01 May 2015

CD REVIEW: Antônio Carlo Gomes – IL GUARANY (M. Patassini, N. de Castro Tank, J. Perrotta, P. Raymundo, P. Fortes, J.C. Ortiz, R. Lotti, W. Furlan; Andromeda ANDRCD 9115)

CD REVIEW: Antônio Carlo Gomes - IL GUARANY (Andromeda ANDRCD 9115)ANTÔNIO CARLO GOMES (1836 – 1896): Il Guarany—Manrico Patassini (Pery), Niza de Castro Tank (Cecilia), José Perrotta (Don Antonio de Mariz), Paschoal Raymundo (Don Alvaro), Paulo Fortes (Gonzales), Juan Carlos Ortiz (Il Cacico), Roque Lotti (Ruy-Bento), Waldomiro Furlan (Alonso); Orquestra e Coro do Theatro Municipal de São Paulo; Armando Belardi, conductor [Recorded in the studios of the Theatro Municipal de São Paulo, Brazil, in August 1959; Andromeda ANDRCD 9115; 2 CDs, 147:11; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Though it is perhaps the most magnificently fanciful and diverting entertainment devised by mankind, opera nonetheless reflects many of humanity’s darkest shadows. There is greater diversity in opera in 2015 than at any other time since Monteverdi’s L'Orfeo was first heard in the Seventeenth Century, but it cannot be denied by anyone who cares enough for the art form to be honest that prejudices are no less prevalent in opera now than when the color of artists’ skin or their sexual preferences were criteria unapologetically used in assessing the value of their work. Great progress has been made in the integration of the personnel of opera, but the music itself remains almost exclusively the realm of Europeans. North American and Australian composers have gained momentum during the past half-century, but where are their African, Asian, and South American counterparts? Opera in the form of Monteverdi, Mozart, or Massenet is an inherently Western art, one that pretends to ignore gender and ethnicity unless they are dramatically relevant, but it has effectively expanded its influence to envelop the globe. Even now, when artists from every corner of the world are heard in opera houses large and small, it remains rare for an opera by a composer not from Europe or America to be performed on the international circuit. In that sense, the triumphant March 1870 première of Brazilian composer Antônio Carlo Gomes’s Il Guarany at Milan’s iconic Teatro alla Scala was an unprecedented event. Gomes, who was regarded as a peer by no less a master of the genre than Giuseppe Verdi, would surely have preferred that the primary focus of attention be the quality of his score, however. As a pioneering operatic liaison between the Old and New Worlds, Gomes’s significance is tremendous, but the restoration of this winsomely authentic recording of Il Guarany to widespread circulation confirms that the composer not only deserved the esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries but also merits a fair-minded reappraisal in the new millennium.

Recorded under studio conditions in São Paulo in 1959, this performance of Il Guarany has been sporadically available in varying sound on other labels in past, but Andromeda mostly provides clean, slightly boxy acoustics on this release. Though the voices generally have good presence, there are moments in which distortion and peaking mar enjoyment of the performance. The 1959 engineering was far from state of the art even for its vintage, but this Andromeda release facilitates appreciation of Gomes’s craftsmanship without requiring excessive allowances for poor sonic reproduction. Despite the opera’s Italian origins [its first South American production followed the Milan première nine months later, in December 1870], it would be unfair and irrelevant to compare the São Paulo choral and orchestral forces to those of the great opera houses of Italy, but they give a compelling, idiomatic account of Gomes’s music that pulses with dedication and vivacity. Under the baton of Armando Belardi, the Chorus and Orchestra of the Theatro Municipal de São Paulo perform energetically and enthusiastically. The opera’s Overture, occasionally heard as a concert piece, is robustly played: full discernment of orchestral textures is compromised by the watery sound quality, but the instrumentalists’ good intentions are consistently audible. With voices given prominence in the soundscape, the orchestra’s efforts are relegated to the background whenever there is singing, but both the musicians’ fine work and the composer’s gifts for orchestration are apparent, not least in the finely-wrought ballet music. Throughout the performance, the choral singing is engaging if sometimes raw of tone and ensemble. ‘Dal piano al monte ognor’ in Act One establishes an atmosphere of unease, and the Coro di Aimorè in Act Three, ‘Aspra, crudel, terribile,’ is powerfully delivered. Musically, Gomes’s style owes considerable debts to the Donizetti of Caterina Cornaro, Maria di Rohan, and Dom Sébastien and the Verdi of Rigoletto, Il trovatore, and Un ballo in maschera. Clearly influenced by these titans, as well as by Meyerbeer’s Italian operas, Gomes’s style is an interesting hybrid of elements but is not derivative. Maestro Belardi’s tempi provide momentum without unduly rushing any of his personnel. He paces a stylish reading of the score that sounds like a performance of an opera premièred in 1870, which is to say that he takes the opera on its own terms and makes a delightfully uncomplicated argument on its behalf.

A tale of conflict among indigenous peoples and European colonists, Il Guarany has dramatic kinships with Delibes’s Lakmé, Meyerbeer’s L'Africaine, and Verdi’s Alzira, La forza del destino, and Aida. Much of the angst that courses through Verdi’s scores is also present in Gomes’s, and the melodic writing, though seldom as memorable as Verdi’s, is consistently distinguished. Particularly in ensembles, even secondary characters are given lovely music to sing. As the Spanish adventurers Alonso and Ruy-Bento, bass Waldomiro Furlan and tenor Roque Lotti sing capably if not unfailingly steadily, and their fellow Iberian, the Portuguese adventurer Don Alvaro, is portrayed with gusto and pinched, nasal tone by tenor Paschoal Raymundo. Bass José Perrotta sings handsomely as Dom Antonio de Mariz, launching the beautiful ‘Ave Maria’ ensemble with a nobly-phrased account of ‘Salve, o possente vergine.’

The quartet of principals is anchored by baritone Paulo Fortes, who as his surname suggests is a source of strength as the wily Spaniard Gonzales. He voices ‘Allor che annotti’ in Act One with considerable grandeur, and he delivers his lines in ensembles with unstinting power, pushing himself dramatically but maintaining tight control on the voice. In Act Two, Mr. Fortes contributes solid singing in both ‘Tutto è silenzio!’ and the duet with Cecilia, ‘Donna, tu forse l'unica.’ His account of the Congiura in Act Four, ‘In quest'ora suprema,’ crowns an alert, ardent performance in which the singer’s use of text as a roadmap for phrasing is exemplary.

The rôle of Il Cacico, chief of the Aymoré tribe, was originated by the celebrated French baritone Victor Maurel, Verdi’s first Iago and Falstaff and the creator of the part of Tonio—and thus the first interpreter of the famed Prologo—in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Interestingly, Maurel was esteemed by his contemporaries as a singing actor of the highest order rather than as an extraordinary vocalist per se, and similar sentiments might justifiably be expressed about bass Juan Carlos Ortiz, who in this performance is a dominating presence as the implacable chief. He is appropriately pompous in the Act Three Canto di guerra, but he softens both his demeanor and his tone in the duet with Cecilia, ‘Giovinetta, nello sguardo.’ Mr. Ortiz is at his best in the Invocazione, ‘O dio degli Aimorè,’ which he shapes with the fervor of a religious incantation.

Singing Cecilia, Dom Antonio's daughter, soprano Niza de Castro Tank deploys a lyric coloratura voice with a delicate timbre and surprising resources of steely reserve. Born in Limeira near the eastern extremity of the state of São Paulo in 1931, she was educated in the Italianate tradition of Amelita Galli-Curci, whose voice hers resembles in the upper octave. Likewise, her timbre and manner of singing are fleetingly reminiscent of Toti dal Monte, Mercedes Capsir, and Mady Mesplé, as well as the American soprano Ruth Welting. Ms. de Castro Tank’s repertory included virtually every rôle appropriate to her Fach, in many of which she was lauded in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Related in structure to the similarly-conceived number in Bellini’s I Puritani, Cecilia’s Polacca in Act One of Il Guarany, ‘Gentile di cuore,’ has a distinctly Brazilian flavor, and Ms. de Castro Tank revels in its rhythmic fizz. There is sometimes an idiosyncratic element to her management of coloratura that brings the Dutch diva Cristina Deutekom to mind, but the Brazilian soprano soars to—and through—every challenge. The most familiar music in Il Guarany is Cecilia’s duet with Pery, ‘Sento una forza indomita,’ a piece recorded by noted singers including Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso. Ms. de Castro Tank and her Pery sing the duet, not unlike the duet for Amelia and Gustavo in Act Two of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, winningly, nailing the climactic unison top notes. Verdi’s influence is again in evidence in ‘Oh! Come è bello il ciel!’ and the ballata ‘C'era una volta un principe’ in Act Two, Cecilia’s vocal lines recalling Gilda’s ‘Caro nome’ in Rigoletto. The sheen and limpidity of Ms. de Castro Tank’s singing are very effective, and her slightly edgy femininity is never overplayed. She takes on the mantle of a true tragic heroine in the Act Three duet with Il Cacico, and the steadiness of her singing is upset in only a few passages. There is a brittleness to the tone above the stave, but she ascends to D6 with minimal effort. Fine singers of previous generations surely tire of the suggestion that they would have hugely important international careers were they singing today, but Ms. de Castro Tank is is singer of whom this is almost certainly true: in this performance, at least, she is a last exponent of a style of singing that is now not only virtually extinct but also largely forgotten.

The aptly-named tenor Manrico Patassini is a firebrand in the Manrico-like rôle of Pery, son of the chief of the Guarany tribe. What little recognition Il Guarany has claimed in the past quarter-century is largely due to Plácido Domingo’s advocacy for the the score, and he sang Pery to acclaim in Europe and the United States in the 1990s. Despite the participation of singers with names more familiar to modern listeners than those in the 1959 performance, the Sony recording that documents Domingo’s Bonn performances of the opera is, as an introduction to Il Guarany, not markedly superior to this recording. Mr. Patassini lacks Domingo’s vocal glamor, but he has greater reliability and resilience in the upper register. From the opening strains of the Act One duet with Cecilia, ‘Sento una forza indomita,’ Pery’s music makes crushing demands on the tenor’s passaggio, but Mr. Patassini copes impressively. His foremost opportunity for vocal display is the Act Two aria ‘Vanto io pur superba cuna,’ and he holds nothing back. As recorded here, Mr. Patassini is something of an enigma. There are passages in which the voice sounds like that of an able but unexceptional character tenor, but these alternate with stretches in which his singing has the sturdiness and squillo of a near-world-class spinto. The voice is not a polished instrument, but Pery is not a sophisticated character. The earthiness of his singing is entirely credible, and his vocal inconsistencies never lessen the consistent success of his tough, touching interpretation of this volatile character.

Realistically, basic tenets of the economics of opera rather than any bias against South American artists continue to limit the exposure that Antônio Carlo Gomes’s music receives. Spending the money necessary to cast an opera like Il Guarany with singers qualified to sing it, an opera company is compelled to make decisions that are informed by the necessity of maximizing returns on investments. Shortsighted as it may be, it is a fact that a lackluster production of Il trovatore will sell more tickets than a fantastic production of Il Guarany. Especially in the case of music as satisfying as Gomes’s, thoughtfully-produced recordings are invaluable. Money is the single greatest source of prejudice, but Andromeda’s release of this classic performance of Gomes’s operatic masterpiece is a reminder that, in their enduring impact on society, important works of art are subject not to ownership that can be bought or sold but to appreciation that can only be shared.