29 May 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone in concert at ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; 28 May 2015

IN PERFORMANCE: Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone at ArtsQuest at SteelStacks, Bethlehem, PA [Photo from 2014 by the author]Thumbs up to ArtsQuest at SteelStacks: Rich Spina (left, background) and Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone in concert at ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 28 May 2015 [Photo from 2014 by the author]

Musicians and especially those of us who write about music with affection and advocacy are prone to taking ourselves too seriously. Certainly, as a young singer I had the focus of a Nicolai Gedda but the voice of a Florence Foster Jenkins. There are instances in which music is and should be pure and simple fun, however. Performances by Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone are just that: tremendous fun that refuses to leave frowns on the faces of any listeners. The band's concerts are as much reunions as they are musical events, patronized almost anywhere in the world by denizens of the 'Noonatic' fold who have followed the charismatic frontman Peter Noone since Herman's Hermits first topped the charts in the 1960s. Few people in the near-capacity audience on a beautiful late-Spring Thursday evening in the Musikfest Café at ArtsQuest at Steel Stacks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a fantastic, state-of-the-art venue in a converted section of the storied Bethlehem Steel foundry, were thinking critically about the quality of the performance, but the band's dedication to excellence merits consideration. The evening's humor and high spirits did not obscure a consummate professionalism that pervaded even the show's most light-hearted moments. Noone and his band are unwaveringly attentive to keeping musical standards high, but their collective goal is not reaching the last row of Carnegie Hall. Rather, the aim of a Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone performance is to recapture the innocent elation of an era in which ego and the cult of celebrity were only just beginning to edge out true talent. With every musical dart fine-tuned, at ArtsQuest they hit the bullseye.

Listeners hearing Noone 'live' for the first time—or for the first time after a long absence—are apt to be surprised by hearing him sounding in 2015 so similar to how he sounded on records, on television appearances, and in concert in the '60s. A product of a musical family, the Mancunian Noone is the atypical pop star of his era who, after achieving fame with hit records and cinematic rôles, acquired the solid technical foundation that enables him to sing his repertory with the familiar boyish timbre and flair—and in the original keys—heard on his classic records. Noone often jokingly refers to Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone as an ‘Oldies but Goodies’ group, but the regrettable fact is that many of his colleagues from the '60s British Invasion scene can no longer claim the 'goodies' half of that designation. Noone is also quick to remind today's audiences that the gems of the Herman's Hermits songbook were never intended to be musical manifestos laden with symbolism and encoded messages. The songs are uncomplicated, tuneful romps through the concerns of youth, and this is how Noone sings them. That he sings them so captivatingly is evidence of his dedication to his craft and the shrewdness and technical acumen with which he has cared for the voice throughout a career that has taken him not only to every imaginable setting in which Rock 'n Roll is heard but also to Broadway and West End stages.

Following a mostly enjoyable opening set by The Large Flowerheads, Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone took the stage with one of their signature numbers, 'I'm Into Something Good,' embarking on a ninety-minute tour of highlights of the band's catalogue notable for its unflagging energy and toe-tapping musicality. Strong accounts of perennial favorites like 'Leaning on a Lamppost,' 'Can't You Hear My Heartbeat,' 'Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter,' and 'I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am,' illuminated by the sunny timbre of 'Herman himself,' alternated with less-frequently-heard material like the brilliant 'Hold On,' sung with gusto by Noone, whose voice soared in the song's high lines. In every number, Noone received splendid support on guitars and vocals—and spiffy dance moves, as well—from Vance Brescia and Billy Sullivan, both gifted performers and songwriters in their own rights. Brescia's high-kicking stage antics heightened the playful atmosphere of the show, and as both a guitarist and a singer there seems to be almost nothing beyond his abilities. Sullivan's guitar licks have restored some of the defining sounds familiar from the original Herman's Hermits recordings but missing from previous incarnations of Noone's traveling troupe. Also a talented tunesmith, Rich Spina tore into the keyboard riffs in ‘Sea Cruise’ with vigor to rival Jerry Lee Lewis in his prime. The rhythmic heart of the band is native Pennsylvanian Dave Ferrara, who, simply put, is one of the best drummers in the business. It is easy to underestimate drummers' significance to bands until hearing a great one at work, and Ferrara's mastery of the drum kit contributes indelibly to the pulse-quickening vitality of this band's performances.

After offering rollicking traversals of 'Love Potion Number Nine' and 'Wonderful World,' Noone convincingly sharpened the edge of his vocal storytelling in a stirring rendition of the angst-filled ‘A Must to Avoid,' taking the last-stanza modulation in stride. His management of the high tessitura of the ballad ‘Listen, People' was especially confident, and his assured readings of 'Silhouettes,' 'No Milk Today,' and 'The End of the World'—regularly cited as his personal favorite among the many songs recorded by Herman's Hermits—rightfully impressed the audience. In these songs, the wonderful condition of Noone's voice was particularly apparent. Except in terms of increased strength, cultivated through the acquisition of a solid education in the art of husbanding vocal resources, Noone's voice is little touched by time. The sole disappointment of the band's glowing performance of 'There's a Kind of Hush' was that it brought the show to a close.

It is disheartening for those who appreciate music of diverse genres to observe how few of today's recording artists truly warrant having the term artist associated with them in any context. Every era in musical history has had its showmen and its shams, competing artists and peddlers of artifice. Whether in opera or Rock 'n Roll, the performers deemed important artists have rarely been those who merely occupy a space upon a stage and emit streams of perfect tone. The true artist demands perfection of himself and his colleagues, but the essence of artistry is not a pursuit of perfection. There are occasional missed notes and flubbed words in Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone performances. Charlatans blame colleagues' foibles, audience distractions, sound technicians, and a thousand other circumstances of live performances. Peter Noone and his band members revel in sharing with an audience the experience of real, live music, not the clinical perfection of cardboard 'recording artists' who only laugh if doing so is included in their scripts and approved by their PR handlers. Whether hearing Tosca at Covent Garden or Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone at ArtsQuest, a listener can discern musicians who perform in order to repay their mortgages from those for whom performing is a necessary mode of communication. What an artist has to say need not always be deadly serious: no less meritorious are statements of uncomplicated exuberance that temporarily relieve the stresses of lives that are already too serious. Evolved from a pop star into an entertainer of a quality now all too rare, Peter Noone respects audiences too much to rest on his laurels, but he knows his craft too well to sacrifice his love for performing in a quest for phony pomposity. Combining evergreen vocalism with artistry that drew enthusiastic ovations from his ArtsQuest audience, his was a performance that said, 'Let's forget everything for a while and enjoy ourselves!'

IN PERFORMANCE: ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone appeared in concert on 28 May 2015 [Photo from 2014 by the author]Scene of the crime: the Musikfest Café at ArtsQuest Center at SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone appeared in concert on 28 May 2015 [Photo from 2014 by the author]

28 May 2015

CD REVIEW: J. Brandon, D.A. Ciancaglini, D. Farney, & G. Steinke: ELEMENTS - Contemporary Music for Bassoon (Susan Nelson, bassoon; MSR Classics MS 1477)

CD REVIEW: J. Brandon, D.A. Ciancaglini, D. Farney, & G. Steinke - ELEMENTS (MSR Classics MS 1477)JENNI BRANDON (born 1977), DAVID ANGELO CIANCAGLINI (born 1983), DEVIN FARNEY (born 1983), and GREG STEINKE (born 1942): Elements – Contemporary Music for BassoonSusan Nelson, bassoon; Solungga Fang-Tzu Liu, piano; Jennifer Goode Cooper, soprano; Nermis Mieses, oboe; Jeffrey Barudin, marimba; Stephen Miahky and Christina McGann, violin; Matthew Daline, viola; Jacqueline Black, cello [Recorded in the Donnell Theatre, Wolfe Center for the Arts, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, USA, 19 – 21 May and 27 September 2014; MSR Classics MS 1477; 1 CD, 44:43; Available from MSR Classics, Amazon, and major music retailers; WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDINGS]

Each instrument in the modern orchestra has its own unique spectrum of tone, timbre, and interpretive possibilities, but that of the bassoon is truly unlike any other. Its voice can be bumblingly funny or groaningly tragic, and its wide compass facilitates its exceptionally varied use in and beyond chamber, symphonic, and operatic repertories. From the mournful obbligato in Dardano's aria 'Pena tiranna' in Händel’s Amadigi di Gaula, the bravura wizardry of Mozart's K. 191 Concerto, and the playful phrases in Puccini's Act One duet for Tosca and Cavaradossi to crucial lines in Ravel's Boléro and Richard Strauss's 1948 Duet Concertino, one of the composer's final works, the capabilities of the instrument have been constantly expanding since the first Baroque bassoons were produced in the Seventeenth Century. A truly great bassoonist is as rare as truly great music composed for the instrument, but MSR Classics' disc Elements benefits from the presence of both. The four composers whose music is featured on the disc, winners of the 2012 and 2014 Bassoon Chamber Music Composition Competitions, represent groundbreaking trends in contemporary composition for the bassoon. The nucleus of the musical atoms on Elements is bassoonist Susan Nelson, an artist whose musical curiosity is obviously almost as extensive as her talent. In the pieces on Elements, she proves herself the mistress of a wide array of styles and a musician with a tremendous gift for meaningful collaboration. The market overflows with recordings of music old and new for piano and violin, but there still are far too few discs celebrating the bassoon and the music inspired by its singular sound. Elements is hopefully the invigorating first step on a journey of exponentially increased recognition for this magnificent instrument.

David Angelo Ciancaglini's 2012 Seikilos Quartet for Oboe, Bassoon, Marimba, and Piano is a work that exudes imagination and a delightful propensity for reshaping centuries-old traditions with both modern idioms and timeless sensibilities. The composer's command of interweaving the timbres of the very different instruments is fascinating, and the Quartet exhibits a melodic fecundity missing from much Twenty-First-Century music. Nelson's expert playing is matched by the sterling efforts of oboist Dr. Nermis Miese and pianist Dr. Solungga Fang-Tzu Liu, but the 'star' of this piece is Dr. Jeffrey Barudin, who plays the marimba with joy that cascades from every note. Ciancaglini's Quartet is well-crafted music, here very well played. The four musicians interact with one another with every hallmark of a practiced camaraderie, trading phrases with the naturalness of conversation. This, in fact, is the essence of the Quartet: in its interplay of ideas among the instruments, the composer fosters a musical conversation in which each participant has an equal voice.

Completed in 2014, Jenni Brandon's Colored Stones for Solo Bassoon is a work in which simplicity evolves into complexity in unexpected ways. Nelson's unimpeachable rhythmic crispness lends the three movements of Colored Stones sharply-contrasted moods that are nonetheless closely related. The stark figurations of 'Smoky Quartz' receive from Nelson resonant executions, her phrasing and breath control as impressive as those of a great singer. In all three movements but especially in 'Lapis Lazuli,' the influence of Ravel is omnipresent, Brandon's manipulations of chromaticism and Jazz-inflected tonal pattens building upon the foundations laid in scores like Boléro and Daphnis et Chloé. The opalescent striations in the titular gemstone are reflected in 'Tiger's Eye,' and the hypnotic overtones of Nelson's playing are enhanced by the rich hues that she coaxes from her instrument, particularly in the earthy bottom octave. If Ciancaglini's Quartet is a conversation, Brandon's Colored Stones is a cheeky soliloquy worthy of Shakespeare's Beatrice.

A setting of Robert Frost's familiar poem, Devin Farney's 2012 Fire and Ice for Soprano, Bassoon, and Piano reunites Nelson with Liu and introduces soprano Jennifer Goode Cooper. Structurally, the piece is not unlike the highly-stylized French Baroque chamber cantatas by composers like Clérambault. Farney sets Frost's words with attention to unconventional nuances of their meaning, demanding unflagging concentration from both performers and listeners. Cooper’s voice is an ideal conduit for the kinetic energy of Farney's music and Frost's text, her scorching upper register offsetting the frigidity of the poet's imagery. Nelson’s playing is again a fount of elegant virtuosity. Liu's pianism is first-rate: she deals with some tricky writing without upsetting the intelligently-wrought balances among instruments and voice. Frost's poetry is difficult to meld with music because the cadences of the language are often peculiar, but Farney's setting of 'Fire and Ice' and this performance of it illuminate the inherent musicality of the poet's verse.

Dedicated to both the victims and the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, Greg Steinke's 2005 Suspended for Bassoon and Strings was inspired, at least in part, by K'os Naahaabii's 1974 poem with the same title. The acerbic sounds of suffering pierce the instrumental writing, but Steinke quells the tense atmosphere with streams of comforting but strangely disquieting tranquility. Nelson is joined in her evocative performance of Suspended by violinists Stephen Miahky and Christina McGann, violist Matthew Daline, and cellist Jacqueline Black. The string players respond to the music with visceral energy, the elongated strands of the music passing among the instruments with ominous fluidity. Against this backdrop, Nelson's playing has the dramatic force of a voice struggling to be heard in a storm-tossed cacophony. The voice's song, suspended in time, is ultimately one of hope and the power of tiny victories to upend immense tragedies. As played by this quintet of musicians, Suspended is also a reminder of music's faculty for communicating emotions that words simply cannot convey.

In the century-long history of recorded music, each decade has produced a handful of recordings via which the boundaries of instruments have been redefined by exceptional musicians. Joining Casals's and Milstein's Bach, Schnabel's Beethoven, and Segovia's Rodrigo, Susan Nelson enlarges and ennobles her instrument's presence on disc. In the case of Elements, this exceptional musician has opportunities to work not only with gifted colleagues but also with recent compositions that proclaim the bright future for contemporary music and that wonderful woodwind behemoth, the bassoon.

27 May 2015

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - SIMON BOCCANEGRA (D. Hvorostovsky, B. Frittoli, I. Abdrazakov, S. Secco, K. Smoriginas, M. Caria; Delos DE 3457)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - SIMON BOCCANEGRA (DELOS DE 3457)GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Simon BoccanegraDmitri Hvorostovsky (Simon Boccanegra), Barbara Frittoli (Amelia Grimaldi/Maria Boccanegra), Ildar Abdrazakov (Jacopo Fiesco/Andrea Grimaldi), Stefano Secco (Gabriele Adorno), Kostas Smoriginas (Pietro), Marco Caria (Paolo Albiani), Eglė Šidlauskaitė (Ancella), Kęstutis Alčauskis (Capitano); Kaunas State Choir; Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra; Constantine Orbelian, conductor [Recorded at the Kaunas Philharmonic, Kaunas, Lithuania, 1 – 7 August 2013; Delos DE 3457; 2 CDs, 129:55; Available from Delos, ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Whether or not he cares to admit it, every opera lover has a chink in his musical armor in the form of a particular score that for reasons logical or illogical has the ability to penetrate his heart with the accuracy of a well-aimed arrow. Many are the burly men who rush to dry their eyes and still their quivering upper lips before the house lights come up after Mimì or Violetta has expired or Pinkerton has flung his devastating cries of 'Butterfly!' into the theatre. At its core, this is what keeps opera strong. Pretty faces, svelte figures, and eye-pleasing stage pictures appeal to the senses, but the visceral response of a listener to the expression of sung emotions is an experience that absorbs mind, body, and soul. For me, one of the most meticulously-sharpened sentimental arrows in opera is Giuseppe Verdi's​ Simon Boccanegra. The opera's plot is implausible and, even in its most familiar revised form, the score is a flawed work, but these are aspects of Boccanegra’s magic. Opera is an act of suspending belief: if the voices are capable of singing Verdi's music, who cares if the baritone is old, the soprano is ugly, and the tenor is fat? Opera is and will always be the most visual of musical arts, but seeing is not always believing, especially in an opera like Simon Boccanegra, in which characters are not who they appear and claim to be. Premièred in 1857 and substantially revised by Verdi with the collaboration of librettist and fellow composer Arrigo Boito in 1881, Simon Boccanegra is an unique work in which elements of Verdi's early, middle, and late styles are fused. Likewise, a remarkably broad spectrum of emotions vie for supremacy in the drama: Simone's nobility, Fiesco's lust for vengeance, Amelia's innocence, Gabriele's jealousy, Paolo's thirst for power. As in Aida and Don Carlos, public and private interests clash catastrophically in Simon Boccanegra. There are no victors; none, that is, but those who love Verdi's music. Perhaps affection for Simon Boccanegra is a tacit acknowledgement of a certain kinship. After all, how many of us who respond to the opera's singular power—and, indeed, to the power of opera in general—are ourselves without flaws?

Captured in spacious sound with balances that occasionally seem artificial, this recording of Simon Boccanegra reunites several singers who have participated in revivals of the score at New York's Metropolitan Opera. This experience is evident in the performance preserved by Delos. On the podium, Constantine Orbelian presides with the assurance of one who knows and loves the score from cover to cover. He supports the singers instinctively but also neglects none of the oft-overlooked details of Verdi's orchestrations. In response to Orbelian's leadership, the strings of the Kaunas City Symphony often play with intimacy more typical of chamber music, their textures lean but full-bodied. The wind players also take care to blend their tones sonorously, their refinement not inhibiting the unleashing of torrents of sound when Verdi asks for them. The suspense of the Prologue's deceptively alluring opening scene is built to a crashing climax, and the mysterious sound world of Fiesco's great aria is conjured without distortion of the composer's prescribed rhythms. Here, Orbelian's acquaintance with Baroque repertory is beneficial: the ethereal atmosphere of Händel's Orlando is surprisingly close at hand. The very different moods of the successive duets in Act One are subtly but unmistakably limned by conductor and orchestra, and the monumental architecture of the Council Chamber scene is grandly but not excessively highlighted. Particularly in the Prologue and Act One, the singing of the Kaunas State Choir is an integral component of the success of Orbelian's approach to the score. The raw power of the choristers' singing in the public scenes is complemented by the carefully-managed blending of voices, especially in passages in which they are heard from offstage. Orchestra and chorus collaborate with Orbelian with the naturalness of friends assembled to make music for their own enjoyment. The conductor's tempi enable soloists, choristers, and instrumentalists alike to focus on giving of their best. Numbers like the magnificent duet for Simone and Amelia in Act Two are granted appealing lyrical flexibility but are not allowed to wallow in sentimentality. The prevailing qualities of this performance, shared by conductor, orchestra, and chorus, are unforced musicality and good sense.

In addition to the wonderful Kaunas orchestra and chorus, three native Lithuanian artists make valuable contributions to this performance of Simon Boccanegra. As Amelia's maid, mezzo-soprano Eglė Šidlauskaitė sings warmly and manages to convey sisterly concern despite the brevity of her part. Tenor Kęstutis Alčauskis is a flinty, strong-voiced Capitano, his proclamation of 'Cittadini! per ordine del Doge s'estinguano le faci e non s'offenda col clamor del trionfo i prodi estinti' in Act Three ringing with martial authority. Baritone Kostas Smoriginas is a stirringly incisive Pietro, a conspirator with a misguided but not unredeemable heart. The character is perhaps bullied by Paolo, but there is nothing weak about Smoriginas’s vocalism. Moreover, he displays considerable dramatic intelligence that marks him as a young singer to watch.

As portrayed by baritone Marco Caria, the wicked Paolo Albiani is a demonic fellow made all the more dangerous by how attractive he makes evil sound. In the opera’s Prologue, he voices the Allegro moderato 'L'atra magion vedete?.. de' Fieschi è l'empio ostello' with reptilian slyness, and he conducts his seditious affairs with solid intonation and unrelenting intensity. In the Act Two duet with Fiesco, he voices 'Me stesso ho maledetto!' vigorously. There are no regret or remorse in this Paolo as he is led to his well-deserved execution except for those of a man who has not accomplished as much mischief as he might have done. Caria's, too, is a name to remember.

Musically and dramatically, Jacopo Fiesco is one of Verdi's most demanding rôles for bass. Fiesco's hatred for Boccanegra has transformed him from a pillar of Genovese society into a broken man capable only of plotting revenge. Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov gives the character an innate dignity that fosters a measure of sympathy for the old man. His scene and aria in the Prologue, 'A te l'estremo addio, palagio altero' and 'Il lacerato spirito del mesto genitore era serbato a strazio d'infamia e di dolore,' constitute one of Verdi’s most exquisite inspirations. Abdrazakov enunciates the recitative with great focus, and he phrases the aria eloquently. The concluding low F♯ lacks resonance, and his lowest notes are the weakest part of his singing throughout the performance. He unsparingly trades jabs with Boccanegra in their scene, and he haunts the Prologue like the specter of a restless wanderer. Abdrazakov's vocal steadiness—a trait too seldom heard in Fiesco's music—is especially welcome in Act One, in which he sings the duet with Gabriele with impressive sensitivity. He phrases the Sostenuto religioso, 'Vieni a me, ti benedico nella pace di quest'ora,' with genuine tenderness, and the contrast with his imperious singing in Fiesco's Act Two duet with Paolo could not be greater. In Act Three, Abdrazakov's pointed voicing of the throbbing Largo, 'Delle faci festanti al barlume cifre arcane, funebri vedrai,' is very touching, the line punctuated by the singer's easy rise to the top F. A few strange vowels notwithstanding, Abdrazakov uses text with near-native sophistication, but it is the voice that makes the greater impact. Other singers have made Fiesco's implacability more palpable, but few have sung his music more securely.

Gabriele Adorno is, in comparison with most of the mature Verdi's parts for tenor, a thankless rôle. Throughout much of the opera, he both is misled and misinterprets the situations in which he finds himself. He has some fantastic music, however, and uncomplicated musicality is the defining precept of Stefano Secco's performance on this recording. From his entrance in Act One, his bright timbre and straightforward interpretation of the rôle give pleasure even when the actual singing is less ingratiating. There is an engaging boyishness in his singing of 'Cielo di stelle orbato, di fior vedovo prato, è l'alma senza amor' in the duet with Amelia, and his top B♭s in unison with his beloved in 'Sì, sì dell'ara il giubilo' are tossed off with panache. Of a wholly different demeanor is Secco's singing in the duet with Fiesco, in which he voices the Allegro moderato section, 'Tu che lei vegli con paterna cura a nostre nozze assenti,' with distinction. The voice rings with impetuosity in the Council Chamber scene as Gabriele rashly accuses Boccanegra of abducting Amelia. Secco ably imparts the character's confusion and embarrassment as events he does not fully comprehend play out before him. He does not comply with Verdi's request that Gabriele should double Amelia's final trill in the scene, but he holds his own in the vast ensemble without forcing the voice too perilously. The Allegro sostenuto aria in Act Two, 'Sento avvampar nell'anima furente gelosia,' is passionately sung, and the simplicity and sincerity of the tenor's delivery of the aria’s Largo section, 'Cielo pietoso, redila, redila a questo core,' are unexpectedly poignant. In the subsequent duet with Amelia, Secco devotes an outpouring of lyrical tone to 'Parla, in tuo cor virgineo fede al diletto rendi.' Gabriele's trembling uncertainty as he contemplates murdering the sleeping Boccanegra in the opening pages of the Act Two finale is evinced by Secco's singing of 'Ei dorme!... Quale sento ritegno?' In the marvelous trio, another precious blossom of Verdi's genius, the ardor of Secco's singing of 'Perdon, perdon, Amelia, indomito geloso amor fu il mio' heightens the emotional impact of the scene. Finally knowing the truth about Amelia's parentage and past, Secco's Gabriele comforts both Amelia and the dying Boccanegra in Act Three with the compassion of a man who has at last recognized his destiny. Secco's voice is not a malleable, easily-produced instrument, but he is a shrewd singer who projects tones evenly and effectively. Ultimately, his heartfelt Gabriele is more gratifying than other tenors' self-conscious efforts at puffed-up heroics.

A versatile singer whose acclaimed operatic portrayals include rôles by Mozart, Donizetti, and Puccini, Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli follows in the tradition of singers such as Mirella Freni and Katia Ricciarelli, singers whose natural lyric voices were capable, when managed with caution, of successfully taking on parts requiring larger voices. Amelia's music is difficult to categorize: the tessitura is centered in the middle of the soprano range like that of a rôle written for a dramatic or spinto voice, but she also has trills—as does Wagner's Brünnhilde, of course. Like Secco, Frittoli manages her part in Simon Boccanegra without excessive strain. She starts Act One with a graceful but somewhat plain account of the aria 'Come in quest'ora bruna, sorridon gli astri e il mare!' Her top B♭ is secure, but the upper register often has a tremulousness that gives the voice a hard edge. In the duet with Gabriele, she soars to a blazing top B on 'gioia!' before voicing the Andantino, 'Vieni a mirar la cerula marina tremolante,' with compelling sensitivity. She and Secco combine artfully in 'Sì, sì dell'ara il giubilo,' the patina of her top B♭s blending well with the tenor's. The duet with Boccanegra is the beating heart of Act One, and Frittoli phrases 'Orfanella il tetto umile m'accogliea d'una meschina' and 'Padre! vedrai la vigile...figlia a te sempre accanto' with gleaming Italianate fervor, her long-held top B♭ cathartically crowning the duet’s final bars. Her top B♭ on 'Ferisci?' as she rushes to shield Boccanegra from his would-be assassins in the Council Chamber scene is explosive, but the terror and shame that shape her narrative in 'Nell'ora soave che all'estasi invita' are even more gripping. The crucial trills are more approximated than truly executed, but the effort is admirable. In the Act Two duet with Gabriele, Frittoli spins a silken thread of tone in 'Sgombra dall'alma il dubbio.' Her finest singing is in the trio in the Act Two finale, in which her plea for her dead mother's protection, 'Madre, che dall'empireo proteggi la tua figlia,' is deeply moving. Amelia's burden is the pain of finding her father only to lose him again, and Frittoli depicts a woman forever wounded by this pain. Hers is an imaginative portrayal only occasionally betrayed by vocal frailty.

The Boccanegra of Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky is a characterization heard in many of the world's important opera houses. A strikingly handsome man with one of the few legitimately significant baritone voices to have emerged in the past three decades, Hvorostovsky has gradually added the celebrated Verdi baritone rôles to his repertory as he felt that they became comfortable fits for his voice. In larger houses, he is sometimes forced to push his fine-grained instrument to ensure that he is heard, but recording a part like Boccanegra in studio enables him to sing without the necessity of projecting to the last row. In the Prologue in this recording, there is a suggestion of genuine surprise in his articulation of 'Suona ogni labbro il mio nome,' and his nuanced reading of the Andantino in the scene with Fiesco, 'Del mar sul lido tra gente ostile crescea nell'ombra quella gentile,' is insightful. Reluctant to ascend to the Doge's throne, not least after discovering the death of his dear Maria, this Boccanegra bows to the will of the people with humility. Hvorostovsky is resplendently in his element in the Act One duet with Amelia. He is almost playful in 'Dinne...alcun là non vedesti?' as he grows more certain that Amelia is his daughter. The expansiveness of his phrasing of 'Figlia! A tal nome palpito qual se m'aprisse i cieli'—is there any more heart-stopping melody in opera?—is evidence of the baritone's formidable breath control, and his soft top F—more piano than Verdi's ppp, admittedly—on the final voicing of 'Figlia!' is superb. The declamatory style in the Council Chamber scene does not come as naturally to Hvorostovsky, but he copes manfully, the voice sounding robust but not hard-driven. The pinnacle of his singing in Act Two is his bitter utterance of 'Doge! ancor proveran la tua clemenza i traditori?' This is seconded by a bracing account of 'Deggio salvarlo e stendere la mano all'inimico?' in the trio. Hvorostovsky's performance in Act Three is epitomized by his unexaggerated enacting of Boccanegra's death. Here, as throughout the performance on this recording, he sings the part on his own terms. They are terms that Verdi would surely have endorsed enthusiastically.

Simon Boccanegra has been a frequent visitor to the world's opera houses during the past decade, and this familiarity has bred the contempt of realizing that standards of Verdi singing have declined precipitously since the era—not so long ago—when the dedicated Verdian could hear Leonard Warren, Giuseppe Taddei, Tito Gobbi, and Cornell MacNeil as Boccanegra. The magnetism of Simon Boccanegra is such that a poor Boccanegra, Amelia, or Gabriele is more willingly endured than a poor Rigoletto, Gilda, or Duca di Mantova, but this Delos recording of Simon Boccanegra is a heartening reminder that the art of singing Verdi is injured but not dead. It is not perfect, but neither are the opera itself nor those who hear it.

26 May 2015

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini – LA GAZZA LADRA (M.J. Moreno, K. Tarver, L. Islam-Ali-Zade, B. Praticò, L. Regazzo, M. Rewerski, G. Mastrototaro, S. Cifolelli, P. Cameselle, M. Lo Piccolo, D. Whiteley; NAXOS 8.660369-71)

CD REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini - LA GAZZA LADRA (NAXOS 8.660369-71)GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): La gazza ladraGiulio Mastrototaro (Fabrizio Vingradito), Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade (Lucia), Kenneth Tarver (Giannetto), María José Moreno (Ninetta), Bruno Praticò (Fernando Villabella), Lorenzo Regazzo (Gottardo), Mariana Rewerski (Pippo), Stefan Cifolelli (Isacco), Pablo Cameselle (Antonio), Maurizio Lo Piccolo (Giorgio), Damian Whiteley (Il pretore del villaggio); Classica Chamber Choir, Brno; Virtuosi Brunensis; Alberto Zedda, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in the Kurhaus Bad Wildbad, Germany, during the XXI ROSSINI IN WILDBAD Festival, 1 – 2 and 4 July 2009; NAXOS 8.660369-71; 3 CDs, 180:12; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Opera is an art that defies the mandates of reason. It is often said that lightning does not strike twice in the same place, which of course is not true, but that faulty conventional wisdom is circumvented by the fact that Guillaume Tell is not the only one of Gioachino Rossini’s operas remembered almost solely for its frequently-played Overture. Though his opera semiseria La gazza ladra was heard throughout Italy and beyond in the decade following its 1817 première at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, all but the work’s Overture, known for its exciting use of percussion and its distinctive woodwind subject, disappeared from the repertory after the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Hearing a performance of the complete score as delightful as this 2009 ROSSINI IN WILDBAD traversal, recorded by NAXOS with clear, well-balanced sound of tremendous immediacy, raises the question of why such a fantastic opera could have fallen into obscurity. Thus, though, are the pitfalls of opera. Fashions change, voices evolve, and both opera houses and, in the past century, record labels responded accordingly. Fortunately, another aphorism has proved applicable to opera: like life, opera is basically cyclical, and works of true brilliance have only to wait for the wheel of fortune to revolve them back into the light of public attention. Rossini possessed an unique gift for making the ridiculous not only genuinely amusing but often surprisingly moving, as well, and La gazza ladra, its libretto by Giovanni Gherardini based upon Théodore Badouin d’Aubigny’s and Louis-Charles Caigniez’s La pie voleuse, is perfectly summarized in the Preface of a synopsis of the French melodrama, published in London in 1815. ‘The basis of the plot appears almost too simple and too improbable,’ the now unknown editor wrote, ‘but genius renders trifles unimportant, and experience proves what appears improbable to have been true.’ The historical basis for La pie voleuse was no trifle: the young lady who inspired Rossini’s Ninetta was executed before the avian perpetrator of the crimes of which she was convicted was discovered. The ultimate outcome for Rossini’s heroine is considerably more felicitous. With a recording of the quality of this NAXOS set, skillfully engineered by Norbert Vossen and Siggi Mehne to render the ‘live’ circumstances of the recording sessions utterly unobtrusive, making the opera’s case with the public, the future of La gazza ladra suddenly seems far more propitious, too.

Long a champion of Rossini’s music and of peeling away layers of tradition in order to return performances to standards that the composer himself would have recognized, Italian conductor Alberto Zedda turned his perspicacity to La gazza ladra three decades before this Wildbad production, completing his definitive critical edition of the score in 1979. Invaluable as his contributions to Rossini scholarship are, it is in the orchestra pit in a performance of any of Rossini’s operas that his artistry is at its most admirable. Eighty-one years old at the time of the performances recorded by NAXOS, Zedda conducts with his customary blend of elegance and zeal. While maintaining ingratiating flexibility that permits affectionately lyrical expansion where appropriate, there is no deviation from the high benchmarks of rhythmic tautness that he imposes upon himself and the musicians under his direction. The story that alleges that Rossini composed La gazza ladra at record speed whilst sequestered under lock and key until the score was completed is likely apocryphal or at least considerably embellished, but the spontaneity of the music is undeniably remarkable, its fecund tunefulness perhaps masking its difficulties to the casual listener. Heard on a number of NAXOS recordings sourced from Wildbad productions, the Virtuosi Brunensis musicians, directed by Karel Mitáš, live up to the name of their ensemble, never failing to meet both composer’s and conductor’s demands. The most admirable quality of Zedda’s conducting of this performance is its natural logic: a tremendous wealth of thought undoubtedly informs his work, but nothing seems ponderous: in short, every scene sounds how a scene in a Rossini opera should sound. This is true, too, of the orchestra’s playing. The jovial Overture, its woodwind figurations evoking the cawing of the eponymous winged bandit, is played splendidly, the snare drums setting a mock-martial tone that contrasts meaningfully with the famous principal theme. From that start, the Virtuoisi Brunensis follow Zedda’s lead in mining the significance of every crescendo and accelerando. Prepared by Pavel Koňárek, the carefully-blended voices of Classica Chamber Choir of Brno are a particularly effective, wonderfully musical group of townspeople, especially in the opening chorus, ‘Oh che giorno fortunato,’ and the act finales. Gianni Fabbrini’s fortepiano accompaniment of secco recitatives also upholds the frolicsome spirit and lofty musical caliber of the performance. The lifeblood of opera is solo singing, but what a difference top-quality work by conductor, orchestra, and choristers makes!

Almost none of Rossini’s operas except Guillaume Tell has as extensive a cast as La gazza ladra. Engaging singers capable of performing the opera’s lead rôles—to say nothing of performing them well!—is an expensive proposition, often leaving little in the budget for casting secondary rôles. This recording is distinguished by a cast with no weak links—a feat even rarer than performances of La gazza ladra. With as accomplished a singer as Australian bass Damian Whiteley on hand to sing—rippingly—the lines of il pretore del villaggio in the Act Two Quintet, ‘Ahi qual colpo,’ the bar is set very high. Bass Maurizio Lo Piccolo, a pupil of the consummate Rossini singer Simone Alaimo, sings strongly as Giorgio, a lackey of the smarmy Podestà, and tenor Pablo Cameselle is a benevolent, light-voiced Antonio, the jailer who, having witnessed the Podestà’s efforts at capitalizing on his amorous designs on Ninetta, dedicates himself to proving her innocence and setting her free.

Tenor Stefan Cifolelli sings the peddler Isacco’s brief cavatina in Act One, ‘Stringhe e ferri da calzette,’ attractively, and his bright timbre stands out from the crown in the Act One finale. Buenos Aires-born mezzo-soprano Mariana Rewerski tangoes through Pippo’s music appealingly, providing a properly effervescent account of the Brindisi in Act One, ‘Tocchiamo, beviamo.’ Her singing in the Act Two duet with Ninetta, ‘A mio nome, deh, consegna,’ is both beautiful and heartfelt, and she proves winningly resourceful in recitatives.

Ninetta’s employers and the parents of her beloved Giannetto, Fabrizio Vingradio and his wife Lucia, are portrayed with bumptious big-fishes-in-a-small-pond pretentions by bass Giulio Mastrototaro and mezzo-soprano Luisa Islam-Ali-Zade. Mastrototaro’s stalwart voice rolls out gratifyingly in recitatives and ensembles. Islam-Ali-Zade’s Lucia is an amusing but menacing harridan who redeems herself with a well-sung, wholly sincere performance of her aria in Act Two, ‘A questo seno,’ placed after the trial scene as Rossini intended. Convincing both in their characters’ accusations and their eventual admission of their error, Mastrototaro and Islam-Ali-Zade are decided assets in rôles that are prone to being liabilities.

In Bruno Praticò’s Fernando Villabella, Ninetta’s father, and Lorenzo Regazzo’s Gottardo, the dastardly Podestà, this performance benefits from the participation of two of the most gifted lower-voiced Rossinians of recent years. Running from arrest and punishment for desertion, Fernando is the inadvertent cause of Ninetta’s inability to defend herself when accused of stealing Lucia’s prized silver spoon. Having sold a piece of silver bearing the initials FV—her father’s, not Fabrizio Vingradio’s—to Isacco in order to obtain money to sustain Fernando during his fugitivity and the proceeds of the sale being found on her person when she is apprehended, Ninetta’s only choices are protecting her father with silence or betraying him with explanation of her innocence. When father and daughter duet in Act One in the finely-crafted ‘Come frenar il pianto,’ Praticò sings lovingly, using both music and text to figuratively caress his heartbroken daughter. He and Regazzo sing resonantly in the trio with Ninetta, ‘Siamo soli.’ Praticò makes Fernando’s aria in Act Two, ‘Accusata di furto,’ one of the highlights of the recording. When Fernando is reunited with Ninetta as a pardoned man at the opera’s end, the elation that Praticò’s vocalism conveys seems to spread over the whole cast. Regazzo’s Podestà is a scheming scoundrel from first note to last, but how delectable is his treachery! In the cavatina in Act One, ‘Il mio piano è preparato,’ Regazzo’s singing is the musical equivalent of a silent-film villain twirling his mustache, the voice produced with assured insouciance. In Act Two, the arrogance and humbug wooing in his aria ‘Sì, per voi, pupille amante’ are amusingly unctuous, and Regazzo’s singing gives great pleasure. Both gentlemen occasionally sacrifice tidiness of line for comedy, but it is unlikely that Rossini would have minded.

With recent releases of recordings of the title rôle in Händel’s Joshua (Accent), Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte (Sony Classical), and Mozart and Salieri arias (MDG) to his credit, Detroit-born tenor Kenneth Tarver is finally receiving some measure of the widespread recognition that his talent merits. His extraordinary voice has been heard in the world’s great opera houses, but his singing as Giannetto in this performance of La gazza ladra spurs curiosity about why his name is not synonymous with bel canto everywhere in the world in the way that Tito Schipa’s was seventy-five years ago. A dashing hero on stage, Tarver’s singing combines a beautiful timbre reminiscent of Cesare Valletti’s with dizzying virtuosity that enables him to conquer Rossini’s most throat-stressing passages with flabbergasting ease. Indeed, in this performance he sings Rossini’s volleys of coloratura like a great violinist playing Vivaldi’s most insanely difficult music for that instrument, every note in rapid-fire passagework given its due and every pitch placed with zinging precision. ‘Vieni fra queste braccia,’ Giannetto’s cavatina in Act One [not to be confused with the like-named number in Bellini’s I puritani], is dispatched with a dazzling display of expertise. Likewise, Tarver’s singing in the Act Two duet with Ninetta, ‘Forse un dì conoscerete,’ palpitates with dramatic involvement and ideally poised, dulcet tone. The only disappointment in this portrayal of Giannetto is instigated by Rossini: with Tarver on hand to sing the part in future, could he not have proactively composed more music for the character?

Spanish soprano María José Moreno depicts Ninetta as a good-natured young lady whose sunny disposition is tested but never eclipsed by the dire straits in which she finds herself. She sings the Act One cavatina ‘Di piacer mi balza il cor’ confidently, her negotiations of coloratura and easy management of the wide tessitura immediately earning appreciation. Rossini’s expressive writing in Ninetta’s duet with Fernando, ‘Come frenar il pianto,’ prefigures similar moments in the young Verdi’s operas, and Moreno cannily blends her pensive tones with Praticò’s brawny singing. Her security above the stave is exhibited both in the trio with her father and the Podestà, ‘Non so quel che farei,’ and in the act finales. The soprano’s keen talent for ensemble singing is again revealed in her performance of the Act Two duets with Giannetto, ‘Forse un dì conoscerete,’ and Pippo, ‘A mio nome, deh, consegna.’ She unites first with Tarver and then with Rewerski adroitly. It is in Ninetta’s Preghiera as she is led to execution, ‘Deh, tu reggi in tal momento,’ that Moreno’s voice is at its most beautiful. Such an assertion is hardly meaningful when her singing throughout the performance is so beguiling, however, and her innocent, fresh-as-spring-rain characterization is enchanting.

With the label’s extensive catalogue preserving a gallery of storied Rossini portraits including Lawrence Brownlee’s Lindoro in L’italiana in Algeri, Joyce DiDonato’s Cenerentola, Ewa Podleś’s Tancredi and Sumi Jo’s Amenaide, Michael Spyres’s Otello, and Ramón Vargas’s Conte d’Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, the people responsible for planning and completing NAXOS recordings have learned a thing or two about recording Rossini’s operas over the past two decades. Adding more Rossinian star turns to the label’s discography, that knowledge here yields a recording of La gazza ladra that can be enjoyed without reservation. Hard is the heart that is impervious to this thieving magpie’s wiles.

25 May 2015

CD REVIEW: Claudio Monteverdi – IL RITORNO D’ULISSE IN PATRIA (F. Guimarães, J. Rivera, A. Sheehan, L. Wool, J. Fernandes, C. Lowrey, O. McIntosh, K. River, A. Nims, D. Shirley, D. Auchincloss, M. Molomot; Linn Records CDK 451)

CD REVIEW: Claudio Monteverdi - IL RITORNO D'ULISSE IN PATRIA (Linn Records CDK 451)CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI (1567 – 1643): Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patriaFernando Guimarães (Ulisse), Jennifer Rivera (Penelope), Aaron Sheehan (Telemaco), Leah Wool (Minerva), João Fernandes (Nettuno, Il Tempo), Owen McIntosh (Giove, Pisandro), Sonja DuToit Tengblad (Giunone, La Fortuna), Krista River (Ericlea), Abigail Nims (Melanto), Daniel Shirley (Eurimaco), Daniel Auchincloss (Eumete), Marc Molomot (Iro), Christopher Lowrey (L’Humana Fragilità, Phaeacian Sailor), Sara Heaton (Amore), Jonas Budris (Anfinomo, Phaeacian Sailor), Ulysses Thomas (Antinoo, Phaeacian Sailor); Boston Baroque; Martin Pearlman, conductor [Recorded in Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA, 27 – 30 April 2014; Linn Records CDK 451; 3 CDs, 176:00; Available from Linn Records, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Whether literal or figurative, homeward journeys have since the evolution of artistic endeavors as a mode of expression been a prevalent theme in art, music, literature, and cinema. Separation and the effort of one person to be reunited with another are bound with the threads of virtually every human emotion, and the necessity of companionship is perhaps man’s most basic psychological need. Nowhere is this theme more eloquently and insightfully explored than in Homer’s Odyssey, the epic but timelessly simple tale of a man’s exacting labor to return home to his wife. Having braved the horrors of war, that man endures obstacles even more terrible that complicate his task. As Shakespeare wrote in A Midsummer Night's Dream, ‘the course of true love never did run smooth,’ nor are the roads that restore lovers to one another seamlessly paved. Thus is Odysseus, Homer’s hero, thwarted by both gods and mortals in his prolonged struggle to return from the ruins to Troy to his native Ithaca and the arms of his wife Penelope. A victim in part of his own pride, Odysseus manfully confronts Calypso, Charybdis, and Circe, but putting his own house in order is an undertaking that nearly overwhelms him. Scholars debate precisely who wrote The Odyssey and when, but, like arguments about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, this misses the point, which is that the work’s enduring cultural significance is derived from the universality of its subject. Neither Claudio Monteverdi nor his Venetian audience in the 1639 – 1640 Carnevale season, when his opera Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria was first performed, had greater personal experience with fallen civilizations, seductive nymphs, and vengeful gods than a listener in 2015, but few people who have heard Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria in the ​375 years since its première have never said goodbye to a loved one, anxiously awaited someone’s return, or been plagued with doubts and fears about what the future holds. Whether he was a man, a persona, or merely the invention of a literary tradition, Homer captured the strife of separated spouses in The Odyssey with rare perceptiveness, and Monteverdi incisively translated their emotions into the exalted language of music in Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria.

Employing a new performing edition of the score prepared by Martin Pearlman, who also conducts this performance, Boston Baroque’s and Linn Records’ recording of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria is a tantalizing reevaluation of an opera that is, depending upon one’s perspective, either a great early masterpiece of opera or a dull piece of disputed authorship. Scholarship in the past quarter-century has disavowed the formerly oft-repeated allegation that Il ritorno is not truly the work of Monteverdi. Like the Shakespearean libretti that Boito wrote for the aged Verdi, Giacomo Badoaro’s libretto for Il ritorno was likely devised as bait to lure Monteverdi, past the age of seventy and settled in Venice to supervise the composition and performance of sacred music at the Basilica di San Marco, back into the theatre. Thankfully, the ruse was successful. In previous decades, the dissimilarities between Il ritorno and Monteverdi’s more-frequently-performed L'incoronazione di Poppea, his latest surviving opera, were cited as evidence supporting the argument against the veracity of the attribution of the earlier opera to Monteverdi, but it now seems more likely that a genius like Monteverdi merely responded to very different dramas with markedly contrasting compositional idioms in the manner of Verdi’s varied sonic landscapes for the Spain of Don Carlos, the Egypt of Aida, and the England of Falstaff. With an incomplete manuscript that, true to Seventeenth-Century fashion, leaves many questions unanswered, Il ritorno is a challenge to any conductor, and Pearlman’s new edition does not solve all of the opera’s riddles. Taking a thoughtful, middle-of-the-road approach that takes surviving source materials at face value, Pearlman’s work yields a performing edition that maintains the lean textures of the score but also lends an understated modernity to the opera, revealing that even in 1640 the roots of the music of Stravinsky and Messiaen were growing. Pearlman occasionally seems to have fallen victim to the fear of putting too great a personal ‘stamp’ on his edition of Il ritorno, and this leaves passages sounding inert: Benjamin Britten’s adaptations of music by Purcell are radical by comparison but exemplify one artist’s refinement of another’s efforts. Pearlman is to be applauded for eschewing the popular practice of interpolating music and text from other sources to replace scenes missing from the libretto and manuscript score: Il ritorno functions handily enough without them. Boston Baroque’s team of virtuosi execute their parts with considerable aplomb, but Pearlman’s leadership is sluggish and dispiriting. This performance often stalls when the drama most needs momentum, and the task of salvaging the opera’s unique histrionic profile is left to the singers.

First encountered as L'humana fragilità, Il tempo, La fortuna, and Amore in the opera's Prologue, countertenor Christopher Lowrey, bass João Fernandes, and sopranos Sonja DuToit Tengblad and Sara Heaton launch the performance with attractive, mostly stylish singing. Lowrey’s 'Mortal cosa son io, fattura humana' is phrased with real distinction, and his lovely timbre and confident manner are evident when he returns later in the opera as a Phaeacian sailor and a member of the Coro marittimo. Fernandes makes a somewhat blunt impression in Tempo’s ‘Salvo è niente dal mio dente’ but is heard to greater advantage as Nettuno in the opera proper. In the fifth scene of Act One, his voicing of ‘Superbo è l'huom ed è del suo peccato cagion, benchè lontana’ is effective, only the lowest notes lacking authority, and his stately delivery of ‘Son ben quest'onde frigide’ in the seventh scene of Act Three holds its own against Giove’s and Giunone’s utterances. Singing Fortuna’s ‘Mia vita son voglie, le gioie, le doglie’ charmingly, Tengblad radiates nobility in Giunone’s ‘Gran Giove, alma de' Dei, Dio delle menti, mente dell' universo’ in the seventh scene of Act Three. Heaton makes Amore’s ‘Dio de' Dei feritor mi dice il mondo Amor’ a powerful statement, and her sweet timbre is a notable asset in the Coro in cielo.

As Penelope's petulant suitors, the Mnesteres, tenors Jonas Budris and Owen McIntosh as Anfinomo and Pisandro and bass-baritone Ulysses Thomas as Antinoo are appropriately exasperating but unfailingly musical. Thomas’s gruff presence and bitingly masculine voice are deployed with wit in Antinoo’s ‘Sono l'altre Regine coronate di servi e tu d'amanti’ in the fifth scene of Act Two, and he makes ‘Compagni, udiste: il vostro vicin rischio mortale vi chiama a grandie risolute imprese’ in the same act’s eighth scene a compelling statement of the character’s slimy credo. It is a testament to the potency of Thomas’s performance that the listener wants to string the legendary bow and eliminate Antinoo even before Ulisse can do it. McIntosh also sings Giove, in whose ‘Gran Dio de’ salsi flutti’ in the fifth scene of Act One he is the very model of divine authority. He interacts with Tengblad’s Giunone splendidly in the seventh scene of Act Three, evincing touching sincerity in his voicing of ‘Per me non avrà mai vota preghiera Giuno.’

Mezzo-soprano Krista River impersonates Penelope's aged nurse Ericlea with an ideal blend of authentic Seventeenth-Century broad comedy and open-hearted honesty, all while singing capably and often beautifully. Mezzo-soprano Abigail Nims devotes a wealth of imagination to her performance as Penelope's young maidservant Melanto, delivering her lines in the second scene of Act One, including the delightful ‘Duri e penosi son gli amorosi fieri desir,’ with disarming freshness of tone and emotional directness. Later, in the act’s tenth scene, Nims’s Melanto sings ‘Cara amata Regina, avveduta e prudente per tuo sol danno sei’ to her mistress with incredible poise, and in the eighth scene of Act Three she delivers ‘Ericlea, che vuoi far, vuoi tacer or parlar?’ with accents of profound uncertainty. As Melanto’s doting lover Eurimaco, tenor Daniel Shirley is endearing, his beguiling singing of ‘Bella Melanto mia, graziosa Melanto, il tuo canto è un incanto, il tuo volto è magia’ cajoling the listener as much as Melanto.

Tenor Daniel Auchincloss is enchanting as the faithful swineherd Eumete, his aristocratic phrasing of ‘Oh come mal si salva un Regio amante da sventure e da mali’ in the eleventh scene of Act One belying the character’s humble state. In the subsequent scene, Auchincloss erases any doubts about the pervasiveness of Eumete’s distaste for Iro, his singing of ‘Iro, gran mangiatore, Iro, divoratore, Iro, loquace! Mio pace non perturbar. Corri a mangiar! a crepar!’ seething with loathing. Then, in the tenth scene of Act Two, he voices ‘Io vidi, o pellegrin, de' Proci amanti l'ardir infermarsi’ with extraordinary grace, and ‘Forza d'occulto affetto raddolcisce il tuo petto’ in the fourth scene of Act Three receives from Auchincloss a performance of consummate artistry. The voice is a plangent instrument, used by the singer in this performance to portray a character whose social status does not inhibit his loyalty, integrity, and generosity of spirit. As the parasitic Iro, tenor Marc Molomot throws himself into the part with abandon, his taunting of Eumete in the twelfth scene of Act One epitomized by his disdainfully ironic articulation of ‘Pastor d'armenti può prati e boschi lodar.’ It is to Iro that Monteverdi entrusted the scene that opens Act Three, ‘O dolor, o martir che l'alma attrista,’ begun by an eight-bar cry of woe that has become one of the most famous passages in Seventeenth-Century opera. Molomot’s comically impassioned delivery, perhaps ideal for a staged performance of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, is over the top in the context of a studio recording. The tenor is an intelligent, thoroughly stylish singer whose every vocal gesture is founded upon respect for the music, but in this instance simply singing the notes would have been preferable.

Leah Wool’s sumptuous mezzo-soprano voice glows in Monteverdi’s music for Minerva, whose benevolent omniscience guides Ulisse’s progress along the twisting path from the carnage of Troy to his wife’s arms. In the eighth scene of Act One, Wool voices Minerva’s counsel to Ulisse, ‘Cara a lieta gioventù che disprezza empio desir,' with keen sagacity and prepossessing tone, and her singing of ‘Tu d'Aretusa al fonte intanto vanne ove il pastor Eumete, tuo fido antico servo’ in the ninth scene is wonderfully unaffected. Again advising the frustrated Ulisse in the ninth scene of Act Two, Wool’s Minerva phrases ‘O coraggioso Ulisse, io farò che proponga la tua casta consorte giuoco’ with bolstering confidence. In the sixth and ninth scenes of Act Three, she makes vigorous impressions with her singing of ‘Fiamma è l'ira, o gran Dea, foco è lo sdegno’ and ‘Ogni nostra ragion sen porta il vento’ without distorting the vocal lines or her own sophisticated artistry.

Tenor Aaron Sheehan​, one of America’s most versatile and reliably stimulating singers, finds in Telemaco a rôle tailor-made for his effortlessly-produced voice. In the scene that opens Act Two, he shapes ‘Lieto cammino, dolce viaggio, passa il carro divino come che fosse un raggio’ with the weariness of a young man pushed to his breaking point by circumstances beyond his control. The expressivity of his increasingly confident interjections in the third scene heightens the impact of the music, his account of ‘Che veggio, ohimè, che miro?’ establishing the atmosphere of wonder for Telemaco’s recognition of and reunion with his father. Returning to his mother’s court in the eleventh scene, the dutiful son relays to Penelope a portion of the saga of his search for Ulisse. Sheehan’s mellifluous singing of ‘Del mio lungo viaggio i torti errori già vi narrai, Regina' is superb. Throughout the performance, this valuable singer molds a portrayal of Telemaco that is notable for meeting all of Monteverdi’s demands with imperturbable vocal and dramatic charisma.

American mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera succeeds in fashioning an impersonation of the forbearing Penelope that, in terms of sensitivity, profundity, and vocal freedom, can be ranked alongside the unforgettable portrayal by her countrywoman Frederica von Stade on the outmoded recording conducted by Raymond Leppard. Penelope opens the opera proper with her riveting lament ‘Di misera Regina non terminati mai dolenti affani,’ which Rivera makes all the more moving by refraining from over-emoting. The delicacy with which she sings the dramatically intense plaint ‘Deh torna Ulisse, Penelope t'aspetta’ is exquisite, the satiny texture of the voice caressing the music but maintaining a high level of emotional animation. Her elocutions of ‘Torna il tranquillo il mare’ and ‘L'huomo qua giù ch'è vivo’ are subtly differentiated but united by the singer’s depiction of Penelope’s ardent longing for her husband’s return. In the fifth scene of Act Two, in which Penelope confronts her lewd suitors, Rivera reveals the character’s resilience with her telling communication of a single line, ‘Non voglio amar, non voglio!’ The breadth of her connection with her rôle is confirmed in the eleventh scene of Act Two, when, as Penelope converses with Telemaco, she sings ‘Beltà troppo funesta, ardor iniquo di rimembranze indegno’ with very personal eloquence. Forced to circumspection by the fate to which she has been subjected, Penelope is slow to accept that the man who appears before her in Act Three truly is Ulisse, but when she allows herself to believe what has for so long seemed impossible Rivera’s voice takes on a blithe warmth. Penelope’s despair can too easily seem like exhausting self-pity, but Rivera infuses her portrait of the steadfast queen with flashes of a vibrant personality that render the character not only credible but atypically engaging.

Singing the title rôle, Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães is a revelation. Compared with several of the singers who have recorded Ulisse, especially the baritones, Guimarães’s voice is light for the music, but the dividends paid by his artistic investment enrich the performance considerably. Guimarães makes a stirring impression in the seventh scene of Act One, the wonderment that he evokes in ‘Dormo ancora o son desto?’ persisting in the​ eighth scene with Minerva, in which he sings ‘Sempre l'human bisogno il ciel soccorre’ with singularity of purpose and handsomely-shaded tone. In the ninth scene, his iron-willed ‘O fortunato Ulisse!’ is an exuberant moment. Then, in the ninth scene of Act Two, this Ulisse responds to Minerva’s intervention with a heady account of ‘Perir non può chi tien per scorta il cielo.’ Guimarães’s singing surges with exhilarating verve in the scene in which Ulisse at last vanquishes and slaughters Penelope's impudent suitors. In the opera’s final scene, as Ulisse and Penelope are finally fully restored to one another, Guimarães joins Rivera in an erotically-charged performance of ‘Non si rammenti più de' tormenti’—unlike ‘Pur ti miro, pur ti godo’ in L’incoronazione di Poppea, a sensual lovers’ duet that Monteverdi almost surely composed himself. Ulisse has fared well on recordings, amassing fine performances from burly ‘modern’ voices as well as Early Music specialists, but Guimarães sets new standards of technical achievement and the simple but impalpable art of bel canto.

The prospect of performing Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, whether on stage or in studio, presents an array of questions. Composers and conductors as diverse as Vincent d’Indy, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Luigi Dallapiccola, Ernst Krenek, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Hans Werner Henze have offered answers to these questions, and with this recording Martin Pearlman offers his own solutions to some of the problems left by Monteverdi’s manuscript and surviving materials from the Seventeenth Century. A definitive Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is an evasive creature, but the one heard on these expertly-recorded discs is an agreeable, often enjoyable manifestation of Monteverdi’s great genius. The grandeur of this Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is in the casting, however: Fernando Guimarães is an Ulisse whose homecoming is genuinely deserved, and Jennifer Rivera and Aaron Sheehan are a Penelope and Telemaco whose constancy merits a happy ending.

23 May 2015

RECORDING OF THE MONTH / May 2015: Gaetano Donizetti – LES MARTYRS (J. El-Khoury, M. Spyres, D. Kempster, B. Sherratt, C. Bayley, W. Evans; Opera Rara ORC52)

CD REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti - LES MARTYRS (Opera Rara ORC52)GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Les MartyrsJoyce El-Khoury (Pauline), Michael Spyres (Polyeucte), David Kempster (Sévère), Brindley Sherratt (Félix), Clive Bayley (Callisthènes), Wynne Evans (Néarque), Simon Preece (un Chrétien), Rosalind Waters (une femme); Opera Rara Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; Sir Mark Elder, conductor [Recorded in St Clement’s Church, London, UK, during October and November 2014; Opera Rara ORC52; 3 CDs, 188:12; Available from Opera Rara, harmonia mundi USA, and major music retailers]

Few events are as exciting to the opera lover as the release of a new recording by Opera Rara. For the past four decades, Opera Rara's efforts have unearthed scores buried beneath generations of dismissal and neglect and revealed their finest qualities via performances and recordings featuring world-class casts, orchestras, and conductors. These efforts have in many cases reshaped modern notions of composers and their music, as well as having expanded the woefully inadequate discographies of important singers and bel canto exponents such as Annick Massis, Nelly Miricioiu, Bruce Ford, and Colin Lee. The enduring popularity of Lucia di Lammermoor, L'elisir d'amore, Don Pasquale, and La fille du régiment has kept the music of Gaetano Donizetti playing in opera houses large and small for nearly two hundred years, but even with milestones like a Glyndebourne production of Poliuto and the Metropolitan Opera première of Roberto Devereux achieved or planned there are significant products of Donizetti’s creativity that remain in the shadows. Opera Rara’s specialty is shining the lights of rediscovery and rejuvenation upon the hidden works of Nineteenth-Century masters of bel canto, and these lights have never shone more brightly than in this studio recording of Donizetti’s 1840 leviathan Les Martyrs. Many of recent years’ well-intentioned forays into ignored music have ultimately revealed that there are more instances than it seems fashionable to admit in which neglect is not unjustifiable, but the performance of Les Martyrs on these discs is a case of a superb score receiving long-overdue recognition from artists capable of doing it justice. Like most of the grands opéras of the Nineteenth Century, the extravagant musical demands of Les Martyrs render the opera unlikely to claim a permanent place in the international repertory, but this recording confirms the impression made by Opera Rara’s concert performance of the opera in Royal Festival Hall in November 2014: if today’s listeners regard Les Martyrs primarily as a curiosity, it is a score that richly rewards inquisitiveness. Hearing the opera performed as it is on these discs causes one to shake one’s head and wonder why Les Martyrs is only now being returned to life, but singing of the quality that is preserved on these discs is worth any expenditure of patience.

Premièred at the famed Opéra in Paris in April 1840, Les Martyrs was the product of a turbulent genesis. Under contract to provide a new opera for the 1838 Season at the Neapolitan Teatro di San Carlo, Donizetti and his librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, turned to Pierre Corneille’s Seventeenth-Century epic Polyeucte, which they adapted in Italian as Poliuto. Mere days before the opera’s scheduled opening, the opera fell victim to the censorship of the court of Ferdinando II, King of the Two Sicilies, and was withdrawn by the incensed composer, who declined to substitute another new score and begrudgingly paid the fine for breaking the San Carlo contract. When a commission for two new operas was offered by the Opéra in Paris, the composer recognized an opportunity to revisit his music for Poliuto, which he esteemed very highly. With Grand Opéra librettist par excellence Eugène Scribe taking Cammarano’s libretto and Corneille’s text in hand, Poliuto was reborn as Les Martyrs, a score of proportions adhering to Parisian standards. The obligatory ballet was inserted, and Donizetti repurposed the lion’s share—an apt designation considering the opera’s ending—of his music for Poliuto in the score of Les Martyrs. Introduced to the Parisian audience by an accomplished cast including Julie Dorus-Gras, Halévy’s first Eudoxie in La Juive and the creator of Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, as Pauline and the celebrated Gilbert Duprez as Polyeucte, Les Martyrs was a considerable success. Like Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Les Martyrs was subjected to cuts by the composer even before the first night. For this recording, Opera Rara made use of a new critical edition of the opera by Dr. Flora Willson in which many of those cut passages are reinstated. The resulting score is one of dramatic tautness that belies its hulking pomposity. Like Aida and Don Carlos, Les Martyrs is an incredibly intimate piece despite its large scale. Musicologists have long suggested that this score contains some of Donizetti’s most finely-crafted and perceptibly personal music. Hearing the opera performed as it is on this recording, who could disagree?

Much of the praise for the sweep and serenity of this performance is garnered by Sir Mark Elder, who again confirms that no conductor in the world today has a surer grasp on idiomatic pacing of bel canto repertory than his own. Responding to his propulsive but cool-headed tempi, the musicians of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment play superlatively, giving an account of the opera’s innovative Overture that boils with contrasting eloquence and tension. The dances in Act Two—‘Lutte des gladiateurs,' 'Pas de deux,' and 'Danse militaire'—are executed with Gallic charm that rubs shoulders with Donizetti’s innate Italian fervor. Throughout the performance, conductor and instrumentalists rise to every challenge of Donizetti’s score, providing a musical setting for a traversal of Les Martyrs that transcends the limitations of a studio run-through. Directed by chorus master Stephen Harris, the fine voices of the Opera Rara Chorus are effective in every guise in which they appear in the course of the drama, beginning with a beautifully-shaped chorus of Christians in the Overture, 'O Dieu tutélaire.' Both 'Amis...silence...Du silence' and the maiden's chorus, 'Jeune souveraine,' in Act One are strongly sung, and the monumental triumphal chorus in Act Two, 'Gloire à vous, Mars et Bellonne,' is delivered with an abundance of gusto. 'Dieu du tonnerre, ton front sévère' in Act Three is appropriately ardent. Conductor, orchestra, and chorus all collaborate not in accompanying but in creating a performance of Les Martyrs in which their contributions are no less important than those of the principal singers.

In the small rôles of un Chrétien and une Femme, baritone Simon Preece and soprano Rosalind Waters sing capably, both possessing voices that promise future success in lead rôles. Welsh tenor Wynne Evans is a confident, athletic-voiced Néarque who takes advantage of every opportunity offered to him in his Act One duet with Polyeucte, singing ‘Arrêtons-nous, Polyeucte, et dans l'instant suprême’ with supple line and vivid characterization. Likewise, Manchester-born bass Clive Bayley seizes every moment that Donizetti allows him as the obdurate priest of Jupiter Callisthènes, his sinewy, Stygian-hued voice lending the character a frightening element of zealotry. Occasionally slightly unsteady, his singing never lacks impact, and the brutal impetus of his pronouncements is enjoyably potent.

As Félix, the governor of Armenia and Pauline’s father, bass Brindley Sherratt, a native of Lancashire, credibly portrays a man torn between commitment to his gubernatorial authority and love for his daughter, who married Polyeucte at his bidding despite her enduring love for the missing and presumed dead Sévère. In Félix’s Act Two aria 'Dieux des Romains, dieux de nos pères,' Sherratt uses his fibrous, gravelly voice with great intelligence, revealing the depths of his artistry with his attentiveness to nuances of text. A few moments of discomfort at range extremes are put to telling dramatic use, and the wide vibrato of his capacious voice rarely impedes the accuracy of his pitch. His singing in the Act Four trio with Pauline and Sévère is superb, the aggrieved father’s plight limned with gripping immediacy in ‘Qui défend la victime approuve son erreur’ and ‘Leur voix immortelle réchauffe mon zèle.’ Dramatically, Félix has much in common with Oroveso in Bellini’s Norma, but Donizetti was more musically generous. Sherratt gives the rôle dignity and, in the opera’s final scene, unexpected piteousness, qualities kindled by his sonorous singing of Félix’s music.

The imperial proconsul Sévère receives from Welsh baritone David Kempster a performance defined by complementary muscle and musicality. Thought to have been lost to battlefield misadventure, Sévère returns to Roman-occupied Armenia as the representative of the Emperor, finding his beloved Pauline married to Polyeucte, a clandestine new convert to Christianity. In Sévère’s Act Two Romance, ‘Amour de mon jeune âge,’ the baritone conveys the tenderness from which the character’s ferocity arises, tracing the bel canto line of the music with assurance, only a handful of struggles with intonation marring his estimable intentions. Kempster sings ‘En touchant à ce rivage' in the Act Three duet with Pauline, one of the finest numbers in the score, with focused, attractive tone, and his Sévère interacts with Pauline with a believable blend of exasperated indignation and still-pervasive affection. In the Act Four trio with Pauline and Félix, his exclamations of ‘Arrachons la victime a leur juste fureur!’ and ‘A tes lois rebelle ce glaive fidèle combattra pour elle en face des dieux!’ throb with the ambiguity of a man whose duty commands him to acts that conflict with the desires of his heart. Like Camoëns in the 1843 Dom Sébastien, also a setting of a libretto by Scribe, Sévère clearly stoked Donizetti’s imagination, inspiring the composer’s most profound sympathy: the music that he wrote for the rôle is not unworthy of comparison with Verdi’s music for Macbeth, Don Carlo in Ernani, or even Rigoletto, and Kempster’s performance, rough patches and all, is worthy of the music.

Simply put, the performance of American tenor Michael Spyres as Polyeucte is a marvel. His voice is difficult to classify except as an instrument of virtually boundless aptitude. In this performance of Les Martyrs, the voice is ideal for a rôle created by Gilbert Duprez, the tenor celebrated for his espousal of the do di petto and creations of several of Donizetti’s finest tenor parts, including Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor (for whom, as is often overlooked, the composer included a stratospheric top E♭ in the Act One duet with Lucia, ‘Verrano a te, sull’aure’). In Act One, Spyres delivers a rugged ‘Que l'onde salutaire,’ the voice glowing with a golden sheen. ‘Dieu puissant qui voit mon zèle’ in the Act Two finale finds him on roof-raising form, his singing taking on increasingly heroic dimensions as the character’s fortunes become ever more imperiled. Spyres’s performance reaches its zenith in Polyeucte’s scene in Act Three, beginning with a composed account of the aria ‘Mon seul trésor, mon bien suprême’ in which the emotional temperature gradually rises to the boiling point. The dramatic agitation explodes in the cabaletta ‘Oui, j'rai dans leurs temples,’ a cousin of Arnold’s ‘Amis, amis, secondez ma vengeance’ in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell and ‘Di quella pira l’orrenda foco’ in Verdi’s Il trovatore. Here, Spyres’s incendiary singing ignites the sentimental kindling of the music, and the formidably secure E5 that he unleashes thrillingly suggests the character’s—but not the singer’s—desperation. In Act Four, the tenor’s subtle voicing of ‘Rêve délicieux dont mon âme est émue’ is followed by an extraordinarily telling articulation of ‘Qu'importe ma vie sauvée ou ravie.’ Dramatically, Spyres encapsulates the essence of Polyeucte’s nature with his sweetly enraptured elocution of ‘La foi sainte brille à tes yeux!’ As portrayed by this incredibly gifted young singer, Polyeucte faces death with the steely resolve of Radamès in Aida and the soaring vocal refinement of Arturo in I puritani. Surveying the history of recorded singing from its infancy, encompassing the work of artists as masterful as Miguel Fleta and Ivan Kozlovsky, there is no finer example of bel canto tenor singing on disc than Spyres’s Polyeucte.

Singing Pauline in Les Martyrs, the captivating soprano Joyce El-Khoury again ventures into vocal territory that was the natural habitat of the late Leyla Gencer. Like Antonina in Belisario, another Gencer rôle that she recorded for Opera Rara, Pauline is no typical sighs-and-high-notes bel canto heroine. Attached before his rumored death to Sévère, Pauline is convinced by her father to take Polyeucte as her husband, whose conversion to Christianity is an affront to the pagan gods of her upbringing. The central crux of her predicament is that Sévère is not dead and eventually returns, covered in glory, as the Roman Emperor’s proconsul in Armenia. She still loves him, but Polyeucte’s determined integrity is not without its charms. Hers is a fate of questions for which there are no right answers. Why Pauline appealed to Gencer is obvious, and El-Khoury’s assumption of the rôle is even more complete. From the first bars of her Act One Prière, ‘Qu'ici ta main glacée bénisse ton enfant,’ it is apparent that the soprano is on ravishing form, the voice awesomely integrated and secure from bottom to top and the tone dark but entrancingly pure. Her voicing of ‘Mort à ces infâmes’ in Pauline’s Act Two scene with her father has the slashing forcefulness of a great Norma’s ‘I Romani a cento a cento, fian mietuti, fian distrutti,’ and the shock that emanates from her singing of ‘Sévère existe!... Un dieu sauveur, des ombres bords un dieu l'envoie!’ is heartrending. In El-Khoury’s and Kempster’s performances, Pauline and Sévère are as tempestuous a pair of troubled lovers as exist in opera, their destinies clashing in the Act Three duet ‘Souvenir cruel et tendre que sa voix vient de me rendre.’ Here and in ‘Ne vois-tu pas, qu'hélas! mon cœur succombe et cède à sa douleur!’ soprano and baritone spar with gladiatorial concentration, El-Khoury’s top notes electrifying the duet’s coda like lightning bolts. Pauline’s life hanging in the balance, El-Khoury detonates her lines in the Act Four trio with Félix and Sévère with virtuosic expressivity, her soaring ‘Oui, par la foir jurée’ matched by emotive readings of ‘O dévouement sublime!’ and ‘D'un chrétien rebelle epouse fidèle a toi j'en appelle.’ In the opera’s finale, as Pauline is transformed by faith and the example of Polyeucte’s nobility from a woman in crisis to a tragic heroine suited to the Comédie-Française of Corneille and Racine, El-Khoury employs her plaintive tones to illuminate the significance of lines such as ‘Seigneur, de vos bontés il faut que je l'obtienne!’ and ‘Pour toi, ma prière, ardente et sincère.’ The catharsis that she makes of ‘Miracle soudain...Lumière immortelle sa flamme nouvelle embrase mon sein!’ is extremely poignant: in Polyeucte’s arms she finally claims the peace of mind that has eluded her throughout the opera. El-Khoury’s technique never deserts her, however: not one passage of the music asks for more than she can give. Suggesting that any singer is Gencer’s equal is the kind of assertion that provokes hostility among aficionados, but as a dramatic portrayal El-Khoury’s Pauline is the peer of Gencer’s. As idiomatic bel canto vocalism, this performance surpasses not only Gencer’s towering efforts but also Maria Callas’s unforgettable Paolina in the famed 1960 La Scala Poliuto.

Opera lovers are a bewildering lot. We like what we like and dislike what we dislike, not always with justification that adheres to the tenets of basic logic. It seems unreasonable that audiences willing to endure, even embrace the marathon durations of Wagner’s mature operas and many of the Baroque works revived in recent years should ignore a score of the quality of Donizetti’s Les Martyrs. The past forty years have often found Opera Rara leading the conversation about unjustly-neglected gems of the operatic past. With a recording of Les Martyrs that rivals the label’s most exalted achievements, Opera Rara and some of today’s finest singers again reveal to opera lovers of what pleasures our prejudices have deprived us.

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano JOYCE EL-KHOURY as Pauline (left) and tenor MICHAEL SPYRES as Polyeucte (right) in Opera Rara's concert performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LES MARTYRS at Royal Festival Hall, 4 November 2014 [Photo © by Russell Duncan]Beaming bel cantists: Soprano Joyce El-Khoury as Pauline (left) and tenor Michael Spyres as Polyeucte (right) in Opera Rara’s concert performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Les Martyrs at Royal Festival Hall, 4 November 2014 [Photo © by Russell Duncan]

22 May 2015

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER (H. Janssen, K. Flagstad, L. Weber, M. Lorenz, M. Jarred, K. Ostertag; Immortal Performances IPCD 1051-2)

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner - DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER (Immortal Performances IPCD 1051-2)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Der fliegende Holländer—Herbert Janssen (Der Holländer), Kirsten Flagstad (Senta), Ludwig Weber (Daland), Max Lorenz (Erik), Mary Jarred (Mary), Karl Ostertag (Steuermann); Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Fritz Reiner, conductor [Recorded in performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK, on 11 June 1937, with supplemental material necessary to fill gaps in the original broadcast recording; Immortal Performances IPCD 1051-2; 2 CDs, 132:48; Available from Immortal Performances]

The Royal Opera House Coronation Season of International Opera mounted in celebration of the 1937 enthroning of King George VI and his consort, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, opened on 19 April with a performance of Verdi's Otello with Giovanni Martinelli in the title rôle, Fernanda Ciana as Desdemona, and Cesare Formichi as Iago. During the course of the subsequent eleven weeks, the operatic homage to the royal couple encompassed performances of Borodin's Prince Igor and Bizet's Carmen with Eduard Kandl as Igor and Escamillo; Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, in which Vanni-Marcoux bade farewell to London as Golaud; Donizetti's Don Pasquale with Mafalda Favero as Norina and Dino Borgioli as Ernesto; Dukas's Ariane et Barbe-bleue with Germaine Lubin as Ariane; Gluck's Alceste with Lubin in the name part and Orphée et Eurydice with Dame Maggie Teyte as Eurydice; Euguene Goossens's Don Juan de Mañara, given its world première with Lawrence Tibbett as Don Juan; Puccini's Tosca with Gina Cigna as the eponymous diva, Martinetlli as Cavaradossi, and Tibbett, appearing for the first time at Covent Garden (and also alternating with Formichi as Iago in Otello), as Scarpia and Turandot with Dame Eva Turner, Licia Albanese, and Martinelli; Verdi's Aida with Cigna, Ebe Stignani, and Martinelli and Falstaff with a fantastic cast including Formichi, Maria Caniglia, and Albanese; and Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer with Herbert Janssen and Kirsten Flagstad, Tristan und Isolde with Lauritz Melchior and Flagstad, Der Ring des Nibelungen with Flagstad as Brünnhilde under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Parsifal with Torsten Ralf and Kerstin Thorborg. By any standard, it was an extraordinary season, rivaled in Covent Garden's history—indeed, in the history of opera in the modern era—only by the fourteen-week season presented on the occasion of the 1911 coronation of George V. Even in the context of such musical excellence, the season's Wagner productions were remarkable, none more so than Charles Moor's staging of Der fliegende Holländer. The production united Kölner baritone Herbert Janssen (1892 – 1965), then starting his second decade on Covent Garden's roster, as the Holländer, Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895 – 1962), still new to Covent Garden (she débuted at the Royal Opera House as Isolde on 18 May 1936: though she was ill with a nasty head cold on her first night, she received fifteen curtain calls at the performance's end), as Senta, Düsseldorf-born tenor Max Lorenz as Erik, and Viennese bass Ludwig Weber (1899 – 1974) as Daland, under the direction of Fritz Reiner (1888 – 1963), also a recent Covent Garden débutant. [His début was in Parsifal with Ralf and Frida Leider on 29 April 1936: he also conducted Flagstad's début and the three subsequent performances of Tristan und Isolde in May 1936.] If there were an operatic Eden, Kirsten Flagstad would surely be its Eve: from her intoxicating example Wagner singing in the later Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries was born. The 11 June broadcast of Der fliegende Holländer is rightly a famous performance. Now, owing to the painstaking restoration and conservation work of Richard Caniell and Immortal Performances, the listener in 2015 can truly hear rather than merely perceiving the performance’s importance. The current Queen could hope for no finer tributes to the musical heritage of the opera company under her patronage and to a tremendously important time in her and her parents’ lives.

Following accomplished but stylistically uncertain early efforts, Der fliegende Holländer was the score in which the twenty-nine-year-old Wagner found his mature voice, a fact that he acknowledged in his sprawling 1851 manifesto Eine Mittheilung an meine Freunde. The Leitmotifs in Der fliegende Holländer are primarily dramatic devices rather than the psychological acuities in musical form that they would become in Der Ring des Nibelungen. The undistorted sound quality achieved by Caniell’s remastering of this performances enables contemplation of the standards of Wagner performance at Covent Garden in Fritz Reiner’s first seasons on the company’s podium. Compelled by the necessity of filling gaps left by portions of the 11 June performance that have not survived, Caniell seamlessly integrated material from other performances: unlike the proprietors of many labels, Caniell provides detailed information about the sources of the excerpts used as patches. The Overture and a few choral interjections before Erik’s entrance in Act Three are sourced from the Metropolitan Opera broadcast performance of 30 December 1950, in which Reiner presided over Hans Hotter’s Holländer and Astrid Varnay’s Senta (Ljuba Welitsch was the originally-scheduled Senta). The continuity of Weber’s Daland and Karl Ostertag’s (1903 – 1979) Steuermann is preserved by using brief passages from a 1936 Munich broadcast conducted by Carl Leonhardt. It was impossible to replicate the scene for Senta and Erik in Act Two with a recording featuring Flagstad and Lorenz, so the scene’s omission sensibly was not rectified. Most importantly, Caniell has corrected and equalized the pitch bar by bar, producing a recording that is a faithful document of how the performance must have sounded in the theatre (or over the wireless) in 1937, in addition to providing extensive, educating rather than pedantic liner notes that provide the listener with fresh insights and a sense of context whether hearing this performance for the first or the fiftieth time.

Under Reiner’s baton, the Covent Garden chorus and orchestra give an invigorating account of Wagner’s score. Neither the choral singing nor the orchestral playing is perfect: the earnestness of their efforts notwithstanding, the choristers often sound stressed by their music, and the instrumentalists make enough mistakes to remind listeners that even in such legendary settings musicians are fallible creatures. Still, the positive effects of what was surely a rigorous regimen of preparation are audible in the work of both chorus and orchestra. Reiner’s pacing of the performance is surprising, especially when compared to the familiar 1950 MET broadcast performance. The expected thrust is present throughout the performance, but there are scenes in which the conducting evinces a profoundly poetic wistfulness. The casts of the Covent Garden and MET performances are very different, of course, but it seems unlikely that this alone accounts for the marked dissimilarities between the two broadcasts. Whatever factors contributed to the nuances of Reiner’s interpretation of the score in London, the results are magical. Owing in large part to the support that they receive from the conductor, the singers are able to create characters who are credible as genuine individuals rather than typical Wagnerian archetypes, and the drama is engagingly visceral, not coldly symbolic. An erotic electricity crackles in the orchestra when the Holländer and Senta interact in Act Two, and the opera’s finale ultimately does not seem—as is usually the case—like an early study for Isolde’s Liebestod and Brünnhilde’s Schlussgesang but like the desperate action of a young woman consumed by a love too great to be sacrificed to conventionality. Reiner’s approach introduces an element of inevitability into the drama that makes the characters’ decisions all the more engrossing. These people are destined to collide, but Daland chooses to offer Senta to the Holländer as a bride in exchange for treasure, and Senta chooses to reject Erik’s warnings and join her fate to the Holländer’s. Her choice is not death: it is merely to follow the man she loves into his world, the eternal sea. Perhaps it would be hyperbolic rhetoric to term this performance visionary, but Reiner’s conducting of this performance conveys a quixotic but very specific exegesis. The keystone of this Fliegende Holländer is introspection. As a manager of musical personnel, Reiner is known to have been an exacting, sometimes intractable figure, but as the manager of this performance he displays perceptiveness unique in both his and the opera’s discographies.

Despite the participation of titans of Wagner repertory, Covent Garden’s Coronation Season Fliegende Holländer had as unified an ensemble cast as has ever been heard in the opera on recordings. Singing Mary, Senta’s nurse, Yorkshire-born contralto Mary Jarred (1899 – 1993) is a lovingly maternal but vivid presence, delivering ‘Ei, fleißig! Fleißig, wie sie spinnen!’ energetically and dotingly. Ostertag shames a number of today’s exponents of his rôle by truly singing the Steuermann’s music. His account of ‘Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer’ is a model of intelligent phrasing.

With the duet for Senta and Erik missing from the recording of Act Two of the 1937 broadcast and no suitable replacement being known to exist, there is only Erik’s scene in Act Three by which to judge Lorenz’s degree of comfort in the music. It is an awkwardly-written rôle, virtually a holdover from Weber’s Der Freischütz or Euryanthe. In the opening of the scene, Lorenz voices ‘Was mußt ich hören! Gott, was mußt ich sehn!’ with frenzied intensity. Reiner sets a measured tempo for the Kavatine, ‘Willst jenes Tags du nicht dich mehr entsinnen,’ enabling the singer to accurately place tones in the upper register and execute the ornaments gracefully. Lorenz sings the top As and B♭ and turns very elegantly indeed. Unlike many Eriks, the character portrayed by Lorenz does not badger Senta: he is none too happy about the path that she chooses, but his concern is that of affection rather than possessiveness. Musically, Lorenz’s voice was an ideal instrument for the rôle: commanding the resources to project over Wagner’s orchestrations, he also had the full range and the sweetness of tone demanded by the part. In this performance, he earns adulation even with nearly half of his music missing.

When Wagner’s libretto suggests that Senta is still in the full flush of youth, why is her father so often depicted as an old man in various stages of decrepitude? Visually, audiences in large theatres may well benefit from the generation gap between father and daughter being made artificially wide, but Wagner’s music for Daland benefits tremendously from youthful, virile singing like that offered by Weber in this performance. Without question, his was one of the finest bass voices of the Twentieth Century, but this Daland is notable for the lightness of both timbre and characterization. In the Act One duet with the Holländer, Weber’s singing of ‘Wie? Hört ich recht?’ is brawny but not unduly heavy. At the time of this performance, he seems to have been capable of doing almost anything he wanted to do with his voice, and his singing of ‘Mein Kind, du siehst mich auf der Schwelle’ and Daland’s aria ‘Mögst du, mein Kind, den fremden Mann’ in Act Two is poised and powerful. His lines in the trio with Senta and Holländer are shaped with dramatic alertness, beginning with a bristling pronouncement of ‘Verzeiht! Mein Volk hält draußen sich nicht meht.’ In Weber’s performance, Daland is his own man and less obviously a prototype for Pogner, König Marke, or Gurnemanz. As Weber portrays him in this performance, Daland is far more winsome than he often is: for once, he is not a figure who seems to have soured in the briny salt air.

From her first note, Flagstad’s Senta is precisely what the label promises—an immortal performance. After seeming to actually enjoy her volleys of ‘Ho jo hoe’ and the like, she phrases the Act Two Ballade, ‘Traft ihr das Schiff im Meere an,’ with unerring control and complete confidence. Her lines in Senta’s duet with the Holländer, launched by ‘Versank ich jetzt in wunderbares Träumen,’ are phrased with imagination and individuality. ‘Wohl kenn ich Weibes heil'ge Pflichten’ is sung with girlish abandon, though there is nothing dainty about Flagstad’s top Bs. The soprano’s upper register likely gains most from Caniell’s stabilization of pitch: aside from a few top notes that sound slightly shrill, Flagstad’s voice is very flatteringly reproduced. Like Dame Joan Sutherland’s early broadcasts, this Fliegende Holländer likely gives a truer notion of the amplitude of the voice than almost any of Flagstad’s too-few studio recordings. The fullness of the middle octave of the voice is surpassed by no other Senta on disc, and those who allege that Flagstad’s singing was matronly throughout her career surely have not heard this release. In fact, her singing in Act Three is particularly significant for its freshness and undiluted expressivity. In the opera’s final moments, her singing of ‘Preis' deinen Engel und sein Gebot! Hier steh ich, treu dir bis zum Tod!’ erupts from the disc with an immediacy that could hardly be greater were the listener in a prime seat in the stalls at Covent Garden. The solidity of the top As and B♭ leaves no doubt about the firmness of Senta’s resolve, but these are not the defiant tones of Isolde or Brünnhilde: these are the sounds of a young woman embracing new, transformed life. Above all, they are the products of one of the world’s greatest voices, here on extraordinary form and finally preserved in sonics worthy of the singing. Also worthy of Flagstad’s artistry—and, from the perspective of this writer, reasons to acquire this Immortal Performances release as compelling as the 1937 Fliegende Holländer—are the 1949 and 1950 San Francisco broadcast recordings of Senta’s Ballade and three of Richard Strauss’s most celebrated Lieder included on the set’s second disc. The passage of twelve years robbed Flagstad of nothing in terms of her vocal and dramatic interpretations of the Ballade, which in the San Francisco performance conducted by San Francisco Opera founder Gaetano Merola has even greater lushness than in the Covent Garden broadcast. Flagstad premièred Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder in London’s Royal Albert Hall on 22 May 1950, less than five months before the performances of ‘Befreit,’ ‘Allerseelen,’ and ‘Cäcilie’ presented here. Though the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier was one of the rôles that Artur Bodanzky charged her with learning before traveling to the USA to fulfill her new contract with the Metropolitan Opera, she never sang any of Strauss’s operas in New York or elsewhere. The availability of these performances of ‘Befreit,’ ‘Allerseelen,’ and ‘Cäcilie’ in such fine sound partially makes amends for the missed opportunities of Flagstad’s Marschallin, Ariadne, and Färberin.

The near-impossible ambiguity of the Holländer is that, in order to be wholly believable in accordance with Wagner’s text, he must sound like both a man reckless enough to have made a deal with the devil and one capable of inspiring the sort of undeviating redemptive love that Senta develops for him. Bringing to the part a voice of a size appropriate for the music, Janssen has no need to cheat at either end of the range as many Holländers have done. Like Flagstad’s and Weber’s, his voice is appealingly spry, but his characterization is guided by an uncommonly thoughtful maturity. In the Act One aria 'Die Frist ist um, und abermals verstrichen sind sieben Jahr,' Janssen is untroubled by the frequent top E♭s, but the most arresting component of his interpretation is the world-weariness that he evinces without warping the vocal line with ponderousness. In the duet with Daland, he sculpts 'Weit komm ich her; verwehrt bei Sturm und Wetter ihr mir den Ankerplatz?' with poignant hesitation, the words those of a man too often injured to risk hoping anew. Janssen and Flagstad spellbindingly portray a man and woman falling in love rather than allegorical representations of sin and redemption in the Holländer’s Act Two duet with Senta, 'Wie aus der Ferne längst vergangner Zeiten.' The dramatic focus and beauty of tone that the baritone exhibits in his singing of 'Du bust ein Engel, eines Engels Liebe Verworfne selbst zu trösten Weiß!' are phenomenal, his security in the high tessitura ushering him into the rarified company of singers who can manage this music without strain. In Act Three, the heartbreak in his articulation of 'Verloren! Ach! Verloren! Ewig verlornes Heil!' is crushing, the climactic top F aimed like an arrow at the heart of fickle destiny. His pronouncement of 'den „fliegende Holländer“ nennt man mich' is crestfallen rather than menacing, the singer projecting the totality of the character’s troubled psyche through those six words. Cumulatively, Janssen is perhaps the most sympathetic Holländer on disc: Schorr had greater tonal orotundity, Nissen equal nobility of demeanor, and Hotter more sheer voice, but no recorded Holländer past or present is as moving as Janssen was in this 1937 performance.

Many singers’ and conductors’ work in Der fliegende Holländer suggests that their notions of effectively performing the opera—the score in which Wagner became Wagner, as it were—are that the composer’s stylistic advancement is best served by making Der fliegende Holländer sound like Tristan und Isolde, Siegfried, or Parsifal. How wrongheaded the 1937 Covent Garden broadcast performance of Der fliegende Holländer proves this to be! As is almost always true in opera, the most effective performances of any score are those in which the characters, however parabolic, are invested with recognizable humanity. Similarly, the most effective recordings are those in which the performances at hand are lovingly prepared and presented. From both of these perspectives, Immortal Performances’ edition of the 1937 Covent Garden Der fliegende Holländer broadcast is one of the most important, most inspiring releases in more than a century of recorded opera.

Charles Moor's scenic design for Act Three of Richard Wagner's DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER in the Coronation Season production of 1937 [Image from the collection of the Royal Opera House, © by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden]Das Geisterschiff: Charles Moor's scenic design for Act Three of Richard Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer in the Coronation Season production of 1937 [Image from the collection of the Royal Opera House, © by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden]