06 June 2015

CD REVIEW: Antonio Salieri – THE CHIMNEY SWEEP (S. Haycock, A. Oomens, A. Farrugia, J. Todd, C. Saunders, D. Woloszko, D. Hidden; Pinchgut LIVE PG005) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart & Salieri – ARIAS AND OVERTURES (S. Guo, K. Tarver; MDG Scene MDG 901 1897-6)

CD REVIEW: Antonio Salieri - THE CHIMNEY SWEEP (Pinchgut LIVE PG005) & Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Salieri - ARIAS AND OVERTURES (MDG Scene MDG 901 1897-6)ANTONIO SALIERI (1750 – 1825): The Chimney Sweep (Der Rauchfangkehrer) [Sung in English]—Stuart Haycock (Volpino), Alexandra Oomens (Lisel), Amelia Farrugia (Mrs. Hawk), Janet Todd (Miss Hawk), Christopher Saunders (Mr. Wolf), David Woloszko (Mr. Bear), David Hidden (Tomaso); Sydney Children’s Choir; Orchestra of the Antipodes; Erin Helyard, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during performances in City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney, Australia, 5 – 7 July 2014; Pinchgut LIVE PG005; 2 CDs, 91:28; Available from Pinchgut Opera] and WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791) & SALIERI: Arias and OverturesSen Guo, soprano; Kenneth Tarver, tenor; Musikkollegium Winterthur; Douglas Boyd, conductor [Recorded in Stadthaus Winterthur, Switzerland, 1 – 8 September 2014; MDG Scene MDG 901 1897-6; 2 CDs, 104:15; Available from Arkiv Music, jpc, and major music retailers]

Though he was born less than six years before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antonio Salieri is often perceived as having been the progeny of a vastly different musical generation. However greatly the composer's recognition may have benefited, the Salieri with whom modern audiences became acquainted via Peter Schaffer's play Amadeus and Miloš Forman's film adaptation is a grotesque bowdlerization of the man one meets in contemporary correspondence and, above all, in his scores. Perhaps there is a measure of truth in the suggestion that Salieri was envious of Mozart's seemingly effortless talent for composition, but history simply does not support the veracity of the animosity that Mozart-friendly narratives have attributed to Salieri. After all, the two composers collaborated on projects including an operatic Sachertorte for Schönbrunn, constituted by Salieri's Prima la musica e poi le parole and Mozart's Der Schauspieldirektor, and Salieri's involvement in the education of Mozart's children after the younger composer's early death suggests anything but a vindictive spirit. There was surely nothing malicious in the reimagining of Salieri's character for stage and screen, but it is regrettable that the composer is now popularly regarded as an antagonist rather than an esteemed colleague of Mozart. As a handful of recordings have proved in the past few decades, Salieri wrote much attractive, interesting music. New recordings from Australia's always-innovative Pinchgut Opera and the acoustically second-to-none MDG label explore the prowess as a composer of opera for which Salieri was renowned throughout Europe during his lifetime. It was an opera by Salieri, L'Europa riconosciuta, that was commissioned for an occasion no less significant to the history of opera than the 1778 opening of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala: thus was the regard that his contemporaries had for his work. Salieri deserves a drastic reassessment, and these intriguing releases permit the listener in 2015 to make the acquaintance of Salieri as he was rather than as he has been portrayed.

First performed at Vienna's Burgtheater on 30 April 1781, slightly more than a year before the première of Mozart's seminal Die Entführung aus dem Serail in the same theatre, Salieri's Singspiel Der Rauchfangkehrer was a considerable success, heard throughout German-speaking Europe until disappearing from the repertory in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Leopold Auenbrugger's cunning libretto, adapted for Pinchgut Opera's production with English lyrics by Andrew Johnston and dialogue by Mark Gaal, is certain to have appealed to the enlightened sensibilities of Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II, by whom it was commissioned: in the course of the obligatory amorous intrigues typical of Italian opera buffa, which Auengrubber and Salieri lampooned in Der Rauchfangkehrer, there are celebrations of archetypal Teutonic character and the superior quality of German music. Still, Salieri was able to flex his native operatic muscles by composing Italian arias for his star pupil, soprano Caterina Cavalieri, who, contrary to what some sources suggest, was born in Vienna and both created the part of Konstanze in the first production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail and sang Donna Elvira in the first Viennese performances of Don Giovanni. Adapting a hybrid work like Der Rauchfangkehrer for the modern stage is not an easy proposition, and this recording, thoughtfully engineered to preserve many of the benefits of live performances and minimize the pitfalls, reveals that Pinchgut Opera's production of the rechristened The Chimney Sweep did not iron out all of the creases in a score that, from Twenty-First-Century perspectives, presents many challenges. Much of the comedy is genuinely funny, but the efforts at matching the opera's spirit to modern sensibilities are occasionally taken slightly too far. Conductor Erin Helyard and the Orchestra of the Antipodes ensure that the sonic landscape of The Chimney Sweep is that of Salieri and late-Eighteenth-Century Vienna, Helyard's tempi logical and the musicians' playing consistently stylish. The Chimney Sweep is perhaps rather like Mozart's Die Zauberflöte in the sense that the music being said to have been composed in the 'popular' style of its time leads to the erroneous belief that it is not difficult. There are fiendish pages in The Chimney Sweep, and it is for the deft handling of them that this recording is most valuable.

Singing the rôle of Tomaso, young baritone David Hidden has few opportunities to display his attractive voice, but he makes the most of his moments in Act Three, the brief aria with chorus of apprentices, enjoyably sung by youngsters of the Sydney Children's Choir, 'You've got all your stuff,' his lines in the ensemble 'Ah, such pain on you inflicted,' and the final aria with chorus 'Long life to all women, all men, and all creatures.' It is hardly unexpected that he has been acclaimed as Mozart's Papageno. Here, Hidden sings very capably, his handsome timbre clearly at the service of astute dramatic instincts.

Composed for celebrated bass Ludwig Fischer, who would go on to create Osmin in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mr. Bear's music takes the singer to D2, and the sonorous bass David Woloszko discloses few signs of discomfort with the tessitura. In his Act One duet with Mr. Wolf, 'Oh thou ecstasy of beauty,' Woloszko grumbles and growls effectively, all while managing to maintain a seamless Classical line. Mr. Bear's aria 'To be a singer of finesse' is a clever homage to music in the vein of Mozart's music for Papageno, but the bass's first-rate patter singing is offset by distracting non-musical 'effects' that are dramatically sensible but musically unnecessary. Again duetting with Mr. Wolf in Act Two, Woloszko sings Mr. Bear's part in 'Let fate use us as she chooses' delightfully, the contrast between his raucous upper and cavernous lower registers put to thrilling comedic use. He voices the aria 'Two thousand guilders placed on trust' with the mock gravity of a basso profundo, and his singing in the trio with Lisel and Mr. Wolf, 'Do you still have reservations,' is engaging. Woloszko is a worthy successor to Ludwig Fischer whose natural aptitude for buffo singing finds an ideal outlet in Salieri's music.

As Woloszko's partner in comedic crime, tenor Christopher Saunders is a light but lithe Mr. Wolf. In the Act One duet with Mr. Bear, 'Oh thou ecstasy of beauty,' Saunders sings with an airy grace, and his lean voice makes a fascinating narrative of his nightmare aria, 'The forest's black.' The duet with Mr. Bear in Act Two, 'Let fate use us as she chooses,' is artfully done, Woloszko and Saunders proving as effective a team as French and Saunders. Saunders the tenor provides a splendid account of the aria 'When the storm has raged for hours,' the voice shimmering. The trio with Lisel and Mr. Bear, 'Do you still have reservations,' finds Saunders at his best. Neither his technique nor his temperament is upset by Mr. Wolf's music, and he is impressively stylish as both a singer and a vocal actor.

Tenor Stuart Haycock brings to his portrayal of Volpino boundless energy and a lively presence that is sure to have been wonderfully effective in the theatre. In Volpino's Act One duet with Lisel, 'Lovely Lisel, my obsession,' Haycock sings affectionately but with a slyness that suggests that obsession may be the most appropriate term for his attention. His traversal of the aria 'Fino fino sopra fino' is assuredly managed, but the excursions into falsetto in the aria 'Augelieti che intorno cantate' are unpleasant for both singer and listener. Haycock ably negotiates the vocal line of the aria 'Questo core sta per voi,' and his performance of 'She and I, we fit so easy' in Act Two is endearing. There are passages in Volpino's music that take the tenor to the boundaries of his technical faculties, but he makes earnest efforts and earns appreciation even when the results are less admirable than the intentions.

Soprano Alexandra Oomens depicts Lisel with glistening tone and well-honed dramatic instincts that contribute to a sweet but sassy characterization. She blends handily with Volpino in their Act One duet, 'Lovely Lisel, my obsession,' and she voices the arias 'My Volpin! I'm feeling flustered' and 'We servants for our pains' with technical acumen to spare. 'Gentle sirs, so kind and caring' in Act Two is lovingly phrased, and Oomens's singing sparkles in the trio with Mr. Bear and Mr. Wolf, 'Do you still have reservations?' In the ensemble that ends Act Two, her resolute delivery of 'To be a master of your fate' is a cornerstone of the scene, and her masterful singing of 'Ah, such pain on you afflicted' in Act Three uplifts the emotional significance of the ensemble. Lisel's aria 'My heart feels so light' receives from Oomens a performance that conveys precisely the spirit of which she sings. The soprano's artistry is a boon to every scene in which Lisel appears, and her voice gives great pleasure throughout the range of the part.

Singing Mrs. Hawk, soprano Amelia Farrugia faces some very challenging music, and the solidity of her technique is evidenced by the assurance with which she traverses the rôle's difficulties. In Mrs. Hawk's Act One aria with 'corrections' by Volpino, 'Se più felice oggetto,' Farrugia executes the complex coloratura dazzlingly except at the very top of the line, and the over-elaborate cadenza takes her beyond the upper extremity of her vocal comfort zone. The aria in Act Three, 'In the grey and gloomy waking,' draws from Farrugia vocalism of the utmost poise. Like Oomens's Lisel, Farrugia's Mrs. Hawk is a joy each time that she perches herself in the drama

Miss Hawk's music was composed to order, as it were, for Caterina Cavalieri, one of the most celebrated singers in Vienna in the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century. She, too, is the victim of a fanciful cinematic depiction: far more people likely think of her as the amiably conceited dolt fabulously portrayed by Christine Ebersole in Forman's Amadeus than as Mozart's first Konstanze. Judging by the music composed for her by Mozart, Salieri, and other contemporaries, Cavalieri obviously was an exceptionally gifted singer, and in this performance soprano Janet Todd gives her all to singing Miss Hawk with elegance and exuberance with which Cavalieri would surely be pleased. In her Act One aria 'Basta, vincesti, eccoli il figlio,' which, like her mother's aria in the same act, also receives corrections from Volpino, Todd shapes beautiful cantilena lines into which bursts of coloratura are integrated with artless fluidity. In both the aria 'Is there any greater crime' and the ensembles at the end of Act One, she sings commandingly, leaving no doubt that even among such a gifted cast of female colleagues Miss Hawk is the opera's prima donna. The English translation makes the wordplay of the Act Three aria 'When the hawk makes her arrival' rather blatant, but Todd's singing restores to the piece a hearty dose of the composer's and librettist's witty humor. In the ensemble 'Ah, such pain on you inflicted,' Todd proves an accomplished stylist and reliable presence above the stave. She distinguishes herself with a performance of precision and pizzazz, her musical and dramatic instincts in near-perfect synchronicity.

Each of Pinchgut Opera's productions reveals new facets of this unique company's resourcefulness, and the founding of the Pinchgut LIVE label for the purpose of preserving their productions on disc is an incalculably rich gift to opera lovers, especially those of us for whom traveling to Australia to witness Pinchgut performances first-hand is impossible. The Australian première of The Chimney Sweep was an event worthy of documentation, and this recording is a riotous souvenir of a grand theatrical event. Its greatest achievement, however, is prompting the listener to think, 'There is some really ripping music in this opera. What treasures are buried in Salieri's other operas?'

Complementing Pinchgut Opera's foray into Salieri's work for the stage is MDG's superb recital of arias and instrumental music by Salieri and Mozart featuring the dauntlessly virtuosic Musikkollegium Winterthur, conductor Douglas Boyd, Chinese soprano Sen Guo, and American tenor Kenneth Tarver. The repertory for this pair of discs could not have been more judiciously selected to show both composers and performers to advantage, and MDG's engineering provides a warm acoustic in which the listener feels relocated to a seat in one of the salons of Eighteenth-Century Vienna in which many of Salieri's and Mozart's works were first heard.

Salieri's skills at composing and orchestrating instrumental music are represented by incisive performances of two of his finest opera overtures, those from his 1785 La grotta di Trofonio, an innovative and often exquisitely-crafted score that deserves to be played far more frequently, and the 1788 Axur, re d'Ormus, also a fine work that merits this further exploration. Under the Scottish-born Boyd's baton, the Musikkollegium Winterthur players perform their parts with unstinting period-appropriate technique, unafraid of emitting discordant sounds when the emotional intensity of the music demands them. Likewise, the spirited accounts of inventive instrument music by Mozart—the 1788 Adagio and Fugue in C minor (KV 546), Sechs Landlerische for two violins and bass (KV 606), the Overture from La clemenza di Tito (KV 621, 1791), and the ballet music from Act Three of Idomeneo, re di Creta (KV 367, 1781)—are marked by stylistic unity that does not interfere with pronounced but unexaggerated differentiation among the varied forms employed by the celebrated Salzburger. It is particularly apparent in these performances that Salieri, though not Mozart's equal as a melodist, certainly was not the insurmountably inferior, unimaginative tradesman that modern depictions have suggested that he was.

Anyone who has heard his performances in recently-released recordings of Händel's Joshua, Mozart's Così fan tutte, and Rossini's La gazza ladra will not be surprised by Tarver's beauty of tone, easy negotiations of high tessitura, and courageous confidence in bravura passages in music by Salieri and Mozart. In Ford's recitative 'Ah vile' and aria 'Or gli affannosi palpiti' from Salieri's 1799 Falstaff, ossia Le tre buffe, he shapes the vocal line with faultless accuracy and absolute control of his technique. In Volpino's 'Augelletti che intorno cantate' [the spelling of 'augelieti' preferred by Pinchgut Opera conforms with Auenbrugger's libretto and Salieri's manuscript, though 'augelletti' is correct in modern Italian] from Der Rauchfangkehrer, Tarver's ascents to the dementedly stratospheric passages are stunning, the kind of singing that earns an operatic 'Do not try this at home' designation. Guo gives radiantly-voiced and magnetically-phrased accounts of Aspasia's recitative 'Come fuggir' and aria 'Son queste le speranze' from Axur, re d'Ormus and the fearsome 'Ah! Lo sento' from L'Europa riconosciuta, the opera that inaugurated Teatro alla Scala. Guo and Tarver unite in a stirring performance of 'Qui dove ride l'aura,' also from Axur, re d'Ormus and one of Salieri's most inspired pieces, their voices intertwining beguilingly.

Composed by Mozart in 1783 for insertion into Pasquale Anfossi's opera Il curioso indiscreto and adapted from a text by Cervantes, 'Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio' (KV 418) is a ferocious beast of bravura writing. The soprano sings it winsomely and braves the ascents to D6 and E6 with vocal security and spot-on intonation. Here and in the recitative 'Mia speranza adorata' and rondo 'Ah, non sai' (KV 416), also products of 1783, Guo's upper register occasionally takes on a slight shrillness, perhaps accentuated by the fullness of the middle octave of her voice. She and Tarver collaborate in one of the finest recorded accounts of 'Spiegarti non poss'io,' the duet for Ilia and Idamante composed in 1786 for a private Viennese performance of Idomeneo: this performance alone renders this MDG release indispensable. The manner in which these artists use their voices, individually and in ensemble, to communicate the most profound nuances of Ilia's and Idamante's love and distress is an ideal example of what makes opera so powerful. With only a few notes, two gifted singers take from Mozart's score undiluted humanity and dispense it to the listener in sounds all the more poignant because they are so alluring. Interacting with Guo as though they were on stage rather than in studio in the recitative 'Non più, tutto ascoltai,' Tarver duets with the violin obbligato in 'Non temer, amato bene' (KV 490, 1786) with equal eloquence, singer and violinist intuitively matching their phrasing. As displays of both superb technique and complete comprehension of Mozartean style, Tarver's singing of the 1783 recitative 'Misero! O sogno, o son desto?' and aria 'Aura, che intorno spiri' (KV 431) is not only the apogee of this pair of discs but one of the most memorable specimens of Mozart tenor singing available on CD, worthy of comparison with legendary recordings by Peter Anders, Julius Patzak, Anton Dermota, Léopold Simoneau, Ernst Häfliger, and Fritz Wunderlich. Tarver's voice flows through the music on this disc with the freshness of the Salzach as it winds its way from the Kitzbühel to Mozart's native Salzburg.

Many Twenty-First-Century listeners who know Antonio Salieri only from his appearances in the cinema and Pushkin's and Rimsky-Korsakov's literary and operatic fantasies on the themes of his life and relationship with Mozart may be surprised by musicologist Alexander Wheelock Thayer's assessment in his book Salieri: Rival of Mozart that, at the time of the death of Emperor Joseph II in 1790, 'to the general operatic public Salieri was certainly the greatest of then-living composers.' The composer Ignaz Franz von Mosel, a pupil of Salieri in Hapsburg Vienna, wrote that his teacher was generally 'in good spirits and full of life; his politeness, his joyous disposition, his jovial and always harmless wit made him one of the pleasantest of companions.' Both Pinchgut LIVE's The Chimney Sweep and MDG's collection of arias and overtures confirm that the qualities that endeared Salieri to his student and biographer are similarly prevalent in his music. These recordings are indeed the pleasantest of companions.