28 June 2014

ARTIST PROFILE: the incendiary bel canto of scorching soprano BRENDA HARRIS

BELLE OF BEL CANTO: American soprano BRENDA HARRIS [Photo by Lisa Kohler, © Brenda Harris] BELLE OF BEL CANTO: American soprano Brenda Harris [Photo by Lisa Kohler, © Brenda Harris]

In 1842, at the age of twenty-six, Italian soprano Giuseppina Strepponi achieved immortality by triumphantly performing the voice-wrecking rôle of Abigaille in the première of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. She was already an acclaimed singer, having made her début at La Scala—and first encountered Verdi—in the 1839 première of her future husband’s Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, and by the time of her success as Abigaille she had already sung the heroines of Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, Norma, I puritani, and La sonnambula, as well as Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Less than a decade after the first performance of Nabucco, Strepponi’s voice was in crisis, and thus was born the stigma that still serves as a dire warning to any soprano whose curiosity leads her to Abigaille’s music. Interestingly, contemporary accounts suggest that Strepponi’s natural vocal talent was supplemented by a formidable technique that enabled her to meet the demands of dramatic bel canto with every appearance of ease, but the spectacular difficulty of Abigaille’s music makes the connection of the relative brevity of Strepponi’s career with her appearances in Nabucco an easy assumption for later generations of observers. What Twenty-First Century appreciations of an artist like Strepponi often fail to consider is that singers in the first half of the Nineteenth Century rarely had the opportunities—or the expectations—for versatility that shape the careers of modern singers. Strepponi might well have sung Mozart’s Elvira, Anna, and even Fiordiligi, but she would not have been called upon to sing Händel’s dramatic coloratura rôles, Mozart’s Elettra and Vitellia, or the later lyric parts that might now figure prominently in her career. Whether or not healthy doses of different repertoire might have calmed the musical tempest that uprooted Strepponi’s vocal security, singing an array of rôles spanning more than two centuries of operatic innovation has certainly contributed to the uncommonly individual artistic development and exhilarating vocal consistency of American soprano Brenda Harris. When she visits Charlotte in October 2014 to sing Abigaille in Opera Carolina’s production of Nabucco, Ms. Harris will climb the vocal Everest that has cost many sopranos their operatic lives. The musical Himalayas are her natural habitat, however, and where other sopranos—even the legendary Strepponi—have stumbled, she soars.

The versatility that might be the undoing of many singers is one of the hallmarks of Ms. Harris’s brilliant career to date, and she is keenly aware of the technical challenges of maintaining a repertoire that has extended from Mozart’s Elettra to Richard Strauss’s Elektra. ‘I started out as a Mozart singer,’ she shares, ‘and I believe I could still sing a couple of his rôles—Elettra, Vitella—quite well. That said, I think there are many voices for which Mozart just might not be the best idea.’ Few sopranos in recent memory have sung both Mozart’s and Strauss’s incarnations of the fiery Electra, but there is the unforgettable example of Birgit Nilsson, who maintained that singing Mozart preserved the flexibility and freedom in the upper register that served her well in her more typical Hochdramatische repertoire. It is a notion that intrigues Ms. Harris. ‘Ten years ago, I probably would have gone the Nilsson route,’ she says, ‘but now I believe that singing Mozart is a wonderful thing for Mozart singers. Mozart requires not only a very specific technique but a certain temperament, and if one or both of those things aren’t part of a singer’s make-up, Mozart can be very challenging. However, if it’s right for you, and for as long as it’s right for you, I say stay with it. I sang mostly Mozart rôles for years, and I think it kept my voice fresh, in line, and healthy.’

Soprano Brenda Harris as Giulietta in Offenbach's LES CONTES D'HOFFMANN at Minnesota Opera in 1996 [Photo by Gary Mortensen, © Minnesota Opera] BELLE NUIT, Ô NUIT D’AMOUR: Brenda Harris as Giulietta in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann at Minnesota Opera, 1996 [Photo by Gary Mortensen, © Minnesota Opera]

Vocal health is only one of the qualities that make Ms. Harris’s performances unforgettable experiences. Interestingly, the path that led her to a career in opera was not paved with youthful exposure to Classical Music. ‘I never heard opera as a kid,’ she recalls. ‘I grew up listening to Country and Pop—Barbra Streisand, Patsy Cline, Kate Smith. I didn’t hear my first opera until I was in college.’ Still, as might be expected of a singer so closely associated with dramatic bel canto repertory, she identifies Maria Callas as a powerful inspiration. ‘I have to cite Callas, who I didn’t understand when I started singing seriously. My ears were only conditioned to hear beauty,’ she says, ‘and I didn’t yet understand artistry. I didn’t appreciate her. Once I started to revere expression along with vocal technique, she become my idol—and remains so!’ Ms. Harris is also mindful of Callas’s brief but legendary history with Abigaille, a rôle that she sang only three times but in which her influence is still strongly felt. ‘I listened to many recordings when learning [Abigaille],’ Ms. Harris intimates, ‘but I pretty much stuck with the 1949 Callas recording [taken from a live performance in the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples]. I always come back to that one. She’s just always so true to the score.’ Callas is the gold standard, but every Abigaille deserves respect, Ms. Harris suggests. ‘The rôle is just too darned challenging to criticize anyone!’

Soprano Brenda Harris as Abigaille in Verdi's NABUCCO at Minnesota Opera in 2012 [Photo by Michael Daniel, © Minnesota Opera]SALGO GIÀ DEL TRONO AURATO: Brenda Harris as Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco at Minnesota Opera, 2012 [Photo by Michael Daniel, © Minnesota Opera]

Consideration of the lasting influence of Callas, not just in Nabucco, on all subsequent generations of opera singers in general, leads Ms. Harris to contemplation of her own development as an artist. ‘As I said earlier, my young singer self didn’t appreciate Callas. What!? I’m almost ashamed to admit it,’ she laughs. The legacy of Callas is impossible to overlook in an appraisal of Ms. Harris’s repertoire. Her triumphs in rôles like Bellini’s Norma, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth and Violetta, and Puccini’s Tosca echo the brilliance of Callas’s core repertoire, but Ms. Harris also offers glimpses of how la Divina might have excelled in apt parts that she never sang: Elisabetta I in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux and the heroines in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, for instance. Asked to assess her own artistry, Ms. Harris cites as the hallmarks for which she strives in her performances sincerity and ardor. In her view, both the greatest challenge and the greatest reward of singing opera is ‘facing yourself,’ an insight with which Callas would surely have concurred.

As is virtually inevitable for any singer active on the international circuit in the past decade, Ms. Harris has encountered her share of productions that stretch the boundaries of traditional modes of operatic interpretation. Ms. Harris views efforts to make standard-repertory works more accessible to Twenty-First-Century audiences with a combination of appreciation and skepticism. ‘I have no problem with “concept” productions as long as they are well thought-out and consistent,’ she says. ‘Inconsistency is the problem I find with most modern/updated productions. That said, I’ve done many concept productions that have been provocative and brilliant! A new take on an old chestnut can be one of the most wonderful evenings in the theatre.’ She is quick to add that directorial efforts at increasing the ‘relevance’ of opera are not a crucial weapon in opera’s battle for endurance. ‘I don’t think it’s necessary for the survival of opera,’ she suggests. ‘No, not at all. What is? Better singing and music-making! When I first started studying and going to opera,’ she remembers, ‘I heard the greatest singers live—Sutherland, [Leontyne] Price, Caballé, Pavarotti, Kraus, and many, many more. We’re not hearing those kinds of voices now. I think that’s what’s hampering opera. You can surround mediocre singing with the most lavish of productions, ‘concept’ or not, and it won’t matter, but put great singing and acting in front of an audience, and they’ll buy a standard Traviata in droves. That’s what I believe, anyway.’

Soprano Brenda Harris in the title rôle of Bellini's NORMA at Opéra de Québec in 2000 [Photo by Louise Leblanc, © Opéra de Québec] CASTA DIVA: Brenda Harris in the title rôle of Bellini’s Norma at Opéra de Québec, 2000 [Photo by Louise Leblanc, © Opéra de Québec]

This notion raises the issue of how one defines great singing. The training of voices and the standards by which young voices are judged are essential components of the development of important singers. One of the quintessential debates among connoisseurs of voices concerns whether ‘safe’ singers with meticulously-refined techniques or those inclined to sacrifice reliability to vocal adventurousness are more to be encouraged. ‘That’s a tough question,’ Ms. Harris says. ‘These things are never cut and dried. I have fear for the flawed [but] exciting choice. When these voices are rewarded before they’re ready, they usually flame out, and I’ve seen way too much of that in my career. It saddens me immensely when voices and people don’t reach their potential.’ Above all, Ms. Harris opines, young singers must be nurtured not just as vocalists but also as protectors of the art of opera. ‘Singing for me is a life, not a vocation, and I preach that in all my master classes. We must not forget that we love this art form; that we love music and that we got into this world because of that and that alone. Believe me,’ she continues, ‘it’s easy to forget when one is in the “business” of singing for a little while. So many “business” things seem so important, but the only thing that’s really important is why we do this. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that singing has given me my life. I am so very often being lifted up—carried, even—to places that are so otherworldly, it would be criminal not to be passionate and give everything I can to this beautiful thing we do.’ Thinking back on her own time as an ‘apprentice’ singer, Ms. Harris concedes that experience has taught her much that cannot be conveyed in the secure environment of conservatory classrooms. ‘I very much doubt that my young singer self would recognize me [now],’ she divulges, ‘but I think—I hope—she’d really like me!’

Possessing a voice as remarkable for its spectrum of timbral colorations as for the visceral heat that it can radiate throughout her extensive range, Ms. Harris is the rare singer whose performances disclose an innate faculty for finding the emotional significance of even the most fiendishly difficult music, a skill enhanced by her natural gifts as an actress. ‘I’m not a “personalization” person like a method actor,’ she states. ‘I’m an “imagination” person, sort of like the Uta Hagen School. I very much enjoy being a character, but I almost never relate the theatrical [aspects of a rôle] to me or my own life. I find [that] it interferes with my thinking and takes me right out of the story.’ For Ms. Harris, opera under the best conditions becomes a sort of parallel universe. ‘When surrounded by all the trappings and perhaps a good director and/or conductor, music and imagination take over, and though I don’t think of it as an “escape” it’s most certainly a different place than normal life, and I enjoy it immensely!’

Enjoyment is the essence of Brenda Harris’s artistry—enjoyment for herself and for her audiences. ‘I definitely try to imagine what characteristics I can relate to, but I never see the character as me,’ she says. ‘While I can always find ways to relate to the feelings, experiences, and situations of a character, I never feel that the line is blurred.’ Anticipating her Charlotte performances as Abigaille, she glows with the sheer exuberance that makes her singing so special. The character is a magnificent challenge, but it is the music that makes the arduous exertion worthwhile. ‘Let’s not forget,’ she observes, ‘we have Verdi! Sometimes just singing what he wrote gives one a soul and a character! Ah, but singing what he wrote! That’s a tall order!’ A tall order, indeed; but one that this exceptional singer is sure to serve with the succulent spiciness of an arrabbiata and the decadent richness of a tiramisù.

Soprano Brenda Harris as Lady Macbeth in Verdi's MACBETH at Edmonton Opera, 2007 [Photo uncredited; used with Ms. Harris's permission] UNA MACCHIA È QUI TUTTORA: Brenda Harris as Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth at Edmonton Opera, 2007 [Photo uncredited; used with Ms. Harris’s permission]

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Sincerest thanks are extended to Ms. Harris for her kindness, openness, and sincerity, as well as for taking time from her schedule to respond to questions for this article. All photographs are used with Ms. Harris’s permission.

To learn more about Brenda Harris, visit her Official Website. She is represented by Mirshak Artists Management in New York.

For more information or to book tickets for Opera Carolina’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco featuring Gordon Hawkins in the title rôle, Brenda Harris as Abigaille, and Andrew Gangestad as Zaccaria, please visit OC’s Website or phone 704.332.7177. Performances are scheduled for Saturday, 18 October (20hr EDT), Thursday, 23 October (19hr30 EDT), and Sunday, 26 October (14hr EDT).

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini – MAOMETTO SECONDO (D. Jeffery, P. Nilon, S. Davies, C. Hulcup, C. Diffey, R. Dowling; Avie AV2312)

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini - MAOMETTO SECONDO (Avie AV2312)

GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Maometto secondoDarren Jeffery (Maometto), Paul Nilon (Erisso), Siân Davies (Anna), Caitlin Hulcup (Calbo), Christopher Diffey (Condulmiero), Richard Dowling (Selimo); Garsington Opera Chorus and Orchestra; David Parry, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performance at Garsington Opera at Wormsley, Buckinghamshire, UK, during June and July 2013; Avie AV2312; 3CD, 168:17; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

It has been frequently repeated during the past two centuries that the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa stated that when she wanted to hear opera performed at a suitably regal level she traded the heady atmosphere of Vienna for Haydn’s Eszterháza. If words to this effect were ever spoken at all, it almost certainly was not by Maria Theresa, but apocryphal attributions often travel more lightly on their feet than accurate ones. Were an opera-going sovereign to utter similar sentiments about her musical opportunities today, she might well say that, in order to hear good music performed with unflagging excellence, she packs her bags for Wormsley in Buckinghamshire, the home of Garsington Opera. Founded in Oxfordshire in 1989 by Leonard Ingrams, Garsington Opera supplements the cultural life of the home counties with summer seasons of an imaginative array of operas performed in their original languages. Their 2013 traversal of Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo was the first Garsington production preserved for posterity on compact disc, and the resulting recording confirms that the musical monarch in search of memorable opera could find no better destination than the bucolic landscape of Wormsley Park.

Premièred at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples in December 1820, Maometto secondo greeted the world with perhaps the finest cast that could have been convened for the occasion: Filippo Galli, creator of several of Rossini’s most demanding bass rôles and Enrico VIII in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, in the title rôle; Andrea Nozzari, Rossini’s first Leicester in Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra, Otello, Rinaldo in Armida, and Rodrigo in La donna del lago, as Erisso; the composer’s muse Isabella Colbran as Anna; and the acclaimed contralto Adelaide Comelli as Calbo. Astoundingly, the fickle Neapolitans were little impressed by the opera, so the ever-practical—which is to say unapologetically opportunistic—Rossini starting making revisions to the score almost immediately, incorporating a great deal of ‘new’ music into a version of the score that even included the celebrated rondo finale from La donna del lago, ‘Tanti affetti in tal momento.’ The 1822 Venice première of this revision brought Rossini greater success, followed in Paris in 1826 by the well-received first production of a considerably reworked French version, Le siège de Corinthe. Though the preference for Rossini’s first thoughts on the opera has often been put forth by musicologists for decades, the 1820 Neapolitan version of the score was not resurrected until 2012, when it was performed by Santa Fe Opera. The 2013 Garsington production recorded by Avie was the British première of the recently-completed critical edition of the 1820 ‘original’ score. In any of its incarnations, Maometto secondo contains some of Rossini’s most innovative and difficult music, and the opera’s singularity is apparent in this recording of Garsington’s production. Produced by Michael Haas and engineered by Jonathan Stokes, Neil Hutchinson, and Christopher Roberts, Avie’s recording presents the opera in generally well-balanced, spacious sound of a consistently high quality that belies Garsington’s open-air setting. Voices remain audible throughout the performance without ever sounding artificially enhanced, and details of Rossini’s imaginative orchestration are never obscured. Audience noises are virtually nonexistent and certainly never obtrusive, and the stage noises captured by the microphones give the physical drama of the opera an aural profile, enhancing the listener’s perception of the recording as a genuine theatrical experience.

Under the practiced baton of David Parry, the performance blossoms with true bel canto elegance. Throughout the performance, the Garsington Opera Orchestra and Chorus achieve standards of musical excellence that the Rossini aficionado would be pleased to encounter in London, Milan, or New York. It is apparent that the Garsington Orchestra players fully comprehend that, perhaps more so in Maometto secondo than in any of Rossini’s other Neapolitan operas, they participate in the performance rather than merely accompanying it. In this performance, their participation is never less than captivating. The instrumentalists acquit themselves winsomely, with especially wonderful showings by the brasses and woodwinds. The choristers hurl themselves into the drama, as well, and they manage to uphold the best of British choral traditions whilst also bringing convincingly Italianate slancio to their contributions to Maometto secondo. The choral singing is uniformly distinguished, but the Garsington ladies are very impressive in the lovely ‘Nume, cui ’l sole è trono’ in Act Two. His credentials as a master of bel canto having been established in a plethora of memorable performances and recordings, Maestro Parry has nothing to prove in this Maometto secondo, but his leadership is rewardingly elastic. Tempi are mostly ideal, and he is attentive to the challenges that the singers face. There are a few moments in which Maestro Parry presses ahead when it seems that the soloists would prefer to slow things down, but the conductor’s instincts for the tautness of Rossini’s dramatic pacing are in evidence in every scene. There is a lingering misconception that in bel canto the orchestra, chorus, and conductor are of secondary importance, and some performances make a strong case for this misapprehension. The Garsington Orchestra and Chorus and Maestro Parry give a rousing argument for the defense in this recording of Maometto secondo.

An exhibition of the touchstones of musicality to which Garsington Opera has climbed in its quarter-century history is created by the company’s fielding of a pair of gifted tenors in secondary rôles. As the Muslim nobleman Selimo, ​Richard Dowling sings richly, creating a strong character in recitative and filling his lines in ensembles with distinction. Christopher Diffey is an equally vivid presence as the Venetian general Condulmiero​, especially in the opening scenes of Act One. Both gentlemen possess voices of top quality and make the most of every opportunity Rossini grants them.

​In her performance as the Venetian general Calbo, Australian mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup fires volley after volley of blazing coloratura, seeming a fusion of Conchita Supervia and Marilyn Horne in their primes. Ms. Hulcup’s voice combines a robustness of timbre that enables her to credibly portray male characters with a bravura technique that firmly places her in the ranks of today’s best Rossini singers. Ms. Hulcup sings her lines in the terzettone ‘Ohimè! Qual fulmine’ in Act One—Rossini’s emblematic ‘big fat trio’—with stunning immediacy, her characterization of Calbo demanding the listener’s sympathy. In Act Two, her performance of the fervent aria ‘Non temer’ is shaped by dramatic intensity tempered by absolute mastery of bel canto technique. The peak of Ms. Hulcup’s performance is reached in the terzettino with Anna and Erisso in Act Two, ‘In questi estremi istanti,’ in which she unleashes the full power and poetry of her artistry. There are passages at the bottom and top of Calbo’s music that challenge Ms. Hulcup, but she copes with every requirement of her rôle with the confidence of a marathon runner who has the finish line in sight. Poor Calbo can get lost among the high-flying, frenzied exchanges between Anna and Erisso: Ms. Hulcup ensures that her character remains at the center of the drama from first note to last.

Interestingly, the resolute Venetian governor of Negroponte Erisso is characterized almost solely in ensembles, which is perhaps symbolic of the extent to which his destiny is so closely allied with those of his daughter, Calbo, and Maometto. West Yorkshire native Paul Nilon is a Rossini tenor to the manner born, and his security in Erisso’s very daunting music yields many breathtaking feats of virtuosity. Not surprisingly in a part created by Nozzari, Erisso’s vocal lines cover a great deal of ground in terms of tessitura, descending to baritonal lows and soaring with some frequency to the vicinity of top C. Mr. Nilon does not negotiate his rôle without strain, but he careens through the music with abandon that never ventures beyond the boundaries of bel canto tastefulness. In the grand trio with Anna and Calbo in Act One, Mr. Nilon pours out Erisso’s coloratura as though it were the most natural means of communication known to him, and his rhythmic crispness and poise at the top of the voice convey the character’s dignity. Mr. Nilon’s singing in ‘In questi estremi istanti’ in Act Two is a model of vocal strength and dramatic vitality. The range of emotions that Mr. Nilon conveys is extraordinary, but the principal joys of his performance are the finesse and unflappable technical acumen of his singing.

Singing the rôle of Erisso’s daughter and the disguised Maometto’s lover Anna, American soprano Siân Davies ​is a marvelous discovery. Garsington’s production of Maometto secondo provided her with the vehicle for her European début, and this recording introduces her to the fabulous, often fickle world of recorded opera. It is a propitious introduction. In Anna’s cavatina in Act One, ‘Ah! che invan su questo ciglio,’ Ms. Davies revels in Rossini’s ravishing cantilena lines, and the evenness of the voice across the full range of the music enables her to make ascents into the upper register dramatically as well as musically satisfying. Her lines in ‘Ohimè​! Qual fulmine’ set the bar very high for her colleagues, and here, too, the diamond-bright sheen of her top notes is glorious. The quiet grace of her singing of Anna’s preghiera, ‘Giusto cielo,’ contrasts awesomely with her spit-fire coloratura in the terzettone, and the technical command that she displays in the duet with Maometto in Act Two, ‘Anna, tu piangi,’ and ‘Alfin compita è la metà​ dell’opra’ is admirable. Like Ms. Hulcup, Ms. Davies saves the best for last: the radiance of her voicing of the andantino in the opera’s finale, ‘Madre, a te che sull’Empiro,’ is heartening and quite moving. Ms. Davies possesses a voice with a soft-grained, lusciously feminine timbre, and her technique proves equal to Rossini’s music. In this performance, she interacts with her colleagues with the naturalness of a gifted actress. Ms. Davies makes her mark with aplomb: in a world in which first impressions are invaluable, this young artist creates memories that herald the start of a great international career.

​A Maometto secondo with a weak Maometto is like a Tosca with a lounge singer rather than a bona fide diva in the title rôle. Taking as his inspiration what was then known of the historical Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, Rossini created a dynamic character tortured by the conflict between duty and desire. English bass-baritone Darren Jeffery takes this performance by the collar at his first entrance and never loosens his grip. In his opening scene, Mr. Jeffery reveals all of the strengths of his artistry: excellent diction, a rousingly masculine timbre, dramatic potency, and technical acumen. In Maometto’s Act One cavatina, ‘Duce di tanti eroi,’ he immediately unveils a charismatic portrait of the troubled sultan, and his singing exudes sincerity even in the most ferocious coloratura. Mr. Jeffery’s voicing of Maometto’s pained interview with Anna in Act Two is stirring, and his singing of the aria ‘All’invito generoso’ simmers with all of the suppressed emotions provoked by Maometto’s situation. Dramatically, Mr. Jeffery depicts an imposing but unmistakably human Maometto, and the uncompromising nobility of his performance disables the uncomfortable stereotypes that can afflict portrayals of Islamic characters in Western art. Mr. Jeffery finds the kernels of Maometto’s complexity in Rossini’s music and allows them to take root in his performance. As recorded, there is a measure of unsteadiness in Mr. Jeffery’s singing, but his is the sort of burly, burnished voice that needs space in which to resonate. He gives an electrifying performance, and his Maometto emerges as both the villain and the victim of a clash between two vastly different but maddeningly like cultures.

With so many fine Rossini singers active today, there is no use in putting on a Rossini opera if it cannot be put on with panache. Panache is what fizzes in every moment of this recording of Garsington Opera’s 2013 production of Maometto secondo. A better cast for this watershed score could hardly have been assembled, and Avie give the production the outstanding presentation that it deserves. Each operatic performance is an unique artistic creation, and this can complicate the process of compiling a recording from several performances. The unfluctuating merit of this recording further validates the viability of recording opera in performance, however. The success of this inaugural venture is manifested in the fact that it induces both total enjoyment of this performance of Maometto secondo and great anticipation for the next Garsington Opera production to appear on disc.

CD REVIEW: Mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup as Calbo (left) and tenor Paul Nilon as Erisso (right) in Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO at Garsington Opera, June/July 2013 [Photo by Mike Hoban, © Garsington Opera] BEL CANTO AT THE BRINK: Mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup (left) as Calbo and tenor Paul Nilon (right) as Erisso in Rossini’s Maometto secondo at Garsington Opera, June/July 2013 [Photo by Mike Hoban, © Garsington Opera]

26 June 2014

CD REVIEW: Christoph Willibald Gluck – OPERA ARIAS (Daniel Behle, tenor; DECCA 478 6758)

CD REVIEW: Christoph Willibald Gluck - OPERA ARIAS (DECCA 478 6758)

CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD GLUCK (1714 – 1787): Opera Arias for Tenor – Arias from Antigono, Le cinesi, La contesa de’ numi, Ezio, Ipermestra, Iphigénie en Aulide, Orphée et Eurydice, La Recontre imprévue, and La Semiramide riconosciutaDaniel Behle, tenor; Armonia Atenea; George Petrou, conductor [Recorded in Dimitris Mitropoulos Hall, Megaron, The Athens Concert Hall, Athens, Greece, 4 – 9 July 2013; DECCA 478 6758; 1CD, 63:50*; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers; *Note: The digital download version of this release includes an additional aria, ‘Plus j’observe ces lieux’ from Armide.]

​The flow of new recordings released in celebration of the Verdi and Wagner Bicentennials ultimately proved to be more of a trickle than the anticipated deluge, and by any credible standards the discs that floated into the market left much to be desired and little to be remembered. With many of the world’s finest singers and musicians now being those with proven historically-informed performance practice credentials, expectations for a glut of musically-impeccable new recordings honoring the 300th anniversaries of the births of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Christoph Willibald Gluck, and Niccolò Jommelli soared with the dawning of 2014. The musicologist with an adventurous nature and a reliable security detail might venture that this trio of Eighteenth-Century masters were, in terms of contributions to the progress of the musical genres with which they tussled, even more significant than their Nineteenth-Century successors. Without Jommelli, there might have been no Verdi; without Gluck, no Wagner: without C.P.E. Bach, much of the magnificent landscape of later music would be barren. Even now, in the year of his tercentennial, the legacy of Gluck beyond Orfeo ed Euridice—the body of work that influenced and inspired operatic endeavors from Fidelio and Euryanthe to Les Troyens, Rusalka, and The Rape of Lucretia—remains in the shadows. While every dismembered score by Händel and Vivaldi is patched up and restored to some semblance of life regardless of its merits, Gluck’s operas slumber in libraries and archives, grateful merely to see their titles quoted in tomes on Eighteenth-Century music. Perhaps there is a lingering perception that his early bravura scores are works of which the composer of Orfeo ed Euridice, Iphigénie en Tauride, and Armide ought to be ashamed, works of the sort that his own reforms sought to render obsolete, but of what value is appreciating progress without evaluating the point from which the journey began? An unprejudiced evaluation of Gluck’s operas reveals an exceptionally varied portfolio of scores that span virtually the entire course of opera in the composer’s lifetime, from the late Baroque of Händel and Hasse to the Viennese Classicism of Haydn, Mozart, and Salieri and the Turn-of-the-Century innovations of Beethoven, Cherubini, Grétry, and Méhul. Gluck was not merely an observer of operatic history: he was, for more than a half-century, its guiding light, and an earnest comprehension of Gluck’s importance as a musical trailblazer is immeasurably enhanced by acquaintance with the products of his creativity at all junctures in his career. This disc of discerningly-selected arias for tenor is one of the most valuable tools for building that acquaintance to have emerged since the invention of sound recording. Moreover, benefitting from the top-quality engineering and presentation for which DECCA recordings have been renowned for decades, it is a disc that preserves some truly wonderful singing.

A recital of opera arias that enjoys the support of Armonia Atenea and George Petrou has considerable augurs of success before the singer steps into the recording studio. Tested in repertory ranging from Händel to Beethoven, the instrumentalists of Armonia Atenea have demonstrated expertise in the shifting idioms of Eighteenth-Century music, and their playing of Gluck repertory on this disc reveals a further facet in their virtuosic diadem. These arias demand both determination and delicacy, and the Armonia Atenea players deliver powerfully. In the fiery music from Gluck’s earlier operas, the musicians stretch their muscles with playing of uncompromising precision and rhythmic vitality. In a number like the over-familiar ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’ from Orphée et Eurydice, the inclusion of which is justified by the radiant performance that it receives, the musical magicians of Armonia Atenea lament with Orphée in an arresting union of sound with sentiment. Only an occasionally over-active harpsichord continuo disturbs the keenly-judged collaboration among orchestra, conductor, and singer. Maestro Petrou’s pacing of each aria exudes confidence, familiarity, and innate understanding of both Gluck’s requirements and the soloist’s needs in terms of breath control and dramatic deportment. It is largely to Maestro Petrou’s credit that nothing sounds derivative: whether in the vein of Hasse or in the full throes of reform, each aria glistens with the individual voice of Gluck. The authentic spirit of the composer also inhabits the work of musicologist Giovanni Andrea Sechi, whose specially-prepared editions and historically-appropriate ornaments introduce these arias to Twenty-First-Century listeners in settings that restore the full splendor of Gluck’s creativity.

In his recent recordings of Humperdinck’s Königskinder [Oehms Classics—reviewed here] and Brahms’s Die schöne Magelone [Capriccio] and his sonorous performances as Matteo in Osterfestspiele Salzburg’s production of Richard Strauss’s Arabella opposite Renée Fleming, it has been apparent that young tenor Daniel Behle is an artist destined to be one of the most important singers of his generation. In his singing of the arias on this disc, he grasps that destiny with both hands and, in one of the most beautiful recordings of tenor singing released in recent memory, realizes the promise of his earlier recordings. The voice is the genuine article, a full-bodied lyric tenor with a solid core: the power and patina are those of steel and gold, not chrome-plated pyrite. The liquid ease of Mr. Behle’s tonal production and his well-schooled bravura technique make him a first-rate exponent of Eighteenth-Century music for the tenor voice, ranging from the bracing coloratura of Bajazet in Händel’s Tamerlano to the effusive lyricism of Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. The reserves of strength in Mr. Behle’s singing make guardedly tantalizing suggestions of Jugendlicher Heldentenor potential, and his youthful mastery of Lieder repertory gives notice of meticulously-honed interpretive instincts. The best qualities of Mr. Behle’s artistry find outlets in Gluck’s music, and each of the arias receives from him a performance that allies consummate musicality with sensitive emotional accents drawn from the text.

Opening the disc with a vigorous account of the title character’s aria ‘Quercia annosa sull’erte pendici’ from Antigono, an aria that would not seem out of place in Mozart’s Mitridate, rè di Ponto, Mr. Behle immediately discloses his stylistic affinity with Gluck’s music. The coloratura of Mirteo’s aria ‘Io veggo in lontananza’ from Act Two of La Semiramide riconosciuta is dispatched impressively, and the ringing top notes and credibly-managed trills make the cadenzas delightful displays of exhilarating but historically-appropriate singing. Mr. Behle explores unexpected chromatic avenues in the aria’s closing cadenza to great effect, his sure intonation enabling musically satisfying resolutions of diminished harmonies. In the same character’s aria from Act One, ‘Bel piacer saria d’un core,’ Mr. Behle’s handling of coloratura is even more expressive, and his negotiations of the grueling vocal intervals are thrilling. Danao’s powerful aria ‘Non hai cor per un’impresa’ from Act Two of Ipermestra—a score more deserving of revival than almost any of the Baroque obscurities performed and recorded in the past decade—receives from Mr. Behle a pulse-quickening performance, the biting irony of his delivery of the lines ‘hai costanza, ingrata figlia, per vedermi palpitar’ (‘you stand unmoved, ungrateful daughter, and observe my trembling’) shaping a noble but piercing portrayal of the aria’s dramatic ardor.

Massimo’s aria from Act One of the 1750 Prague version of Ezio, ‘Se povero il ruscello,’ is sung as beautifully by Mr. Behle as it is accompanied by Armonia Atenea. The phrasing of the oboe obbligato is perfectly matched to Mr. Behle’s singing, which blooms marvelously as the vocal line ascends. Even considering that the aria was repurposed as the dulcet ‘Che puro ciel’ in Orfeo ed Euridice in Vienna in 1762, Gluck’s excision of the aria in his 1763 Viennese revision of Ezio is lamentable. Mr. Behle’s sustained tones and refined diction in ‘Se povero il ruscello’ provide great pleasure. Paced at an apt tempo, Mr. Behle presents ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice’ from the 1774 Paris version of Orphée et Eurydice as an agitated expression of grief rather than a lugubrious dirge, the pair of top B♭s voiced with freedom and grace. A resonantly-sustained top B crowns Mr. Behle’s singing of Achille’s superb entrance aria from Iphigénie en Aulide, ‘Cruelle, non, jamais votre insensible cœur,’ which inspires the tenor to one of his most impassioned performances on the disc. The high, haute-contre tessitura of ‘Je chérirai, jusqu’au trépas,’ Ali’s aria from Act One of the underappreciated La Rencontre imprévue, makes no demands of Mr. Behle that are not met gloriously. Breathing the same air as ‘J’ai perdu mon Eurydice,’ the aria’s expansive melodies are phrased by the singer with serene composure complemented by the cor anglais and violin obbligati and the theorbo continuo. Mr. Behle possesses an especially beautiful top A: the vocal line of ‘Je chérirai, jusqu’au trépas’ might have been composed for him, and his ascent to top C is elegant and secure.

Giove’s recitative ‘Qual ira intempestiva’ and aria ‘Oggi per me non sudi’ from La contesa de’ numi, composed for a festive occasion in Copenhagen in 1749, are suitably pompous, and Mr. Behle approaches the music with vocal grandeur appropriate for the ruler of Olympus. He rips through the words of the opening recitative with the force of Jove’s thunderbolt, and his singing of the aria is opulently energetic. Mr. Behle’s singing of Silango’s aria ‘Son lungi e non mi brami’ from Le cinesi is stirring, the sting of his enunciation of ‘ti sento dir che m’ami, né trovo amore in te’ (‘I hear you say that you love me, but I find no love in you’) lending his performance tremendous emotional impact. It is regrettable that purchasers of the compact disc version of this recital are deprived of Mr. Behle’s gorgeous performance of Renaud’s air ‘Plus j’observe ces lieux’ from Act Two of Armide. This aria is illustrative of Gluck at the pinnacle of his gifts as a composer and dramatist, and his singing of it is demonstrative of the best of Mr. Behle’s achievements as a singer and lyric artist.

When there is near-universal acknowledgement both of Gluck’s unique genius and of the lasting importance of his contributions to the transition of opera from the Baroque models of the Seventeenth and early Eighteenth Centuries to the luxuriant Romanticism of the Nineteenth Century and beyond, the neglect suffered by the bulk of his operatic scores is inexplicable. The tercentennial of Gluck’s birth is an anniversary worthy of commemoration, but the lofty hopes for a bevy of excellent new and reissued recordings of the composer’s music have mostly been unfulfilled. This disc honors Gluck in remarkable ways, however, and it is a recording worthy of inclusion among the ranks of the legendary recital discs of DECCA’s storied past. Most delectably, though, it is a celebration of Daniel Behle, one of the Twenty-First-Century’s finest young tenors. Gluck will receive no finer tribute on the occasion of his 300th birthday than Daniel Behle’s singing on this disc.

25 June 2014

CD REVIEW: Béla Bartók – A KÉKSZAKÁLLÚ HERCEG VÁRA (D. Fischer-Dieskau, I. Seefried; Audite 95.626)

CD REVIEW: Béla Bartók - A KÉKSZAKÁLLÚ HERCEG VÁRA (Audite 95.626)

BÉLA BARTÓK (1841 – 1904): A kékszakállú herceg vára, Op. 11 / Sz 48 (sung in German as Herzog Blaubarts Burg)—Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Blaubart), Irmgard Seefried (Judith); Schweizerisches Festspielorchester; Rafael Kubelík, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in concert at the Kunsthaus, Lucerne, Switzerland, during the Internationale Musikfestwochen Luzern, 15 August 1962; Audite 95.626; 1CD, 60:41; Available from Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Except in the most extraordinary of circumstances, Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle is an opera that is more effective in concert than in staged performances. Like Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, it is a score in which the drama is primarily cerebral, but it is disserved by performances that treat the opera as straightforward Gothic melodrama. Bluebeard’s Castle inhabits the world of Kafka rather than that of Poe, and the best, most unforgettable performances are those that compel the listener to seek within his own imagination visual dimensions for the vistas to which Judith responds in music. Who is to say, after all, that the events of Bluebeard’s Castle are not manifestations of psychosis born solely of Judith’s obsession with her enigmatic new husband? Musically, there is no doubting the oppressive, claustrophobic mystery of Bartók’s score, but far too many performances of Bluebeard’s Castle force the impact of the music on the listener instead of allowing it to build naturally like a gathering storm.

Recorded in concert during the 1962 Internationale Musikfestwochen Luzern, this performance preserves Rafael Kubelík’s (1914 – 1996) rousingly unaffected approach to Bartók’s music. Now inexplicably regarded by many Classical Music enthusiasts as a Kapellmeister in the worst connotation of the term, Maestro Kubelík was an experienced, unfailingly capable leader of many of the world’s best orchestras, and his interpretations of his native Czech repertory—especially the music of Dvořák and Janáček—were expert. In opera, a genre in which he was active as both a conductor and a composer, his tenure as Musical Director of London’s Royal Opera House saw the first production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in its entirety. Unfortunately, his time as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera was very brief, but his Deutsche Grammophon recording of Verdi’s Rigoletto—featuring this performance’s Bluebeard in the title rôle, alongside the poetic Gilda of Renata Scotto and the poised Duca of Carlo Bergonzi—is sufficient evidence of Maestro Kubelík’s unconventional brilliance in operatic repertory. His affiliation with the Internationale Musikfestwochen Luzern led to his naturalization as a Swiss citizen following his marriage to his second wife, the Australian soprano Elsie Morison. In this performance of Bluebeard’s Castle, Maestro Kubelík’s command of the nuances of Bartók’s score is unmistakably refined. None of Bartók’s mature works presents a conductor with an easy task, and even in its brief duration Bluebeard’s Castle is among the most demanding operas for conductors, orchestras, and singers. The Schweizerisches Festspielorchester is not the Wiener Philharmoniker, but the standard of playing achieved—and, more importantly, sustained—by the instrumentalists is admirably high. Under Maestro Kubelík’s direction, the critical woodwind parts are emphasized without balances being distorted, and the string, brass, and percussion playing are laudably accurate. There are a few of the mistakes that are virtually inevitable in a live performance of such a taxing score, but the overall musical integrity of the performance is never jeopardized. Maestro Kubelík maintains taut rhythms throughout the performance, and the orchestral players respond to the clarity of his beat with alert, astute executions of their parts. Though led by a Czech conductor before a Swiss audience and sung in German without the spoken prologue, this performance is as exciting and stylistically valid a realization of Bartók’s music as any on disc.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s (1925 – 2012) Bluebeard is a familiar characterization. Having recorded the part in German in 1958 for Deutsche Grammophon with Herta Töpper and Ferenc Fricsay, participated in an acclaimed 1975 Suisse Romande performance (sung in Hungarian) featuring Brigitte Fassbaender and Wolfgang Sawallisch that was broadcasted by BBC Radio 3 in 1978, and returned to the opera for DGG in 1979—in Hungarian this time round—with his wife Júlia Várady as Judith and Sawallisch again on the podium, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was a widely-traveled if infrequent exponent of Bartók’s opera. In truth, the rôle was not an ideal match for the baritone’s natural vocal gifts: Bluebeard’s vocal line rises often to E4, which accesses the most honeyed portion of Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s voice, but the line also descends to low notes that are beyond the singer’s comfortable range. This 1962 performance finds Mr. Fischer-Dieskau at the zenith of his powers as both a singer and an artist, however. Singing in his own language before an audience, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau is more spontaneous interpretively than in his studio recordings of Bluebeard’s Castle. His Bluebeard is an expectedly aristocratic creation, more sophisticated than sinister, but there is an engagingly inscrutable quality to his performance. Mr. Fischer-Dieskau brings an extraordinarily broad spectrum of verbal inflections to his singing, but the immediacy of his interactions with his Judith, Maestro Kubelík, and the audience preclude the preciosity that crept into many of his studio recordings of both operatic and Lieder repertories. Vocally, the lowest notes of Bluebeard’s compass understandably lack authority in Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s performance, but tones in the upper octave-and-a-half of the rôle are superbly resonant. The sadness that Mr. Fischer-Dieskau conveys in his performance lends Bluebeard greater humanity than he typically enjoys, and despite a few approximated passages Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s is an uncommonly thoughtful, emotionally involved portrait of one of opera’s most psychologically thorny characters.

A great singer earns that designation, in part, by displaying capacities for defying expectations and redefining herself as a vocalist and an artist according to the progress of the career and the development of the voice. Assessed according to those criteria and so many more, there is no doubt that German soprano Irmgard Seefried (1919 – 1988) was a great singer. Acquaintance with Bartók’s score raises doubts about the viability of Ms. Seefried’s voice for Judith’s music, but this performance offers indisputable evidence to support the notion that Ms. Seefried never took on a rôle without trusting her ability to make it her own. Musically and dramatically, this performance is a triumph of a deeply insightful artist approaching a part on her own terms. From her first line, Ms. Seefried portrays a Judith who is both perceptibly in love with Bluebeard and apprehensive about the life that awaits her as the consort of such an arcane man. Her characterization displays an endearing naïveté, but this Judith is no gullible shrinking violet. Upon the opening of each door, Ms. Seefried conveys wonder mixed with horror: the torture chamber, the arsenal, the garden, and the inescapable stench of blood unnerve but never unravel this Judith’s resolve, and the pity in Ms. Seefried’s interactions with Bluebeard complements the subtle nobility of Mr. Fischer-Dieskau’s portrayal. The sheer difficulty of the music undermines Ms. Seefried’s diction, but she puts every note and every phrase—musical and textual—to engrossing use. Like her Bluebeard, Ms. Seefried faces obstacles that she cannot surmount solely on vocal footing, but the greatest accomplishment of her performance is the manner in which she transforms vocal weaknesses into dramatic strengths. She simply did not possess the explosive top C required for the opening of the fifth door, but her accurately-pitched scream is more effective than many resplendent negotiations of the tone by other singers. Crucially, Ms. Seefried approaches Judith’s craggy vocal lines with unassailable musicality. In the central octave of Judith’s music, Ms. Seefried’s voice is more mobile, focused, and beautiful than almost any other recorded Judith. Most remarkably, Ms. Seefried contributes to this performance what so many accounts of Bluebeard’s Castle lack: a sense of genuine resolution. Ms. Seefried imparts a strangely moving combination of resignation and persistent fascination in the opera’s finale scene, and her choice of extracting the drama from the music produces a probing, superbly-sung Judith representative of the work of one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest artists.

Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle is one of the most powerful operatic masterpieces of the early Twentieth Century, but few performances in recent seasons are likely to have left audiences with this impression. Presented in best-possible sound via Audite’s new remastering by Ludger Böckenhoff, this 1962 concert performance of Bartók’s awe-inspiring score proclaims in every one of its sixty minutes that the opera is a benchmark of polytonalism and Freudian psychological drama. Rafael Kubelík, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Irmgard Seefried form an unlikely but uncannily potent team who offer a legitimate performance of Bartók’s music rather than a reaction to its reputation. As a document of its conductor’s mastery of a tricky score that has defeated many gifted musicians and an example of the feats of which great singers are capable even in music that overextends their vocal resources, this recording is a treasure: as an absorbing, imperfect but indispensable performance of Bluebeard’s Castle, it is one of the most welcome releases of 2014.

19 June 2014

CD REVIEW: Félix Fourdrain – SONGS (Liliana Górska, mezzo-soprano; Piotr Ejsmont, piano; Acte Préalable AP0323)

CD REVIEW: Félix Fourdrain - SONGS (Acte Préalable AP0323)

FÉLIX FOURDRAIN (1880 – 1923): SongsLiliana Górska, mezzo-soprano; Piotr Ejsmont, piano [Recorded in Studio Nagrań Akademii Muzycznej im. St. Moniuszki, Gdańsk, Poland, in 2013; Acte Préalable AP0323; 1CD, 47:13; Available from Gigant, jpc, Merlin, Presto Classical, major music retailers, and by emailing Acte Préalable]

It can surely be said without hyperbole that today’s inquisitive Lieder singer has more repertoire at his or her disposal than at any other time in the history of Art Song. Still, too few singers look beyond the ‘comfortable’ repertory of Lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and a few token composers in the English and French repertories when choosing songs for recitals and recordings. There is no doubting the importance of these composers to the development, refinement, and preservation of Lieder or the legitimacy of singers’ desires to commit their individual interpretations to disc, but who will have the courage to advocate for the overlooked songs of forgotten composers? In the case of the ignored Frenchman Félix Fourdrain, the Polish Acte Préalable label takes up this fascinating composer’s banner and unfurls it thrillingly with this disc of a selection of Fourdrain’s Songs. Every aspect of this recording, expertly produced by Jan A. Jarnicki and engineered by Cezary Joczyn, exudes the preparation and presentation that enable success in any repertory. The great success of this disc is not in its exploration of ignored music, however, but in the undeviating quality of the performances: in this recital of Fourdrain’s Songs, the focus is on making music, not making excuses for the neglect to which these jewels have been subjected.

Even by the standard of his generation, Fourdrain’s time on earth was brief. Born in Nice in 1880, Fourdrain was acclaimed as an organist, having studied at L’École Niedermeyer in Paris with the renowned organist and composer Charles-Marie Widor. Like his younger contemporary Pietro Mascagni, it was the first of Fourdrain’s operas, La légende du point d’Argentan, that was judged his finest work for the theatre and secured his reputation as a composer of opera. Following the 1907 première of La légende du point d’Argentan at the Opéra-Comique, Fourdrain’s subsequent operas were heard in most of Paris’s most prestigious theatres. Fourdrain also studied with Jules Massenet, the influence of whose gift for lyrical melody is apparent in the twenty-one songs on this disc. All but two of the songs offered here are settings of verses by André Alexandre (1860 – 1928), who provided the libretti for two of Reynaldo Hahn’s operatic compositions, and the literary continuity of the texts enabled Fourdrain to focus his talents on uniting his melodic inspirations with organic, often unexpectedly ambiguous accompaniments. Interestingly, though, two of the finest songs in this recital are the pair with words by other poets. Originally paired for publication with the song ‘Vénus’ [not included on this disc], ‘La belle aux yeux d’amour,’ dedicated to the memory of Marguerite Bernède, employs a text by Arthur Bernède (1871 – 1937), librettist of Fourdrain’s La légende du point d’Argentan and Massenet’s Sapho. Fourdrain made compelling use of the repeated couplets ‘Les bois ont des frémissements / Comme en ont les cœurs des amants’ (‘There are in the woods shudders / Just as there are in lovers’ hearts’), wistfully conveying the conjoined trembling of humanity and nature in both the piano and the vocal line. The text of ‘Noël de neige’ is the work of Jean Richepin (1849 – 1926), the poet and dramatist perhaps best remembered now for his liaison with the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt. The irony of the text is bitingly enlarged by Fourdrain’s music. The unflaggingly high level of invention that pervades all of the songs on this disc proclaims that Fourdrain’s songs are far more musically substantial than the decorative ‘pièces de salon’ that flowed from the pens of many of his contemporaries.

Perhaps the richness of Fourdrain’s creativity would not be so apparent in performances less fluid, fluent, and impeccably-delivered than those by mezzo-soprano Liliana Górska and pianist Piotr Ejsmont on this disc. Ms. Górska’s voice is an ideal instrument for Fourdrain’s music, the beautiful, bronzed timbre bolstered by an imposing core of iron that permits the singer to cover the emotional spectrum of the songs without over-stretching the voice. The contrasting styles of ‘Les petites communiantes,’ ‘Le papillon,’ ‘Il neige des fleurs,’ ‘Carnaval,’ ‘Le vieux moulin,’ ‘Edelweiss,’ ‘Chanson Norvégienne,’ ‘Lettre d’adieu,’ and the Bernède and Richepin settings are differentiated with charming subtlety by Ms. Górska, and she is unafraid of indulging a judiciously-deployed sentimentality in the most overtly Romantic songs. The exciting, slightly seedy exoticism of ‘Alger le soir’ tingles in Ms. Górska’s singing, and the buzzing brilliance of ‘Les abeilles’ is cunningly evinced without caricature. The quiet japonaiserie of ‘Fleurs de paravent’ gives way in Ms. Górska’s glowing performance to subdued despondency, and the differing passions of ‘Les mouettes’ and ‘Sainte Dorothée’ are portrayed with equal faculty. Ms. Górska’s depiction of the galloping breathlessness of ‘Chevauchée Cosaque’ is thrilling, but she finds precisely the right interpretive attitude for each song. Along the way, she encounters a few phrases that lie awkwardly for her voice, but she noticeably maintains secure intonation and good diction even when the vocal lines are least comfortable. Mr. Ejsmont’s accompaniment gives Ms. Górska canvases on which to recreate the vibrant pictures that Fourdrain drew in music. Sometimes with the lilting sophistication of a Chopin Nocturne and at others with the unfettered virtuosity of a Liszt Étude, Fourdrain’s accompaniments often approach the nuances of the texts from different angles than the vocal lines. Solely as pianism, Mr. Ejsmont’s playing is tremendously impressive, but as a display of collaborative interplay with Ms. Górska it is truly masterful.

Marcel Proust wrote that ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.’ New ears are the vessels that chart unknown musical waters, and this disc of Félix Fourdrain’s Songs gives the listener the artistic equivalent of a cochlear implant. In the liner notes that accompany the disc, Liliana Górska writes that her encounter with Fourdrain’s Songs was an instance of ‘love at first sight,’ a notion easily expressed in words but communicated in sound only with the greatest skill. Each of the twenty-one Songs on this disc is performed with affection and musical mastery that confirm the veracity of the singer’s assertion. The performances on this disc also confirm Fourdrain’s value as a ‘new’ composer of beguiling, invigorating songs. Dziękuję, Acte Préalable! Now, if only other accomplished Lieder singers will take note…

07 June 2014

CD REVIEW: Gioseffo Zamponi – ULISSE ALL’ISOLA DI CIRCE (F. Zanasi, C. Scheen, M. Flores, D. Visse, F. Schofrin, F. Guimarães, Z. Wilder, M. Bellotto, S. Foresti; Ricercar RIC 342)

CD REVIEW: Gioseffo Zamponi - ULISSE ALL'ISOLA DI CIRCE (Ricercar RIC 342)

GIOSEFFO ZAMPONI (circa 1615 – 1662): Ulisse all’isola di CirceFurio Zanasi (Ulisse), Céline Scheen (Circe), Sergio Foresti (Nettuno), Fernando Guimarães (Euriloco, Tritone secondo, Statua prima, Marte), Zachary Wilder (Mercurio, Apollo), Mariana Flores (Venere), Dominique Visse (Argesta), Fabián Schofrin (Satiro), Matteo Bellotto (Giove), Caroline Weynants (Lisetta, Pallade), Alice Foccroulle (Dorinda), Benoît Giaux (Tritone primo), Philippe Favette (Statua seconda); Chœur de chambre de Namur; Clematis; Leonardo García Alarcón, conductor [Recorded in the Salle philharmonique de Liège, Belgium, in February 2012; Ricercar RIC 342; 2CD, 138:11; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

For composers active in the century of opera’s infancy, aristocratic weddings presented extraordinary opportunities of lavish spectacles, almost limitless budgets, and captive audiences of deep-pocketed potential employers and benefactors. There are in the history of opera in the Seventeenth Century countless instances of the marriages of forgotten nobles inspiring forgotten operas by half-remembered composers. When the nuptials of Philip IV of Spain and his second wife, Mariana of Austria, were celebrated in the Spanish Netherlands in 1650, the occasion was marked in Brussels by the première of a new opera by Gioseffo Zamponi, a composer whose life and career are now obscured by the impersonal ignorance of time. Likely born in Rome sometime before 1619 [competing theories date his birth to circa 1600, 1610, and 1615], Zamponi entered the service of Archduke Wilhelm Leopold, the Hapsburg Governor of the Spanish Netherlands and son of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, in 1648, following a tenure at the archiepiscopal court of Cardinal Pietro Maria Borghese in Rome. Seemingly a genuinely appreciative patron of the arts, Wilhelm Leopold assembled a near-legendary coven of renowned artists at his court in Brussels, and the caliber of his colleagues in the visual arts suggests that Zamponi’s reputation among his contemporaries must have been exalted. Despite the lack of reliable information about his achievements as an artist, it is certain that it was Zamponi’s Ulisse all’isola di Circe that introduced Brussels to Italian opera, then still a novelty, and that the opera’s first performance was a success considerable enough to prompt a second performance, as well as a further pair of performances five years later to honor the Swedish Queen Christina Alexandra’s visit to Brussels. Solely for inaugurating operatic traditions in Brussels, where they remain strong 364 years later, Zamponi deserves to be remembered, but this recording of his pioneering Ulisse all’isola di Circe reveals that he and his work are far more than historical curiosities: this is a score that earns its composer a place of honor among the geniuses of his time and one that has more to offer the modern listener than many similar scores that have been convincingly rehabilitated in the Twenty-First Century.

Musically, Ulisse all’isola di Circe replicates the Venetian models of Zamponi’s generation, its stylistic kinship with the operas of Cavalli manifested both in the alteration of recitative with mellifluously melodic arioso and the introduction of comedic characters into an otherwise serious mythological epic. Though Zamponi’s adherence to the traditions of Venetian opera as he knew it is marked, the formulaic elements of Ulisse all’isola di Circe are remarkably unobtrusive, and the listener for whom Seventeenth-Century opera in general is hard going can rejoice in the complete lack of doldrums throughout the opera’s duration. The breadth of Zamponi’s skills as a musical dramatist is evident, but much of the credit for the sheer excitement of this recording must be given to the team of performers who invest such lavish gifts in this venture. Opera is a lurid genre of base emotions and sordid passions, after all, and virtually any composer might well have colluded and conspired to enjoy the advocacy of musicians as gifted and stylistically aware as those of Cappella Mediterranea, Clematis, and Argentine conductor Leonardo García Alarcón. It was Maestro García Alarcón who rediscovered Ulisse all’isola di Circe and supervised its introduction to the Twenty-First Century in 2006, and his return to the score—with many of the same soloists, members of Cappella Mediterranea—in 2012 produced this recording, superbly engineered in a flattering acoustic by Ricercar. As displayed by the singing of sopranos Caroline Weynants and Alice Foccroulle, baritone Benoît Giaux, and bass Philippe Favette in solo rôles, the musical standards of the Chœur de chambre de Namur are exceptionally high, and each of these singers contributes winningly to the performance. Guided by concertmaster Stéphane de Failly, the execution of Zamponi’s score by the virtuosi of Clematis is nothing short of perfection. The musicians’ mastery of ferociously difficult period instruments is extraordinary, but their inalienable technical wizardry never blunts the sharp edges of Zamponi’s spiky music. As in many scores of its time, the manuscript leaves much in terms of instrumentation to the imagination, and Maestro García Alarcón fills in the blanks with an orchestral complement that nods to what is known of the instrumental forces of contemporary Venetian theatres, augmented by winds and percussion appropriate to a celebratory event at a Hapsburg court. The wind playing is a particular glory of this performance, but Maestro García Alarcón’s foremost achievement is his realization of the continuo. Provided by Lionel Desmeules on organ and spinet, Ariel Rychter on gut-stringed harpsichord and organ, Quito Gato and Thomas Dunford on theorbo and guitar, Marie Bournisien on harp, Margaux Blanchard on bass viol, and François Joubert-Caillet on bass viol and lira, the continuo is the throbbing heart of this performance, the life force that gives the performance thrust and, honoring the roots of its definition as few groups of musicians have managed to do, continuity.

At the center of a superb cast is the magnificent countertenor Dominique Visse, an artist whose significance to Early Music parallels that of Callas to bel canto. His histrionic powers are such that, even in the context of an audio recording, the broadest comic antics can disclose an intensely touching vulnerability, and his talents as a singing actor are at their zenith in this performance of Ulisse all’isola di Circe. The voice was never a conventionally lovely instrument, but there is a strange beauty in virtually every note that he sings. In his performance as Argesta, the full panoply of Mr. Visse’s magic is unleashed. His delivery of zinging lines like ‘Vol un amante vigoroso e altiero / E meglio in un Porchetto’ (‘She seeks a vigorous, heady lover / A piglet would do better’) is great fun, and the irony of his singing of Argesta’s monologue at the start of Act Two, ‘Non è maggior tormento,’ admits both humor and poignancy. In ‘Destin magiche note,’ the abyss of hell itself resounds in Mr. Visse’s voice. A revival of the Baroque practice of male singers impersonating female characters has taken hold in recent years, but no one manages it more artfully than Mr. Visse: indeed, it is difficult to imagine singers in the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Centuries proving more effective in a rôle like Argesta. Not every pitch is perfect, not every tone falls graciously upon the ears, but every note and every word issue from the imagination of an uncommonly perceptive artist.

Countertenor Fabián Schofrin is a worthy colleague for Mr. Visse, and his performance of Satiro’s ‘Huom superbo’ at the close of Act One is as alert, pointed, and musical as could be desired. Bass Matteo Bellotto is an aptly grandiose presence as Giove in ‘Dal mio Trono,’ his phrasing conveying the authority that he cannot command solely on vocal terms. More baritone than bass in vocal colorations, Sergio Foresti nonetheless launches the opera powerfully as Nettuno, his voicing of ‘O voi del vasto Oceano’ shaped by excellent diction and firm, focused tone maintained across the full range of his music.

Singing the rôles of Euriloco, Marte, the Tritone secondo, and the Statua prima, tenor Fernando Guimarães cleverly differentiates his performances with subtle vocal inflections. What is consistent is the freshness of his approach and the resonant musicality of his singing. In Euriloco’s exchanges with Ulisse, especially ‘Già spirano si lieti’ in Act Three, he combines thoughtful dramatic involvement with attractive vocalism, the spontaneity of his performance suggesting that he is genuinely responding to his colleagues’ utterances. In the music for Apollo and Mercurio, the voice of tenor Zachary Wilder surges through the performance like lava. The melting beauty of his singing floods every scene in which he appears, culminating in an interview with Venere in the penultimate scene of Act Two—‘Ancor non resti’—that pulses with surprisingly modern sensibilities. His performance of the beautiful ‘Scender del ciel viddi io’ is exquisite, the line caressed with an unforced grasp of these first flowerings of bel canto, and the contrasting poise and emotional directness of his scenes with Ulisse and Venere in Act Three are captivating. The timbres of Mr. Guimarães and Mr. Wilder are sufficiently dissimilar to prevent confusion over which gentleman is singing, but their levels of accomplishment in Zamponi’s music are well matched. If only similar equality could be heard in performances of Pedrillo and Belmonte, Flavio and Pollione, Ruiz and Manrico, and Loge and Mime!

Soprano Mariana Flores announces in her first scene, the fantastic ‘E pur sei giunto al fine,’ that Venere is a potent participant in the drama and that the singer portraying her is a compelling exponent of Zamponi’s musical idiom. In Venere’s scene with Circe in Act Two, Ms. Flores gives a stirring account of ‘Da lo strale d’Amor fugga chi può,’ and in the subsequent scene with Mercurio her singing fumes with defiance and indignation. Dramatically, Ms. Flores argues and acquiesces with great integrity and absolute stylistic adroitness. Again, though, it is the unaffected pulchritude of the singing that impresses most, and Ms. Flores’s voice is a world-class instrument only just beginning to unlock its potential.

The title couple, Ulisse and Circe, are archetypes of the errant hero and ruinous temptress that have persisted throughout the four-century progress of opera, but Zamponi’s gifts for sensitive musical portraiture ensure that they are considerably more than an Early-Music Tannhäuser and Venus. As sung by baritone Furio Zanasi, Ulisse is a domineering but amiable fellow who can hardly be faulted for falling victim to the beauty of a Circe as alluring as Céline Scheen. The element of toughness in Ms. Scheen’s performance is wonderfully compatible with the rugged masculinity of Mr. Zanasi’s suave but swashbuckling Ulisse. Mr. Zanasi establishes the nuances of Ulisse’s character immediately in ‘Il mondo non ha più fieri terrori,’ which he voices expansively, and the insinuating indecision of his singing of ‘Credo sì, o no’ is both intelligent and seemingly artless. He and Ms. Scheen unite in a deliciously sensual account of ‘Languisco; Mi moro,’ a duet that rivals the celebrated ‘Pur ti miro’ in its depiction of languorous sexuality. In both their scenes with one another and those with other characters, Mr. Zanasi and Ms. Scheen sing with passion and precision, and their performances are exhibitions of technical prowess that extends to every niche of period-appropriate stylishness without ever seeming confined by conscious effort. Mr. Zanasi, one of the finest and most-recorded luminaries of Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century opera here gives one of his best performances, and Ms. Scheen matches him point for point, tone for ravishing tone.

Far too many performances of ‘early’ operas are tepid affairs in which the singers’ singing and musicians’ playing are muted by their noses being lodged in books lest they commit the perceived-to-be-unpardonable sin of doing something that has not been deemed historically accurate. Whether the score is by Zamponi or Zandonai, taking the notes on the page at face value and singing or playing them full-on, without compromising musicality in pursuit of elusive authenticity, is never out of style, and every note on these discs confirms it. It is apparent in this recording of Ulisse all’isola di Circe that Leonardo García Alarcón and Cappella Mediterranea view a work like Zamponi’s not as a vintage puzzle with missing pieces that must be replaced with carefully-fabricated replicas but as a spectacular chandelier that merely needs to be wired for electricity. Switch on this performance of Ulisse all’isola di Circe, and every musical light dazzles. It is not an old opera given new life: it is a fresh current in the spring of invention that has gushed uninterrupted since words and music first bathed together.

05 June 2014

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini – LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (E.-M. Westbroek, C. Ventre, A. Holland; Oehms Classics OC 945)

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini - LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (Oehms Classics OC 945)

GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La fanciulla del WestEva-Maria Westbroek (Minnie), Carlo Ventre (Dick Johnson), Ashley Holland (Jack Rance), Peter Marsh (Nick), Alfred Reiter (Ashby), Simon Bailey (Sonora), Michael McCown (Trin), Bálint Szabó (Sid), Sungkon Kim (Bello), Hans-Jürgen Lazar (Harry), Beau Gibson (Joe), Nathaniel Webster (Happy), Björn Bürger (Larkens), Carlos Krause (Billy Jackrabbit), Elisabeth Hornung (Wowkle), Franz Mayer (Jake Wallace), Cheol Kang (José Castro), Francisco Brito (Pony Express rider); Chor der Oper Frankfurt; Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester; Sebastian Weigle, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performances at Oper Frankfurt, Germany, in May and June 2013; Oehms Classics OC 945; 2CD, 130:42; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

La fanciulla del West is the score that should silence doubts about Giacomo Puccini’s importance as a composer of opera. At the time of its première at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1910, when the Minnie of Emmy Destinn, the Johnson of Enrico Caruso, and the Rance of Pasquale Amato tangled under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, the quality of the music was evident, an anonymous New York critic writing of the opera after its first performance that ‘the first act is the best Puccini ever wrote’ and the second ‘a more passionate evolution of the musical ideas of the first.’ In praising the indefatigable eloquence of Destinn’s performance, however, the same writer disclosed the debacle that has plagued La fanciulla del West in the century since she first tended the emotional needs of the denizens of the Polka Saloon: at the center of a formidably demanding score stands Minnie, whose music is ‘extremely difficult, so much of it very high with long sustained notes and little support from the orchestra.’ At first acquaintance, Minnie seems a world apart from the emblematic ‘piccole donne’ of most of Puccini’s operas, but had Mimì, Tosca, or Liù survived her own circumstances and immigrated to Gold Rush-era California might she not have evolved into the hardship-toughened Minnie? There are also elements of Greek and even Wagnerian dramas in La fanciulla del West, Minnie emerging as an Iphigenia or a Brünnhilde whose symbolic sacrifice enables literal and figurative redemption. At its core, La fanciulla del West is Puccini’s treatise on loneliness, and in it he insightfully explores the notion that the deprivation of Manon Lescaut, the jealousy of La bohème, and the lust of Tosca pale in comparison with the loneliness of La fanciulla del West as impetus for desperation. Ever a savvy man of the theatre, Puccini knew that melodic fecundity alone was inadequate to express the complex emotions of La fanciulla del West, not least because the fates of every major and minor character in the opera are intertwined and interdependent as in none of the composer’s other operas, so he filled the pages of his setting of David Belasco’s Girl of the Golden West with music that throbs with Italianate Romanticism translated into the tonal language of the Twentieth Century. The novelty of La fanciulla del West also translates into vocal demands that have virtually made the piece an operatic ghost town. Even when its musical edifices are found in varying states of dilapidation, La fanciulla del West offers vistas of one of the finest composers of opera at his best.

Turandot is perhaps Puccini’s most imaginatively-orchestrated score, but La fanciulla del West is unquestionably his most progressive, musically advanced opera. Led by the remarkably versatile and unfailingly musical Sebastian Weigle, the Oper Frankfurt forces involved in the production that produced this recording exhibit awareness of the importance of the music before them. Whatever technical niceties it entails, the ‘Oper Frankfurt Recording System’ employed by Oehms Classics for this recording and other productions recorded for commercial release is a model that should be studied and replicated by other venues and labels endeavoring to record opera in performance. Produced by Christian Wilde, Felix Dreher, and Peter Tobiasch, this recording places Puccini’s score in an acoustical atmosphere in which the natural balance between stage and pit is effectively equalized. In general, stage noises contribute to rather than detracting from the dramatic vitality of the performance, and distractions by the audience are laudably few. Perspectives are occasionally imperfect, an inevitable complication of recording staged productions, but only the too-distant placement of the off-stage beginning of Jake Wallace’s song is truly regrettable. The Chor der Oper Frankfurt choristers are challenged but never defeated by Puccini’s formidable demands, and the gusto that they convey in their singing is bracing. The Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester’s experience in Wagner repertory—including a compelling and superbly-recorded Ring des Nibelungen also available from Oehms—enables the instrumentalists’ precise but impassioned performance of Puccini’s score. Maestro Weigle maintains rhythmic sharpness in the music’s many changes of mood, and his shaping of lyrical episodes closely follows the needs of the principal singers. The acquaintance of Oper Frankfurt’s personnel with Twentieth-Century music is also apparent in their collective realization of the striking modernity of La fanciulla del West: while the post-Impressionistic, Stravinskian elements of Puccini’s music are restrained in many performances, Maestro Weigle and the orchestra revel in them in this account of the opera. The slight deficiencies in authentic Italianate morbidezza are mitigated by the uncommon precision of the orchestral playing and the vigor of Maestro Weigle’s conducting. This is an age in which sloppy playing by opera house pit orchestras is no longer accepted as a necessary evil, but the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumorchester musicians could give their counterparts in some of the world’s most prestigious pits lessons in adaptability and cooperation.

Puccini succeeded in La fanciulla del West as in none of his other operas at creating a cast in which every character, major and minor, has a defined place in the drama and is musically three-dimensional. Minnie, Johnson, and Rance are the truly significant players, of course, but the inhabitants of the mining town in which their destinies intersect provide far more than the ‘local color’ at which Puccini was expert; or, that is, there are opportunities for the singers in secondary rôles to create memorable characters. Few performances seize those opportunities as impressively as this one, in which the deep roster of Oper Frankfurt provides an ensemble of artists who are dedicated to portraying individuals within Puccini’s thriving community of disenfranchised miners. In many performances, Wowkle seems little more than a second-string Suzuki, but mezzo-soprano Elisabeth Hornung gives her tenderness and tenacity, singing strongly. The smarmy insouciance of the slightly dangerous Sid courses through the sinewy singing of bass Bálint Szabó, and Peter Marsh, Alfred Reiter, Simon Bailey, Michael McCown, Sungkon Kim, Hans-Jürgen Lazar, and Nathaniel Webster portray Nick, Ashby, Sonora, Trin, Bello, Harry, and Happy with distinctive quirks, all realized with firm, steady-toned singing. Carlos Krause’s Billy Jackrabbit is an intriguing figure, and Cheol Kang and Francisco Brito make the most of their appearances as José Castro and the Pony Express rider. Franz Mayer’s singing of Jake Wallace’s nostalgic song is beautiful and all the more effective for being truly sung rather than crooned. Particularly impressive is tenor Beau Gibson’s golden-toned Joe, but the uniformly high quality of the performances—not just the singing—of all of the supporting cast greatly enriches this recording.

In demand throughout the world for a wide variety of rôles ranging from the dramatic bel canto of Enrico in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor to the stark modernity of Doktor Schön in Alban Berg’s Lulu, British baritone Ashley Holland reveals in his performance of Jake Rance a dark-hued, slightly throaty voice of considerable authority and stamina—what, in the context of Puccini repertoire, might be termed an ideal ‘Scarpia voice.’ Puccini can rightly be accused of having underserved the dastardly Sheriff in La fanciulla del West, Rance being granted few moments to do more than bawl and bray threateningly. There is great affection in Rance’s interactions with Minnie in Act One, however, not least in ‘Ti voglio bene, Minnie,’ and Mr. Holland digs deeply into the underlying psychology that shapes Rance’s personality and inspires his actions. This Rance’s desire for Minnie is the need of a man crippled in his prime by loneliness rather than lust. Unlike many Rances, the man portrayed by Mr. Holland accepts his loss of Minnie with a modicum of the dignity of a trickster admitting that he has been tricked. Still, Mr. Holland’s singing lacks none of the snarling brawn of traditional Rances, and even without the benefit of seeing his performance his persona displays welcome components of a larger-than-life, power-mongering Western lawman. Vocally, Mr. Holland encounters little trouble with Rance’s music, which is a remarkable feat in its own right, but the greatest accomplishment of his performance is the degree to which he matches his vocal mastery with an atypically insightful portrait of one of Puccini’s most chameleonic characters.

Ramerrez the Mexican bandito is Puccini’s most enigmatic tenor hero—and not merely because he spends much of the opera masquerading as Dick Johnson. Like Rance’s, his infatuation with Minnie is motivated as much by a quest for deliverance from the solitude of his life as by romantic love, but he has all the trappings of a traditional operatic lover from the start. In this performance, Uruguayan tenor Carlo Ventre enacts the rôle with imagination and brute strength. The grainy, somewhat monochromatic timbre of his voice sets him apart from his first entrance, and he is consistently convincing as a gregarious Latino suitor. In the love duet that ends Act One, Mr. Ventre sings expansively, his phrasing gaining ardor as Johnson’s affection for Minnie develops and the tessitura of his music rises. Johnson’s music lacks the lyrical effusions of Puccini’s other tenor heroes, but the level of musical distinction is very high. Mr. Ventre’s singing in Act Two is thrilling, musically and dramatically, and the raw intensity of his vocal delivery does not impede a broad eloquence. He is a coarse-mannered bandito to the life, but even his vocal mannerisms soften when he is in Minnie’s presence. In ‘Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano,’ Johnson’s one true aria, Mr. Ventre tempers the despondence of a man about to die with an almost visionary serenity born of sparing Minnie the pain of his real fate. Solely on vocal terms, Mr. Ventre cannot compete with the burliness of Mario del Monaco, the resilience of Richard Tucker, or the refulgence of Franco Corelli, but his success as Johnson on this recording is first-rate. More than almost any other Johnson heard in recent seasons, Mr. Ventre manages to generate genuine vocal and dramatic presence rather than merely surviving the music.

Like her sisters in the Puccini repertoire, in many performances Minnie can become a cliché, in her case the hard-as-nails frontier lass with a heart of gold. This is a valid interpretation of the rôle, but a thoughtful singing actress can broaden the dimensions of the woman by exploring nuances of her character. By singing Minnie, the spirited Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek treads on sacred ground. The ranks of great Minnies are very sparse: the vocal demands of the part require a voice, poised somewhere between a Tosca and a Turandot, that is as rare as the teenager with the voice of Isolde that Richard Strauss wanted for his Salome. Historically, some of the finest Minnies—singers like Eleanor Steber, Dorothy Kirsten, and Marie Collier—have been those who excelled in the music despite rather than because of their natural vocal suitability for the rôle. Having triumphed in parts as diverse as the title rôle in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole and Sieglide in Wagner’s Die Walküre, Ms. Westbroek brings to this performance the same combination of familiarities with Classical, Wagnerian, and Twentieth-Century repertoires that facilitates the fantastic performance by the orchestra. In her scenes with the miners in Act One, it is obvious that this Minnie loves and cherishes them like brothers, and even when her voice is under greatest stress Ms. Westbroek exudes affection and uncomplicated sincerity. This is a Minnie who understands Rance: she identifies with his isolation rather than pitying or feeling threatened by him. His pursuit of Johnson is a betrayal of their bond, and the inwardness of Ms. Westbroek’s performance suggests that this is the stimulus for Minnie’s eventual duplicity. Its tessitura and fearsomely exposed top C make ‘Laggiù nel Soledad,’ Minnie’s aria in Act One, one of the greatest challenges in the soprano repertoire, and Ms. Westbroek responds with focused, unhesitant singing, rising to a bright, secure top C that crowns an excellent account of the aria. When she joins Johnson in the love duet, one more reminiscent of that in Act One of Verdi’s Otello than those in Puccini’s other operas, Minnie’s tessitura becomes even more daunting, and Ms. Westbroek’s performance soars. Here and in the subsequent acts, there are moments of strain, but Ms. Westbroek is a shrewd artist who puts these to telling dramatic use. There is never any doubt about who will prevail in the fateful poker game, but Ms. Westbroek’s vocal radiance makes the moment of her victory uniquely cathartic. In Act Three, when Minnie appeals to the miners she loves on behalf of the bandit who has stolen her heart, Ms. Westbroek’s voice glows with purity, and she rides the crests of Puccini’s orchestrations with consummate flair. There is more steel than silk in Ms. Westbroek’s voice, but she sings beautifully and—more importantly—sensuously as Minnie, ultimately portraying a woman with the wild determination of Brünnhilde and the demure delicacy of Mimì.

The sad truth of the recent history of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West is that few performances have deserved the expense of their staging, and even fewer have offered the public or the composer the musical and dramatic excellence that the score merits. Compiling a recording from what was surely an admirable production of the opera, Oehms’ engineers provide the listener with a performance of La fanciulla del West that amounts to considerably more than the sum of its parts. Those parts, headed by the skilled Minnie of Eva-Maria Westbroek, are refreshingly adept in a score in which basic competence has become exceptional. This performance says to the Twenty-First Century that Puccini, so maligned by many musicologists in the second half of the previous century, was an important composer and that La fanciulla del West is one of the greatest artistic achievements of his career.

Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST at the MET in 1910, with Enrico Caruso (Johnson), Emmy Destinn (Minnie), and Pasquale Amato (Rance) [Photo by White Studio, © the Metropolitan Opera] Good day for a hanging: Puccini’s La fanciulla del West in its première at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910 with, from left to right, Enrico Caruso as Johnson (strung up under the tree), Emmy Destinn as Minnie, and Pasquale Amato as Rance [Photo by White Studio, © the Metropolitan Opera]