27 July 2014

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – Selections from GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG, TANNHÄUSER, & TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (Heidi Melton, soprano; Musicales Actes Sud ASM 22)


RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Overture, Venusberg-Szene (Bacchanal), and ‘Dich, teure Halle’ (Aria, Elisabeth – Act II) from Tannhäuser; Prelude (Act I) and Liebestod (‘Mild und Leise’ – Isolde, Act III) from Tristan und Isolde; and Trauermarsch and ‘Starke Scheite schichtet mit dort!’ (Immolation Scene, Brünnhilde – Act III) from GötterdämmerungHeidi Melton, soprano; Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine; Paul Daniel CBE, conductor [Recorded in concert at Salle Dutilleux, l’Auditorium de Bordeaux, France, 9 and 11 October 2013; Musicales Actes Sud ASM 22; 1CD, 76:52; Available from harmonia mundi, fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​While those primarily concerned with selling copies of out-of-touch periodicals and instigating ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ via social media comment on singers’ waistlines, exacerbate conflicts among Arts institutions, and revel in their own eulogies for Classical Music, what those who genuinely love opera long to hear is great singing. There is no growth without innovation and no innovation without ideas, but without great singing there is no future either for opera or for any other genre of vocal music. The most extraordinary production of Götterdämmerung without a Siegfried capable of dying with integrity in glorious song and a Brünnhilde who seems to give a damn when he is gone is little more than reality television with a pretty soundtrack. Exasperatingly, much contemporary criticism suggests that the listener should assess opera primarily with the eyes rather than the ears. Virtually every aspect of human life is a balancing act, but it is difficult to accept that opera, an art that is predicated upon the unlikely, relies primarily upon visual beauty for its preservation. To reject a middle-aged Mimì or a barely-shaving Gurnemanz is to obliterate the very essence of opera: imagination. Great singing enables the listener to see not what a director seeks to impose on the music but what the composer intended. On this disc, the sublime singing of Spokane-born soprano Heidi Melton introduces the listener to the barely-contained excitement of Wagner’s Elisabeth, the ecstasy of Isolde’s transmutation, and the unbending resolve of Brünnhilde’s sacrifice. Let those for whom music is merely an industry debate the superficial failings of opera in the Twenty-First Century: those who embrace opera as a divine art of song rather than trivialities can rejoice in this performance by a ravishing new prophetess of Wagner singing.

Recorded during a pair of concerts celebrating the Wagner Bicentennial and reproduced in bright, spacious sound that eschews efforts at artificially smoothing out the wrinkles that inevitably occur in live performances, this disc announces the emergence of the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine as an ensemble with unquestionably strong Wagnerian credentials. Opening with a robust but refined account of the Overture to Tannhäuser, the Orchestre’s players display complete affinity for Wagner’s compositional style and a degree of comfort in his music that has traditionally eluded many French orchestras. Gallic influences on Wagner are highlighted with telling emphasis, particularly by the woodwinds, but Teutonic discipline and accuracy are laudably maintained. The great thematic arcs of the Tannhäuser Overture and the energetic largesse of the Bacchanal from the opera’s ‘Venusburg’ Scene are constructed by the Orchestre with secure intonation guided by the firm beat provided by conductor Paul Daniel. Not least owing to his stewardship of English National Opera, Maestro Daniel possesses experience with an unusually extensive repertory, and unlike many conductors he has proved an effective interpreter of virtually all of the styles with which he has contended. In the performances on this disc, he occasionally adopts tempi that are slightly too broad, momentum being imperiled as the musicians endeavor to sustain melodic strands and rhythmic precision. The Prelude to Act One of Tristan und Isolde is rousingly played, the mysterious, vaguely sinister quality of the celebrated ‘Tristan chord’ conveyed with ethereal impact. The splendor of the Orchestre’s accompaniment of Isolde’s Liebestod is undermined only by Maestro Daniel’s too-deliberate pacing of the concluding bars, which extends the lines just beyond the wind players’ abilities to sustain accuracy of pitch. The pinnacle of the Orchestre’s full-bodied, lovingly-phrased playing is achieved in the music from Götterdämmerung. The Trauermarsch that accompanies the corpse of the slain Siegfried to the Gibichung Hall receives from the musicians a performance of true power, not just empty volume, and the brass fanfares are formidably sure of intonation and ensemble. This recording offers the perfect setting for a memorable account of the postlude to Brünnhilde’s Immolation, the live concert provenance enabling the inimitable frisson of interaction between musicians and audience but eliminating the roars and rumbles of staged productions of the opera in which Walhalla noisily implodes. The Orchestre and Maestro Daniel seize this opportunity with flair, and the halos of sound suspended by the strings over the coruscating tide of sound in the critical statements of Sieglinde’s motif are stirring. Solely in the outpouring of sincerity in the conducting and orchestral playing, this is a performance in which the universal absolution of Brünnhilde’s self-oblation is especially evident.

The performances preserved on this disc also reveal that Heidi Melton is the uncommon soprano who has both the vocal thrust needed to soar over Wagner’s leviathan orchestrations and the beauty of tone to make the results of her efforts sounds that audiences will actually want to hear. She sails through Elisabeth’s ‘Dich, teure Halle’ from Act Two of Tannhäuser with an ease that belies the fact that it is an entrance aria of a level of difficulty for which even prodigiously-gifted sopranos might long to throttle the composer. Ms. Melton captures the girlish excitement of the music with charisma to spare, and she makes the ascent to top B—managed with the energy of an erupting geyser—an organic, even orgasmic resolution of the vocal line. The contrast with her singing of Isolde’s Liebestod could hardly be more gripping. This selection she begins in a perfectly-supported mezza voce, the opening phrases revealing the pallor of death already in the voice. As the vocal line ascends, however, the dark-hued resignation of the opening brightens into first acceptance and finally welcoming of the journey to reunion with Tristan. Ms. Melton conjures an Isolde who, rather than being impersonally transfigured by death, by her own will transforms physical dissolution into spiritual rejuvenation. She sings the Liebestod with complete technical mastery, and her disembodied voicing of the final F♯5 is the parting sigh of a soul already embracing immortality. Transition is likewise central to Ms. Melton’s sculpting of the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung. The sting of Siegfried’s guileless betrayal and the trauma of his death simmer in Ms. Melton’s singing of the opening bars of the scene, and she insightfully conveys the development of Brünnhilde’s comprehension of the global implications of her deeply personal destiny, completing the metamorphosis started in Act Three of Die Walküre. The top A♭s, A♮s, and B♭s to which Brünnhilde’s vocal line climbs seem to trouble Ms. Melton very little, and though the climactic B♮5 on the phrase ‘Lockt dich zu ihm die lachende Lohe’ makes a greater demand upon her resources the effort expended is rendered dramatically apt by the psychological potency of her delivery. Her calmly enraptured singing of ‘Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott’ makes this passage the catharsis that it should be, and she manages to create a Brünnhilde who greets the flames as both Valkyrie and Woman. This is an extraordinary achievement in a staged performance of Götterdämmerung: in a concert performance of only the Immolation Scene, it is a feat that only a Wagnerian in the tradition of Lehmann and Nordica, Flagstad and Traubel, and Varnay and Nilsson can bring off.

For earnest music lovers starved for performances of the music of Wagner that are memorable for the right reasons, this disc from Musicales Actes Sud and the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine is a veritable feast. In the pair of concert performances that produced this recording, the Orchestre, Paul Daniel, and Heidi Melton paid homage to Wagner with complementary eloquence and exuberance. Ultimately, this disc’s greatest gift to the composer is the manner in which it proves to the listener that great Wagner singing is not exclusively in the past.

26 July 2014

IN MEMORIAM: Carlo Bergonzi, 1924 – 2014

IN MEMORIAM: Italian tenor CARLO BERGONZI (1914 - 2014) as Manrico in Verdi's IL TROVATORE at the Metropolitan Opera [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © The Metropolitan Opera] Elegance personified: Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi as Manrico in Verdi’s Il trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera, 1959 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © The Metropolitan Opera]


13 July 1924 – 25 July 2014

When Carlo Bergonzi débuted at the Metropolitan Opera as Radamès in Verdi’s Aida on 13 November 1956, it was apparent to both the audience and the press that a singer of extraordinary artistic stature had arrived in New York. Even at the age of thirty-two, he possessed both an appealing voice and the technique needed to guide it through a long career in some of the most demanding music ever composed for the tenor voice. His career at the MET would ultimately extend to just one day short of thirty-two years, his final performance being as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor on 12 November 1988. In those three decades, he was truly a man for all seasons: a paragon of grace in bel canto, the poise and emotive simplicity of his singing of Nemorino’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ in L’elisir d’amore have never been surpassed; a more poetic Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème has not been heard in all the years of the MET’s history; the Verdi canon, ranging from the lyric Luisa Miller to the dramatic La forza del destino, has known no more devoted servant. His was a voice of satin and silver that conquered the cavernous spaces of the world’s largest opera houses with projection rather than volume. Even at his most extroverted, he was virtually incapable of vulgarity. As an artist, he was a prince among paupers: as a man, he was an oasis of humility in a vast, ever-expanding desert of arrogance.

As an aspiring young singer, I encountered Mr. Bergonzi on two occasions, both in Italy, when he was in every way more like an encouraging grandfather than one of the finest tenors of his or any generation and perhaps the single greatest Verdi singer of the Twentieth Century. In my experience, brief as it was, he taught not by lecturing and criticizing but by prodding the student to discover the voice of the composer speaking through the music. Not merely in the sense that it is communication of text, singing is a conversation, he suggested—a conversation with the composer, the audience, and oneself. The aural manifestation of this philosophy can be heard in any of Mr. Bergonzi’s recordings, whether made in studio or taped in performance. In the celebrated 1969 Trovatore from the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the love of Mr. Bergonzi’s Manrico for Leonora, his fear for Azucena, and above all his respect and affection for Verdi resound across the years. Easy, refulgent top Cs were not his to dispense, but he had complete cognizance of every specific limitation of his voice and employed that knowledge to craft a technique that was founded upon a desire to meet rather than circumvent musical challenges. This he imparted to those fortunate enough to spend an hour or a decade under his tutelage. To him, singing without placing the tone properly is nothing more than tuned shouting, and singing without heart is the greatest offense to which music can be subjected.

Having admired Mr. Bergonzi’s singing since first hearing the DECCA studio recording of Verdi’s Don Carlo with Renata Tebaldi, Grace Bumbry, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Martti Talvela, I was nonetheless unprepared for my first encounter with the performance that transformed my appreciation for him into unrestrained idolization: the 1970 MET broadcast of Bellini’s Norma. Not heard at the MET since 1956, when the title rôle was sung both in New York and on tour in Philadelphia by Maria Callas, Norma in 1970 had the distinction both of introducing Dame Joan Sutherland’s portrayal of the Druidess to New York and of witnessing the house début of Marilyn Horne. Alongside the powerhouse partnership of Sutherland and Horne, already perfected via DECCA’s 1964 studio recording and the 1967 Covent Garden production of Norma, even the most accomplished Pollione might justifiably have been expected to seem inconsequential. From his first note, however, Mr. Bergonzi’s Pollione exudes confidence, masculinity, and complete comfort with Bellini’s bel canto idiom. He ducks the written top C in ‘Meco all’atar di Venere’—as do most tenors in staged performances and which a number of those who attempted the note should have done—but phrases the aria with all the grandeur of imperial Rome. His burly swagger in the cabaletta, ‘Me protegge, me difende,’ is all the more effective for being unexpected, and he brings fire and finesse to the great duet with Adalgisa and the monumental trio that brings down the curtain on Act One. He matches Sutherland note for golden note in ‘In mia man,’ and the dignity of his voicing of Pollione’s lines in the opera’s finale heightens the impact of the tragic dénouement. Before hearing this performance, I liked Mr. Bergonzi’s singing: after hearing it, I longed to sing like him.

Mr. Bergonzi was not a perfect singer and was the first to admit it. He was also an artist for whom perfection was judged by achieving connections with music and audiences rather than by unerring executions of notes. If a singer’s legacy can be assessed by the affection he inspires in an opera lover who never heard him sing ‘live,’ this opera lover’s adoration of his artistry proves that Carlo Bergonzi was one of the greatest artists ever to make the world’s opera houses his home.

IN MEMORIAM: Carlo Bergonzi as Rodolfo in Puccini's LA BOHÈME at the Metropolitan Opera [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © The Metropolitan Opera] His Rodolfo was a poet, but his singing was true poetry: Carlo Bergonzi as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera, 1958 [Photo by Louis Mélançon, © The Metropolitan Opera]

25 July 2014

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Songstress Natalie Noone at the Evening Muse (Charlotte, NC), 24 July 2014

IN PERFORMANCE: Natalie Noone at the Evening Muse in Charlotte, NC, 24 July 2014 [Photo by June Newsome; used with permission] Musing at the Evening Muse: Natalie Noone in performance in Charlotte, NC, 24 July 2014 [Photo by June Newsome; used with permission]

One of the most exhilarating experiences in the Arts is witnessing the birth of a legitimate star. Whatever the genre, there is a collective thrill of discovery that every observer perceives as uniquely individual. Such is the pride in having encountered an engaging artist in his or her creative infancy that invariably far more people than the venues could accommodate claim to have seen Elvis Presley’s sole appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, Maria Callas’s début at the Metropolitan Opera, and Dame Margot Fonteyn’s first performance with the Royal Ballet. These were the sort of stars who shone both from the stages upon which they plied their trades and in the hearts of those who saw and never forgot them. Sadly, so many of today’s prominent performers embody an artificial stardom that is manufactured rather than earned. The public clamor for them because they are told that they ought to do, and they do as they are told until new instructions are given. Defying the machinations of popularity in the Twenty-First Century makes the already-difficult life of an artist even more crushing, but that defiance is what defines a star with the potential to be remembered when the notoriety-mongers push the next acid-voiced ingénue onto the stage. Defying the confining easy paths to success as an artist is what makes Natalie Noone a singer with a bright future, but it is raw talent that gives her the aura of an emerging star.

Raised in California and now resident in Nashville, Ms. Noone enjoyed in her chronological and artistic youths the example of her father, Peter Noone, front man of British Invasion hit-makers Herman’s Hermits. One of the few pretty-boy lead singers of any era in popular music to take care both to learn to sing properly and to master the business components of the Arts, Mr. Noone continues, now a half-century after he conquered global pop charts, to sell out venues large and small 150 days out of the year. This success is partially owed to the nostalgia movement in music but is substantially the product of Mr. Noone’s uncommon showmanship and wide-ranging savvy. Observing her self-effacing amiability and ease before an audience, it is apparent that Ms. Noone has both inherited and absorbed elements of her father’s artistic personality. She is unmistakably her own woman as a singer and musician, however, and her eclectic style is refreshingly free of obvious emulation. Though reminiscent of the young Dolly Parton, Joni Mitchell, and even the legendary chanteuses of her mother’s native France, Ms. Noone’s personal idiom is a fusion of American roots music and sophisticated threads of European music. Hers is not as much a traditional ‘Nashville’ or ‘Blues’ sound as an appealing synthesis of aspects of a wide array of styles and genres that she skillfully allies to the nuances of lyrics. A gifted guitarist whose playing far exceeds the level of many strum-as-they-sing musicians’ accomplishments, she is unafraid of sparse textures that highlight her abilities as a vocal storyteller. Many of her self-penned songs explore dark-hued emotions, but there is an insurmountable sunniness in her vocal delivery that mitigates melancholy. Above all, Ms. Noone radiates the unrelenting joy of singing that should be the life source for every musical star.

At her gig at the Evening Muse in Charlotte on Thursday evening, Ms. Noone offered the enthusiastic audience a selection of songs from her forthcoming studio album Midnight. An unaffected, playful presence on stage, she has a natural affinity for capturing the essence of a song and communicating it to the audience without gimmickry. The title track from Midnight is a beautiful ballad extolling the many shades of blue that cover an artist’s canvas and a lover’s heart, and the sheer loveliness of Ms. Noone’s timbre was wonderful. Written by Danny Flowers, the acclaimed session guitarist and songwriter who also produced Midnight, ‘Actions Speak Softer Than Words’ is a harmonically adventurous number that drew from Ms. Noone singing of special radiance. Her songs ‘What We Already Know’ and ‘Hold Me Down,’ both evocative pieces, were performed with muted intensity, the clarity of the singer’s diction uniting with her secure placement of vowels through register shifts. In her concluding song, ‘Loveliest Heartache,’ Ms. Noone built her vocals upon a Lila Downs-like core of silk-draped steel as the refrain’s melody ascended, but the dulcet pianissimo of her voicing of the last chorus brought her set to an unforgettably ruminant close. Rewarded by the audience with a reception of warmth equal to that which her singing exuded, Ms. Noone introduced herself to Charlotte with grace and unpretentious glamour.

Whichever musical genres young artists inhabit, far too many of them are devoured by the insatiable jaws of the behemoth that is the music industry in the new millennium. Success is measured in downloads and impersonal interactions, and deep pockets are often more critical to a fledgling career than deep wells of talent. Natalie Noone is the rare kind of musician who seeks affirmation in smiles and handshakes from those who hear her. Hers are the songs of a lover of singing, and hers is a path to stardom not of arena concerts and endorsement contracts but of the truest spirit of music. In short, she dares to be an artist among artifices.

To learn more about Natalie Noone, her forthcoming studio album Midnight, and upcoming performance dates, visit the Official Website for Natalie Noone and the Maybes.

21 July 2014

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – GIOVANNA D’ARCO (A. Netrebko, P. Domingo, F. Meli; DGG 479 2712)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - GIOVANNA D'ARCO (DGG 479 2712)

GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Giovanna d’ArcoAnna Netrebko (Giovanna d’Arco), Plácido Domingo (Giacomo), Francesco Meli (Carlo VII), Roberto Tagliavini (Talbot), Johannes Dunz (Delil); Philharmonia Chor Wien; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Paolo Carignani, conductor [Recorded in concert in the Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, Austria, during the Salzburger Festspiele, August 2013; DGG 479 2712; 2CD, 108:49; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​The curious student of history in search of the ‘real’ Jeanne d’Arc who may or may not have contributed meaningfully to the defeat of the besieging English and Burgundians at Orléans in 1429 should seek her neither in Friedrich Schiller’s 1801 play Die Jungfrau von Orleans nor in Giuseppe Verdi’s 1845 operatic setting, Giovanna d’Arco. The pompous, rather foolish, excessively-Romanticized girl of the theatrical and operatic stages is a dramatic recreation of a figure about whom very little is known with any degree of certainty: recognized by many as one of the greatest Frenchman, her significance and even her very existence are dismissed by some revisionist historians. For the young Verdi, she was an ideal—and idealized—heroine and a near-perfect character for Erminia Frezzolini, the accomplished soprano and pupil of the influential Manuel García who enjoyed great success as Giselda in the first production of Verdi’s I Lombardi alla prima crociata. Though Verdi and the audience at the opera’s La Scala première had sincere affection for his Giovanna, critics were unimpressed by her musical finery. In a real sense, her reputation has never recovered: several eminent sopranos have lent their talents to Giovanna’s cause both on stage and on records without having won for her a place in the standard repertory alongside her Verdian sisters. Still, not even the most neglected of Verdi’s operas is devoid of interest, and any opportunity to appreciate the beauties of Giovanna d’Arco is welcome. Recorded in concert during the 2013 Salzburger Festspiele and featuring two of opera’s most celebrated singers, this performance promises much, but in several notable aspects it fails to deliver more than basic proficiency. Just as the attentive historian will not find a reliably factual portrait of Jeanne d’Arc in Giovanna d’Arco, the steadfast admirer of the composer’s music sadly will not find in this recording the truest essence of Verdi’s opera.

Capably conducted by Paolo Carignani, the carefully-balanced but vibrant singing of the Philharmonia Chor Wien and convincingly Italianate playing of the Münchner Rundfunkorchester are preserved in acoustics that uphold Deutsche Grammophon’s long-standing tradition of sonic excellence. With fine performances by tenor Johannes Dunz as Delil and bass Roberto Tagliavini as Talbot, this recording has the sturdiest foundation of any performance of Giovanna d’Arco on disc. In this era of allowing listeners to make their own decisions about composers’ successes and failures by performing scores note-complete, the extensiveness of the cuts inflicted on Verdi’s score in this performance is maddening. The logic behind some of the excisions defies explanation: the cut of a passage in Giovanna’s cavatina in the Prologue, ‘Sempre all’alba ed alla sera,’ relieves the soprano of a phrase descending from D6, for instance, but Verdi provided an ‘oppure’ for the offending passage that rises no higher than B5, a note demanded several times in the cavatina. If a singer cannot manage a few additional bars in the same vein as the balance of her music, ought she to be singing the rôle at all? Each of the principal characters loses stretches of music ranging from a few bars to a few pages, and virtually every number in the score is truncated in some manner. Cabalettas are shorn of their repeats, depriving the singers of opportunities to ornament their vocal lines in the manner of the bel canto idiom that Giovanna d’Arco embodies. With first-rate musicians on hand to support the principals, such unmusical disfigurement of Verdi’s score is equally inexcusable and inexplicable. If the intention was to perform ‘highlights’ from Giovanna d’Arco, the resulting recording should be identified and marketed accordingly.

In the theatre, where there is aural space into which the voice can expand, Italian tenor Francesco Meli can prove an exciting singer. In the context of an audio recording, his timbre is somewhat monochromatic, the unrelenting brightness of tone ultimately rendering his mostly tasteful singing monotonous. In this performance, his native Italian diction gives his portrayal of the floundering Carlo apt dignity, but there is little differentiation among the various emotions of his character’s plight. In Carlo’s cavatina and cabaletta in the Prologue, ‘Sotto una quercia parvemi’ and ‘Pondo è letal, martiro il serto,’ Mr. Meli sings strongly, his voice firm and even throughout the range. In the course of the performance, however, Mr. Meli’s dynamics are virtually unchanging, and there are passages in which his volume precludes the finesse that his vocal lines need. In the unaccompanied trio in the Prologue’s finale, ‘A te, pietosa vergine,’ Mr. Meli both sings and phrases beautifully, and in the reprise of the galloping principal theme at ‘Or sia patria il mio solo pensiero’—one of the fabulously banal tunes that came easily to the young Verdi but do not depart from the listener’s memory without a fight—his virile presence is winsome. His singing in the duet with Giovanna in Act One, ‘Ho risolto…E in tai momenti,’ is passionate, but the passion here is the same as that in the Prologue; and, for that matter, that in successive scenes. Mr. Meli’s best singing comes in Carlo’s romanza in Act Three, ‘Quale più fido amico,’ which he shapes with true feeling and obvious attention to the nuances of the text. Granted more of Carlo’s music in which to make his mark, Mr. Meli might well bring greater presence to his performance. Here, he creates a forthrightly-sung but dramatically pale monarch. It is a satisfying performance but one that barely even indicates the distinctive elegance of which Mr. Meli is capable.

Plácido Domingo recorded Carlo in Giovanna d’Arco an ordinary career ago, but it hardly needs to be stated that the Spanish singer’s career has been and continues to be anything but ordinary. The extent of the success of Mr. Domingo’s endeavors in baritone repertory—and particularly in Verdi’s singular baritone rôles—is among the most passionately-debated topics in opera today. It must be conceded that the voice remains in generally excellent condition. The timbre has tarnished somewhat and the focus of the tone loosened, but there is surprisingly little unsteadiness. The tessitura of a rôle like Giacomo in Giovanna d’Arco poses no difficulties, but the ease with which he produces the notes required by Verdi undermines the effectiveness of Mr. Domingo’s singing. A vital element of the visceral impact of Verdi’s baritone parts is the sense of danger: the truly memorable Verdi baritone should sound as though he is taken to the limits of both his range and his technique. In that regard, Mr. Domingo might be said to sing Giacomo’s music in this performance almost too well. Phrasing is now guided more by physiological necessity than by any great insightfulness, but Mr. Domingo retains consummate musicality. Regardless of the range of the music that he is singing, he also remains a tenor. Nonetheless, this performance is his most accomplished outing in a Verdi baritone rôle to date. The basic timbre is dark and burnished, and though his diction has lost its sharpness he delivers the words with gusto. He knows his way round a Verdi score, and even his scant experience with Giovanna d’Arco is apparent. In the Prologue, moreover, only Mr. Domingo seems to take any real interest in the drama. His contributions to the closing trio are appropriately stern, and he descends to the lower reaches of Giacomo’s vocal lines with greater freedom than he has brought to many of his performances of baritone rôles. Mr. Domingo gives an expansive account of his aria in Act One, ‘Franco son io, ma in core,’ and his performance of the subsequent cabaletta ‘So che per via dei triboli’ conveys the conflicting bitterness and despair of the text. He comes nearest of any of the principals to limning a genuine bel canto line in his singing of the romanza in Act Two, ‘Speme al vecchio era una figlia,’ and the power that he brings to Giacomo’s denunciation of Giovanna in the Act Two finale has all the magic of Mr. Domingo at his best. The duet ‘Amai, ma un solo istante’ in Act Three is one of the earliest flowerings of Verdi’s emblematic explorations of the relationships among fathers and their daughters, and Mr. Domingo sings his part in it with emotional involvement. This Giacomo imparts the cruelty of recognizing, like Rigoletto, that his injured daughter still lives only to then lose her. Mr. Domingo continues to be an engaging artist, and this is among his finest performances in his adopted baritone repertory.

Anna Netrebko is an exasperating singer. Especially in Salzburg, where even details of her dining and shopping habits are fodder for public discussion and emulation, she is as close to holding the title of prima donna assoluta as any soprano can claim to be in 2014. The basic natural vocal material is superb: largely free of the dreaded Slavic shrillness and wobble, the voice has an attractive timbre, ample thrust, and moderate agility. The tone often lacks a firm core, though, and clumsy handling of vowel placement leads to an intermittent hollowness in the lower octave. Now that she is putting her commercially-successful but mostly ill-advised forays into bel canto repertory behind her, Ms. Netrebko is venturing ever further into the Verdi repertory. Her portrayal of Giovanna in this recording is representative of both what she can achieve when her artistry is completely committed to a performance and how inconsistent she can be when it is not. Ms. Netrebko’s singing of Giovanna’s beautiful cavatina in the Prologue, ‘Sempre all’alba ed alla sera,’ is unfocused and imprecise, and her technique lets her—and Verdi—down in the Prologue’s finale, in which her vocalism is unpolished. The ascents to C6 are managed relatively easily, but her decision to interpolate a desperate-sounding top C to bring down the curtain on the Prologue is clearly motivated by a desire for applause rather than an expression of Giovanna’s youthful exuberance. ‘O fatidica foresta,’ the romanza in Act One that contains some of the most beautiful music in the opera, receives a lovely performance from Ms. Netrebko despite triplet figurations that are not always cleanly articulated. Her singing begins to warm in the duet with Carlo that brings Act One to a close, and she rises to a strong, resonant B♭5 in the finale’s coda. In Giovanna’s duet with her father, Ms. Netrebko responds to Mr. Domingo’s fervor with singing of increased dramatic impetus, and here her command of the tricky fiorature is far more impressive than earlier in the opera. Ms. Netrebko rises at last to the level of assured, emotive singing that her reputation attributes to her in Giovanna’s death scene, in which her traversal of the andante, ‘S’apre il ciel discende la Pia,’ is gorgeous. She manages the sustained B♭5 with sensitivity and great poise, and her Giovanna takes her leave of her father, her king, and her country with moving grace and simplicity. It is possible that Act Three in this recording was taken from a different performance than the recordings of the Prologue and Acts One and Two: if so, the disparity between her singing of Act Three and of the first three parts of the opera that this reveals is a disservice to Ms. Netrebko. With so much of Giovanna’s music missing in this recording, Ms. Netrebko’s performance of the title rôle cannot be even-handedly compared with Montserrat Caballé’s radiant singing in the 1972 recording with James Levine and the younger Domingo. The Russian soprano’s instrument is more suited by nature to Giovanna’s vocal lines than those of Renata Tebaldi, Teresa Stratas, or Dame Margaret Price, the latter pair of whom were heard in the rôle in concert in New York, but this performance can ultimately only be deemed a partial success. When at its best in Act Three, however, Ms. Netrebko’s singing is the work of a bona fide prima donna.

Having originated in a celebration of the Verdi Bicentennial and enjoyed the participation of a team of talented musicians, this recording is both a competent, fitfully enjoyable performance of one of Verdi’s neglected early exercises in the forms that, with ever-broadening modifications, served him so well until the end of his career and a missed opportunity. It is difficult to reconcile a sincere desire to honor Verdi’s legacy with concert presentations and a recording of Giovanna d’Arco with the brutal pruning to which the score fell victim in that context. As a souvenir of Plácido Domingo’s Giacomo, a rôle to which he is unlikely to return often if at all, this recording is a worthwhile addition to the discography. It is also a venture that offers many lessons. As many other performances and recordings have likewise confirmed, a cast of ‘star’ singers does not necessarily constitute a cogent ensemble for any given opera. Foremost, though, this Giovanna d’Arco intimates that a recording that takes such a cavalier approach to an underappreciated score primarily frustrates the audience it is intended to delight.

11 July 2014

CD REVIEW: Judith Weir – THE VANISHING BRIDEGROOM (A. Tynan, A. Stéphany, A. Tortise, O. Gilhooly, J. Lemalu; NMC D196)


JUDITH WEIR (born 1954): The Vanishing BridegroomAilish Tynan (Bride, Wife, Mother), Anna Stéphany (Daughter), Andrew Tortise (Lover, Friend, Preacher), Owen Gilhooly (Bridegroom, Husband, Father), Jonathan Lemalu (Doctor, Policeman, Stranger), Stephen Jeffes (Narrator), Andrew Murgatroyd (Dying Man), Christopher Bowen (Youngest Son), Edward Goater (Middle Son), Edward Price (Eldest Son), Simon Birchall (Bride’s Father), Paul Haas-Curievici (Good Robber), Nicolas Simeha (Bad Robber 1), Jonathan Saunders (Bad Robber 2), Olivia Robinson (Woman 1), Sién Menna (Woman 2), Lynette Alcántara (Woman 3); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Martyn Brabbins, conductor [Recorded in concert at the Barbican, London, UK, on 19 January 2008; NMC Recordings NMC D196; 2CD, 82:53; Available from NMC Recordings, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Recently confirmed to succeed Sir Peter Maxwell Davies as Master of the Queen’s Music, Cambridge-born composer Judith Weir is among the guiding voices in contemporary Classical Music both in and beyond Britain. Though her work is often—sometimes bewilderingly—compared to that of Benjamin Britten, her compositional idiom is refreshingly unique, not least in the manner in which aspects of disparate tonal methodologies are combined imaginatively. Vitally, the sound worlds conjured in Ms. Weir’s compositions are shaped by landscapes that are unfailingly musical. For this preference for genuine music rather than stylized noise she endures charges of conservatism. Lamentable as it is that a composer of any era should be criticized for setting out to create sounds that beguile rather than batter the ears, Ms. Weir is owed a debt of gratitude for adhering to her principals and providing in The Vanishing Bridegroom a contemporary opera of originality and wit. Commissioned for the 1990 celebrations of Glasgow’s service as the European Capital of Culture, the score exhibits Ms. Weir’s compositional techniques at their most refined, the opera’s polytonal and polyrhythmic elements combining with judiciously-employed doses of atonalism and minimalism to produce a musical panorama that is both thrillingly original and refreshingly approachable. Uniquely, Ms. Weir achieved with The Vanishing Bridegroom the feat of creating a contemporary opera that audiences weaned on standard repertory will actually enjoy hearing, and with this preservation of a 2008 concert reading of the opera at the Barbican NMC Recordings—the go-to label for top-quality performances of the best British contemporary Classical Music—triumph by giving The Vanishing Bridegroom a recording that any listener willing to cast preconceptions aside will want to hear again and again.

To state that Ms. Weir’s score is accessible to audiences for whom opera as a generative art effectively ceased to exist with the death of Benjamin Britten is not to suggest that it panders in any way to old-fashioned sensibilities or that performing it is an easy task for any of the personnel involved. Under the direction of conductor Martyn Brabbins, a dedicated champion of contemporary music, the complexities of The Vanishing Bridegroom are conquered without being smoothed over. The unifying formulaic structures of the opera’s three parts—‘The Inheritance,’ ‘The Disappearance,’ and ‘The Stranger’—are disclosed without being emphasized, allowing the listener to reach individual conclusions about the dramatic connections among the characters and situations. The demands made on the orchestra by Ms. Weir’s music are met with panache by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Spurred by Maestro Brabbins’s energetic leadership, the instrumentalists respond to the shifting moods of the score with great attention to detail, mining the transitions from lush neo-Romanticism to sparse, angular textures for lodes of emotional significance. All sections of the orchestra are given challenging music in which they excel, but the string playing is especially notable for its ideal combination of lean, biting tone and impeccable intonation. Many conductors seem adrift in contemporary music or else are specialists who lack familiarity with standard repertory. Perhaps the greatest peril to an opera like The Vanishing Bridegroom is to approach it as though it needs some sort of unconventional treatment. Shaping the vocal lines with the finesse required for Bellini, regarding the interactions among singers and orchestra as in Verdi, and recognizing the thematic development in the manner of Wagner: these are the tenets of a successful modus operandi for conducting any opera, whether it was composed in 1890 or 1990. Maestro Brabbins paces this performance of The Vanishing Bridegroom with the obvious belief that this is not a ‘new’ opera, a British opera, or an occupant of any other confining categorization. It is merely an opera, and just as in Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, or Madama Butterfly the foremost qualification for success is possessing a complete acquaintance with the music. Maestro Brabbins knows The Vanishing Bridegroom and conducts the score accordingly.

The overall excellence of the BBC Singers, who en masse are a great source of reliably musical singing throughout the performance, is further confirmed by the fine work of individual choristers in solo parts. It would be too much to ask of the singer of the Narrator’s music to manage it without effort, but tenor Stephen Jeffes uses the strain to which the music pushes him to convey the vehemence of the drama. Tenors Andrew Murgatroyd as the Dying Man, Christopher Bowen as the Youngest Son, and Edward Goater as the Middle Son, baritone Edward Price as the Eldest Son, and bass-baritone Simon Birchall as the Bride’s Father in ‘The Inheritance’ and soprano Olivia Robinson and mezzo-sopranos Lynette Alcántara and Sién Menna as the three Women in ‘The Disappearance’ all sing capably and with audible engagement with their rôles. The young singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama—tenor Paul Haas-Curievici as the Good Robber and baritone Nicolas Simeha and bass-baritone Jonathan Saunders as the Bad Robbers—also contribute vital, admirably finished performances. In ensemble, the BBC Singers are never more impressive than in their lines as the menacing but seductive, Gaelic-speaking Fairies in ‘The Disappearance.’ Like their BBC Symphony colleagues, the choristers follow Maestro Brabbins’s leadership without hesitation, and the integrity of their elocution meaningfully propels the opera’s theatrical development.

As the Doctor in ‘The Inheritance,’ the Policeman in ‘The Disappearance,’ and the eponymous Stranger in the opera’s final Part, bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu sings sonorously if not always with absolute steadiness, especially in the upper reaches of the voice. His Doctor is an insinuating, vaguely sinister figure reminiscent of Docteur Miracle in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann. Here and in his portrayal of the Policeman there are subtle suggestions of humor that contrast markedly with the darkness of the musical surroundings. Mr. Lemalu’s Policeman is the bored, dimwitted small-town constable to the life, his statements of ‘People just disappear / That’s what they do’ changing easily enough to ‘People don’t just disappear / They don’t do that’ according to the expectations of his audience. There is an ethereal, indefinably visionary quality in Mr. Lemalu’s performance as the Stranger that warrants comparisons with the title character in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer. Ms. Weir’s demonic Stranger is vanquished rather than redeemed by his interactions with a woman, but there are similar assaults on innocence and paradigmatic transformations. Mr. Lemalu is at his best when hurling out his voice at full throttle, and a few suspect pitches are evidence of his complete surrender to the dramatic potency of his rôles rather than musical carelessness.

Baritone Owen Gilhooly brings a resonant, sinewy voice to his performances as the Bridegroom, the Husband, and the Father. As the symbolic Bridegroom in the opera’s first Part, a cousin of the hapless Arturo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Mr. Gilhooly creates a portrait of a man who is a pawn in a nasty game but is no one’s fool. He is a Husband who is almost willingly beguiled by the Fairies in ‘The Disappearance,’ but his bewilderment at the passage of time upon his return is genuine—and genuinely moving. The Father in ‘The Stranger’ has less to do, but here, too, Mr. Gilhooly impresses, furthering the kinship with Der fliegende Holländer by exhibiting an opportunistic attitude towards his daughter’s betrothal that evokes thoughts of Wagner’s Daland. Mr. Gilhooly is unbothered by the difficulty of his music, and his ringing, masculine tone gives the solo singing a firm, bronzed core.

The most dramatically varied rôles taken by a single singer are the Lover in ‘The Inheritance,’ the Friend in ‘The Disappearance,’ and the Preacher in ‘The Stranger.’ Though viewing the three parts as manifestations of a single personality type is a valid interpretation, each of these characters has his own agenda. The Lover’s renunciation of his vows to the Bride is both selfless and selfish, and the Friend is both a knowing and an unknowing accomplice in the Husband’s disappearance. The Preacher is an enigma: brash and obsequious in the manner of Olin Blitch in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, he fascinates and repulses in equal measures. The refined, slightly grainy tenor of Andrew Tortise is effective in all three rôles. He proves an ardent Lover in ‘The Inheritance,’ but the coldness that chills the sound when the Bride reveals her marriage to another man is telling. As the Friend, Mr. Tortise is an amiable-sounding bloke who is nonetheless slightly too eager to insist that he had no hand in his mate’s unexplainable disappearance. In his performance of the Preacher, he is oily charm personified. Mr. Tortise’s diction cannot always survive the challenges of his music, but the voice never falters, gaining strength and beauty as the lines ascend. Dramatically, he is a constant presence, managing to convey both unsettling humanity and mystery.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany is impassioned in the Daughter’s encounter with evil in ‘The Stranger.’ Ms. Stéphany’s Daughter is a woman who is distracted but never completely undone by a golden-tongued charmer. The capriciousness of her singing of ‘There was a knight riding frae the east’ gives way to increasing determination upon the appearance of the Stranger, and the resolve with which she voices her final statement of ‘Evil gleams brighter than brass’ is exultant. Ms. Stéphany’s voice is a somewhat ungainly instrument over which she does not yet have complete control, but her musical and dramatic instincts are sure. The efficacy of her characterization compensates for the few imperfections in her vocalism, and she makes the opera’s ending bizarrely cathartic.

In her assignments as the Bride in ‘The Inheritance,’ the Wife in ‘The Disappearance,’ and the Mother in ‘The Stranger,’ soprano Ailish Tynan faces some fiercely strenuous music. She more than holds her own and even succeeds in making the pitfalls of her vocal lines an appreciable component of her characterizations. Ms. Tynan devotes an attractive purity to her singing as the Bride, and both her vocalism and her acting as the Wife convey apprehension tinged with resignation. Like Mr. Gilhooly’s Father, less is asked of her as the Mother, but Ms. Tynan maintains an integral part in the drama. So tremendous is her technical assurance that she is able to evince an appearance of ease. The fearlessness with which she attacks the exposed top notes in her music is stunning: still more laudable is the unerring accuracy of her pitch. Even when creating rôles for specific singers, composers rarely write such exacting music with the expectation of hearing it sung as well as Ms. Tynan sings in this performance.

Why The Vanishing Bridegroom is not in the repertories of the world’s important opera houses—especially those in locales in which English is the primary language—is a question only made more confounding by this performance, preserved in studio-quality acoustics and given the first-class presentation that it deserves by NMC Recordings. Surely an opera that inspires singing, playing, and conducting as accomplished as those heard on this recording can inspire equal commitment and appreciation from audiences. Questions about the foibles of opera companies and their constituencies cannot always be answered, but this recording confirms that the response to any question of whether Judith Weir’s The Vanishing Bridegroom is an important opera is a resounding yes.

Please consider supporting NMC’s endeavors to encourage, promote, and preserve the work of Britain’s finest composers of contemporary Classical Music by purchasing this recording directly from NMC or by contributing in recognition of the organization’s twenty-five years of incomparable achievements. Visit NMC’s website to learn more.

CD REVIEW: Maurice Emmanuel – SALAMINE (F. Wend, B. Demigny, J. Giraudeau, J. Peyron, A. Vessières, L. Lovano; Solstice SOCD 301)

CD REVIEW: Maurice Emmanuel - SALAMINE (Solstice SOCD 301)

MAURICE EMMANUEL (1862 – 1938): Salamine—Flore Wend (la reine Atossa), Bernard Demigny (le Messager), Jean Giraudeau (Xerxès), Joseph Peyron (un dignitaire de la Cour), André Vessières (l’ombre de Darius), Lucien Lovano (le Coryphée); Orchestre radio-symphonique et Chœurs de la RTF; Tony Aubin, conductor [Recorded for radio broadcast in Paris, France, 22 March 1958; Disques FY et du Solstice, SOCD 301; 1CD, 72:03; Available solely from Disques FY et du Solstice]

​Europe in the 1920s was a continent gradually retreating from the edge of annihilation. Cataclysmic ‘total war’ on an unprecedented scale left disfiguring scars on decimated populations, physical landscapes, and philosophical foundations from the windy shores of Britain to the primordial forests of the Balkans. The map was redrawn, and the Hapsburg dynasty that had dominated swaths of the continent for centuries was toppled: modern Europe was born, but it was one of the costliest births in human history. Art, too, was forced by calamity to crawl towards reinvention, to replace the pretty complacencies of fin-de-siècle perspectives with new attitudes forged by the destructive realities of lives touched by oblivion. From this renaissance of altered creativity was born Maurice Emmanuel’s stark tragédie lyrique Salamine. Based upon a recounting of the ancient Battle of Salamis by the composer’s beloved Aeschylus, the opera inhabits a sonic world far more reminiscent of the music of Emmanuel’s pupils Messiaen and Dutilleux than that of his teachers Delibes and Franck. Intense, hypnotic, strange, and more universal than traditionally Gallic, Salamine is a score that boils with musical invention and the voices of threatened humanity. Its magnitude in the recovery of European Art in the decade following World War I notwithstanding, it is a captivating work begging to be heard. A century after the start of the Great War, the superlative efforts of Disques FY et du Solstice—exemplified by the work of producer Yvette Carbou—provide Salamine the opportunity to reclaim its place in the narrative of the reconstruction of European Art.

The battle between the Greeks and Persians of antiquity waged in the waters surrounding the Aegean island of Salamis in 480 BC is a critically-important event unknown in the Twenty-First Century to all but the most attentive students of history. A turning point in the Greco-Persian conflicts of the Fifth Century BC, the Greek victory over the vastly superior numbers of the invading armies of Xerxes the Great—familiar to opera lovers as the tree-hugging protagonist of Händel’s Serse—began the series of decisive military actions that halted Persian conquest of the Greek mainland. To Aeschylus, whose epic play The Persians is one of the most noteworthy first-hand accounts of any episode in Greek history, the routing of the Persian navy at Salamis was one of the truly defining events of his age. From the perspective of history, it is a tremendously significant step in the development of modern civilization. This significance would have been especially apparent to Emmanuel, who was renowned for his scholarship on Greek musical modes, literature, and cultural history. From this unique point of view, World War I surely seemed a sort of second Salamis, a pivotal shift in the balance of power in which long-dominant ideologies were marginalized or eradicated altogether. Musically, Ancient Greece and WWI symbolically collide in Salamine. Admired by the progressive Paul Dukas, Emmanuel’s score is a synthesis of the ancient and the modern that was rightly acclaimed as a masterpiece at the time of the opera’s première at the Opéra de Paris on 19 June 1929. Though revived at the Opéra the following season and arranged by the composer for concert presentation, in which form it was performed at least five times between 1932 and 1969, Salamine has never managed to emerge from the shadows. Thus are the stupid prejudices of Classical Music: were Salamine a ‘rediscovered’ work by Debussy, Puccini, or Schönberg, it would likely be acclaimed as a work of genius as it deserves to be.

Performed in concert as a part of a day-long radio celebration of Ancient Greece on 22 March 1958, Salamine was entrusted to the care of some of France’s most insightful veterans of radio and staged productions of an exceptionally wide range of music. The resulting broadcast recording has been brought back to life with startling immediacy by Solstice’s expert remastering. The singing of the Chœurs de la RTF is stirring throughout the performance, never more so than in ‘Déjà saisissant la rive de Thrace’ in Act One and ‘Qu’ils semblent loin, aux jours d'orage’ in Act Two. The chorus acts as a foundation to the opera’s action in the manner of Classical Greek tragedy, and the RTF singers provide a steadfast musical base. Under the direction of composer and conductor Tony Aubin, the musicians of the Orchestre radio-symphonique de la RTF deliver Emmanuel’s score excellently. The orchestra’s playing of the opera’s Ouverture orchestrale is both muscular and graceful, and the wonderful Prélude orchestral and Danse funèbre in Act Two receive aptly intense performances. Displaying the affinity that composers have often brought to performances of other composers’ works, Maestro Aubin maintains tight but elastic control even in the score’s most strenuous passages. The musical forces of Europe’s national radio services have rarely been recognized as first-rate ensembles, but the skill with which the RTF singers and musicians perform Emmanuel’s punishing music permits no questioning of their abilities and integrity.

Solely for the performance of baritone Lucien Lovano as le Coryphée this recording should be in the libraries of all of the world’s conservatories. From the first line of his opening mélodrame, ‘Tandis qu’au hasard des combats,’ Mr. Lovano gives a masterclass in the art of Sprechstimme. This brilliant artist takes Coryphée’s narrations to the edge of Sprechgesang, his careful articulation of pitches heightening the dramatic impact of his utterances to an extraordinary degree. In Act Two, his intoning of ‘Reine, que vénère la Perse’ is powerful and pointed. In every line of his part, Mr. Lovano’s diction enhances the consequence of his performance, and he conjures a stylized, dramatically-charged environment for his colleagues.

Mr. Lovano’s histrionic authority is matched by the firm, resonant singing of bass André Vessières as l'ombre de Darius. A stalwart of French radio productions, Mr. Vessières was a talented singer to whom the oft-repeated cliché suggesting that he would be a celebrated artist were he singing today is uncommonly applicable. Certainly, he possessed a beautiful voice, and he gives of his best in this performance. His singing of ‘Si l’oracle des dieux n’est pas trompeur, croyez’ lends the shade of Darius the dignity and menace that he should have, and Mr. Vessière makes a huge impression in what ultimately is a small rôle. Bass-baritone Bernard Demigny is also a source of strength as le Messager: the energy and focused tone that he brings to his singing of ‘O cités de l’Asie! O trésor sans pareil’ and ‘Tu sauras tous nos maux: châtiment ou rancune’ are allied with a genuine presence that injects dramatic momentum into the performance.

One of the principal glories of the French school of singing since its inception has been the tradition of heady, altitudinous tenor vocalism. Though Emmanuel’s vocal lines are vastly different from both the haute-contre writing by Lully and Rameau and the music for the Grand Opéra rôles by Meyerbeer, Gounod, and Massenet, the music for tenor voices in Salamine requires the same eloquence and stamina demanded by Meyerbeer’s Raoul de Nangis, Gounod’s Faust, and Massenet’s Werther. In this performance, the tenor rôles are entrusted to a pair of the finest French singers of the mid-Twentieth Century. Portraying a dignitary of the Persian court in Act One, Joseph Peyron sings beautifully, making the most of his few lines. One of the few tenors to take on the Herculean rôle of Énée in Berlioz’s Les Troyens—a part in which he was recorded twice, first in a near-complete performance under the direction of Berlioz specialist Sir Thomas Beecham for the BBC in 1947 and in a studio recording of Les Troyens à Carthage conducted by Hermann Scherchen in 1952—in the modern era, Jean Giraudeau was an adventurous artist with a wide repertory, having also created the rôle of the Chevalier de la Force in the French première of Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites in June 1957, and a voice that retained sweetness to the top of the range. As Xerxès in Salamine, Mr. Giraudeau faced a considerably less arduous vocal task than in Les Troyens, but his performance lacks nothing in terms of concentration and involvement. In his performance of ‘Hélas! trois fois infortuné’ in Act Three, he credibly depicts the grandeur of the historical Xerxes, and the voice is both secure and attractive.

A stern but respected presence at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute in the 1970s and ‘80s, ​Swiss-born soprano​ Flore Wend, selected by the famously finicky Ernest Ansermet to sing Yniold in his 1952 recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande [in which Mr. Vessières also participated] and the title rôle in his unsurpassed recording of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges [an opera in which Mr. Lovano, Mr. Peyron, and Mr. Vessières were also recorded], is now remembered by few other than students whose careers she influenced. As la reine Atossa in Salamine, she reveals a distinctive timbre and a freshness of voice that give her singing a special allure. The tone is rarely beautiful, but the beauty that she achieves in her performance is unmistakable. The vigor of her singing of ‘L’angoisse et le souci que je devine en toi’ in the second scene of Act One is pulse-quickening, but her regal demeanor is never lost. Later, in ‘Le silence et l’horreur m’ont cloué​e à​​ ma place’ in the third scene of Act One, her grasp of the dramatic situation catapults the opera towards tragedy. Atossa is a part very dissimilar to Debussy’s Yniold and Ravel’s Enfant, but Ms. Wend dominates the music—and, indeed, the performance as a whole—from first note to last. Demonstrating a vastly different facet of her artistry, this performance adds immeasurably to the appreciation of Ms. Wend’s career. It also increases the guarded optimism for additional recordings of her work to emerge from private collections and radio archives.

The French artist Auguste Rodin once wrote, ‘Je n’invente rien, je redécouvre’—‘I invent nothing, I rediscover.’ In this era in which it seems that all there is little left to discover about Classical Music and Opera, the emergence of a performance like this 1958 RTF traversal of Maurice Emmanuel’s Salamine provides a rare opportunity not only to rediscover an overlooked score but also to reevaluate the misconceptions that contributed to its neglect. In its unapologetic homage to Ancient Greece, there is a whiff of academia to Salamine, but it is a sensationally original work that deals with timeless—and timely—themes of conflicts among individuals, cultures, and civilizations. It is perhaps damning to the opera’s prospects for reintegration into the repertory to suggest that a cast could not be assembled today to equal the group of artists who stepped before RTF microphones in 1958, but the discography is richer for the release of this recording. For the invention, Maurice Emmanuel is to be extolled: for the rediscovery, the insightful efforts of Solstice are to be applauded.

IN REVIEW: a rare photo of Swiss soprano FLORE WEND, la reine Atossa in Solstice's recording of the 1958 RTF broadcast of Maurice Emmanuel's SALAMINE LA BELLE REINE ATOSSA: a rare photograph of Swiss soprano Flore Wend, who sings the rôle of Queen Atossa in Solstice’s recording of the 1958 RTF broadcast of Maurice Emmanuel’s Salamine [Photo from private collection]

07 July 2014

CD REVIEW: Bellini, Donizetti, & Rossini – ROMANTIC SONGS (L. Marimpietri, U. Benelli, E. Fabbro; DECCA 480 8138)

CD REVIEW: Bellini, Donizetti, & Rossini - ROMANTIC SONGS (DECCA Most Wanted Recitals! 480 8138)

VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791), and GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Romantic Songs – Songs by Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini¹ plus Arias by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini²—Lydia Marimpietri, soprano¹; Ugo Benelli, tenor¹; Enrico Fabbro (Erik Smith), piano¹; Graziella Sciutti, soprano²; Wiener Philharmoniker²; Argeo Quadri, conductor² [Recorded in Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome, Italy, 10 – 13 July 1967¹, and Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria, 16 – 22 October 1960²; DECCA Most Wanted Recitals! 480 8138; 1CD, 79:43; Available from Amazon, jpc, iTunes, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Rare is the season in any of the world’s major opera houses that does not include any of the bel canto masterpieces of Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, and Vincenzo Bellini. In the repertories of many theatres, Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Bellini’s Norma are the pillars that buttress the bel canto repertory. Surprisingly, however, these masters of bel canto, universally acclaimed for the melodic fecundity of their operas, are not favored with equivalent appreciation for their contributions to the ruddy vein of Nineteenth-Century Art Song. Indeed, the observer whose acquaintance with Art Song repertory is molded primarily by recordings must be excused for failing to know that Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini composed songs at all. When so many shadowy musical niches are being illuminated by the curiosity and ambition of today’s artists, the smaller-scaled lyrical offspring of the fathers of Figaro, Lucia, and Norma remain unaccountably overlooked. With its dual aims of restoring to both unheralded recordings by celebrated singers and extraordinary performances by less-remembered voices the recognition that they deserve, DECCA’s Most Wanted Recitals! series is a fitting vehicle for the rediscovery of the Romantic Songs of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. This disc is thus the lovingly-overhauled vintage vehicle for the homecoming of these seductive songs, and a more charming pair of Italian drivers than soprano Lydia Marimpietri and tenor Ugo Benelli could not have been found.

Originally recorded in 1967*, this recital of jewels from the undisturbed trove of bel canto songs benefited from its inception from the high standards of sonic excellence maintained by DECCA, exemplified by the engineering and production work of Stanley Goodall, Erik Smith, and Gordon Parry. Newly remastered for release on compact disc by Victor Suzán Reed, the recording retains a natural balance among voices and piano, and any vestiges of the recording’s age have been largely eliminated without the ‘bloom’ of the vocal reproduction being diminished. Neither singer often escalates beyond mezzo-forte, but the recordings are refreshingly free of distortion. The clarity of the sound enables full appreciation of the subtle but robust inflections of Erik Smith’s—billed as Enrico Fabbro—accompaniments. In each of the fifteen songs, Mr. Smith provides precisely the right atmosphere for the text, and he both supports and slyly guides the singers’ interpretations. The legendary John Culshaw had a hand in the 1960 recording of the arias sung by soprano Graziella Sciutti appended to this disc: these tracks, too, have been affectionately remastered and sound nearly as well on disc as on vinyl.

Duties in performing the bel canto songs are shared equally by both singers. Largely neglected by record labels and grossly under-appreciated by listeners in both the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, Ms. Marimpietri was gifted with a light but unfailingly beautiful voice and superb musicality that served her well in a broad repertory. Perhaps most remembered for her resplendent Drusilla in Raymond Leppard’s edition of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at Glyndebourne and the BBC Proms, subsequently recorded—albeit in truncated form—by HWV/Angel, and her fun-loving but resolute Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, also seen at Glyndebourne and the Proms, she also excelled in music ranging from Bach [a recording of a ‘live’ RAI Milano performance of Bach’s BWV 243 ‘Magnificat’ under Hermann Scherchen’s baton is a true collector’s item] to Boito and contributed sterling performances of secondary rôles to several notable recordings: Dircé in Cherubini’s Medea with Maria Callas, Suor Genovieffa in Suor Angelica and Nella in Gianni Schicci with Victoria de los Ángeles, and Walter in Catalani’s La Wally with Renata Tebaldi, for instance. Ms. Marimpietri opens this disc with a ravishing account of Bellini’s ‘Il fervido desiderio,’ her articulate but never affected diction heightening the dramatic impetus of Bellini’s languid melodic lines. Her singing of Donizetti’s ‘Me voglio fa’na casa,’ ‘Meine Liebe,’ and ‘A Mezzanotte’ is consistently refined but never at the expense of simple, open-hearted emoting. Two of the finest songs included in this recital, Bellini’s ‘L’abbandono’ and ‘Almen se non poss’io,’ receive from Ms. Marimpietri performances of grace and subtle wistfulness. Rossini’s ‘La partenza’ (Soirées musicales No. 3), one of its composer’s most hypnotic creations, enjoys in Ms. Marimpietri’s handling serenity and attention to detail that would prove equally ideal in the Lieder of Mozart, Schubert, or Schumann. 

With a discography containing acclaimed studio performances of Rossini’s Conte d’Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia (opposite Teresa Berganza’s Rosina), Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola (wooing the Angelina of Giulietta Simionato), and Lindoro in L’italiana in Algeri (partnering the Isabella of Lucia Valentini-Terrani), Mr. Benelli’s career as a first-rate tenore di grazia is reasonably well-documented on disc. Though his career at the Metropolitan Opera consisted of only a quartet of successful performances as Don Basilio in Le nozze di Figaro in 1986, Mr. Benelli was heard in many of the world’s most important opera houses, and the longevity of his career is evidence of an ironclad technique. His singing of Rossini’s ‘La gita in gondola’ (Soirées musicales No. 7) and ‘L’orgia’ (Soirées musicales No. 4) exemplifies his authority in the music of the Poet of Pesaro. Tracing the sensibilities of the texts, Mr. Benelli often employs head resonance as the vocal lines ascend, but when he produces top notes in full chest voice they have the ease and resonance familiar from his opera recordings. Bellini’s ‘Bella nice che d’amore’ and ‘Per pietà, bell’idol mio,’ the latter so memorably sung by Renata Tebaldi, are performed to perfection by Mr. Benelli, his artistry filling the vocal lines and enabling him to avoid stretching his slender, silvery voice unduly. Donizetti’s ‘Amore e morte’ and ‘Eterno amor e fè’ draw from Mr. Benelli displays of consummate supremacy in bel canto, and his singing of Bellini’s Arcadian ‘Malinconia, ninfa gentile’ exudes the quiet melancholy that permeates the song’s text. Ms. Marimpietri joins Mr. Benelli in Rossini’s ‘La serenata’ (Soirées musicales No. 11), and their voices combine exquisitely. It is unfortunate that texts and translations of the songs are not included with this release, but the clarity with which both singers enunciate facilitates communication of the words. Fundamentally, the singers’ instinctive grasp of Rossini’s, Donizetti’s, and Bellini’s idioms enables even the listener with no knowledge of Italian to comprehend the sentiments of each song.

Though gratitude is due to DECCA for a well-filled disc, it is also regrettable that additional material featuring Ms. Marimpietri and Mr. Benelli could not have been found to supplement their recital of Romantic Songs; Ms. Marimpietri’s contributions to the long-unavailable DECCA recording of excerpts from Verdi’s Falstaff mentioned on the original LP jacket reproduced in lieu of liner notes, for example. Still, the arias sung by Graziella Sciutti (1927 – 2001) make an interesting finale to the disc. Ms. Sciutti was the quintessential Italian soubrette of the third quarter of the Twentieth Century. A lovely, lively stage creature, she brought vitality to an array of French, German, and Italian rôles. Her principal métier was Mozart repertory, but she was also celebrated for her performances of lyric coloratura parts, particularly in Vienna. The selections on this disc exhibit all of the hallmarks of Ms. Sciutti’s singing: the brittle, razor-sharp timbre; the pin-point articulation of coloratura; the innate cheerfulness of manner; and the tendency for her intonation to sag at the ends of phrases, especially in descending passages. The performances of Despina’s arias ‘In uomini, in soldati’ and ‘Una donna a quindici anni’ from Così fan tutte and Susanna’s ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ from Le nozze di Figaro are typical Mozartean fare for Ms. Sciutti and are capably, coyly sung. Less representative of her discography in general are the three bel canto arias. Her accounts of Rosina’s ‘Una voce poco fa’ from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and ‘Oh! quante volte’ from Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi are not new to compact disc but are welcome reminders of the singer’s slightly unconventional but convincing way with bel canto lines. Contrary to the statement on DECCA’s disc insert, Ms. Sciutti’s recording of ‘Convien partir’ from Act One of the Italian version of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment has also previously appeared on CD. This, though, is the performance by which Ms. Sciutti should be memorialized. Though characteristically breathy, the tone is beautiful and secure up to a glistening top B♮, the phrasing of Donizetti’s cantabile melody is unforced, and her command of the delicate acciaccature is natural. A couple of pitches are flat, but these are five minutes of the most appealing singing that Ms. Sciutti ever recorded in studio. Ably supported in all six arias by the Wiener Philharmoniker and conductor Argeo Quadri, she offers many glimpses of the musical and dramatic vibrancy that won the hearts of so many audiences.

Throughout the label’s history, DECCA releases have been appreciated for their complementary artistic and technical quality. The new Most Wanted Recitals! series has the noble goal of reintroducing some of the label’s most interesting recordings to circulation. If the quality of Romantic Songs is typical of releases in the series, it is a goal dazzlingly fulfilled. Certainly, this disc remedies a glaring omission in the discography of Nineteenth-Century Art Song. Perhaps the honest, heartfelt singing of Lydia Marimpietri and Ugo Benelli might even inspire some of today’s adventurous young artists to explore these sweet blossoms of pure bel canto.

*Note: Mr. Benelli has confirmed that his selections on Romantic Songs were recorded in London, not in Rome as stated in the insert accompanying the DECCA CD, whilst he was in the UK for the 1967 Glyndebourne Festival production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, in which he sang fifteen performances of Nemorino between 26 May and 6 July.