, Mr. Rose reveals considerable flexibility, and his lower register is rich and unforced. Critically, however, he creates a thoughtful, winningly masculine Christ who ultimately is all the more extraordinary for in so many ways being just another man. He is the perfect musical and dramatic partner for the Evangelist of James Gilchrist. The legacy of Sir Peter Pears in the Evangelist’s music retains great influence, and the aristocratic sangfroid and abiding intelligence of Mr. Gilchrist’s singing equal those of Pears. Mr. Gilchrist’s voice is a far more attractive natural instrument, however, with little of the nasality and none of the pinching in the upper register that were heard in Pears’s singing, and Mr. Gilchrist’s performance wholly avoids the prissiness and artifice that, both in performance and on recordings, could keep Pears’s Evangelist at arm’s length. Among many instances of sword’s-edge incisiveness and musical distinction, Mr. Gilchrist’s singing of the phrase ‘Da gedachte Petrus an die Worte Jesu und ging hinaus und weinete bitterlich’ is unforgettable, and the ethereal prescience of his recounting of the events of the Passion is stimulating. There is a hint of detachment, as though the pain that he feels is too great to endure if faced head-on, but this is an effective dramatic device that heightens the understanding of Christ and his destiny being both of and beyond the world of men. Mr. Gilchrist’s singing is flooded with tenderness in the passage in which he describes Christ taking leave of those whom he loves, ‘Es stund aber bei dem Kreuze Jesu seine Mutter.’ The mystery of his singing of ‘diewell das Grab nahe war’ gives way to a glimmer of hope, and throughout the performance Mr. Gilchrist lends his singing a zealous, visionary affection. The voice responds to Bach’s music as though it were composed specially for Mr. Gilchrist, his command of the famously grueling tessitura never faltering. By avoiding an over-reliance on falsetto, Mr. Gilchrist portrays a strong-willed but broken man who witnesses both an unfathomably momentous spiritual event and the death of a man who is not merely his teacher but also his friend.

The Johannes-Passion is not a long work, but a performance in which the artists strive to present the score not as a lofty dogmatic exposition but as a musical depiction of an unique exploration of love, devotion, and the bitterness of betrayal and loss can make it seem shorter still. In this recording featuring the Academy of Ancient Music and a cast that ranks with the best ever assembled for a performance of this work, the pace of tragedy is so inexorably intensified that the Passion prophecies are fulfilled in the blinking of an eye. Still, there are dozens of moments that linger in the ears and in the heart, none more so than those in which Andrew Kennedy asks of contrite humanity, ‘what will you do for your part,’ and Sarah Connolly pronounces, candidly, ‘it is finished.’ These are points at which music and life intersect as meaningfully as Art is able to articulate, and they are rendered on this recording as directly as can be imagined. Leave religion in the pews and conversations about what is an authentic approach to Bach’s music in the lecture halls: these artists mean to tell a story, unexaggerated and impartial, and how puissantly they succeed.

24 March 2014

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – REQUIEM, K. 626 (Dunedin Consort; Linn Records CKD 449)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - REQUIEM, K. 626 (Linn Records CKD 449)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Requiem in D minor, K. 626 (Reconstruction of the first public performance using the completion of the score by Franz Xaver Süßmayr), ‘Misericordias domini’ in D minor, K. 222 (‘Offertorium de tempore’)—Joanne Lunn, soprano; Rowan Hellier, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; Matthew Brook, bass-baritone; Dunedin Consort; John Butt, conductor [Recorded at Greyfriar’s Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK, 15 – 19 September 2013; Linn Records CKD 449; 1 SACD, 61:39; Available from Linn Records, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Few cornerstone works in the Western choral canon are as frequently mishandled as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem, and few composers of any degree of consequence are as uniformly but unjustly maligned as Franz Xaver Süßmayr. The Requiem has fallen victim to more than two centuries of mystery, misconception, and cinematic flights of fancy, accumulating a trove of traditions that forms a provocative but musically malignant mythology. There is an undeniable Romantic appeal to the almost certainly apocryphal notion of the somewhat delusional, perhaps already terminally ill, and unaccountably destitute Mozart accepting the commission to compose what he perceived as his own Requiem. Perhaps it is the envious pleasure of seeing genius laid low by mediocrity that draws curious minds to the Requiem, or maybe it is the heartening recognition of the triumph of Art over adversity. The impetus for the continuing endeavor to elevate the circumstances of the composition of Mozart's Requiem to heights of Shakespearean tragedy may also arise from the reluctance to concede that the genesis of something so beautiful and enduring could have been ordinary, even commercial, but it should not be overlooked that, to the savvy but struggling Mozart, it was the natural order of things for the creations of masterpieces to be business transactions. Whatever the true nature of its inception, the Requiem was a debt that was never fully paid by the Wunderkind from Salzburg, and where adulation of the departed Mozart ends indictment of the hand that dared to pollute the Master's manuscript with complementary scribbling begins: his long acquaintance with his tutor’s compositional style notwithstanding, Süßmayr's principal crime is not being Mozart. It is a hard thing to forgive, especially when virtually anyone with a modicum of musical training or intuition can with relative ease differentiate the 'authentic' pages from the 'imposter' portions of the Requiem. The conundrum is that composers who fancied themselves far more gifted than Süßmayr have proved less successful than their unassuming forebear in fitting Mozart's torso with Requiem limbs of their own creation. Among a gaggle of Frankenstein's monsters, Süßmayr's musical Prometheus remains the most effective. If not submersed in the tide of genius itself, Süßmayr's completion of the Requiem at least reflects genius upon its surface. The truth that is only reluctantly admitted is that the Requiem is far from Mozart's finest or most coherent work, but, being inseparable from the dolorous legacy of a great artist dying too young, it is a work of rage, resignation, and retribution and a score that has influenced every subsequent generation of composers. Seeking to strip away the grime of all the well-meaning hands that have molested the score since Mozart laid down his pen in 1791, this new recording by Dunedin Consort fascinatingly focuses on presenting the Requiem as it was heard in complete form at its first public performance in Vienna’s Jahn-Saal in January 1793. It is a vindication for Süßmayr, whose devotion to his extraordinary teacher is evident in every bar of his completion of the Requiem. It is also an engrossing opportunity to take a seat in Vienna’s Michaelerkirche in December 1791, when those who loved him said ‘Lebewohl’ to Mozart and ‘Wilkommen’ to the first breaths of his Requiem.

Performances of the Requiem featuring period instruments and smaller choral ensembles have become common during the past quarter-century, but this performance by Dunedin Consort and their Musical Director John Butt cuts a new path through the thicket of theories and customs that has long obscured the genuine spirit of the Requiem. Having proved themselves in performances and recordings of music by Bach and Händel to be virtuosi whose musicality is reliably matched by enthusiasm for the music they play, the instrumentalists of Dunedin Consort exceed their own highest standards with the excellence of their playing in this performance of Mozart’s Requiem. Bolstered by the stylish but never obtrusive keyboard playing of Robert Howarth, the Consort play each movement of the Mass with a tonal blend carefully constructed to match the mood of the text. The twenty string players produce sounds of consistent beauty, complemented by especially fine playing of the basset horns, trumpets, and bassoons. The trombones in ‘Tuba mirum spargens sonum’ are magnificently resonant and secure of intonation, qualities that have been heard in far too few performances of the Requiem. This is not a score of enormous difficulty, but the Dunedin Consort players do not make the mistake made by many ensembles of taking the score’s challenges for granted. Enjoyably accomplished as the Consort’s technical execution of Mozart’s music is, it is the unmistakable emotional connection with the score that is the most exceptional achievement of the Consort’s playing. Responding to Maestro Butt’s unaffected direction, the Consort infuse their playing with a muted sadness that does not prevent sunbeams of humor from emerging from the orchestral textures. The broad intensity of the ‘Dies irae, dies illa,’ ‘Rex tremendae majestatis,’ and ‘Confutatis maledictis’ is stirring, all the more so for the ways in which it contrasts with the majesty of the ‘Tuba mirum spargens sonum’ and the serenity of the ‘Recordare, Jesu pie.’ The radiant solemnity of the ‘Lacrimosa dies illa’ is shaped with inherent grace by Maestro Butt and accompanied with sparkling eloquence. Orchestral doubling of voices in fugal passages is managed with ideal balance, and both Maestro Butt’s leadership and the Consort’s playing are scaled to ensure that Süßmayr’s passages are given the same diligent elegance as Mozart’s. Even in the most expansively-orchestrated passages, Maestro Butt and Dunedin Consort approach the score with the refinement of chamber players, and the resulting fusion of grandeur with intimacy serves the music ideally.

The Dunedin Consort choristers give a performance of their music that is no less ideal than the playing of their instrumentalist colleagues. From the first choral entry in the ‘Requiem aeternam,’ the choristers—sixteen in number, including the four soloists—capture the nuances of every turn of phrase with insightful but never overwrought poignancy. The contrapuntal passages that owe much to the models of Bach and Händel, in performances of whose music these singers excel, are delivered with panache, but it is the spiritual directness of the choral singing that is its most rewarding trait. There is never a sense of a group of singers going through the motions of performing an impersonal musical masterpiece. Rather, the choristers respond to every sentiment in Mozart’s—and Süßmayr’s—music with alertness and obviously genuine affection, lending every passage emotional immediacy that charms and inspires. In a similar vein to Dunedin Consort’s Baroque repertoire, there is ample evidence of historical precedent for the soloists emerging from the choir, and this recording succeeds as few others in recent memory have done by offering a quartet of soloists who are thoroughly involved in the performance rather than an ensemble of busy singers collecting paychecks and padding their discographies between operatic engagements. Praising individual moments in the performances given by soprano Joanne Lunn, mezzo-soprano Rowan Hellier, tenor Thomas Hobbs, and bass-baritone Matthew Brook would be to overlook a thousand more. The poise and security of Ms. Lunn’s singing are splendid, and her upper register rings out gorgeously without forcing or operatic preening. Ms. Hellier’s fruity timbre melds well with Ms. Lunn’s, and she, too, sings with superb control and composure. Mr. Hobbs sings with the finesse of the young Schreier and the golden tone of the mature Wunderlich, and he adorns the performance with a standard-setting account of the tenor part. Mr. Brook has the fullness in his lower register to bring true power to his descending phrases in the ‘Tuba mirum spargens sonum,’ and throughout the performance his singing provides an unshakable foundation for the solo quartet. In the Requiem and the ‘Offertorium de tempore,’ Mozart’s 1775 setting of the Psalm text ‘Misericordias domini in aeternum cantabo’ that uncannily prefigures the principal theme of the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the singing is highly cultivated but also lovingly visceral. Rather than merely singing notes, these sixteen individuals give a performance that pulses with timeless humanity.

Hearing this recording of Mozart’s Requiem has the effect of encountering a great work of art for the first time, not from the perspective of history but with the fresh insights of new acquaintance. Mozart’s widow having engaged his pupil Süßmayr in the completion of the Requiem was undoubtedly an effort at finalizing a commercial enterprise, the proceeds from which were likely sorely needed by the composer’s surviving family, but the unflattering portrait that history has painted of Constanze Mozart does not obstruct appreciation of her recognition of her husband’s genius and the lasting importance of his work. It is a lofty goal to which this recording aspires, but the integrity of the artists involved ensures that the performance is never bogged down by scholarship. Musically, this is an incredibly satisfying performance of Mozart’s Requiem. On a deeper level, however, this is a performance that, by returning the work to the contexts of its infancy, reminds the listener why the music of Mozart will be played as long as there are human ears to be enraptured by it.

23 March 2014

CD REVIEW: Franz Schreker – DIE GEZEICHNETEN (R. Brubaker, A. Kampe, M. Gantner, J. Johnson, W. Schöne; Bridge Records 9400A/C)

Franz Schreker - DIE GEZEICHNETEN (Bridge Records 9400A/C)

FRANZ SCHREKER (1878 – 1934): Die GezeichnetenR. Brubaker (Alviano Salvago), A. Kampe (Carlotta Nardi), M. Gantner (Count Andrea Vitelozzo Tamare), J. Johnson (Duke Antoniotto Adorno/Captain), W. Schöne (Lodovico Nardi), B. Gibson (Menaldo Negroni), J. Sorensen (Guidobald Usodimare), H. Yun (Michelotto Cibo), E. Brancoveanu (Gonsalvo Fieschi), M. Burns (Paolo Calvi), B. Wager (Julian Pinelli), K. Jameson (Pietro), R.N. Miller (Martuccia), C. Bix (1st Senator), J.A. Pérez (2nd Senator), C. Colclough (3rd Senator), V. Vinzant (Ginerva Scotti), D. Walker (Maiden), R. MacNeil (1st Citizen/3rd Youth), M. Moore (2nd Citizen/Father/1st Youth), K. Kellogg (3rd Citizen/2nd Youth/Giant Citizen), H.S. Kim (Youth), G. Vamvulescu (Youth’s Friend/Servant), E. Brookhyser (Mother), D. Montenegro (Son), R. Tomlinson (Servant Girl), C. Lane (Tenor solo), R. Hovencamp (Baritone solo), and G. Geiger (Bass solo); Chorus and Orchestra of Los Angeles Opera; James Conlon, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performances at Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, California, USA, in April 2010; Bridge Records 9400A/C; 3CD, 170:21; Available from Amazon, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​When Franz Schreker was felled by the effects of a stroke in 1934, both his music and his reputation had been subjected to the stain of the Nazi actions against what was deemed to be 'degenerate' art. Possessing one of the most original voices among the generation of composers who came of age in the first decade of the 20th Century, Schreker was an easy target for National Socialist 'cleansing' of Germanic music: stylistically diverse, Schreker's scores exhibited unmistakable social undertones, particularly his operas, which, however fanciful their actual settings and plots, examined the societies into which they were born with pointedly analytical sensibilities. Thus, the 1918 première of Die Gezeichneten shone the unflattering spotlight of allegory as much on contemporary Vienna as on 16th-Century Genoa. Their Renaissance costumes and Italian names notwithstanding, the debauched denizens of the seedy underworlds of Die Gezeichneten were—and are—recognizably fin-de-siècle Viennese: the disquiet of social orders teetering at the edge of destruction pervades every page of Schreker's score, and the unraveling of individual and collective moralities is as evocative of Freudian Europe on the brink of total war as of the height of republican corruption in Genoa. After the success of its first production in Frankfurt, Die Gezeichneten was performed throughout German-speaking Europe in the fifteen years before Nazism silenced it in 1933. Inexplicably, the opera was not heard in the United States until 2010, when the production by Los Angeles Opera that produced this recording confirmed for 21st-Century audiences that Schreker's score is a work of great power. There is poignant symbolism in the brilliant success of the LA Opera production of Die Gezeichneten: perhaps it would have been in Los Angeles that Schreker, like Schoenberg and other German and Austrian expatriates, sought refuge from the mounting perils of pre-Anschluß Austria had he not been prevented from immigrating by the illness that took his life just before his fifty-sixth birthday. Without question, it was in Los Angeles that the legacy of Schreker's genius and the searching vividness of Die Gezeichneten were given the introduction to the new millennium that they deserved. Not a homecoming in the truest sense of the term, Los Angeles Opera’s Die Gezeichneten was nonetheless a second coming for one of the most intriguing scores of the Twentieth Century.

Schreker’s score could not have been entrusted to more capable hands than those of James Conlon, Los Angeles Opera’s Music Director and one of the most intuitive advocates of neglected masterworks of 20th-Century opera. Under Maestro Conlon’s baton, this performance of Die Gezeichneten undulates engagingly, the cinematic scope of the score conveyed with extraordinary immediacy. Unfortunately, the somewhat one-dimensional quality of the recorded sound deprives both Schreker’s orchestrations and the voices of impact, but stage noises come through with often startling clarity. Despite these distractions, the power and poetry of Maestro Conlon’s insightful shaping of the performance are apparent in every scene, and his leadership inspires both the Los Angeles Opera choristers and orchestra players to performances of vitality and uncompromising musicality. In both the extensive Vorspiel and the Prelude to Act Three, the instrumentalists play sonorously, and throughout the opera the Orchestra and Maestro Conlon create sound worlds that entice and repulse in equal measures. Schreker’s Interludes are played brilliantly, transforming the sonic landscapes to match those depicted on stage. Employed by the composer almost as an extension of the orchestra, the chorus contributes memorably to the tense atmosphere of the opera, especially in their lines as ‘drohendes Gemurmel’ (‘menacing murmurs’). Maestro Conlon’s approach to the score ensures that lyrical episodes are allowed to blossom unhurriedly without the energy and dramatic propulsion of the performance waning, and the mystery and mysticism of the music are imparted whether the drama is at full throttle or whispering in tones of dulcet deception.

Die Gezeichneten requires an unusually large cast, and staged performances limit opportunities for employing singers in multiple rôles. A marvel of the Los Angeles Opera production is the high standard of singing of secondary parts. Among many fine performances, the Senators of Corey Bix, José Adán Pérez, and Craig Colclough are stand-outs, their individual and ensemble singing resonant and aptly authoritative. Ronnita Nicole Miller’s Martuccia is similarly assured, and Valerie Vinzant is an alert, unabashedly emotive Ginerva Scotti. A wonderfully vital septet was assembled for the gentlemen—whose not-so-gentlemanly proclivities are portrayed in their names as deliciously as in Dickens’s Uriah Heep—of Genoa: Beau Gibson as Menaldo Negroni, Joel Sorensen as Guidobaldo Usodimare, Hyung Yun as Michelotto Cibo, Eugene Brancoveanu as Gonsalvo Fieschi, Matthew Burns as Paolo Calvi, Ben Wager as Julian Pinelli, and Keith Jameson as Pietro all sing strongly and often superbly, with Mr. Brancoveanu’s brawny timbre cutting through ensembles with welcome presence. It merits restating that the supporting cast is of uniformly excellent quality: not one comprimario lets the team down, and this reliability among smaller parts markedly enhances enjoyment of the performance as a whole. Los Angeles Opera’s casting unintentionally raises a gnawing question, however: if such richness of ensemble is possible in Die Gezeichneten, in which even singers in secondary rôles have daunting music, why do so many productions of a standard-repertory piece like Rigoletto feature such poor Borsas, Cepranos, Marullos, and Monterones?

Bass-baritone Wolfgang Schöne is one of the few singers in the world with a veteran’s acquaintance with Die Gezeichneten, and his experience informs every note that he sings as the Podestà, Lodovico Nardi. The insinuation with which Mr. Schöne inflects the Podestà’s description of his daughter, Carlotta, ‘Ich fürchte, Signor, allzufreien Sinns mögt Ihr sie finden’ (‘I fear, my Lord, that you might find her too free-spirited’), is appropriately suggestive, and his singing of lines such as ‘Ihr zeigt uns den Himmel, so nah und berückend, daß wir unfroh werden der Erde und ihrer Macht’ (‘You show us heaven, so near and inviting that we are no longer satisfied with the Earth and its power’) reveals an intensely thoughtful understanding of the nuances of Schreker’s symbolism-laden libretto. Mr. Schöne portrays a Podestà whose comprehension is wide-ranging but ultimately superficial. Vocally, Mr. Schöne’s singing is no longer as firm as it once was, but the voice remains a forceful instrument, and his performance is gratifyingly steady and accurate of pitch. Baritone James Johnson is also a commanding presence as both Duke Antoniotto Adorno and the Capitaneo di Giustizia. Though the rôles were sung by different singers in the 1918 première of Die Gezeichneten, Mr. Johnson’s performance proves that assigning the Duke and the Captain to the same singer is a credible practice. The two parts are facets of Schreker’s notion of corrupt, easily-manipulated authority, and though he takes care to differentiate his portrayals of the rôles Mr. Johnson convincingly evokes the dangerous aura of compromised jurisdiction. Mr. Johnson’s singing as the Duke has a gnarly nobility, and his Captain possesses a bracing sternness. In both rôles, Mr. Johnson’s voice is robust and secure throughout the range.

The fulcrum upon which the perverse drama of Die Gezeichneten pivots is the triangle that forms among the lecherous Count Andrea Vitelozzo Tamare, Carlotta Nardi (daughter of the Podestà), and Alviano Salvago, the hunchbacked nobleman whose deformity deprives him of realizing so many of his artistic and amorous ambitions. Much of the histrionic energy of Schreker’s opera is derived from the fact that, to a significant extent, these people are not what they seem to be: certainly, the full magnitudes of their agendas are carefully disguised. Singing with unstinting fortitude but also hints of vulnerability, baritone Martin Gantner makes Tamare an unexpectedly sympathetic figure: his actions are despicable, but this is clearly a man whose feelings for Carlotta transcend carnal desire. In fact, the dignity of Mr. Gantner’s singing virtually transforms Tamare into a tragic hero, even his confession of crimes in the final scene detracting little from the sense of Tamare sacrificing himself for Carlotta. The beauty and clarity of Mr. Gantner’s singing would upset the balance of a performance with weaker colleagues, but his unconventional interpretation of his part is ultimately very rewarding. There is no weakness in the Carlotta of soprano Anja Kampe. Indeed, the flexibility with which she allies toughness with femininity is remarkable. Ms. Kampe has been heard in the United States in rôles as diverse as Mozart’s Donna Elvira and Wagner’s Sieglinde, and her scintillating Isolde at Glyndebourne was a portrayal that beat many of her more gargantuanly-voiced rivals at their own game. Senta in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer is one of Ms. Kampe’s best rôles, and her singing of Carlotta highlights the similarities between Schreker’s and Wagner’s heroines. Carlotta lacks Senta’s naïveté, but her bold spirit engenders a dogged pursuit of her artistic vision that resembles the singularity with which Senta follows her perceived destiny. Both tenderness and cruelty are heard in her invitation to Alviano at the end of Act One, ‘Wollt Ihr kommen, in meine Werkstatt, daß ich das Bild vollende’ (‘Will you come to my studio so that I may complete the portrait’): the sincerity of her purpose is apparent, but there is no doubting the effect that her words have on Alviano, whose judgment is skewed by his passion for Carlotta. The playfulness of Ms. Kampe’s singing in Act Two does not diminish the hazards of her seductiveness. Her Carlotta’s shock that the deformed Alviano loves her is not so much a malicious rejection as a guileless reaction to an unexpected divergence from her own concept of her social order. Ms. Kampe makes Carlotta’s death harrowing and strangely moving. Throughout the performance, Ms. Kampe sings with lyrical grace and unstinting vocal stamina. She is the most adversely affected by the claustrophobic sound, the voice as recorded taking on a hard edge, but neither this nor the occasional struggle with intonation disfigures her absorbing, skillfully-sung performance. In the three hours of Die Gezeichneten, she is Donna Anna, succumbing to her seducer with equal measures of resistance and willfulness; Brünnhilde, disillusioned but finally reconciled with the part that she must play in the fate in which she is ensnared; and Lulu, unconcerned with either heaven or hell but adherent to her own peculiar values. Above all, despite the paucity of competition, Ms. Kampe inhabits Carlotta with greater depth and sensitivity than any other singer yet recorded in the rôle.

Facing tessitura as maddening as the circumstances of his tormented existence, Alviano receives from tenor Robert Brubaker a domineering performance that matches the intelligence of Mr. Gantner’s Tamare and the vigor of Ms. Kampe’s Carlotta. Physically and emotionally, Mr. Brubaker’s Alviano is bent but not broken. Like his colleagues, Mr. Brubaker devotes greater integrity to his performance than has been heard in the music in past, both in looking beneath the surface of the character and in endeavoring to sing the music cleanly. The lack of strain with which Mr. Brubaker scales the heights of his music is commendable in its own right, but it is the telling dramatic use to which he puts his soaring vocalism that is the greatest accomplishment of his performance. There is a disarming, almost disturbing sense of innocence in the opera’s opening scenes, and the sweetness of Mr. Brubaker’s singing makes Alviano’s actions appear to be responses to a desperation for human connection rather than depravity. When Carlotta seems to accept and even return his love in Act Two, the subdued ecstasy of Mr. Brubaker’s Alviano justifies what on the page seems a mystifying channeling of his ardor into restrained, almost protective affection. In Act Three, as the bliss that he has conjured for himself is gradually dismantled with each hedonistic revelation and realization, madness seems the only possible course: like Donizetti’s Lucia, the violence that is so contrary to his nature obliterates his emotional equilibrium, and only in a retreat from sanity is any sort of survival possible. There is an unusual beauty in Mr. Brubaker’s reedy timbre, and he exploits every verbal nuance, artfully-managed feat of phrasing, and unerringly-placed top note to create an Alviano who is both pathetic and sympathetic. Schreker gave Alviano extraordinary music, and Mr. Brubaker meets every challenge honestly and unflinchingly.

More than many of the 20th- and 21st-Century scores upon which opera companies have lavished resources in recent seasons, Die Gezeichneten deserved a production of the quality of the one it received at Los Angeles Opera, and Bridge Records’ recording confirms that the investment of musical riches in this production was handsomely repaid. Whether performing the score for the first or the fiftieth time, each musician involved with this production—chorister, instrumentalist, comprimario, principal, and conductor—was not content until she or he had understood the music at hand on the most discerning level possible. Verdi and Puccini will likely always be the composers whose operas can fill theatres, but surely there is room for a Gezeichneten of this dramatic profundity and musical preeminence among half-hearted Traviatas and routine Toscas. For the better part of a century, Die Gezeichneten has been an opera in search of true friends to accept it on its own terms, without prejudices, preconceptions, or apologies. The artistic team assembled by Los Angeles Opera clearly approached Die Gezeichneten not as an opera to be revived but as one to be lived, and in their midst what an unforgettable, alluringly effective work Schreker’s score proves to be.

11 March 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – IL CORSARO (M. Fabiano, T. Wilson, N. Cabell, S. Catana; Washington Concert Opera; 9 March 2014)

IN PERFORMANCE: (left to right) Soprano Tamara Wilson as Gulnara, tenor Michael Fabiano as Corrado, soprano Nicole Cabell as Medora, and conductor Antony Walker in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Verdi's IL CORSARO, 9 March 2014 [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera] (left to right) Soprano Tamara Wilson as Gulnara, tenor Michael Fabiano as Corrado, soprano Nicole Cabell as Medora, and conductor Antony Walker in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il corsaro, 9 March 2014 [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Il corsaroM. Fabiano (Corrado), T. Wilson (Gulnara), N. Cabell (Medora), S. Catana (Pasha Seid), E. Castro (Giovanni), W. Jennings (Eunuch), T. Czyzewski (Slave), P. Toomey (Aga Selimo); Orchestra and Chorus of Washington Concert Opera; Antony Walker [Bruce Stasyna, Assistant Conductor; Washington Concert Opera, Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; Sunday, 9 March 2014]

​At the time of the première of Giuseppe Verdi's Il corsaro in 1848, Europe was a continent in crisis—artistically, politically, and socially. A measure of this general upheaval was reflected in the troubled genesis of Il corsaro, an opera over which Verdi fretted, not least in his dealings with the opera's librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, and in which he uncharacteristically lost interest before completing the score. Originally conceived as the London vehicle for Jenny Lind that ultimately became I masnadieri, Il corsaro suffered from an 'out of sight, out of mind' lapse in Verdi's meticulous management of his projects, the score none too fondly recalled after its delivery to Italy. Fully sketched before Verdi started work on Macbeth, Il corsaro might nonetheless be justifiably regarded as a watershed in the composer’s artistic development, a final fruit of the musical tree grown from seeds inherited from Donizetti. In its basic structure, Il corsaro seems more like a delicacy that Händel might have whipped up in 18th-Century London to exploit the fierce rivalry between Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni than a work of the unabashedly Romantic young Verdi: with its two heroines, both of them inherently sympathetic, the opera is unique among Verdi's output, especially in the prominent inclusion of both Gulnara and Medora in the finale ultimo. Despite the unenthusiastic reception that the inaugural performance in Trieste received from an audience who felt that they deserved better from the pen of their esteemed 'national' composer, Il corsaro is a strong score with opportunities for each of the principals to flex Verdian muscles in music that combines the delicacy of bel canto with the familiar thrust and thunder of mid-career Verdi. To a great extent, this is precisely what the cast of Washington Concert Opera's performance of Il corsaro did in fine fashion, filling Lisner Auditorium with bold sounds that, especially in the case of tenor Michael Fabiano, ignited the dry acoustic of Lisner Auditorium with legitimate Italianate chiaroscuro.

After pacing a slightly pedestrian account of the Overture by the generally excellent Washington Concert Opera Orchestra, it seemed that Australian conductor Antony Walker, Washington Concert Opera's Artistic Director, was poised to lead a bloodless performance of Act One. The instrumentalists strove to increase the momentum by giving sharply-contrasted performances of solo and ensemble passages, though, and despite a clutch of scrappy moments in which string intonation faltered and ensemble among sections threatened to disintegrate, the Orchestra's playing was musical and effective. Like Bellini in Norma, Verdi gave the harp a small but crucial part in Act One, surely earning the composer mild curses from virtually every director who has faced the task of engaging a harpist for a few minutes' service. Cecile Schoon, Washington Concert Opera's harpist, justified the expenditure, however, and her fine playing was complemented by sterling performances by the woodwinds and brass sections. Corsairs, Turkish soldiers, ladies-in-waiting, and harem concubines were all portrayed with gusto by the Washington Concert Opera Chorus, four members of which—tenors Tad Czyzewski, Wayne Jennings, and Patrick Toomey and bass Eduardo Castro—were enlisted for the small rôles of a Slave, an Eunuch, Aga Selimo (Seid’s henchman), and Giovanni (a corsair). After a prosaic start, Maestro Walker warmed to the occasion impressively: textures grew more pointed, and tempi gradually kept pace with the inherent dramatic momentum of Verdi’s score and with the endeavors of the principals to deliver a credible performance of the opera even in the concert format. From the second scene of Act Two, the fuse was lit, and Maestro Walker kept the torch burning until the end of the performance.

Singing the rôle of Seid, the expectedly villainous Turkish Pasha, Romanian baritone Sebastian Catana seemed at his first entrance in Act Two a ghost from a former age of Verdi singing: tearing through his opening recitative, he phrased ‘Salve, Allah!’—marked grandioso by Verdi—grandly indeed, taking the ascents to E♭ and F in stride without giving the notes undue emphasis at the expense of preservation of the integrity of the vocal line. Seid’s curiosity rapidly transformed into suspicion in the subsequent duettino with Corrado, in which the latter infiltrates Seid’s stronghold disguised as a dervish, and Mr. Catana’s singing seethed with rage that could hardly be contained. Launching the Act Two finale with a storm of fury, Mr. Catana wrung the venomous irony from ‘Prode invero rapitore di donne sei tu’ and then brought rhythmic precision and darkly sinister tone to ‘Audace cotanto mostrarti pur sai.’ The stretta ‘Sì, morai di morte atroce’—a foreshadowing of ‘Di geloso amor sprezzato in the Act One finale of Il trovatore—was fired off like a series of thunderbolts, the high tessitura troubling Mr. Catana very little. Seid’s great showpieces are the aria ‘Cento leggiadre vergini da me chiedeano amore,’ which both in its elaborately-ornamented vocal line and tessitura taking the baritone to high G has an obvious kinship with the Conte di Luna’s ‘Il balen del suo sorriso,’ and cabaletta ‘S’avvincina il tuo momento’ at the start of Act Three. Though debonair embellishment came less naturally to Mr. Catana than martial bawling, he rose to the occasion of his solo scene with ample style and generous tone. The impact of his secure, volcanic upper register, in the aria and cabaletta and the subsequent duet with Gulnara, was tremendous, and he was a startlingly dangerous presence: how domineering he would likely be in a staged performance!

Lovely soprano Nicole Cabell, winner of the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, did not have a great deal to do as Medora, appearing only in the second halves of Acts One and Three. Those opportunities that Verdi’s score offered she seized, however. Medora’s harp-accompanied romanza ‘Non so le tetre immagini’ was beautifully if slightly reticently sung by Ms. Cabell, the coloratura, repeated rises to top A♭, B♭, and, climactically, C, and trill managed with bel canto elegance. Like Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Medora never enjoys a carefree moment, and the elegiac quality of her music was gorgeously articulated by Ms. Cabell’s luminous singing. Taking the place of the cabaletta that traditionally would have followed her romanza, the duet with Corrado, who has come to inform Medora of his impending departure, intensifies Medora’s deathly premonitions, and her entreaties to Corrado to remain with her were voiced with heated conviction by Ms. Cabell. When, at ‘Tonerai, ma forse spenta pria cadrà’ in the duet’s final pages, the key modulates from G major to C major the musical impetus galloped to what seemed an inevitable (but interpolated) unison top C, which Ms. Cabell and her Corrado delivered thrillingly. All that remained for Medora was to be reunited with Corrado—but only after his long absence and no news of him had convinced her of his demise and compelled her to take poison; and, perhaps most devastatingly, after his fate had been joined inextricably with that of Gulnara. Being a girl with a noble spirit, Medora has the good manners to expire after offering only tastefully mild protestations. [Corrado makes a convincing show of affection and sorrow, but it seems unlikely that the mourning period will be prolonged.] Ms. Cabell sang Medora’s laments of ‘Il mio Corrado, il mio Corrdao non è più’ affectingly, and her sustained top A♭s were lovely. The long melodic lines of ‘O mio Corrado, appressati,’ again presaging Il trovatore with its similarity to Leonora’s ‘Prima che d’altri vivere,’ were phrased by Ms. Cabell with complete assurance, and she had the musicality and integrity to lay her character to rest with beautiful tone rather than embarrassing effects. Critically, Ms. Cabell’s lustrous performance confirmed that the modern trend of assigning Medora to mezzo-sopranos—in the few outings the opera receives, that is—deprives her of much of her consequence.

Had Il corsaro been Verdi’s opera for London, Gulnara would likely have been Jenny Lind’s rôle. Though she lacks the dramatic vibrancy of Verdi’s most important heroines, the composer gave Gulnara some splendid music. That her opening recitative covers an octave and a half of vocal territory gives notice that Gulnara should offer plenty of thrills. The aria ‘Vola talor dal carcere,’ a beautiful piece that wants only for the melodic distinction of Verdi’s best soprano arias, was sung strongly by soprano Tamara Wilson, whose prowess was undermined only by an element of effort in the aria’s cadenza. Neither the trill nor the top B♭s taxed Ms. Wilson’s resources, however, and her performance grew more confident with each passing bar. The cabaletta ‘Ah conforto è sol la speme’ was excitingly sung, Ms. Wilson delighting in each of the music’s nine ascents to top C. Her lines in the Act Two finale, in which Gulnara and the ladies of Seid’s harem are rescued from flames by Corrado, increased the dramatic tension of the scene, especially when she floated piano top A♭s over the ensemble. Ms. Wilson’s legato in Gulnara’s pleas for Seid to spare Corrado’s life—‘Deh, signor, deh ti rammenta che quest’uomo vincitore’—was captivating, and the blazing top C with which brought Act Two to its close was pulse-quickening. The demure femininity of the opening of Gulnara’s duet with Seid in Act Three vanished in an instant when the Pasha surmised that her gratitude for Corrado’s bravery had deepened into love, and the descent of Gulnara’s vocal line into the soprano’s lower octave left no doubt that her indignation had evolved into resolution to take action. The long-held top B♭ with which Ms. Wilson capped the duet was brilliant. When she fails to convince Corrado to avenge her disgrace to which Seid has subjected her, she decides to wield the fatal dagger herself, though Gulnara ultimately is not an unhesitant murderess like Lady Macbeth. Ms. Wilson mostly avoided deploying chest register, but she maintained firmness of tone and line in the lower reaches of her music. When she ended the scene with Corrado with a stunning top B, her heroism was not to be denied. With the focus transferred to Medora’s self-sacrifice in the opera’s final scene, Gulnara is mostly on hand to take the top line in the ensemble, but, Medora having been dispatched to heaven, Ms. Wilson ended the performance with a glorious top D♭. Having sung Verdi rôles in theatres throughout the world, Ms. Wilson’s proficiency in the composer’s music was hardly in doubt. Her performance as Gulnara verified that, far beyond mere proficiency, she is a Verdi soprano of the first order.

Even amidst such riches of marvelous singing, Michael Fabiano’s Corrado whirled through the performance like the mistral, his impassioned tones lending his singing a suggestion of Errol Flynn at his most swashbuckling. Corrado’s introductory recitative, ‘Ah! sì, ben dite,’ takes the tenor to top A♭ in the space of seven bars, and Mr. Fabiano announced from his stentorian first note that the audience was going to be privy to a display of great Verdi singing. Any worries that his performance would be shaped by volume rather than vocal velvet eroded rapidly. The pensive aria ‘Tutto parea sorridere,’ its tessitura centering cruelly in the tenor’s passaggio, was sung by Mr. Fabiano with poise and dulcet, Italianate tone that brought to mind the voice of the young Giuseppe di Stefano, though the younger singer’s technique displays none of the warning signs—the inadequate support, the tightness in the passaggio, the blaringly uncovered top—that undermined di Stefano’s vocal longevity. The virility of Mr. Fabiano’s delivery of the cabaletta ‘Sì, de’ Corsari il fulmine’ rightly earned him an exuberant ovation from the audience. There were both tenderness and determination in his duet with Medora, the voice filling the auditorium without forcing, and he sailed up to the top C in unison with Ms. Cabell with impressive freedom. In Corrado’s reconnaissance mission at Seid’s court, Mr. Fabiano shaded his voice effectively, but his full stamina was discharged when his ruse was uncovered. His singing in the prison scene in Act Three, ‘Eccomi prigionero,’ flickered with frustrated ambition and genuine regret for Medora’s unhappiness, and the disbelief and pain that flooded his voice when Gulnara told him of her affection and scheme for breaking free from Seid’s oppression were spine-tingling. Corrado’s incredulity when Gulnara disclosed that she had murdered the sleeping Seid—a moment that drew inappropriate laughter from the Washington audience, a casualty of a too-literal translation in the projected supertitles—was vividly depicted by Mr. Fabiano, color but not power drained from the voice. In the opera’s final scene, Mr. Fabiano’s tones seemed drenched with tears, the eloquence of his singing contrasting with its rousing masculinity. Having recently been awarded the Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Award after a critically-acclaimed turn as Alfredo in Jeremy Sams’s new production of Johann Strauß II’s Die Fledermaus, as well as having pierced the famously unyielding hearts of Parisian audiences with his portrayal of Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Opéra Bastille, this young singer is on the road to an extraordinary career. The unwavering success of his Corrado divulged that the Verdi tenor repertory—only the lyric parts for the foreseeable future, it is to be hoped—is Mr. Fabriano’s for the conquering.

Those who suggest that Verdi’s Il corsaro is deserving of the neglect to which even its composer relegated it cannot have heard a performance of the score as satisfying as Washington Concert Opera’s presentation. In truth, the performance was not ideal, at least not consistently so, but neither is Verdi’s opera. Those who spent slightly more than two hours in Lisner Auditorium on Sunday evening were treated to Verdi singing of an unexpectedly idiomatic supremacy, however, and can boast in years to come of having witnessed a preview of the work of a young singer who promises to become the foremost Verdi tenor of his generation.

(left to right) Baritone Sebastian Catana as Seid, soprano Tamara Wilson as Gulnara, tenor Michael Fabiano as Corrado, Nicole Cabell as Medora, and bass Eduardo Castro as Giovanni in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Verdi's IL CORSARO [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera] (left to right) Baritone Sebastian Catana as Seid, soprano Tamara Wilson as Gulnara, tenor Michael Fabiano as Corrado, soprano Nicole Cabell as Medora, and bass Eduardo Castro as Giovanni in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Verdi’s Il corsaro, 9 March 2014 [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Jake Heggie & Gene Scheer – MOBY-DICK (C. Tanner, S. Costello, M. Worth, E. Greene, T. Trevigne; Washington National Opera, 8 March 2014)

IN PERFORMANCE: Jake Heggie's and Gene Scheer's MOBY-DICK at Washington National Opera, 2014 [Tenor Carl Tanner as Captain Ahab, center; Photo by Scott Suchman, © Washington National Opera] Tenor Carl Tanner as Captain Ahab (center) in Jake Heggie's and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick at Washington National Opera, 2014 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © Washington National Opera]

JAKE HEGGIE (b. 1961) and GENE SCHEER (b. 1958): Moby-DickC. Tanner (Captain Ahab), S. Costello (Greenhorn), M. Worth (Starbuck), E. Greene (Queequeg), T. Trevigne (Pip), C. Bowers (Stubb), A. Lewis (Flask), M. J. Minor (Daggoo), V. Ghosh (Tashtego), A. Dominguez (Nantucket sailor), A. McLaughlin (Spanish sailor), N. Garrett (Captain Gardiner); Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Evan Rogister [Production by Leonard Foglia; set designs by Robert Brill; costumes by Jane Greenwood; lighting by Gavan Swift; projections by Elaine McCarthy; blocking and choreography by Keturah Stickann; Washington National Opera, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.; Saturday, 8 March 2014]

There are few artistic undertakings more inherently perilous than setting a monumental work of literature to music. For every success, there is a plethora of failures, and even those works deemed the most effective will fall victim to those who bemoan the loss of this scene, the elimination of that character, and real or perceived derivations from the essence of the works expanded from page to stage. Counterintuitive as it may seem, reinventing an emblematic work of fiction for the opera house—and, if there is a genuinely insightful association among composer, librettist, and source, it is a reinvention rather than a translation, as it were—is a greater challenge than creating an operatic spectacle from the ground up. Few literary leviathans could present more dangers to thoughtful musicians than Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, a work that is now likely acclaimed as the definitive American novel by far more people than have ever actually read it. Disputes of the legitimacy of its prominence in the national canon notwithstanding, Moby-Dick has a deservedly revered position in the history of American literature and in the hearts of many readers. In addition to offering a compelling narrative, Melville’s novel is steeped in layers of meaning. That a composer and librettist would turn their ambitions to transporting Melville’s Pequod from the tempestuous waters of words to the even rockier seas of the operatic stage is remarkable: that the enterprise could be managed with both an abiding integrity of the resulting score as an independent work of art and faithfulness to Melville seems virtually impossible. In 2010, Dallas Opera was the first port of call for a setting of Moby-Dick that, defying the odds, not only held the stage with power rivaling that of the masterworks of the operatic past but captured the imaginations of audiences with an immediacy and ingenuity rare for an opera composed after 1950. The Moby-Dick that garnered this level of affection is the creation of composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer, and the opera’s East Coast première at Washington National Opera, a revival of the Leonard Foglia production that has been presented in several North American cities, confirmed that the critical appreciation and audience affection are justified—and, most importantly, that Moby-Dick is worthy of Melville and the tremendous resources dedicated to its presentation.

From a literary perspective, Mr. Scheer’s libretto is a marvel of its kind. Melville’s behemoth novel is not so much reduced as refined into a thread of dramatic truth that stretches across the frame of Moby-Dick without breaking or confining expression of the novel’s core themes. Words are used sparingly and always in the service of phrases that are rousingly intuitive but seem comfortable in the mouths of the characters who utter them. Having collaborated closely with Mr. Heggie, Mr. Scheer provided the composer with text that inspired settings that maintain the natural flow of speech, melodic lines shaped by vowels in the manner of bel canto. Above all, the confounding crux of Melville permeates the libretto without hindering the development of the opera as a work with its own goals and aesthetic nucleus. The prowess with which Mr. Heggie made from Mr. Scheer’s words a score as sweeping as the sea itself is nothing short of brilliant. This task was a leap of faith even for a composer of Mr. Heggie’s proven abilities. ‘The single greatest challenge for me,’ Mr. Heggie confides, [was] ‘finding a sound world in which all of these characters could exist and emerge organically—so that the opera is ‘of a piece’—[and] the stories and journeys coexist, develop, and co-mingle, yet each character have his own identity within that sound world. I didn’t find that until I found the character of Ahab. Once I had identified him musically, the entire piece came together with clarity.’ In fact, it is the clarity of the opera’s dramatic progression—a quality that, for all its author’s genius, is largely missing from the novel—that captures and holds attention from the first note of the score. Musically, Mr. Heggie embraced influences from a myriad of his ancestors. Considering the subject matter, whiffs of Britten’s Billy Budd and Peter Grimes on the briny air of Moby-Dick are not unexpected, but the choral episodes in Mr. Heggie’s score also nod to the ‘reform’ operas of Gluck and to Berlioz’s Les Troyens. In Ahab’s beautiful monologue in the fourth scene of Act One, the melancholic strains of Cavaradossi’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’ from the final act of Puccini’s Tosca are close on the horizon, bolstering the character’s innate humanity. Mr. Heggie’s music is accessible, in terms of both tonality and lyricism, but suggesting that the composer is a populist would be an oversimplification that denies him much of the credit he deserves for creating a score that challenges musicians and audiences but also earns their endearment. It would also perpetuate the unfortunate precept that composing music that proves popular with listeners is somehow artistically contemptible. The quartet for Ahab, Starbuck, Greenhorn, and Queequeg in Act One, a piece in which the emotional foundations upon which the opera is laid are stripped bare, is as distinguished an ensemble as has been written for the operatic stage since Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The orchestral depictions of the maritime elements are predictably stirring, but the lament sung by Pip and Greenhorn over the dying Queequeg in Act Two and the opera’s finale soar on wings of lyrical intensity that all but vanished from opera with the death of Richard Strauss. Mr. Heggie cites as the principal joy of his work on Moby-Dick the transcendence of the boundaries that have separated audiences from new music in recent years. ‘The greatest reward,’ he says, [is] ‘that the vibration I felt in writing seems to resonate authentically with a broad audience; that the piece connects.’ It is not a perfect opera, Act One going on slightly longer than dramatic verisimilitude can support, but it a work of uncommon artistry and one that ‘connects’ more viscerally than many of the scores old and new that litter the world’s stages.

Visually, a production that supports the composer’s and librettist’s visions in Moby-Dick more commandingly than the staging by Leonard Foglia recreated at Kennedy Center is unimaginable. Transforming the stage into the Pequod and the specific environment it inhabits with startling vitality, the projections designed by Elaine J. McCarthy astonishingly conjure vistas of masts, rigging, tempests, and—most brilliantly—the whaleboats in which the crew ultimately perish. Blocking creates tableaux that credibly suggest the routines of a working ship, and a rewarding aspect of the performance was that every principal and chorister on stage performed with conviction which is possible only when there is complete comfort with the staging and the reasons for each action. With Evan Rogister in the pit, musical values were unfailingly admirable, the orchestra’s playing undermined only by a few suspect notes from the trumpets. On the whole, the instrumentalists played a difficult score with consummate virtuosity, and under Maestro Rogister’s baton timing and balances were ideal. Coordination between stage and pit was also impeccable, especially in the scenes in which the gentlemen of the Washington National Opera Chorus—directed by Chorus Master Steven Gathman—filled the theatre with tides of burly sound.

The denizens of the Pequod were portrayed by a crew of gifted singers, each of whom took care to create an individual character. The rôles of the Nantucket and Spanish sailors, Daggoo, and Tashtego made minimal demands on choristers Aurelio Dominguez, Andrew McLaughlin, Matthew Joseph Minor, and Vijay Ghosh, but everything required of them was done with panache. Australian tenor Andrew Lewis brought a beautiful voice and lively stage presence to his performance as Flask. These traits were also central to baritone Christian Bowers’s singing of Stubb, whose boisterous but good-hearted skylarking lightened the mood of the performance. One of the most attractively sonorous voices in the cast belonged to a singer who was never seen, Texas-born baritone Norman Garrett, whose lines as Captain Gardiner—the leader of another ship, the Rachel, whose son has been lost—resounded with authority and great beauty.

The assurance with which soprano Talise Trevigne sang Mr. Heggie’s music for the cabin boy Pip was phenomenal, her ability to place tones at the top of her range with accuracy unimpeded even by the most difficult approaches to individual notes. The originality of the dreamlike sequence in which Pip crossed the stage aloft, representative of the boy being tossed by the waves after Flask’s whaleboat capsized, benefited from the security and beauty of Ms. Trevigne’s singing, and the rapt concentration of her delivery of the lament over the ailing Queequeg was touching. Pip’s mad scene, in which Ahab is both figuratively and literally stained by the boy’s blood, drew from Ms. Trevigne strangely ethereal singing which was dramatically apt and musically ravishing. Unwavering dedication was the hallmark of Ms. Trevigne’s performance, and she enlarged Pip into a character of greater significance than he is in Melville’s novel, in which he is little more than an uncomfortable stereotype, albeit one which Melville strives to soften.

Queequeg, too, is a stereotypical figure, the gentle savage whose understanding exceeds the enlightenment of his ‘civilized’ comrades aboard the Pequod. Baritone Eric Greene, lavishing upon Mr. Heggie’s music a lusty voice, was a Queequeg whose silence was a poetic as his singing. His exchanges with Greenhorn were so welcoming and voiced with such affection that it is unlikely that anyone in the theatre failed to love him or shudder in terror when he fell from the rigging. The unpretentious dignity of Mr. Greene’s singing was as attractive as the tone itself, and this insightful young artist sang every phrase of his rôle with magnetic involvement, his account of his native island gleaming with the peace of an anticipated homecoming.

In his way as tormented as Ahab, Starbuck received a ringing, nuanced performance from baritone Matthew Worth. When all the crew of the Pequod are galvanized to share Ahab’s maniacal quest pursuit of Moby-Dick, Starbuck alone voices doubt: believing that Ahab’s single-mindedness is madness that perverts the commercial interests of the crew and controverts the will of God, Starbuck goes so far as to contemplate murder and mutiny. A glimmer of the inner agony of Ahab afforded by observation of the Captain’s tortured slumber stays the finger that trembles on the trigger. When Starbuck and Ahab sing in Act Two of the wives and children they left behind in Nantucket, there is a moment of unexpected connection between them, but it is short-lived. His well-intended and ultimately prescient contradiction thwarted, Starbuck becomes a broken man, his nobility sacrificed to a fate he is powerless to circumvent. In his first exchange with Greenhorn, the sternness that Mr. Worth conveyed quickly gave way to kindness, and the power of his attempts to persuade Ahab of his folly radiated virile dignity. Mr. Worth’s voice is a lovely instrument, and his attention to maintaining precision of pitch and clarity of diction never prevented him from filling moments of greatest dramatic stress with muscular, unmistakably exasperated tone.

Such is the singularity of Ahab’s obsession that it seems that it must either be madness or genius, and one way in which Mr. Heggie’s and Mr. Scheer’s work succeeds most intelligently is in the opera’s depiction of the manner in which the distinctions between those states are undiscernibly blurred. In the performance of Ahab by tenor Carl Tanner, the distinctions between lyricism and brute strength were also reduced by a display of visionary, virtuosic singing that never disappointed. Mr. Tanner’s Ahab lurked about the stage like a wounded beast seeking equally a victim upon whom to unleash his rage and a friendly hand to caress him. Especially when brandishing a harpoon, he seemed like a seagoing Wotan, the Pequod his Valhalla and his crew the doomed gods whose demise his stubborn pride hastens. There are dramatic echoes of Verdi’s Otello in Ahab’s first entrance, and Mr. Tanner rose to the occasion with the fire of a great exponent of that rôle. In lyrical passages, the poise and focus of Mr. Tanner’s singing were enjoyable, and he succeeded in making Ahab a surprisingly sympathetic man rather than an archetype. His failings were personal rather than symbolic, and the moments of repose left little doubt that he was a victim of far more than a disfiguring encounter with a whale. When given by Mr. Heggie music in which to roar, Mr. Tanner’s Ahab did so magnificently, hurling his voice into the theatre excitingly. As much as he was a man, Mr. Tanner’s Ahab was also a metaphor for the artist in an uncomprehending society. At the core, which artist is not an Ahab, a figure for whom the struggle to achieve what the soul dictates seems madness? The abiding tragedy in Mr. Tanner’s performance was that his Ahab was keenly aware of normalcy, of having a family waiting patiently for his return, but could not reconcile his perceptions of his own destiny with the reality he created. Whether he found and confronted Moby-Dick never truly mattered; nor even whether Moby-Dick existed beyond his own thoughts. Mr. Tanner’s portrait of an Ahab crippled more lastingly by his own insecurities than by a whale’s jaws was shaped by singing of restraint even in explosions of anger, and his top notes were fired like harpoons into the heaving abyss. The image of Ahab sinking into the sea, a panel in the set crushing him in darkness, was unforgettable, and Mr. Tanner’s singing ensured that every moment that preceded Ahab’s death was etched into memory with equal potency.

Francesca Cuzzoni’s Rodelinda, Isabella Colbran’s Semiramide, Giuditta Pasta’s Norma, Margaret Sheridan’s Cio-Cio San, Martha Mödl’s Isolde, Astrid Varnay’s Brünnhilde, and Maria Callas’s Tosca: these and their like are the indelible legacies that have shaped the progress of opera from Monteverdi to Stockhausen and those that, even as memories, ensure the survival of this glorious monstrosity. Through wars, through famines, through depressions and the atrocities that humanity can only inflict upon itself, opera has endured, carried upon the shoulders of these performances; these and now the Greenhorn of tenor Stephen Costello. The pervasive sorrow in Mr. Costello’s performance was centered on a poignant depiction of a young man who longs to be happy but does not know how to be. From his entrance, his Greenhorn sought acceptance, not acknowledgement, and the naturalness of his friendship with Queequeg and protectiveness of Pip were tremendously moving. In best voice, he sang fearlessly and flawlessly, ascending the heights of his rôle’s tessitura with ease and plangent tone. The boyish charm of his questioning of Queequeg about his homeland was disarming, and the understated rapture with which he sang of his desire to explore the world by Queequeg’s side was breathtaking. So, too, was the sheer beauty of the mezza voce with which he delivered his final note in the lament with Pip. The simplicity with which he sought to assume the mistaken identity of Gardiner’s missing son when the crew of the Rachel recue him highlighted his character’s yearning for a society to call his own, his cries ‘I am here, I am here’ when Captain Gardiner calls out to his son voiced with absolute honesty. When it is seen that he is not Gardiner’s son and the destruction of the Pequod is revealed, the sadness with which Mr. Costello pronounced the names of his only friends—‘all lost…and Starbuck…Flask…Stubb…Pip…Queequeg’—was heartbreaking. No, truly, it was something more individual than that: it was an expression in song of the last misfortune a man could bear. For this sweet soul, there was rejection even in salvation, and as Greenhorn was lifted to safety it seemed that survival was perhaps crueler than death among those he loved without knowing why. The opera ends as Melville’s novel begins, with the famous line, ‘Call me Ishmael.’ In Mr. Costello’s defeated but glowing singing, it was the perfect summation: thus ended the true ordeal of which Melville’s account is but a record. Vocally and dramatically, this was singing that touched immortality.

What composer, librettist, technical team, conductor, musicians, and cast achieved in this performance of Moby-Dick is what opera is meant to be: a journey. Without leaving their seats, audiences should be taken by opera along paths their feet could never travel to experiences that are unique, enriching, and, in the very best cases, ennobling. It is one thing to hear great singing, to appreciate feats of virtuosity and applaud high notes—in short, to enjoy music with the ears. This performance of Moby-Dick offered each of those opportunities, but it invited the audience to interact with people—people, not performances—on the brink of cataclysm and to contemplate whether there is any redemption worth its price. There are no better words to describe the impact of this performance than Melville’s own: ‘it is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.’

Baritone Eric Greene as Queequeg (left) and tenor Stephen Costello as Greenhorn (right) in Jake Heggie's and Gene Scheer's MOBY-DICK at Washington National Opera [Photo by Scott Suchman, © Washington National Opera] Baritone Eric Greene as Queequeg (left) and tenor Stephen Costello as Greenhorn (right) in Leonard Foglia’s production of Jake Heggie’s and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick at Washington National Opera, 2014 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © Washington National Opera]

Heartfelt thanks are extended to Mr. Heggie for his time and candor in sharing his reflections, quoted above, on the creative process that produced Moby-Dick.