30 August 2015

RECORDING OF THE MONTH / August 2015 - ARIAS FOR LUIGI MARCHESI (Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano; Glossa GCD 923505)

CD REVIEW: ARIAS FOR LUIGI MARCHESI - Ann Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano [Glossa GCD 923505]FRANCESCO BIANCHI (1752 – 1810), LUIGI CHERUBINI (1760 – 1842), DOMENICO CIMAROSA (1749 – 1801), JOHANN SIMON MAYR (1763 – 1845), JOSEF MYSLIVEČEK (1737 – 1781), GAETANO PUGNANI (1731 – 1798), GIUSEPPE SARTI (1729 – 1802), and NICCOLÒ ANTONIO ZINGARELLI (1752 – 1837): Arias for Luigi Marchesi – The Great Castrato of the Napoleonic EraAnn Hallenberg, mezzo-soprano; Francesca Cassinari, soprano; Stile Galante; Stefano Aresi, conductor [Recorded in Sala Piatti, Bergamo, Italy, 5 – 9 April 2015; Glossa GCD 923505; 1 CD, 71:45; Available from Glossa, ClassicsOnlineHD, fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

If, a popular conceit being accepted as a valid analogy, castrati were the Rock stars of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Luigi Marchesi was surely the Mick Jagger of his time. Born in Milan twenty-four years before the 1778 inauguration of Teatro alla Scala established his native city as an epicenter on the operatic fault line spanning continental Europe, Marchesi’s 1773 operatic début in Rome was the foreshock of a career of seismic proportions that would rattle theatres from London to St. Petersburg for four decades. Discovered in Munich and influentially advocated in Naples by 'the Czech Mozart,' Josef Mysliveček, Marchesi was not just a performer but a personality whose life of excess and extravagance is reported to have occasionally come near to spiraling out of control. Like Mick Jagger in the turbulent environment of the 1960s and '70s, Marchesi was likely subject during the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century and the first decade of the Nineteenth to public perception founded equally upon fact and hype. Partisans of a rival singer may or may not have actually attempted to poison him, but the preponderance of evidence existing in the music composed for him affirms that the assertion that Marchesi possessed a voice extraordinary both in range and in technical acumen is anything but apocryphal. An offspring of an unprecedented initiative to collect, interpret, and preserve primary- and secondary-source materials related to the castrato's life, career, and lingering cultural footprint, Glossa's Arias for Luigi Marchesi unites mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg, period-instrument ensemble Stile Galante, and conductor Stefano Aresi in a recital of diverse arias composed for Marchesi and painstakingly prepared for modern performance by Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg. Intersections of song and scholarship do not always engender ingratiating music-making, but the collaborations that conceived Arias for Luigi Marchesi have succeeded in giving life to a truly phenomenal recording.

If contemporary accounts of him are to be believed, Marchesi was a temperamental man who enjoyed the attentions of virtually every lady of culture with whom he came into contact, owing not only to a castrato's relative 'safety' as an amorous partner but, even more magnetically, to what was deemed in the Eighteenth Century an exceptional handsomeness among singers of his artificially-altered condition. It is not unexpected that composers should have been eager to capitalize on the commercial viability of Marchesi's unique talents. Within a few years of conquering Munich in Mysliveček's Ezio in 1777, Marchesi had charmed audiences—if not his on-stage colleagues, it seems—throughout Italy. Though early successes prior to his Munich breakthrough were in comic rôles, it was primarily as a tragedian that Marchesi excelled, and it is music for some of his finest dramatic parts that forms the foundation of this disc.

Upon that ingeniously-laid foundation, it is the voice of Ann Hallenberg that constructs the magnificently ornate Rococo edifice of Arias for Luigi Marchesi. The artistry of the Swedish mezzo-soprano is a study in contrasts, her blinding virtuosity combining with voluptuousness of timbre rare for a singer with such a​n​ astounding bravura technique. She can shake the pillars of Rome as Monteverdi's Ottavia, silence the din of ​revolt​ as Händel's​ Siroe​, out-bloom the hanging gardens of Babylon as Rossini's Arsace, and find the heart of music by Mahler as though she wrote it herself. In this disc's program of arias specially-crafted for Luigi Marchesi's singular capabilities, Hallenberg accomplishes the difficult feat of making this music entirely her own. It is not only because much of this music has here been recorded for the first time that it is virtually impossible to imagine these pieces being sung by any other voice. Hallenberg does not endeavor to 'become' Marchesi in some misguided Stanislavskian sense but quite simply lives this music. This level of submersion in music is rare even in the suspended reality of opera: Melchior's Lohengrin, Flagstad's Isolde, Mödl's Brünnhilde, Albanese's Cio-Cio San, Callas's Violetta, and Sills's Manon are models of definitive interpretations to the ranks of which Hallenberg's accounts of the arias on this disc must be added.

Credited, not least in Mozart's correspondence with his father, with having played a significant rôle in the development of Marchesi’s career, Prague-born composer Josef Mysliveček was exponentially more important to opera in the Eighteenth Century than his renown in the Twenty-First suggests. There are indications that modern esteem for Mysliveček's work is gradually increasing: performances and recordings of his music in recent years have shifted focus from consideration of the composer as a craftsman in Mozart's shadow to appreciation of his pioneering genius. Several notable recordings of his music and an acclaimed production of his opera Motezuma have recently restored Mysliveček's name to wider circulation. The composer's interaction with Marchesi is represented on this disc by Megacle's aria 'Se cerca, se dice «L'amico dov'è?»' from L'Olimpiade, a setting of one of Pietro Metastasio's most popular libretti—two further settings are also sampled on Arias for Luigi Marchesi. The aria receives from Hallenberg one of the loveliest performances on the disc, her hypnotic singing seconded by the superbly stylish playing of Stile Galante. Created with the specific mission of performing music of this vintage as it is likely to have been played when new, the ensemble's sound can be entrancingly intimate and as richly-textured as the playing of orchestras with twice as many musicians in their ranks. So thoroughly prepared is Aresi's direction that he seems almost to anticipate Hallenberg's every breath without sacrificing the excitement of spontaneity. Mysliveček's cosmopolitan, gallant idiom both resembles the styles of contemporaries like Dittersdorf, Joseph and Michael Haydn, and Salieri and prefigures works of Mozart's maturity. Hallenberg traverses the dramatic landscape of 'Se cerca, se dice' with broad strides, the solidity of her tone making the​ anguish​ of the text all the more telling. Musically, Hallenberg sings the aria with absolute proficiency.

Giuseppe Sarti's Giulio Sabino was one of the foremost operatic 'hits' of the second half of the Eighteenth Century​; so much so, in fact, that it was the object of Salieri's ​mostly good-natured parody in his Prima la musica e poi le parole. This and Mozart’s use of a melody from Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode in the banquet scene in Don Giovanni secured Sarti’s place among the footnotes of musical history, but, like Mysliveček, his significance during his lifetime suggests that Sarti deserves greater prominence among Twenty-First-Century evaluations of Eighteenth-Century opera. Hallenberg focuses her inquisitiveness on Sarti’s work with fantastic performances of three well-crafted arias. She opens her recital with Rinaldo’s ‘Vedo l'abisso orrendo onde ritrassi il piede’ from Sarti’s 1786 Armida e Rinaldo, first performed at the Hermitage during Marchesi’s tenure in St. Petersburg. Employing Marchesi’s own ornaments, Hallenberg gives a dazzling account of the piece, negotiating the demanding divisions with poise. No less impressive is her voicing of ‘Lungi da te, ben mio, se viver non poss'io’ from the same opera, a cornerstone in Marchesi’s repertory, in which she utilizes ornaments devised by the castrato’s pupil Angelica Catalani and a cadenza by Domenico Corri. Megacle’s aria ‘Rendi, oh cara, il prence amato a quest'alma, al mio dolor’ from Sarti’s L'Olimpiade, first heard in Florence in 1778 and revised for Rome five years later, is the finest of the Sarti arias on this disc, and Hallenberg sings it handsomely. Marchesi's embellishments are here—and elsewhere, frankly—too much of a good thing. There is no doubt that, even among the most celebrated exponents of his Fach, Marchesi possessed a stupendous technique, one that he was evidently eager to show off. His ornaments, though undeniably clever, often distract from the greatest strength of Hallenberg’s singing, its uncommon beauty. Her own technique enables her to manage every maneuver in Marchesi’s playbook, every roulade and interval within the nearly-three-octave compass of this music, with élan that would surely have impressed the great castrato, but, as recorded, the unfettered pyrotechnical exhibitions sometimes overshadow the better qualities of both the music and the singer.

​​The Naples-born Niccolò Antonio Zingarelli shared with Marchesi a distaste for Napoleon that was most memorably manifested during his service as maestro di cappella in the Sistine Chapel in his refusal to lead a musical celebration honoring Napoleon’s newborn son, proclaimed at his christening as the king of Rome. Ironically, Zingarelli was arrested for his refusal and transported to Paris, where Napoleon, an ardent admirer of his music, promptly freed him and even granted him a state pension. Despite devoting much of his career to liturgical positions, Zingarelli’s fame—a fame that numerous sources cite as having been sufficient to inspire Bellini to compose music for Zingarelli’s funeral upon his death in 1837, despite the fact that Bellini died in 1835, perhaps confusing the attribution of the Sinfonia funebre composed by Francesco Florimo, a pupil of Zingarelli, in response to Bellini’s death—relied primarily upon his prowess as a composer of opera. Premièred in 1791, Zingarelli’s Pirro, re di Epiro was espoused by Marchesi in Milan in 1792. The title rôle was obviously one that the castrato found especially congenial, having performed it in a further five Italian cities—and twice in Venice—between 1793 and 1798. Hallenberg is joined in her performances of excerpts from Pirro on this disc by soprano Francesca Cassinari, who voices Polissena’s lines with attractive tone and noble phrasing that make her an ideal partner for Hallenberg. Marchesi’s ornaments in the aria ‘Chi mi dà consiglio, aita, o mi squarcia in petto il cor?’ again shift attention from the incredible evenness of Hallenberg’s singing to her technical dexterity, but the radiance of her lyrical singing cannot be wholly obscured by Marchesi’s over-enthusiastic adornments. Hallenberg and Cassinari spellbindingly inhabit the rôles of Pirro and Polissena in the gripping scene ‘Qual mi sorprende e agghiaccia insolito terror!’ The ladies alternate lines in recitative with greater communicativeness than many singers achieve in live, staged performances. Then, Hallenberg delivers Pirro’s aria ’Cara, negl'occhi tuoi si pasce il mio desire​’ with such sincerity that the character’s words seem her own. The harmonic idiosyncrasies of Zingarelli’s music benefit immensely from the singer’s exact intonation.

Johann Simon Mayr is now remembered almost exclusively for having mentored Donizetti in the art of composing opera, but he was a gifted composer in his own right, one whose intuition for dramatic expression was powerfully reintroduced to modern listeners by the laser-voiced soprano Marisa Galvany in her too-little-known studio recording of his 1813 opera Medea in Corinto. First performed in 1798 at Venice's storied Teatro La Fenice, Mayr's Lauso e Lidia was one of the refined scores that bolstered the composer's reputation as a burgeoning master of bel canto. Composed only seven years after the première of Die Zauberflöte, Lauso's aria 'Oh qual contento, oh qual dolcezza' displays stylistic kinship with Mozart's mature vocal writing. Though she has been lauded for her portrayals of the title rôle in Ascanio in Alba, Dorabella in Così fan tutte, and Sesto in La clemenza di Tito, Mozart rôles have not figured conspicuously in her operatic repertory to date, but the fluency with which she sings ‘Oh qual contento, oh qual dolcezza’ hints at tantalizing Mozartean prospects, perhaps on disc if not on stage—not least Idamante in Idomeno. Hallenberg draws Mayr’s melodic lines with great feeling, the flourishing joy described by the text finding an outlet in the controlled ardor of her singing.

Known more for his music for the violin, on which instrument he was a widely-acknowledged virtuoso, than for his operas,​ Gaetano Pugnani was nonetheless a well-qualified composer of music for the stage. Born in Torino, his talents took him throughout Europe, and he was particularly admired as both violinist and composer in Paris and London, where he counted Johann Christian Bach among his respected—and respecting—friends and colleagues. Pugnani's opera Demofoonte, his treatment of another of Metastasio's most widely-traveled libretti, was launched at his hometown's Teatro Regio, where Marchesi created the rôle of Timante in 1788. The singer's surviving ornaments in the aria ‘Misero pargoletto, il tuo destin non sai’ are considerably more restrained than in other selections on this disc, and, in truth, Hallenberg’s performance of the aria is all the better for the castrato’s relative prudence. Pugnani’s music proves a vehicle for Hallenberg’s most moving singing on the disc, Timante’s trepidation poignantly conveyed by the burnished core of her sound. Marchesi’s embellishments being less flamboyant should not imply that ‘Misero pargoletto’ is in any way less difficult than the other selections on Arias for Luigi Marchesi. In fact, subtler sentiments are often far more burdensome for singers, and it is in this element of her artistry that Hallenberg is most triumphant: her emotional directness, always at the service of both composer and librettist, here reveals the potency of music some listeners might be inclined to dismiss unheard as merely decorative.

A native of Cremona, Francesco Bianchi was a revered pupil of Niccolò Jommelli whose existence away from the theatre was laden with misfortunes that likely prompted his suicide in London in 1810. It is post-Freudian over-analyzing to seek in Bianchi's music discernible traces of the turmoil that complicated his life, but Castore's aria 'Sembianze amabili del mio bel sole' from his opera Castore e Polluce is a beautiful piece that speaks volumes about the composer's keen adeptness at musical portraiture. Though his idiom is very different from that of his French predecessor, Bianchi obviously learned much during his time in Paris from Rameau's Castor et Pollux, music from which remained popular until the end of the Eighteenth Century. There is an atmosphere of serenity in Hallenberg's singing of 'Sembianze amabili' that goes straight to the soul. There are moments on Arias for Luigi Marchesi in which Hallenberg's technique is direly challenged, and there are occasional notes at the top of the range that sound forced, but there are stretches of singing such as that in Bianchi's music that overwhelm with liquid, luminous tone. However affectingly Marchesi might have sung this music, it is regrettable that a composer who endured such unhappiness cannot hear Hallenberg sing his creation.

Like several of the composers advocated on Arias for Luigi Marchesi, Domenico Cimarosa's enduring operatic legacy was until recently reliant upon a single work, in his case the delightful Il matrimonio segreto. Cimarosa, too, was among the musical moths lured to the flame of Metastasio's L'Olimpiade, however, and Hallenberg, Stile Galante, and Aresi give a compelling performance of Megacle's aria 'Superbo di me stesso andrò portando in fronte' from Cimarosa's setting. The vitality of Stile Galante's rôle in not just accompanying but genuinely participating in Hallenberg's performances on this disc demands recognition: violinists Eva Saladin, Rossella Borsoni, Isabella Bison, Claudia Combs, Elisa Imbalzano, and Olga Popova, violists Nadine Henrichs and Isabel Juárez, cellist Agnieszka Oszańka, double-bassists Szilárd Chereji and Daniele Rosi, oboists Aviad Gershoni and Claudia Anchini, horn players Pierre-Antoine Tremblay and Ricardo Rodríguez García, bassoonists Giovanni Battista Graziadio and Niki Fortunato, flautists Silvia Tuja and Mattia Laurella, clarinetists Jānis Tretjuks and Matthias Deger, trumpeters Matteo Frigé and Matteo Macchia, and harpsichordist Andrea Friggi contribute playing that individually and collectively enhances the pleasure of hearing this disc. Even in an age of virtuosi, it is difficult to imagine Marchesi having enjoyed the cooperation of musicians as committed to his success as the ladies and gentlemen of Stile Galante are to Hallenberg’s. Without this teamwork, the mezzo-soprano’s singing of Cimarosa’s aria would be merely excellent.

The most recognizable name among those of the composers whose music is sampled on Arias for Luigi Marchesi is that of Luigi Cherubini, who is principally familiar to opera lovers owing to Maria Callas, whose portrayal of the title rôle in an Italian version of his Médée is justifiably legendary. Callas's intense singing of Medea's famous 'Dei tuoi figli la madre' is matched by Hallenberg's performances of Poro's aria 'Quanto è fiero il mio tormento nel vederti lacrimar' from Cherubini's Alessandro nelle ​Indie. Interestingly, the disc offers two versions of the aria, each with different ornamentation meticulously written out by Marchesi. In the first version, the bravura grandstanding threatens to reduce the aria to mere showmanship, but Hallenberg's thoughtful singing rescues the music from banality. Naturally, she is more than equal to Marchesi's most outrageous inventions. The second version is appended as a bonus track, and it is a suitably spirited finale to the disc. The temerity of Hallenberg’s singing ignites Cherubini’s vocal lines: even in the context of a single aria, Callas’s Medea has a peer in Hallenberg’s Poro.

Writing three decades after Luigi Marchesi’s 1788 London début in the title rôle of Sarti’s Giulio Sabino, Lord Mount Edgcumbe recollected in his Musical Reminiscences of the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe that the castrato’s ‘acting was spirited and expressive: his vocal powers were very great, his voice of extensive compass, but a little inclined to be thick. His execution was very considerable, and he was rather too fond of displaying it; nor was his cantabile singing equal to his bravura. In recitative, and scenes of energy and passion, he was incomparable, and had he been less lavish of ornaments, which were not always appropriate, and possessed a more pure and simple taste, his performance would have been faultless: it was always striking, animated, and effective.’ Lord Mount Edgcumbe’s words might have been written to describe the music on Arias for Luigi Marchesi. Many recitals of music composed for particular singers leave listeners with generic impressions of both those singers and the composers who wrote for them. Arias for Luigi Marchesi leaves no doubt of the momentousness of Marchesi’s artistry or its significance as an inspiration for the composers of his time. Still, the performances on Arias for Luigi Marchesi leave one fundamental question unanswered: can Marchesi possibly have been as marvelous a singer as Ann Hallenberg?

CD REVIEW: Marchesi miracle workers - Conductor STEFANO ARESI (left) and mezzo-soprano ANN HALLENBERG (right), photographed by Minjas Zugik [Photo © 2015 by Minjas Zugik; used with permission]Marchesi miracle workers: Conductor Stefano Aresi (left) and mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg (right), photographed by Minjas Zugik [Photo © 2015 by Minjas Zugik; used with permission]

29 August 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini – LA CENERENTOLA (S. Piques Eddy, A. Owens, S. Outlaw, D. Hartmann, T. Jones, J. Celona-VanGorden, C. O’Brien; Greensboro Opera, 28 August 2015)

IN REVIEW: Mezzo-soprano SANDRA PIQUES EDDY in the title rôle of Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfoSandra Piques Eddy (Angelina), Andrew Owens (Don Ramiro), Sidney Outlaw (Dandini), Donald Hartmann (Don Magnifico), Timothy Jones (Alidoro), Julie Celona-VanGorden (Clorinda), Clara O’Brien (Tisbe); Chorus and Orchestra of Greensboro Opera; Willie Anthony Waters, conductor [David Holley, Director; James Bumgardner, Chorus Master; Anna Geer, Stage Manager; Costumes by Malabar; Wigs by Trent Pcenicni; Make-up by Deborah Bell; Sets by Tony Fanning; Lighting Designs by Jeff Neubauer; Greensboro Opera, Aycock Auditorium, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, North Carolina; Friday, 28 August 2015]

For reasons that often defy easy explication, some stories capture the imaginations of legions of people with little more in common than shared humanity. By the time that Giambattista Basile and Charles Perrault gave first Italy and then France written versions of her saga in the Seventeenth Century, poor Cinderella's strife had likely already been winning hearts for generations. Responding to the philosophical sensibilities of his time, Perrault made an irrepressible self-reliance and a worldliness born of both experience and intellectual curiosity central to the character of his Cendrillon. A bit more than a century later, when Jacopo Ferretti wrote his libretto for Gioachino Rossini's 1817 opera La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo, the long-suffering girl's resilience remained the pillar upon which her tribulations and triumphs were balanced. Rossini almost surely had a softer heart than he was inclined to show to his contemporaries, but there is no doubt that he lavished his every sigh and adoring smile on his Cenerentola. Clichéd damsels in distress are frequent guests on the operatic stage and are often forgettable, but Rossini’s Angelina possesses the potential to transcend the limitations of a droopy-eyed maiden whose troubles are sorted out in pretty tunes. Geltrude Righetti-Giorgi, Rossini’s first Angelina, also created the rôle of Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia in 1816, but little contemporary comment on her Cinderella survives. Was it some euphonious quality of her Rosina shape Rossini’s depiction of Cenerentola? What did Rossini see in Cenerentola that inspired him to make his operatic incarnation of her so engaging? The musical Poet of Pesaro left few accounts of his compositional process, but the emotional atmosphere of La Cenerentola speaks for itself. If presented with a modicum of sincerity tempering the comedy, La Cenerentola can be one of those stories that refuse to relinquish their places in audiences’ memories. Greensboro Opera’s La Cenerentola was just such a presentation: drawing from Rossini’s music every laugh, wink, and furtive plaint with which the composer infused his incandescently bittersweet score, this production was like a favorite bedtime story read by a cherished voice that forever sounds in the heart.

Those who debate the ways in which opera should and should not be staged in order to ensure its survival would do well to spend less time spouting rhetoric and dedicate themselves to observing what Artistic Director David Holley is achieving at Greensboro Opera, both administratively and directorially. It seems abundantly logical that a fine singer should have an intuitive talent for directing opera, but this logic is trusted by far too few opera companies, especially those with the greatest resources to expend—and, in many cases, waste—on extravagant spectacles devised by directors with little [or no] knowledge of opera. Without in any way lessening appreciation for Holley's efforts, it is disheartening to be compelled to assert that focusing on faithfully executing a composer's score and fostering performances that are enjoyable for artists and audiences—the realm in which Holley is most successful—should be the cornerstones of any opera company's endeavors. At the helm of Greensboro Opera's Cenerentola, Holley assembled a team of artists and artisans whose common goal was making Rossini's music the centerpiece of a thriving, thrilling theatrical experience. Rossini’s two acts were divided into three: taking an interval before Angelina’s arrival at the ball was sensible, but breaking after Dandini’s and Magnifico’s duet impacted the opera’s dramatic flow. [For this review, musical numbers are referenced as they appear in Rossini’s original two-act scheme.] Holley’s directorial judgment is clearly influenced by his own acclaimed work as a tenor, but the intelligence of his staging of Cenerentola was notable by any standard. There was an obvious reason for every action and reaction: the singers were not aimlessly ambling about the stage but were watching, listening, and responding to one another. The comedy was broad but not nonsensical, owing both to Holley's concept, in which the scene at the prince’s ball gave new meaning to playing with one’s food, and to the cast's uniformly skillful acting. Described by Rossini as a dramma giocoso, a designation shared with Mozart's Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, Cenerentola is neither a farce nor an opera seria disguised in buffa garb. In this performance, Holley's direction enabled the Bontà in trionfo specification of the opera's full title to be enthusiastically fulfilled without indulging in didactic moralizing.

‘Kleider machen Leute,’ wrote Gottfried Keller, and M​alabar​’s sumptuous costumes lent the singers in Greensboro Opera's production credence in every social station they were meant to portray. Characters were sufficiently contrasted to make them immediately discernible even when identities were being swapped, and the Eighteenth-Century ‘shabby chic' of the residents of Casa Magnifico was achieved without seeming to interfere with the task of singing. Angelina's exodus from rags to riches was limned with insightful use of color, the earthy blues of her peasant frock giving way first to her robin's-egg dress at the ball and finally to the snowy brilliance of the bow-bedecked gown in which she became the princess consort. Trent Pcenicni’s wigs and Deborah Bell’s make-up were delectable: with Clorinda and Tisbe paragons of snobbery, Don Magnifico a fop straight out of a Hogarth engraving, Angelina a vision of glamor even in tatters, and Don Ramiro and his court evocative of storybook chivalry, Rossini’s comedy came gloriously to life. The delicate floral motifs of Tony Fanning’s lovely scenery were complemented by Jeff Neubauer’s flattering lighting. Everything on stage looked as one expects La Cenerentola to look, which is to say that Greensboro Opera offered a physical setting for the production that honored Rossini’s and Ferretti’s brainchild.

So familiar are their melodies and infectiously high-spirited are their celebrated crescendi that Rossini's operas often seem to virtually conduct themselves. Still, more Rossini performances than anyone might care to acknowledge are mutated into musical travesties by poor conducting. Miami native Willie Anthony Waters was this Cenerentola's ace in the hole. Artistic Director and principal conductor of Connecticut Opera, a deservedly-lamented casualty of the recent Great Recession, and a much-admired pedagogue whose work with Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance program is incalculably significant in the quest for the survival of opera in the United States, Waters presided over the musical components of this performance with the complementary humor and seriousness of a man encountering a beloved old friend known to make mischief if left unsupervised. From the first bars of the opera's Overture, borrowed pursuant to Rossini's usual custom from the earlier La gazzetta, Waters exhibited an unmistakable affinity for extracting the bel canto elegance from even the zaniest passages. Rossini's score was in expert hands under Waters's baton, his clever management of Rossini's trademark crescendi distinguishing his work as that of a natural Rossinian. The personnel of the Greensboro Opera Chorus and Orchestra, the former ensemble trained by Chorus Master James Bumgardner, benefited from the conductor's no-nonsense style: his firm beat and masterful cuing both indicated what he wanted and provided the musicians and singers with tools needed to meet his goals. Instances of clarity and precision of ensemble falling victim to opening-night jitters were laudably few aside from some squeaks and squawks from the woodwinds at the start of the Overture and a handful of passages in which coordination between stage and pit was imperiled, and choristers and instrumentalists found in Waters an ally and a catalyst. The gentlemen of the chorus made an especially robust showing. In the Vivace of the ensemble that ends the composer’s Act One​, Rossini's madcap energy electrified the theatre without blowing any fuses. The Temporale in Rossini’s Act Two [Greensboro Opera’s Act Three] was wonderfully animated, but the pinnacle of Waters's performance was the Maestoso in the ingenious Sextet. Waters here maneuvered the intertwining voices with the certain grasp of an accomplished weaver. Witnessing his wholly organic pacing of La Cenerentola made Waters's absence from the podia of a number of America's best opera companies all the more unconscionable: when the products of a musical brand as reliably top-quality as Waters's conducting are not being made available to consumers, who is minding the store?

IN REVIEW: Soprano JULIE CELONA-VANGORDEN as Clorinda (left) and mezzo-soprano CLARA O'BRIEN as Tisbe (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]Sorelle [not so] simpatiche: Soprano Julie Celona-VanGorden as Clorinda (left) and mezzo-soprano Clara O’Brien as Tisbe (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]

From her first 'No, no, no, no: non v'è, non v'è chi trinciar sappia così leggerissimo sciassè,' in Act One, lyric coloratura soprano Julie Celona-VanGorden was a Clorinda of crystalline high notes and even higher spirits. A member of the faculty of Elon University's School of Music, she filled the top line in ensembles with sparkling tone that retained its slightly tart presence up to her bell-like top B. She delivered the sustained top As in Rossini’s Act One finale with effortless aplomb. Clorinda's aria 'Sventurata! sventurata, sventurata! mi credea comandar seduta in trono' is the work of Luca Agolini, to whom Rossini entrusted composition of the secco recitatives in Cenerentola and is admittedly not even first-rate Agolini, but the fluency of Celona-VanGorden's singing made its omission regrettable. Her partner in the crime of tormenting Angelina was sung and acted to perfection by mezzo-soprano Clara O'Brien, an esteemed professor on the UNCG Voice faculty and, in the context of this performance, as satisfying a Tisbe as one might hope to hear. Answering Clorinda's opening tirade with her own 'Sì, sì, sì, sì: va bene lì,' O'Brien was the model of impeccably-sung sisterly contradiction. Like Celona-VanGorden, she contributed attractive, ably-projected tone to ensembles and created a character whose moments of spite were products of insecurity—lovable quirks rather than aspects of an unpleasant nature. Both Celona-VanGorden and O’Brien embraced the jocose spirit of the production without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. Most importantly, they were wholly at ease with Rossini’s music.

IN REVIEW: Bass-baritone TIMOTHY JONES (center) as Alidoro in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]Alla testa della classe: Bass-baritone Timothy Jones as Alidoro (center) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]

B​ass-baritone Timothy Jones​ created an Alidoro that any hero and heroine with obstacles complicating their courtship would want in their corner. Epitomizing what Shakespeare dubbed the 'lean and hungry look' in Alidoro’s first appearance as a beggar in Act One, Jones exuded the tranquil dignity of a man on a righteous mission. His singing of 'Un tantin di carità' suggested the rattle of bones starved of their flesh. When Alidoro returned in his guise as Ramiro's moral and philosophical compass, Jones declaimed 'Qui nel mio codice delle zitelle, con Don Magnifico stan tre sorelle' with the piercing authority of Verdi's Grand Inquisitor. Laudably, Rossini's 1821 aria 'Là del ciel nell'arcano profondo' was preferred to the aria by Agolini that was sung in the 1817 première, and the performance that it received from Jones was a wonder of expansive phrasing and even tone. Jones's sharp diction enlivened recitatives, and he presided over the scenes in which he appeared like a puppet maker lovingly manipulating his beloved creations, all while singing splendidly. A few pitches in recitatives were suspect, especially in his exchange with Clorinda and Tisbe just before the opera's finale, but his performance as a whole was suave and stylish.

IN REVIEW: Bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Don Magnifico (left) and mezzo-soprano SANDRA PIQUES EDDY as Angelina (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]Padre e figlia: Bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Don Magnifico (left) and mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as Angelina (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]

Is it possible that his students in UNCG's School of Music, Theatre, and Dance are fully cognizant of the treasure that they have before them in bass-baritone Donald Hartmann's tutelage? It is one thing to lecture effectively on fine points of operatic interpretation, but this performer's characterizations are invaluable lessons in the art of combining unflappable musicality with an adroitness upon the stage that can be observed and thus honed but only very rarely taught to those who do not possess it. Hartmann is a consummate charmer who can make slapstick comedy seem like the very definition of sophistication, and Greensboro Opera's Cenerentola gave him opportunities to impress with both buffoonery and heartwarming sincerity. Hartmann’s singing of Magnifico’s aria 'Miei rampolli, miei rampolli femminini' fizzed with vocal wizardry and uproarious bafflement. The singer’s comic timing, reminiscent of Red Skelton at his best, was a marvel throughout the performance, but there was a frivolity that seemed to surprise even him in his assertion that the third daughter attributed to Don Magnifico in the prince's registry was dead. As with Norina's browbeating of Donizetti's Don Pasquale, this can be a sudden, disquieting indication of the game having been carried too far, but the moment in this performance was primarily an egregious affront to Angelina’s dignity. In the subsequent quintet, Hartmann skipped through 'Nel volto estatico di questo e quello si legge il vortice del lor cervello' with the cluelessness of a man with just enough gumption about him to be slightly dangerous. Porky Pig would have been proud of Hartmann's sputtering 'Signor...Altezza, in tavola, signor...Altezza, in tavola...che...co...chi...sì' in what Rossini positioned as the Act One finale: one almost expected him to reappear after the number’s close to say, ‘That's all, folks!' Hartmann voiced Magnifico’s aria 'Sia qualunque delle figlie' with aptly absurd pomposity conveyed by his raven-hued timbre. Propelled by Hartmann’s singing of 'Senza batter, senza battere le ciglia,' the duet with Dandini was a grand slam in a game filled with home runs. The softening of Magnifico’s demeanor in the opera’s final scene was in this performance less a begrudging surrender than a return to the sort of man he perhaps was before loss of fortune and life partner metamorphosed him into an embittered father struggling with feisty daughters. Hartmann phrased 'Alfine, alfine sul bracciale ecco, ecco il pallon tornò' with breathless excitement, but his jocularity faded as rapidly as his acknowledged daughters’ prospects for making princely matches. His ultimate acceptance of Angelina as his daughter and savior was poignant. Hartmann is the kind of performer who immeasurably enriches the offerings of regional opera companies, and he confirmed anew with his Don Magnifico for Greensboro Opera that his flair for comedic bel canto is major-league-worthy.

IN REVIEW: Baritone SIDNEY OUTLAW as Dandini (left) and tenor ANDREW OWENS as Don Ramiro (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]Il Principe ed il suo valletto: Baritone Sidney Outlaw as Dandini (left) and tenor Andrew Owens as Don Ramiro (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]

With a voice like that of baritone Sidney Outlaw having emerged from its environs, it is hardly surprising that the town of Brevard should have become a Mecca of musical life in North Carolina and the Southeastern United States. Having already amassed a repertory spanning three centuries of opera’s history, Outlaw has excelled in parts as diverse as Ariodate in Händel’s Serse, Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Rambo in John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer and the title rôle in Anthony Davis’s X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. His Dandini for Greensboro Opera revealed that his abilities include plucky instincts for Rossinian comedy. Of course, the best histrionic intentions are of little importance if the voice is not equally refined, but Outlaw’s first notes withered this concern like Dandini’s deflated pride. Singing the cavatina 'Come un' ape ne' giorni d'aprille va volando leggiera e scherzosa' with unctuous self-approbation, discharging top F​s like firecrackers, the baritone sauntered through Act One like a great sprinter entering the home stretch without a competitor in sight. It is doubtful that any gentleman upon the operatic stage has ever sported rouge and metallic eye shadow more dashingly. Outlaw uttered ‘Sotto voce a mezzo tono’ as though plotting to infiltrate Fort Knox and then unleashed a torrent of spot-on coloratura in the duet with Ramiro. He and Hartmann squabbled and swashbuckled through Dandini’s and Magnifico’s Act Two duet [the Act Two finale in Greensboro Opera’s production], 'Un segreto d'importanza,' Outlaw matching his colleague roulade for flawlessly-executed roulade. Outlaw’s blazing coloratura in the Sextet brilliantly imparted Dandini’s rôle as the fulcrum upon which the drama pivots. Perhaps the greatest flaw of Ferretti’s libretto and Rossini’s score is the manner in which, like Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma, Dandini’s part in the drama seems unresolved. He has nothing to do in the opera’s final scene but stand by, looking on, but Outlaw managed to make even his character’s inactivity interesting. Musically and dramatically, Outlaw’s Dandini was a sidekick who scored many of the performance’s most spectacular runs.

IN REVIEW: Tenor ANDREW OWENS as Don Ramiro in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]Do di petto: Tenor Andrew Owens as Don Ramiro in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]

Looking athletic enough to have hoisted the broken-down carriage that serendipitously landed him on Don Magnifico's doorstep onto his shoulders, tenor Andrew Owens was a debonair Don Ramiro who in affairs of the heart was disinclined to accept anything but unconditional victory. A recent recipient of an Encouragement Award in the prestigious George London Foundation Competition and winner of the Zarzuela Prize in the 2015 Francisco Viñ​as International Singing Competition, Owens is a young artist whose presence on the international circuit is rising faster than the tessitura of Ramiro's music. Unlike some of his colleagues in today's parade of pretty-boy tenors, Owens can deliver the vocal goods, and he delivered capitally in Greensboro's Cenerentola. The quality of the voice was immediately apparent as he sang 'Tutto è deserto,' the flourish to top A♯ managed with boyish nonchalance. The tenor's piano singing upon encountering Angelina was often exquisite and projected so that even his quietest whisper of adoration was audible. Owens's 'Una soave non so che in quegl'occhi scintillò' was a lovesick sigh, and his wide-eyed ebullience and satiny timbre made the duet with Angelina a profound joy, the coloratura in unison with his future bride inspiring this Ramiro to dulcet rhapsodizing. In the duet with Dandini, Owens and Outlaw were like a patter-spouting Laurel and Hardy, Owens voicing 'Zitto, zitto: piano, piano' as though the words were occurring to him on the spot. In the incredibly demanding scene in which Ramiro resolves to locate the unknown girl who has stolen his heart, he articulated 'Ah! questa bella incognita, con quella somiglianza all'infelice' with aristocratic grace before launching 'Sì, ritrovarla io giuro' with stirring energy, his negotiations of the top Cs almost ridiculously easy. His voice glowed in the Andantino 'Pegno adorato e caro che mi lusinghi almeno,' but it was his account of 'Dolce speranza, freddo timore dentro al mio core stanno a pugnar' that galvanized. In addition to knocking the two further written top Cs out of the park, he not only added a third at the aria's close but punctuated the passage between stanzas of the aria with a shining top D, as well. Reunited with Angelina and defending her from her stepfather's abuse, this Ramiro had the vocal muscle to make good on his promises of justice for his betrothed's persecutors. After all, when one swears to have vengeance with an upper register as exhilarating as Owens's, who could doubt the sincerity of the sentiment? Caressing his melodic lines and proudly presenting his new bride to his friends and courtiers, he was the rare Ramiro who was noticed in the opera's final scene. Throughout the performance, Owens was a prince who looked, behaved, and sounded like one.

IN REVIEW: Tenor ANDREW OWENS as Don Ramiro (left) and mezzo-soprano SANDRA PIQUES EDDY in the title rôle (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]La bontà in trionfo: Tenor Andrew Owens as Don Ramiro (left) and mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as Angelina (right) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]

By turns dainty, demure, and delightfully indomitable, the Angelina of Sandra Piques Eddy was a grab-the-bull-by-the-horns lass who was not content to languish in squalid obscurity in tranquil anticipation of her prince. Sure, her ​'Una volta c'era un re'​ was touchingly despondent, but this was no Annie-esque, 'the sun will come out tomorrow' Cenerentola: this was a Mama Cass-style, 'make your own kind of music' dynamo with dreams that she meant to fulfill.​ Offering alms to Alidoro masquerading as a beggar while fending off her stepsisters’ verbal barbs, this Angelina’s sympathetic heart was obvious from the start. When Ramiro unexpectedly appeared in her stepfather’s crumbling house, Eddy figuratively dug her heels into 'Io vorrei saper perchè il mio cor mi palpitò,' unmistakably portraying Angelina’s sudden recognition of her infatuation with the disguised Ramiro as love and plummeting blissfully to her low B in the subsequent duet with Ramiro​. Her shy reluctance to embrace her newly-found swain was heartwarming, the singer wholly embodying the fiery young girl whose deplorable but stable world has been disquieted by unfamiliar feelings. Phrasing 'Sprezzo quei don che versa fortuna capricciosa' in Rossini’s Act One finale with panache, she traded top B♭​s with Ramiro in passagework as though it were as natural as breathing, and she and all of her colleagues joined in the food fight with childlike glee. The reprise of 'Una volta c'era un re' was tinged with expectancy of future happiness, and Eddy’s face beamed more brightly than the sparkle of her bejeweled bracelet when her prince found her. In the opera’s final scene, she voiced the Andantino 'Ah! signor, s'è ver che in petto qualche amor per me serbate'​ movingly, and she injected the Andante 'Nacqui all'affanno e al pianto' with vocal and charismatic warmth. In the celebrated rondò, 'Non più​ mesta accanto al fuoco starò​ sola a gorgheggiar, no,' Eddy’s commendable efforts at trills fell short, and her top B was uncomfortable. Her ornaments, though basically stylish, seemed formulated principally to simplify rather than to enhance Rossini’s bravura writing. Still, her performance was invigorating. As both a singer and an actress, Eddy fully deserved the tiara—borne, in a precious detail of Holley’s staging, by the mezzo-soprano’s daughter Beatrice—with which she was crowned.

La Cenerentola is not a complicated opera. Almost without exception, efforts to make La Cenerentola an ostensibly pertinent piece in the modern sense have resulted in productions that rob the opera of the simple pleasures with which Rossini suffused it. The ingredients required to prepare an effective Cenerentola are sympathetic conducting, virtuosic singing, and a staging in which these elements are allowed to fuse uninhibitedly. Greensboro Opera’s production of La Cenerentola provided all of these facets in abundance, and the resulting performance shone with the twinkle of Rossini’s genius, illuminated by a septet of outstanding American voices and one of America’s most gifted conductors.

IN REVIEW: Mezzo-soprano SANDRA PIQUES EDDY as Angelina (left), tenor ANDREW OWENS as Don Ramiro (center), and baritone SIDNEY OUTLAW as Dandini (left) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]In un nodo di perplessità: Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as Angelina (left), tenor Andrew Owens as Don Ramiro (center), and baritone Sidney Outlaw as Dandini (right), with (from left to right) soprano Julie Celona-VanGorden as Clorinda, mezzo-soprano Clara O’Brien as Tisbe, and bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Don Magnifico visible at the rear, in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]

26 August 2015

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss – DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN (T. Wilson, B. Fritz, T. Stensvold, S. Hogrefe, T. A. Baumgartner; Oehms Classics OC 964)

CD REVIEW: Richard Strauss - DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN (Oehms Classics OC 964)RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Die Frau ohne Schatten, Opus 65Tamara Wilson (Die Kaiserin), Burkhard Fritz (Der Kaiser), Terje Stensvold (Barak, der Färber), Sabine Hogrefe (Die Färberin), Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Die Amme), Franz Mayer (Der Einäugige, Ein Stimme der Wächter der Stadt), Björn Bürger (Der Einarmige, Ein Stimme der Wächter der Stadt), Hans-Jürgen Lazar (Der Bucklige), Dietrich Volle (Der Geisterbote, Ein Stimme der Wächter der Stadt), Michael Porter (Erscheinung des Jünglings), Brenda Rae (Ein Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels, Stimme des Falken), Katharina Magiera (Stimme von oben), Birgit Treschau (Dienerin), Alketa Hoxha (Dienerin), Yvonne Hettegger (Dienerin), Young Sook Kim (Dienerin), Hiromi Mori (Dienerin), Book-Sill Kim (Kinderstimme), Camelia Suzana Peteu (Kinderstimme), Gunda Boote (Kinderstimme), Jianhua Zhu (Kinderstimme), Christiane Maria Waschk (Kinderstimme); Chor der Oper Frankfurt; Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester; Sebastian Weigle, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performances at Oper Frankfurt, Germany, in October and November 2014; Oehms Classics OC 964; 3 CDs, 193:10; Available from Oehms Classics, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Whether symptomatic of perversity or profundity, Richard Strauss's and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Die Frau ohne Schatten is a score that engages my emotions very intensely; more intensely, in truth, than almost any other opera yet written. I do not claim that my affection for the opera fully plumbs the depths of its mystical symbolism, but I question the insightfulness of any artist, critic, or casual listener who fails to fathom the opera's pervasive, persuasive humanity. Like Mozart's and Schikaneder's Die Zauberflöte, the drama of Die Frau ohne Schatten occupies multiple planes of meaning. Taken at face value, its plot is fanciful but simple enough, recounting the necessity of a woman artificially obtaining what others naturally possess, but the collisions of privilege and privation, magnanimity and ennui, tangible and ephemeral inspired composer and librettist to look more deeply into the recesses of the psyches of the opera’s characters than in any of their other collaborations. Composed in the tempestuous years between 1911 and 1917, the dins and dissonances of World War I pockmark Strauss’s score, tempered by the strata of hope and resilience that are the most forceful weapons in an artist’s arsenal. Vitally, though, one need not wholly submerge oneself in the libretto's symbolism in order to be swept away by the surging currents of Strauss's music. The foremost majesty of Die Frau ohne Schatten is the simplicity that frolics in its depths: the characters who populate the opera's conflicting worlds are legendarily complex, but the emotions that motivate their actions—love, fear, guilt, longing—are surprisingly uncomplicated.

Like many operas with troublesome plots, Die Frau ohne Schatten has fallen victim to efforts to obviate the disconnect between the opera's singular philosophical milieu and the sensibilities of modern listeners. The desire to entice audiences with musical pageants in which their own lives are reflected is a critical component in the effort to ensure opera's continued existence and expansion, but it is a mistake to attempt to force an opera like Die Frau ohne Schatten into a mold of so-called relevance. Place the action in Revolution-era France, Nazi Germany, Franco's Spain, or some post-apocalyptic No Man's Land, and Die Frau ohne Schatten is no more approachable than when set into the temporal limbo stipulated by the libretto. Not even in Elektra did Strauss create a sound world so meticulously as in Die Frau ohne Schatten, during the three acts of which virtually every tenet of Nineteenth-Century tonality is dismantled, rearranged, and reassembled in ways that link the traditions of Brahms and Bruckner with the new directions of Schönberg and Webern. In practical terms, there is no making a work dealing with a woman transformed from a gazelle by a man who is himself on the cusp of literally being petrified relevant to audiences young or old. Die Frau ohne Schatten is an opera that requires suspension of disbelief. Recorded during staged performances at Oper Graz, this recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten establishes a context for the opera that depends upon nothing but the responses that Strauss's music and Hofmannsthal's words provoke. Ultimately, fully grasping the meaning of the opera’s metaphorical pragmatism is not as important as understanding why Die Frau ohne Schatten can be so moving.

Having shown himself to be an astonishingly versatile conductor in previous Oper Frankfurt productions recorded by Oehms Classics, Sebastian Weigle affirms on these discs that he is a conductor of incredible significance. Conducting Die Frau ohne Schatten is a task at which even conductors acknowledged as great talents have failed. Conducted at its 1919 Vienna première by Strauss's colleague Franz Schalk, a noted advocate for music by Bruckner and Mahler and a founder of the Salzburger Festspiele, Die Frau ohne Schatten has accumulated a very short list of wholly successful interpreters in the subsequent century. Karl Böhm was the opera's great champion in the Twentieth Century, followed by Joseph Keilberth, Herbert von Karajan (who took the liberty of reordering scenes), Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Giuseppe Sinopoli. Since the dawning of the new millennium, few conductors have vied for the Frau ohne Schatten laurels: Christian Thielemann has perhaps been the most visible contender, but Weigle's direction of this performance is equal to the very best of Thielemann's work. [As a point of reference for comparison, I cite Thielemann's conducting of a 2001 performance of Herbert Wernicke's production at the Metropolitan Opera, attended but not formally reviewed. All of Thielemann's MET appearances to date have been in Strauss operas: Der Rosenkavalier, Arabella, and Die Frau ohne Schatten.] In this performance, magnificently recorded via the ‘Oper Frankfurt Recording System’ and produced by Christian Wilde, Weigle favors the lean textures characteristic of his work, but the grandeur of Strauss's orchestrations, composed for the most extravagant instrumental ensemble required for any of his operas, is ever apparent. The scene changes, music that can easily dissolve into cacophony, are handled with unerring attention to their harmonic progressions: Weigle imparts a sense of knowing where the music started and to where it leads. Strauss made supporting the singers a difficult undertaking, but Weigle ensures that orchestral textures uplift the principals. Both the Chor der Oper Frankfurt and the Frankurter Opern- und Museumsorchester achieve extraordinary heights of excellence in their performances of Strauss’s music, every section of the orchestra playing wonderfully. The grueling celesta and glockenspiel parts are executed with special virtuosity, and Weigle oversees the weaving of tonal tapestries that serve as stunningly colorful backdrops for Hofmannsthal’s drama. Conducting Die Frau ohne Schatten requires an unique skill set, but the attention to details of orchestral timbres, rhythmic precision, and cohesion between stage and pit that are invaluable in Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini scores are no less paramount in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Weigle is a renowned master of these qualities, and he shapes a clear-sighted, logically-paced performance that focuses on the incredible allure and emotional weight of the music rather than struggling in the quagmire of extrapolated interpretations.

​The first statements of the Keikobad motif, as momentous as the motif representing Agamemnon in Elektra, that raise the curtain bellow menacingly in this performance, focusing the listener's attention for the introduction of one of the production's greatest strengths, the Amme of German mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner. Though the Amme is one of the most challenging rôles in the German repertory, she has often been entrusted to singers in the final phases of their careers: indeed, perhaps it is because of the incredible difficulty of the part that it has so often been sung by aging artists with nothing left to lose. Among recorded Ammen, only Irene Dalis, Mignon Dunn, and Ruth Hesse rival the histrionic intensity of Baumgartner's interpretation of the rôle, and neither they nor Elisabeth Höngen, Reinhild Runkel, and Hanna Schwarz sing the music more comfortably. Simply in terms of range and tessitura, it is a hellishly demanding rôle, essentially one for a lady with the range of a contralto, the sensibilities of a lyric mezzo-soprano, and the power and stamina of a dramatic soprano—in short, Erda, Carmen, and Isolde in a single throat. The Amme's first phrases following 'Licht über'm See - ein fließender Glanz' take her to top A♭, followed in short order by an exchange with the Geisterbote that, traversing the dramatically-vital phrase 'Er wird zu Stein,' descends first to low E♭ and then climbs two-and-a-half octaves to A on 'Er wird zu Stein!' Later, in her conversation with the Färberin, she is asked to unleash an explosive B♭♭ in 'Ach! Schönheit ohne Gleichen!' Baumgartner not only meets these demands with ease but manages to do so with absolute security and often revelatory beauty of tone. One delights in rather than dreading this Amme's lines. In Act Two, Baumgartner delivers 'Komm bald weider nach haus, mein Gebieter' with manipulative sweetness, followed by an account of 'Es sind Übermächte im Spiel, o meine Herrin' that exudes barely-concealed contempt. At the act's end, she unleashes a mighty 'Übermächte sind im Spiel! Herzu mir!' and brings down the unseen curtain with a top B♭ that charges the atmosphere like summer lightning. Catapulting to her demise in Act Three, this Amme is fearless, phrasing 'Fort von hier! Hilf mir vom Fels lösen den Kahn!' and 'Fort von der Schwelle, sie zu betreten, ist mehr als Tod' with unhesitant haughtiness that extends to her ringing top B♭. The same tone reverberates in her meteoric 'Fressendes Feuer in ihr Gebein!' Baumgartner indulges in none of the foolishness in when many Ammen mire their final moments. What need has she of melodramatics when she is capable of singing her music so idiomatically? Baumgartner is a hair-raising Amme not because there is constant fear of the voice unraveling but because she sings Strauss's music as written, eschewing the cawing and cackling that have become typical in the part. Simply put, she sets a new, drastically elevated standard for recorded Ammen.

American soprano Brenda Rae, the delightfully full-toned Zerbinetta in Oper Frankfurt's 2013 Ariadne auf Naxos, also conducted by Weigle and recorded by Oehms Classics, is an atypically glamorous Falkenstimme and Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels. The historical precedents for such luxurious casting of the Falkenstimme—the very young Christa Ludwig for Hessischen Rundfunks, Lucia Popp in Vienna, and Linda Roark-Strummer in San Francisco—are splendidly upheld by Rae’s glistening singing of 'Wie soll ich denn nicht weinen?' in Act One and 'Die Frau wirft keinen Schatten, der Kaiser ​muß versteinen!' in Act Two. She is no less persuasive as the Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels. Franz Mayer, Björn Bürger, and Hans-Jürgen Lazar cannot hope to match Rae’s vocal resplendence as Barak’s one-eyed, one-armed, and hunchbacked brothers, but they sing characterfully. Bürger and Mayer are joined by Dietrich Volle, the granite-voiced Geisterbote, in a lovely performance of the city watch’s 'Ihr Gatten in den Häusern dieser Stadt.' Katharina Magiera delivers the Stimme von oben’s 'Auf, geh nach oben, Mann, der Weg ist frei' authoritatively, and the ensemble of Dienerinnen—Birgit Treschau, Alketa Hoxha, Yvonne Hettegger, Young Sook Kim, and Hiromi Mori—make easy going of their high-flying music. Likewise, the well-integrated ensemble of Kinderstimmen—Bock-Sill Kim, Camelia Suzana Peteu, Gunda Boote, Jianhau Zhu, and Christiane Maria Waschk—might stir the maternal instincts of the most reluctant mother with their rendition of 'Mutter, Mutter, laß uns nach hause!'

Singing the one-dimensional Kaiser [in many performances, he might well be stone from the start], tenor Burkhard Fritz works hard in a rôle in which mere survival is admirable. The assertion that Strauss detested the tenor voice persists even in academic circles, and his music for the Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten is not an inappropriate example to present in defense of the allegation. The Kaiser has daunting episodes in each of the opera’s three acts, beginning in Act One with 'Amme! Wachst du?' This is music that has defeated a number of otherwise capable singers, but Fritz sings strongly, manfully weathering the problematic tessitura. He sings with audible tenderness as the Kaiser describes his first encounter with the Kaiserin. Notes at the top of the compass are not ideally projected, but Fritz sings the rôle without compromises. His performance in Act Two is a model of dramatic fortitude, the sentiments of the text expressed with imagination that takes flight on the wings of Strauss’s music. His accounts of 'Falke, Falke, du wiedergefundener' and the harrowing 'O weh, Falke, o weh!' are spellbinding. In Act Three, Fritz voices 'Wenn das Herz aus Kristall zerbricht in einem Schrei' forcefully but with elasticity of line. Like Baumgartner, Fritz sings rather than shouting his music, and the benefits to both Strauss and Hofmannsthal are phenomenal.

For the latter half of the Twentieth Century, one name was synonymous with the Kaiserin in the minds and affections of many admirers of Die Frau ohne Schatten: Leonie Rysanek. Recording the rôle for DECCA under Karl Böhm’s direction in 1955 and portraying the Kaiserin in staged productions in Europe and America, including in the score’s Metropolitan Opera première in 1966, the Viennese soprano quite simply was the Kaiserin for generations of listeners. The marvels of Rysanek’s vocal endowment notwithstanding, her enduring dominance in the Kaiserin’s music was due in part to the paucity of singers capable of rivaling her level of excellence in the rôle. Oper Frankfurt found in American soprano Tamara Wilson a Kaiserin to uphold and enrich the Rysanek legacy with singing of superb immediacy and tonal attractiveness superior even to what her great Austrian predecessor offered. At her first entrance in Act One, the girlishness of Wilson's singing is arresting, her management of the trill and top A♭s and B♭s in the bars following 'Ist mein Liebster dahin' allied with a slightly self-conscious naïveté. Then, though, Wilson's staccato D6 dispels any suspicion that this is going to be a shrinking violet Kaiserin. Wilson launches the top B on 'Er hat uns vergeben' with brilliance, but even this is scant preparation for the potency of her ascent to top B♭ on 'Amme, um alles, wo find ich den Schatten!' and the massive top C on 'Der Kaiser muß versteinen!' Heard in the scene with the Färberin, Wilson's voice radiates poise and purity up to the shining top B in 'Willst du um dies Spiegelbild nicht den hohlen Schatten geben?' In Act Two, this Kaiserin's conflicting emotions subject her to debilitating inner turmoil that the singer expresses devastatingly in 'Weh! Muß dies geschehen vor meinen Augen?' and 'Ach! Wehe! Daß sie sich treffen müßen' without upsetting the balance of the voice or the admirable security of her top C. She proves a first-rate singing actress in the act's third scene, limning the eloquent feelings of 'Es gibt deren, die haben immer Zeit' with subtlety and detonating another awe-inspiring top C on 'Ach! Weh mir, wohin!' The sheer beauty of the soprano's voicing of 'Vor solchen Blicken liegen Cherubim auf ihrem Angesicht!' is breathtaking, the ascent to top B♭ again achieved seemingly without effort. Wilson's singing of 'Ihm keine Hilfe, dem andern Verderben!' is nothing short of exquisite: her gleaming top D♭ alone is a mesmerizing reason to hear and treasure this recording. Her spoken passage in Act Three discloses a comfort with Hofmannsthal's German, but it is Wilson's comfort with Strauss's music throughout the performance that renders her Kaiserin a magnificent portrayal. Few are the singers past or present who have equaled Rysanek in any of her best rôles, but Wilson here establishes herself as the new paragon in the Kaiserin's music.

Listeners familiar with the Die Frau ohne Schatten discography have been spoiled by the presence of Fritz Wunderlich as the Erscheinung des Jünglings​ in a 1964 Wiener Staatsoper broadcast performance conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Young tenor Michael Porter creates a golden-voiced charmer in the Wunderlich tradition with a rhapsodic voicing of 'Gäb' ich um dies Spiegelbild doch sie Seele und mein Leben!' in Act One. Returning in Act Two, he beguiles his listeners on stage and over the airwaves with 'Wer tut mir das, daß ich jäh muß stehen von meiner Herrin!' The Erscheinung des Jünglings is superfluous if he lacks fetchingly handsome tones to lure the Färberin into the Amme’s and Kaiserin’s bargain: Porter’s singing could tempt her into committing far direr sins.

The Färberin’s first note is a top B♭, immediately announcing that her part is destined to be a trial for even the most gifted dramatic soprano. In the course of this performance, German soprano Sabine Hogrefe verifies the legitimacy of her answering to that description. Sparring with her husband’s deformed brothers when she is first heard in Act One, the annoyance and frustration in Hogrefe’s singing of 'Schamlose ihr!' erupt from her voice, and the disillusionment of her voicing of 'O Welt in der Welt! O Traum im Wachen!' is epitomized by her grumbling descent to low F. Completing her circuitous journey thought Act One, Hogrefe soars to the top B♭ in 'Was winselt so gräßlich aus diesem Feuer?' with panache. The life-changing trajectory of Act Two draws from Hogrefe dazzling accounts of 'Ich weiß von keinem Manne außer ihm' and 'Meinen Pantoffel in dein Gesicht,' the sinewy brawn of her singing contrasting with the poetic wonder of her 'Es gibt derer, die bleiben immer gelassen.’ Lustrous tonal pulchritude is not always Hogrefe’s to command, but the unexpected beauty of the character she creates is tremendously affecting. In Act Three, Hogrefe unlooses a tide of anguish with 'Schweiget doch, ihr Stimmen!' that annihilates the Färberin’s former querulousness. Her recitation of 'Barak, mein Mann, o, daß du mich hörtest' is unspeakably poignant. The transformation that Hogrefe depicts in the opera’s final scene is jubilantly resolved in her singing of 'Trifft mich sein Lieben nicht.’ Sailing to the top C in unison with the Kaiserin, Hogrefe’s Färberin clearly finds complete fulfillment, not in the external sources to which she was dedicated in Act One but within herself and her love for her husband.

This production of Die Frau ohne Schatten served as the vehicle for Norwegian baritone Terje Stensvold's farewell to Oper Frankfurt, a company that witnessed many of the singer's greatest triumphs, including his Wotan in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. Solely as a document of this occasion, this recording is valuable, but Stensvold, not an artist content to accept accolades without earning them, sings Barak with such grace and gravity that it is his performance rather than his reputation that garners appreciation. Often bringing the unforgettable late-career work of Hans Hotter to mind, Stensvold's vocalism is no longer wholly steady, but his intonation remains exact and his dramatic instincts unimpeded. The part's range strains him, but the Barak who sings effortlessly is likely not worth hearing. Though the vibrato has loosened, the timbre possesses a lovely russet patina that lends an appealing autumnal glow to the baritone's singing, apparent from his first notes in 'Hinaus mit euch!' The Cs, Ds, and E♭s that litter Barak's vocal lines are produced by Stensvold with heartening solidity and thrust. Barak's unassailable good humor is apparent in Stensvold's singing of 'Trag' ich die Ware mir selber zu Markt,' but the sadness of his unexaggerated 'Hörst du die Wächter, Kind, und ihren Ruf?' is wrenching. Stensvold condenses the whole panoply of Barak's emotions into two words with his weary but hopeful declamation of 'Sei's denn!' Stensvold devotes a veteran Wotan's world-weariness to his depiction of Barak's straits in Act Two, phrasing 'Was ist nun deine Rede' and especially 'Komm her, du stillgehende Muhme, da ist für dich!' with emotional directness and sincerity that tear at the heart. The feat that he brought off in Act One is repeated with his soul-searching utterance of 'Wer da?' in Act Two. The poetry of Stensvold's account of 'Mir anvertraut, daß ich sie hege, daß ich sie trage' in Act Three is complemented by the unfettered joy of his singing of 'Steh nur, ich finde dich' in the opera's final scene, his top Fs and Gs demonstrative of Barak's exultation at being reunited with his beloved wife. In an era in which emerging singers are often assigned rôles for which their voices and techniques are not ready merely because their faces will appear youthfully appealing to audiences, Stensvold's Barak—and his career as a whole, for that matter—should be a model to be studied. In this performance, the voice does not function as flawlessly as it did a decade ago, but this is a Barak who shirks nothing. In reality, Stensvold gets right at the heart of the character and why Die Frau ohne Schatten is so touching: love is as imperfect as the people who feel it but also more perfect in its abilities to heal and bind even perilously-injured hearts than the astounding symmetry of nature.

Die Frau ohne Schatten is a journey. The peculiar marvel of the opera is that, from an interpretive perspective, the points at which it begins and ends are different for every artist who performs it and every listener who hears it. Under Sebastian Weigle’s baton, Oper Frankfurt’s Die Frau ohne Schatten begins with discord and ends with harmony. Between these states, a performance of staggering eloquence is consummated by a group of artists for whom Strauss’s music and Hofmannsthal’s words are not esoteric symbols but components of the collective human experience that any individual with the gift of hearing can appreciate.

25 August 2015

CD REVIEW: Musical Czech Mates – Antonín Dvořák’s ALFRED on Arco Diva (UP 0140-2 612) and Leoš Janáček’s JENŮFA on Oehms Classics (OC 962)

CD REVIEW: Antonín Dvořák's ALFRED on Arco Diva (UP 0140-2 612) and Leoš Janáček's JENŮFA on Oehms Classics (OC 962)[1] ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904): Alfred, B. 16Felix Rumpf (Alfred), Petra Froese (Alvina), Ferdinand von Bothmer (Harald), Jörg Sabrowski (Gothron), Peter Mikuláś (Sieward), Tilmann Unger (Bote, Dorset), Jarmila Baxová (Rowena); Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno; Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra; Heiko Mathias Förster, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in concert in Dvořák Hall, Rudolfínum, Prague, Czech Republic, during the Dvořák Prague Festival, 16 – 17 September 2014; Arco Diva UP 0140-2 612; 2 CDs, 125:21; Available from Arco Diva, ClassicsOnline HD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] LEOŠ JANÁČEK (1854 – 1928): Jenůfa (Její pastorkyňa), JW I/4Gal James (Jenůfa), Iris Vermillion (Kostelnička Buryjovka), Dunja Vejzović (Stařenka Buryjovka), Aleš Briscein (Laca Klemeň), Taylan Reinhard (Števa Buryja), David McShane (Stárek), Konstantin Sfiris (Rychtář), Stefanie Hierlmeier (Rychtářka), Tatjana Miyus (Karolka), Fran Lubahn (Pastuchyňa), Xiaoyi Xu (Barena), Nazanin Ezazi (Jano), Hana Batinić (Tetka, Hlas), István Szécsi (Hlas); Fuyu Iwaki, violin solo; Chor und Singschul’ der Oper Graz; Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester; Dirk Kaftan, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during staged performances at Oper Graz, Graz, Austria, 7, 17, 21 – 22 May 2014; Oehms Classics OC 962; 2 CDs, 126:58; Available from Oehms Classics, ClassicsOnline HD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Anyone who has visited the Czech Republic or Slovakia in the years since the Iron Curtain was torn asunder can attest to the extraordinary pride these nations have in their cultural heritages. Consigned for centuries to biding their time as forced citizens of other nations and empires, the Czech and Slovak people maintained sharply-defined identities, remaining Bohemians, Moravians, and other distinct socio-ethnic societies even when their loyalties were involuntarily directed southward to Vienna or eastward to Moscow. The collective cultural legacy of the Czechoslovak nations is nowhere more vibrantly enshrined than in the region's music. Whether in the indigenous folk tunes of these intoxicating lands or in the music of their Classically-trained composers, the hearts of the Czech Republic and Slovakia beat in time with the musical expressions of the profound history and humanity of the people. Two operas could hardly be more different in scale, subject, and substance than Dvořák's Alfred and Janáček's Jenůfa, but the scores share the authentic spirit of a common cultural ancestry. One a product of its composer's artistic adolescence and the other one of the great masterpieces of its genre, both of these works embody the enterprising, unflappable soul of people whose determination has sustained them through horrors and hardships, from generations of decreed assimilation unto a new millennium in which hopes for autonomy have been realized in the thriving Czech Republic and Slovakia of the Twenty-First Century.

Antonín Dvořák's 'Heroische Oper in drei Aufzügen' Alfred dates from the period in the ​twenty-nine-year-old​ composer's creative development during which, probably by equal parts design and default, he was an earnest Wagnerian. The score contains occasional foreshadows of Jakobín and Rusalka but mostly breathes the air of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. Already, though, Dvořák's gifts for colorful orchestration are apparent in Alfred, not least in the atmospheric Tragic Overture that prefaces the opera and in the grand choral scenes that frame the action, particularly the stirring Morgengesang in Act Three. Composed in 18​70 to a German libretto by Karl Theodor Körner that had already been set by Friedrich von Flotow​, Alfred was ​neither ​performed ​nor published ​during Dvořák's lifetime​: the piece was not heard until 1938, when it was performed in a Czech translation in Olomouc. In fact, the September 2014 Dvořák Prague Festival concert in Dvořák Hall—as apt a venue as exists for the occasion—in the beautiful Rudolfínum was the first known performance of the opera in the original German. This expertly-engineered recording reveals few indications of its 'live' provenance, but it reveals much about the young Dvořák's compositional evolution, influenced as much by Bayreuth as by his native Bohemia.

In truth, none of the young cast in the concert performance recorded b​y Arco Diva​ are ideally-suited to their parts: the titular King of Wessex requires a burly baritone of the Telramund variety, the Viking warlord Harald is tailor-made for a capable Lohengrin, and the music for the long-suffering ​Alvina​ cries out for a young Ingrid Bjöner, Rita Hunter, or, most appropriately, Naděžda Kniplová. Under the thoughtfully-wielded baton of Heiko Mathias Förster​, the performance by the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno​ and Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra​ nonetheless provides great enjoyment and plentiful moments in which glimmers of Dvořák's operatic future appear in the sometimes ostentatious orchestrations. At this early stage in his career, Dvořák did not yet possess the skills as a manager of orchestral balances that he would eventually display in his Symphonies or the command of choral writing that characterizes his 1877 Stabat mater. Still, there are numerous challenges for instrumentalists and choristers, and they are here met unflinchingly. Förster's pacing of the performance benefits from what might rather paradoxically be termed a measured impetuosity: there is ample but never excessive thrust, and Dvořák's Wagnerian inclinations are indulged without Alfred being made to sound like a child-sized Parsifal. Förster supports the principals without ignoring the demands made on the chorus and orchestra, and, were the performance blessed with a cast more triumphant than merely competent, the endeavors of conductor, choir, and orchestra would honor Dvořák with a near-perfect recreation of his first outing as a composer of opera.

Singing the small rôle of​ Rowena, soprano Jarmila Baxová​ discloses a voice of charm and allure and a technique little challenged by her music. First appearing as the Bote in Act One, tenor Tilmann Unger negotiates 'Ja Herr! Er traf mit seiner sieggewohnten Scharr auf Alfreds Heer' effectively, and he delivers 'Vergebens, gestrenger Gebieter, ward Alvina im Thurme bewacht' in the Act Two finale robustly. In Act Three, he transitions from the Bote to Dorset and insightfully interacts with his colleagues, especially in his scene with Alvina. Baxová's and Unger's work is matched by that of veteran Slovak bass Peter Mikuláš, who depicts Sieward with vitality that compensates for what the voice lacks in steadiness. He convincingly makes his mark in Act Two with a stentorian utterance of 'O, muß ich ihm das Gräßliche verkünden!' and alert, attentive singing in the trio with Alvina and Alfred.

As the figureheads of the invading Viking hordes, baritone Jörg Sabrowski and tenor Ferdinand von Bothmer are slyly-contrasted presences as Gothron and Harald. Much of the credit for the differentiation is owed to Dvořák. Köthner's libretto puts little flesh on the characters' bones, but, though certainly not the equals of Rusalka's Ježibaba and Vodník, the composer granted each man a distinct musical profile. Sabrowski sings Gothron's music expansively, commandeering attention in Act One with his volatile traversal of 'Im Siegestaumel schweldt das Volk.' Though a darker, more imposing sound would be welcome in Gothron's lines, more of Sabrowski's singing would also be heard with gratitude. Von Bothmer's Harald is a petulant, short-fused despot whose desire for Alvina seems inspired more by a lust for depriving Alfred of her company than by actually wishing to possess her himself. Sung by von Bothmer with slimy insouciance, Harald is here a perverse manipulator in the fashion of Richard Strauss's Herodes and Aegisth. In Act One, von Bothmer intones 'Das war ein blut'ges Tagwerk, Kampfgenossen!' persuasively, and in the Schlachtlied he shapes 'Das Los des Kampfes ist gefallen' and 'Speere blinken, Krieger sinken' with the immediacy of a man whose natural habitat is the battlefield. He is more Monostatos than Tamino in Harald's duet with Alvina, but he devotes greater intensity to the Act Three scene with Alvina. Von Bothmer produces all of Harald's notes cleanly despite strain in the upper register but does not have the vocal heft to reliably project over the orchestra: von Bothmer makes a valiant effort, but a more heroic voice is needed to fully limn the machismo bellicosity with which Dvořák infused Harald's music.

Prague-born soprano Petra Froese portrays Alvina, Alfred's queen consort [the operatic equivalent of the historical Eahlswith], with a bright, penetrating timbre that partially mitigates the relative lack of vocal amplitude. Hearing her performance in Alfred, the expensiveness of her Mozartean credentials is not surprising, but it is intriguing to note that her repertory also includes Elsa in Lohengrin and Gutrune in Götterdämmerung, parts which require a spinto's or Jugendlich-dramatische's stamina and ability to fully project over the Wagnerian orchestra. Like her Slovakian predecessor Gabriela Beňačková, the greatest Rusalka of her generation, Froese maintains presences in Czech, German, and Italian repertories. Had she a bit more of Beňačková's arresting tonal beauty and security on high, she might make a stronger impression in Alvina's lovely but mostly passive music. In her Act One duet with Harald, Froese's Alvina lifts her eyes to Providence with a nobly-phrased account of 'Allmächtiger, verlieh' mir Kraft!' She follows this with a sweetly feminine but iron-willed voicing of 'Ich bin's und war's, eh' Du Dein Wort vollendet,' its effectiveness undermined only by the thinness of the tone and a lack of authority on the highest notes. In the Act Two trio with Alfred and Sieward, the soprano sings with compelling animation and increasingly insightful management of her vocal resources. By the time that she reaches Alvina's Act Three scenes with Dorset and Harald, Froese is singing with energy and excitement. Not even her enthusiasm can rescue the opera's jubilant dénouement from an unmistakable outbreak of triviality, but the rousing resolution of Froese's performance makes amends for her tentative start.

Credited with expelling or subjugating many of the roving Danes who terrorized the British Isles in the centuries immediately following the disintegration of Roman dominion and diplomatically and militarily uniting tributary states into a form vaguely resembling modern England, the Wessexian king Alfred the Great is a figure of pivotal but likely semi-apocryphal importance in British history. More information now accepted as fact exists about Alfred than about almost any of his contemporaries, however, and he is not unworthy of operatic treatment, the suspicion that his reign was far calmer than legends assert notwithstanding. His royal mantle is here assumed by baritone Felix Rumpf, a native of Dresden who, just completing his second decade at the time of this performance, was roughly the same age as Alfred during the events depicted in the opera. Like Froese, Rumpf is an accomplished Mozartean, admired for his stylish Papageno, and Dvořák's music is sometimes a size too large for him. Also like Froese, he is an intelligent singer who knows better than to risk damaging his good-quality voice by attempting to feign a rotundity that it does not possess. Rumpf launches Act Two with a nuanced articulation of 'Wohl Euch, ihr tapfern Streiter!' He is too sensible to fall into the trap of over-emoting in 'O, welche Marter wird Dir nicht bereitet, hochherzig Mädchen!' and the ardent trio with Alvina and Sieward, but he sings with passionate abandon within the parameters of his voice. He dominates the Act Two finale with a statement of 'Des langen Kampfes müde lag unberührt der Stahl' that throbs with unflinching senses of duty and purpose. The finest music in the score is Alfred's prayer in Act Three, 'Höre unser lautes Flehen, Gott der Siege, Gott der Schlacht,' and Rumpf sings the number with understated grandeur. Rumpf is careful to convey Alfred's regal bearing via his superb diction, and he sings so aristocratically and attractively that it is frequently possible to forget that the voice is lean for Dvořák's corpulent vocal lines. Rumpf is an Almaviva rather than an Amfortas, but on his own terms he is a memorable, meaningful Alfred.

Composers' first operas have rarely been masterpieces, and Dvořák's Alfred is no exception. Many listeners' enjoyment of a piece like Alfred is seemingly complicated by a perceived necessity of analyzing every bar in search of evidence of latent genius. Alfred is clearly the work of a very talented beginner whose thoughts were affected, as were those of so many of his contemporaries, by the artistic altitude of the Green Hill. Förster and his colleagues provide a well-prepared, well-executed introduction to a score that introduces the listener to a master composer’s freshman exertion in a genre to which he would eventually contribute indelibly.

VOIX DES ARTS - Your Voice for the Performing Arts

Were it not remarkable in a myriad of other ways, Leoš Janáček's Jenůfa would be a milestone in the history of opera solely owing to the composer's libretto, an adaptation of Gabriela Preissová's drama Její pastorkyňa that was among the first prose libretti set to music. In it, the ugly visages of jealousy, lust, and damning social conformity are bared to the listener's scrutiny with music that is by turns lushly Romantic and starkly modern. In a manner of speaking, Janáček was an operatic Joseph, his coat of many colors enveloping a profound, intuitive empathy for humanity in music that translates into sound the innermost aspects of dreams that often go undetected. The product of a six-year gestational period and first performed in Brno in 1904, Jenůfa was not, like Dvořák's Alfred, it's composer's first opera, but in it the unmistakable, singular voice of Janáček—the voice that shaped Kát'a Kabanová, Věc Makropulos, and Z mrtvého domu—is heard for the first time without distractions derived from external influences. Not least because of his pattern of setting prose texts, Janáček's are among the most inventive operas in the international repertory, and Oehms Classics' recording of Jenůfa advocates powerfully for the score's continued appeal and thought-provoking social commentary. Most crucially, however, this recording establishes in Jenůfa an intimacy in which the demeaning intrusions of small-town mentalities into the everyday lives of citizens are examined as insightfully as in Peter Grimes and Der junge Lord. In Alfred, Dvořák dealt with heroic figures of lore: in Jenůfa, Janáček held a mirror to the scarred faces of common folk.

Recorded during staged performances at Oper Graz in sound of a quality that comes close to rivaling Oehms Classics' Oper Frankfurt recordings, this set documents a markedly 'modern' take on Jenůfa, the drama unfolding almost in the manner of a radio play. Conductor Dirk Kaftan exhibits mastery of the thorny score that places him in the company of Sir Charles Mackerras and Václav Neumann as an interpreter of Janáček's music. Intelligently choosing tempi in Preludes, set pieces, and conversational scenes, he highlights the manner in which the composer constructed the music upon the foundation of the cadences of the Czech language. Indeed, this is a performance that 'speaks' even when voices are silent. No matter who they are portraying in the course of the drama, the singers of the Chor und Singschul' der Oper Graz sing sonorously, the individual voices that occasionally stand out from the ensemble enhancing the choristers' credibility in public scenes. Among the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus of all ages, there are no weak links, an assessment that proves true of few performances or recordings of Jenůfa. Janáček's demands on the orchestra are no less stringent than those on the chorus, but the players of the Grazer Philharmonisches Orchester complement their choral colleagues by executing their parts with compelling concentration. Janáček's orchestrations were originally viewed with skepticism, their unconventionality deemed an obstacle to the opera's success with audiences. On a more modest scale, Janáček was as imaginative a wizard at blending instrumental timbres as his fellow Austrian-by-birth Mahler, however. Responding to Kaftan's leadership and Janáček's instructions with skill and soul, the Graz forces confirm that they are as adept at bringing Janáček's music to life as their neighbors to the north in Vienna, Brno, and Prague.

Emerging from their surroundings as both onlookers and participants in Jenůfa's tragic life, Ukrainian soprano Tatjana Miyus as Karolka, Wisconsin native contralto Fran Lubahn as Pastuchyňa, Chinese mezzo-soprano Xiaoyi Xu as Barena, Persian soprano Nazanin Ezazi as Jano, Serbian soprano Hana Batinić as the Tetka and a voice, and Hungarian bass István Szécsi as a voice all sing capably, not one of them lowering the high level of musicality in the performance with a flubbed rhythm or missed pitch. Led by Miyus's sweet tones in Karolka's 'Pánbůh rač dát dobrý den, dobrý den!' in Act Three, these intrepid singers create a formidable ensemble. As the Rychtář and Rychtářka, the mayor and his wife, Greek bass Konstantin Sfiris and German mezzo-soprano Stefanie Hierlmeier are a well-matched couple, as well, their voices resounding handsomely in every phrase that Janáček assigned to them, and Missouri-born baritone David McShane is similarly effective as the Stárek, the foreman of Stařenka Buryja's mill.

A chameleonic artist whose career includes notable assumptions of rôles as diverse as Saint-Saëns's Dalila and the Walküre Brünnhilde, as well much-discussed portrayals of Wagner's Senta and Kundry under the baton of Herbert von Karajan, Croatian mezzo-soprano Dunja Vejzović is an unexpected but inspired choice for Stařenka Buryja in Jenůfa. The voice retains much of its strength, and Vejzović remains an exhilarating performer. She sings 'Co to máš za radost!' 'A ty, Jenůfo, neplač, neplač!' in Act One with conviction that pulls the listener into the drama, and she continues in this vein in her every appearance. Ever a courageous, resourceful artist, Vejzović sings vigorously, conjuring memories of past glories, and in the context of this performance creates a memorable Stařenka Buryja.

Jenůfa's suitors Števa Buryja and Laca Klemeň are, like their female counterparts in Janáček's drama, two of the most challenging rôles in the Czech repertory. With almost identical tessitura and vocal writing that centers both parts in the passaggio, singers must differentiate the men largely by characterization. In the context of an audio recording, the ability to discern Števa from Laca is critical. This performance has a pair of singers whose voices are not vastly dissimilar but who manage to create distinct, distinguishable characters. As Števa, Turkish tenor Taylan Reinhard depicts a hard-edged man without artificially hardening his tone. In Števa's confrontation with Jenůfa in Act One, Reinhard spits out 'Já, já! Já! já! Já napilý? Já napilý? To ty mně, Jenůfka?' with stinging indignation, as though the character can hardly believe that Jenůfa would comment on his inebriation. Then, he tosses off his song with the farmhands, 'Daleko široko do těch Nových Zámků,' with grating insouciance but focused, ingratiating tone. The pent-up frustration that rushes to the surface in his declamation of 'Neškleb se! Vždyt' vidíš, tetka Kostelnička mne pro tebe dopaluje' is startling: it is clear both why Jenůfa is attracted to Števa and why her passion for him is ill-fated. In Števa’s scene with the Kostelnička in Act Two, Reinhard sings 'Proto, že se jí bojím, že se jí bojím' captivatingly. Czech tenor Aleš Briscein, whose repertory contains both of the tenor leads in Jenůfa, here sings Laca with simplicity and sensitivity that contrast sharply with the bolder profile of Reinhard's Števa. In Act One, Briscein voices 'Vy stařenka, už tak na všelicos špatně vidíte' and 'A on na tobě nevidí nic jiného' winningly, the character’s petulance rendered by the pinpoint accuracy of the singer’s diction. 'Chci, Jenůfka, chci Jenůfka, jen když buděs, buděs má' in Act Two also receives from the tenor a traversal of absorbing immediacy. Both Reinhard and Briscein are little troubled by their parts’ top B♭s, but they take pains to delineate the very different motives that inspire their characters’ actions. As enacted by Reinhard and Briscein, neither Števa nor Laca is wholly good or bad in a conventional sense, but good singing is a trait that they have in common.

The rôle of the Kostelnička is a histrionic tour de force, a gift for singing actresses in the performance of which far too many artists, consumed by acting the part, downplay or wholly ignore the importance of singing it. The Kostelnička gold standards on disc are both dramatic sopranos: Naděžda Kniplová, recorded in studio in Prague in 1969 and again almost a decade later, and Leonie Rysanek, documented in an incendiary 1988 Opera Orchestra of New York concert performance in Carnegie Hall. Acclaimed German mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion of course cannot compete with her illustrious forebears in the Kostelnička's music in terms of decibels, but as an actress with a clear-sighted understanding of the part she has little to fear by comparison. She also has to her credit a carefully-trained, genuinely attractive voice, and she is the rare Kostelnička whose principal focus is squarely on meeting the musical requirements of the part. Vermillion seizes attention in Act One, voicing 'A tak bychom šli celým životem' with near-seismic intensity, and never relinquishes her grip on the performance. She uncannily propels the drama in Act Two with her stern but vulnerable singing of 'Pořád se s tím děckem mažeš' and 'Ba, ta tvoje okenička už přes dvacet neděl zabedněna.' The full spectrum of Vermillion's considerable gifts is unveiled in her account of the Kostelnička's great monologue, 'Co chvíla...co chvíla...a já si mám – zatím přejít celou věčnost, celé spasení?!' The repeated top Gs and A♭s and the climactic top B♭s here and in the final moments of Act Two tax her, but her solid, exciting singing is a victory of will. Vermillion makes the Kostelnička's decision to murder Jenůfa's baby equally appalling and heartbreaking: there is no questioning the sincerity of her distorted good intentions. In Vermillion's intuitive singing, the moment when the Kostelnička resolves to commit infanticide is as apparent to the listener as that when Tosca grasps the knife in order to stab Scarpia. In Act Three, the distress of 'Vypravuju dnes Jenůfě svatbu s hodným člověkem' is chillingly conveyed, and here Vermillion ascends to the frequent F♭s at the top of the stave with unhesitating security. Her cry of 'Ještě jsem tu já! Vy ničeho nevíte! To můj skutek – můj trest boží!' is both desperate and cathartic: hers is a Kostelnička for whom public condemnation is far lighter a burden than the hell to which her own guilt has subjected her. In many performances, the Kostelnička is portrayed as a bully and a shrew. Vermillion lends her greater psychological depth, but the particular success of her interpretation is the splendor of her singing.

Many performances of Jenůfa are understandably defined by their Kostelničkas, but Oper Graz found in Israeli soprano Gal James a Jenůfa capable of holding her own opposite a first-rate Kostelnička. With her fresh, youthful timbre and incisive dramatic instincts, James is an uncommonly engaging Jenůfa, one who is audibly a different woman after being disfigured by Laca's blade and again after learning of her child's death. In her Act One prayer, 'O Panno Maria, jestlis mne oslyšela,' James's Jenůfa raises her voice to heaven with tones that only a very stony-hearted Madonna could ignore, and her expansive phrasing is evidence of a deeply-considered understanding of the music. James sings 'Stařenko, nehněvejte se' enchantingly, the glow of a young woman's love illuminating Janáček's melodies. The slashing urgency with which she articulates 'Števo, Števo, já vím, žes to urobil z té radosti dnes' imparts the sincerity of Jenůfa's affection and the harshness of her slow realization of its futility. The Act Two monologue 'Mamičko, mám tězkou hlavu, mám, mám, jako samý, samý kámen' inspires James to singing of tremendous dramatic potency and vocal beauty, the top Bs rightly projected as organic resolutions to Janáček's complex lines and 'Kde to jsem?' cloaked in uncertainty and fear. Jenůfa's response to being told that her child is dead, 'Tož umřel – tož umrěl můj chlapčok radostný,' is sung with a delicacy that is far more evocative of the profundity of the character's shock and grief than other singers' groans and shouts. Symbolically at least, Jenůfa begins Act Three as a woman injured as destructively as can be imagined, her beauty defaced and her motherhood violated. The defining trait of James's Jenůfa is survival, however, and she delivers 'Vstaňte, pěstounko moja' with resilience typical of her reading of the part. The magnificent arc of 'O Laco, duša moja! O pojd', o pojd'! Včil k tobě mne dovedla láska – ta větsí co Pánbůh s ní spokojen!' is sculpted by James with vocal acumen akin to the touch of a Renaissance master. The fortissimo top B♭ with which she ends the opera is a starburst of reawakening hope that epitomizes this Jenůfa's battered but never abandoned worldview. Singing the rôle with polish and potency that place her in the class of Beňačková and Sena Jurinac, James is a Jenůfa whose beneficent spirit is far sharper than Laca's knife.

Performances of Jenůfa are often dramatically enthralling, but only the best of them are as musically rewarding as this recording from Oper Graz. In truth, few performances of any opera devote as much attention to fulfilling the composer’s musical requirements as the cast of this recording of Jenůfa expend in their account of Janáček’s fascinating score. Both Oehms Classics’ Jenůfa and Arco Diva’s Alfred provide listeners with breathtaking vistas of the musical wonders of the Czech Republic and Slovakia that leave no doubt that the cultural traditions of these proud nations are as rich and as enduringly valuable as those of their neighbors along the Danube and Vltava and over the Alps.