31 January 2015

CD REVIEW: Same Destination, Very Different Winter’s Journeys – Franz Schubert’s WINTERREISE (Z. Emanuel-Marial, male alto; P. Mayers, piano – Thorofon CTH2615 & D. Behle, tenor; Oliver Schnyder Trio – Sony Classical 88883788232)

CD REVIEW: Franz Schubert - WINTERREISE (Thorofon CTH2615 & Sony Classical 88883788232)FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): Winterreise, D. 911(1) Zvi Emanuel-Marial, male alto; Philip Mayers, piano [Recorded in b-sharp Studio, Berlin, Germany, on 17, 21, and 23 October 2013; Thorofon CTH2615; 1 CD, 67:36; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, and major music retailers] and (2) Daniel Behle, tenor; Oliver Schnyder Trio [Recorded in Zürich, Switzerland, 15 – 19 June 2013; Sony Classical 88883788232; 2 CDs, 125:56; Available from Amazon, jpc, iTunes, and major music retailers]

​Since the publication of the cycle in 1828, Franz Schubert’s Winterreise has been one of the benchmarks by which a singer’s fluency in Lieder repertory has been assessed. The array of voices by which the cycle has been sung and the range of interpretations to which the individual Lieder in Winterreise have been subjected are exceptionally broad. Winterreise on records will likely always be associated in the minds of many listeners, even those who never heard him otherwise, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but among male interpreters of the cycle memorable accounts have been recorded by low voices as diverse as Gerhard Hüsch, Karl Schmitt-Walter, Hans Hotter, Kurt Moll, and Hermann Prey, as well as by tenors such as Peter Anders, Anton Dermota, Julius Patzak, Sir Peter Pears, Ernst Haefliger, and Ian Partridge. The first female singer to set her sights on Winterreise—in near-complete form on records, at least—seems to have been the magnificent German soprano Lotte Lehmann, whose idiosyncratic 1940 – ‘41 recording with her regular accompanist, Paul Ulanowsky, paved the way for notable later efforts by Lois Marshall, Brigitte Fassbaender, Christa Ludwig, Christine Schäfer, and Alice Coote. [Sadly, Elena Gerhardt’s famed interpretation of the cycle was not preserved in full.] The autograph keys suggest that Schubert intended Winterreise for tenor voice, but his fondness for the baritone voice of his friend Johann Michael Vogl is extensively documented. Vogl was the foremost interpreter of Die Schöne Müllerin, Schubert’s earlier cycle utilizing poetry by Wilhelm Müller, in the years between the completion of the cycle and his death in 1840, and though his relationship with Winterreise is less known to history he sang the complete cycle to great acclaim shortly before he died on the twelfth anniversary of Schubert’s death. In the generations since the first publication of Winterreise in two parts, a near-infinite progression of transpositions has altered the individual songs and the cycle as a whole. The Winterreisen on these new releases from Thorofon and Sony Classical present new perspectives on this endlessly enchanting trek through love, uncertainty, and resignation. Whatever novelties a recording of Winterreise proposes, it is the singing that must ultimately be the raison d’être. The voice is the only conduit for the emotional deluge of this music: without it, where can a Winterreise go?

However the twenty-four Lieder in Winterreise are transposed, arranged, re-ordered, or reconfigured, they are fraught with difficulties for any singer regardless of Fach. Many singers have discovered that approaching Winterreise as an extended operatic scena is folly, as is tiptoeing through the music as though each Lied is a holy relic. It is a cycle that requires attention to its basic construction and cognizance of the ways in which Schubert utilized restrained musical structures to further the dramatic impetus portrayed in the texts. As an exhibition of unexaggerated sentiments expressed in song, Israeli male alto Zvi Emanuel-Marial’s Winterreise on Thorofon is a very personal journey that never descends into tasteless hyperbole. Possessing a lovely, soft-edged timbre, Mr. Emanuel-Marial must be applauded for singing the cycle without taking shortcuts or cautiously crawling through the music. Ably accompanied by Australian pianist Philip Mayers, whose playing instinctively matches the emotional nuances of his colleague’s interpretations of each song, the singer builds great cumulative force by approaching each song in succession with clear-headed simplicity. This is not a reading of grandiose philosophical aggrandizing: instead, it is a look—indeed, almost an intrusion—into a bare but not despondent explication of sentiments too ambivalent for expression via words alone.

Mr. Emanuel-Marial opens his journey through Winterreise with an especially lovely account of 'Gute Nacht,' and there is a simple, boyish fascination at the heart of his voicing of 'Wetterfahne.' In 'Gefrorne Trä​nen' and 'Erstarrung,' the tessitura makes demands that Mr. Emanuel-Marial's voice can meet only with discernible effort, but what his performance costs him in the expenditure of vocal capital is handsomely repaid by the sagacity of his elucidation of text. His singing of 'Der Lindenbaum,' a song too often flippantly delivered, is endearing, the warmth of his enunciation of the vowels combining with the fluidity of Mr. Mayers’s pianism with rare grace. The imagery of ‘Wasserflut,’ ‘Auf dem Flusse,’ and ‘Rückblick’ is powerfully conveyed by Mr. Emanuel-Marial’s unaffected diction, and the stark but soft-edged realism of his performances of ‘Irrlicht,’ ‘Rast,’ and the sublime ‘Frühlingstraum’ is very effective. ‘Einsamkeit’ is executed with bleakness, all color drained from the voice.

The anxiety of hearing the distant post-horn and the bitter disappointment of realizing that it heralds no news from the object of the narrator’s passion are palpably imparted by Mr. Emanuel-Marial’s agitated singing of ‘Die Post,’ and the restlessness of ‘Der greise Kopf’ finds a meaningful outlet in the singer’s and Mr. Mayers’s rhapsodic performance. The growing perceptions of natural phenomena as harbingers of psychological upheaval in ‘Die Krähe,’ ‘Letzte Hoffnung,’ ‘Im Dorfe,’ and ‘Der stürmische Morgen’ are pointedly translated into sound by Mr. Emanuel-Marial’s sparse vocalism. The taunting beacons of ‘Täuschung’ and ‘Der Wegweiser’ are decried with fervor, and the deceptive haven encountered in ‘Das Wirtshaus’ is denounced with heartbreaking hopelessness. The biting cold of the wind and snow in ‘Mut!’ shiver in the voice and piano, and the symbolic trinity of ‘Die Nebensonnen’ draws from singer and accompanist an expression of spellbound religiosity. There is unmistakable significance to Mr. Emanuel-Marial’s pronouncement of the final line of ‘Der Leiermann,’ ‘Willst zu meinen Liedern deine Leier dreh’n?’: the question is delivered directly to the listener, as if to say, ‘Will you walk with me, wherever this journey leads?’ The ambiguity in Mr. Emanuel-Marial’s tone, poised between romanticized masculinity and poetic androgyny, facilitates a construal of Winterreise that reverberates with melancholy and manic energy, and the singer and his accompanist give a performance of the cycle that is memorable for far more than its unconventionality.

As in his Capriccio recording of Brahms's Die schöne Magelone, tenor Daniel Behle offers a pair of performances, one of Winterreise in its traditional form and another in an intriguing adaptation of his own composition. Many—perhaps most—of the instrumental arrangements of Winterreise that have been attempted in past have been egotistical endeavors, the primary goals of which were not to pay homage to Schubert’s genius but to provide opportunities for ambitious musicians to hone their compositional skills by tinkering with music of proven appeal. This emphatically is not the case with Mr. Behle’s reimagining of Winterreise. An artist of uncompromising integrity, Mr. Behle has looked very deeply into the most minute details of Schubert’s settings of Müller’s texts and extracted threads that he then reassembled in expanded form, neither disrupting the lyrical flow of Schubert’s thematic development nor imposing harmonic complexities that the basic structures of the music cannot sustain. This also is not vapid salon music, however, and it is not a wholesale restatement of Schubert’s piano accompaniments with decorative violin and cello obbligati. Instead, Mr. Behle has essentially transformed Winterreise into profoundly emotive chamber music for quartet, with the voice being the instrument charged with speech. Hearing him sing the cycle in this form, it seems virtually impossible that any other artist could do it justice, but Mr. Behle’s arrangement is one of a handful of loving adaptations that deserves attention from other singers and musicians undertaking Winterreise.

Whether accompanying Mr. Behle in the traditional performance of the cycle or anchoring the trio in the tenor’s arrangement, pianist Oliver Schnyder is an attentive, unflappable source of grounded strength who plays as though he were singing the Lieder himself. Reveling in Schubert’s sometimes very wittily contrasted harmonies, he collaborates with Mr. Behle in the adoption of tempi that enable rhythmic precision without inhibiting dramatic flexibility. Violinist Andreas Janke and cellist Benjamin Nyffenegger play entrancingly, their phrasing informed by obviously multi-layered comprehension of the texts and an uncanny sensitivity to the subtleties of Mr. Behle’s interpretations. Individually and in ensemble, the instrumentalists respond to one another, to the singer, and to the ever-changing facets of Schubert's music with consummate artistry and the thrill of exploration missing from so many performances of the cycle.

Solely in terms of vocalism, Mr. Behle is among the most successful performers of Winterreise on disc. He shares with Mr. Emanuel-Marial an unwonted freshness of approach, a sense of having come to the music without preconceptions or prejudices. It is only natural that a singer should give of his best when performing music that he arranged, but Mr. Behle possesses an ideal voice for Schubert’s vocal lines. His burnished lower register is heard to potent effect in the opening ‘Gute Nacht,’ both in the ‘traditional’ performance and in that of his arrangement. In fact, the singer’s exegesis of the songs remains strikingly consistent in both performances. The squeaking of a rusted weathervane is evoked in Mr. Behle’s ‘Wetterfahne,’ particularly in his own arrangement, and the crystalline beauty of tone that he devotes to ‘Gefrorne Trä​nen’ is inspiring. His singing of ‘Erstarrung’ has a deadened quality, the voice hollow with the disenfranchisement of a man who finds no trace of his beloved. Both with piano and with the trio, his ‘Der Lindenbaum’ glows with serene recognition. Like Mr. Emanuel-Marial, he unleashes startlingly vital tone painting in ‘Wasserflut,’ ‘Auf dem Flusse,’ and ‘Rückblick,’ and his handling of ‘Irrlicht’ exudes confusion and chagrin. Mr. Behle makes of ‘Rast,’ ‘Frühlingstraum,’ and ‘Einsamkeit’—three of the finest songs in the cycle—a strangely vivid triptych, closing the first half of Winterreise with an acutely erudite, almost sensual voicing of the line, ‘War ich so elend nicht.’

Mr. Behle begins ‘Die Post’ with a burst of optimism that quickly fades into anguish. A marvel of Mr. Behle’s performance is that he heightens the impact of the desolation of the text by intensifying the attractiveness of his singing. The prevailing sentiment of his account of ‘Der greise Kopf’ is the suggestion that suffering purifies human desires, and he transforms this conceit into an acceptance of the conflicting implications of nature manifested in ‘Die Krähe,’ ‘Letzte Hoffnung,’ ‘Im Dorfe,’ and ‘Der stürmische Morgen.’ The flickering light mentioned in Müller’s text in ‘Täuschung’ shines in Mr. Behle’s voice and in the instruments that support it. His wide-eyed contemplation of nature’s trickery in ‘Der Wegweiser’ contrasts with his recognition of the pain of human denial in ‘Das Wirtshaus.’ ‘Mut!’ bristles with irony, but, like Mr. Emanuel-Marial, he lends ‘Die Nebensonnen’ an atmosphere of hard-won tranquility. In the final song, ‘Der Leiermann,’ the lingering impression of Mr. Behle’s interpretation differs markedly from Mr. Emanuel-Marial’s: rather than seeking the companionship of the listener, Mr. Behle addresses his concluding query to himself, quietly appraising the ability of the narrator of Winterreise to carry on. Whether accompanied by piano in Schubert’s settings or by piano trio in his own noteworthy arrangement, Mr. Behle’s Winterreise is one of struggle endured with insurmountable grace.

With so many superb song cycles, especially those by Czech, Polish, and Spanish composers, still virtually unknown beyond the ranks of the most conscientious connoisseurs of Art Song, why does Franz Schubert’s Winterreise remain a central pillar in the temple of song? Why, nearly two centuries after the shy composer’s death, are his songs still the standards by which singers’ abilities as Lieder interpreters are measured? In her book More Than Singing, the soprano Lotte Lehmann wrote that in Winterreise ‘the lover has come to realize the worthlessness of his beloved and knows at last that the love which was the greatest experience of his life, has been squandered on one who was incapable of appreciating the unique gift of true love and faith.’ It is the dichotomy of expressing the narrator’s realization of that worthlessness and maintaining at least a muted faith in love that makes performance of Winterreise one of the most fearsome experiences in lyric art. Each in his own way, Zvi Emanuel-Marial and Daniel Behle make the journey hauntingly, proving anew that the spectrum of emotions explored in the songs of Winterreise is limited only by the imaginations of the artists who perform them.

CD REVIEW: Franz Schubert - WINTERREISE (Thorofon CTH2615 & Sony Classical 88883788232)Franz Peter Schubert (31 January 1797 – 19 November 1828)

30 January 2015

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER (T. Stensvold, A. Kampe, C. Ventris, K. Youn, R. Thomas, J. Henschel; RCO Live RCO 14004)

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner - DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER (RCO Live RCO 14004)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Der fliegende HolländerTerje Stensvold (Der Holländer), Anja Kampe (Senta), Christopher Ventris (Erik), Kwangchul Youn (Daland), Jane Henschel (Mary), Russell Thomas (Der Steuermann); Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, WDR Rundfunkchor Köln, NDR Chor; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Andris Nelsons, conductor [Recorded during concert performances in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on 24 and 26 May 2013; RCO Live RCO 14004; 2 CD, 135:57; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​Few composers have been as successful at creating and perpetuating the impression of having emerged fully mature, Athena-like, from artistic infancy as Richard Wagner. To the observer acquainted with the scores that remain in the repertories of the world’s opera houses, it must indeed seem that the Wagner of Tristan und Isolde, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Parsifal was at work even at the dawn of the composer’s career. Admittedly, unlike the works of almost all other composers but Monteverdi and Mozart [Puccini’s La fanciulla del West and complete Il trittico still are not performed as often as they deserve to be], all of Wagner’s mature operas remain in almost continuous circulation, but his early operas, those apt to be unknown to casual Wagnerians (and not without the composer’s tacit approval), only sporadically show the obvious handiwork of the genius of the Green Hill. Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi, all enjoyable works when appropriately performed, might justifiably be said to lack nothing needed to be typical grand operas except Auber’s, Halévy’s, or Meyerbeer’s signatures on their manuscripts. At its first performance in 1843, then, Der fliegende Holländer must have seemed incredibly radical even to those in the Dresden audience acquainted with the young Wagner’s style. In Der fliegende Holländer, Wagner embraced the ephemeral emotions of larger-than-life mythic characters that would guide the course of his creative development throughout his career, and his pioneering—but not altogether original, as is often suggested—use of leitmotivs took a major step towards Der Ring des Nibelungen. Celebration of the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth was the occasion for the concert performances in Amsterdam’s storied Concertgebouw that produced this recording on the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s house label, and a celebration it is: presented in clear, spacious sound with finer balance than has been achieved in many studio recordings, RCO Live’s performance of Der fliegende Holländer exults in the profuse musical and dramatic capacities of Wagner’s score. The quality that makes this performance of Der fliegende Holländer especially interesting, however, is its pragmatism. Rather than being a stilted, tumefied obeisance to a musical leviathan, this performance takes Der fliegende Holländer on its own terms, treating it as a living, sentient work, not a frigid artifact that must be admired only from a distance.

In presiding over this or any performance of Der fliegende Holländer, Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons faces the enormous weight of history. In addition to a legacy shaped by notable performances and recordings guided by virtually every conductor with an affinity for Wagner repertory, Der fliegende Holländer has the provenance of having been conducted at its Dresden première by Wagner himself, a circumstance repeated only in the first performance of Tannhäuser two years later. In this performance, Maestro Nelsons exhibits a thorough grasp of the young Wagner’s idiom, marshaling the musical forces at his disposal with clear-sighted focus on the opera’s lofty climaxes, but the most impactful element of his approach to the score is the way in which he grants meticulous attention to small details without distorting the overall structure of the opera. There is more bel canto in Der fliegende Holländer—indeed, in all of Wagner’s mature operas—than many Wagnerians are willing to admit, and Maestro Nelsons does not hesitate to caress phrases with Italianate warmth. He is fortunate to have in the players of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra an ensemble of musicians whose versatility enables them to bring stylistic pertinence to virtually any repertory. Employing the three-act construction with the Norwegian setting rather than the composer’s original concept with the drama playing out in Scotland in a single act, this performance finds the RCO on representatively excellent form. From the first chords of the Ouvertüre, crucial brass and woodwind lines are delivered with near-perfect intonation, and the string playing is as sinewy as the music requires without being ponderous. The same might be said of the performance as a whole: muscle is never lacking when it is needed, but passages that benefit from delicacy receive it.

The choristers of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, NDR Chor [both directed by Martin Wright], and WDR Rundfunkchor Köln [led by David Marlow] sing sonorously whether portraying Senta’s friends, the hearty Norwegian sailors, or the Holländer’s eerie crew. In their seagoing duties, Wagner gave the chorus quite a lot of exclamations of ‘Hojoje,’ ‘Johohoe,’ and the like, and it is to the choristers’ credit that these do not sound as silly in this performance as they often do. The tenors are troubled by the tessitura, which often suspends them in the passaggio with frequent top Fs and Gs, but they cope without embarrassing themselves. In the Norwegian sailors’ ‘Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer,’ the gentlemen sound appropriately weary of the sea, and the ladies’ singing of the Spinning Chorus, ‘Summ’ und brumm’, du gutes Rädchen,’ is charmingly chatty. Then, however, they respond to Senta’s ballad with bracing immediacy in ‘Ach, wo weilt sie, die dir Gottes Engel einst könnte zeigen?’ The Norwegian sailors’ drinking song, ‘Steuermann! Laß die Wacht,’ is raucous, and the choruses’ voicing of the Holländer’s crew’s ‘Johohoe! Johohoe! Hoe! Hoe! Hoe!’ is chilling. There is audible diligence in every line sung by the choristers; a commitment not just to producing pleasing sounds but, equally importantly, to believably enacting their parts in the drama, as well.

The presence of American mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel as Mary is the very definition of luxury casting. A true artist can make the smallest of parts significant, and Ms. Henschel makes more of Mary than almost any other recorded exponent of the rôle. Her interactions with Senta and the girls in the first minutes of Act Two are playfully scolding but genuinely concerned, and she creates a character who seems to live vicariously through Senta. Her singing of ‘Du böses Kind, wenn du nicht spinnst’ is both vivid and secure, traits that few singers have brought to Mary’s music on records. Moreover, Ms. Henschel’s timbre is always attractive, and she heightens the apprehension generated by the drama by sounding like an unnerved confidante rather than a superannuated duenna.

Having rising American tenor Russell Thomas on hand as the Steuermann is also an example of the care with which these concert performances of Der fliegende Holländer were prepared. In his song, ‘Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer mein Mädel, bin dir nah,’ Mr. Thomas sings splendidly, rising to the top B♭ with ringing freedom. Aside from a few lapses in pitch, which were likely results of the difficulty of placing tones against the din of Wagner’s orchestra in full cry, his performance is striking. Like Ms. Henschel, Mr. Thomas sets a new, exalted standard in a rôle that has endured much poor singing on stage and on records.

With extensive experience in a wide repertory under his belt, Korean bass Kwangchul Youn has grown into a cogent Wagnerian. As Daland in this performance, he starts uncertainly but quickly gains confidence as the performance progresses. In ‘Kein Zweifel! Sieben Meilen fort trieb uns der Sturm vom sichren Port,’ the repeated Cs, Ds, and E♭s at the top of the staff tax him, but the voice has appealing gravitas. In the duet with the Holländer, Mr. Youn evinces paternal affection for Senta in ‘Wie? Hör ich recht? Mein Tochter sein Weib?’ The subsequent scene with Senta, ‘Mein Kind, du siehst mich auf der Schwelle,’ inspires him to singing of pointed intensity, and he gives a firm, well-phrased account of his aria, ‘Mögst du, mein Kind, den fremden Mann willkommen heißen,’ handling it as a moment in the drama rather than a concerted number. Mr. Youn voices ‘Verzeiht! Mein Volk hält draußen sich nicht mehr’ in the trio with Senta and the Holländer with feeling, and he imparts a sense of understanding that his daughter is lost to him even before the opera’s final scene.

The amalgamation of heft and finesse in Wagner’s music for Erik, Senta’s rejected suitor, complicates casting the rôle. The traditional tendencies have been either to give the part to a Heldentenor whose brute strength bruises the music or to cast a lighter, more lyric voice that cannot compete with the power of the orchestra. British tenor Christopher Ventris possesses a voice of logical proportions for Erik, and he sings the part capably without completely conquering the music’s difficulties. His delivery of ‘Bleib’, Senta! Bleib’ nur einen Augenblick!’ is ardent, and his ‘Senta! Laß dir vertrau’n’ conveys the sting of unrequited love. Mr. Ventris gives Erik’s cavatina, ‘Willst jenes Tags du nicht dich mehr entsinnen,’ a zealous reading, negotiating the turns and top B♭ with impressive composure. His top notes are generally solid, but the timbre sometimes takes on an unpleasant stridency. He is ultimately a skillful but not an ideal Erik, but this is a part in which honorable efforts are particularly commendable.

German soprano Anja Kampe is one of the world’s preeminent Sieglindes in Die Walküre and, as she proved at Glyndebourne, an unconventional but unusually sensual Isolde. With the exceptions of Marjorie Lawrence, Kirsten Flagstad, Astrid Varnay, and Dame Gwyneth Jones, who also excelled as Brünnhilde, Senta has most often been best served by Sieglinde voices. Ms. Kampe is thus as natural a fit for the part as might be found today. Still, the voice that is not challenged by Senta’s music has not yet been heard, and Ms. Kampe faces some of the most murderous vocal lines in opera. In Senta’s ballad, ‘Johohoe! Traft ihr das Schiff im Meere an,’ she manages the difficult intervals imposingly, and she brings great warmth to the section marked più lento by Wagner, ‘Doch, daß der arme Mann noch Erlösung fände auf Erden,’ Her singing sizzles with the fire demanded by the composer in the allegro con fuoco, ‘Ich sei’s, die dich durch ihre Treu’ erlöse!’ The exposed top A in Senta’s duet with Erik, ‘Er sucht much auf,’ soars, and she rises to the top As and Bs in the duet with the Holländer with abandon. The opera’s final scene is a formidable test for a soprano, and it is one that Ms. Kampe passes with voice and dramatic instincts to spare. With her poetic phrasing of ‘Wohl kenn’ ich Weibes heil’ge Pflichten,’ the top B launched heroically, she lends her Senta the aura of romanticized tragedy. The radiance of her ‘Von mächt’gem Zauber überwunden reißt mich’s zu seiner Rettung fort’ is complemented by the potency of her ‘Preis’ deinen Engel und sein Gebot! Hier steh’ ich, treu dir bis zum Tod!’ The final top A and B♭ are hurled out defiantly: this Senta does not accept her destiny: she seizes it. Vocally, Ms. Kampe sings Senta with far fewer compromises than many sopranos have found necessary, but it is the histrionic sovereignty of her interpretation that lingers in the memory.

Sixty-nine years old at the time of the concert performances that yielded this recording, Norwegian baritone Terje Stensvold is a stern, commanding Holländer. There are instances in which loosening of the singer’s vibrato and approximations of pitch are evident, but Mr. Stensvold gives a more durable performance than many singers half his age might manage. He energetically constructs an imaginative account of ‘Die Frist ist um,’ traversing the aria’s wide range with enthusiasm. The top F in ‘Wie oft in Meeres tiefsten Schlund stürtz’ ich voll Sehnsucht mich hinab’ is a trial, but the zeal of his delivery of ‘Durch Sturm und bösen Wind verschlagen’ is rousing. Mr. Stensvold imparts suggestions of burgeoning tenderness in the duet with Senta, ‘Wie aus der Ferne längst vergang’ner Zeiten spricht dieses Mädchens Bild zu mir.’ His vehement utterance of ‘Verloren! Acht! verloren! Ewig verlor’nes Heil!’ and ‘Erfahre das Geschick, von dem ich dich bewahr’!’ is grandiose, and his ‘Du kennst mich nicht’ explodes with frustration and disappointment. Mr. Stensvold portrays a pessimistic Holländer who clings to hope of redemption despite his distrust of humanity. The voice is not always projected without effort, but it meets the requirements of the music with authority.

171 years after the opera’s first performance, it is easy both to overestimate the extent to which Der fliegende Holländer ushered in Richard Wagner’s artistic maturity as if by magic and to underestimate the quality of the score when considering it alongside the epic music dramas of the last fifteen years of the composer’s career. There is validity to the assertion that Der fliegende Holländer is a good introduction to Wagner’s singular gifts for those listeners for whom the later, considerably longer works are hard going, but Der fliegende Holländer is not—and should not be—‘light Wagner.’ RCO Live’s recording brings together an excellent cast, impeccably-prepared choruses, a responsive conductor, and one of the world’s great orchestras in a performance of searching zeal. This is a Der fliegende Holländer recommendable to novice Wagnerians, but it should also be heard by those curmudgeonly aficionados who argue that all truly momentous Wagner singers are dead and buried.

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner - DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER (RCO Live RCO 14004)Traft ihr das Schiff: Anja Kampe as Senta in Tim Albery’s production of Der fliegende Holländer at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2011 [Photo by Mike Hoban, © The Royal Opera House]

29 January 2015

CD REVIEW: Johann Adolf Hasse – SIROE, RÈ DI PERSIA (M. E. Cenčić, F. Fagioli, J. Lezhneva, M.-E. Nesi, L. Snouffer, J. Sancho; DECCA 478 6768)

CD REVIEW: Johann Adolf Hasse - SIROE, RÈ DI PERSIA (DECCA 478 6768)JOHANN ADOLF HASSE (1699 – 1783): Siroe, rè di Persia (1763 Dresden version)—Max Emanuel Cenčić (Siroe), Franco Fagioli (Medarse), Julia Lezhneva (Laodice), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Emira), Lauren Snouffer (Arasse), Juan Sancho (Cosroe); Armonia Atenea; George Petrou, conductor [Recorded in Parnassos Hall, Athens, Greece, 21 – 31 July 2014; DECCA 478 6768; 2 CD, 170:28; Available from Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​When Johann Adolf Hasse's Siroe, re di Persia was first performed at Bologna's Teatro Malvezzi on 2 May 1733, the cast included a quintet of the most widely-celebrated singers of the Eighteenth Century: Vittoria Tesi, Anna Maria Peruzzini, Filippo Giorgio, and the castrati Farinelli and Caffarelli as the title monarch and his younger brother Medarse. Three years later, Farinelli reprised his rôle in performances at London's Haymarket Theatre, and Tesi and Caffarelli returned to their parts at the famed Teatro di San Carlo in Naples​ in 1747. In defiance of the hardship and devastation suffered by the Saxon capital during the Seven Years' War​, Hasse was commissioned to adapt his setting of Metastasio's libretto for performance at the rejuvenated court of Elector Friedrich August II, who died two months after the revised Siroe was first performed on 3 August 1763. The extent of Hasse’s alterations to Siroe is difficult to ascertain 250 years later, but the Dresden score recorded by DECCA and Parnassus Arts Productions is a progressive work, its prevailing musical language being that of the formative utterances of Classicism. Supplementing the surviving music with material from Carl Heinrich Graun’s 1751 opera Britannico and Händel’s setting of Siroe, as well as from another of Hasse’s operas, Giovanni Andrea Sechi [handling arias] and Renzo Bez [responsible for Sinfonia, recitatives, and final chorus] have recreated the opera in an approximation of the form that, in 1763, distracted its composer from the misfortunes of war, which included the razing of his house. Comparing the results of their labors with the few surviving accounts of the 1733 Bologna première and subsequent revivals, the Dresden version of Siroe is a tauter, faster-moving work, though it is acknowledged that the present recording makes use of extensive cuts to secco recitative. Hasse’s extraordinary imagination is fully in evidence, however. As recorded here, Siroe lacks the expressive potential of the composer’s Artaserse, Cleofide, and Piramo e Tisbe, but the quality of the music is undeviatingly high. With only a few reservations, this recording—a release that upholds DECCA’s storied traditions of technical expertise and thoughtful presentation—preserves an account of the opera that advocates strongly for the justification of its revival. Most valuably, it is another small glimpse of the mosaic of Hasse’s creativity that remains mostly obscured by the grime of two-and-a-half centuries of neglect.

As in their previous collaborations with DECCA and Parnassus, Armonia Atenea and George Petrou prove to be musicians of the highest order whose contributions construct excellent-quality frames for the musical portraits created by the singers. Leading from the harpsichord, Maestro Petrou exhibits an innate comprehension of Hasse’s musical-crossroads style, a trait that here expands on its airing on the previous DECCA release Rokoko. The conductor has an affinity for challenging both singers and instrumentalists without overwhelming them, and he proves especially adept in Siroe at propelling the drama excitingly. In a few of the bravura arias, however, Maestro Petrou’s tempi rush the singers unduly, which jeopardizes the potency of their efforts and increases the tension on their techniques. Assistant Conductor Markellos Chryssikos shares harpsichord duties with Maestro Petrou, and their efforts combine with the theorbo playing of Theodoros Kitsos to fashion a largely logical but lively continuo. Zacharias Tarpangos’s and Nikos Dimitratos’s sweet-toned playing of the transverse flutes is complemented by the lovely, appealingly stylish playing of oboists Yannis Papagiannis and Dimitris Vamvas, bassoonist Alexandros Economou, and horn players Costas Siskos and Spyros Kakkos. The string playing is wonderfully animated within the boundaries of period-appropriate practices. All of the musicians bring to the performance a sense of close cooperation, and, on the whole, this provides the singers with the support that they need to brave the perils of Hasse’s score.

Among the sextet of gifted soloists, young American soprano Lauren Snouffer makes a magnificent major-label début with a splendidly-sung performance as the Persian general Arasse. Composed in 1733 for a lower voice, it is likely that Hasse substantially altered the tessitura of the part for the Dresden production in 1763 in order to make the music more congenial for a higher voice. In the Act One aria ‘Contente non siete d'un povero core,’ Ms. Snouffer discloses a strong technique that never fails her as the opera progresses. Allying a genuinely lovely, silvery timbre with dazzling fluidity in the bravura writing and a particularly attractive upper register, she delivers Arasse’s music, arias and recitatives alike, with the assurance of a veteran singer twice her age. Her singing is unabashedly feminine, but she conveys a suggestion of machismo with the confident swagger of her phrasing. Ms. Snouffer sings both of her subsequent arias, ‘Se pugnar non sai col fato’ in Act Two and ‘L'alma a goder prepara’ in Act Three, with such conviction that Arasse himself seems destined for the throne. Deeming a young singer promising has become a cliché, but this performance confirms that Ms. Snouffer, already an impressively finished singer, is an artist of exceptional promise, both in Baroque repertory and beyond.

The rôle of Laodice, Arasse's sister, was specially crafted for Elisabeth Teyber, Hasse’s pupil, and the composer undoubtedly sought to give his student plentiful opportunities to cover herself—and him—in glory. In fine operatic fashion, Laodice is Cosroe’s mistress but is in love with his son Siroe, and her predicament—and the identity of her portrayer in Dresden, to be sure—prompts some extravagantly difficult music. Young Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva, already a mainstay of DECCA’s releases in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, is a Laodice of icy integrity, her accuracy in coloratura awe-inspiring but also slightly off-putting. Ms. Lezhneva’s bravura technique is phenomenal, but there are instances in this performance in which it sounds as though she is dangerously forcing the voice in the upper register. In Laodice’s aria in Act One, ‘O placido il mare lusinghi la sponda,’ she establishes herself as a central focus of the drama, and she perpetuates Laodice’s significance with electric performances of ‘Mi lagnerò tacendo’ in Act Two and ‘Se il caro figlio vede in periglio’ in Act Three.

It is also in Act Three that the foremost mystery of this recording of Siroe is encountered. In both the track list and the libretto accompanying the CD release, the aria ‘Di tuo amor, mio cor è indegno’—a number borrowed from Act Two of Graun’s 1751 opera Britannico, in which it was set as an aria for Agrippina with the text ‘Mi paventi il figlio,’ in which form it was popularized in Berlin and Dresden in the Eighteenth Century by Gertrud Elisabeth Mara, in Vienna in the Nineteenth Century by Sophie Löwe (the creator of Donizetti’s Maria Padilla and Verdi’s first Elvira in Ernani and Odabella in Attila), and in London in 1856 by Pauline Viardot, who owned a manuscript score of the aria—is attributed to Emira, but there is no question that the aria is sung on the recording by Ms. Lezhneva, who has also sung Graun’s aria with its original text in concert. The text of ‘Di tuo amor, mio cor è indegno’ appears neither in Metastasio’s original libretto for Siroe when it was first set to music by Domenico Sarro in 1721 nor in the surviving materials from Hasse’s versions of the opera, so the most logical conclusion is that the aria was custom-fit with a newly-invented text in order to provide Ms. Lezhneva with a suitably fiendish bravura aria in which to further exercise her formidable technique. The aria fits that bill perfectly, and Ms. Lezhneva sings it staggeringly well if rather coldly, but not even the white-knuckle pyrotechnics display justifies the aria’s inclusion, especially as the source of the performing edition of the music is of questionable provenance. Musically and dramatically, the aria—very effective in its proper position in Act Two of Britannico, in which Agrippina bemoans her son Nero’s treachery—adds nothing but a flurry of notes to Siroe, and its interpolation is frankly an affront to Hasse, whose writing for the Dresden Siroe is already in danger of seeming superfluous. Why the aria is attributed to Emira but sung by Ms. Lezhneva is a conundrum. Furthermore, could an equally daunting piece not have been found in another of Hasse’s operas?

Emira, the Princess of Cambay disguised during much of the opera as Idaspe, is sung by Greek mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi, a fantastic singer who in this performances sounds slightly out of sorts. In Emira’s Act One aria, 'D'ogni amator la fede,' Ms. Nesi immediately commands attention with the boldness of her singing, but she does not sound completely comfortable with the rôle’s tessitura. In her aria in Act Two, 'Sgombra dall'anima tutto il timor,' Ms. Nesi is on more solid vocal ground, and the familiar strength of her singing is evident. The pinnacle of her performance is the aria ‘Non vi piacque, inguisti dei,’ which she sings with the concentration of an Olympic athlete and the dramatic intensity of a woman whose life seems on the brink of collapse. The ferocity of ‘Che furia, che mostro,’ Emira’s aria in Act Three, is palpably conveyed, but Ms. Nesi would have benefited from greater support from Maestro Petrou. She must push the voice in order to keep up with his tempo: keep up she does, but the hectic pace deprives her singing of a measure of its dark beauty. Ms. Nesi is always heard with pleasure, and it is indicative of the extraordinary quality of her artistry that a performance as accomplished as this one falls just short of her own standard.

Sung in the 1763 Dresden production of Siroe by Angelo Amorevoli, a singer considered one of the greatest tenors of the first half of the Eighteenth Century who also created rôles in Hasse's Attilio Regolo and Solimano, Cosroe is assigned in this performance to Spanish tenor Juan Sancho. In recitative, Mr. Sancho is sometimes over-emphatic but always involved in the drama. His accompagnato with Siroe and Medarse in Act One, ‘Figli, di voi non meno che del regno son padre,’ is vigorously declaimed, and he brings tireless aplomb to the aria ‘Se il mio paterno amore,’ detonating one flashing​ tone in the vicinity of top C​ after another in his adventurous embellishment of the da capo. Cosroe has another powerful accompagnato in Act Two, ‘Più dubitar non posso, è Siroe l'infedel,’ and Mr. Sancho again spits out the words with vehemence. His singing of the aria ‘Tu di pietà mi spogli’ is robust, and the vulnerability that he infuses into the red-blooded urgency of the Act Three aria ‘Gelido in ogni vena scorrer mi sento il sangue’ enhances the impact of his shapely singing. Mr. Sancho creates a winsomely dispirited, vengeful monarch whose ultimate magnanimity is the culmination of a process of personal growth evinced through song.

As sung by Argentine countertenor Franco Fagioli, Medarse is an iron-willed usurper whose ambitions overcome his innate decency. It was to Medarse that Hasse entrusted the final number of Act One, the coloratura showpiece ‘Fra l'orror della tempesta,’ which Mr. Fagioli sings majestically. Here and throughout the performance, Mr. Fagioli is stressed by Maestro Petrou’s tempi, and this results in an over-prominence of vibrato. His range extends to B♭5 and occasionally higher with few hints of strain, and even when cruelly tested by the music the voice is a first-rate instrument. Medarse’s arias in Acts Two and Three, ‘Tu decidi del mio fato’ and ‘Torrente cresciuto per torbida piena’ receive sterling performances, Mr. Fagioli’s technical composure enabling him to bring off incredible feats of virtuosity. In this sensitive singer’s performance, Medarse’s final confession and capitulation are unexpectedly touching: Mr. Fagioli manages to make the character one who seems truly contrite and deserving of forgiveness.

His advocacy for Hasse having been expertly established with Rokoko, his recital of Hasse arias for DECCA, Croatian countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić expands his familiarity with the composer’s engaging gallant idiom with a subtle, richly expressive performance of the wrongly-accused title character in Siroe. Mr. Cenčić’s Siroe is a prince of legitimate nobility who proclaims his innocence without resorting to harshness or hysterics. In the Act One aria ‘La sorte mia tiranna,’ Mr. Cenčić unleashes the very best of his artistry: singing the exquisite cantilena with firm, rounded tone, he phrases expansively. In Act Two, he differentiates the sentiments of the arias ‘Mi credi infedele’ and ‘Fra dubbi affetti miei’ imaginatively, all while singing with the rapt absorption that is his hallmark. His aristocratic utterance in the Act Three accompagnato ‘Son stanco, ingiusti Numi di soffrir,’ borrowed from Act Three of Händel's Siroe, is communicative of profound emotions, and his performance of ‘Vo disperato a morte,’ an aria extracted from Act Three of Hasse's 1738 Tito Vespasiano, is sensational. Most impressive is the sincerity with which Mr. Cenčić sings Siroe’s final aria, ‘Se l’amor tuo mi rendi.’ On stage and on disc, Mr. Cenčić has continually proved himself to be an artist of uncommon perceptiveness. In Siroe, too, he finds the soul of his character in the music and inhabits it unforgettably.

That Johann Adolf Hasse was an important composer is a fact that is finally gaining acceptance beyond the ranks of musicologists and well-informed musicians. As recently as a decade ago, the notion of any of Hasse’s operas being recorded by DECCA would have seemed ridiculous. Siroe, re di Persia is not the most persuasive of Hasse’s operas, but it receives a persuasive performance on this recording despite decisions that diminish the rectitude of the enterprise. Qualms aside, this Siroe, re di Persia is a valuable addition to the expanding Hasse discography and a documentation of the work of some of today’s best period-adept singers.

CD REVIEW: Johann Adolf Hasse - SIROE, RE DI PERSIA (DECCA 478 6768)Hasse by Hand: the manuscript of the Sinfonia from the 1733 version of Hasse’s Siroe, re di Persia in the collection of the Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Stats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden

26 January 2015

CD REVIEW: ARIAS FOR DOMENICO GIZZI – A star castrato in Baroque Rome (Roberta Invernizzi, soprano; Glossa GCD 922608)

CD REVIEW: ARIAS FOR DOMENICO GIZZI - A star castrato in Baroque Rome (Glossa GCD 922608)GIOVANNI BONONCINI (1670 – 1747), GIOVANNI BATTISTA COSTANZI (1704 – 1778), FRANCESCO FEO (1691 – 1761), NICOLA PORPORA (1686 – 1768), DOMENICO SARRO (1679 – 1744), ALESSANDRO SCARLATTI (1660 – 1725), and LEONARDO VINCI (1690 – 1730): Arias for Domenico Gizzi – A star castrato in Baroque RomeRoberta Invernizzi, soprano; I Turchini; Antonio Florio, conductor [Recorded in Sala del Vasari, Chiesa di Santa Anna dei Lombardi, Naples, Italy, 3 – 8 February 2014; Glossa GCD 922608; 1 CD, 56:49; Available from Glossa Music, ClassicsOnline, Amazon, fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Born in Arpino in the Lazio region of Italy in 1687, Domenico Gizzi is familiar to Twenty-First-Century observers primarily as an acclaimed pedagogue whose pupils included the composer Francesco Feo and fellow soprano castrato and Arpino native Gioacchino Conti, who ultimately adopted the stage name Gizziello in homage to his tutor. It was as a singer that Gizzi conquered the aristocratic and archiepiscopal courts of Italy in the first half of the Eighteenth Century, however, and such were his accomplishments in opera that he could share the stage with his slightly younger colleague Farinelli with equal billing. Possessing a range that extant music composed for him suggests extended at least from C4 to B♭5, Gizzi was a celebrated exponent of a style of singing that in his lifetime was already falling victim to the caterwauling of shallow virtuosi. His own technique was undoubtedly extraordinary, but the high salaries that he commanded are surely evidence of gifts that extended beyond mind-boggling execution of bravura passagework. Indeed, it was for the expressive use of his voice rather than coloratura prowess that Gizzi's artistic namesake Gizziello was most praised during his tenure under Händel's management in London, and at least some of the credit for this must have been owed to Gizzi's example. Now not as renowned as a singer like castrati such as Farinelli, Caffarelli, Carestini, and Senesino, he was esteemed during his time before the public as one of the finest singers in Europe, the peer of the most talented of his colleagues. The thirteen arias on Arias for Domenico Gizzi – A star castrato in Baroque Rome, all of them extracted from operas that figured in Gizzi’s Roman career, facilitate the creation of a portrait of a singer who was obviously adept at delivering vocal pyrotechnics and evincing the emotional contexts that instigate them. Italian soprano Roberta Invernizzi is also such a singer, and she summons Gizzi’s spirit in this performance with singing of taste and pizzazz. He was unquestionably an important teacher, but if he sang these arias as well as Roberta Invernizzi sings them on this disc, he was indeed a true ‘star castrato.’

Ms. Invernizzi is one of the most stylish singers making a home in Eighteenth-Century repertory today, and her performances on this disc match the highest levels of achievement in recreating music composed for castrati. She is supported with elegance that complements her own poise by the superb musicians of I Turchini: concertmaster and noted musicologist Alessandro Ciccolini; violinists Patrizio Focardi, Paolo Cantamessa, Marco Piantoni, Claudia Combs, and Massimo Percivaldi; violist Rosario Di Meglio; cellist Alberto Guerrero; double bassist Giorgio Sanvito; and harpsichordist Patrizia Varone. Under the leadership of Antonio Florio, they give surprisingly robust performances of the Sinfonie from Alessandro Scarlatti’s 1718 Telemaco and Domenico Sarro’s 1720 Ginerva principessa di Scozia, proving that size of ensemble is not as important as the breadth of the interpretation. In each of the arias on the disc, Maestro Florio and I Turchini concoct a musical atmosphere that fosters the adventurous expressivity of Ms. Invernizzi’s singing. Ms. Varone’s harpsichord continuo is noticeably free of the over-complicated meandering that is often billed as period-appropriate continuo realization, and this closer adherence to stylistic accuracy as it is presently understood is considerably more imaginative than more fanciful efforts. Mr. Ciccolini has an exceptional historically-informed bowing technique but likewise lacks nothing in passion. Following Ms. Invernizzi and Maestro Florio with flawless attention, the instrumentalists produce sounds that seem extensions of the singer’s voice. In Rome at the time of Arcangelo Corelli’s reign as the Eternal City’s presiding instrumental genius, Gizzi likely enjoyed the finest musical support available in Italy: in a project in which nothing was left to chance, Ms. Invernizzi can make a similar claim in the context of this disc.

A tendency to accentuate the downbeats in coloratura passages notwithstanding, Ms. Invernizzi’s performance of Mirene’s aria ‘Amore inganna, e piace’ from Giovanni Bononcini’s 1719 L’Etearco is a magnificent feat of Baroque singing, the divisions tossed off with élan and the vowels on the breath as they must be in music of this nature. Insightfully used to her advantage, occasional edginess at the top of the range sharpens the focus of Ms. Invernizzi’s phrasing. The same character’s aria ‘Barbari siete, o Dei,’ perhaps the finest single piece on the disc, is engrossingly sung, the greater simplicity of the melodic line prompting Ms. Invernizzi to singing of engaging subtlety.

The pair of beautiful eyes evoked in the text shine like sapphire pools in winter sunlight in Ms. Invernizzi’s expansively-shaped singing of Farnace’s aria ‘Per due pupille belle’ from Giovanni Battista Costanzi’s 1730 L’Eupatra, and the wide intervals in Pirro’s ‘Prima 'l vorace fulmine,’ the first of the two arias from Francesco Feo’s 1730 Andromaca included on the disc, are negotiated with consummate artistry. In all of the selections on Arias for Domenico Gizzi, Ms. Invernizzi’s ornamentation is bold without being vulgar, and she makes frequent use of the bright sheen of her upper register in a manner that avoids taking the voice out of the range that was likely comfortable for Gizzi. Pirro’s subsequent aria ‘No, non mi basterà bocca vezzosa’ draws from Ms. Invernizzi vocalism that throbs with emotion. Feo having been Gizzi’s pupil, it must be assumed that he knew his teacher’s voice intimately: he might have known Ms. Invernizzi’s just as well.

‘Volo il mio sangue a spargere,’ an aria sung by Idelberto in Nicola Porpora’s 1723 Adelaide, is dashingly delivered, every tone placed with dramatic impact and the words fizzing like sparkling wine. The pair of Ariodante’s arias from Sarro’s Ginerva principessa di Scozia, an homage to the native Britain of James Francis Edward Stuart, the deposed Prince of Wales and a prominent patron of the Arts at his Italian court-in-exile, ‘Povero amor tradito’ and ‘Cieca nave, infidi sguardi,’ are powerfully traversed. It was in a secondary rôle in Sarro’s Il Valdemaro that the fifteen-year-old Caffarelli made his professional début in 1726, alongside Gizzi’s performance of the rôle of Sveno. If Gizzi sang the aria ‘La brama di regno si unisce ad amore’ as engrossingly as Ms. Invernizzi sings it on this disc, Caffarelli cannot have failed to have been inspired by the experience.

The soprano’s beautiful sustained tones in ‘Crude Parche, deh, accrescete’ from Scarlatti’s Telemaco afford great pleasure, and she manages to make something very unique of the formulaic coloratura in ‘O a morire, o a goder.’ His participation in the creation of Leonardo Vinci’s 1726 Didone abbandonata was one of the great triumphs of Gizzi’s Roman sojourn, and Ms. Invernizzi’s fantastic coloratura in Araspe’s aria ‘Amor che nasce colla speranza’ channels the vivacity with which Gizzi must have sung the music. Here and in the aria ‘Su la pendice alpina,’ her upper register glistens, and her embellishing of the vocal lines is unfailingly intelligent. Without overextending the music, she reveals what an inventive, resourceful singer she is.

It is impossible to know how any of the revered castrati of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Centuries sounded. Contemporary accounts of their voices are often contradictory, and many of the artistic representations of their stage presences are unflattering caricatures. A prevalent debate in the Baroque revival during the past half-century has concerned whether operatic rôles composed for castrati are more effectively cast in modern times with female or male singers. There are no sure answers for questions about the general suitability of certain types of voices for music created by castrati, but Roberta Invernizzi here makes a persuasive argument for her supremacy in performances of rôles originated by higher-voiced castrati. Her singing on Arias for Domenico Gizzi is distinguished by technical finesse and an laudable lack of attempts to affect masculinity. Like Kirsten Flagstad in the music of Wagner, Maria Callas in bel canto, and Magda Olivero in verismo, Roberta Invernizzi approaches this collection of arias sung by Domenico Gizzi with pure musicality. It is an approach that yields glorious results.

25 January 2015

CD REVIEW: Rich Stephen – LOOKING BACK: A tribute to 60’s music (Private release, DVR 2014)


Looking Back: A tribute to 60’s music and dedication to my best friendRich Stephen, all vocals and instruments [Recorded in 2014; Private release, DVR 2014; NOTE: Looking Back is not available commercially. All arrangements are the intellectual property of Rich Stephen. Copyrights are held by the original artists and/or songwriters, and no performance rights are stated or implied.]

There are many extremely talented musicians active in all genres of music today, and that is a fact that is acknowledged far too infrequently. Today’s musicians are, on the whole, better educated, better equipped, and better prepared for careers than their counterparts in any previous generation, but this progress is not consistently rewarded with better music-making. The well-schooled musician is not necessarily the well-informed musician, and a musician with a haphazard knowledge of the roots in his own musical garden may achieve technical perfection without ever attaining a level of connection with the life force beyond lyrics and melodies. Whether in recordings of Beethoven piano sonatas, Verdi operas, Mahler symphonies, jazz riffs, R&B ballads, or pop hits, what is sadly so seldom heard on albums now is true, discernible affection for music itself. Clinical precision is perhaps its own kind of love, but it is one that is perceived by the listener only with the greatest difficulty. Where are today’s Dave Brubeck, Eric Burdon, and Glenn Gould, artists whose recordings seemed to say, ‘This is who I am, this is what I do, and if it does not appeal to you, listen to something else’? This is the spirit of Rich Stephen’s Looking Back. This disc is not an egotistical commercial exercise, a stepping stone in a quest for stardom, or a venture with ulterior, non-musical motives. Rich Stephen loves music and the incredible power that it has to immortalize people, places, and emotions in our lives in ways that memories cannot replicate. Looking Back is not meant to be a chart-topping effort from a neglected star singer: rather, it is one man’s journey through songs and experiences shared with friends. That is the purest essence of music and the quality that makes Looking Back a vastly more fulfilling experience than the over-processed endeavors of musicians whose artistic achievements are measured in dollars and cents, not hours with friends and unforgettable jam sessions that no other ears will ever hear.

Providing lead and harmonizing vocals and playing a dizzying array of instruments—Fender Stratocaster, Lead III, and Mustang guitars, Prestige electric guitar, Yamaha acoustic guitar, Ibanez bass guitar, Casio CT-700 keyboard, Kurzweil Mark 3 digital piano, Zoom RhythmTrak RT-123, Olds Ambassador trumpet, Starmaker Garimet cornet, Buescher alto saxophone, and Huang Silvertone deluxe harmonica!—on the cuts on Looking Back, Mr. Stephen takes the listener on a chronological journey through some of his favorite songs from the 1960s. A member of a successful band called The Right Ways, active in metropolitan Chicago during the latter half of the ‘60s, he pays homage to an era that he experienced first-hand during his own musical infancy. Along with his best friend Art Gall (1951 – 2012), to whose memory Looking Back is dedicated, he launched his career as an avid concertgoer in 1965 with a performance by The Beatles—as auspicious an introduction to contemporary Rock ‘n Roll as any aspiring musician might desire. The Beatles medley is one of the most enjoyable tracks on Looking Back. Beginning with a boyishly spirited account of ‘Love Me Do’ (1962), he traverses the too-little-heard ‘Boys’ (1963), previously recorded by The Shirelles in 1960, ‘Slow Down’ (1964), and George Harrison’s tremendous ‘If I Needed Someone’ (1965), also a hit for The Hollies, all sung with heart and surer pitch than is sometimes heard on the original recordings. Mr. Stephen appropriately closes the disc with the The Beatles’ 1965 ‘In My Life,’ one of the finest numbers in the Lennon – McCartney songbook: the combination of wistfulness and optimism in Mr. Stephen’s vocals honors John Lennon’s inimitable style without attempting to emulate it, and he exhibits a winsome lightness of touch in his rendering of Sir George Martin’s Bach-inspired piano ritornello.

Mr. Stephen’s performances of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Fire’ (1967) and The Doors’ ‘Touch Me’ (1969) incorporate recordings of Art Gall’s vocals from 1989 rehearsal footage, seamlessly integrated into the 2014 tracks. Here, as in The Beatles covers, Mr. Stephen does not attempt to replicate Hendrix’s and Jim Morrison’s unique vocals, but his own singing, combined with the archival sampling of Mr. Gall’s vocals, is rousingly effective. Fellow Illinois band The American Breed’s ‘Step Out Of Your Mind’ receives particularly fresh treatment from Mr. Stephen, his confident performance of the melodic line improving upon Gary Loizzo’s vocals in the original 1967 recording.

Sam Cooke’s 1960 ‘Wonderful World,’ one of the truly emblematic songs of the ‘60s that was also successfully recorded by Herman’s Hermits, is delightfully and imaginatively sung by Mr. Stephen, and he soars through The Drifters’ 1961 ‘Sweets for My Sweet,’ the original recording of which featured a then-undiscovered Dionne Warwick as a backup singer, and Martha and the Vandellas’ 1963 ‘Heat Wave,’ in which he provides Motown styling that Martha Reeves would surely applaud. Mr. Stephen unites his Chicago roots and the British Merseybeat with his performance of The Searchers’ 1963 ‘Sugar and Spice,’ a number-two hit in the UK that was also a success for Illinois band The Cryan’ Shames in 1966, and his accounts of The Zombies’ ‘She’s Not There’ (1964)—a rare minor-key number with which Santana also charted more than a decade later—and The Yardbirds’ rhythm-driven ‘For Your Love’ (1965) confirm his credentials as a razor’s-edge rocker.

Sam and Dave’s 1966 classic ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’’ and Brenton Wood’s 1967 ‘Gimme Little Sign’—a great song now more familiar, for better or worse, via Peter Andre’s later version—give Mr. Stephen the opportunity to flex his impressive soul muscles, and his fantastic rendition of ‘Kind Of A Drag’ (1966) is a brilliant tribute to fellow Chicagoans The Buckinghams. Mr. Stephen’s way with Todd Rundgren’s 1968 ‘Hello It’s Me,’ originally recorded by his band Nazz, revels in the funk vibes that made the song so attractive to Mary J. Blige and John Legend. Musically, the pinnacle of Looking Back is Mr. Stephen’s stirring performance of The Grass Roots’ ‘Midnight Confessions’ (1968), in which his vocals give the arching melody the gleaming freedom it demands but seldom receives. [I heard the then-current incarnation of The Grass Roots perform ‘Midnight Confessions’ in Westbury, New York, in 2013: Mr. Stephen sings it markedly better.] In all of the tracks on this disc, Mr. Stephen adapts his laser-bright timbre to the stylistic nuances of the music without abandoning the singular vocal signature that he imprints on each song, and his skills on all of the instruments at his disposal are splendid.

‘Looking Back,’ the disc’s title track, is Mr. Stephen’s self-penned tribute to Mr. Gall, and it serves both as a moving remembrance of a beloved friend and fellow artist and a fitting overview of Mr. Stephen’s musical upbringing and accomplishments. The song’s hook is immediately alluring, and the depths of emotion that Mr. Stephen conveys in his vocals and accompaniment are evidence of the compelling sincerity of the song’s message. Both its eponymous track and Looking Back as a whole epitomize the ethos missing from so many of the ridiculously-hyped albums churned out by the commercial recording industry. They also remind the listener that one man with a pervasive, unaffected love for music can make a recording that shames the phony efforts of labels with deep pockets and legions of cynical would-be ‘stars.’

To learn more about Rich Stephen and his work as a musician, please visit his website.

CD REVIEW: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – IOLANTA (A. Netrebko, S. Skorokhodov, V. Kowaljow, A. Markov, L. Meachem; DGG 479 3969)

CD REVIEW: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - IOLANTA (Deutsche Grammophon 479 3969)PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY / Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский (1840 – 1893): Iolanta (Иоланта), Op. 69Anna Netrebko (Iolanta), Sergey Skorokhodov (Count Vaudémont), Alexey Markov (Robert), Vitalij Kowaljow (King René), Luka Debevec Mayer (Bertrand), Lucas Meachem (Ibn-Hakia), Junho You (Alméric), Monika Bohinec (Martha), Theresa Plut (Brigitta), Nuška Drašček Rojko (Laura); Slovenian Chamber Choir; Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra; Emmanuel Villaume, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances at the Philharmonie Essen, Germany, in November 2012; Deutsche Grammophon 479 3969; 2 CDs, 93:02; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Premièred in St Petersburg on 18 December 1892, less than a year before its composer’s death, Iolanta was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s final opera and, in many ways, one that summarized his career as a composer for the operatic stage. Setting a libretto by his brother Modest, Tchaikovsky peeled away the artifice of the aggrandized tale of Yolande de Lorraine, who almost certainly was not blind, and replaced it with an idealized but red-blooded humanity. As in Yevgeny Onegin and Pikovaya dama, the central theme of individual isolation lends Iolanta depth that heightens the sense of connection among the princess who does not know that she is blind, the man who loves her in spite of her trials, and the audience, and, as in Nutcracker and Swan Lake, even the happy ending is not without suggestions of ambivalence. To modern ears, some of the sentiments expressed in Iolanta seem quaint, perhaps even misogynistic, but to the extraordinarily sensitive Tchaikovsky, a genius perennially at odds with the society into which he was born, Iolanta must have seemed a kindred spirit. For her, blindness—the barrier to her complete acceptance by society, by which she is pitied and shielded—is not a disability, disease, or disorder: it is a reality of which she is aware despite not knowing that her blindness separates her from her physical and social surroundings. This surely resonated with Tchaikovsky, whose correspondence from the final year of his life discloses a despondent weariness with the necessity of false conformity. Recorded during concert presentations in the Philharmonie Essen with the sonic excellence for which Deutsche Grammophon titles have been renowned throughout the label’s history, this recording of Iolanta allows this wonderful score to resonate with a new generation of listeners. Perhaps much of the interest in this recording will be prompted by the famous name at the head of the cast. So be it. In this case, the bearer of that name justifies its prominence and must be thanked for giving Tchaikovsky’s endearing heroine an opportunity to transport listeners beyond what can be seen.

Conducted with persuasive Gallic refinement by Emmanuel Villaume, the Slovenian Chamber Choir and Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra approach Tchaikovsky’s music with energy and sophistication. There is in Iolanta a pervasive kinship with the music of Jules Massenet, and Maestro Villaume instinctively responds to the melancholic Francophile undercurrents in the score, exercising a firm control on thematic development in ensembles. Massenet and Tchaikovsky shared a great affection for Mozart, and even in this final opera of his career there is a Mozartean grace in Tchaikovsky’s orchestrations. Maestro Villaume avoids inflating any phrase or scene to dimensions greater than the music can sustain. Starting with strongly-sung accounts of ‘Vot tebe lyutiki’ (‘Вот, тебе, лютики’) and ‘Spi, pust' angelï krïlami navevayut snï’ (‘Спи, пусть ангелы крылами навевают сны’), the choristers convincingly portray the differing rôles assigned to them, sounding comfortable with Tchaikovsky’s most stringent demands. The orchestral players leave no doubt that the musical glories of Slovenia’s past, when Ljubljana was a jewel in the diadem alongside Budapest, Prague, and Vienna, have been lovingly maintained. The strings produce formidably sure intonation that complements the earthy wind playing, combining Germanic rectitude with Mediterranean flexibility. This is an ideal formula for playing the music of Tchaikovsky, whose unmistakably Russian musicality was spiced with doses of French cosmopolitanism, Teutonic ruggedness, and Italianate rusticity. Those who assume that Iolanta is an inferior score because it is performed less frequently than Yevgeny Onegin or Pikovaya dama do Tchaikovsky a great disservice: Maestro Villaume and the Slovenian Philharmonic forces affirm that Iolanta is smaller in stature than her siblings but equally effective, musically and dramatically.

As Iolanta’s companions Brigitta and Laura, Canadian soprano Theresa Plut and ​Slovenian mezzo-soprano Nuška Drašček Rojko sing attractively, bringing delightfully unique touches to their performances and combining flawlessly with Slovenian mezzo-soprano Monika Bohinec’s Martha in their sumptuous little trio. Ms. Bohinec is an alert singer with a distinctive voice, and she aptly conveys affection and concern for Iolanta. Singing Bertrand with a robust timbre and apparent dramatic instincts, bass-baritone Luka Debevec Mayer is a suitable consort for Ms. Bohinec’s Martha. His slightly imperious demeanor is appropriate for the castle doorkeeper who, like Raimondo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, is the de facto guardian of King René and his family honor. South Korean tenor Junho You makes a similarly positive impression in his duties as Alméric, King René's armor-bearer. Few performances, whether on stage or on disc, enjoy such consistently fine work in supporting rôles: great indeed were the vocal riches of medieval Burgundy!

American baritone Lucas Meachem is here given a vehicle in which to display his virile, brusquely beautiful voice in music that enables this tremendously gifted young singer to show what he can do. There are in his interpretation of the Moorish physician Ibn-Hakia unexpectedly noble sentiments. Far too often, this rôle is enacted as an uncomfortable stereotype, but Mr. Meachem finds in his music sympathetic threads of sincerity and feeling. The celebrated monologue ‘Dva mira’ (‘Два мира: плотский и духовный’) is the cornerstone of the part, and Mr. Meachem manages its sixteenth-note triplets and sustained top F♯ with absolute freedom and panache. Hearing his performance, it is unusually obvious that Ibn-Hakia plays a crucial part in the emotional transition that accompanies the physical restoration of Iolanta’s sight. Frequently merely a conjurer, Ibn-Hakia is in Mr. Meachem’s hands a true healer. This brilliantly-sung performance raises hopes that, in time, recordings of his Onegin and Yeletsky will follow.

As Robert, the man torn between his duty to honor an arranged betrothal to Iolanta and his passionate love for another woman, Russian baritone Alexey Markov exudes chivalrous masculinity in singing of power and security. In Robert’s aria extolling the virtues of his true love, ‘Kto možet sravnit'sya’ (‘Кто может сравниться с Матильдой моей’), he negotiates the high tessitura—the second note of the aria is a sustained top E, leading quickly to a sustained top F♯—with refreshing ease, and his fortissimo top G is a thrilling tone. Like Mr. Meachem, Mr. Markov eschews all vestiges of conventional operatic preening and sings his rôle with compelling honesty. The scene in which Robert agrees to honor his commitment to Iolanta though his heart belongs to another is strangely moving thanks to Mr. Markov’s forthright performance. It is impossible not to think of Tchaikovsky himself feeling forced to wed, contrary to his desires, in order to keep up appearances. Vocally, Mr. Markov’s Robert is a marvel, and it is heartening to hear a young singer trusting a composer’s music so implicitly.

A fusion of Verdi’s Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra, Wagner’s Wotan, and Tchaikovsky’s own Kochubey in Mazeppa, King René in Iolanta is a flawed but earnestly protective father whose actions are inspired by recognition of even a king’s inability to thwart social stigmas. As sung by Swiss-Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow, he is a warmly sonorous presence whose good nature does not prevent a streak of iron from showing when his daughter’s wellbeing seems jeopardized. Though his vibrato occasionally loosens slightly, Mr. Kowaljow’s command of the range required by René music is appreciable. In the king’s arioso, ‘Gospod' moy, esli grešen ya’ (‘Господь мой, если грешен я’), the singer unperturbedly traverses the two octaves from F2 to F4 and exhibits no fear in the repeated ascents to top E♭. The gruffness of his threats of execution does not fully disguise a basic geniality, and he enhances the dignity of his performance with his clear, unaffected enunciation of text. It is a pity that Russian is notoriously difficult for non-native speakers because it is a gorgeous language for singing, something that Mr. Kowaljow makes particularly noticeable in this performance. King René launches the opera’s finale with ‘Prosti menya, ya obmanul tebya’ (‘Прости меня, я обманул тебя’), and Mr. Kowaljow sings it confidently. His well-supported, dark-hued sound brings to mind the voices of Feodor Chaliapin and Mark Reizen, and even when René’s decisions are misguided this singer’s deliveries of them are assured and appealing.

For excitement, intensity, and golden tone, the performance of Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov as Count Vaudémont is astounding. To date, this young singer’s repertory at the Mariinsky ranges from Donizetti's Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and Nemorino in L'elisir d'amore to Wagner's Lohengrin and the Shepherd in Szymanowski's Król Roger, and his experience with these rôles prepared him to impersonate a Vaudémont of ringing ardor. He begins his romance, ‘Net! Čarï lask krasï myatežnoy’ (‘Нет! Чары ласк красы мятежной’), with an endearing aura of lovesick wonder, and he is little bothered by the high tessitura of the aria proper, which opens on top A♭. He rises to the long-held top B♭ with total security. In the wonderful duet with Iolanta, ‘Čudnïy pervenec tvoren'ya’ (‘Чудный первенец творенья’), the outpouring of firm, youthful tone is encouraging. Throughout his performance, Mr. Skorokhodov sings with a very welcome lack of traditional tenor posturing, credibly portraying a young man near to bursting with new love. This sometimes leads to a sameness of approach and bluntness of phrasing, but the lyric splendor of the voice disarms complaint. Mr. Skorokhodov is clearly an invaluable treasure of the Mariinsky, one whose 2010 Metropolitan Opera début in Shostakovich’s The Nose continued the legacy of great Russian tenor singing in New York exemplified in the 1990s by Vladimir Atlantov, and this performance confirms the legitimacy of his place in the tradition of the legendary Ivan Kozlovsky.

In her performance of the title rôle in Iolanta, a portrayal that she brings to the Metropolitan Opera in the current season, soprano Anna Netrebko displays the full panoply of the qualities that elevated her to the top of her profession. One of the most acclaimed sopranos of her generation, Ms. Netrebko is an important singer who has not always sounded like one. In her—or her management’s—quest for stardom on the world’s stages, she has appropriated bel canto and Verdi rôles to which the voice is not ideally suited by nature, and her musical success has been sporadic. Even in her native Russian, her diction is imperfect, but as Iolanta she offers an example of the Anna Netrebko of worldwide adulation. In Iolanta’s arioso, ‘Otčego ėto prežde ne znala’ (‘Отчего это прежде не знала’), its tessitura centered in the lower octave of the voice, Ms. Netrebko sings lusciously, the tone focused and caressing the line cresting on top A♭. The duet with Vaudémont, ‘Čudnïy pervenec tvoren'ya’ (‘Чудный первенец творенья’), finds her interacting with Mr. Skorokhodov with unforced chemistry, and she takes the profusion of top As and the exhilarating top B♭ at the duet’s end in stride, the voice remaining secure and capably-projected. Her phrasing of ‘Gde ya? Kuda vedyoš' menya tï, vrač!’ (‘Где я? Куда ведешь меня ты, врач!’) and ‘Blagoy, velikiy, neizmennïy’ (‘Благой, великий, неизменный’) in the opera’s final scene is masterful, and the immediacy of the dramatic profile that she creates for Iolanta is specific but nuanced. In every scene in which she appears, she matches an insightful understanding of her rôle with an authoritative grasp of the music. The intermittent blowsiness of her tone here seems to result from the increased weight and amplitude of the voice rather than from hard use, and the solidity of her intonation throughout the range is wonderful. Iolanta is a near-perfect fit for Ms. Netrebko, and it is a joy to hear her sing the part so meaningfully and with such uncompromising musicality.

With Ms. Netrebko and Mr. Markov reprising their rôles in this season’s Metropolitan Opera première of Iolanta, opening on 26 January, the opera’s familiarity will hopefully expand exponentially. An eloquent, strangely bewitching product of Tchaikovsky’s mature genius, the score is worthy of the respect and recognition devoted to Yevgeny Onegin and Pikovaya dama. In this recording, Iolanta is superbly performed by an ensemble of musicians who understand its worth and potential, and in the company of dedicated colleagues the leading lady proves that she is a significant artist, not just a cleverly-managed approximation of one. Iolanta is an opera that reminds the listener that each of us is blind to some aspect of life, and Deutsche Grammophon’s recording provides an eye-opening experience.

22 January 2015

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Opera Carolina’s Turandot, soprano OTHALIE GRAHAM

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Soprano OTHALIE GRAHAMComing soon to a Forbidden City near you: soprano Othalie Graham, leading lady of Opera Carolina’s 2015 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot [Photo © Othalie Graham; used with permission]

The individual fortunate enough to have heard any of the very few truly great interpreters—Dame Eva Turner, Gina Cigna, Gertrude Grob-Prandl, Birgit Nilsson, Dame Gwyneth Jones—or, to an even greater extent, unfortunate enough to have experienced the legions of under-prepared, undernourished, and simply bewildered exponents cannot possibly dispute the assertion that Puccini’s Turandot is one of the most demanding, destructive, and mistreated rôles in the soprano repertory. Perhaps the most damning mistake a potential Turandot can make is thinking that the foremost challenge of the part is the tessitura. Few things in opera are more terrifying than the pair of top Cs that Turandot must fire over the chorus in Act Two, and the profusion of top Bs and Cs is throat-numbing, but the Turandot who primarily focuses on the exposed high notes—something that she should not have to do in that musical utopia in which singers only sing rôles for which their voices are suited and reliably possess the required notes with being forced to rob Tosca to pay Turandot—deprives both herself and the audience of the true glories of the part. These glories—the insecurity masquerading as cruelty, the blissful discombobulation of true love, the gritty self-preservation and marvels of self-discovery—are indelible traits in the Turandot of soprano Othalie Graham. In a production opening on 24 January 2015, she brings her acclaimed portrayal of Puccini’s most granitic heroine to Charlotte’s Opera Carolina opposite the Calàf of Carl Tanner and the Liù of Dina Kuznetsova: courtesy of Opera Carolina, a bona fide princess will be enthroned in the Queen City.

Canadian by birth and American by adoption, Ms. Graham is Italian by nature—musical nature, at least. She is an artist with a rare gift not just for singing Puccini heroines but for inhabiting them, for finding within the pages of the composer’s scores fully-formed women whose emotions she feels, not feigns. As Minnie in La fanciulla del West, a rôle in which many sopranos seem to focus almost obsessively on the climactic exposed top C in ‘Laggiù nel Soledad’ while the nuances of the part are neglected, Ms. Graham surrenders herself completely to the golden-hearted girl’s predicament, shaping the narrative with attention to dramatic verisimilitude rather than individual notes. Of course, this is an easier task when, as in her case, the notes are in the voice and the singer knows it. Similar insightfulness is at the core of her interpretation of Turandot. Complete cognizance of one’s own voice is rare enough, but the ability to translate one’s vocal capabilities into a lushly-realized spectrum of emotional colors is even more precious. These traits define Ms. Graham’s singing in any repertory, but in Puccini’s music for Turandot they initiate her into the exalted company of the handful of sopranos whose portrayals of the ‘principessa di gelo’ melted the frosty separation between the character and audiences.

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Soprano OTHALIE GRAHAM as Puccini's TurandotPrincipessa altera: soprano Othalie Graham in the title rôle of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot [Photo used with permission]

In practical terms, Turandot is a rôle without precedent in the Italian repertory, and Ms. Graham views her as both one of the greatest challenges and an uncommonly rewarding opportunity for a soprano. ‘I love to play a character that has such an incredible arc,’ she says. ‘For Turandot to start off so icy and imperious while having a continually-running undercurrent of vulnerability makes it a lot more fun!’ More than many Turandots, for whom trumpeting out the notes is the paramount concern, Ms. Graham is particularly attentive to the subtler nuances of the part. ‘I think that she has to have that soft underbelly that she continually covers with her rhinoceros hide! It makes Act Three much more believable,’ she suggests. This philosophy is evident in her approach to the opera, which combines indefatigable musicality with an exceptional degree of sensitivity. It is a philosophy that extends to many aspects of life and Art, Ms. Graham feels. If she could give Turandot advice, she muses, ‘I would tell her that it’s okay to be such a strong woman but that she has to allow herself to open enough to let love in. I think that’s true of many women.’

The relationship between Turandot and her father, Emperor Altoum, is of great but often overlooked significance to the plot of Turandot. Because of her own life experience, Ms. Graham is uniquely responsive to this element of the drama. ‘Before I head to makeup,’ she confides, ‘when I arrive at the theater, I always walk out to the stage and kneel down and ask God to help my father hear me sing. I lost my father, the great love of my life, when I was twenty-five years old and he was forty-eight. There is nothing more important to me than knowing that he hears me.’ As she faces Turandot’s father on stage, her thoughts fly to her own father, and love for him soars in her voice as she sings ‘In questa reggia.’ ‘Right before I sing that fiendishly difficult aria, I always look up, knowing that he’s there and that he hears me,’ she shares. The intensity of her connection with her father is paralleled by the bond between Turandot and her imperial sire, and it is indicative of Ms. Graham’s commitment to her artistry that, even from behind the curtain, she shares such an intimate aspect of herself with audiences via song.

For many sopranos bold enough to sing Turandot, the foremost goal of a performance is survival. For Ms. Graham, the goal is and must always be beauty. Her abiding objectives are to honor Puccini’s requests and to do so in ways that draw audiences into the innermost depths of Turandot’s heart. ‘I always want them to remember the beauty of my voice and the beauty of my portrayal of a woman who is incredibly strong yet beautifully vulnerable,’ she states. That she achieves these objectives so exquisitely is the hallmark of a great artist. What Ms. Graham brings to Turandot is precisely what the character lacks in so many performances: humanity.

Here, at last, is a Turandot worth losing one’s head for!

♪     ♫     ♪     ♫     ♪     ♫     ♪     ♫     ♪

To learn more about Othalie Graham, visit her Official Website. She is represented in the United States by Uzan International Artists.

Opera Carolina’s production of Puccini’s Turandot opens on Saturday, 24 January. Additional performances are scheduled for 29 January and 1 February. For more information and to book tickets, visit Opera Carolina’s website.

Sincerest thanks to Ms. Graham for her kindness, candor, and time in responding to questions during rehearsals for Opera Carolina’s Turandot. Photos are reproduced with Ms. Graham’s permission.

20 January 2015

CD REVIEW: Francesco Maria Veracini – ADRIANO IN SIRIA (S. Prina, A. Hallenberg, R. Invernizzi, R. Basso, L. Cirillo, U. Guagliardo; Fra Bernardo fb 1409491)

CD REVIEW: Francesco Maria Veracini - ADRIANO IN SIRIA (Fra Bernardo fb 1409491)FRANCESCO MARIA VERACINI (1690 – 1768): Adriano in SiriaSonia Prina (Adriano), Ann Hallenberg (Farnaspe), Roberta Invernizzi (Emirena), Romina Basso (Sabina), Lucia Cirillo (Idalma), Ugo Guagliardo (Osroa); Europa Galante; Fabio Biondi, conductor [Recorded in conjunction with a concert performance in the Grosser Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria, 17 – 19 January 2014; Fra Bernardo fb 1409491; 3 CD, 172:00; Available from Amazon (USA), Amazon (UK), jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Thanks to the efforts of artists as diverse as Luisa Tetrazzini, Richard Tucker, Maurice André, and Frans Brüggen, the name and music of Francesco Maria Veracini have never fully disappeared as have those of many composers of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Accounts of Veracini’s life are almost certainly blends of fact, fiction, and the ridiculously fanciful: different sources suggest that, based upon their chronologies of the composer’s life in the public eye, he possessed the admirable ability to be in two distant parts of Europe simultaneously. The son of an affluent family of musicians and artists, Veracini was one of the most admired violinists of his generation, one whose bowing technique allegedly shamed even the great Tartini. As a composer, his reputation among his contemporaries seems to have been more variable: Charles Burney, who was never more prolific or imaginative than when being nasty, thought Veracini’s music unimpressive and his temperament even less attractive. What he lacked in charm he surely had in artistic merit, however, and the enduring presence of his work, albeit a minute fraction of his output, is suggestive of musical craftsmanship of the first order. In this performance of his opera Adriano in Siria, recorded by Fra Bernardo with clarity that combines the precision of recording in studio with the verve of live performance, the neglected brilliance of Veracini is polished to diamond-brightness by the efforts of a team of extraordinary musicians. In truth, the cast assembled for this performance could make the most banal music seem important, but in Adriano in Siria they find music worthy of their best efforts.

Rediscovered and meticulously prepared for performance by insightful musicologist Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg, Adriano in Siria is a fascinating score, this recording of which is a considerable milestone in the appreciation of Veracini’s artistry. Premièred by the Opera of the Nobility at the Haymarket Theatre in London in 1735 by a cast that included Farinelli, Senesino, and Francesca Cuzzoni, the opera enjoyed acclaim that, like that of many celebrated operas in the first half of the Eighteenth Century, was short-lived. Even superb scores were shelved as tastes changed, and this was particularly true in London, where, by the time of the first performance of Adriano in Siria, interest in Italian opera was already waning. In the case of Veracini’s opera, this was perhaps fortuitous: it is difficult to fathom a cast in subsequent generations matching the musical prowess attributed to Farinelli, Senesino, and Cuzzoni. Mr. Schmitt-Hallenberg has produced a performing edition of the opera that reveals the splendor that it surely possessed when it was first heard in 1735. His thoughtful management of the surviving musical material provides a score with impressive consistency of inspiration and dramatic impetus that, in the hands of alert singers, generates excitement and organic continuity even in the contexts of concert performances and a recording. Vitally, Mr. Schmitt-Hallenberg has given Veracini the gift of a performing edition of Adriano in Siria in which not one note seems superfluous.

A rejuvenated Baroque opera could not hope for better handling than Adriano in Siria receives from Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante. Many of Maestro Biondi’s baton-wielding colleagues have intriguing ideas about infusing Baroque scores with historically-informed practices, but Maestro Biondi has confirmed in a progression of lauded performances and recordings that his guiding philosophy as a conductor is that, whether a score was composed by Bononcini or Bellini, the fundamental element of any piece is rhythm. In this performance, the commitment to following the lead of the composer’s rhythmic patterns is especially apparent, and Maestro Biondi and the Europa Galante musicians follow Veracini’s blueprints expertly, constructing a compelling musical edifice. Giangiacomo Pinardi’s playing of the theorbo and the harpsichord playing of Paola Poncet give the continuo variety and unflagging momentum, and the Europa Galante string and wind players produce sounds of stylish beauty that complement the kaleidoscopic emotional colorations of the music. As ever, Maestro Biondi and Europa Galante collaborate to create a musical environment in which the composer’s requirements and the singers’ needs, both musical and dramatic, are fused in a way that preserves the integrity of historically-informed performance values without jeopardizing the vitality of the performance or the freshness of the dramatic feast prepared by the cast.

Unfortunately, many singers seemingly still believe that successful performances of music of the vintage of Adriano in Siria require special vocal modifications. While it is a gross oversimplification to suggest that a singer either can or cannot sing music like Veracini’s, there is a measure of truth in the assertion that a singer either has or has not the technical acumen needed for Baroque opera. The mistaken assumption made by a number of singers is that artificially altering the inherent qualities of voices trained to sing other repertories constitutes approaching Baroque music informedly. Whitening the tone and gingerly pecking at notes do not render a performance stylistically appropriate: rather, these devices make a performance dull and unfocused for both artists and audience. In terms of fostering a successful international career with aspirations to longevity, specialization is dangerous in today’s opera environment, but the unnaturally broad versatility forced on young singers is even more perilous for vocal health. The singers engaged for Adriano in Siria offer examples of the most intelligent blends of specialization and versatility. Just as Maestro Biondi understands that the bones that support musical flesh are rhythms, these artists truly understand that successfully singing Baroque music does not depend upon singing nothing else. The key is technique, which until the last performance of a singer’s career should be a work in progress. What these singers comprehend is that building the technical foundation needed to sing Baroque music is not restricting: wrapping the voice around music like Veracini’s unlocks artistic doors that singers with less cognizance of their own voices can only force open with great risk.

Bass Ugo Guagliardo brings to his portrayal of the Parthian king Osroa a sturdy voice with an imposing presence that does not inhibit flexibility in coloratura. In Osroa’s aria in Act One, ‘Sprezza il furor del vento,’ he sonorously imparts the majestic power of the elements described by the text. The regal authority of the character is grandly served by Mr. Guagliardo’s singing of Osroa’s aria in Act Two, ‘Se mai piagato a morte.’ The vigor of his singing of ‘Non ritrova un'alma forte’ in Act Three is very effective, the singer clearly almost tasting the words. It is often dismaying to observe how lazy singers are when singing in their own languages, but Mr. Guagliardo enunciates the Italian text with brio. He shares with all of the singers in this cast a flair for animating secco recitative. Rousingly as he sings his arias, Mr. Guagliardo’s most valuable contribution to this recording is perhaps his leadership of the cast in their creation of a credible drama in which characters interact and respond to one another.

The captive Parthian princess Idalma receives from mezzo-soprano Lucia Cirillo one of this excellent singer’s most enjoyable recorded performances. She, too, makes much of the text, coloring her native Italian vowels to reflect the moods of the words. ‘Per punir l'ingrato amante,’ Idalma’s aria in Act One, is sung with great depth of feeling, and her aria in Act Two, ‘Saggio guerriero antico,’ inspires Ms. Cirillo to particularly effective singing, her technique making light of the difficulty of the music. In Act Three, the power of her singing of the aria ‘Più bella al tempo usato’ is startling. Ms. Cirillo shepherds her resources very shrewdly, saving the most arresting hues of her vocalism for moments of greatest dramatic significance. This singer has graced a number of valuable recordings with her singing, but in this performance she achieves new heights of technical and histrionic excellence.

In Veracini’s music for Sabina, Italian mezzo-soprano Romina Basso uses her smoky timbre like a dagger, penetrating the heart of the drama with her every utterance. The fire that she ignites in her accompagnato in Act One, ‘Io piango? Ah, no,’ and the aria that follows, ‘Numi, se giusti siete,’ blazes until the last note that she sings in this performance, and she exploits every facet of her remarkable musicianship to portray the wronged woman with depth and dignity. Sabina’s aria in Act Two, ‘Ah, ingrato m'inganni nel darmi speranza,’ receives from Ms. Basso a performance of tremendous musicality and spine-tingling intensity. In Act Three, her account of ‘Digli ch'è un infedele digli che mi tradì’ boils with justified indignation, and she resplendently blends her voice with that of her Adriano in their duetto ‘Prendi, o caro, mio sostegno.’ Ms. Basso is the kind of singer whose performances reveal unexplored aspects of familiar music. In performance of a rediscovered score like Adriano in Siria, she makes new magic with each subsequent phrase. She is a busy singer but one who could never be heard often enough.

In the part created by Francesca Cuzzoni, Emirena, soprano Roberta Invernizzi provides singing of a quality that furthers her reputation as one of today’s preeminent leading ladies of Baroque opera. Hers is singing that is unfailingly stylish without being a pretentious display of exaltedly artful vocalism. Rather, she sings what the composer has given her—sings at all levels, musical, emotional, and psychological. She is unafraid of occasionally producing an unlovely sound if the drama of her rôle demands it, but this only increases the beauty of her performances. In Emirena’s music, she provides a glorious exhibition of appropriately-scaled singing that highlights the intelligence of Veracini’s vocal writing. The wrenching ‘Prigioniera abbandonata’ in Act One is sung with the sort of vehemence that leads many singers to destroy their voices: Ms. Invernizzi tears the passion from the words, not from her throat. Emirena ends Act One with ‘Un lampo di speranza,’ one of the finest numbers in the score and one that Ms. Invernizzi sings movingly. Both of Emirena’s arias in Act 2, ‘Per te d'eterni allori’ and the stirring ‘Quell'amplesso e quel perdono,’ are given traversals worthy of comparison with Renata Scotto’s singing of Puccini heroines. The concentration of her singing of ‘Quel cor che mi donasti’ in Act Three is unflappable, and her performance of this aria crowns a subtle but sparkling characterization of a rôle in which Cuzzoni herself could hardly have been more memorable.

Any singer with Baroque or bel canto inclinations, no matter the progress of the career, should adopt as a critical component of her (or his) training regimen frequently listening to Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg. In Farinelli’s rôle of the Parthian prince Farnaspe, she demonstrates in this recording of Adriano in Siria what a great voice in its prime allied with a technique continually subjected to refining can achieve in Baroque music. Her rôle’s association with Farinelli raises expectations of feats of bravura gallantry, and Ms. Hallenberg does not disappoint. Not even her most extravagant bursts of coloratura are mere displays of her formidable technique, however: she manages to find the dramatic significance of every run, roulade, and trill. Farnaspe’s arias in Act One, ‘Già presso al termine de' suoi martiri,’ ‘Parto, sì, bella tiranna,’ and ‘Ascolta idolo mio dell'alma il bel desio,’ make daunting but widely varying demands upon the singer’s vocal resources, and Ms. Hallenberg responds with uncompromising expertise, differentiating her negotiations of the vocal lines according to Veracini’s requirements but always maintaining dedication to upholding the nobility of the character. After giving a beguiling recital of her abilities in ‘Quel ruscelletto va mormorando,’ she closes Act Two with a heart-stopping performance of ‘Amor, dover, rispetto, nell'agitato petto.’ She, too, soars to the summit of her artistry in Act Three with her singing of ‘Son sventurato ma pure, o stelle,’ in which she paints melodic landscapes with the shimmering emerald and sapphire tones of her voice. Sadly, it is impossible to know how Farinelli might have sounded in this part, but it is possible to imagine that he might have preferred to listen to Ms. Hallenberg sing Farnaspe rather than singing the rôle himself.

It was to Senesino that Veracini entrusted the title rôle of the opportunistic Roman emperor Adriano in 1735, and the part receives from contralto Sonia Prina an interpretation in this performance that honors the great castrato’s legacy. In a pair of arias in Act One, ‘Dal labbro che t'accende’ and ‘E' vero che oppresso,’ the singer throws herself into the part with febrile energy and dexterity, conveying the emperor’s masculinity without resorting to unmusical growling. The darkness of the voice’s timbre gives Adriano an immediately-identifiable persona, and Ms. Prina’s technical acumen enables her to bring laudable authority to the sometimes awkward vocal lines customized by the composer for Senesino’s singular capabilities. ‘La ragion, gli affetti ascolta,’ the first of Adriano’s arias in Act Two, is sung with intriguing simplicity, and the bracing sentiments of ‘Tutti nemici e rei’ are expressed in an explosion of bravado. The emotions of the aria ‘Va', superbo, e del tuo fato’ in Act Three are also resolutely communicated through song, but the apogee of Ms. Prina’s realization of Adriano is the duetto with Sabina, ‘Prendi, o cara, in questo amplesso,’ in which she and Ms. Basso—ladies possessing voices so alike yet so different—unite in absolute stylistic and expressive synchronicity. Like her colleagues in this performance, Ms. Prina is not exclusively a Baroque-specialist singer, but her endeavors in Veracini’s music are exclusively adroit.

It is rare that a recording of an opera composed in any era in the genre’s history can boast of a cast with no weak links, but Fra Bernardo’s world-première recording of Francesco Maria Veracini’s Adriano in Siria can do just that. The cast of singers for whom the composer created the six rôles in his opera brought together on the stage of the Haymarket a sextet of the most celebrated singers of the Eighteenth Century: the Twenty-First-Century equivalent electrified the storied environs of Vienna’s Konzerthaus with a magnificent performance of Adriano in Siria. The singing preserved on this recording warrants many words of praise, but the two words that are ultimately the most precious are those that this performance inspires for Veracini and Adriano in Siria—welcome back.