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.