23 July 2015

DVD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel – RINALDO (A. Giovannini, G. Geier, M. F. Schöder, F. Götz, Y. Adjei, O. Willetts, C. Uhle; Arthaus Musik 102207)

DVD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - RINALDO (Arthaus Musik 102207)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Rinaldo, HWV 7aAntonio Giovannini (Rinaldo), Gesche Geier (Armida, Sirena), Marie Friederike Schöder (Almirena, Sirena), Florian Götz (Argante), Yosemeh Adjei (Goffredo), Owen Willetts (Eustazio), Cornelius Uhle (Mago cristiano); Lautten Compagney Berlin; Wolfgang Katschner, conductor; Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli [Directed by Eugenio Monti Colla; recorded in Ludwigsburg Palace Theatre, Ludwigsburg, Germany, during the Ludwigsburg Festival, 22 – 25 May 2014; Arthaus Musik 102207; 1 DVD (also available on Blu-ray) + 2 CDs, 137:00 + 10:00 bonus material; Available from Arthaus Musik, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Since the days of the pioneering endeavors of Emilio de’ Cavalieri, Jacopo Peri, and Claudio Monteverdi, innovation has been as much a necessity in the contrived, labyrinthine world of opera as in any other artistic genre. Without near-perpetual cycles of reinvention and rejuvenation, opera would be no more interesting or engaging than a school of painting dominated by a single artist. In this spirit, Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli's marionette production of Georg Friedrich Händel's Rinaldo, itself an innovation, having been the first Italian opera composed specially for London, recorded in performance in the lovely Eighteenth-Century theatre in Ludwigsburg's Residenzschloss, is a delightful testament to the efforts of artists, ensembles, and companies of varying resources to not only prolong but enrich opera's life. Performed in the past quarter-century in virtually all corners of the world into which opera has progressed, Rinaldo now rivals Giulio Cesare as Händel's most familiar opera. Its popularity is remarkably timely, the opera's subtext of conflicts among faiths resonating with the Twenty-First Century's struggles with bigotry and fanaticism, but the essence of Rinaldo, like all masterworks of the genre, is timeless. The greatest threat to the long-term survival of opera in the new millennium is neither disinterest nor disapprobation but the collective arrogance of artists, those who represent them, and those who support them. Art exists for its own sake, philosophers have opined, but opera cannot—indeed, should not and must not—exist in the elitist vacuum into which some of today's most gifted artists would force it. Opera was of course conceived as a diversion for popes and princes but in its adolescence made the vital acquaintance of less-exalted personages. The most encouraging aspect of this production of Rinaldo is its complete lack of artifice. Perhaps this seems counterintuitive in the context of a marionette production, but the observer here sees the opera's drama enacted and hears the music performed without the distractions of singers too worried about appearing fat, old, or unattractive to worry about Händel's characters and their motivations. It is disheartening in any context that a focus on voices rather than bodies is an innovation, but it is one that opera now direly needs.

Ancient sources suggest that string-controlled puppets have been used in theatrical performances for at least four thousand years. At the aristocratic courts of Eighteenth-Century Europe, a penchant for marionette opera introduced the centuries-old art of puppetry into the milieu of music's greatest spectacle. Though interest in marionette opera waned after the era in which scores were composed specifically for that purpose by Gluck and Haydn, the tradition was thankfully preserved by enthusiastic advocates, not least in Salzburg—an appropriate locale considering the young Mozart's appreciation for the hybrid art. In later generations, Manuel de Falla's masterful El retablo de maese Pedro and Ottorino Respighi's early La bella dormente nel bosco were composed for marionette productions, and a vestige of the art of marionette opera was honored in Anthony Minghella's much-lauded production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, first seen at English National Opera in 2005 and subsequently presented at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, in which Cio-Cio San's and Pinkerton's son Dolore was portrayed to heartrending effect by a puppet manipulated by black-clad handlers who virtually disappeared into the scenery. The many beauties of this marionette production of Rinaldo illustrate the love, goodness, and optimism that flow through Händel's score without ignoring the danger, violence, and extremism that lurk in its shadows. Realism is rarely the goal of puppetry, but the emotions of Rinaldo are often more visceral in this production than in many performances in which living, breathing singers occupy the stage. The movements of the marionettes are uncannily lifelike, and it is enlightening to discover as the performance progresses how an entertainment that is indelibly associated with children engenders one of the most mature accounts of Rinaldo in the catalogue. This is not a cartoonish production: the prismatic, detailed marionettes and sets evoke a fanciful but never foolish climate in which the opera plays out. So natural and graceful are the motions of the marionettes, maneuvered by artists no less gifted than those charged with performing Händel's music, that it is possible to forget that this is a marionette production. Whether depicting countesses or chambermaids, the goal of opera should always be to convince the audience that what transpires upon the stage is not a representation of something but the thing itself. That so many productions using people rather than puppets fail to meet this goal as memorably as this Rinaldo is indicative not of singers' ineptitude but of production values founded upon cheekbones and waistlines rather than timbres and techniques.

Led by Wolfgang Katschner with reliably appropriate tempi and an unerring cumulative sense of direction, the account of Händel's score given by Lautten Compagney Berlin is distinguished by a pervasive elegance that never inhibits the expression of red-blooded emotions. Shaped by the sonorous playing of lautenists Andreas Nachtstein and Hans-Werner Apel and harpsichordist and organist Mark Nordstrand, the continuo provides the ribs that resiliently protect the heart of the performance, passages of secco recitative enlivened by alternations of instrumental complement that follow emotional threads rather than simplistically contrasting the utterances of different characters. Partnering well-blended string playing, Martin Ripper coaxes beguiling sounds from recorder and flageolet, not least in the avian atmosphere of Almirena's 'Augelletti,' and Eduard Wesly and Christine Allanic produce streams of crystalline tone from oboe and recorder. The wonderfully characterful timbre of Jennifer Harris's bassoon affords great enjoyment whenever it is heard. In the opera's Ouverture, the Preludio in Act One, the Sinfonia in Act Two, and the Marcia and Battaglia in Act Three, as well as in obbligati in arias, the musicians take advantage of every opportunity to reveal the inventiveness of Händel's orchestrations. Hearing a performance as good as this one, it is all the more remarkable that Rinaldo is the work of a composer who was only twenty-six years old at the time of its première.

Formerly a member of the celebrated Dresdner Kreuzchor, young German baritone Cornelius Uhle has only one aria with which to characterize the Mago cristiano, 'Andate, o forti' in Act Three, but he makes every note of it count. There is a quiet dignity at the heart of his brief appearance, and his solid, youthful voice makes a most positive and promising impression.

The first Eustazio, Valentino Urbani, also created for Händel the parts of Silvio in Il pastor fido and Egeo in Teseo but was reputed according to contemporary sources to have been a stronger actor than singer. Händel did not give the character extensive vehicles via which to make his mark, but it is a luxury in this performance to hear his music at all, many productions excising the rôle altogether—indeed, Händel himself cut the part when Rinaldo was revived in 1717. The secure, shapely singing of British countertenor Owen Willetts emphatically warrants the character’s inclusion, however. He sings Eustazio's Act One aria, 'Col valor, colla virtù,' handsomely, and 'Siam prossimi' in Act Two cajoles Willetts to vocalism of great refinement. Had he heard as involved, sincere, and well-sung a performance as Willetts gives here, it is inconceivable that Händel would have suppressed any of Eustazio's music.

After creating Ottone and Pallante in Händel's Agrippina in Venice in 1709, spouses Francesca Vanini-Boschi and Giuseppe Maria Boschi followed the composer to London, where the wife took the part of Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade, in the première of Rinaldo. In this performance, Nürnberg-born countertenor Yosemeh Adjei impersonates Goffredo with vocal strength and an aptly conquering demeanor. He sings Goffredo's Act One arias 'Sovra balze' and 'No, no, quest'alma' with focused tone and technical mastery equal to the demands of the music. Better still is his performance of 'Mio cor' in Act Two. Like singers of yesteryear whose lot it was to be compelled to 'compete' with the Tebaldis, Nilssons, and Bergonzis, Adjei is an excellent singer in an age of world-renowned 'star' countertenors. His performance here confirms that he can hold his own among the best of them.

Having garnered praise for his Pallante in Agrippina, Boschi the husband went on to originate the rôles of Argante in Rinaldo, Achilla in Giulio Cesare, Garibaldo in Rodelinda, Lotario in Flavio, and Araspe in Tolomeo for Händel in London. The music composed for him suggests that, though billed as a bass, Boschi was actually more of a baritone in the modern sense. So, too, is Florian Götz, who is in this performance an Argante well-suited to the range and agility required by the music. In Act One, Götz is a robust if lightweight presence in Argante's aria 'Sibillar gli angui d'Aletto,' but his bravura technique is considerably superior to what many heavier voices can achieve. Götz's flexibility in fast-paced music is admirable, and he has no problems at either end of his range. His phrasing of the aria 'Vieni, o cara' is both affectionate and unmistakably masculine. The magnitude of his singing of 'Basta che sol tu chieda' in Act Two is forceful, and his wryly insinuating manner in recitatives is invigorating. What the voice lacks in raw power the singer proffers in precision, and such attractive, well-trained singing is infinitely preferable to brawny barking—and not only in Händel's music!

Like her colleagues in the inaugural production of Rinaldo, Elisabetta Pilotti-Schiavonetti, the first Armida, would prove a trusted exponent of Händel rôles, eventually also creating Amarilli in Il pastor fido, Medea in Teseo, and Melissa in Amadigi di Gaula. Händel's music for Armida is some of his most difficult, but Gesche Geier here confronts every challenge unflinchingly. In her first line in this performance, Geier demands to be noticed, her voice darting above the stave as though launched from a catapult. Once she has the listener's attention, she fires off a traversal of the aria 'Furie terribili' that leaves no doubt about the meaning of the text whether or not the ears into which her voice rockets understand Italian. Her subtler voicing of 'Molto voglio' is equally gripping, and she dominates Act Two with her scorching delivery of the accompagnato 'Dunque i lacci d'un volto' and aria 'Ah! crudel.' Strangely, her performance of the epic 'Vo' far guerra,' with which Armida duels with the harpsichord to bring down the curtain on Act Two, is tamer than it ought to be despite being very capably sung (and played by Nordstrand). Both Geier and Götz are at their respective bests in Armida's Act Three duetto with Argante, 'Al trionfo del nostro furore.' Soprano and baritone trade volleys of coloratura to stunning effect, proving that Händel's gift for ensemble writing was fully developed from the beginning of his London career.

Almirena was first sung by Isabella Girardeau, a soprano about whom little information survives. Likely born in Italy and married to a Frenchman, she is unknown to musical history prior to 1709 and, if her disappearance from the annals of critics and diarists is suitable evidence, seems to have retired from the stage in 1712. The sensational reception that greeted Almirena's music when Rinaldo was first performed suggests that Girardeau was at worst a very good singer and actress. In this Rinaldo, the only true flaw in soprano Marie Friederike Schöder's magnificently-sung Almirena is an occasional lessening of tonal quality at the very top of her range, where her intonation is sure but the voice is slightly wiry. She introduces herself in Act One with a confident 'Combatti da forte'  that she follows with a mesmerizing 'Augelletti, che cantate.' Her trills are of the Sutherland and Sills class—perfectly-timed, textbook alternations of adjacent pitches. She and Geier blend their voices magically in the Act Two aria for the Serene, 'Il vostro maggio.' The climax of Almirena's musical journey is the ubiquitous sarabande 'Lascia ch'io pianga,' its lilting melody adapted from a dance in Händel's youthful Hamburg opera Almira. Schöder sings the aria with golden tone and understated expressivity, the intensity of the character's emotion heightened by the subtlety of her ornamentation of the da capo. Schöder sings 'Bel piacere' in Act Three with the grace of a ballerina. Grace is the hallmark of her performance as a whole, in fact: wholly free from mannerisms, both her singing and her vocal acting are extraordinary.

The barnstorming rôle of Rinaldo was composed for the admired castrato Nicolini (né Nicolo Grimaldi), also Händel's first Amadigi, and revised in 1731 for the world-famous Senesino. Countertenor Antonio Giovannini shares his illustrious predecessors' legendary agility and, if the opinions of their contemporaries are to be trusted, is as successful at using the voice as a weapon in musical contests of will. In Act One of this performance, Giovannini sings Rinaldo's aria 'Ogn' indugio' handsomely, and he and Schöder intertwine their voices seductively in the duetto 'Scherzano sul tuo volto.' 'Cara sposa' is one of Händel's grandest outpourings of despair in song, and the long melodic lines disclose the shortcomings of the countertenor's technique. His breath control is laudable, but the security that makes his bravura singing thrilling temporarily deserts him in the extended phrases of 'Cara sposa.' His 'Venti, turbini' is predictably heart-stopping, however. Giovannini and Geier rip through Rinaldo's duetto with Armida in Act Two, 'Fermati!' The aria 'Abbruccio, avvampo e fremo' is also sung with vigor. Giovannini contributes his best singing in Act Three, the aria 'È un incendio' dispatched with aplomb. In the break-neck 'Or la tromba,' he is in favored vocal territory. The coloratura is effortlessly but dizzyingly tossed off, and the voice rings out spectacularly. Rinaldo is not a rôle to be sung on a whim, and Giovannini's performance reflects earnest conscientiousness. There are better voicings of 'Cara sposa' on disc, but there are few more pulse-quickening, sincerely touching Rinaldos than Giovannini's.

In recent years, opera has been assaulted by virtually every conceivable idiocy of staging, many of which were perpetrated in the name of ensuring the genre's artistic and financial solvencies. What so many directors, production designers, and managers seemingly fail or refuse to understand is that, whatever the intention, devoting piles of money to putting stupidity upon the stage is, in a word, stupid. Shock has its place in opera, but the shock must be to the heart and mind, not to the ephemeral senses. This production of Rinaldo, strikingly original and beautifully filmed, shocks not with cheap sensationalism but with an abiding commitment by everyone involved with the production to faithfully but imaginatively expressing every sentiment with which the famously difficult but deeply sensitive Händel enveloped his music. If only this were commonplace! In truth, though, performances of this quality are not, have never been, and never will be ordinary.

21 July 2015

CD REVIEW: Leonardo Vinci – CATONE IN UTICA (J. Sanco, F. Fagioli, V. Sabadus, M. E. Cencic, V. Yi, M. Mitterrutzner; DECCA 478 8194)

CD REVIEW: Leonardo Vinci - CATONE IN UTICA (DECCA 478 8194)LEONARDO VINCI (circa 1696 – 1730): Catone in UticaJuan Sancho (Catone), Franco Fagioli (Cesare), Valer Sabadus (Marzia), Max Emanuel Cencic (Arbace), Vince Yi (Emilia), Martin Mitterrutzner (Fulvio); Il Pomo d’Oro; Riccardo Minasi, conductor [Recorded in Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, 27 February – 7 March 2014; DECCA 478 8194; 3 CDs, 233:42; Available from DECCA Classics, Amazon (USA), fnac, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

In order to meaningfully advocate for the music of a forgotten composer, generalities must be avoided at all costs. It is informative in the most basic manner to state that a composer was a contemporary of this or that more famous name, but does this motivate a listener to hear that composer’s music with intensified interest? In the case of Leonardo Vinci, generalities sadly must do. Not even the year of this gentleman’s birth is known with certainty, but the anecdotal evidence of his extant scores, particularly his operas, offers glimpses of an unexpectedly unique voice that seems likely to have been heard with no little pleasure and appreciation during the first three decades of the Eighteenth Century. Furthermore, accounts of Vinci’s death, surely too salacious to be wholly apocryphal, are themselves the stuff of opera: allegedly murdered by the jealous husband of a poorly-chosen paramour, the Calabrian composer was at most forty years old at the time of his death in May 1730. A life little longer than Mozart’s, a demise worthy of Don Juan, and a gift for composing for the stage that prompted the genesis of several of the famous Metastasio’s most persuasive libretti: what more could be needed to rekindle interest in Vinci’s music in the Twenty-First Century? Recent years have taught artists and audiences alike that not every excavation among the brittle pages of libraries and archives unearths an unheralded masterpiece deserving of exhibition, but Max Emanuel Cencic, Georg Lang, and Parnassus Arts Production have frequently proved to possess the musical Midas touch. In their hands and those of Il Pomo d'Oro, Riccardo Minasi, and a superb cast, Vinci’s Catone in Utica is indeed a golden treasure. In generations past, DECCA was the label of authoritative performances of the operas of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini: in the new millennium, it is the home of innovation that unites the rediscovered past with the ever-transitioning future. Perhaps verifiable knowledge of Leonardo Vinci is mostly confined to generalities, but the virtues of this recording of his Catone in Utica are very specific.

First performed in Rome in 1728, Catone in Utica fell victim to the papal ban on theatrical performances by female artists founded upon too-literal interpretations of Scripture dating from the Pontificate of Leo IV in the Ninth Century, reinforced by Sixtus V in the 1580s and Innocent XI in the 1680s. Further creative manipulations of scriptural and ecclesiastical opinions on the rôles of the sexes in musical performances both liturgical and theatrical instituted the phenomenon of the castrato. As in an earlier opera like Stefano Landi’s 1632 Il Sant'Alessio, in which Cencic was unforgettable as the Sposa (the title saint's abandoned wife) in a touring production with Les Arts Florissants, even the female rôles in the first production of Catone in Utica were assigned to male singers. Strange as it may seem when viewed from the perspectives of modern notions of gender in opera, the recreation of this aesthetic permits heightened appreciation of the timbral homogeneity that composers such as Landi and Vinci likely expected to hear in scores created for all-male casts. To the credit of everyone involved with this recording, the casting of male singers in female rôles is managed completely without affectation: indeed, reversing the gender paradigm, female Cherubinos, Tancredis, Octavians, and Komponists could learn much from this recording about allowing text and musical context to convey a character's sex. Still, there are passages in which the interchanges of male voices, exacerbated by the preponderance of secco recitative, introduce dramatic inertness: though the singers make admirable efforts to differentiate their timbres, it is possible if not listening carefully to lose track of the plot. The continuo created by Federica Bianchi’s harpsichord and Simone Vallerotonda’s theorbo is splendidly effective at sustaining momentum, but the task is a difficult one. On the whole, though, Catone in Utica is an inspired work, Vinci’s craftsmanship rarely falling below the level of that of his best-known contemporaries, and this recording introduces the opera to the listener with a performance from which emanates passion that, as Beethoven suggested, makes perfection inconsequential.

Directed by violinist and conductor Riccardo Minasi, the musical magicians of Il Pomo d'Oro cast enthralling spells in virtually every bar of their parts. The tripartite Sinfonia with which the opera begins is played with rapier’s-point rhythmic accuracy, establishing the taut metrical atmosphere of the performance as a whole. Minasi’s affinity for Vinci’s idiom is immediately apparent, his tempi bringing the moods of each aria into sharp focus even before the singers utter a line of text. Whatever the circumstances of his musical education were, Vinci acquired a consummate mastery of the orchestra of his time, and his instrumental writing in Catone in Utica discloses a cleverness that rivals the work of Telemann and Vivaldi. Minasi and Il Pomo d’Oro are clearly no less inspired by Metastasio’s libretto, the poet’s first for a Roman theatre, than was Vinci himself, the sounds with which they support the singers’ enunciations of the words judged to enable nuanced inflections. Equals among virtuosi, bassoonist Anna Flumani, oboists Emiliano Rodolfi and Federica Inzoli, trumpeter Jonatha Pia and horn players Dileno Baldin and Francesco Meucci garner admiration for the brilliance and pulchritude—not always qualities present in performances featuring period instruments—of their playing. The strings also deliver first-rate accounts of their parts, avoiding the acidic sounds and inflexible sawing inflicted upon many performances. In a garden of fruits as sweet as those cultivated on these discs, the work of Minassi and Il Pomo d’Oro is indeed a gilded apple of special savoriness.

In the title rôle, that of the Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis, Spanish tenor Juan Sancho contends with exacting music composed by Vinci for Giovanni Battista Pinacci, the Florentine tenor who created parts in Ezio and Sosarme, re di Media for Händel in London and sang Artabano in the 1731 revival of Vinci’s Artaserse. Continuing the legacy of Gasparini’s Il Bajazet and Händel’s Tamerlano, Catone in Utica was notable in the Eighteenth Century for depicting the suicide of a lead character, facilitating display of the acting skills for which Pinacci was renowned, not least in London, where his interpretation of Händel’s Bajazet was lauded by both the composer and his public. In Act One of Catone in Utica, Sancho battles manfully with the trumpet obbligato in the aria 'Con sì bel nome in fronte,’ the fine calibre of his singing jeopardized only by a final cadenza that takes him uncomfortably high. Competing with the horns in 'Si sgomenti alle sue pene il pensier di donna imbelle,' the tenor’s articulation of the unconventional vocal line occasionally makes the aria sound like a refugee from Vinci’s beloved Neapolitan opera buffa, but he dispatches the coloratura with absolute confidence. The contrapuntal writing in Catone’s Act Two aria 'Va', ritorna al tuo tiranno, servi pur al tuo sovrano,' the melodic line again punctuated with outbursts of frenzied coloratura, draws from Sancho singing of incredible technical acumen, something also devoted to his stimulating performance of the aria agitata 'Dovea svenarti allora che apristi al dì le ciglia,' its music so reminiscent of Vivaldi. Catone has no arias in Act Three, but he here has the challenge of the emotionally-charged accompagnati with which Vinci limned the character’s suicide. In Sancho’s performance, Catone takes leave of a life that has become hateful to him with dignity that does not preclude blinding flashes of anger. There is just enough of an edge on Sancho’s tone in the upper register to sometimes make his Catone sound more sophomoric than stoic, but the ease with which the singer executes Vinci’s most daunting feats is imposing.

Having recently been signed to a long-term recording contract by Deutsche Grammophon, still a rare relationship among the few remaining major labels and singers within his Fach, Argentine countertenor Franco Fagioli here sings Cesare, the rôle created in 1728 by world-famous castrato Giovanni Carestini. More than any of the other rôles in Catone in Utica, Cesare was composed almost to order, as it were, with the goal of showcasing the astounding capabilities of Carestini’s voice. Some of the part’s bravura passages are beastly, but Fagioli tames them with singing that never deviates from the exalted standard set in his performance of the Act One aria 'Nell'ardire che il seno t'accende,' in which he makes love in music with delicate trills matched by the strings. No less captivating is his voicing of 'Chi un dolce amor condanna,' a bewitching number in the gallant style of Pergolesi. 'Soffre talor del vento i primi insulti il mare' in Act Two is a simile aria of the type frequently encountered in Baroque opera, its billowing horns and cascades of coloratura tempered by pregnant pauses that Fagioli infuses with a serenity almost as engaging as his rapid-fire coloratura. The breakneck roulades and punishing intervals of 'Se in campo armato vuoi cimentarmi' render the aria as much of an exercise for the singer as for the trumpeter and timpanist, but this singer is never outshone by his orchestral colleagues. With an arching violin obbligato that brings to mind the ravishing ‘Sovvente il sole’ from Vivaldi’s Andromeda liberata, Cesare’s 'Quell'amor che poco accende' in Act Three is as stunningly beautiful as any aria composed in the Eighteenth Century, and Fagioli’s performance of it is worthy of the music, the upper register glowing. As recorded here, his mezza voce has a ‘spin’ as alluring as those of Zinka Milanov and Michel Sénéchal.

Marzia, Catone’s fiery-spirited daughter, was sung in the première of Catone in Utica by the soprano castrato Farfallino (né Giacinto Fontana), the ‘little butterfly’ of Roman Baroque opera. When Catone in Utica was produced in Naples in 1732, the celebrated Faustina Bordoni assumed Marzia’s identity. Despite his gender, it is intriguing to conjecture whether the portrayal of Marzia in this performance by Romanian countertenor Valer Sabadus is more like Farfallino’s or Bordoni’s. Sabadus’s unique, silvery timbre causes Marzia to sound more petulant than she might if sung by a warmer, more conventionally feminine voice, but he sings the music so capably that the acerbic shadow cast by his vocalism seems justified by the character’s dramatic predicament. The necessity of negotiating the difficult vocal line of the Act One aria 'Non ti minaccio sdegno, non ti prometto amor' causes the words to be lost, and the aria’s close is undermined by a strange cadenza that leads nowhere, but the voice shimmers. The aria 'È follia se nascondete, fidi amanti, il vostro foco' receives from Sabadus a beguiling performance, and the gossamer strains of 'In che t'offende se l’alma spera' in Act Two are eloquently elucidated. The accompaniment of 'So che godendo vai del duol che mi tormenta' sounds as though borrowed from Vivaldi’s mandolin concerti, and Sabadus shapes the vocal line with poetic sensitivity. In Act Three, the aria 'Confusa, smarrita, spiegarti vorrei che fosti' is nobly sung, and the powerful accompagnato ‘Pur veggo alfine un raggio’ in the scene at the ancient aqueduct—deemed an inappropriate setting for evocation of the glories of Imperial Rome by Vinci’s audience—lures from Sabadus polished but dynamic vocalism. He soars in Marzia’s lines in the quartetto with Cesare, Catone, and Emilia, 'Deh! in vita ti serba,' interacting with his colleagues with unforced synergy. Throughout his performance, a few of Sabadus’s highest notes are slightly uncomfortable, and notes at the bottom end of resolved cadences tend to disappear. Nonetheless, there is no condescension in the artfully-conveyed femininity of his Marzia: he sings the music without artifice and trusts Metastasio and Vinci to communicate the character’s gender identity to the listener.

It was to Bolognese castrato Giovanni Battista Minelli, a widely-lauded singer who created rôles for virtually every Italian composer of importance in the first three decades of the Eighteenth Century, that Vinci entrusted the part of Arbace. It was recorded by his contemporary Giambattista Mancini that Minelli possessed a two-octave contralto voice of uncommon distinction, distinguished by near-perfect trills and mordents. One might think that Mancini was describing Max Emanuel Cencic. The Croatian-born countertenor complements the fantastic string playing in Arbace’s Act One aria 'Che legge spietata che sorte crudele' with formidable evenness of tone and tasteful ornamentation. Then, he responds to the whirling string figurations in 'È in ogni core diverso amore' with singing of sparkling sensuality. 'So che pietà non hai, e pur ti deggio amar' in Act Two is phrased with tremendous imagination. It is with 'Che sia la gelosia un gielo in mezzo al foco' that Arbace brings down the curtain on the second act, and it is difficult to imagine Minelli, for all his gifts, singing the aria more compellingly than Cencic. The grandeur of all that has come before notwithstanding, it is the Act Three aria 'Combattuta da tante vicende' that is the pinnacle of Cencic’s performance. He rockets through the fiendish coloratura with calm aplomb, but it is the sheer loveliness of his voice that refuses to be forgotten. Cencic’s presence on disc in general is exemplary, but his Arbace in this recording of Catone in Utica is the work of an artist with few peers in any Fach.

Christened Emilia by Metastasio and Vinci rather than the Cornelia familiar from Haym’s and Händel’s—and, by extension, Bussani’s and Sartorio’s—Giulio Cesare in Egitto, the rôle of Pompey’s widow was taken in the first performance of Catone in Utica by Giovanni Ossi, a star pupil of Gasparini. The Emilia of California-bred countertenor Vince Yi is a study in contrasts. At first, Yi's voice, though attractive and ably-produced, seems debilitatingly pale in comparison with Fagioli's, Sabadus's, and especially Cencic's instruments, lacking the weight of tone to meaningfully evince the grieving Emilia’s vengeful bloodlust, yet Yi's tones soon reveal a haunting ambiguity. In the Act One accompagnato ‘Io con quest’occhi, io vidi splender l’infame acciaro,’ the young singer is at once poised and perfervid, and the aria 'O nel sen di qualche stella' is voiced with authority despite the relative shallowness of the timbre. Yi's traversal of 'Un certo non so che veggo negli occhi tuoi' is tranquil but not complacent, his wonderful upper register heard to optimal advantage. The first of Emilia's arias in Act Two, 'Per te spero e per te solo mi lusingo e mi consolo,' is an unusual number that exploits the dramatic possibilities of accelerandi, and Yi tellingly explores the expressive possibilities of music and text. His voicing of 'Se sciogliere non vuoi dalle catene il cor' is no less fetching. Yi proves a model to his colleagues in the alternation of private and public sentiments: asides are handled with atypical credibility in this performance by all of the singers. Vinci’s Emilia is not as endearing and approachable a character as Händel's Cornelia, but Yi's subtle, unfailingly appealing singing invests her with a pragmatic determination that sighs when other, less insightful singers' portrayals might shout.

Tyrolean tenor Martin Mitterrutzner portrays Fulvio, created by Filippo Giorgi, Porpora’s preferred Varo in his setting of Metastasio’s Ezio, with dramatic vigor and vocal freshness. From the opening phrase of Fulvio’s Act One aria 'Piangendo ancora rinascer suole la bella aurora,' Mitterrutzner wields strikingly handsome tone, easy command of broad tessitura, and crisp trills. The diaphanous G-minor melodic line of 'Piangendo ancora' is caressed by the tenor's plangent tone, his elegant phrasing seconded by Minasi's aristocratic management of the minuet rhythm. The Act Two aria 'Nascesti alle pene, mio povero core' is voiced engrossingly. 'La fronda, che circonda a' vincitori il crine,' Fulvio's aria in Act Three is a bravura tour de force, and Mitterrutzner excels in it. The solid technical foundation upon which his well-integrated vocal registers are laid is heartening in a young singer, and the anticipation of future marvels—his Idomeneo is destined to be legendary—encouraged by this performance is thrilling.

In an age in which enterprising artists and ensembles have before them means of rediscovering and exploring neglected repertory that could hardly have been imagined just a generation ago, it is frustrating to note the frequency with which opera companies that might, even with relatively modest resources, mount unforgettable productions of rejuvenated operas like Leonardo Vinci's Catone in Utica forgo opportunities for innovation in order to put on tired, often badly-sung performances of Rigoletto, Carmen, and La bohème. These scores have of course earned their places in international repertory, but, more than many of their Twenty-First-Century admirers might suspect, Verdi, Bizet, and Puccini respected and honored the achievements of their operatic forebears. To suggest that Rigoletto, Carmen, and La bohème would have been impossible without Catone in Utica is to stretch the point, but this phenomenal recording of the opera proves that Vinci’s music is by no means undeserving of performance alongside the works of the best of his contemporaries. With Catone in Utica joining acclaimed recordings of Händel’s Alessandro and Hasse’s Siroe, re di Persia, the commitment of DECCA and Parnassus Arts Productions to retrieving wonderful music from the shadows of history is thriving. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it has achieved miracles for Catone.

19 July 2015

ARTS IN ACTION: Great cast, great conductor, and great hope unite in Greensboro Opera’s LA CENERENTOLA

ARTS IN ACTION: Greensboro Opera brings Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA to the Gate City, August 2015

Though music from the opera was performed on the company’s stage as early as 1883 and its short-lived touring National Company included the score in its repertory, it was not until 1997 that Gioachino Rossini’s 1817 gem La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo received its Metropolitan Opera première. Since that time, Rossini's bittersweet take on the familiar tale of Cinderella and her dashing prince has been heard at the MET only thirty-eight times, a strangely brief history for an opera that at least since its triumphant outing at Glyndebourne in the early 1950s has been one of its composer’s most popular works. [In comparison, Rossini’s until-recently-little-heard Guillaume Tell has been performed thirty-one times by the MET in New York and on national tours, though not since 1931. The final performance of Il barbiere di Siviglia of the 2014 – 2015 Season was the company’s 613th presentation of that work.] Introduced to MET audiences by Cecilia Bartoli, Angelina’s music has since been sung by a sextet of distinguished but very different Rossinians: Jennifer Larmore, Theodora Hanslowe, Sonia Ganassi, Olga Borodina, Elīna Garanča, and Joyce DiDonato, whose most recent performances were announced as her last portrayals of the eponymous heroine. In terms of appreciation of the demands that it makes of singers, La Cenerentola is in danger of being a victim of its own growing popularity: not only is the opera now performed by companies with resources insufficient to assemble casts capable of meeting Rossini’s requirements but the sheer familiarity of the story—anyone expecting glass slippers and a fairy godmother will be disappointed—can also create an illusion of simplicity. From this perspective, the Greensboro Opera production of La Cenerentola coming to Aycock Auditorium in August is poised to offer both regional and major companies throughout the world a vitally important lesson in the thoughtful production of the opera: combine clear-sighted management of available resources, uncompromising musicality, and the kinds of diligence and hard work so habitual to poor Cinderella, and the result is opera that does not lugubriously strive to be relevant for modern audiences but simply, mesmerizingly is relevant.

ARTS IN ACTION: Maestro WILLIE ANTHONY WATERS, conductor of Greensboro Opera's production of Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, August 2015 [Photo uncredited, © by Pinnacle Arts Management]The Bloke with the Baton: Maestro Willie Anthony Waters, conductor of Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo uncredited, © by Pinnacle Arts Management]

The vision of Greensboro Opera Artistic Director David Holley is to bring opera to the Gate City community with a level of professionalism that rivals the work of companies with larger markets, larger stages, and larger budgets. This Greensboro Opera’s Cenerentola is likely to achieve even more completely than the company’s impressive January 2015 production of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment [reviewed here]. A conductor’s importance in a stylish performance of a bel canto score is too often underestimated, perhaps because too many conductors’ efforts are underwhelming, but this is sure not to be the case with Willie Anthony Waters on the podium for Cenerentola. Formerly Artistic Director of Connecticut Opera, one of the most lamentable casualties of the economic difficulties of the first decade of the present century, Waters is a conductor whose versatility is an offspring not of necessity but of natural aptitude and musical adventurousness. Having honed his skills in opera houses large and small, his work has encompassed acclaimed performances in cities as musically diverse as San Francisco and Miami, where his leadership of a 1990 production of Bellini’s Norma with Carol Neblett was rightly legendary. Central to Waters’s artistry is an innate comprehension of the bel canto core of virtually all repertory: whether pacing Norma’s ‘Casta diva,’ Sieglinde’s ‘Du bist der Lenz,’ or Tosca’s ‘Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore,’ Waters seeks—and invariably finds—the rhythmic pulse of the music and uses it as a tool to develop and maintain stylistic consistency and support singers. His command of ensembles is among the most notable characteristics of his work with Martina Arroyo’s Prelude to Performance training program for young singers. The real pity is that, thus spoiled, few young singers are privileged to work with conductors as gifted as Waters in the early years of their professional careers. His inherent mastery of the obvious and more clandestine constructions of ensembles qualifies him as an ideal conductor for Cenerentola. Despite well-documented laziness and a laissez-faire attitude towards repurposing music from his own scores (the secco recitatives and three often-omitted concerted numbers in Cenerentola were composed by Luca Agolini, and the opera’s famous Overture originated in Rossini’s charming but now-forgotten La gazzetta), the Pride of Pesaro was a careful craftsman, but many performances are content to substitute blindly manic energy for properly-channeled intensity. Indeed, far too many performances treat Cenerentola as a two-and-a-half-hour prelude to its famous rondo finale. With Waters at the helm, Greensboro Opera’s Cenerentola has special potential to be one in which Rossini’s genius is uncommonly apparent from beginning to end, with every bel canto felicity given an opportunity to emerge from the zany drama.

ARTS IN ACTION: Mezzo-soprano SANDRA PIQUES EDDY, Greensboro Opera's Angelina in Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, August 2015 [Photo by Cory Weaver, © by Sandra Piques Eddy]Charming Cenerentola: Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy, Greensboro Opera’s Angelina in Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo by Cory Weaver; © by Sandra Piques Eddy]

As the long-suffering Angelina and her regal rescuer, Greensboro Opera’s production partners two of America’s most gifted young singers, mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy and tenor Andrew Owens. Coming to Greensboro with a triumphant turn as Angelina in Opera Saratoga’s production of Cenerentola mere days in her past, Eddy is a singer who possesses physical and vocal beauty—which is to say a natural Angelina. With a repertory of acclaimed interpretations of rôles in operas ranging from Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea to Muhly’s Two Boys [I first heard her in the season of her MET début as a sapphire-voiced Dienerin in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten], the native Bostonian brings to her Greensboro performances an impressive Rossinian résumé that includes Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia and both Isabella and Zulma in L’italiana in Algeri. Of her Opera Saratoga Angelina, critic Joseph Dalton wrote in The Times Union that ‘her legato phrasing could suggest a demure presence but the rich bloom of her upper range revealed the princess in waiting.’ With an exceptional blend of tonal sheen and technical brilliance, Eddy’s Angelina needs only a prince with similar traits to complement her. In Greensboro as in Saratoga Springs, Owens guides her to fulfillment of her magnanimous destiny. A student of the unjustly-overlooked tenor Enrico Di Giuseppe, Owens honed his craft in the now-endangered Grand Tradition as a member of the young artists’ ensemble of Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, where he shone even among such high-wattage luminaries as Plácido Domingo. Recently, he lent greater attractiveness than might have been thought possible to the awkwardly-written music for Chevalier Léon in Darius Milhaud’s La mère coupable. His portrayal of Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola was among his most admired Vienna rôles, and he pledged his troth to Eddy’s Angelina at Opera Saratoga with what Joseph Dalton described as ‘soaring high notes.’ Owens is the rare artist who fully deserves the distinction of tenore di grazia: unlike many pretenders to Ramiro’s throne, Owens is both graceful and a true tenor.

ARTS IN ACTION: Tenor ANDREW OWENS, Greensboro Opera's Don Ramiro in Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, August 2015 [Photo by Igor Bakan, © by Andrew Owens]Prince of Tate Street: Tenor Andrew Owens, Greensboro Opera’s Don Ramiro in Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo by Igor Bakan, © by Andrew Owens]

For the parts of the wily Dandini and curmudgeonly Don Magnifico, Holley strikes vocal and comedic gold with the casting of baritone Sidney Outlaw and bass-baritone Donald Hartmann. Already a celebrated Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, his inaugural interpretation for Atlanta Opera praised by Andrew Alexander in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for its ‘fresh sense of playfulness,’ Outlaw makes his rôle début as Dandini in this production. Hailing from Brevard, North Carolina, Outlaw shares Owens’s experience in the music of Darius Milhaud, having sung Apollo in the University of Michigan performances of L’Orestie d’Eschyle that yielded the GRAMMY®-winning NAXOS recording. His repertory ranging from Mozart’s Così fan tutte to Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero and Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, Outlaw returns to North Carolina with an ironclad technique and stirringly handsome voice refined through education and experience. A highlight of Greensboro Opera’s Cenerentola is bound to be Outlaw’s Dandini’s Act Two encounter with Hartmann’s Magnifico. A splendidly animated Sulpice in Greensboro Opera’s La fille du régiment, Hartmann is a droll comedian to the Rossinian manner born, his Magnifico contributing grandly to the success of Opera Roanoke’s March 2015 production of Cenerentola. In addition to anchoring performances throughout the United States with his granitic voice and assertive stage presence, Hartmann is an esteemed member of the UNCG School of Music, Theatre, and Dance voice faculty, in which capacity he imparts elements of his stagecraft to the next generation of memorable singing actors. With Outlaw’s Dandini and Hartmann’s Magnifico sparring, Eddy’s Angelina and Owens’s Ramiro romancing, Waters presiding, and Holley guiding, Greensboro Opera’s Cenerentola is anticipated to be an event that Rossini would have enjoyed as much as North Carolina audiences are certain to do.

ARTS IN ACTION: Baritone SIDNEY OUTLAW, Greensboro Opera's Dandini in Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, as Figaro in Atlanta Opera's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA in April 2014 [Photo by Ken Howard, © by Atlanta Opera]Rollicking Rossinian: Baritone Sidney Outlaw, Dandini in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, as Figaro in Atlanta Opera’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, April 2014 [Photo by Ken Howard, © by Atlanta Opera]

Greensboro Opera’s performances of La Cenerentola are scheduled for 28 and 30 August in Aycock Auditorium on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Greensboro Opera’s website or phone the box office at 336.272.0160.

ARTS IN ACTION: Bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN, Greensboro Opera's Don Magnifico in Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, August 2015 [Photo uncredited, © by Donald Hartmann]Magnificent Magnifico: Bass-baritone Donald Hartmann, Greensboro Opera’s Don Magnifico in Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo uncredited, © by Donald Hartmann]

09 July 2015

RECORDING OF THE MONTH / July 2015: Richard Wagner – TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (L. Melchior, K. Flagstad, M. Klose, K. Branzell, H. Janssen, P. Schöffler, S. Nilsson; Immortal Performances IPCD 1042-4)

CD REVIEW: Recording of the Month / July 2015 | Richard Wagner - TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (Immortal Performances IPCD 1042-4)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Tristan und Isolde—Lauritz Melchior (Tristan), Kirsten Flagstad (Isolde), Margarete Klose (Brangäne, Acts I & II), Karin Branzell (Brangäne, Act III), Herbert Janssen (Kurwenal, Acts I & II), Paul Schöffler (Kurwenal, Act III), Sven Nilsson (König Marke), Booth Hitchin (Melot), Parry Jones (Stimme eines jungen Seemanns), Octave Dua (Ein Hirt), Leslie Horsman (Ein Steuermann); Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK, on 18 June 1937 (Acts I & II) and 22 June 1937 (Act III); Immortal Performances IPCD 1042-4; 4 CDs for the price of 3, 295:27; Available from Immortal Performances]

Oh, to have been in London in the Spring of 1937, when the Royal Opera House celebrated the coronation of King George VI with as much operatic pomp and circumstance as could be created upon the Covent Garden stage! In the span of ninety days, fashionable Londoners—and, in some cases, wireless listeners—heard a mind-boggling company of the best singers and conductors from Britain, America, and Continental Europe in operas both familiar and unfamiliar. Contemporary press not unexpectedly focused on who was there and what they wore, but the Coronation Season was not merely a see-and-be-seen affair: Immortal Performances’ releases of the 1937 broadcasts of Der fliegende Holländer [reviewed here] and Tristan und Isolde confirm that the musical personnel were committed to honoring His newly-crowned Majesty with performances of uncompromising quality. The romantic leads of the Coronation Season Tristan und Isolde, Lauritz Melchior (1890 – 1973) and Kirsten Flagstad (1895 – 1962), were in their incomparable primes in 1937: they were frequently heard in these rôles during the next decade, both together and separately, but never again quite as they were in the broadcast performances preserved on this Immortal Performances release. Superlatives are often meaningless in opera, every pair of ears hearing voices and performances differently, but it is impossible to overstate the significance and sheer glory of this performance, particularly when it can finally be heard in sound that enables full discernment not just of the magnificent climaxes but also of the countless minutiae that foster them. Is this the finest Tristan und Isolde on disc? Each individual listener must answer that question for himself, but here is a piece of friendly advice: if your answer is ‘No,’ be prepared to defend it when this writer asks, ‘Which, then, is better?’

The earnest Wagnerian laments few of the cruelties of operatic fate more than the failure of broadcasters and record labels to preserve a substantially-complete Tristan und Isolde with Frida Leider, the preeminent Isolde of the entre-deux-guerres years. Leider sang the first Isolde of Covent Garden’s Coronation Season on 14 June, a performance in which contemporary accounts reported her to have been on near-best form, but, as Richard Caniell writes in the typically extensive and lavishly informative liner notes that accompany this painstakingly-remastered recording, providing not only words of wisdom about both performers and performances but a plethora of superb, rarely-seen photographs, the sole focus of British HMV’s recording efforts was on preservation of Flagstad’s Isolde. With an Isolde such as Flagstad’s captured at its vocal and dramatic summit, it seems unpardonably ungrateful to bemoan the missed opportunity of memorializing Leider’s interpretation of the part. Still, considering HMV’s almost comically inept endeavors, perhaps it is better to have no Leider Isolde than to be subjected to an exasperatingly poor one. Owing to Caniell’s technical and musical erudition, the Coronation Season broadcasts—in the context of this release, a complete performance compiled from Acts One and Two of the 18 June broadcast and Act Three of the 22 June outing—can now be heard in clear, properly-pitched restorations that shame many broadcast recordings of decades later. With original source materials now more than seventy years old, there are unavoidable imperfections, but what is perfection in the context of performances such as these? The beauty of Melchior’s timbre, surpassed by no other Tristan heard in the sixty-five years since he last sang the rôle at the Metropolitan Opera in 1950, and the amplitude and opulence of Flagstad’s voice are magnificently evident on Immortal Performances’ discs: that alone is an achievement that transcends clinical notions of perfection.

Substantively, Tristan und Isolde is no less evocative of the sea than Der fliegende Holländer, and this has rarely if ever been more apparent than in Sir Thomas Beecham’s (1879 – 1961) management of this performance. The lapping of the waves against the hull of the ship is felt in Act One, though not via the nausea-inducing fluctuations in pitch that afflict other labels’ editions of this performance, and the chill of the Cornish climate slashes in the orchestra during Brangäne’s Watch in Act Two. So attuned are Beecham’s tempi to nuances of both text and orchestration that the listener can virtually sense, even after seventy-eight years, the sloshing of Brangäne’s fateful potion in the cup, the night air caressing the faces of Tristan and Isolde in their love duet, and the cold penetration of Melot’s sword. As in most recordings of Covent Garden performances of similar vintages, neither the orchestral playing nor the choral singing is absolutely first-rate in these performances [in addition to a complete performance consisting of the combined music from the 18 and 22 June broadcasts, Caniell provides an embarrassment of riches by also including the complete Act Two from the 22 June performance on a bonus disc—gratis!], but the standards that Beecham achieved are often little short of miraculous. Few conductors whose approaches to Tristan und Isolde are preserved on records have mastered both the nuances and the broader construction of the score as Beecham does in these performances, and appreciation of this is intensified by the fact that the momentum that builds in Acts One and Two from the 18 June performance continues unabated in Act Three from the 22 June performance, there being virtually no indications in terms of dramatic impetus that the opera’s concluding Act is drawn from a different show. This should not suggest that there are any deficiencies of spontaneity or individuality in Beecham’s conducting. Rather, there are abiding consistencies of emphasis and dramatic thrust that are possible only with absolute familiarity with the score. In Beecham’s handling, the famous Tristan chord seems not so much a musical innovation as an inevitable musical linchpin in the tonal construction of the opera as a whole. The dramatic significance of the augmented intervals and harmonic suspension throughout the score is intuitively highlighted by Beecham, and his conducting of the Vorspiel that begins the opera spawns incredible tension that persists until the last bar of the Liebestod. The Liebestod is at once the most extraordinary portion of Beecham's Tristan and the zenith of Caniell's endeavors. The severely-cracked condition of the original source disc necessitated punctilious conservation in order to faithfully reproduce the singular authority of Beecham's reading of the scene. The mammoth crescendi with which Beecham resolves the musical quandaries of love's transcendence—crescendi too ambitious for HMV's microphones—here thunder forth as Beecham intended. Were there no other recordings of Beecham’s conducting, neither his groundbreaking Berlioz nor Händel, no Zauberflöte with Lemnitz and Rosvaenge or Bohème with de los Ángeles and Björling, this Covent Garden Tristan und Isolde would more than suffice as proof of Beecham’s genius.

When first heard as the Stimme eines jungen Seemanns in ‘Westwärts schweift der Blick; ostwärts streicht das Schiff’ at the start of Act One, Welsh tenor Parry Jones (1891 – 1963), a versatile singer who both was a member of the D’Oyly Carte company and sang parts as heavy as Waldemar in Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder and Wagner’s Tannhäuser, sounds slightly out of sorts, but his forwardly-placed timbre makes a strong impression in his voicing of ‘Wehe, wehe, du Wind! – Weh, ach wehe, mein Kind! – Irische Maid, du wilde, minnige Maid!’ The voice of Flagstad spreads into the auditorium like the wings of a great eagle with her exclamation of ‘Wer wagt mich zu höhnen?’ Who, indeed, might dare to mock such a woman? Berlin-born mezzo-soprano Margarete Klose (1899 – 1968) was among the few singers of the Twentieth Century endowed by nature with a voice appropriate for Brangäne, and she here sings the rôle splendidly, often stunningly, beginning with a beautifully-projected ‘Blaue Streifen stiegen im Osten auf’ that shudders with enigmatic unease. She responds to Flagstad’s volcanic singing of ‘Zerschlag es dies trotzige Schiff, des zerschellten Trümmer verschling’s!’ with frenzied intensity in her voicing of ‘O weh! Ach! Ach des Übels, das ich geahnt!’ Their interview is interrupted by the Seemann, whose ‘Frisch weht der Wind der Heimat zu’ Jones sings lyrically. As Isolde gazes at Tristan, Flagstad’s phrasing of ‘Mir erkoren, mir verloren, hehr und heil, kühn und feig!’ is magical, the meter and Leitmotiv already unmistakably foreshadowing the Liebestod. The innocence of Klose’s ‘Frägst du nach Tristan, teure Frau?’ is answered by the harsh determination of Flagstad’s ‘Der zagend von dem Streiche sich flüchtet, wo er kann, weil eine Braut er als Leiche für seinen Herrn gewann!’ There is poetry even in Kurwenal’s brief warning to Tristan as Brangäne approaches, ‘Hab acht, Tristan! Botschaft von Isolde,’ as sung by Herbert Janssen (1892 – 1965), who—unsurprisingly to anyone who has heard his Holländer in Immortal Performances' recording of the Coronation Season Der fliegende Holländer—is an uncommonly thoughtful Kurwenal. From his first ‘Was ist? Isolde?’ as he receives the nervous Brangäne, Melchior’s Tristan is, even alongside Flagstad’s Isolde on standard-setting form, the true glory of this recording. The layers of meaning in Tristan’s ‘Was meine Frau mir befehle, treulich sei’s erfüllt’ are conveyed by the sheer loveliness of Melchior’s tone. Taking his cue from Melchior, Janssen devotes attractive sounds to Kurwenal’s goading, dispatching the top Fs in his song with sonorous ease.

In the third scene of Act One, Klose and Flagstad interact with utter synchronicity as the enraged Isolde launches her Narration and Curse. Flagstad seems barely able to contain her fury as she sings ‘Wie lachend sie mir Lieder singen, wohl könnt auch ich erwidern!’ Klose misses none of the irony of ‘O Wunder! Wo hatt’ ich die Augen? Der Gast, den einst ich pflegen half,’ Brangäne’s coy disbelief contrasting with the stinging bitterness of Isolde’s ‘Da Morold lebte, wer hätt’ es gewagt uns je solche Schmach zu bieten?’ Something near the full power of Flagstad’s voice is unleashed in ‘O blinde Augen! Blöde Herzen! Zahmer Mut, verzagtes Schweigen!’ The pair of top Bs on ‘mit ihr gab er es preis!’ and ‘mir lacht das Abenteuer!’ are struck like hammer blows, the intonation spot-on. Unlike many Brangänes, Klose has no need to resort to faking the top A on ‘O Süsse! Traute! Teure! Holde! Goldne Herrin! Lieb’ Isolde!’ A profound sadness flows through Flagstad’s voicing of ‘Ungeminnt den hehrsten Mann stets mir nah zu sehen, wie könnt ich die Qual bestehen,’ the simplicity of her utterance reflected in the girlish lilt of her phrasing. The horror of Brangäne’s cry of ‘Der Todestrank!’ when Isolde reaches for the death potion is startlingly enacted by Klose. The sailors’ ‘Ho! he! ha! he! Am Untermast die Segel ein!’ has rarely seemed more intrusive than in this performance.

Even in the jaunty ‘Auf! Auf! Ihr Frauen! Frisch und froh! Rasch gerüstet! Fertig nun, hurtig und flink!’ Janssen’s Kurwenal is a hearty but not unrefined fellow. He meets with a decidedly haughty Isolde, epitomized by Flagstad’s defiant delivery of ‘Du merke wohl, und meld es gut! Nicht woll ich mich bereiten, ans Land ihn zu begleiten.’ There is the slightest hint of amusement in Janssen’s rejoinder of ‘Sicher wisst, das sag’ ich ihm: nun harrt, wie er mich hört!’ Isolde’s mood hardly improves upon Tristan’s arrival, Flagstad lashing him with her singing of ‘Wüsstest du nicht, was ich begehre, da doch die Furcht, mir’s zu erfüllen, fern meinem Blick dich hielt?’ The ferocity with which Melchior and Flagstad spar as Isolde recalls her vow to have vengeance for the slain Morold is thrilling, but even this is dwarfed by the vehemence of Flagstad’s declamation of ‘Siech und matt in meiner Macht, warum ich dich da nicht schlug?’ Klose braves the high tessitura of ‘Wehe! Weh! Unabwendbar ew’ge Not für kurzen Tod! Tör’ger Treue trugvolles Werk blüht nun jammernd empor!’ unflinchingly. Anyone who maintains that Flagstad was a matronly singer of unthawing Nordic coolness should hear the tingling eroticism that surges through her singing as Brangäne’s potion alters Isolde’s disposition. She and Melchior intone ‘Wie sich die Herzen wogend erheben!’ expressively, their ringing expressions of love giving way to panic as they realize that their bodies are in thralls of passion, not impending death, and that the Cornish shore is before them.

As in the Vorspiel, Beecham ignites a blaze of menacing sensuality in the opening pages of Act Two. The duality of the first scene, Brangäne’s desperation growing as Isolde’s longing for Tristan’s return blossoms, is indelibly imparted by Klose and Flagstad, the latter’s voice taking on the bright gleam of the torch of which she sings in ‘Zur Warte du: dort wache treu! Die Leuchte, und wär’s meines Lebens Licht, – lachend sie zu löschen zag ich nicht!’ Melchior’s adrenalized ‘Isolde! Geliebte!’ and Isolde’s animated ‘Tristan! Geliebter!’ commence an impeccably-vocalized, intoxicatingly expressive exposition of the majestic love duet. The top Cs famously supplied by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in the 1952 studio recording conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler held no terrors for Flagstad in 1937, the notes produced in this performance—and in Act Two from the 22 June performance—with virtually no stress. The tenor and soprano sing ‘O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe, gib Vergessen, dass ich lebe’ hypnotically, again revealing the gravity of the music’s relationship with the Liebestod. Klose fills the long lines of Brangäne’s Watch with firm, focused tone, her diction in ‘Einsam wachend in der Nacht, wem der Traum der Liebe lacht’ enhancing the impact of her warning. Melchior and Flagstad phrase ‘O ew’ge Nacht, süsse Nacht!’ with tremendous tenderness.

The panic of Janssen’s articulation of Kurwenal’s ‘Rette dich, Tristan!’ proves justified when Booth Hitchin, about whom little is documented except that he sang frequently throughout the British Isles in the 1920s and ‘30s and was variously billed during his career on stage and in recording studios as tenor, baritone, and bass, snarls Melot’s ‘Das sollst du, Herr, mir sagen, ob ich ihn recht verklagt?’ The antidote to Hitchin’s petulant Melot is the solemn Marke of Swedish bass Sven Nilsson (1898 – 1970). The fortitude of Nilsson’s singing of ‘Tatest du’s wirklich? Wähnst du das” Sieh ihn dort, den treuesten aller Treuen’ is rousing, but his heartbroken elocution of ‘Mir dies? Dies, Tristan, mir? – Wohin nun Treue, da Tristan mich betrog?’ is profoundly moving. His singing of the towering monologue, ‘Wozu die Dienste ohne Zahl, der Ehren Ruhm, der Grösse Macht, die Marken du gewannst,’ is imposing, the voice not always perfectly steady but the interpretation unerringly dignified. Melchior’s Tristan is crushed by the weight of his betrayal, and the tenor communicates ‘Wohin nun Tristan scheidet, willst du, Isold’, ihm folgen?’ with sorrow that is only partially remedied by Flagstad’s resolute statement of Isolde’s ‘Wo Tristans Haus und Heim, da kehr Isolde ein.’ Hitchin’s ‘Verräter! Ha! Zur Rache, König! Duldest du diese Schmach?’ is capably sung and wholly repulsive. Melchior voices ‘Mein Freund war der, er minnte mich hoch und teuer’ plaintively before precipitating the tragedy to come.

The performance of Act Three on this recording dates from 22 June, when Brangäne was sung by Karin Branzell (1891 – 1974) and Kurwenal by Paul Schöffler (1897 – 1977). The first voice heard is that of the Hirt, however, and tenor Octave Dua (né Leo van der Haegen; 1882 – 1952) sings ‘Kurwenal! He! Sag, Kurwenal! Hör doch, Freund!’ and ‘Eine andre Weise hörtest du dann, so lustig, als ich sie nur kann’ effectively. Schöffler’s gruff Kurwenal declaims ‘Endlich! Endlich! Leben, o Leben! Süsses Leben, meinem Tristan neu gegeben’ resonantly but without the sensitivity that Janssen likely brought to the passage. Melchior and Schöffler converse with the camaraderie of old friends as Tristan’s delirium deepens, both gentlemen coping with the demands of Wagner’s music with little strain. The emotional tempest that Beecham conjures in Tristan’s death scene roars through Melchior’s and Flagstad’s singing. Tristan is one of those characters whose death throes often seem to go on longer than is credible even in opera, but Melchior makes every word, every resplendently-sung top A indispensible. His final ‘Isolde!’ is piercing: it penetrates the listener’s heart as palpably as it shatters Isolde’s. Like Hitchin, baritone Leslie Horsman is little remembered, but he sings the Steuermann’s brief interjection ably. Branzell’s Brangäne is surprisingly of a piece with Klose’s, her ‘Isolde! Herrin! Glück und Heil! Was seh’ ich! Ha! Lebst du? Isolde!’ abounding with sisterly concern. Nilsson extracts every modicum of feeling from Marke’s lines ‘Du treulos treuster Freund!’ and ‘Die Ernte mehrt’ ich dem Tod: der Wahn häufte die Not.’

Flagstad’s singing of the Liebestod in this performance is perhaps her finest extant elucidation of a scene to which she brought awe-inspiring singing and emoting throughout her career. When she sings ‘Mild und leise wie er lächelt,’ Tristan’s smile seems to materialize in the mind’s eye, and her vision of ‘Immer lichter wie er leuchtet, sternumstrahlet hoch sich hebt’ is caressed with such a prodigious outpouring of tone that the glow of her love ascending to the heavens seems almost tangible. ‘Hör ich nur diese Weise,’ Isolde asks, but Flagstad renders the wondrous, gentle melody audible to the listener with excruciatingly beautiful tone. The final F♯ at the top of the stave is like a teardrop falling back to earth from the height to which Isolde has flown on the back of love that cannot, will not die. Flagstad the great singer is in this performance, and especially in this Liebestod, undeniably, unforgettably Flagstad the great artist.

In the recording of Act Two from the 22 June performance generously included on this release, Flagstad and Melchior sing with immediacy equal to that heard in their 18 June traversal of their music, and Branzell sings Brangäne’s Watch almost as idiomatically as Klose. Schöffler’s is a vastly different, considerably sterner Kurwenal than Janssen’s. Also included as a welcome appendix is an enlightening excerpt from a BBC discussion by John Steane about Covent Garden’s seasons between the World Wars, and a grandly ceremonial performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Flourish for a Coronation by the London Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra, nobly conducted by Beecham in April 1937, is a delightfully undemanding companion to the 22 June broadcast of Act Two on the bonus disc.

In many cases, the fervent eulogies orated by opera lovers for bygone eras of great singing are little more than peevish words that bemoan the failures of individual predilections. There are great singers at work in 2015: many of them now sing Monteverdi or Händel rather than Verdi or Wagner, but changing tastes and evolving technical capabilities grant opera a resiliently cyclical life—not the life for which those who love operas like Tristan und Isolde above all others hope but a life nonetheless. Hearing Immortal Performances’ recording of Covent Garden’s 1937 Tristan und Isolde is nothing short of a spiritual experience. This is a performance that confirms that, even if only for a season, there was a Golden Age of singing not so long ago. To a degree, it is damning to contemplate the reality that artists like Beecham, Melchior, and Flagstad cannot be replicated in conservatories, rehearsal rooms, or lecture halls, but knowing this Tristan und Isolde is not to grieve for the impossibility of surpassing it: it is to rejoice in the ability to strive in every performance that one hears, sees, or gives to honor it. Hearing this Tristan und Isolde disseminates through music the knowledge that Shakespeare deemed ‘the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.’

08 July 2015

CD REVIEW: K. A. Hartmann, M. Weinberg, and D. Shostakovich – WARTIME CONSOLATIONS (Linus Roth, violin; Challenge Classics CC72680)

CD REVIEW: K. A. Hartmann, M. Weinberg, & D. Shostakovich - WARTIME CONSOLATIONS (Challenge Classics CC72680)KARL AMADEUS HARTMANN (1905 – 1963), MIECZYSŁAW WEINBERG (1919 – 1996), and DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975), : Wartime Consolations – Music for ViolinLinus Roth, violin; José Gallardo, piano; Württemberg Chamber Orchestra Heilbronn; Ruben Gazarian, conductor [Recorded at Kulturforum Saline, Offenau, Germany (Hartmann and Weinberg), and Motormusic Studios, Mechelen, Belgium (Shostakovich), 22 – 24 January 2015; Challenge Classics CC72680; 1 CD, 55:28; Available from Challenge Classics, Amazon (UK), jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

No matter how many discs one hears in the course of a week, a month, a year, or a lifetime, there are occasionally discs that one immediately recognizes as special, discs to which one turns again and again, always sensing that they are significant, sometimes universally and sometimes individually, in ways that the vast majority of recordings cannot emulate. There are performances like Pau Casals’s Bach recordings that are now perceived as hopelessly unstylish but nonetheless possess a magnetism and an abiding musicality that are never outmoded. There are performances like Kirsten Flagstad’s Fricka in the DECCA Das Rheingold that are indispensable in spite of—or perhaps because of—flaws. There are performances like Arthur Rubinstein’s Chopin recordings that forever alter perceptions of the interpretive relationships among composers, musicians, and instruments. In the context of today’s Classical recording industry, what Dickens might justifiably have described as at once the best of times and the worst of times, a disc like violinist Linus Roth’s Wartime Consolations is a much-needed oasis of pure oxygen—and, indeed, an oasis and not a mirage that ultimately disappoints—amidst a smog-smirched desert clouded by a continuing sandstorm of aimless recordings of over-exposed standard repertory. For all their attractiveness and perhaps even necessity in the marketing of recordings, thematic concepts are a deceptive danger to artistic achievement. Too often, the drive to partner works that adhere to an unifying concept produces programmes of poorly-matched music and haphazard performances: pairing two pieces on a themed disc solely because of their relationship to a common concept, ignoring the quality and stylistic symmetry of the music and artists’ ability to perform it, defrauds composers, musicians, and listeners. Exploring the shared associations of music for violin by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Mieczysław Weinberg, and Dmitri Shostakovich, Wartime Consolations establishes a template for insightfully-planned and meaningfully-executed concept discs. As in so many aspects of Music and Art in general, ego cannot sustain a recording, however intelligently planned. Only fervor born of understanding, preparation, and acquiescence to the power of the music at hand can do that, and in the discerningly-chosen music on Wartime Consolations Linus Roth’s fervor hoists this disc into the company of those special recordings that educate and enchant in equal measures.

​Born in Munich in 1905, Karl Amadeus Hartmann was a pupil of Anton Webern and Joseph Haas, himself an accomplished composer and a fearless champion of music banned by the Third Reich. Following the example of his mentor Hermann Scherchen, who relocated to Switzerland and refused to conduct in his native Germany during the Second World War, Hartmann forbade performances of his music in Germany whilst the Nazi regime remained in power. Composed in 1939, the work that would eventually be known as his Concerto funebre was first performed by violinist Karl Neracher in 1940: after undergoing minor revisions by the composer, the piece was premièred in its final form in 1959 by acclaimed violinist Wolfgang Schneiderhan, husband of the great soprano Irmgard Seefried. Playing the 1703 Antonio Stradivari violin that belonged in the Nineteenth Century to French violinist and composer Charles Dancla, Roth phrases the violin solo in the concerto’s first movement, Introduktion (Largo), with boundless imagination, contrasting the confidence of the solo line with the agitation in the orchestra, sonorously imparted by conductor Ruben Gazarian and the musicians of the Württemberg Chamber Orchestra Heilbronn. Hartmann often ventures to the boundaries of tonality but stops short of diving headlong into the dodecaphony of Schönberg and Webern, utilizing an individual musical language that proves to be a native tongue for Roth. He responds to the broad construction of the Introduktion with a controlled expansiveness wholly appropriate to the soloist-centric nature of the music. Under Gazarian’s sympathetic baton, the uncertainty that permeates the Adagio lurks just beneath the surface, Roth’s subtle playing washing over the restless accompaniment with the stilling effect of twilight on rough seas. In the Allegro di molto, soloist and orchestra spar urgently, the immediacy of the solo line complemented by the disquieting agitation in the orchestra. Roth, Gazarian, and the Württemberg players interact as though engaged in mortal combat conducted in chamber music. The thematic material of the closing movement, Choral (Langsamer Marsch), is derived from ‘Unsterbliche Opfer,’ a German song of remembrance to which Hartmann was likely introduced by Scherchen, who made its acquaintance whilst in Russia during the First World War. Shostakovich also used the melody in his Eleventh Symphony, an homage to the victims of the Revolution of 1905. In Hartmann’s setting, the tune undergoes a transformation from an elegy for victims of conflict into a statement of unconquerable hope. Roth finds in the arching, lyrical lines of his part music to which his faultless intonation, superb legato, and understated vibrato are ideally suited. It is lamentable that playing beautifully is often not esteemed as an element of virtuosity as it deserves to be: the gorgeous tones that Roth draws from his violin are certainly a prime trait of his superlative technique.

So great is his love for the Warsaw-born composer’s music that Roth facilitated the establishment of the International Mieczysław Weinberg Society with the goal of remembering, promoting, and celebrating this neglected master and the legacies of suffering and survival that shaped his artistry. The depths of the violinist’s advocacy for Weinberg’s music are never more apparent than when he plays works like the Opus 42 Concertino. Completed in July 1948 during a holiday that, like Mahler’s retreats to Steinbach am Attersee, enabled the composer to temporarily shed his melancholic sophistication amidst the impersonal equality of nature but never performed in Weinberg’s lifetime, the Concertino taps a stratum of guardedly optimistic lyricism. In the Allegretto cantabile first movement, Roth and Gazarian again cooperate with remarkable symbiosis, the subtle accents of the violinist’s playing answered by similar emphases in the orchestra. The central movement, Cadenza (Lento – Adagio), bristles with uncomplicated tunefulness that Roth translates into compelling assertions of humanity. The taxing solo writing in the ​Allegro moderato poco rubato final movement is supported by surprisingly simplistic orchestral accompaniment, delivered by the Württemberg musicians with impeccable ensemble. The spellbinding pyrotechnics display of Roth’s playing is an outstanding finale to a work that should be performed far more often.

Weinberg’s Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes (Op. 47, No. 3), originally composed for orchestra alone and performed here in an arrangement for violin and orchestra by violinist and composer Ewelina Nowicka, was written in 1949 and can be viewed as a piece intended to conform to the burgeoning effort to celebrate the USSR by assimilating the folk musics of constituent nations into the sanctioned concert works of the Soviet state. This apparent bow to Soviet dictates was a ruse, however: the themes rhapsodized by Weinberg are Moldovan in name only, their origins being in the ethnic Jewish community rather in a defined nationalistic vein. Being Jewish themes, it is hardly surprising that they are splendidly tuneful or that Weinberg dealt affectionately with them. Alongside the Symphonies and works like the Concertino, the Rhapsody is a lighter, sunnier piece. Perhaps this, too, is an element of its purposefully placatory constitution. Roth reacts as energetically to Weinberg’s brighter idiom as to his bleaker Concerto and chamber music for violin, previously recorded for Challenge Classics. The appealing melodies are sensitively but stirringly rendered by Roth, who plays the Rhapsody not as a frivolity but as a little-known vista of an atypically untroubled episode in Weinberg’s creative life.

Like Franz Schubert’s Eighth Symphony—or the Seventh, if one prefers: modern society cannot agree even on a matter such as the numbering of a symphony—and Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Unfinished Sonata for Violin and Piano is a work that possesses tremendous expressive power even in its limbless form. The single Moderato con moto movement, composed only days after the end of World War II in 1945 and here recorded for the first time, is a profoundly personal piece, roughly contemporaneous with the composer’s extroverted, diaphanous Ninth Symphony. Collaborating with Argentine pianist José Gallardo, Roth’s playing immediately gets at the heart of Shostakovich’s music, and violinist and pianist manage to convey a full spectrum of emotions in the course of the five-and-a-half minutes of surviving music. Indeed, the completeness of their performance of the Moderato con moto mitigates the regret that Shostakovich never finished the Sonata.

The music of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Mieczysław Weinberg, and Dmitri Shostakovich performed on Wartime Consolations illustrates the capacity of Art to alleviate the anguish of the darkest periods in human history. Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, the unparalleled destruction of those horrific years are still felt. They are felt in Linus Roth’s playing on this disc, but this is music-making that heals the wounds of war and its aftermath. The work of one of the Twenty-First Century’s most perceptive artists, Wartime Consolations is a fittingly tender tribute not only to three important composers but also to happy memories of the family, friends, and colleagues they—and we all—lost to inhuman aggression.

07 July 2015

CD REVIEW: Henry Purcell – DIDO AND AENEAS (R. Lloyd, R. Davies, E. Manahan Thomas, R. Morris, E. Irving, J. Harper, M. Golding; Signum Classics SIGCD417)

CD REVIEW: Henry Purcell - DIDO AND AENEAS (Signum Classics SIGCD417)HENRY PURCELL (1659 – 1695): Dido and Aeneas, Z. 626Rachael Lloyd (Dido), Robert Davies (Aeneas), Elin Manahan Thomas (Belinda), Roderick Morris (Sorceress), Eloise Irving (Second Woman, First Witch, Spirit), Jenni Harper (Second Witch), Miles Golding (Drunken Sailor); Armonico Consort; Christopher Monks, Musical Director [Recorded in the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London, England, on 20 and 21 October 2014; Signum Classics SIGCD417; 1 CD, 50:45; Available from Signum Classics, ClassicsOnline HD, Amazon, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

In August 1940, as the tide of war swept across Europe and over the English Channel into Britain, Sir Winston Churchill famously rallied his countrymen with unforgettable words of gratitude for the awe-inspiring efforts of the Royal Air Force: ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ If the field under consideration were opera in Britain and the entity deemed so few a simple quantity of notes, a related sentiment might justifiably be expressed about Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. Frustratingly, so much of what is ‘known’ about Purcell’s concentrated operatic masterpiece is actually conjecture for which factual substantiation is scant and often subject to individual interpretation. A matter of certainty is that the libretto for Dido and Aeneas is a simplification of Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid undertaken by the Dublin-born eventual Poet Laureate of England, Nahum Tate, who when not occupied with putting figures from Antiquity upon the theatrical and operatic stages was all too happy to tinker with Shakespeare. Precisely where, when, and by whom Dido and Aeneas was first performed cannot be ascertained with any degree of certainty, but the impact of that inauspicious beginning on the development of opera in and beyond the British Isles is indisputable. What is known with relative sureness is that Dido and Aeneas, Purcell’s first opera and only through-composed vocal work for the theatre, had been performed in dancing-master Josias Priest’s school for young ladies at Gorge’s House in Chelsea—one of the most fashionable addresses in Seventeenth-Century suburban London—by July 1688. No manuscript score survives, and the sole authentic Seventeenth-Century source, a printed copy of Tate’s libretto, may or may not have been published in conjunction with the opera’s première, but since the opera’s resurrection for commemorations in 1895 of the bicentennial of the composer’s death, Dido and Aeneas has a place of deserved prominence in the annals of opera in English. A singer as important as Kirsten Flagstad deemed Purcell’s Dido worthy of inclusion in her repertory alongside Wagner’s Elsa, Elisabeth, Brünnhildes, and Isolde, singing the Carthaginian queen in performances in Bernard Miles’s 200-seat Mermaid Theatre in the St. John’s Wood section of London and recording the rôle for HMV. Nancy Evans and Dame Joan Hammond had already recorded Dido before Flagstad’s surprisingly stylish interpretation was committed to vinyl in 1952, ushering in an era of rediscovery that continues to periodically redefine standards of performance of Purcell’s music in the Twenty-First Century. From the revival of interest in Dido and Aeneas in 1895 unto the present day, a progression of accomplished ladies ranging from Britons Dame Janet Baker, Josephine Veasey, Dame Emma Kirkby, and Sarah Connolly to Americans Tatiana Troyanos, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Vivica Genaux have given the ill-fated Dido a legacy as multi-faceted as that of any heroine in opera. Approaching the opera on the scale on which it is likely to have been staged in Purcell’s time, Signum Classics’ studio recording featuring Armonico Consort offers an uncomplicated reading of Dido and Aeneas that serves as a well-timed reminder that, whether an opera was written in 1688 or 1988, the foremost historically-informed, period-appropriate performance practice is sincerity.

Armonico Consort’s Artistic Director Christopher Monks presides from the harpsichord over a performance notable for both its seriousness and the consistency of its musical accents. Purcell was an unsurpassed master of stylistic assimilation, his scores synthesizing aspects of trends from Continental Europe and the British Isles into an unique musical language. In Dido and Aeneas, the influence of John Blow’s roughly contemporaneous opera Venus and Adonis is apparent alongside recognizable traits honed from familiarity with French and Italian models. Hearing this recording not long after witnessing Spoleto Festival USA’s production of Pier Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona made Dido’s kinship with the Italian composer’s mature operas especially conspicuous. Adhering to the Venetian customs of their time, Busenello’s libretto for Cavalli’s 1641 Didone discarded the tragic demise of Virgil’s account in favor of a lieto fine in which Dido is ‘rescued’—rather chauvinistically, modern observers might be inclined to think—by another suitor’s marriage proposal after Aeneas’s departure, but Purcell’s Dido shares with Cavalli’s Didone an imperturbable dignity that qualifies them as two of operas earliest tragic heroines. Viewing Dido and Aeneas from an anachronistic perspective, Dido is not unlike Bellini’s Norma and Richard Strauss’s Ariadne in being discarded by a ‘foreign’ lover. Just as Pollione’s music in Norma is of a martial character that contrasts with the lunar glow of the music for Norma and her community, Purcell’s music for Aeneas often sounds thorny in comparison with the sensual writing for Dido and her Carthaginian subjects. Monks and the Armonico Consort musicians—first violinist Miles Golding, second violinist Ben Sansom, violist Nichola Blakey, cellist Gabriel Amherst, double bass player Andrew Durban, and theorbist Robin Jeffrey—explore the dramatic significance of this polarity, rejecting the foolish but frequently-indulged temptation to depict Aeneas as an one-dimensional symbolic affront to feminine constancy. Monks’s continuo playing is unobtrusively inventive, and Jeffrey coaxes beguiling sounds from the strings of his instrument. There are many passages in this performance in which the fine playing prompts appreciation of how effective a small ensemble can be in music like Purcell’s: not one bar of the score here sounds undernourished, and the ingenuity and subtle beauty of the music command attention in virtually every phrase.

Following the example of the orchestra, the Armonico Consort chorus employs eight voices, sopranos Jenni Harper and Eloise Irving, altos Sarah Denbee and Roderick Morris, tenors Ruairi Bowen and Guy Simcock, and basses Francis Brett and Michael Hickman. Remembering that the choruses in Händel’s operas, in vogue in London a generation after the creation of Dido Aeneas, were typically sung by the soloists in ensemble, Armonico Consort’s use of a chorus of eight is likely a close approximation of what Purcell expected to hear. As Dido’s countrymen, the choristers sing 'When monarchs unite, how happy their state, they triumph at once o'er their foes and their fate' with optimism, the subjects’ devotion to their queen obvious. Their knowing smiles are seen in the mind’s eye as they suggestively intone 'Cupid only throws the dart that's dreadful to a warrior's heart' and ‘To the hills and the vales, to the rocks and the mountains.’ Assuming more sinister identities, they make the witches’ 'Harm’s our delight and mischief all our skill’ as villainously effective as Scarpia’s ‘Credo’ in Puccini’s Tosca, and their sonorous singing of ‘In our deep vaulted cell the charm we’ll prepare, too dreadful a practice for this open air’ is chilling in its devious intensity. Resuming their Carthaginian guises, the ladies and gentlemen phrase 'Great minds against themselves conspire, and shun the cure they most desire' with woeful inflections. Despite the compact dimensions of the ensemble, their singing of the despondent final chorus, ‘With drooping wings ye Cupids come, and scatter roses on her tomb,’ lends the piece the force of the great choruses of lamentation in Händel’s Israel in Egypt.

The Sydney-born Golding, a veteran of distinguished ensembles of both period and modern instruments, is also heard in this performance as the Drunker Sailor, whose 'Come away, fellow sailors' and 'Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore' he sings raucously in tandem with the chorus. He is unlikely to be invited to sing Rodolfo in La bohème at the Royal Opera House, but his Everyman singing here is mostly inoffensive, largely owing to the brevity of his music. His is hardly the strangest performance of a rôle that has been subjected to some very bizarre concepts.

Emerging from the chorus as the Second Witch, Harper revels in the opportunity to deliver a gem of a line like 'Our plot has took, the Queen's forsook,’ and she takes part in the witches’ cawing, which admittedly quickly outstays its welcome, with every appearance of delight. Her fellow chorister Irving proves a mistress of disguise as the Second Woman, the First Witch, and the deceptive Spirit. She sings the Second Woman's 'Oft she visits this lone mountain, oft she bathes her in this fountain' with girlish freshness, and she later credibly impersonates Mercury’s vexation in the Spirit’s 'Stay, Prince! and hear great Jove's command' and 'Tonight thou must forsake this land.'

Beginning with a memorable performance by Arda Mandikian on the HMV set with Flagstad, the best recorded Sorceresses have imparted that an ugly voice is not necessary to successfully convey the character’s enmity. Entrusting the rôle to a male singer as Purcell might have done has become increasingly preferred in recent years, and Morris, pairing this assignment with his choral duties, is a potent countertenor Sorceress. He spits out 'Wayward sisters, you that fright the lonely traveller by night' with the acrimony of a provoked cobra, and there is no questioning the candor of the sentiment of this Sorceress’s 'The Queen of Carthage, whom we hate, as we do all in prosp'rous state.' The euphoria that sweeps through Morris’s singing of 'See, the flags and streamers curling, anchors weighing, sails unfurling' is nefariously fetching. Always thinking ahead, Morris’s Sorceress rallies her coven with a pointed articulation of 'Our next motion must be to storm her lover on the ocean!' Morris’s soft-grained, pewter-tinged timbre is a suitably ethereal instrument for the Sorceress’s music, but his earthy singing creates a portrait of a creepy character of flesh and blood.

The debonair voice of Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas contributes to one of the finest performances of Belinda’s sweet, sisterly music on records. In Thomas’s singing, Purcell’s idiom seems as natural as everyday conversation. The good-natured communicativeness of her singing of 'Shake the cloud from off your brow, fate your wishes does allow' is endearing: who could ignore her entreaty to allow contentment to prevail? More than meddling inspires Thomas’s Belinda’s utterance of 'Grief increases by concealing,' and the soprano declaims 'Then let me speak; the Trojan guest into your tender thoughts has press'd' with unmistakable innuendo. The open-hearted glee in her singing of 'Fear no danger to ensue, the hero loves as well as you' with the Second Woman and chorus is charming. Thomas’s voice glides over the chorus in 'Thanks to these lonesome vales, these desert hills and dales' and 'Haste, haste to town, this open field no shelter from the storm can yield,’ organically guiding the drama. Many singers seemingly view Belinda as a simple lass to whom Purcell allotted some nice music, but Thomas amplifies the expressivity of this Dido and Aeneas with her portrayal of a Belinda fully worthy of her queen’s confidence.

Colchester native baritone Robert Davies is a refreshingly uncomplicated, masculine Aeneas. There are no pretensions of philosophical depth or self-conscious intellect in this fellow: he is a soldier and adventurer through and through, though one who has the good manners to be at least temporarily unnerved by his betrayal of Dido’s trust. The insinuation with which Davies voices 'When, Royal Fair, shall I be bless'd with cares of love and state distress'd?' is witty, and his emphatic 'Aeneas has no fate but you!' leaves no doubt about the virility of this demigod. Davies voices 'If not for mine, for Empire's sake, some pity on your lover take' with touching emotional directness. He makes the double meaning of 'Behold, upon my bending spear a monster's head stands bleeding' as plain as Wagner’s incessant extolling of Siegfried’s testosteronic sword. A vein of dismay courses through Davies’s phrasing of 'Jove's commands shall be obey'd, tonight our anchors shall be weighed,' and the tenderness limned in his 'But ah! what language can I try my injur'd Queen to pacify' is unexpectedly touching. A crucial component of the success of Davies’s performance is his refusal to pursue stylishness by altering his basic method of vocal production. He sings Purcell’s music without affectation, and his rugged, attractive tone molds an Aeneas who more than usually deserves his half of the opera’s title billing.

From her opening statement of 'Ah! Belinda, I am press'd with torment not to be Confess'd' to the last note of the celebrated lament, mezzo-soprano Rachael Lloyd is a Dido whose inexorable trajectory towards tragedy is enacted with honesty and thoughtfully-shaded tone. Lloyd pronounces 'Whence could so much virtue spring?' with the disbelief of a woman whose injured heart is reluctant to admit affection. That Dido’s happiness is destined to be short-lived in no way reduces its potency, and Lloyd’s cry of 'Your counsel all is urged in vain; to earth and heav'n I will complain!' tenably expresses the character’s doubt and fear. Dido’s doubts and fears ultimately prove justified, of course, and Lloyd unlooses avalanches of fury in 'Thus on the fatal banks of Nile, weeps the deceitful crocodile' and 'No, faithless man, thy course pursue; I'm now resolv'd as well as you.' Dido’s longing for death can seem immoderate, even reckless, but Lloyd shapes the queen’s expiry as an act of defiance, in effect defying the stasis imposed upon the character by Tate’s libretto. She sings 'To Death I'll fly if longer you delay' and 'But Death, alas! I cannot shun; Death must come when he is gone' without exaggeration, and she voices 'Thy hand, Belinda, darkness shades me' with determination rather than despair. Her performance of the imposing lament, 'When I am laid in earth,' reverberates with relief and singularity of purpose, her solid top Gs hurled like clenched fists at the unjust gods. Lloyd develops Dido’s death as a sort of Baroque Liebestod: it resolves but does not define her characterization. Like Davies’s Aeneas, Lloyd’s Dido is not an act of posing and posturing. She is not an ostentatiously glamorous queen, but she is all the more moving for being a flawed, nobly human one.

In this performance, shorn of artifice and psychological baggage that has more to do with Proust than with Purcell, the distance between Dido and Aeneas and the vocal music of contemporary British composers like Thomas Adès, Jonathan Dove, and Joseph Phibbs seems very small. This is neither because Purcell was in some exceptional way sophisticated beyond his contemporaries nor because today’s most gifted composers are old-fashioned: the proximity is explained by the manner in which Purcell perfected the art of uniting English words and music. Assessed solely as a recital of Purcell’s vocal lines, this is a very good but not a great Dido and Aeneas, but it exudes an intelligibility missing from many performances. A vital part of the success of this recording is its confirmation of the reality that Dido and Aeneas constitutes fifty of the most momentous minutes in the history of opera.