28 February 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – LA TRAVIATA (J. Echols, M. Chang, J.W. Kang, J. Wright, J. Lazarz, D. Hartmann, J. Malgieri, L. Fabio, K. Melges, J. Ittoop, J. Kato, B. Blakesley; North Carolina Opera, 27 February 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Giuseppe Verdi - LA TRAVIATA (North Carolina Opera, 27 February 2015)GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): La traviataJacqueline Echols (Violetta Valéry), Mario Chang (Alfredo Germont), Joo Won Kang (Giorgio Germont), Jacob Wright (Gastone), Jennifer Lazarz (Flora Bervoix), Donald Hartmann (Barone Douphol), Jesse Malgieri (Marchese d’Obigny), Lora Fabio (Annina), Kurt Melges (Dottore Grenvil), Joseph Ittoop (Giuseppe), Jacob Kato (Commissionario), Brent Blakesley (Domestico); Chorus and Orchestra of North Carolina Opera; Timothy Myers, conductor [Directed by Marc Astafan; Chorus prepared by Alfred E. Sturgis and Scott MacLeod; Lighting by Todd Hensley; North Carolina Opera – Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina; Friday, 27 February 2015]

When the acclaimed soprano Fanny Salvini-Donatelli took the stage of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice on 6 March 1853, she faced a barrage of hostilities as only Italian opera can fabricate. A decade earlier, the young Giuseppe Verdi had conducted her in her Vienna début as Abigaille in his Nabucco, and only weeks before that fateful evening in March 1853 she had sung Elvira and Gulnara in La Fenice productions of Ernani and Il corsaro in addition to having enjoyed a considerable success as Donna Eleonora in the première of Carlo Ercole Bosoni’s La prigioniera. By the time that rehearsals for Verdi’s new opera, La traviata, began on 22 February 1853, the production was already a source of considerable angst for all involved with it. A setting of Alexandre Dumas fils’s literary homage to his paramour Marie Duplessis, La Dame aux camélias, La traviata was a rare contemporary subject, and Verdi was adamant that its first production should reflect its topical setting. His disappointment when it was made apparent that La Fenice would instead transplant the action in Seventeenth-Century Paris soured the composer to the production, and though the soprano was only thirty-eight years old at the time of the first performance of La traviata Verdi complained bitterly that Salvini-Donatelli was both too old and too full-figured to be convincing as the frail, consumptive Violetta. His efforts to replace her with another soprano were unsuccessful, so she bravely faced Verdi’s disapprobation and the audience’s scorn. There being little evidence of the ravages of disease in the soprano’s physique, she was heckled when her infirmity was referenced, but Verdi’s famous assessment of the opera’s première—‘La traviata ieri sera fiasco. La colpa è mia o dei cantanti? (‘La traviata yesterday was a fiasco. Is the blame mine or the singers’?’)—overstates the extent of the failure of the performance. In truth, contemporary accounts of the evening record that Verdi was called out to acknowledge the audience’s approval as early as the end of the Preludio and that, contrary to the contempt for her figure, Salvini-Donatelli’s singing was enthusiastically applauded, particularly her performance of ‘Sempre libera’ at the end of Act One. The Germonts père et fils—sung by Felice Varesi, Verdi’s first Macbeth and Rigoletto, and Lodovico Graziani—fared less honorably, but the success of the first night was sufficient to prompt nine additional performances of the opera in its inaugural season. Perhaps scarred but certainly not incapacitated by the reception of the first performance, Salvini-Donatelli sang Violetta in at least three further productions of La traviata between 1853 and her retirement from the stage. As the circumstances of the première of La traviata demonstrate, singers facing ridicule of aspects of their performances other than their voices is not a Twenty-First-Century phenomenon, but the history of Verdi’s bittersweet portrait of doomed love is also a validation of the potential of music to overcome such stupidity.

With direction by Marc Astafan and lighting by Todd Hensley, North Carolina Opera’s production of La traviata was a feast for appetites starved by Regietheater productions that prioritize ‘concepts’ ahead of Verdi’s intentions. The only concept that truly achieves the relevance for modern audiences so touted by opera companies is respect of composers’ and librettists’ requests. This need not be an excuse for dogged literalism, but productions that impose details extrapolated from sources other than operas’ scores and libretti risk gouging out chasms between performances and their audiences. A Traviata set on Pluto rather than in Paris can be effective, but one that substitutes some point of view other than Verdi’s essential focus on a dying woman, the man who loves her, and the father who stands between them is destined for failure, if not in immediate musical or dramatic terms then surely and insurmountably as a memorable realization of Verdi’s beloved opera. North Carolina Opera’s production placed Verdi’s, Francesco Maria Piave’s, and Dumas’s characters where they were meant to be. On loan from Nashville Opera, the sets and costumes evoked a Paris of legendary pulchritude but emotional isolation, the richly-hued costumes credibly and mostly flatteringly dressing the characters in clothes appropriate to their stations in Nineteenth-Century French society. Mr. Hensley’s lighting lent the production an initial warmth that transitioned meaningfully to the colder realities of Acts Two and Three: in the final scene, Violetta seemed not so much to be decaying as to be already poised between life and death. There was never any question of the fact that Violetta was the soul of the opera, and the production was especially insightful in its depiction of the extent to which Germont comes not just to pity but to truly feel affection for Violetta in the course of their scene in Act Two. Mr. Astafan guided the cast—including choristers—in imaginative blocking that capitalized on the potential of set pieces like the Brindisi in Act One but also reflected the almost claustrophobic intimacy of scenes in Acts Two and Three. Interactions among characters were strikingly organic: there was dramatic justification for every action and gesture except for the ‘crushing’ of Violetta by the guests at her party in Act One. This is the sort of conceit that is psychologically defensible but seems clumsy in practice. Tellingly, though, every individual on stage seemed comfortable not only with his or her own part in the drama but also with colleagues and the production. Refreshingly, it was Verdi’s Traviata rather than a Traviata in spite of Verdi.

North Carolina Opera’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Timothy Myers is one of the state's greatest cultural treasures. Whether conducting music by Mozart, Wagner, or Dvořák, Maestro Myers reliably exhibits preparedness, absolute understanding of the demands of the scores before him, and stylistic versatility that collectively enable him to approach music of divergent styles with far greater insight than the all-purpose stand-and-deliver sensibilities of many conductors permit. The core principles of conducting, the most vital of which is a resolute command of rhythm, are unchanging, but Così fan tutte is not Tristan und Isolde, which is not Rusalka. The greatest felicity of his pacing of La traviata was that he laid bare Verdi's Traviata: it was not the Traviata of some old recording, a well-learned imitation of a famous conductor's traversal of the score, or a quirky 'personal' reading of the opera. It is a sad indication of the willfulness of conductors to suggest that seeking everything that needs to be known about conducting a piece in the composer’s score amounts to an individual interpretation, but in the sense that Maestro Myers executed every marking in Verdi’s score with astonishing fidelity his Traviata was just that. He lingered over neither laughter nor tears except when Verdi advised that he should linger, and his management of orchestral textures and timpani figurations elevated Verdi’s orchestrations from accompaniments to participants. Under his baton, the orchestral musicians discarded formulaic playing and delivered their parts as though they were on stage among the characters. Despite instances of uncertain ensemble, the gossamer writing for the strings in the first bars of the Preludio and at the start of Act Three was hauntingly realized, and the poignant woodwind phrases in Act Two were played with liquid flow and perfect intonation. In the scene at Flora’s ball, spirits were ebullient until Alfredo’s denunciation of Violetta halted the festivities with the power of a thunderbolt. Here as in Act One, the choristers sang well—markedly better, in truth, than their colleagues in far larger cities where opera is regularly performed, though it was unfortunate that a lone gentleman of the chorus made his first entrance a bar too early. Such things are part of the excitement of live performance, however. Though coordination was problematic, the offstage Coro di maschere in Act Three, ‘Largo al quadrupede,’ was vibrantly done (slightly too vibrantly in the case of the castanets and tambourine, in fact), heightening the contrast of the Parisians’ revelry with the dying Violetta’s quiet suffering. With both orchestra and chorus alert to his cumulative vision of the opera, Maestro Myers did not need to manufacture tragedy: rather, he allowed the audience to perceive how marvelously Verdi had already done so.

La traviata is an opera that is driven by its principals, but poor singing in secondary rôles can have a noticeably deleterious effect on a performance. Like many regional companies, North Carolina Opera casts many of the supporting parts in productions with local talent and young singers. This practice enlivened this performance of La traviata with wonderful vignettes enacted by fine singers. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Lazarz impersonated a flirtatious but kind-hearted Flora, very much the life of her own party. Soprano Lora Fabio was a touching, sisterly Annina, her concern for Violetta clearly that of a much-loved friend. The obsidian-voiced Donald Hartmann’s Barone Douphol was a convincing roué without too much vaudevillian posturing, and his cavernous, virile tone made him a dangerous, somewhat sinister presence. The handsome Jesse Malgieri was a Marchese d'Obigny who demanded to be noticed: having commandeered attention, he voiced his lines with firm, easily-projected tone and exuded philandering charm. Kurt Melges and Jacob Wright sang well as Dottore Grenvil and Gastone, crafting intelligent portrayals despite the brevity of their lines. The aptly-named Joseph Ittoop was a capable, energetic Giuseppe, complemented by Brent Blakesley’s eager Domestico, and Jacob Kato was fine as the Commissionario but even better when, in the scene at Flora’s ball he reacted as a member of the chorus to Alfredo’s insulting of Violetta’s honor with visceral shock and disgust.

The sonorous voice and kinetic demeanor of South Korean baritone Joo Won Kang could find no better conduit than Germont’s music. Possessing a natural instrument of precisely the correct weight for the rôle, the voice secure throughout the range and the upper extension reaching top G without strain, Mr. Kang was a Germont of severity, moral authority, and, ultimately, great sympathy. As it should be, his Act Two scene with Violetta was the emotional climax of the performance. Phrasing 'Pura siccome un angelo' with the poetry of Lisitsian, the diction of Taddei, and the inviolable solidity of Tibbett, what this Germont demanded of Violetta could hardly be refused, but the blossoming uncertainty and compassion evinced in ‘Sì, piangi, o misera, piangi' were vividly conveyed by the baritone’s ardent but restrained singing. Mr. Kang’s account of ‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol, chi dal cor ti cancellò,’ one of the greatest arias for the baritone voice (and one of the most difficult to sing well), was exquisite, his breath control equal to the demands of the music. He was the rare Germont who made the excision of his cabaletta, 'No, non udrai rimproveri,' regrettable: the piece is dramatically inert, but any opportunity to hear this singer longer would have been most welcome. Confronting Alfredo after his imprudent assault on Violetta’s dignity at the ball, Mr. Kang’s Germont seemed almost too dismayed to get his words out in ‘Di sprezzo degno se stesso rende,’ but the musical line was sculpted with unyielding integrity. Though Germont’s part in Act Three is small, Mr. Kang’s aura was tremendous. When he sang that he had come at last to embrace the expiring Violetta as his daughter, his sincerity poured out over the footlights. Verdi baritones are some of the rarest creatures in opera. Hearing one on good form is a matchless pleasure. Hearing one in a city like Raleigh is unexpected, but Mr. Kang distinguished North Carolina Opera’s Traviata with a Germont as good as the best in the world, past and present.

Winner of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition in 2014, young Guatemalan tenor Mario Chang brought to his portrayal of Alfredo both boyish appeal and emotional maturity that deepened as the opera progressed. From the start, it was apparent that Mr. Chang’s Alfredo was an impetuous young man in love with the notion of being in love: he was unusually believable as the awe-struck suitor besotted with Violetta but too shy to approach her. Goaded into serenading her, he seemed to gain strength merely from being in her presence. His launching of the Brindisi, ‘Libiamo, ne' lieti calici,’ at once revealed a fresh, focused lyric tenor with an attractively bright timbre. His ‘Un dì felice, eterea’ was the effusion of a fervent lover struggling to put his feelings into words, but the heady bel canto of his delivery of ‘Di quell'amor, quell'amor ch'è palpito’ left no doubt that he had found his amorous footing. At the start of Act Two, Mr. Chang provided a rousing performance of Alfredo’s aria ‘De' miei bollenti spiriti,’ making easy going of the repeated ascents to top A♭ (though even his effective acting could not quite make sense of why the aria was delivered to a brandy snifter), and his animated account of his cabaletta, ‘O mio rimorso,’ was capped with a solid top C. In the brief interview with Violetta during Flora’s ball, the arrogance of Mr. Chang’s dismissal of Violetta’s warnings did not fully disguise the character’s injured pride and sorrow. He threw himself into his voicing of 'Ogni suo aver tal femmina,' Alfredo’s cruel mocking of Violetta before her peers, with abandon, but, having been chastised by his father, his regret and self-loathing in 'Ah sì! Che feci! Ne sento orrore!' were genuine. In Act Three, Mr. Chang reunited with Violetta with the same obvious upbeat optimism with which he first caressed her hand in Act One, and there was no doubting the uncomplicated faith of his sentiments in his urgent, luxuriously-phrased singing of 'Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo.' The directness of his utterance of ‘Oh, mio sospiro e palpito, diletto del cor mio!' as the reality of the hopelessness of Violetta’s condition overtook him was harrowing. As she unexpectedly rallied in the opera’s final moments, his smile returned, making the moment when Violetta suddenly died in his arms agonizing. Mr. Chang avoided forcing the voice in Alfredo’s most dramatic passages, but he projected handily throughout the performance. Aside from a few slightly pinched tones, Mr. Chang’s Alfredo was a total success.

Soprano Jacqueline Echols made a very favorable impression as Musetta in North Carolina Opera’s 2014 production of Puccini’s La bohème, but having witnessed her thoughtful performance in that opera was inadequate preparation for observing the dignity, eloquence, and heartbreaking tragedy that she achieved as Violetta in La traviata. At her first entrance, during the Renoir-like tableau vivant that occupied the stage during the Preludio, Ms. Echols established a cynical but alluringly sensitive characterization that persisted until Violetta took her final breath in Act Three. She began her part in the Brindisi, ‘Ah, se ciò è ver, fuggitemi,’ with the glistening insouciance of a great star of silent film. Her singing of ‘Ah! fors'è lui che l'anima’ was brilliant, the evenness of the voice throughout the aria’s range unwavering. So forthright was her musing on Alfredo’s declaration of love that she seemed almost convinced to run away with him on the spot. Her laughter cascading through the theatre, Ms. Echols imparted the inevitability of Violetta’s forever-altered light-heartedness. The pair of top D♭s that frame the stanzas of ‘Sempre libera degg'io folleggiare di gioia in gioia’ stretched the soprano’s resources but were perfectly on pitch, and her singing of the celebrated cabaletta was expert, the coloratura negotiated with technical aplomb. Ms. Echols devoted to Violetta’s scene with Germont in Act Two singing of concentrated meaning, her delivery of 'Non sapete quale affetto' radiating untold depths of affection, and her singing of 'Dite alle giovine sì bella e pura' and 'Morrò! la mia memoria non fia ch'ei maledica' was often sublime. She rose to the great melodic arcs of 'Amami, Alfredo, quant'io t'amo! Addio!' and 'Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core non puoi comprendere tutto l'amor' with expansive tone that grew ever more gleaming as the lines ascended. In a sense, Ms. Echols’s Violetta, visibly transformed by her love for Alfredo from a beauty of figure to a beauty of soul, was already dead as the curtain came down on Act Two: the body lingered, but the spirit was extinguished. After an expressive reading of Germont’s letter in Act Three, the bitterness of Ms. Echols’s cry of 'E tardi' was cutting. The zenith of her performance was her singing of 'Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti,’ in which she was granted both stanzas, her top As gorgeous even when nearly broken by emotion. Her show of joy in 'Parigi, o caro, noi lasceremo' was for Alfredo’s benefit, her true attitude expressed in her moving 'Gran Dio! morir sì giovine, io che penato ho tanto!' Costumed like the princess of a grand realm in Acts One and Two, Ms. Echols was never more beautiful than in Act Three, when even in a dingy shift she shone. This epitomized her Violetta: exciting in the decorative music of Act One, she disclosed the full panoply of her gifts as a singing actress in the open-hearted music of Acts Two and Three.

That La traviata is frequently performed in every corner of the globe into which opera has spread is demonstrative of the impact that Verdi’s tale of love upended by duty and illness continues to have on the jaded mentalities of Twenty-First-Century audiences. Is there any greater proof of the viability and vitality of opera than the fact that grown men and women still shed tears for a ‘fallen woman’ who dies just when happiness seems within her grasp? North Carolina Opera gave Friday evening’s audience a Traviata that inspired tears by allowing Violetta to live, love, and die as Verdi intended. This Violetta, Alfredo, and Germont were not symbols or archetypes: there were people who loved, sung by people who loved them. For all its magnificent complexity, opera is, at its heart, that simple.

26 February 2015

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Soprano MARJORIE OWENS expands her Straussian domain in Washington Concert Opera’s GUNTRAM

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Soprano MARJORIE OWENS [Photo © by Marjorie Owens]Freeing Freihild: Soprano Marjorie Owens, who will sing the rôle of Freihild in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram on Sunday, 1 March 2015 [Photo © by Marjorie Owens]

Olive Fremstad. Frieda Hempel. Maria Jeritza. Gertrude Kappel. Eleanor Steber. Leonie Rysanek. It was by these six extraordinary singers that Richard Strauss’s Salome, Maschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, Helena in Die Ägyptische Helena, Elektra, Arabella, and Ariadne were introduced to New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Each in her own way was a powerful advocate for the composer’s music. Preparing for the MET première of Salome, Fremstad went to the New York City morgue in order to bring to her portrayal of the obsessive Judean princess a realistic struggle with the weight of Jochanaan’s severed head. Hempel repeated her Prinzessin von Werdenberg to even greater acclaim at Covent Garden. Kappel’s MET career was preceded by a tenure at the Wiener Staatsoper, where she was engaged for dramatic rôles in the German and Italian repertories by Strauss himself. In addition to being the MET’s first Helena (and Turandot), Maria Jeritza created the rôles of Ariadne and the Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Steber débuted at the MET as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier before going on to sing the Marschallin and Arabella. Both on the world’s stages and in recording studios, Rysanek was in the hearts of many audiences the reigning Strauss soprano of the Twentieth Century. Fifteen years into the Twenty-First Century, it is not uncommon to encounter the complaint that there are no great Strauss singers among today’s young artists. There are no Fremstads, Hempels, Jeritzas, Kappels, Stebers, or Rysaneks gracing the world’s stages today, but there is a Marjorie Owens. Anyone who has not yet heard this exceptional soprano sing music by Richard Strauss has thus far been deprived of experiencing one of the new century’s most thrilling musical phenomena.

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Soprano MARJORIE OWENS in the title rôle of Richard Strauss's DAPHNE at the Semperoper Dresden in 2014 [Photo by Matthias Creutziger, © by Semperoper Dresden]A Voice anything but Wooden: Soprano Marjorie Owens (center) in the title rôle of Richard Strauss's Daphne at the Semperoper Dresden in 2014 [Photo by Matthias Creutziger, © by Semperoper Dresden]

The prototype of the Strauss soprano was the notoriously cantankerous Pauline de Ahna, to whom the composer was married throughout virtually his entire creative career. She was the model for the enigmatic Färberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten and the insecure but ultimately touchingly sincere Christine Storch in Intermezzo, and she created the rôle of Freihild in Guntram, to whose troublesome tessitura Ms. Owens will return in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of the 1940 revision of the neglected score. In addition to having sung Freihild and the title rôles in Ariadne auf Naxos and Daphne at Dresden’s Semperoper, where she has been celebrated as the company’s venerated prima donna in dramatic rôles in both the German and Italian repertories, Ms. Owens’s marble-toned Ariadne also garnered praise in Boston and Fort Worth. A winner in the 2006 Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions (her intriguing selections in the Grand Finals concert were Elettra’s ‘D’Oreste, d’Ajace’ from Mozart’s Idomeneo and Magda’s ‘To this we’ve come’ from Menotti’s The Consul), she returned to the MET stage for her formal début as Verdi’s Aida on 2 January 2015. Thinking of the legacies of sopranos who excelled both as Aida and in Strauss rôles—Ljuba Welitsch, Birgit Nilsson, Dame Gwyneth Jones, and Anna Tomowa-Sintow come to mind—inspires Ms. Owens not only to consider her own place in this tradition but also to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle contrasts between her recent Strauss and Verdi characterizations. ‘Vocally, Freihild and Aida are rather different,’ she shares. ‘They both require a serious amount of technical control in the arias, but Aida is rather low [in tessitura] in the dramatic passages—other than the famous high C—whereas Freihild, like most of Strauss's heroines, has a higher tessitura. However, Aida has much more singing to do for the evening!’

Ms. Owens is also unusually attentive to the dramatic nuances that differentiate Freihild and Aida. ‘Character-wise, the similarities are slim between these women. We come upon Freihild at a desperate moment in her life [at which] she is prepared to commit suicide. Once she meets Guntram, her life revolves around him. All she desires is Guntram,’ she says. Aida, on the other hand, is motivated by vastly divergent passions, she intimates. ‘Aida is driven by love for her people, even to betray Radamès—the man she loves. The irony is the ending for both: Aida is reunited with Radamès in death, [but] Freihild must live the remainder of her life without Guntram, instead focusing on helping her people.’ For this discerning singer, simply having the notes in the voice is not sufficient justification for performing a rôle: she must also have the character in her heart and mind, which means that Freihild and Aida are more than grandiose utterances and one of the most cruelly-exposed top Cs in opera.

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Sopranos MARJORIE OWENS in the title rôle (right) and Joanna Mongiardo as Naiad (left) in Richard Strauss's ARIADNE AUF NAXOS at Boston Lyric Opera in 2010 [Photo by Jeffrey Dunn, © by Boston Lyric Opera]Es gibt ein Reich: Sopranos Marjorie Owens in the title rôle (right) and Joanna Mongiardo as the Nymph Naiad (left) in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at Boston Lyric Opera in 2010 [Photo by Jeffrey Dunn, © by Boston Lyric Opera]

Still a young lady, Ms. Owens in nonetheless cognizant of both the challenges of building a long career in dramatic rôles and the responsibilities of sharing her methods of meeting those challenges with the next generation of Strauss singers. For her, the equation that must be used to solve the problems of Strauss rôles is deceptively simple: ‘Advice for a soprano specializing in Strauss = Technique,’ she explains. ‘So much technique! An excellent technique is the basis of all Strauss and Mozart. Without one, it's nearly impossible to get through these types of rôles alive.’ An artist as savvy as Ms. Owens is aware of the ruinous shortcuts that some singers try to take. ‘Singers can perform some repertoire with vocal tricks, but it's impossible in Strauss,’ she states. ‘[Strauss] provides some of the most difficult and beautiful music ever written for sopranos: [the] Kaiserin, Elektra, 4 Last Songs, Daphne. Before a singer can tackle [a] character, she must have the technical chops to sing through the piece.’ She also enjoins budding Straussians to embrace the texts of the composer’s works. ‘Enjoy the German language,’ she encourages, ‘because many of Strauss’s most popular operas were [written] with Hofmannsthal, and the libretti are gorgeous!’ Still, the prime consideration is and must always be the score. Ms. Owens advises, ‘Most importantly, be utterly and completely in love with the music. Strauss may have proclaimed himself a first-class second-rate composer, but his creations definitely prove the contrary!’

From both musical and dramaturgical perspectives, the operas of Richard Strauss are not always perfect, but his writing for the soprano voice is rarely less than magnificent. To adapt the composer’s own expression, first-class second-rate singers can give memorable performances of Strauss’s music, but to hear a rôle like Freihild in Guntram sung by Marjorie Owens is to hear the music as the composer intended it to be sung. Four months after the 1894 première of Guntram, Strauss married Pauline de Ahna: to what expressions of devotion might hearing the opulent voice of Marjorie Owens in his music have inspired him?

Marjorie Owens in represented in the United States by Columbia Artists Management Inc.

Heartfelt thanks to Ms. Owens for taking time from her hectic performance and rehearsal schedules to respond to questions for this profile. Gratitude is also extended to Kendra Rubinfeld of Kendra Rubinfeld PR for her facilitation of this article.

25 February 2015

CD REVIEW: Chamber Music by Ferdinand Ries (NAXOS 8.573193), Sir Charles Villiers Standard (NAXOS 8.573388), & Douglas Lilburn (NAXOS 8.573079)

[1] FERDINAND RIES (1784 – 1838): Sonata in F Major, Op. 8, No. 1; Sonata in C minor, Op. 8, No. 2; and Grande Sonata in F minor, Op. 19Eric Grossman, violin; Susan Kagan, piano [Recorded at Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, New York, USA, 2 – 3 April 2013; NAXOS 8.573193; 1 CD, 77:44; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers; WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDINGS]

[2] SIR CHARLES VILLIERS STANFORD (1852 – 1924): Piano Trio No. 2 in G minor, Op. 73 and Piano Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 15Gould Piano Trio (Lucy Gould, violin; Alice Neary, cello; Benjamin Firth, piano); David Adams, viola [Recorded at Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK, 24 – 26 March 2014; NAXOS 8.573388; 1 CD, 61:23; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

[3] DOUGLAS LILBURN (1915 – 2001): String Quartet in E minor (1946), Duos for Two Violins (1954), String Trio (1945), Canzonettas for Violin and Viola (1942, 1943, 1958), and Phantasy for String Quartet* (1939)—New Zealand String Quartet [Recorded at St Anne’s Church, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 26 – 28 July 2012; NAXOS 8.573079; 1 CD, 72:49; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers; *WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING]

Particularly since 1800, composers of Classical Music have often found their most meaningful and personal modes of expression in chamber music. This is certainly true of Beethoven, whose string quartets are unquestioned masterpieces of their genre as well as works of art in a broader sense that define both the composer’s legacy and the capacity of chamber music to initiate spiritual communication in ways that elude larger musical forms. It is also true of Schumann and Brahms, whose chamber works conjure specters too frail for concerti and symphonies, and the intimately-scaled sonatas and string quartets of Elgar and Delius confront emotions of extraordinary dimensions that must only be whispered, not shouted. Perhaps there is an element of shared peril in chamber music, the small ensembles giving composers, musicians, and audiences few places in which to hide: the prospect of failure is more spectacular when there are no orchestral safety nets. With the pomposity and grandeur of large-scale compositions stripped away, it often seems possible in the context of a chamber work to discern composers’ most profound sensibilities and insecurities. With three superb discs featuring chamber music by Ferdinand Ries, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and Douglas Lilburn, the indefatigably insightful NAXOS label directs listeners’ attention into unfamiliar but richly rewarding niches of chamber music repertory. Spanning nearly a century and a half of musical evolution, these discs explore both the ways in which the sentimental immediacy of chamber music has consistently inspired composers and the infinitely diverse textures they have coaxed from combinations of finite groups of instruments. As so often in recent years, NAXOS recordings here fill a void likely to have remained unoccupied otherwise. Rather than wasting money and artists’—and listeners’—time on new recordings of already over-familiar repertory, why do other labels not follow NAXOS’s lead?

Born in Bonn in 1784, Ferdinand Ries was, like his eventual teacher and fellow Bonn native Beethoven, the product of a musical family. His artistic pedigree was more exalted than Beethoven’s, in fact, but his craftsmanship as a composer was consistently outshone by the glimmer of Beethoven’s genius. As the music on this disc validates, however, Ries was an intelligent, imaginative composer in his own right, and his chamber music deserves attention equal to that granted in the past decade to his oratorios Der Sieg des Glaubens and Die Könige in Israel. Played on this disc by violinist Eric Grossman and pianist Susan Kagan, Ries’s music for their instruments impresses both with its command of early Romantic gestures and the formal elegance of form. The opening Allegro ma non troppo movement of the Sonata in F Major (Op. 8, No. 1) was clearly influenced by Beethoven’s Frühlingssonate, but the younger composer’s originality rapidly emerges. Both in the first movement and in the subsequent Allegretto vivace, Mr. Grossman and Ms. KaCD REVIEW: Ferdinand Ries - THREE SONATAS FOR VIOLIN & PIANO (NAXOS 8.573193gan trade Ries’s melodic lines with consummate virtuosity. The violinist’s beautiful tone and spot-on intonation is heard to advantage in the lovely Larghetto, and both musicians sustain momentum in the contrapuntal writing—more reminiscent of Mozart than of Beethoven—in the concluding Allegretto quasi allegro movement. The Allegro con spirito introduction of the C-minor Sonata (Op. 8, No. 2) is energetically shaped by Mr. Grossman and Ms. Kagan, and the closeness of their collaboration yields magical phrasing in the tranquil Adagio cantabile, the echoes of Beethoven contrasting with a melodic fecundity that brings the chamber music and Lieder of Schubert to mind. Guided by Ms. Kagan’s rock-solid rhythmic accuracy, Mr. Grossman devotes controlled exuberance to the frenzied Allegro scherzando. The majestic Grande Sonata in F minor (Op. 19) traverses musical terrain similar to that roamed in Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata and Carl Maria von Weber’s Opus 63 Trio in G minor. The concentrated melancholy of the Sonata’s Largo espressivo preamble, its starkness almost like the ritornello of a Baroque aria, is touchingly manifested in Mr. Grossman’s and Ms. Kagan’s performance. The Allegro agitato that follows is executed with brilliance by both players, but the pinnacle of their performances on this disc is their expansively-phrased account of the eloquent Andante, a movement in which Ries the pupil attained the distinction of Beethoven the master. The broadly ambivalent Allegro, its development alternating cheerful passages with bars in which the music’s sunny panoramas are obscured by storm clouds, benefits from the musical and dramatic sagacity of Mr. Grossman’s and Ms. Kagan’s partnership. Indeed, this is true of all of the works on this disc: interacting with one another with unaffected coordination and resourcefulness, they provide Ries’s music with performances of the quality necessary to unveil its excellent but long-hidden caliber.

Like Ries before him, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford enjoyed the considerable advantage of being born into a musical family, but whereas Ries lived in the shadow of his great teacher Stanfod was relegated to relative neglect by the success of his pupils. Among composers who studied with Stanford were Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams, the prominence in British musical life of both having undermined Stanford’s reputation as a composer by the first decade of the Twentieth Century, but the Dublin-born Stanford was recognized by many of his contemporaries as a significant artist. Owing both to his formative musical and to natural inclinations, his inherent tastes were for the works of Schumann and Brahms, and his chamber music, though disclosing attractive individuality, largely adheres to the models of his German idols. Still, Stanford’s Piano Trio No. 2 in G minor (Op. 73) is an unique, cleverly-conceived piece. The musicians of the Gould Piano Trio—violinist Lucy Gould, cellist Alice Neary, and pianist Benjamin Frith—revel in the unabashed tonal conservatism of the music, bolstering Stanford’s foursquare melodic structures with sharply-defined realizations of his Romantic but restrained harmonic proCD REVIEW: Sir Charles Villiers Stanford - PIANO TRIO NO. 2 & PIANO QUARTET NO. 1 (NAXOS 8.573388)gressions. The composer clearly learned from Brahms’s example that adherence to basic forms can be liberating, and the tight structure of the trio’s Allegro moderato movement does not inhibit a sweeping largesse of expression. The musicians maintain accuracy of ensemble throughout the performance without sacrificing fluidity, and their playing of the slightly saccharine Andante maximizes the music’s effectiveness by avoiding over-accentuation of the academic nature of the thematic development. The tempestuous Presto is robustly delivered, and the playing of the final Larghetto – Allegro con fuoco is marked by sensitivity to the ambiguity of both the tempi and the harmonic patterns. The Gould Piano Trio’s players are joined by violist David Adams in their performance of the Piano Quartet No. 1 in F (Op. 15), the Allegro con brio drawing from all four players exhibitions of technical wizardry and first-rate musical teamwork. In the Scherzo, allegro vivace movement, their dedication to scrupulous observation of the composer’s markings does not preclude uncomplicated enjoyment of the music. The lyricism of the Poco adagio is highlighted by the musicians’ attention to blending their instrumental timbres, and they are unafraid of caressing phrases in an effort to expose the full spectrum of Stanford’s subtle ingenuity. The Quartet ends with an Allegro con brio movement of an almost rigidly celebratory nature, the work’s conclusion only begrudgingly granted a smile. Guided by Ms. Gould’s sure-toned playing, which is never marred by the excessive vibrato often heard in music of this vintage, the musicians fashion an unpretentious but revelatory performance. Fortunately and, considering the composer’s reputation as a better pedagogue than practitioner, rather unexpectedly, Stanford’s music exudes those same qualities. Even great celestial bodies are apt to be eclipsed, after all.

Douglas Lilburn was one of New Zealand’s greatest artists of the Twentieth Century and a composer whose ambitious but approachable music still awaits the recognition it deserves beyond Oceania. It seems counterintuitive that isolationism in the Arts could persist in a civilization defined by globalization and widespread cultural assimilation, but how else can the unfamiliarity in North America with a composer of Lilburn’s talents be explained? The performances on this disc by the New Zealand String QuartetHelene Pohl (first violin), Douglas Beilman (second violin), Gillian Ansell (viola), and Rolf Gjelsten (cello)—should leave no doubts in the minds of listeners about the enduring value of Lilburn’s music and the heartfelt earnestness of musicians’ response to it. The String Quartet in E minor (1946) is a fine work, its language that of a decidedly Twentieth-Century but singularly prepossessing voice. The New Zealand String Quartet’CD REVIEW: Douglas Lilburn - COMPLETE CHAMBER MUSIC FOR STRINGS (NAXOS 8.573079)s playing of the Andante first movement immediately initiates a glowingly lyrical ambiance, sustained by the musicians’ compact ensemble. The pithy imagery of the Allegretto and Allegro movements tests the limits of conventional string timbres, but the players answer the composer’s challenges with unflappable mastery. In his Duos for Two Violins (1954), Lilburn transports the listener to the peerless landscapes of New Zealand, evoking scenes familiar from his own youth. The Andante con moto receives from Ms. Pohl and Mr. Beilman a strong but shrewd performance, and the sequence of Allegro, Andante, Allegro, Lento, and Allegramente episodes flows like a mountain stream, shaped with crystalline grace by Ms. Pohl and Mr. Beilman. The String Trio (1945) was the first chamber work by a New Zealand-born composer published beyond that country’s borders, and the rapt sophistication of the performance on this disc verifies the music’s worthiness of that distinction. Ms. Pohl, Ms. Ansell, and Mr. Gjelsten insightfully differentiate the Allegro non troppo, Allegretto, and Allegro movements, inviting recognition of Lilburn’s unorthodox but reverent obeisance to Schubert. Composed in 1942, 1943, and 1958, the Canzonettas for Violin and Viola—Semplice, Andante semplice, and, simply, III—are endearing pseudo-Elizabethan miniatures, here played with the piquant sensibilities that might be devoted to performances of music for viol consort by Byrd or Lawes. An early work, the 1939 Phantasy for String Quartet is a predictably rhapsodic piece, patterned after Jacobean music. The New Zealand String Quartet players excavate the lodes of originality with which the composer anchored the work. Advocacy for Lilburn’s music is apparent in every track on this disc, but the performances are most admirable for the high artistic standards from which they never deviate.

Stylistically, the chamber works of Ferdinand Ries, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and Douglas Lilburn are worlds apart, but these three exemplary NAXOS recordings again remind listeners that music has the peculiar ability to unite composers, musicians, and audiences of all eras and generations. Ries could not surpass his teacher, Stanford was upstaged by his students, and Lilburn has not yet managed to completely overcome nationalistically-motivated skepticism, but the performances on these discs make no excuses for the trio of forsaken composers and their music: every artist involved, both musical and technical, approaches these works merely as well-crafted music that deserves to be heard. Indeed, these are discs that deserve to be heard often.

24 February 2015

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – LA FORZA DEL DESTINO (G. Brouwenstijn, R. Tucker, A. Protti, N. Scott, M. Dunn; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0310)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - LA FORZA DEL DESTINO (Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0310)GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): La forza del destino—Gré Brouwenstijn (Leonora), Richard Tucker (Don Alvardo), Aldo Protti (Don Carlo di Vargas), Norman Scott (Padre Guardiano), Mignon Dunn (Preziosilla), Mario Verazzi (Marchese di Calatrava), Giulio Viamonte (Fra Melitone), Růžena Horáková (Curra), Victorio Bacciato (Un alcade), Virgilio Tavini (Mastro Trabucco), Guerrino Boschetti (Un chirurgo); Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Colón; Fernando Previtali, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, Argentina, on 12 August 1960; Walhall Eternity Series WLCD 0310; 2 CDs, 152:26; Available from ClassicsOnline, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

It is hardly surprising that an opera house named in honor of Cristoforo Colombo should have to its credit an adventurous history. If its namesake unknowingly perpetrated a colossal blunder when in 1492 he sailed the ocean blue and landed not in the East but in the West Indies, the occupants of the Teatro Colón have achieved a far higher rate of accuracy in reaching the intended destinations of their operatic voyages. In the ​first seven decades of the Twentieth Century, following the inauguration of the present auditorium in 1908, many of the world's greatest voices regularly filled the extraordinary space​ of the Teatro Colón. Drawn to the theatre in the 1930s by the tireless industriousness and genius of the company's Music Director—and naturalized Argentine—Erich Kleiber, their presence made Buenos Aires a south-of-the-Equator Mecca for performances of the operas of Wagner and Richard Strauss. The music of Giuseppe Verdi also flourished along the banks of the Río de la Plata, perhaps never more memorably than in the performance of La forza del destino on 12 August 1960. Recordings of this performance have circulated on small labels for years, but Walhall Eternity Series’ edition enables greater appreciation of the Teatro Colón’s legendary acoustics and places the listener to a prime seat in the stalls for what in 1960 might have been a typical Forza del destino but in 2015 is a sensational one.

This 1960 performance subjected Verdi’s scores to the cuts that were standard at that time, but uncut performances of La forza del destino remain at least as rare as good ones. Paced by Fernando Previtali with the cumulative dramatic impetus familiar from his RCA [later issued by DECCA] studio recording, the performance bristles with danger and daring. Having studied in his native Italy with noted composer Franco Alfano, now best known—rather unfairly—for having completed the final scene of Puccini’s Turandot, and the gifted conductor Vittorio Gui, Maestro Previtali followed in Erich Kleiber’s footsteps during the 1960s as the Teatro Colón’s Music Director. In this performance, the theatre’s choral and orchestral forces follow his beat committedly, launching the opera with an energizing account of its celebrated Overture. Thereafter, choristers and instrumentalists respond to both Maestro Previtali’s and Verdi’s demands with concentration and conviction, and the sound quality of the recording is adequate to permit admiration for the results that they achieve.

​A particular hallmark of ​the Teatro Colón’s productions in the 1950s and '60s was, to the extent that can be discerned from broadcasts and pirated recordings of the period, their amalgamations of the ranks of local artists with the rosters of visiting ‘star’ singers in coherent casts that frequently possessed the now-defunct camaraderie of a true company. Like Sir Rudolf Bing at the contemporaneous MET, Teatro Colón management fostered the refinement of native-born talent, capitalizing on the boons of wartime immigration to Argentina. In this performance, the singers of supporting rôles highlight the great success of the Teatro Colón in surrounding principals with voices of quality that enhanced the impact of a production. A frequent participant in Buenos Aires performances of this vintage, Guerrino Boschetti is in this Forza del destino a thoroughly capable Surgeon, his brief part sung solidly, and Victorio Bacciato is similarly effective as the Alcade. The muleteer Mastro Trabuco receives from Virgilio Tavini a broadly charming portrayal, and Mario Verazzi is a firm-toned, suitably gruff Marchese di Calatrava whose exchanges with his impressionable daughter suggest true paternal concern. Růžena Horáková has less to do as Curra but is no less involved with her rôle or successful in making her mark on the performance.

Throughout a long and fascinating career, Tennessee-born mezzo-soprano Mignon Dunn was one of opera’s most versatile artists. In 1983, she was a thrillingly authoritative Laura in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda at the MET, and four years later she was a stirring La Cieca in the same opera—a rôle that she also sang in New York in the early years of her career—in Chicago, where she gave an outstanding account of the famed ‘Voce di donna.’ She was capable of snatching the laurels away from Manrico and Leonora as Azucena in Verdi’s Il trovatore, seeming to scorch the ground upon which she walked as Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin, and fully inhabiting the bizarre domain of the Amme in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Singing Preziosilla in Buenos Aires, she leaves a memorable impression. As performed at the Colón, Preziosilla’s only real opportunity to engage the audience is in the Act Two scene ‘Al suon del tamburo,’ but Ms. Dunn seizes it with the sure grasp of a consummate stage animal. Dramatically, she brings more dignity to Preziosilla than many singers have done: vocally, she enriches the performance with singing even finer than the music merits.

The resident Franciscans, Fra Melitone and Padre Guardiano, are sung with contrasting wit and world-weariness by Giulio Viamonte and Norman Scott. In this performance, the two characters are more than usually depicted as competing facets of a single archetype, conforming with Verdi’s oft-documented distrust of clergy and the Church. Mr. Viamonte’s singing of Melitone’s ‘Auf!... Pazienza non v'ha che basti’ in Act Four is amusing without being marred by excessive foolishness. Tragically, Mr. Scott’s career was ended by his death at the age of forty-seven only eight years after this performance. Here, his singing of Padre Guardiano displays what a loss his untimely passing was to opera. In his scenes in Act Two, he envelops Guardiano’s music with burnished, steady tone, comforting Leonora and placating his brethren. His phrasing of ‘Sull'alba il piede all'eremo’ and ‘Il santo nome’ is magisterial, and the humanity of his voicing of ‘Non imprecare; umiliati’ in Act Four heightens the tension of the opera’s conclusion. Memorably portrayed by great basses including Tancredi Pesaro, Ezio Pinza, Giulio Neri, Jerome Hines, Boris Christoff, and Cesare Siepi, Padre Guardiano is one of the most difficult of Verdi’s bass rôles to bring off with dramatic credibility: Mr. Scott manages to do so while also singing the music expertly.

Cremona-born baritone Aldo Protti celebrated his fortieth birthday less than a month before this performance, which found him on career-best vocal form. His experience in La forza del destino included performances opposite the Leonoras of Renata Tebaldi, Leyla Gencer, and Anita Cerquetti, and in this performance his ​Don Carlo di Vargas is again a sonorous brother to a delicate, womanly Leonora. Mr. Protti brings unflagging strength to ‘Son Pereda, son ricco d'onore’ in Act Two, and his Carlo joins Alvaro in a thrilling performance of ‘Solenne in quest’ora.’ Carlo’s great aria in Act Three, ‘Urna fatale del mio destino,’ is sung with ringing tone, and the subsequent ‘È salvo! oh gioia immensa’ erupts with vigor and irony. Especially in America, where his nine performances as a member of the Metropolitan Opera company twenty-five years after this Buenos Aires La forza del destino were all as Rigoletto, Mr. Protti was overshadowed by Leonard Warren, Ettore Bastianini, Robert Merrill, and, in the latter days of his career, Sherrill Milnes. This performance exhibits the level of singing of which Mr. Protti was capable: first-rate diction, firm, virile tone and magnificent high notes make his Carlo an impersonation worthy of comparison with the best ever recorded.

​Richard Tucker sang Don Alvaro at the Metropolitan Opera in February and March 1960 alongside Leonie Rysanek, Lucine Amara, and Renata Tebaldi, including the ill-starred 4 March performance in which Leonard Warren died on the MET stage, and returned to the rôle at the Colón in August 1961, when his Leonora was Floriana Cavalli, and at the MET in the 1961 - '62 Season, partnered by Eileen Ferrell, Mary Curtis-Verna, and Lucine Amara. Having also recorded the part in studio opposite both Maria Callas and Leontyne Price and shared the stage with perhaps the greatest Leonora of the Twentieth Century, Zinka Milanov, Mr. Tucker was a veteran Alvaro who knew his way round the music and the drama. He is an ardent lover in Act One, his singing of ‘Ah, per sempre, o mio bell'angiol’ phrased with fervor. Not surprisingly, however, the pinnacle of his performance is his account of Alvaro’s aria in Act Three, ‘O tu che in seno agli angeli.’ The Italianate morbidezza of Mr. Tucker’s voicing of the aria—one of Verdi’s most difficult—is gripping, his unsubtle but logical phrasing lending the aria tremendous theatrical power. He also spars excitingly with Mr. Protti’s Carlo in ‘Solenne in quest'ora,' as well as in their confrontation in Act Four, ‘Le minacce, i fieri accenti.’ Despite the importance of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation to opera in the United States, beyond the great tenor’s native shores his name, never as familiar to non-American ears as those of del Monaco, Corelli, and Bergonzi, seems in danger of being forgotten. The singer capable of portraying an Alvaro as riveting as the one who dominates the performance on these discs should be honored in every heart and household where opera finds a home.

​Unlike her Don Alvaro in this performance, who was from the time of his MET début​ in 1945 until his death in 1975 a powerful presence in Verdi rôles, Gré Brouwenstijn is best remembered not for her work in Italian repertory but for her Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio and her Wagnerian portrayals at Bayreuth and elsewhere. At London's Royal Opera House, however, she was acclaimed as Aida (the rôle of her Covent Garden début), Leonora in Il trovatore (in which part she was first heard at the Holland Festival), Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Desdemona in Otello, and Elisabetta di Valois in Don Carlo. Never heard at the MET, Ms. Brouwenstijn was introduced to America by performances with San Francisco Opera and in Chicago, where she sang the title rôle of Janáček's Jenůfa, and she was particularly appreciated in her native Netherlands as Puccini's Tosca. Though she lacked the mesmerizing pianissimi of Milanov and the opulent tones of Tebaldi, Ms. Brouwenstijn's effectiveness as Leonora in La forza del destino is confirmed by both this performance and an existing recording of a 1962 performance in which she held her own against another American Don Alvaro, Jan Peerce. In Buenos Aires, her singing in Act One is distinguished by a beguiling femininity, Leonora’s tense conversation with her father, the Marchese, juxtaposing the character’s initial timidity with burgeoning resolve. She phrases ‘Me pellegrina ed orfana’ with grace, and she is a rare Leonora who sounds both grief-stricken over her father’s death and consumed by love for Alvaro. The sincerity with which Ms. Brouwenstijn limns Leonora’s repentance in Act Two is very touching, and she unravels threads of shimmering tone in ‘Se voi scacciate questa pentita’ and the inexpressibly beautiful ‘La vergine degli angeli.’ Though so much exquisite music comes before it, the great test of any Leonora’s credentials is her Act Four aria ‘Pace, pace, mio Dio; cruda sventura,’ and in this performance it is a trial from which Ms. Brouwenstijn emerges triumphant. The relative leanness of her timbre is a decided asset, permitting greater mobility in Verdi’s arching melodic lines than heavier voices can manage. There are depths of tenderness and tranquil acceptance in Ms. Brouwenstijn’s singing of the opera’s final scene. She is a singer who is expected to always be effective in whichever rôle she happens to be singing, but in this performance she is far more than that: she is a Leonora of azure-hued Dutch porcelain rather than boldly-colored Murano glass, but she shares with Caniglia, Milanov, Tebaldi, and Leontyne Price the ability to extract from Verdi’s music the marrow of a hauntingly alluring characterization.

La forza del destino is a difficult score. Its plot is often in danger of seeming trite, but in the hands of singers and conductors who take their parts at face value, trusting Verdi rather than seeking external, anachronistic psychological contexts for the opera, it can prove to be one of the composer’s most ravishingly poignant creations. Certainly, the music is sublime, and it is the quality of the music that is most apparent in this performance from the Teatro Colón. Facing ferocious competition from studio recordings and famous broadcasts, this may not be a ‘desert island’ Forza del destino, but it is one that shames the poor singing, lackluster conducting, and sorry production values of too many of today’s performances of the opera. Clichéd as the assertion may seem, this is a performance of La forza del destino that throbs with a genuine distillation of the force of destiny.

IN REVIEW: American bass NORMAN SCOTT, Padre Guardiano in Teatro Colón's LA FORZA DEL DESTINO, photographed as Colline in Puccini's LA BOHÈME at the Metropolitan Opera [Photo by Sedge LeBlang, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Glorious Guardiano: American bass Norman Scott, Padre Guardiano in Teatro Colón’s 1960 La forza del destino, photographed as Colline in Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958 [Photo credited to Louis Mélançon but seemingly the work of Sedge LeBlang, © The Metropolitan Opera]

22 February 2015

ARTS IN ACTION: Washington Concert Opera reviving Richard Strauss rarity GUNTRAM

ARTS IN ACTION: Composer RICHARD STRAUSS at the time of the 1894 première of his opera GUNTRAM, scheduled for performance by Washington Concert Opera on 1 March 2015Junge Genius: Richard Strauss at the time of the 1894 première of his first opera Guntram, scheduled for performance by Washington Concert Opera on 1 March 2015

Those who attended the 1894 Weimar première of Richard Strauss’s first opera, Guntram, likely surmised that they were hearing the work of a talented disciple of Richard Wagner but might never have suspected that they were witnessing the artistic birth of, as he introduced himself to the American liberators of his beloved Garmisch in 1945, der Komponist von Rosenkavalier—the composer of Der Rosenkavalier. With his first great tone poem, Tod und Verklärung, behind him, the young Strauss’s development as a composer was at a crossroads at the time of his work on Guntram. Having discarded the ethics of Schopenhauer in favor of the philosophical grandiloquence of Nietzsche, the not-yet-thirty-year-old Strauss infused his score for Guntram with thematic ideas that would recur four years later in the monumental tone poem Ein Heldenleben. Despite the near-disastrous reception that the opera received in 1894, the composer’s lingering affection for his freshman effort for the stage was confirmed by his return to Guntram in 1940, when he substantially revised and shortened the score. The lingering suspicion of the score among Twenty-First-Century musicians and audiences was revealed by its inexplicable absence from celebrations of the sesquicentennial of Strauss’s birth in 2014: among countless productions of the familiar operas, the seldom-performed Feuersnot and Intermezzo received performances and recordings, but Guntram continued to hide in the shadows cast by his Straussian siblings, represented by only three concert performances at Dresden’s Semperoper. That omission will be rectified in part on 1 March 2015, when Washington Concert Opera will present a concert performance of Guntram in Lisner Auditorium on the campus of The George Washington University. Fielding a superb cast of singers lauded for combining vocal power with tonal beauty under the experienced baton of the company’s Artistic Director Antony Walker, Washington Concert Opera again offers District-area audiences an opportunity to make the acquaintance of a neglected score and, in this case, gives attentive ears the chance to listen for the seeds that ultimately flowered in Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau ohne Schatten.

ARTS IN ACTION: Conductor and Washington Concert Opera Artistic Director ANTONY WALKER, who will lead the company's performance of Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Bridget Elliot, © by Pinchgut Opera]The Man with the Plan: Sydney-born conductor Antony Walker, Artistic Director of Washington Concert Opera, will lead the company's performance of Richard Strauss's Guntram on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Bridget Elliot, © by Pinchgut Opera]

Washington Concert Opera’s performance will utilize Strauss’s 1940 edition of the score, which also served as the basis for the opera’s only other known performance in the United States, a 1983 concert performance in Carnegie Hall by the Opera Orchestra of New York featuring German tenor Reiner Goldberg in the title rôle and Hungarian soprano Ilona Tokody, with whom OONY’s Music Director Eve Queler also made a studio recording of Guntram for Sony/CBS Masterworks. While preferring Strauss’s later, tightened version of the score, Maestro Walker is sensitive to the demands that Guntram makes on conductor, cast, orchestra, and audience. ‘One of the biggest challenges in conducting Guntram is that although it is very Wagnerian in language in many passages, Strauss’s use of the orchestra to accompany the singers is less transparent and heavier than Wagner's writing,’ he says. ‘I will have to be very careful with balancing the orchestra with the singers. Fortunately, in concert the singers are in front of the orchestra, and in Lisner the orchestra is seated behind the proscenium. The combination of both these facts makes the balance between singers and orchestra a little easier!’

Likewise, Maestro Walker is attentive not only to the significance of Guntram in Strauss’s artistic evolution but to the opera’s place in the transition of large-scaled musical forms from the lush tonalism of the Nineteenth Century to the more sinewy idioms of the Twentieth Century. ‘Guntram is an intensely lyrical work, with sweeping vocal lines and beautiful orchestral textures,’ the conductor muses. ‘I hope our audience falls in love Strauss's luscious and luxurious vocal and orchestral lines: a language that is the fullest expression of late 19th Century Romanticism and on the cusp of the modernism of the early 20th Century. As one experiences Guntram,’ he suggests, ‘one can listen for Wagnerian influences, echoes of Strauss's early tone poems Macbeth, Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration, as well as [reminding] oneself that this work was [introduced] in 1894, the same year as Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faun, Massenet's Thaïs, Mahler's 2nd Symphony, and a year after Verdi's Falstaff, Humperdinck's Hänsel and Gretel, and Puccini's Manon Lescaut—a fascinating period of transition in Classical Music!’

As is typical of Washington Concert Opera performances, the company’s Guntram will benefit from the participation of a cast of singers ideally-chosen for their parts: Kansas-born tenor Robert Dean Smith in the title rôle, soprano Marjorie Owens—a recent Metropolitan Opera débutante—as Freihild, acclaimed Wagnerian baritone Tom Fox as Der alte Herzog, Annapolis native baritone Zachary Nelson as Herzog Robert, and Chinese bass Wei Wu as Friedhold.

ARTS IN ACTION: Tenor ROBERT DEAN SMITH, Guntram in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Richard Strauss's first opera on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Todd Smith, © by Robert Dean Smith]Heil, Minnesinger: Tenor Robert Dean Smith, who will sing the title rôle in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Todd Smith, © by Robert Dean Smith]

One of America’s most celebrated singers of the punishing Wagner and Strauss repertories for tenor, Robert Dean Smith recently garnered praise for his singing of another of opera’s most daunting tenor parts, the title rôle in Verdi’s Otello, in a performance recorded by NAXOS [reviewed here]. In contemplating his preparations to sing Guntram, Mr. Smith is quick to dismiss the notion suggested by tenors of the past that singing Verdi’s Otello is, in vocal terms, a game-changer. ‘In no way does singing Otello alter my "approach" to Guntram—or any other rôle, for that matter,’ he says. ‘It does give me another unique experience that affects ALL of the rôles I sing. Every rôle has specific vocal demands necessitating the application of a correct singing technique so that Verdi will sound like Verdi, Wagner like Wagner, and so on. With each new rôle, with each performance, and also with each rehearsal, I have a mindset for wanting to develop artistically and vocally, improving the ability for expression and communication of the music.’ This mindset is especially crucial in approaching Strauss’s Guntram, he feels, owing to the character’s innate musicality, a quality that surely inspired the composer, perhaps even in a covertly autobiographical sense. ‘Guntram is a singer, like Tannhäuser and, to some extent, Walther in Meistersinger,’ Mr. Smith states. ‘I always find it a pleasant challenge to "sing" as a character on stage. Guntram is one of the good guys, although he does kill, albeit in self-defense. His love of nature, his generosity, and sense of duty are the positive qualities I would like to bring out as much as possible.’

ARTS IN ACTION: Baritone TOM FOX sings der alte Herzog in Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM with Washington Concert Opera on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Alex John Beck, © by CAMI]Der kluge Staatsmann: Baritone Tom Fox, Der alte Herzog in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Alex John Beck, © by CAMI]

Like Mr. Smith, Tom Fox chooses to focus primarily not on the musical pedigree of his rôle in Guntram, Der alte Herzog, but on the character’s dramatic specificity. ‘Well, certainly [he] is not patterned after Alberich [a rôle in which Mr. Fox has excelled at the Metropolitan Opera, both in Siegfried and in Götterdämmerung] or Klingsor, [but there] could be a tad of Telramund in there,’ he confides, ‘but those are all Wagner Böse rôles. I feel [that] Strauss was nearing King Marke in Tristan with the alte Herzog. The rôle of Robert seems more along the same type as Alberich, but Strauss was too young when he composed this piece to grasp the psychology of Wagner’s tremendous vocal writing for those rôles. Certainly—for me, at least—Strauss later followed his own path in his vocal writing, acknowledging the influence of Wagner along the way.’ Mr. Fox, whose Vodník in North Carolina Opera’s semi-staged performance of Dvořák’s Rusalka [reviewed here] was a marvel of intelligent, understated characterization, is keenly aware of the inconsistencies in Strauss’s depiction of the alte Herzog and the resulting difficulties in making the character one with whom an audience can sympathize. ‘Actually finding and settling on an interpretation [means] not giving too much weight to the lack of dramaturgy in Strauss’s libretto,’ he remarks. ‘I don’t find any sympathy for Robert in the story, so why is the alte Herzog so embittered at the death of an abusive son-in-law?’ Thinking further about his insightful understanding of the rôle, Mr. Fox adds, ‘That being said, I let Strauss’s composition guide me. His orchestration in the Funeral Aria exhibits tremendous pathos for the old man and his falling-apart empire—hence “become the old man suffering loss and equating everything with his supposed glorious past.” This helps motivate the rage that I feel the part demands at the end. The beginning of the rôle shows the Herzog’s love for his daughter and his acceptance of the Minnesinger Guntram.’

ARTS IN ACTION: Soprano MARJORIE OWENS, who will sing Freihild in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Devon Cass, © by CAMI]Rôle fit for a bride: Soprano Marjorie Owens, Freihild in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Devon Cass, © by CAMI]

The rôle of Freihild was originated by soprano Pauline de Ahna, who four months after the first performance of Guntram became Frau Strauss. Washington Concert Opera’s performance will feature one of the very few sopranos in the world with experience in Strauss’s first opera. Having sung Freihild in the three Dresden performances in 2014, Marjorie Owens comes to Washington after having rung in 2015 with her Metropolitan Opera début as Verdi’s Aida [in which role she alternated, incidentally, with another Washington Concert Opera alumna, Tamara Wilson]. She was, in fact, the Strauss soprano par excellence at the Semperoper in 2014, her celebration of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth having encompassed, in addition to Freihild in Guntram, performances of the title rôles in Ariadne auf Naxos, which she also sang with great distinction in Fort Worth in 2013, and Daphne. Another great Straussian, Dame Gwyneth Jones, paid homage to Pauline de Ahna in a performance piece entitled Die Frau im Schatten (The Woman in the Shadow), noting that the soprano’s influence over her husband was more heard than seen by the public. Her influence was extraordinary, however, and the quality of Strauss’s music for Freihild is indicative of the power that the soprano exerted over the composer. Mr. Smith likened Strauss’s characterization of Guntram to Wagner’s portrayal of the title character in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and comparisons between Elisabeth in the same opera and Elsa in Lohengrin with Strauss’s Freihild are similarly apt. Elisabeth is another part in which Ms. Owens has excelled in Dresden, solidifying her qualification to sing Freihild with unimpeachable musical and dramatic authority.

It seems that virtually every important German-speaking composer of opera has to his credit at least one score that languishes in obscurity. Even amidst the increased scrutiny of the Baroque revival of recent decades, infrequently-performed Händel operas are numerous. Beyond Salzburg, how many audiences have heard Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus, Ascanio in Alba, or La finta semplice? Having only one player in the game spares Beethoven from neglect in the world’s opera houses, but Wagner’s legacy seldom extends to modern performances of Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi. Perhaps even more than any of these scores, Richard Strauss’s Guntram has much to offer the Twenty-First-Century listener. Maestro Antony Walker and Washington Concert Opera have repeatedly proved wonderfully adept at conveying the singular passion and pageantry of opera on the concert stage. Their Guntram is poised to establish our nation’s capital anew as one of the world’s foremost operatic capitals.

To learn more about Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Guntram, please visit the company’s website. Click here or phone 202.364.5826 to purchase tickets.

Sincerest thanks to the artists for their time and frankness in responding to questions for this article. Special thanks, too, to Kendra Rubinfeld of Kendra Rubinfeld PR for her assistance in facilitating the artists’ responses.

21 February 2015

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach – FRENCH SUITES, BWV 812 – 817 (Ignacio Prego, harpsichord; Cantus Records C 9642/43)

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach - FRENCH SUITES, BWV 812 - 817 (Cantus Records C 9642/43)JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750): French Suites, BWV 812 – 817Ignacio Prego, harpsichord [Recorded in La Villa de Ronald, Madrid, Spain, 7 – 9 January 2013; Cantus Records C 9642/43; 2 CDs, 108:17; Available from Cantus Records]

When, where, why, and for whom Johann Sebastian Bach composed many of the works upon the masterful qualities of which his reputation is founded are questions that history and musicological detective work have not yet managed to answer. Whereas Händel’s life and work are documented by a relative wealth of contemporary sources and Mozart’s career is catalogued in his extensive correspondence with his father and other influential personages, today’s understanding of Bach’s industrious artistic progress is in many instances more conjectural than factual. What is known about the splendid sextet of Suites for the harpsichord, BWV 812 – 817, misleadingly termed the French Suites perhaps for no better reason than because early published editions and even Bach himself designated them en français as ‘Suites pour le clavecin,’ raises as many questions as it answers, but the Suites, like almost all of their brethren among Bach’s œuvres, speak for themselves, especially when performed with response to their wonders and respect of their boundaries. Likely composed between 1722 and 1725, during the last years of Bach’s tenure in Köthen and the beginning of his residency in Leipzig, the French Suites are in fact nothing of the sort: though they make liberal use of the French dance forms that were prevalent throughout the first half of the Eighteenth Century, as well as forms popular beyond France, the Suites are for the most part conventionally Italian—as conventional, that is, as any music by Bach could be. Really, it is ridiculous to attempt to force Bach’s Suites into molds: they are, as this delightful recording confirms, intriguing, innovative works that challenge traditions by conforming to them in ways that other composers could never have conceived. This is an attribute that the French Suites share with Haydn’s chamber music and virtually all of the major works of Brahms. In order to play Bach’s music with the sort of immediacy that it demands, a musician must be an innovator who shares the composer’s visionary understanding of the relationships among rhythmic figurations, tonal patterns, and chromatic progressions. Young Spanish harpsichordist Ignacio Prego proves himself to be not only a gifted musician but also a galvanizingly prescient interpreter of the music of Bach.

At the start, it should be said that there is an incredibly magnetic delicacy in Mr. Prego’s playing. Though his keyboard technique is as period-oriented as it could be hoped to be, his is not the dainty, academic approach of historically-informed practitioners who sacrifice feeling in the pursuit of theoretical correctness. What Mr. Prego brings to Bach’s French Suites—music that some modern listeners contend is not suited to performance in concert halls due to the speculative origins of the Suites as pieces for study rather than display—is unabashed expressivity complemented by an instinctive sensitivity to the rhythmic and harmonic nuances of Bach’s style. Anyone who has sat at the keyboard with these scores knows that the composer’s demands are considerable, but Mr. Prego’s playing exhibits an audible spirit of youthful exuberance that makes the music seem unexpectedly spontaneous, like the final movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which in the hands of a great fiddler can be so ebullient that it almost seems to play itself. Mr. Prego never retreats from the less-smiling sentiments in the music, but he merges sunlight and shadows with a faculty that reveals the innate humanity of Bach’s creativity in new and surprising ways. Granted both a recording of acoustical warmth and ambiance engineered and mastered by Federico Prieto and use of a sumptuous-toned 2011 instrument built by Keith Hill in the styles of the Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century French and Flemish harpsichords of Pascal Taskins and the Ruckers family, Mr. Prego provides an exhibition of dizzying virtuosity allied with compelling emotional directness.

Though recent scholarship suggests an earlier genesis for BWV 812, consensus dates the first four French Suites to 1722, when Bach remained in the service of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen. A turbulent time during which his first wife died unexpectedly and he met and married the accomplished soprano Anna Magdalena Wickle, Bach’s Kapellmeistership at the Calvinist Köthen court was an especially fertile period for the composition of instrumental music, including the Brandenburg Concerti, and the first four French Suites display a consistent but inventively-managed employment of the dance rhythms that were a vital element of the development of Bach’s mature idiom. Beginning with the succession of Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande movements, the first four Suites—and the fifth, as well—are evidence of the modes of ingenuity via which Bach differentiated his manipulations of rhythmic formulae according to the moods of the pieces he crafted. Mr. Prego carefully examines the prevailing temper of each Suite and meaningfully conveys it in each phrase. The démodé character of the First Suite in D minor (BWV 812) receives beguilingly courtly treatment from Mr. Prego, whose crisp playing utilizes the harpsichord’s mechanism to maximize the impact of Bach’s sharply-defined rhythms, particularly in the Menuet and Gigue. The lovely Air at the center of the Second Suite in C minor (BWV 813) is affectionately, almost lovingly phrased by Mr. Prego, who energetically darts through the Menuet and Gigue with irrepressible vigor and elegance. Originally identified by Bach as a Gavotte, the Anglaise—a dance very similar in essence to the Gavotte—in the Third Suite in B minor (BWV 814) benefits from the consistency of Mr. Prego’s natural rendering of cadences, and here, too, the concluding Menuet and Gigue are delivered with irresistible charm. Building upon the strengths of his traversals of the opening Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande, the Gavotte and Air in the Fourth Suite in E-flat Major (BWV 815) are radiantly played, and the Menuet and Gigue bustle with élan.

Speculated to be products of the time spanning Bach’s transition from the Köthen court to his assumption of duties as Kantor in Leipzig, the final pair of French Suites represent a subtle shift in the composer’s strategic alignment of forms. The Allemande – Courante – Sarabande sequence remains intact, but to the Sixth Suite in E Major (BWV 817) is added an introductory Prélude, played by Mr. Prego with rhapsodic ardor that enlarges the scope of the thematic material without wandering beyond its innate boundaries. The listener who believes that the articulation of motivic devices for dramatic purposes originated with Richard Wagner should make the acquaintance of the French Suites, especially as Mr. Prego performs them. Bach was an early master of assembling very different musical garments with noticeably similar threads, and Mr. Prego finesses every seam in his confident negotiation of the Fifth Suite in G Major (BWV 816). Though the Suites are presented on disc in an order that illuminates the metamorphosis of Bach’s craft rather than consecutively, Mr. Prego manages to subtly contrast the like movements of the Fifth and Sixth Suites—the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, and Gavotte—while also disclosing the complementary textures of each movement. The Bourée, Loure, and Gigue of the Fifth Suite are revealed to be close relatives of the Menuet Polonais, Bourée, Gigue, and Petit Menuet of the Sixth Suite. Mr. Prego does not make conspicuous efforts to cause the movements to ‘sound different,’ as it were: as a truly great conductor can highlight the manner in which each of Mahler’s Symphonies is to an appreciable extent an independent entity within a startlingly coherent, cumulative whole, Mr. Prego dedicates to his playing of the French Suites cognitive grasps of each phrase and its significance in its movement, its Suite, and the French Suites collectively.

Many of the most renowned harpsichordists of the past half-century have recorded their interpretations of Bach’s French Suites, and many of these interpretations possess idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies that intrude between the music and the listener’s complete appreciation of it. Ignacio Prego brings to his performances of the French Suites on these discs a modernity that, being absolutely free of artifice, is marvelously compatible with Bach’s contrapuntal genius. The mistake that many talented musicians make in playing Bach’s music is modeling their performances as lectures on topics grander than the music itself. With this recording of the French Suites, Ignacio Prego reminds listeners—and, hopefully, fellow musicians, as well—that Bach’s music does not require proselytizing. Excellent music excellently played needs no pedagogical justification.

20 February 2015

ARTS IN ACTION: Sublime soprano JOYCE EL-KHOURY sings to stop bullying

ARTS IN ACTION: Soprano Joyce El-Khoury shines the light of her singing on bullying [Photo © by Kristin Hoebermann; used with permission]Singing for a cause: Soprano Joyce El-Khoury brings her mission to end bullying to Vancouver Opera’s Die Fledermaus [Photo © by Kristin Hoebermann; used with permission]

Even in a world torn by every conceivable stupidity, prejudice, and mischief, it is unfathomable that a woman as intelligent, talented, and beautiful as Joyce El-Khoury could ever have been subjected to bullying. That she was is indicative of the inexplicable, illogical nature of this blight on contemporary society. In conjunction with her appearances as the quick-witted Rosalinde in Johann Strauß II's Die Fledermaus at Vancouver Opera, Ms. El-Khoury adds her glorious voice to the growing chorus striving to forever silence the strident tones of bullying in North America and throughout the world.

'Some of you may know this already,' Ms. El-Khoury recently wrote, 'but I wanted to share something with all of you that is quite personal and present a cause that is very dear to my heart. For most of my childhood and teenage life, I was bullied. Unfortunately, the effects of bullying still affect me daily.' She admits that the scars of bullying continue to trouble her: they are, as she says, ‘something which [she has] worked very hard to overcome.’ As the effects of bullying continue to torment people of all appearances, faiths, genders, orientations, and races, Ms. El-Khoury has resolved to dedicate not only her own energy but the extraordinary power of Art to combatting the hardships endured by countless individuals. ‘I have decided to make it my mission’—an on-going commitment rather than a single act, that is—‘to shed light on bullying and start a dialogue about its short-term and long-term effects,’ she wrote.

When Vancouver Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus opens on 28 February, the audience for that performance will include two individuals whose dedication to ending bullying was rewarded by Ms. El-Khoury’s generosity. Transforming her personal odyssey into a tangible connection with her artistry, Ms. El-Khoury is sponsoring—at her own expense—a prize drawing for a pair of tickets to the opening-night performance. Between now and 5:59 PM PST on 25 February, support Ms. El-Khoury’s initiative and Pink Shirt Day by posting a photograph of yourself wearing an official Pink Shirt Day tee-shirt or any pink shirt on Facebook or Twitter, ‘liking’ and tagging Pink Shirt Day and Ms. El-Khoury in your post to indicate your assistance for this cause. Doing so will enter you in the prize drawing, from the entries in which Ms. El-Khoury will randomly draw the winner’s name on the evening on 25 February. Things as simple as donning a pink shirt and posting a ‘selfie’ on social media could win you a pair of box seats for the 28 February performance of Die Fledermaus with one of the world’s finest singers as Rosalinde!

The company having presented composer Neil Weisensel’s and librettist Shane Koyczan’s Stickboy, an operatic study in the darker recesses of individual psyches and collective humanity, earlier this season, Vancouver Opera is an especially apt setting for Ms. El-Khoury’s generosity. Even Die Fledermaus, which is commonly viewed as a delightful frivolity, has in its light-hearted depictions of disguised identities, marital infidelity, and lifelong grudges elements of unpleasantness that lurk beneath the frothy surface of the music. The moments of unpleasantness in her own life have contributed indelibly to the richness of Ms. El-Khoury’s courageous artistry, and her understanding of the unhappiness that courses beneath Rosalinde’s poised cleverness will make the beauty of her singing of her music all the more meaningful.

Additional Vancouver Opera performances of Die Fledermaus are scheduled for 5, 7, and 8 March.

To learn more about Ms. El-Khoury’s work, both as a singer and an activist for, as she summarizes her efforts, making bullying a thing of the past, please visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

An opera singer’s life invariably requires sacrifices that are hidden from colleagues and audiences; sacrifices that singers themselves sometimes bury deeply within themselves in order to survive the trials of a career in an art form that demands extraordinary concentration in a tremendously distracting world. Joyce El-Khoury is a greater artist for being the same kind, caring lady both on and off the stage, whether she is portraying an ingénue or a queen or working to alleviate the suffering of those who suffer as she suffered. Every bullied child can see in her example and hear in her voice that most precious but most elusive commodity: hope.

ARTS IN ACTION: Soprano Joyce El-Khoury shines the light of her singing on bullying