29 March 2014

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.