09 August 2015

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL (D. Damrau, R. Villazón, A. Prohaska, P. Schweinester, F.-J. Selig, T. Quasthoff; DGG 479 4064)

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL (Deutsche Grammophon 479 4064)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Die Entführung aus dem Serail, K. 384Diana Damrau (Konstanze), Rolando Villazón (Belmonte), Anna Prohaska (Blonde), Paul Schweinester (Pedrillo), Franz-Josef Selig (Osmin), Thomas Quasthoff (Bassa Selim); Vocalensemble Rastatt; Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Jory Vinikour, pianoforte continuo; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany, July 2014; Deutsche Grammophon 479 4064; 2 CDs, 138:38; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail was first performed at Vienna's Burgtheater in 1782, the first-night audience may not have fully sensed the magnitude of the occasion they were witnessing. Composed in response to Emperor Joseph II's Nationalsingspiel initiative, a concerted effort to counteract the expanding influence of Italian opera by encouraging the creation of new, innovative works in the German-language Singspiel genre, Die Entführung aus dem Serail was a sure-fire hit that pandered to the Viennese fascination with all things Turkish. By 1782, Hapsburg Vienna had for centuries been looking over her shoulder, gazing to the southeast in anticipation of Ottoman invaders. A century before Entführung's première, the Holy League expelled the besieging Turks from the walls of Vienna, the Janissaries' hasty retreat allegedly responsible for abandonment of the cymbals and timpani that were found by the conquerors and quickly assimilated into European musical traditions. When Mozart arrived in Vienna, he found a city in which westernized vestiges of Turkish culture remained very much in vogue. The marvel of Mozart's achievement in Entführung is that he produced a score in which the German Singspiel and Italian opera join hands, Osmin, Blonde, and Pedrillo emerging from Teutonic vaudeville, Konstanze a refugee from Händelian opera seria, and Belmonte an early representative of pure bel canto. Whether or not the score contains 'too many notes,' as Joseph II may or may not have observed, the intoxicating musical spirits of Entführung, diluted with splashes of strong Turkish coffee, were a concoction certain to please Viennese tastes in 1782. In a persuasive performance like this one, assembled in excellent, studio-quality sound [only Jory Vinikour's hypnotically inventive pianoforte continuo could have benefited from increased prominence within the soundscape] from recordings of concert performances in Baden-Baden's enormous Festspielhaus, Die Entführung aus dem Serail is confirmed to be not just a raucously fun ‘period piece’ but a work of genius with sensibilities as relevant in 2015 as in 1782.

Following Don Giovanni (reviewed here) and Così fan tutte (reviewed here), Die Entführung aus dem Serail is the third release in Deutsche Grammophon's cycle of recordings of Mozart's mature operas conducted by Québécois dynamo Yannick Nézet-Séguin. [Le nozze di Figaro was recently recorded in conjunction with Baden-Baden concert performances for release as the next installment in the series, with a cast including Thomas Hampson and Sonya Yoncheva as Conte and Contessa d'Almaviva, Luca Pisaroni and Christiane Karg as Figaro and Susanna, and Angela Brower as Cherubino.] The young conductor's pacing of Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte was lithe and often very impressive, but this performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail is his finest recorded outing as a Mozartean to date. In repertory spanning more than two centuries, Nézet-Séguin has shown himself to be a master of both grand gestures and finely-wrought filigree, but not even his justly-acclaimed performances of Verdi operas have displayed the command of the requisite style, artful management of orchestral and choral forces, and intuitive support of soloists as readily as this Entführung. Moreover, Nézet-Séguin here spotlights very real emotions that many conductors are content to merrily bury beneath batteries of faux-Turkish dins. A vital component of Mozart's genius from the start of his career as a composer of opera was an uncanny, virtually unrivaled ability to deal with incredibly difficult subjects—public duty and private loyalty in Idomeneo, infidelity in Figaro and Così, every imaginable vice in Don Giovanni, faith and self-reliance in Die Zauberflöte—in a manner that places the listener at the heart of the story. Similarly, Nézet-Séguin's conducting, rhythmically alert and informed by understanding of 1780s performance practices but unafraid of Romantic sweep when the score justifies it, draws the listener into this performance. Playing with effervescence that flows from the start of the Overture to the opera's last bar, the musicians of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe are participants in the performance rather than accompanists of it. When the oboe, violin, flute, cello, and clarinet introduce Konstanze in her fiendishly difficult aria 'Martern aller Arten,' they are not faceless obbligati: they are friends who seem to say to Konstanze, 'Come on, girl, you can do it!' This camaraderie emanates from the singing of the Vocalensemble Rastatt, as well, their performance of the Chor der Janitscharen in Act One, 'Singt dem grossen Bassa Lieder,' wonderfully animated. Much of the credit for this collegiate cooperation is owed to Nézet-Séguin. For singers, secondary in importance only to technique and health as a factor in the quality of performance is the knowledge that there is a supportive presence on the podium. From Mozart to the musician charged with the least-significant orchestral part, every participant in this Entführung knows that Nézet-Séguin is dedicated to facilitating everyone's success and performs accordingly.

Returning to the stage despite his retirement from singing staged opera, Thomas Quasthoff speaks one of the finest accounts of​ Bassa Selim on disc. Many productions of Entführung make the good-intentioned mistake of casting acclaimed actors who are not familiar with opera as Selim. With a speaking voice nearly as mellifluous as his hazelnut-hued bass-baritone, Quasthoff delivers his lines perfectly, complementing rather than upstaging his vocal colleagues, all of whom tastefully speak their own dialogue. Quasthoff is a Bassa Selim who is an enlightened despot without being a ham-fisted yeller. His singing is greatly missed, but he serves Mozart splendidly in this performance.

Singing the bumbling but boisterously nasty ​Osmin, Franz-Josef Selig lacks the sonorous tones in the lower octave of Gottlob Frick and the bottled-thunder timbre and spot-on comedic antics of Kurt Moll, but he voices Osmin's music handsomely and effectively, his singing more attractive than Josef Greindl's and more recognizably Mozartean than Martti Talvela's. In his Act One Lied, 'Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden,' and the subsequent duet with Belmonte, Selig sings strongly, and he copes manfully with the trills and low Fs in his aria 'Solche hergelauf'ne Laffen.' He bellows rippingly in the trio with Belmonte and Pedrillo, 'Marsch! marsch! marsch! Trollt euch fort!' and is the mean-spirited but ultimately hilariously inept henchman to the life. In Act Two, Selig duets with Blonde with gusto in 'Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir,' his articulation of the Andante 'O Engländer! seid ihr nicht Toren' exuding exasperation and flummoxing ignorance and matching his inebriated blubbering in the duet with Pedrillo. Osmin's best music is the aria 'O! wie will ich triumphieren' in Act Three, and Selig rises to the occasion with vocal power and technical acumen that encompasses good execution of his triplets and an honorable attempt at the trill. His low Ds lack the full-bodied support of the balance of his range. Selig's commitment to accurately producing the notes of his part contributes to an effective, uncaricatured portrayal of Osmin. Why do so many singers fail to realize that singing what the composer wrote is the surest method of bringing a character to life, whether comic or tragic?

Truly singing Pedrillo, a rôle far too often barked and blustered, Sachertorte-toned Austrian tenor Paul Schweinester​ is the rare exponent of this rôle who does not inspire the wish that the part were shorter. Beginning with wide-eyed, charismatic singing in the Act One trio with Belmonte and Osmin, 'Marsch! marsch! marsch! Trollt euch fort,' he is a vivacious personality throughout the opera—precisely the sort of friend for whom a leading man under duress longs. Schweinester makes Pedrillo's Act Two aria 'Frisch zum Kampfe! frisch zum Streite!' a joy, his trill and long-held top A heard with great pleasure. Then, he vigorously pairs with Selig in the hysterical duet with Osmin, 'Vivat Bacchus! Bacchus lebe!' The young tenor more than holds his own opposite his celebrated colleagues in the quartet with Konstanze, Blonde, and Belmonte. Pedrillo's Romanze 'Im Mohrenland gefangen war​' is often a trial for listeners, but Schweinester's performance gives the piece the brilliance that Mozart intended it to display. This is emblematic of Schweinester's performance as a whole: he is, as few tenors on recordings of Entführung have been, a Pedrillo who could as easily be a Belmonte.

Like similar rôles in a number of operas of all eras, the pert, perky ​Blonde​ can be a tremendous annoyance. Her music is written so that anything less than complete technical assurance amounts to failure. It almost seems too much to ask that a Blonde sing her high-wire act of a part beautifully, but that, on the whole, is what Anna Prohaska does on this recording. Though a lauded interpreter of Bach and other Baroque repertory, she possesses a more substantial voice than has often been heard in Blonde's music, and this is all to the good: there is no reason why the part must be sung by a Galli-Curci-esque chirper. Vocally, Blonde must hit the ground running, so to speak, her Act Two aria 'Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln' laden with coloratura leading her to E6. Prohaska ascends into the stratosphere with little evidence of effort and a heartening avoidance of shrillness. In the duet with Osmin, 'Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir,' the fearless soprano is equally comfortable when Blonde's line descends to A♭ below the staff. Prohaska tosses off the aria 'Welche Wonne, welche Lust' charmingly, her sustained top A a memorable tone, and, like her Pedrillo, she makes her mark in the quartet with Konstanze Belmonte and Pedrillo. There are a few patches of unevenness in the voice that suggest that her technique remains a work in progress, but she is as capable and captivating a Blonde as has been heard on records since Rita Streich.

Since devoting himself to the study and performance of Mozart repertory, Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón has not only sung and recorded Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni and Ferrando in Così fan tutte with Nézet-Séguin and recorded fine accounts of the composer's concert arias for tenor (also on DGG; reviewed here) but also conquered Salzburg in the title rôle of Lucio Silla. [He also sings Don Basilio on the forthcoming recording of Le nozze di Figaro.] From a historical perspective, it is frustrating to observe that the relatively recent notion persists that a tenor acclaimed for singing Verdi and Puccini rôles taking on Mozart parts is tantamount to a demotion in importance. Gone are the days when tenors like Richard Tucker and George Shirley regularly sang Ferrando amidst outings as Gabriele Adorno and Pinkerton without being thought to be retrograding into ‘beginners' repertory.' Villazón's voice here sounds healthy and secure, and his enunciation of German, though audibly not native, is fluent: Belmonte is a Spaniard, after all, and it should not be forgotten that one of the tenor's earliest appearances on disc was as the Steuermann in Daniel Barenboim's Teldec recording of Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer. In Act One, Villazón sets the high standard for the performance with a lovely, lively reading of Belmonte's aria 'Hier soll ich dich denn sehen,' the preponderance of top Gs and As​—typical of the part's passaggio-hugging tessitura—disclosing no fissures in Villazón's voice. After duetting rousingly with Selig, he voices the recitative 'Konstanze! Konstanze! Dich wiederzusehen' ardently. He devotes considerably more passion to the aria 'O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig' than many tenors are willing to venture, and the roulades hold no terrors for him. Drawing inspiration from Nézet-Séguin's perfectly-judged tempo, Villazón leads his colleagues in a bumptious but genuinely witty account of the trio with Pedrillo and Osmin, 'Marsch! marsch! marsch! Trollt euch fort!' In both 'Wenn der Freude Trä​​nen fließen' and the superb quartet, 'Ach Belmonte, ach mein Leben,' he graces Act Two with warm, Mediterranean vocalism. As might be hoped, he is at his best in Act Three, in which he offers a performance of the demanding aria 'Ich baue ganz auf deine Stä​rke' which has few peers, the aria often having been cut even from studio traversals of Entführung. Villazón crowns the aria with easy​ top B♭​s approached, as they should be, merely as notes resolving the upward mobility of the vocal lines. In the duet with Konstanze, 'Ha! Du solltest fü​r mich sterben,' he is the epitome of the golden-voiced Latin lover. Compared with the work of Mozarteans like Ernst Haefliger and Fritz Wunderlich, Villazón's is neither conventional nor conventionally beautiful Mozart singing. It is significant, sensitive, stimulating singing, however. Belmonte is not a Catechism-quoting schoolboy: he surely need not sound like one in order to be 'stylish.'​

In Nézet-Séguin's Don Giovanni for DGG, German soprano Diana Damrau​ was a Donna Anna who ruled the rôle and dominated the performance, even alongside Joyce DiDonato's no-holds-barred Donna Elvira. As Konstanze in this recording of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, there is unmistakable evidence of the toll that a frenetically-paced international career has taken on the exceptional beauty and flexibility of her voice. Still, she remains an extraordinary singer, and there are glimpses in this performance of her finest work. In Konstanze's Adagio aria in Act One, 'Ach ich liebte, war so glü​cklick' the bravura passagework extending to top D and the trills tax her, the voice sounding sluggish and under-rehearsed. In Act Two, she gives secure, insightfully-phrased performances of the recitative 'Welcher Kummer herrscht in meiner Seele' and the sublime aria 'Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose,' the repeated top B♭​s prompting no concerns, but the scale of the vocalism—and, in truth, of the voice itself—seems small for the music. The indubitably great Damrau emerges in the much-feared aria 'Martern aller Arten,' her technical aplomb in the runs  frequently cresting on top C dizzying, and she here rises to top D without a care in the world. This burst of prodigality continues in the quartet with ​Belmonte, ​Blonde, and Pedrillo, 'Ach Belmonte, ach mein Leben!' Taking the top line with distinction, she is finally every inch the performance's prima donna. She partners Villazón in their​ Act Three duet 'Ha! Du solltest fü​​r mich sterben' with temperament befitting a put-upon Spanish lady, firing her top C as a final salvo affirming her moral superiority. If the Damrau heard from 'Martern aller Arten' to the end of the opera were the Damrau of the opera's first half, this would be as near-definitive a Konstanze as is likely ever to be heard. It is interesting to consider that, when Don Giovanni was first performed in Vienna in 1788, the rôle sung by Salieri's pupil Caterina Cavalieri, for whose abilities Mozart devised Konstanze's music in Entführung, was Donna Elvira, not Donna Anna. It was for Cavalieri that the composer wrote Elvira's aria 'Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata,' the tessitura of which is, in general, higher than that of Donna Anna's music. Perhaps the models of Schwarzkopf and Steber (whose Donna Elvira is confirmed by existing MET broadcasts to have been markedly superior to her Donna Anna) are the benchmarks for Konstanze not merely because these ladies were fantastic singers but because their voices were centered in the tessitura as Mozart intended. By right of natural vocal talent, Damrau should have been their peer. In the event, she is a competent, sometimes superlative Konstanze rather than a legendary one.

Much is made in the annals of operatic history of the première of Auber's La muette de Portici having played a part in inciting the rebellion that led to Belgian independence. The first performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail may have precipitated no riots, but in those same annals of operatic history it is by a broad margin the more revolutionary work. It is not unreasonable to hypothesize that, without Entführung, there may have been no Die Zauberflöte, Fidelio, Der Freischütz, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Ariadne auf Naxos, or Wozzeck. As in Italian opera, in which vein the importance of Josef Mysliveček's work is increasingly assuming its rightful place beside that of Mozart's operas, the Wunderkind of Salzburg shares influence on the development of German opera with contemporaries like Ignaz Holzbauer and Peter von Winter. Under Yannick Nézet-Séguin's baton, though, the significance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail has never seemed more vast. In this valuable recording, Nézet-Séguin and an ensemble of artists who trust him and one another present a Die Entführung aus dem Serail from the musical pinnacle of which the perceptive listener with an appetite for the saga of opera's evolution can, as The Who’s song puts it, 'see for miles and miles.’