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]