19 December 2014

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi from beginning to end - UN GIORNO DI REGNO (Tactus TC 812290) and OTELLO (NAXOS 8.660357-58)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - UN GIORNO DI REGNO (Tactus TC 812290) & OTELLO (NAXOS 8.660357-58)[1] GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Un giorno di regnoMikheil Kiria (il Cavaliere di Belfiore), Simone Alberti (il Barone di Kelbar), Alice Quintavalla (la Marchesa del Poggio), Angela Nisi (Giulietta di Kelbar), Marco Frusoni (Edoardo di Sanval), Dario Ciotoli (il Signor La Rocca), Roberto Jachini Virgili (il Conte di Ivrea), Marco Miglietta (Delmonte), Riccardo Certi (un servo); Belcanto Chorus; Diego Procoli, fortepiano; Roma Sinfonietta; Gabriele Bonolis, conductor [Recorded during live performances in Teatro Flavio Vespasiano, Rieti, Italy, in November 2013; Tactus TC 812290; 2 CD, 108:03; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

[2] GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): OtelloRobert Dean Smith (Otello), Raffaella Angeletti (Desdemona), Sebastian Catana (Jago), Luis Dámaso (Cassio), Vicenç Esteve (Roderigo), Marifé Nogales (Emilia), Kristjan Mõisnik (Lodovico), Michael Dries (Montano), Enrique Sánchez (Araldo); Orfeón Donostiarra, Los ‘Peques’ del León de Oro; Oviedo Filarmonía; Friedrich Haider, conductor [Recorded in Auditorio Príncipe Felipe, Oviedo, Spain, 22 August – 8 September 2007 and 18 – 26 August 2009; NAXOS 8.660357-58; 2 CD, 131:57; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Composed during one of the most difficult periods in its young creator’s life and unsuccessfully premièred at La Scala in 1840, Giuseppe Verdi’s Un giorno di regno is an opera that has frequently fallen victim to being condemned for what it is not rather than embraced for what it is. Verdi’s only comic opera until Falstaff, the valedictory score with which he triumphantly ended his career as a composer of opera more than a half-century later, Un giorno di regno is not is an unheralded masterpiece: as contemporary assessments suggested, Verdi’s opera fares badly in comparisons with Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Don Pasquale. A time in which he was mourning the losses of his children and first wife was not ideal for even a great artist’s inaugural effort at comedy, and the fact that he purported to have chosen what he deemed to be the least-stupid of the Felice Romani libretti placed at his disposal tacitly reveals Verdi’s level of enthusiasm for the project. Verdi at his most distracted was capable of crafting tuneful, well-constructed music, however, and Un giorno di regno is a score in which the composer’s authentic voice is distantly but distinctly heard. As a rival for the comic operas of Rossini and Donizetti, Un giorno di regno fails, but it is an invaluable glimpse of the craft of the composer of Falstaff in its infancy—and, under the right circumstances, it can be an enjoyable romp through false identities, amorous entanglements, and comedic conflicts between self and state.

​Recorded in November 2013 during Reate Festival performances in the Teatro Flavio Vespasiano in Rieti​, Italy, Tactus’s Un giorno di regno offers a lively account of the opera in the mode of the RAI Milano performance with Lina Pagliughi, Juan Oncina, Renato Capecchi, and Sesto Bruscantini given—and recorded by CETRA—in 1951 in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Verdi’s death. Supervised, mixed, and mastered by Giovanni and Andrea Caruso, the recording suggests the sonic perspective of a prime seat in the stalls, and the minimal stage noise contributes to the sense of enjoying a performance in the theatre. Directed by Martino Faggiani, the Belcanto Chorus singers make favorable impressions every time Verdi calls upon them, especially in the choruses that open each of the opera's two acts. Un giorno di regno is the only of Verdi's operas that makes use of secco recitative, but there is nothing 'dry' in the playing of Diego Procoli, whose fortepiano accompaniment of the recitatives is splendidly witty: thanks to his inventiveness, the passages of secco recitative in this performance can be enjoyed rather than dreaded. Conductor Gabriele Bonolis exhibits a strong grasp of the subtleties of the young Verdi's bel canto style, setting tempi that allow the comedy to progress at a natural, unforced pace. The musicians of the Roma Sinfonietta distinguish themselves with fine playing throughout the performance, beginning with a nimble account of the opera's Sinfonia. Maestro Bonolis keeps the performance moving without pushing the musicians or the singers beyond their abilities, and he wholly avoids the heavy-handedness with which many conductors approach early Verdi repertory.

After the choristers launch Act One with their lively singing of ‘​Mai non rise, non rise un più bel dì,’ baritones Simone Alberti and Dario Ciotoli duet rambunctiously as Barone di Kelbar and the Tesoriere, Signor La Rocca, in 'Tesoriere garbatissimo, una perla or tocca a voi.’ Both gentlemen possess solid, resonant voices, and they buzz through the duet winningly. Tenor Marco Miglietta shapes Delmonte’s ‘Sua Maestà, signori, è alzata, e qui s'invia’ and all of his lines in the opera with finesse.

The Cavaliere di Belfiore is formally introduced by his cavatina, ‘Compagnoni di Parigi, che sì matto mi tenete,’ which baritone Mikheil Kiria sings powerfully and with at least a suggestion of the elegance that the piece demands. The baritone from Western Georgia sails energetically through the Cavaliere’s cabaletta, ‘Verrà purtroppo il giorno de' miei pensier piu gravi,’ having no trouble with the repeated top Es. He is joined by tenor Marco Frusoni in the subsequent duet with Edoardo di Sanval, 'Proverò che degno io sono del favor che vi domando,’ a piece that subjects the tenor to frequent top Gs. The rollicking allegro marziale 'Infiammato da spirto guerriero’ keeps both gentlemen on their toes, and they interact with the flair of a comedic duo.

Parma-born soprano Alice Quintavalla makes her mark on the performance with a graceful account of the Marchesa del Poggio’s cavatina ‘Grave a core innamorato è frenare l'ardente affetto,’ reaching the top A♭s and B♭ in the cadenza with little evidence of stress. The Allegro cabaletta, 'Se dee, se dee cader la vedova non cada in peggio imbroglio’—with its trills, coloratura, and repeated high A♭s—is a greater challenge, but Ms. Quintavalla emerges unscathed. Giulietta di Kelbar also establishes herself in the opera with a cavatina, ‘Non san quant'io nel petto soffits mortal dolore,’ which soprano Angela Nisi executes elegantly. She, too, faces bravura demands in her allegretto cabaletta, ‘Non vo' quel vecchio, non son sì sciocca,’ in which she bravely confronts the trills and top B♭s.

Mr. Alberti and Mr. Ciotoli return to banter good-naturedly in the ‘duetto buffo’ for the Barone and Tesoriere, 'Diletto genero, a voi ne vengo,’ which the gentlemen perform with comic bluster. The subsequent sextet, begun by Edoardo with ‘Cara Giulia, alfin ti vedo,’ to which Mr. Frusoni gives a sweetly-phrased delivery, finds Giulietta, the Barone, the Cavaliere, Tesoriere, and the Marchese—and their respective portrayers—getting mired ever deeper in confusion, conveyed by the young Verdi in frenzied, fanciful music. The trio for the Marchesa, Giulietta, and Edoardo that follows, ‘Bella speranza in vero,’ is one of the finest numbers in the score, and Ms. Quintavalla, Ms. Nisi, and Mr. Frusoni sing it charmingly, the ladies displaying greater ease than the gentleman on their unison top A. Ignited by the fire of the composer’s budding genius, the ensemble finale brings Act One to a rousing close, capped by Ms. Quintavalla’s strong top B♭.

Edoardo launches Act Two with his largo cantabile aria 'Pietoso al lungo pianto alfin m'arride amore,’ which Mr. Frusoni sings competently despite omitting the written top C in the aria’s cadenza. The moderato cabaletta ‘Deh! lasciate a un'alma amante di speranza un solo istante’ is frankly a trial for both the singer and the listener, the strain at the top of the tenor’s range sometimes painful to hear. Mr. Alberti and Mr. Ciotoli again trade patter and top Es in the duet for the Barone and Tesoriere, ‘Tutte l'armi si può prendere de' due mondi e vecchio e nuovo.’ Mr. Kiria duets vigorously with Ms. Quintavalla in ‘Ch'io non possa il ver comprendere,’ but the Marchesa gains the upper hand thanks to the soprano’s shining top A.

The Marchesa’s andante cantabile aria, ‘Si mostri a chi l'adora,' is the musical apogee of Act Two, and Ms. Quintavalla masters all of its difficulties except for an untidily-sung descending chromatic scale. She fires off exciting top As and Bs in the allegro cabaletta, ‘Sì, scordar saprò l'infido, fuggirò la sua presenza.’ Ms. Nisi follows Ms. Quintavalla’s lead in Giulietta’s duet with Edoardo, ‘Giurai seguirlo in campo,’ rocketing to forceful top Bs in the allegro section, ‘Corro al re: saprò difendere i miei dritti in contro a' suoi.’ Verdi creates symmetry by complementing the sextet in Act One with a septet in Act Two, begun by the Marchesa with ‘A tal colpo preparata io non era, io non era, o Cavaliere.’ Tenor Roberto Jachini Virgili, a pupil of Renata Scotto, adds his vivid characterization of the Conte di Ivrea to his colleagues’ spirited singing, and the opera’s finale, ‘Sire, venne in quest'istante un corrierre della Corte,’ draws vehement singing from the cast. Their conflicting interests sorted out, ‘Eh! facciamo facciam da buoni amici’ takes Giulietta and the Marchesa to top B♭s. Mention must also be made of the firm vocalism of baritone Riccardo Certi in Verdi’s few lines for the Servo. Even when their singing is not first-rate, these young artists throw themselves into the performance with absolute commitment, and they fashion an involved, sometimes genuinely amusing Un giorno di regno—no magnum opus, to be sure, but an entertaining opera that repays honest endeavors to uncover the seeds of Verdi’s burgeoning theatrical savvy.

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At the opposite end of the spectrum from Un giorno di regno, artistically and chronologically, is Otello, the score with which Verdi said his final farewell to serious opera in 1887. Also premièred at La Scala, where the failure of his freshman attempt at comic opera nearly convinced him to abandon composition altogether, Otello was the culmination of a concerted campaign by the publisher Giulio Ricordi and the librettist and fellow composer Arrigo Boito to lure Verdi into setting an adaptation of Shakespeare’s tale of the Moor of Venice to music. Boito’s libretto—a rare example of a librettist equaling or even improving upon the Bard of Avon—was completed six years before Verdi’s opera reached the stage, but the success that greeted the work proved that it was worth the wait. Musically, Otello is a masterpiece of Verdi’s still-evolving late-career style. Dramatically, the opera is a marvel. The characterizations of Otello, Desdemona, and Jago are sharper in the four acts of Verdi’s opera than in the pages of Shakespeare’s play. In the playhouse, the tragedy is poignant: in the opera house, it is devastating. The aged Verdi clearly admitted Desdemona into his heart, and the score that resulted brims with the misadventures of young love despite the age of the hands that created it.

NAXOS’s Verdi escapades have mostly been successful, the label’s catalogue including enjoyable performances of Rigoletto, Il trovatore, La traviata, and Aida and a particularly competitive recording of Falstaff. This studio recording of Otello immediately rises to the top of the list of NAXOS’s best opera recordings in any repertory. NAXOS recordings almost never disappoint in terms of sound quality, but Otello is a score that can be suffocated in the recording studio: it is Verdi’s most extravagantly atmospheric opera, and a recording that lacks ample space into which the cacophonous climaxes can expand threatens to be uncomfortably claustrophobic. The basic acoustic in this recording is more evocative of the studio than of the theatre, but it is meticulously-balanced to avoid peaking when all of the musical forces are in full cry. The sterling achievements of producer Joachim Krist and engineer and editor Fernando Arias contribute superbly to the dramatic effectiveness of the performance. Only in Act Four of Aida had Verdi previously built tension as potently as in Otello, and indifferent sound can spoil the impact of the music, particularly in the opera’s final scene. The acoustical ambience of this recording never stands in the way of Verdi’s carefully-wrought musical and dramatic effects: that alone is a commendable attribute for a recording of Otello.

Still, the fearsome question of how to cast a performance of Otello, whether in the opera house or before microphones, surely haunts any production team planning to take Verdi’s penultimate opera into the studio. It is NAXOS’s answer to this question that is the most impressive element of this recording. Otello is more dependent upon the capabilities of its central characters than almost any of Verdi’s other operas, but this recording features a cast of strength from the smallest rôles to the three leads. Whether their voices are heard as those of the Cypriot populace or rabble-rousing soldiers, the choristers of Los 'Peques' del León de Oro and ​Orfeó​n Donostiarra bellow and sigh assertively. They open the opera with exclamations of ‘Una vela!’ that shudder with apprehension, and the sopranos and tenors seem little troubled by the fortissimo lines taking them to top A and B♭. Their utterances of ‘Fuoco di gioia!’ are stirring, and the choristers consistently sing with engagement that heightens their collective rôle as a sort of Greek chorus. Maestro Friedrich Haider’s vast experience in bel canto repertory is apparent in his conducting of Otello. Even in his last operas, Verdi never completely renounced the bel canto instincts that yielded the melodic prodigality of his music, and Maestro Haider’s intuitive handling of bel canto idioms gives the melodic lines in Otello special luminosity. Less expected is the mastery that Maestro Haider demonstrates in leading the admirable playing of the fiercely dramatic score by the Oviedo Filharmonía. The brass players give particularly commendable accounts of their difficult parts, but all of the orchestra’s musicians furnish imposing performances. Aided by NAXOS’s production team, Maestro Haider and the orchestra achieve epic dynamic contrasts that aptly evoke the polarized environments in which the fates of Otello, Desdemona, and Jago collide.

Led by Marifé Nogales’s shrewd Emilia, the singers in supporting rôles acquit themselves adroitly. Ms. Nogales sings her part in the quartet in Act Two with firm tone, and the terror and fear for her mistress that she exudes in Act Four are harrowing. As the Araldo, baritone Enrique Sánchez lends a resonant voice and noble phrasing to his pronouncements of ‘La vedetta del porto ha segnalato la veneta galea che a Cipro adduce gli ambasciatori’ in Act Three and ‘Signor mio...ven prego, lasciate ch'io vi parli’ in Act Four. Basses Michael Dries and Kristjan Mõisnik impress as Montano and Lodovico, the former’s singing of ‘È l'alato Leon!’ in Act One demanding attention. Tenors Vicenç Esteve as Roderigo and Luis Dámaso as Cassio give nuanced readings of their parts that benefit from their youthful vocalism. In Act One, Mr. Dámaso sings ‘Essa infiora questo lido’ commandingly, and he rises to the top As in ‘Questa del pampino verace’ and ‘Miracolo vago dell’aspo e dell’ago’ in Act Three with freedom. His etching of ‘Questo nome d'onor suona ancor vano per me’ is the finest moment in Mr. Dámaso’s wonderful performance.

​American baritone Sebastian Catana is one of the Twenty-First Century’s great hopes for authentic Verdi baritone singing [a review of his terrific performance of Pasha Seid in Washington Concert Opera’s March 2014 presentation of Il corsaro is available here]. As Jago in this performance, his outstanding singing and the suitability of the voice for the music usher him into the company of the finest recorded Jagos of the past. With his subtly-hued phrasing of ‘È infranto l'artimon!’ and ‘Roderigo, ebben che pensi,’ Mr. Catana personifies a dangerous, calculating character from the start, and his suggestive ‘Se un fragil voto di femmina non è tropp'arduo nodo pel genio mio nè per l'inferno’ is chilling. In ‘Ei favella già con troppo bollor,’ he nails the high F and G♭, and the high tessitura of ‘Inaffia l'ugola!’ is managed with thrilling punch. The famous ‘Credo in un Dio crudel’ in Act Two inspires Mr. Catana to a glorious display of Verdi singing, his negotiations of the punishing tessitura and climactic top Fs and F♯ marked by technical aplomb. His voice drips with venom in ‘Ciò m'accora...,’ his goading of the insecure Otello manifested by his almost violent attack on the trill on E♯. The pointed irony of his ‘Pace, signor’ is disquieting, and his false account of Cassio’s dream, ‘Era la notte, Cassio dormia, gli stavo accanto,’ his voice enveloped in chiaroscuro, borders on the pornographic. Mr. Catana matches his Otello decibel for decibel in duet, and his alertness to the moments of beauty in his music makes him an especially menacing figure. There is a deadened quality to his singing of ‘Vieni; l'aula è deserta’ in Act Three, and the viciousness of his elocution of ‘Questa è una ragna dove il tuo cuor casca, si lagna, s'impiglia e muor’ is terrifying. His villainy is so compelling because there are glimmers of humanity in his performance, moments in which his cold demeanor seems designed to conceal a pitiable vulnerability. There are no weaknesses in Mr. Catana’s vocalism, however, and he lurks in the shadows of Act Four like a cobra plotting its strike. That this Jago evades justice is maddening, but Mr. Catana portrays a character for whom escape is as natural as deception. His 107 appearances at the Metropolitan Opera to date have been in supporting rôles: hopefully, this recording will prompt the MET and opera houses throughout the world to bolster—and in some cases revive—their Verdi wings by giving their audiences opportunities to hear this phenomenal young singer in the leading rôles for which his burly, burnished voice qualifies him.

The list of memorable Desdemonas includes many of the greatest sopranos of the years since Otello’s première. On records, there are Maria Carbone, Renata Tebaldi, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Renata Scotto, and Mirella Freni. Additionally, in the world’s opera houses, Verdi’s exquisite music has received standard-bearing performances from Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Rethberg, Eleanor Steber, Licia Albanese, Victoria de los Ángeles, Montserrat Caballé, Ilva Ligabue, Raina Kabaivanska, Teresa Żylis-Gara, and Renée Fleming. Born in Torino, soprano Raffaella Angeletti is a Desdemona in the tradition of Mirella Freni, a warmly feminine, lushly Italianate young woman whose demure tranquility does not preclude flashes of temper. The amorous wonder of her exclamation of ‘Mio superbo guerrier!’ in Act One is epitomized by her sustained top A♭, and the solidity of the central octave of the voice is put to great use, musically and dramatically. Ms. Angeletti’s singing in the love duet maintains poise and laser-like focus: it is hardly surprising that she has been widely acclaimed in Europe for her portrayal of Puccini’s Cio-Cio San. In Act Two of Otello, she exudes purity in ‘Splende il cielo, danza l'aura, olezza il fior’ and soars to her stunning top B. Her plea for mercy for Cassio, ‘D'un uom che geme sotto il tuo disdegno la preghiera ti porto,’ would melt the heart of a sane man: it is obvious why it so unnerves Otello, already drowning in suspicion and paranoia. Ms. Angeletti palpably imparts the confusion of ‘Perchè torbida suona la voce tua?’ The sadness and supplication of her pained enunciation of ‘Se inconscia, contro te, sposo, ho peccato, dammi la dolce lieta parola del perdono,’ the line plunging to the bottom of the voice, are very moving, and her top B♭ in the dolcissimo ‘Vien ch'io t'allieti il core’ is a glistening tone. She trades full-throated forte top B♭s with Otello in the quartet, and she takes her leave with heartbreaking disillusionment. In Act Three, she seems barely able to utter her words in ‘Dio ti giocondi, o sposo dell'alma mia sovrano’ and ‘Tu di me ti fal gioco,’ and in ‘Mi guarda! il volto e l'anima ti svelo’ her lustrous top B♭ on the phrase ‘guarda le prime lagrime’ is a cry from the heart. Her despair is tinged with indignation in ‘A terra! sì...nel livido fango,’ and she soars over the ensemble to top C♭, on which Verdi cruelly requested that Emilia and Cassio join her. It is in Act Four that Desdemona has her most familiar music, and Ms. Angeletti manages to make the oft-abused willow aria, ‘Piangea cantando nell'erma landa,’ sound grippingly spontaneous. Her voice trembles with fear when she sings ‘Ah! Emilia, Emilia, addio.’ This singer’s account of 'Ave Maria, piena di grazia,’ the floated top A♭ emitted as though intended solely for God’s ears, is truly a despondent young woman’s prayer rather than a prima donna’s workaday traversal of a famous aria. The voice is choked with sadness and horror when she emotes, ‘Chi è là? Otello?’ These are rhetorical questions: this Desdemona already senses that it is Otello who approaches and that he comes to kill her. Ms. Angeletti takes an understated approach to Desdemona’s death throes. She loves Otello too much to struggle against his injustice. There is occasionally a slight dullness to the basic patina of her sound, but the technical surety with which Ms. Angeletti sings Desdemona is marvelous—and, in this sad time for Verdi singing, quite exceptional.

Unlike many modern exponents of the part, Kansas-born tenor Robert Dean Smith has the capacity as Otello to combine the heroic stamina of a Heldentenor with the pliancy of a more lyric voice. In this performance, he alternates a hectoring, brutal public persona with fleeting images of a withering, intensely-flawed introversion. Mr. Smith’s introductory ‘Esultate​! L'orgoglio musulmano sepolto è in mar’ is powerful without being unpleasantly brusque, and he ascends unhesitatingly to the top G♯ and A. His ‘Abbasso le spade!’ is a command that is not to be ignored. His is the passion of a Cavaradossi or Pinkerton rather than a Siegfried or Tristan in ‘Già nella notte densa s'estingue ogni clamor,’ and the ardor of his ‘Vien…Venere splende’ is touchingly sincere, his long-sustained top A♭ invoking the height of passion. As Otello’s stability deteriorates in Act Two, Mr. Smith’s singing grows more agitated. In the duet with Jago, ‘Pel cielo, tu sei l'eco dei detti miei,’ the tenor meaningfully juxtaposes the increasing disjointedness of Otello’s thoughts with the reliable steadiness of his vocalism. He lashes at the top B on ‘amore e gelosia vadan dispersi insieme,’ and the anguish of ‘Mi lascia! mi lascia!’ and ‘Desdemona rea!’ is crippling. There is a repulsive, almost puerile resolve in his singing of ‘Ora e per sempre addio,’ and he copes unflinchingly with the troublesome tessitura, centered in the passaggio, and the catapulting vocal lines that climb to ‘Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro!’ Otello’s exchanges with Jago at the start of Act Three are given daunting significance by Mr. Smith’s performance, his singing of ‘Ancor l'ambascia del mio morbo m'assale’ a manifestation of the character’s desperation. His ill-tempered remarks to Desdemona, exemplified by ‘Datemi ancor l'eburnea mano, vo' fare ammenda’ are cutting, and he negotiates the rise to top C on ‘quella vil cortigian che è la sposa d'Otello’ far more easily than many Otellos. The mournful adagio, ‘Dio! mi potevi scagliar tutti i mali della miseria’ is sung with the delicacy of a love song, and Mr. Smith employs his ringing top B♭s as groans of dejection. ‘A terra! e piangi!’ and ‘Fuggirmi io sol non so!’ are tormented expressions of exasperation, and the rise to top A in ‘E il ciel non ha più fulmini’ is unanswerably emphatic. In Act Four, Otello is a broken man even before Jago’s treacherous manipulation is unveiled. Mr. Smith sings ‘Niun mi tema, s'anco armato mi vede’ with simplicity that proves far more persuasive than more ‘theatrical’ approaches to the passage. When Mr. Smith’s Otello sings of ‘un bacio...un bacio ancora,’ there is no question that his thoughts are as much of the next world as of this one. Mr. Smith does not always have at his disposal the sheer might that the part requires, but he sings the music captivatingly, and his performance preserves true beauty of tone in passages in which many singers sacrifice attractive vocalism in order to focus on survival. Moreoever, he, Ms. Angeletti, and Mr. Catana are an Otello, Desdemona, and Jago who sing with rather than at one another, and they expressively depict the sharpest pangs of Shakespeare’s, Boito’s, and Verdi’s tragedy.

That Otello remains one of Verdi’s most popular and frequently-performed operas is indicative of the quality of the music rather than that of most recent performances of the opera. It is a score that asks colossal things of those who perform it, and this new recording from NAXOS responds prodigiously. In colloquial terms, Otello is not an opera for weaklings: strength is the trademark of the efforts of NAXOS’s team of singers, musicians, and technical staff, and, perhaps most remarkably, they succeed in blending the necessary muscle with appeal. This is an Otello to be savored, not merely endured.