30 September 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – DON CARLO (G. Rivero, A. Raspagliosi, S. Heltzel, M. Nansel, W. Powers, S. Ramey; Wichita Grand Opera, 27 September 2015)

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi's DON CARLO at Wichita Grand Opera, 27 September 2015 [Image: Costume design for Filippo II in the Teatro alla Scala production of Verdi's revised version of the score in four acts, 1884]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Don Carlo [1882 – 1883 La Scala version in four acts]—Gaston Rivero (Don Carlo), Annalisa Raspagliosi (Elisabetta di Valois), Sarah Heltzel (Principessa Eboli), Michael Nansel (Rodrigo, Marchese di Posa), William Powers (Filippo II), Samuel Ramey (il Grande Inquisitore), Gregory Brumfield (Un frate), Lily Guerrero (Tebaldo), Carline Waugh (Una voce dal cielo), Riad Ymeri (Un araldo reale); Chorus and Orchestra of Wichita Grand Opera; Martin Mázik, conductor [Stanley M. Garner, Stage Director; Set designs by Margaret Ann Pent; Stefan Pavlov, Scenic Artist; Lighting designs by Dan Harmon; Costume designs by Suzanne Mess; Wichita Grand Opera, Century II Concert Hall, Wichita, Kansas, USA – Sunday, 27 September 2015]

Since the première of Claudio Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea in 1643, the world's operatic stages have often been the playgrounds of royalty. Emperors of Rome, Egyptian Pharaohs, Tudors and Hapsburgs, and crowned heads from virtually every chapter of history have been resurrected in opera, their lives scrutinized from widely varying, often anachronistic perspectives. The tempestuous milieu of Spanish politics was a fertile environment to which Giuseppe Verdi turned in several notable instances during his long career. In Ernani, the Spanish king Carlo effectively reinvents himself upon his election as Holy Roman Emperor, and strife among rival factions in Il trovatore pits Manrico against the Conte di Luna in a fight that not even death wholly settles. In Don Carlo, originally composed in fulfillment of a commission from Paris’s storied Opéra to a French libretto, adapted from a Schiller play, by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, the focus is on the collisions of destinies between Hapsburg Spain and Valois France. In the same vein as the confrontation between Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I so memorably set to music by Donizetti, the illicit love between the Infante Carlos and his stepmother Elizabeth that is central to Schiller's drama has no basis in history aside from an arranged marriage between two juveniles who had, in fact, never met, but the potency of the emotional confrontations in Verdi's Don Carlo render historicity insignificant. Not even in Simon Boccanegra, Aida, and Otello did Verdi portray the devastating consequences of public duties upon private lives as powerfully as in Don Carlo. At its core, the prevailing theme of Don Carlo is gloriously simple: to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, the souls of Verdi's characters select their own societies and then find the doors of their hearts closed even to feelings that might bring them happiness and save their lives.

Like many operas, Don Carlo has been afflicted in recent years by the disease of enforced relevance, directors having deemed it necessary to editorialize in order to make the opera more 'relevant' to modern audiences. It is true that, as Peter Schaffer's Mozart suggests in Amadeus, almost anyone would rather converse with his hairdresser than with Hercules, but Verdi was very meticulous—and, thereby, wholly successful—at populating Don Carlo not with kings and princes who sometimes behave like ordinary men but with ordinary men who happen to bear titles. The difference perhaps seems merely semantic, but the distinction is important to appreciation of Verdi's score. There is no question in the course of his great monologue that Filippo is first a man and then a monarch: his personal tragedy is that he must always act as a king when he feels as a man. This dichotomy manifests itself in so many aspects of life that, whether one is a stockbroker or a store clerk, the sentiments of Don Carlo are familiar without the meddling efforts of directors and designers.

Under the stage direction of Stanley M. Garner, Wichita Grand Opera's production of Don Carlo provided a sumptuous, thoughtfully-conceived setting in which the drama came to life rather than seeking to provide the drama itself. Though Schiller and Verdi exercised considerable historical freedom, a production of Don Carlo that has no resemblance to the Spain of Charles V is difficult to justify. The increasingly popular conceit of suggesting, more overtly in some productions than in others, that Carlo and Rodrigo are lovers panders to Twenty-First-Century sensibilities without increasing a listener's understanding of the relationships among the characters as Verdi presented them. With luxurious costume designs by Suzanne Mess and simple but effective sets by company founder and Artistic Advisor Margaret Ann Pent, WGO's production visually and stylistically placed the action in Sixteenth-Century Spain without overwhelming the opera's strong current of lyricism with gaudy spectacle. Utilizing the 1882 – 1883 edition of the score in four acts, first performed at Teatro alla Scala in 1884, the production exercised great imagination in the context of a splendidly evocative 'traditional' setting. Ingeniously illuminated by Dan Harmon's right-place, right-time lighting designs, scenic artist Stefan Pavlov's work shone like a gallery in the Prado. Celia Chin's work with hair and wigs and Patrica Myers's makeup artistry gave every individual upon the stage a clear identity without interfering with the mechanics of singing. The grandeur of the staging of the Auto da fè contrasted tellingly with scenes of greatest intimacy, not least Filippo's monologue and his subsequent audience with the Grand Inquisitor, conducted in a chamber that seemed increasingly claustrophobic as the pair of voices thunderously filled the space. This production 'worked' so remarkably because every member of the team assembled to devise and present it drew inspiration and instruction first and foremost from Verdi's score.

With WGO's Principal Guest Conductor Martin Mázik on the podium, the musical components of this Don Carlo were built upon an impeccably sturdy foundation. Trained by chorus master Matthew Schloneger, the WGO choristers acquitted themselves impressively, meeting Verdi's demands unflinchingly and with security of intonation from which their colleagues in many larger opera companies' choruses could learn much. The gentlemen of the chorus having launched the performance with a resonant account of the monks' chorus, 'Carlo il sommo Imperatore, non è più che muta cener,' they and the ladies rose to the occasion of the Auto da fè with power and clarity, their imposing sound beautifully complemented by soprano Carline Waugh's soaring, comforting Voce dal cielo. Mázik's conducting was propulsive but considered, his pacing enabling the principals to create fully-developed characters. Considering the difficulty of Verdi's score, there were astonishingly few mistakes in the orchestra. The handful of suspect pitches in the brasses were not bothersome, especially when the most exposed passages were played so well. Mázik's conducting lent ample power to scenes requiring it but also engendered great tenderness in delicate passages. The score's crucial motifs—those representing Carlo's and Rodrigo's friendship, Elisabetta's longing for her native France, and the Grand Inquisitor's malevolence, for instance—were insightfully spotlit without being glaringly over-accentuated. Mázik's expert cueing—an endangered art among conductors of opera—enabled a laudable avoidance of mishaps in coordination between pit and stage, and his management of ensembles was virtually flawless. Like the production staff, Mázik clearly viewed his task as one of executing Verdi's directions, not reinterpreting them.

Introducing the solo voices with a stirring account of the Frate’s ‘Ei voleva regnare sul mondo,’ bass Gregory Brumfield returned in Act Four on equally granitic form as the enigmatic voice discerned by the Grand Inquisitor as that of the dead Emperor Carlo V. His estimable singing was matched by that of soprano Lily Guerrero, who impersonated Tebaldo with boundless energy and charm. She sang ‘Di mille fior si copre il suolo’ delightfully. Also impressive was young Kosovar tenor Riad Ymeri, whose declamation as the Araldo reale was appropriately assertive.

Acclaimed among a veritable bounty of triumphs as the finest interpreter of his or any generation of the title rôle in Verdi's Attila, Kansas native bass Samuel Ramey has to his credit Verdian credentials more remarkable than those of almost any other singer active in the 114 years since the composer's death. Having sung lead rôles in scores dating from all periods of Verdi's career, Ramey possesses an unique understanding, born of experience, of the ways in which Verdi's style evolved from the bel canto of Oberto and Nabucco to the dramatic grandeur of Aida and Otello and the rapier's-point comedy of Falstaff. Anyone who heard him sing the rôle in the 1998 Opéra National de Paris production or the 2003 Cleveland Orchestra concert performance of Don Carlo cannot have doubted that they were witnessing an extraordinary portrayal of the tormented Filippo II. In WGO's Don Carlo, Ramey traded Filippo's crown for the ecclesiastical robes of il Grande Inquisitore. Any questions about Verdi's stance on the Church are resolutely answered by his characterization of the Grand Inquisitor, whose dogmatic implacability is as menacing as Ramfis's warmongering and Iago's jealous villainy, and Ramey brought the ferocious old man to life with chilling intensity. Though blind, this Inquisitor peered into the darkest recesses of Filippo's psyche, sensing every twitch of uncertainty like a coiled viper. Ramey's voice is no longer the rock-solid instrument of extraordinary agility that it was when he first erupted onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera as Argante in Händel's Rinaldo in 1984, but this mattered not a jot. He uttered 'Nell’ispano suol mai l’eresia dominò' with such unanswerable authority and piercing power that the tremulousness of the sound made it all the more momentous. Ramey's intonation was faultless, and every note of his part was well within his grasp. Hearing a revered singer in the Indian summer of his career can be dreadfully disappointing, but the only disappointment produced by Ramey's performance was the brevity of his time on stage. His was the rare Inquisitore who merited the honorific Grande.

The trend in recent years, surely a circumstance of necessity, has been to cast singers who can do justice either to Principessa Eboli's canzone del velo or to the dramatic aria 'O don fatale, o don crudel.' Few performances of Don Carlo can boast of an Eboli who can manage both of her solo scenes with comparable excellence, but Wichita Grand Opera defied the trend by casting mezzo-soprano Sarah Heltzel as the vengeful but ultimately repentant Princess. Whether toying with Rodrigo, luring Carlo into an assignation, or confessing her treachery to Elisabetta, Heltzel's Eboli maintained a fiery presence that placed her at the center of the drama. WGO's production downplayed Eboli's rôle as the king's mistress, but Heltzel's alert acting made the character's hypocrisy unmistakable. It is strange that, after rescuing Carlo from prison in the wake of Rodrigo's death, Eboli simply disappears, not unlike Bellini's Adalgisa, presumably seeking refuge either behind cloister walls or beyond Spain's borders. Still, Heltzel depicted an Eboli who was dramatically present even when physically absent. Her account of the canzone del velo, 'Nel giardin del bello saracin ostello,' was effective if not definitive: the Moorish-influenced flourishes were trials for her, but she sang the number far more credibly than many Ebolis manage to do, ascending to the many top As with imperturbable confidence. Eboli's rendezvous with Carlo having revealed that Elisabetta is the actual object of his affection, Heltzel unleashed the potent fury of a spurned woman in the heart-stopping trio with Carlo and Rodrigo, her ‘Al mio furor sfuggite invano’ flowing over the stage like lava. The depth of emotion that Heltzel conveyed when Eboli discovered that her jealousy has exacted such a cruel toll on Elisabetta gave unusual credence to the high-strung Princess's remorse. Heltzel's singing of 'O don fatale, o don crudel,' the climactic top C♭ and B♭ produced with unperturbed élan, was justifiably acclaimed by the audience. Portraying Eboli's hauteur is not difficult, but doing so whilst singing some of the most challenging music that Verdi composed for the mezzo-soprano voice is anything but easy. Heltzel managed to both sing and act Eboli brilliantly. For that alone, WGO's Don Carlo was memorable.

In the hands of a capable singer, Rodrigo can be the dramatic and sentimental epicenter of a performance of Don Carlo. The trouble, of course, is that baritones capable of singing Rodrigo's music as it deserves to be sung are now as rare as great Normas and Isoldes. In Michael Nansel, however, Wichita Grand Opera had a Marchese di Posa whose voice and technique proved worthy of the music. From the first phrase of his entrance in Act One, Nansel sang with alternating steel and velvet, encountering few difficulties with his rôle’s perilously high tessitura. In the grand ‘friendship duet’ with Carlo, ‘Dio, che nell’alma infondere,’ Nansel’s voice rang out handsomely, and he united every ideally-projected tone with a dramatic gesture of similar accomplishment. The trills were approximated in the baritone's lovingly-phrased traversal of Rodrigo's romanza ‘Carlo ch’è sol il nostro amore vive nel duol su questo suol,' but there was nothing approximate about the intonation or security of the singer's top F♯s. In the duet with Filippo, Nansel delivered ‘O signor, di Fiandra arrivo, quel paese un dì sì bel’ with the eloquence of a great orator and the passion of a champion of liberty: more to the point, he sang his lines magnificently, revealing that Rodrigo stands out as a man of exalted character even in the presence of a king. In the Act Two trio with Eboli and Carlo, this Rodrigo was forceful without hectoring, his sudden animosity towards the threatening Eboli obviously motivated by his loyalty to Carlo. Nansel made Rodrigo's death scene in Act Three the emotional climax of the opera. The beauty of his singing of the aria ‘Per me giunto è il dì supremo’ heightened the expressivity of the music, this Rodrigo seeming genuinely proud to sacrifice himself for friend and cause. Felled by the Inquisitor's assassin, he defied the fatal bullet with a gently moving traversal of 'O Carlo, ascolta, la madre t’aspetta a San Giusto doman.’ Musically and histrionically, ‘Io morrò, ma lieto in core’ was the apotheosis of Nansel's performance, his top G♭s dispatched with the elation of a soul rising to heaven. Acting almost as well as he sang, Nansel was a Rodrigo who touched the heart and ravished the ears.

Bass-baritone William Powers portrayed a Filippo II for whom violence was a refuge from the insecurities of his reign. When wielding the iron fist of tyranny, he was wholly in command of his realm, but, when contemplating his willful son and young wife or cowering before the Grand Inquisitor, he struggled to control his own mind and actions. What was consistently under Powers's thumb, however, was Verdi's sublime music for Filippo. Bounding onto the stage with a regal authority that revealed his identity before he sang a single word, Powers intoned ‘Perchè sola è la Regina? Non una dama almeno presso di voi serbaste?’ with petulant grandeur. In both the duet with Rodrigo in Act One and Filippo's animalistic sparring with the Grand Inquisitor in Act Three, Powers moved and sang with the pent-up frustration of a monarch losing his grasp on absolute authority. It was first in his pained realization that he has perniciously wronged the innocent Elisabetta and then in his exquisite monologue in Act Three that this Filippo’s humanity pierced the armor of his public persona. Powers sang ‘Ella giammai m’amò!’ with insightfully-shaded tone that was beautiful even when the weary king was raging against the cruelties of his fate. The king who inspires fear being reduced to a man who fears for his own survival proved incredibly moving in Powers’s performance, not least because Filippo’s music was so securely, attractively, and heartrendingly sung.

The rôle of Elisabetta di Valois in Don Carlo is one of Verdi's greatest creations for the soprano voice, the high level of inspiration sustained throughout his music for the part. At first glance, it can seem that a character who must wait until Act Four for an aria of substance plays a small part in the drama, but Elisabetta's music is at the very heart of Don Carlo, just as the woman is the nucleus of the drama. Were her aria at the start of Act Four, 'Tu, che le vanità,' the only music that she sang in the course of the opera, she would be one of Verdi's most remarkable ladies, but the composer lavished on the conflicted queen music that represents the pinnacle of his lyric genius. In Wichita Grand Opera's production of Don Carlo, the rôle of Elisabetta was entrusted to the company's de facto prima donna in residence, Italian soprano Annalisa Raspagliosi. Acclaimed in Wichita in rôles as diverse as Violetta in Verdi's La traviata, and Puccini's Tosca, Raspagliosi is an artist of uncommon stylistic versatility and charisma, qualities admired by audiences throughout Europe but inexcusably under-appreciated in America. To an extent, Raspagliosi is representative of a bygone era of adventurous Italian sopranos who lavished idiomatic chiaroscuro on their performances and earned the devotion of followers utterly committed to 'their' diva—singers like Caterina Mancini, Marcella Pobbe, and Anita Cerquetti. Though her singing was sometimes cautious, which any soprano's should be in music as challenging as Verdi's, Raspagliosi's Elisabetta possessed qualities that brought each of these three celebrated forebears to mind. Her stage deportment was characterized by Mancini's fearlessness, and she shared with Cerquetti an innate nobility of phrasing. Perhaps most enriching, however, was her resurrection of Pobbe's sovereign beauty of tone, especially in the middle octave of the voice. The poise of her singing in Act One was disturbed by the agitation of the towering duet with Carlo, in which she voiced ‘Prence, se vuol Filippo udire la mia preghiera’ with blazing seriousness, the richness of her lower register contrasting with her piercing top B♭. The romanza ‘Non pianger, mia compagna, non pianger, no, lenisci il tuo dolor,’ Elisabetta’s heartbroken effort at comforting the Countess of Aremberg—portrayed with grace by Sierra Scott—after exile is imposed upon her by Filippo, drew from Raspagliosi a stream of shimmering tones. In Act Three, she demanded ‘Giustizia, giustizia, Sire!’ of her suspicious consort with startling impetus before perceiving the enormity of Filippo’s accusations in the subsequent quartet. Raspagliosi’s expressive singing of ‘Tu, che le vanità conoscesti del mondo’ made the aria an intimate survey of virtually every nuance of Elisabetta’s personality, accomplished with the purest outpouring of song. The effect of the soprano’s serene but tortured farewell to her beloved in the duet with Carlo was poignant, her floated top B like the sigh of an angel. Reaching her breaking point as Filippo and the Inquisitor rushed in to enact their ultimate sentence and the mysterious monk emerged from the tomb to claim Carlo, her final top B was hurled out into the concert hall like a grenade, the tone igniting the air. That Raspagliosi is not heard as widely in America as she is in Europe is another of opera’s inexplicable failings, but the quality of her Elisabetta left no doubt of the legitimacy of the affection that she receives from Wichita audiences.

Whether sung in French or Italian, Don Carlo is one of Verdi's most daunting tenor rôles. Making his American début in this production, Uruguayan tenor Gaston Rivero made a strong impression in Carlo's music. Despite an unbecoming wig, the young tenor was a dashing, unapologetically romantic figure, a Latin lover to the life. He conveyed an appealing boyishness at his first entrance in Act One [the historical Infante Carlos was only twenty-three years old at the time of his death, after all], mitigated by the stinging despair of his recitative ‘Io l’ho perduta! Oh! potenza suprema!’ Rivero summoned ample lyricism for Carlo’s andante cantabile aria ‘Io la vidi e al suo sorriso scintillar mi parve il sole,’ and, here and throughout the performance, he produced the many top B♭s of his rôle without strain. In the famous duet with Rodrigo, ‘Dio, che nell’alma infondere,’ he joined with Nansel captivatingly, but his best singing of the afternoon was in the Act One duet with Elisabetta, in which he voiced ‘Quest’aura m’è fatale, m’opprime, mi tortura, come ul pensier d’una sventura’ with near-explosive fervor. In the Act Two trio with Eboli and Rodrigo, Rivero lit a fuse of emotive fireworks with his singing of ‘Sei tu, sei tu, bell’adorata, che appari in mezzo ai fior!’ From that point until his last note in the opera, the tenor credibly portrayed a man broken by circumstance: his truest friend dead, forced to flee from the company of the woman he loves, and his own father seeking his blood, he was forced to the cusp of irrationality. Many Carlos are either off-puttingly arrogant or psychologically unhinged from the start, but Rivero created a portrait of a young man of reason and wit whose psyche is compromised by misery. Though his vocalism was unrelentingly loud and occasionally coarse, Rivero sang Carlo’s music with noteworthy swagger and red-blooded musicality, signaling the arrival on the American ‘circuit’ of an important artist.

One of the foremost powers of opera is the ability to unite an audience of aficionados, neophytes, connoisseurs, and Philistines and transport them en masse from an opulent opera house, a run-down theatre, a glistening concert hall, or a musty auditorium to any niche of the human imagination. Why it is now often argued that an old Rodolfo cannot love a fat Mimì and an ugly Violetta cannot break a weathered Alfredo's heart is a disheartening conundrum that undermines opera's enduring appeal. The sincerity with which the cast of Wichita Grand Opera's Don Carlo sang their music and portrayed their characters obscured the fact that they were, in fact, an attractive ensemble. The disfiguring ugliness of the Grand Inquisitor's warped morality masked the handsome face that communicated it, and Elisabetta's beauty radiated most beguilingly from her unsullied tones. If members of the audience had been polled during the performance, it is doubtful that they would have said that they were in Wichita. For three hours, they were in Spain, at the court of one of Sixteenth-Century Europe's most powerful monarchs. That is the most distilled essence of opera, and Wichita Grand Opera, celebrating the company’s fifteenth anniversary, put on a marvelously-sung, honestly-interpreted performance of Don Carlo that honored Verdi, the audience, and every embittered family, unfortunate lover, and true friendship touched by life's tragedies.

24 September 2015

CD REVIEW: Voices Victorious - JONAS KAUFMANN sings Puccini (88875092492), OLGA PERETYATKO sings Rossini (88875057412), & MAURO PETER sings Schubert (88875083882) for Sony Classical

CD REVIEW: Voices Victorious - Sony Classical discs featuring JONAS KAUFMANN (88875092492), OLGA PERETYATKO (88875057412), & MAURO PETER (88875083882)

[1] GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Nessun dorma – The Puccini Album—Arias from Manon Lescaut, Le villi, Edgar, La bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La fanciulla del West, La rondine, Il tabarro, Gianni Schicchi, and Turandot—Jonas Kaufmann, tenor; Kristīne Opolais, soprano; Massimo Simeoli, baritone; Antonio Pirozzi, bass; Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; Sir Antonio Pappano, conductor [Recorded in Santa Cecilia Hall, Rome, Italy, 14 – 21 September 2014; Sony Classical 88875092492; 1 CD, time; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Rossini! – Arias from Il viaggio a Reims, Matilde di Shabran, Tancredi, Semiramide, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Il turco in ItaliaOlga Peretyatko, soprano; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna; Alberto Zedda, conductor [Recorded in Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Italy, 8 – 9, 11 – 12, and 14 – 15 November 2014; Sony Classical 88875057412; 1 CD, 70:22; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), and major music retailers]

[3] FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828): Goethe LiederMauro Peter, tenor; Helmut Deutsch, piano [Recorded in SRF Radiostudio Zürich Leutschenbach, Switzerland, 25 – 27 February 2015; Sony Classical 88875083882; 1 CD, 53:20; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

If James Carville were entrusted with the management of an opera company, he might hang a sign somewhere in the theatre to remind his personnel of the principal focus of opera: the Voices, stupid. It is difficult to imagine any opera company deviating from this focus, but many institutions specializing in the performance of opera have in recent seasons offered their audiences Don Giovannis, Normas, Rigolettos, and Siegfrieds with pretty faces but the voices of Masettos, Clotildes, Marullos, and Mimes. It is not that there are no voices of quality to be heard on the world's stages today, but there is a worrying trend of valuing the package above the gift. Given the choice between an attractive visage and an unattractive one, the preference for the former is only natural, but in opera, as Shakespeare might have written, the voice is the thing. If she sounds like a menopausal shrew, of what use is a twenty-something Mimì with a Vogue-worthy face and figure? If opera is to survive, it must be sustained not by gimmicks or profusions of over-hyped waifs but by voices—properly-trained, thoughtfully-maintained, ably-projected voices. Neither a voice nor the body that houses it must be conventionally beautiful in order to​ communicate to audiences the emotions with which composers infused their scores: the beauty required to transform notes on a page into sounds that penetrate a listener's heart dwells in the imagination. There must be a voice supported by a properly-constructed technique at the service of that imagination, however, and three new discs from Sony Classical offer vastly different but equally compelling perspectives on the unique ways in which vocal music thrives in the new century. Truly significant voices have ever been rare, but these recordings dispel the oft-repeated allegation that they are now mere breaths away from extinction. Hype makes careers, but only voices of quality—voices like the three heard on these discs—distill the noises of living into the essence of song.

​Considering his recent triumph with 'Nessun dorma' in the BBC Last Night of the Proms concert and the tremendous success of his Des Grieux in Munich, soon to be reprised at The Metropolitan Opera, the burgeoning splendors of the relationship between German tenor Jonas Kaufmann and the music of Giacomo Puccini are hardly surprising. It should not be thought that the relationship is a recent development, however: Kaufmann was an admired Rodolfo in La bohème in Zürich during the early years of his international career, he recorded Pinkerton opposite Angela Gheorghiu's Cio-Cio San for EMI, and his portrayal of Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca has been lauded in both Europe and America. With The Puccini Album, Kaufmann stakes his claim to being lauded as the preeminent Puccini tenor of the first quarter of the Twenty-First Century. There is no doubting that Kaufmann possesses an exceptionally good, perhaps even great voice and is an exceptionally good, perhaps even great singer. What must be discerned is his place in a tradition of Puccini singing extending back to Enrico Caruso. Kaufmann is fortunate in the context of this disc to enjoy the support of the Orchestra e Coro dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and, particularly, Sir Antonio Pappano, as intuitive an interpreter of Puccini's music as there is at work today. Under Pappano's sympathetic leadership, the Santa Cecilia forces deliver robust but graceful performances, both instruments and voices balanced with discernible comprehension of textures and dramatic situations. Even in the microcosms of individual arias, Pappano exerts a guiding influence that discloses not only in-depth knowledge of the material but also, perhaps even more importantly, true affection for Puccini's often-criticized music.

Opening with music of which he has proved himself to be a masterful interpreter, Kaufmann makes of Des Grieux's lusciously tuneful 'Donna non vidi mai' from Manon Lescaut an intensely personal statement of blossoming attraction expressed through song. The top B♭ is no longer produced with the freedom of only a few seasons in past, but the top notes throughout the selections on The Puccini Album are ringing, secure, and on pitch—sadly, an achievement of which far too few tenors more than a decade into their careers can boast. Kaufmann is joined by his Munich (and scheduled MET) partner, Latvian soprano Kristīne Opolais in the scene 'Oh, sarò la più bella!' and the thrilling 'Tu, tu, amore? Tu?' Like Kaufmann, Opolais is on good form, but she lacks the tenor's intuitive feeling for Puccinian phrasing. Still, the effect of two strong voices in music like 'Ah! Manon, mi tradisce' is undeniably exciting. Kaufmann is partnered in the dramatic 'Presto! In fila!' and 'Ah! Non n'avvicinate' by Antonio Pirozzi, who voices both the Sergente's and the Capitano's lines with a resonant bass. In the course of these selections, Kaufmann manages to create a remarkably complete portrait of the impetuous, romantic Des Grieux, singing the music as well as any tenor has done since the heady days of Richard Tucker.

Completed in 1883, the 'opera-ballo' Le villi was Puccini's first work for the stage. Though clearly an early work, many of the hallmarks of Puccini's mature style are evident, not least his penchant for creating flowing melodies that surge above propulsive but generally unobtrusive orchestrations. Roberto's recitative 'Ei giunge!' and aria 'Torna ai felici dì' do not possess the melodic distinction of much of Puccini's later music for the tenor voice, but Kaufmann's singing is memorable, the voice's dark timbre elucidating nuances of the aria's text. Also an early work, Edgar deserves to be performed far more frequently despite the deficiencies of its libretto. In truth, the score is not top-drawer Puccini, but Kaufmann's burly, impassioned performance of the title character's 'Orgia, chimera dall'occhio vitreo' makes a powerful argument on the opera's behalf.

Opolai​s is Mim​​ì to Kaufmann's Rodolfo in the duet that ends Act One of La bohème, 'O soave fanciulla​.'​ Here, the coolness of the soprano's timbre lends the character that she portrays an aloofness that is not without charm, and though the style is still approximated the steadiness of tone counts for much. Kaufmann's voice is now an ungainly instrument for Rodolfo's music, but he sings poetically, shading his tone with the imagination of a young wordsmith in love. He preserves the lovely major-third harmony by preferring Puccini's written ending to the duet, eschewing the interpolated top C in unison with Mimì that brings many tenors to grief unnecessarily. Pirozzi is again heard with pleasure in the Sagrestano's interjections in Cavaradossi's 'Recondita armonia' from Act One of Tosca, captivatingly sung by Kaufmann. Baritone Massimo Simeoli sonorously supplies Sharpless's lines in Pinkerton's 'Addio, fiorito asil' from Act Three of Madama Butterfly. The melodic thrust of the aria perfectly suits Kaufmann, who intelligently uses the virility of his timbre to suggest greater vocal amplitude than he has at his command without forcing or shouting. Thankfully, he also leaves maudlin melodramatics to other tenors.

Kaufmann's Wiener Staatsoper performances of La fanciulla del West ​with Nina Stemme ​were justifiably acclaimed, and the excerpts from Johnson's music on The Puccini Album offer a tantalizing glimpse of his portrayal of the good-hearted bandito. The liquidity of his phrasing of 'Una parola sola!' and 'Or son sei mesi' lends the music an arresting element of vulnerability, and the contrasting energy and tenderness of his 'Risparmiate lo scherno' and 'Ch'ella mi creda libero,' ​complemented​ b​y ​Simeoli's rousingly machismo Rance, credibly elucidate both Johnson's ruggedness and his sensitivity. Kaufmann sang Ruggero in La rondine to great acclaim with Pappano at Covent Garden, and he and the conductor here collaborate on a pulse-quickening account of 'Parigi! È la città dei desideri.​' The voice soars in ascending phrases as though the words were literally being hurled over the rooftops of Paris. Hearing Johnson's and Ruggero's music in succession, it is astonishing to note the differences between these creations of a composer often accused of stylistic stasis. It is also heartening to hear the music for both characters sung so ​handsomely and unaffectedly by the same singer.

Luigi's 'Hai ben ragione' from Il tabarro is an undervalued gem among Puccini's tenor arias, and the traversal that it receives from Kaufmann confirms its stature. Then, progressing to the final installment in Il trittico, he takes on Rinuccio's recitative 'Avete torto!' and familiar aria 'Firenze è come un albero fiorito' from Gianni Schicchi. It is again intriguing to hear both arias sung by the same singer, Luigi ideally requiring greater vocal heft than Rinuccio. Unexpectedly, 'Firenze è come in albero fiorito' is one of the finest selections on The Puccini Album. Kaufmann sings the aria with youthful ardor, leaving little doubt that Rinuccio's actions are motivated solely by his love for Lauretta. Aptly, the disc ends with the inevitable pair of Calàf's arias from Turandot. Opolais's reserve qualifies her as a near-ideal Liù, and her voice is at its loveliest in her few words in 'Non piangere, Liù​,​' to which Pirozzi contributes equally credibly as Timur. Kaufmann sings the aria superbly, shaping melodic units with a master craftsman's hand. His singing radiates compassion, and he depicts a Calàf hurt by the pain that his inability to requite her love causes Liù. Undoubtedly, more tenors have recorded 'Nessun dorma' who should not have done than have those for whom the aria is safe vocal territory. The aria's climactic top B is apparently irresistible even to singers who do not reliably have the note, but Kaufmann manages the range, high and low, with confidence if not true ease. The burnished, baritonal sound of the voice sustains Puccini's familiar melodic lines gloriously. Kaufmann's many admirers do him no favors by asserting that his vocalism is without flaws, but his singing on The Puccini Album is extraordinarily impressive, the work of a Puccini tenor with few peers in opera today.

An artist of any age could be mentored and conducted in the singing of music by Gioachino Rossini by no more authoritative an individual than Alberto Zedda. Neither his innate comprehension of the composer's idiom nor his zeal for advocating Rossini's music and stylistically-appropriate performances of it has been compromised by the advancing years​, and whether in the lecture hall or on the podium he remains a seminal scholar and a persuasive interpreter of Rossini's operas. Presiding over the wholly idiomatic Orchestra and Chorus of Bologna's Teatro Comunale, he is the spine that supports Rossini!, this joyous disc featuring a sequence of glittering performances by Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko. The choristers and instrumentalists, clearly cognizant of being in the presence of a man who knows and loves the music of Rossini as intimately as the composer himself must have done, perform with the sort of dedication that elucidates the quality of the music. In Zedda's hands, every note has significance that is honored but not over-accentuated, and he nurtures the young soprano's prodigious gifts for singing Rossini arias with the glee of a doyen recognizing a kindred spirit.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Zedda does not use Rossini's trademark crescendi as a license to apply accelerandi to passages of rising tension and dramatic magnitude. Rather, the conductor meaningfully exhibits how Rossini cleverly used the device differently in comic and tragic scores. In the realm of ubiquitous Rossinian opera buffa, Peretyatko opens Rossini! with an ebullient account of Rosina's 'Una voce poco fa' from Act One of Il barbiere di Siviglia. Here and throughout the selections on this disc, Zedda's tempi sometimes initially seem ploddingly deliberate, but the seldom-appreciated felicities of Rossini's witty orchestrations that emerge and the soprano's appreciably clean negotiations of coloratura are facilitated by the conductor's approach. Still a young singer, Peretyatko does not yet possess Jonas Kaufmann's ability to fully characterize a part in the context of a singer aria, but she sings the Rossinian ladies' music with feeling and consummate style. Though composed for a contralto, Rosina has often been usurped by sopranos, in some cases—Lily Pons, Beverly Sills, and Diana Damrau, for instance—charmingly. With a smile in the voice, Peretyatko dispatches the coloratura accurately and sparklingly. Though her diction is generally fine, her textual inflections are not quite idiomatic. The voice records well, but the overtones that make the instrument effervescent in the opera house are only partially in evidence on disc. She is nonetheless a perky, pretty Rosina who is equally lovable in docility and mischief.

Fiorilla's aria 'I vostri cenci vi mando' from Il turco in Italia is also an excellent vehicle for both Peretyatko and Zedda. Throughout the performances on Rossini!, the soprano complements the conductor's stylistic mastery by ornamenting tastefully—a significant departure from the model of Sills!—and, despite the reliability of her starlit upper register, rejecting stratospheric interpolated top notes at the ends of arias. Her center of vocal gravity is slightly higher than that of many Fiorillas, among whose ranks on recordings are singers as different as Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Sumi Jo, and Cecilia Bartoli, but her comfort with the tessitura is apparent. Like her 'Una voce poco fa,' her account of Fiorilla's aria fizzes with both femininity and feistiness, amplified by Zedda's sympathetic accompaniment.

In its plot and the incredible demands of its casting, Il viaggio a Reims is an opera that both depicts and is a festive occasion. Rossini loaded the score of Il viaggio with fantastic music, and any opportunity to hear selections from the opera sung as well as they are sung on this disc is self-recommending. First, Peretyatko voices Corinna's aria d'improvviso 'All'ombra amena' with an apt air of spontaneity, the voice and the singer's demeanor glowing more in each successive phrase. An amusing suggestion of mock opera seria exasperation enlivens her singing of Contessa di Folleville's 'Partir, o ciel!' The aria's filigree is delicately drawn by Peretyatko, but she mostly paints with primary colors, depicting an appropriately two-dimensional Contessa of limited capacity for empathy but boundless fun. The difficulties of the music hold no terrors for her, and the combination of bravura solidity and insouciant haughtiness is ideal for the character. How marvelous she would surely be as Comtesse Adèle in Le comte Ory!

Matilde di Shabran, in which opera Peretyatko triumphed opposite Juan Diego Flórez at Pesaro’s Rossini Opera Festival, is, like Il viaggio a Reims, an infrequent visitor to recording studios, so this souvenir of Peretyatko's interpretation of the title rôle is especially welcome. She shapes the recitative 'Ami alfine' with considerable eloquence that she expands further in her singing of the lovely aria 'Tacea la tromba altera.' Peretyatko's experience with performing this music on stage is unmistakable, not least in her expertly-judged phrasing. Obvious, too, is the intuition for Rossini's serious music that she has acquired via acclaimed performances of the rôle of Desdemona in Rossini's Otello. The bravura demands of Matilde's aria are met with confidence to spare, but it is the spirit of the singing that is most impressive. The sapphire hues in the voice that glimmer evocatively in comic music take on darker tints in more dire contexts, and the animated girl who earlier brought the wily Rosina and Fiorilla to life unexpectedly becomes a woman of radiant maturity.

The title character's aria 'Bel raggio lusinghier' from Semiramide is one of Rossini's most familiar numbers and, in truth, a prime instance of the composer's genius overcoming the banality of the tune. The performance of the aria on this disc benefits greatly from Peretyatko's firm technical footing, but there are a few passages in which the tone lacks focus, as though the coloratura displaces the core of her singing. Still, she sings the aria unaffectedly, and her performance, likely closer in vocal amplitude to what Rossini expected than several modern exponents of Semiramide like Dame Joan Sutherland and Cheryl Studer, is beguiling. Musically and dramatically, Amenaide's scena 'Di mia vita infelice' and aria 'No, che il morir' from Tancredi​ constitute the best selection on Rossini!, and the traversal that this music receives from Peretyatko and Zedda is equal to the splendor of Rossini's creation. Here, the character's emotions rush to the surface, and the youthful soprano limns them simply but touchingly. She and Zedda approach the music without heaviness or exaggeration, meticulously maintaining the buoyancy of the melodic line. Ultimately, it is particularly fitting that the disc is entitled Rossini!, for it is the composer's music that is front and center here. An artist as committed to the study, understanding, and informed performance of Rossini's music as Alberto Zedda would have it no other way; neither would Olga Peretyatko, who pursues personal expression rather than rigid perfection and in doing so gives as enjoyable a recital of Rossini arias as has been recorded in recent years.

It is no hyperbole to suggest that the wholly organic familiarity exhibited in the music of Rossini by Alberto Zedda is paralleled in German Lieder repertory by pianist Helmut Deutsch, a collaborative artist of the first order whose playing has enriched the recitals and recordings of many of the past quarter-century's most accomplished exponents of Lieder singing. Schubert Lieder are for Deutsch their own language, and he is among the few artists who 'speak' it without distractingly idiosyncratic accents. With Deutsch as his guide, young Swiss tenor Mauro Peter is rapidly attaining fluency. He has to his credit a beautiful voice notable for the evenness of the integration of the upper and lower registers and an alluring plangency of timbre: in opera and Lieder, his tones combine the steel of Kaufmann with the sweetness of his countryman Ernst Haefliger. As an interpreter of Schubert Lieder, he is establishing himself as a steward of the tradition of Anton Dermota, Haefliger, and Peter Schreier, singers for whom music and poetry were inseparable. There is in Peter's singing on this disc a strong element of the troubadour: though there is no shortage of power when it is needed, these performances seem directed to the individual listener instead of the recital hall. Peter and Deutsch initiate a conversation with Schubert into which the listener is invited. Whether or not one knows German, this is a recital that makes its points sonorously and causes merely listening to seem like actively taking part.

The influence exerted by the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in both opera houses and recital halls cannot be overstated. The publication and widespread distribution of Die Leiden des jungen Werther and Faust in the final thirty years of the Eighteenth Century triggered a creative avalanche of a magnitude rivaled in music only by the bodies of work inspired by the Bible, Shakespeare, Schiller, and Sir Walter Scott. Of special resonance for composers was Goethe's philosophical handling of the bargain between Faust and Satan, which abounds with artistic implications. No less momentous as sources of inspiration for composers were Goethe's smaller-scaled works, in many of which the ethos of the epic texts found varied contexts. Among the composers who turned to Goethe's words for Lieder texts, no one was more successful at capturing the essence of a passage than Schubert. Frequently employing verses by his contemporaries, Schubert had an extraordinary gift for elevating texts beyond their literary merit, but he found in Goethe's lines words for the most part worthy of his genius. Both writer and composer find in Peter and Deutsch performers who convey a full appreciation of how special the Goethe settings are among Schubert's Lieder.

Opening with the exquisitely-written 'Ganymed' (D. 544), Peter sings with tonal sheen befitting a youth with whom a god became besotted. Throughout this recital, the tenor does not shrink from overt Romanticism, basking in rather than hiding from the songs' innate sensuality and even hinting at a subdued eroticism that lurks beneath the surface. His ambiguous, searching voicing of 'Erster Verlust' (D. 226) is bolstered by Deutsch's suggestive playing. The disquieting tranquility with which Peter sings 'Rastlose Liebe' (D. 138) is strangely haunting, the sound of the voice taking on a disembodied quality that floats over the piano's firm tones like mist settling menacingly on a bucolic landscape. Subtlety is also the hallmark of Peter's and Deutsch's performance of 'Meeres Stille' (D. 216). The effects that the tenor is able to achieve with his exemplary breath control disclose the marvels of Schubert's construction of melodic arcs, and his clear, vibrant diction enables the listener to appreciate the insightfulness with which the composer melded Goethe's words with his music.

The three Gesänge des Harfners (Opus 12) are here presented with the unity of a Lieder cycle in miniature, singer and pianist exploring the commonalities among the songs without extrapolating contexts that neither text nor music supports. 'Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt' (D. 478) is sung with appropriately-scaled intensity, and Peter's account of 'Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen' (D. 479) is characterized by a profoundly moving but not overwhelming melancholy. In 'An die Türen will ich schleichen' (D. 480), it is the beauty of the voice that is most impressive: when the words are caressed by such nobly-produced tone, what more is required?

'Der Musensohn' (D. 764) is among Schubert's most beautiful songs, and Peter's performance of it warrants comparison with the finest recordings. On disc, only Hermann Prey equals Peter in the practice of the now-elusive art of choosing Lieder from Schubert's extensive catalogue that are ideal for his individual voices, literal and interpretive. Among his fellow tenors, it is the golden-toned Russian Georgi Vinogradov that Peter's aristocratic but flexible singing on this disc most recalls. The drama in 'Der König in Thule' (D. 367), 'Heidenröslein' (D. 257), and 'Der Fischer' (D. 225) is brought to the foreground without being given excessive prominence. Deutsch's strongly-defined pianism drives ‘Der König in Thule,' and Peter takes the lead in ‘Heidenröslein,' the voice unfurled in a grand canopy of melody. 'Erlkönig' (D. 328) is one of the most familiar of Schubert's Goethe settings, but Peter sings it as though the newly-completed manuscript were handed to him moments before he stepped up to Sony's microphone. 'Am Flusse' (D. 766) and 'An den Mond' (D. 296) are fastidiously differentiated by tenor and pianist alike, and the element of awe that they impart in the oft-abused 'Wanderers Nachtlied' (D. 768) lends the song an immediacy that many interpreters miss.

The quartet of songs at the end of the disc draw from Peter and Deutsch interpretations of unmistakable affection. The too-little-heard 'Versunken' (D. 715), a jewel of Schubert's imagination, is very movingly done, the mood of the piece extracted from the text rather than artificially imposed by the performers. Likewise, the singular sentiments of 'Geheimes' (D. 719) are limned with the simplicity that is possible only with careful study and absorption of the music. 'An die Entfernte' (D. 765) flows in an uninterrupted torrent of expressivity that floods the work of both Peter and Deutsch, expanding but not diluting the gentlemen's consummate musicality. The sublime 'Willkommen und Abschied' (D. 767) is a fitting conclusion for a Goethe-themed disc, and Peter and Deutsch devote to their performance of it the very best of their artistries. Tenor and pianist trace the lines of the music with such cooperation that their efforts seem to be those of a single artist. Deutsch's accomplishments in Lieder repertory are too extensive to require further endorsement, but Mauro Peter here proves himself to be a Schubertian of comprehensive musical and poetic excellence. Especially in the last years of his life, the increasingly curmudgeonly Goethe was suspicious of and even openly hostile to musical settings of his texts. To what could he have objected in Schubert's Lieder had he heard Peter and Deutsch perform them?

The musical legacies of the Twenty-First Century are only just beginning to take shape, but the lessons of recent years are many and often learned only after bitterness and pride are vanquished. For those who can neither fathom nor endure a world without Classical Music, there are lessons that must be taken to heart. These three Sony Classical discs offer a blueprint for building a secure, satisfying future for an art for which many commentators have already written obituaries. It is sadly true that Tucker, Sills, and Wunderlich no longer grace the world's stages today, but there are in this new millennium artists of the caliber of Jonas Kaufmann, Olga Peretyatko, and Mauro Peter. What makes opera and Classical vocal music relevant for modern audiences? Voices such as these, stupid!

14 September 2015

CD REVIEW: Spanning millennia – Naxos recordings of music by ROMAN BERGER (The Berger Trio; Naxos 8.573406) and JOHN JOUBERT (H. Herford, English String Orchestra; Naxos 8.571368)

CD REVIEWS: Naxos recording of music by ROMAN BERGER (Naxos 8.573406) and JOHN JOUBERT (Naxos 8.571368)[1] ROMAN BERGER (born 1930): Pathetique (2006), Sonata No. 3 ‘da camera’ (1971), Allegro frenetico con reminiscenza (2006), Impromptu (2013), and Epilogue (Omaggio a L. v. B.) (2010)—The Berger Trio [Recorded at the Empire Theatre, Hlohovec, Slovakia, 29 – 30 August 2013; Naxos 8.573406; 1 CD, 78:33; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] JOHN JOUBERT (born 1927): Temps Perdu: Variations for String Orchestra, Op. 99 (1984), Sinfonietta, Op. 38 (1962), and The Instant Moment: Song-cycle for Baritone and String Orchestra to words by D.H. Lawrence, Op. 110 (1987)—Henry Herford, baritone; Christopher Hirons and Pierre Joubert, violin; Paul Arden-Taylor and Anna Evans, oboe; Keith Rubach and Christine Predota, bassoon; Stephen Roberts and James Buck, French horn; English String Orchestra; William Boughton, conductor [Recorded at Warwick Arts Center, Warwick University, England, 23 – 25 April 1987 (previously released by British Music Society); Naxos 8.571368; 1 CD, 63:09; Available from ClassicsOnline HD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

As celebration of the concept of diversity has taken root throughout the world in recent years, it has often seemed that, in tangible realms of daily life, understanding and acceptable of actual, practical difference have vanished. The tide of political correctness sometimes seems to have swept away true cooperation among peoples of varying ways of life as if the perceived progress of mankind has uprooted practicality and pragmatism among men. It is often said that Art is a reflection of life, and the prejudice that afflicts modern society is sadly omnipresent in Classical Music, which should be the 'blindest' of the Performing Arts. Were the inexcusable biases that performers face based upon race, age, weight, appearance, and countless other inconsequentialities not contemptible enough, living composers encounter dismissal of their work because precisely because they are living. Embarrassing as it is to admit, there are individuals posing as advocates for the perpetual survival of Classical Music for whom that concept solely means preservation of the works of long-dead composers. Inspiring music continues to be composed, however, and the endeavors of the Naxos label to encourage, document, and disseminate new music are among the most valuable initiatives in Classical Music. These discs devoted to music by Roman Berger and John Joubert, both expertly recorded and presented with care that proves that economy need not be synonymous with poor quality, restore to celebration of the diversity of Classical Music an appreciation of the different channels through which the tide of musical creativity has surged from the Twentieth Century into the Twenty-First. Even in the context of a musical banquet like the one prepared by Naxos, the proof of recordings’ lasting value is in the proverbial pudding: Berger’s and Joubert’s music provides the flavors needed for an unforgettable feast.

Born in 1930 on the border between Poland and the Czech Republic, Roman Berger fell victim in the early years of his life and musical career to the oppression of Stalinist Soviet politics, vestiges of which continued to haunt him in the aftermath of his involvement with the Prague Spring movement of 1968. Despite the crippling difficulties to which he was subjected, Berger obtained through the force of his own determination a rewardingly cosmopolitan education that granted him access to the artistic philosophies that redefined—and continue to redefine—music in the years after World War II. Berger's music is in many ways a compelling statement of triumph over the successive regimes and small-minded ideologies by which his youthful creative impulses were stymied. As performed by The Berger Trio, the pieces on this disc are representative of a highly individual aesthetic, an artistic identity both rooted in the traditions of Western Classical Music extending back two centuries and unmistakably modern. Like Mahler's Symphonies, Berger's music is a crossroads at which the Nineteenth, Twentieth, and Twenty-First Centuries intersect, assimilating without sacrificing their singular musical sensibilities.

Written in 2006 and dedicated to the composer's beloved wife Rút, Pathetique for piano and cello is at once a reflection on Berger's marriage and a tribute to one of his artistic idols, Ludwig van Beethoven. Musically, it is a work of great imagination, undoubtedly spurred by the specific emotional context that shaped the music's genesis. Cellist Ján Slávik and pianist Ladislav Fanzowitz exchange melodic phrases with the eloquence of Shakespearean actors enacting a scene from one of the Bard's best plays, creating a dialogue not only with one another but also with Berger's music that illuminates the subtleties of the composer's writing for both instruments. Emotionally, this is complicated music and thus a far more honest tribute to the composer's marriage, an institution as complex as any wrought by men, than a sappier piece might have been. In a sense, Pathetique is a marriage of past and future, and Slávik and Fanzowitz play with commitment and eloquence that honor Beethoven, Berger, and the latter's lamented wife.

The Sonata No. 3 'da camera' for piano was composed in 1971 and is played on this disc by Fanzowitz with boundless involvement and technical prowess. He devotes an understated but deeply affecting element of sadness to his interpretation of the opening Andante con tristezza movement, heightening the expressive significance of the composer's elegiac rhythmic figures by sharply contrasting the expansiveness of his playing with the precision of his execution of rhythms. This contrast also characterizes Fanzowitz's performance of the Allegro deciso movement, in which his comfort with Berger's idiom is apparent in his nimble negotiations of passages of great intricacy. Command of fingering and wrist flexibility are critical in the Veloce movement, which Fanzowitz delivers with a frenetic electricity that ignites the music with an almost erotic charge. An insinuation of sensuality also lurks beneath the imposing, slightly self-conscious façade of the final movement, marked Allegro inquieto. Here, the pianist's unbridled, rhapsodic execution is tempered by a gossamer elegance that softens the music's sharp edges. As its 'da camera' epithet suggests, the Sonata is a perceptibly personal if not a noticeably introverted work, virtually a rejuvenation of a Baroque form that intriguingly manages to simultaneously challenge concepts of conventional tonality. Fanzowitz plays the Sonata with the technique demanded by the keyboard music of Händel and the interpretive ambiguity required for playing Satie.

Slávik's impeccable bowing technique permits him to make his performance of Berger's 2006 Allegro frenetico con reminiscenza a veritable masterclass in the arts of playing the cello and insightfully interpreting modern music for the instrument. Amidst the vigorous flow of the music there is a lode of wistfulness that Slávik mines tellingly, drawing out the darker colorations in the music without overshadowing the dominant impetuosity of the piece. Berger's work explores the tonal and expressive capabilities of the cello as compellingly as Bach's familiar Suites for the instrument, and Slávik devotes his virtuosity to fully revealing the depths of Berger's ingenuity.

Composed in 2013, Impromptu for clarinet is the most recent music recorded here, and it finds Berger still very much in command of his gifts. Clarinetist Branislav Dugovič, the third member of The Berger Trio, plays the piece with expansiveness and effortless authority. Delving into the relationships among each note and those that precede and follow it, Dugovič uncovers countless instances of sly wit. Berger's carefully-crafted score maintains an air of spontaneity befitting an impromptu, and Dugovič's performance seems both meticulously prepared and wholly improvisational. Above all, the clarinetist's innate musicality is evident throughout his interpretation of the piece.

Epilogue (Omaggio a L. v. B.), dating from 2010, is essentially a sequence of boldly-conceived variations on the principal theme of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 (Opus 13). The gentlemen of The Berger Trio respond to every unexpected harmonic progression in the music with attention to the cumulative course of the piece. Like Pathetique, Epilogue carves a path from past to future that embraces traditions without capitulating to them, and the performance that the music receives from The Berger Trio elucidates both Berger’s unique style and his affectionate homage to Beethoven. Dugovič, Slávik, and Fanzowitz play with fluidity, cooperation, and tenacity that constitute an homage to Berger himself. The performances on this disc disclose to the listener that this composer’s music merits exploration by the finest artists—and, it is to be hoped, further recordings of this quality.

The excellent Naxos release devoted to music by South African-born composer John Joubert is a reissue of a 1987 recording sponsored by the British Music Society, one of many titles in the catalogues of this and similar organizations richly deserving of revitalization. A skilled practitioner in many musical forms, Joubert shares with Roman Berger an artistic worldview that encompasses vistas of compositional trends past and present. Also like Berger, Joubert remains far too little-known by his own and subsequent generations. The Instant Moment should be in the repertory of every lyric baritone with fluency in English, and the instrumental works on this disc exhibit a naturalness of orchestration and management of blending timbres from which performers and aspiring composers alike can learn much. The lesson proffered by the outstanding performances by the English String Orchestra and conductor William Boughton on this disc is that John Joubert’s music equals the best works of the Twentieth Century.

Joubert's Proust-inspired Temps Perdu: Variations for String Orchestra (Op. 99), completed in 1984, is as enjoyable and daunting a piece composed for strings since the death of Benjamin Britten. Joubert's compositional voice in entirely his own, but there are in Temps Perdu echoes of the sound worlds of Tippett, Bax, Holst, and even Purcell. Violinists Christopher Hirons and Pierre Joubert, the composer's son, play solo lines with complementary dash and delicacy that spotlight Joubert's affinity for writing exquisite melodies that emerge from the textures of the music as if by chance. Variation of the memorable Thème, phrased by the players with the sophisticated air of a Parisian salon, first yields a fantastically inventive Espièglerie, in their playing of which the musicians establish a standard of excellence that they uphold in each of the variations. The Elégie is profoundly, perfectly beautiful, and its unaffected expressivity carries over into the urbane but vigorous Valse. The fourth and final variation, Envoi, develops the theme in stunningly innovative ways, and the performance unfolds in kind, every musician’s instrument singing in a chorus that gives voice to the composer’s erudition.

Joubert's 1962 Sinfonietta (Op. 38) is a work of contrasting grace and raw energy that richly rewards the efforts of musicians who approach it studiously and with the concentration required to comprehend and properly execute the composer’s part-writing. Oboists Paul Arden-Taylor and Anna Evans, bassoonists Keith Rubach and Christine Predota, and French horn players Stephen Roberts and James Buck individually and collectively spin and intertwine their lines with the flair of master tapestry makers. The exhilaration of their playing of the opening Allegro con spirito movement is infectious, but even this cannot compare with the resounding grandeur with which the Molto moderato is performed. The closing Allegro movement blossoms with novelty that the musicians translate into sounds of surpassing beauty.

Completed in 1987, The Instant Moment (Op. 110) is a cycle of settings of evocative, imagery-rich texts by D. H. Lawrence. Under Boughton's direction, the five songs are tellingly contrasted, but a prevailing view of the larger construction of the cycle of the whole also pervades the performance. The singing of Edinburgh-born baritone Henry Herford is a tremendous asset. From his opening phrase in 'Bei Hennef,' Herford sings strongly and with audible comfort with Joubert's style. He infuses his voicing of 'You are the call and I am the answer' with a magnetically mysterious aura, and the straightforward awe of his enunciation of 'Strange, how we suffer in spite of this!' is disquieting. The haunting expressive power of Herford's singing of the second song, 'Loggerheads,' surges to the baritone's chillingly direct delivery of the final stanza, 'If despair is our option / Then let us despair. / Let us make for the weeping willow. / I don't care.' The strings' playing and Boughton's conducting aid Herford in creating a preponderantly oppressive atmosphere in 'And oh - That the man I am might cease to be - ,' the vibrant ring of the singer's voice deadened in the wonderful lines, 'I wish it would be completely dark everywhere, / inside me, and out, heavily dark utterly.' The intimate, almost claustrophobic world of 'December Night' is filled with vocal inflections that glimmer like reflections in icy windows, highlighting the core meaning of a line like 'The flickers come and go.' The final song, 'Moonrise,' is approached by both baritone and conductor as a sort of cathartic apotheosis, the sentimental dénouement of the cycle. Herford voices the words 'Flushed and grand and naked, as from the chamber / Of finished bridegroom' with the essence of finality, crowning his interpretation of the cycle with a muted but emotive resignation that touches the heart.

There is an old adage that extols variety as the spice of life, but it often seems that we prefer for our lives to be spiced only by those varieties with which we are comfortable. These Naxos discs stimulate the palate with piquant new flavors extracted from the music of two modern composers whose works deserve to be esteemed alongside the acknowledged masterpieces of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. The enterprising Naxos label again reminds listeners that some of the greatest pleasures to be had from music await us beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones. Today’s listeners’ pantries are far richer for these additions of the zesty spices of the music of Roman Berger and John Joubert.

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini – TOSCA (T. Milashkina, V. Atlantov, Y. Mazurok, V. Yaroslavtsev, V. Nartov; Melodiya MEL CD 10 02359)

CD REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini - TOSCA (Melodiya MEL CD 10 02359)GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Tosca—Tamara Milashkina (Floria Tosca), Vladimir Atlantov (Mario Cavaradossi), Yuri Mazurok (Barone Scarpia), Valeri Yaroslavtsev (Cesare Angelotti), Vitali Nartov (Il sagrestano), Andrei Sokolov (Spoletta), Vladimir Filippov (Sciarrone), Mikhail Shkaptsov (Un carceriere), Alexander Pavlov (Un pastore); Choir and Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre; Mark Ermler, conductor [Recorded in the Bolshoi Theatre in 1974; Melodiya MEL CD 10 02359; 2 CDS, 114:18; Available from Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Who needs another Tosca? This is perhaps an indelicate question to pose when one has in one's hand precisely that, in this case Melodiya's compact disc reissue of the 1974 Bolshoi recording of the opera with a fine cast of admired Soviet singers, but the profusion and continuous availability of excellent recorded performances of Tosca make the inquiry inevitable. From several important perspectives, this Tosca is a denizen of what Ivor Novello termed 'the Land of Might-Have-Been.' There are enough successful components to make this a Tosca that might have been one of the opera's finest recorded outings, but enjoyment of the performance is ultimately marred by distracting flaws. Nevertheless, as the cliché goes, this is a Tosca that anyone who appreciates the score would be delighted to encounter in any of the world's major opera houses today.

From a technological perspective, Melodiya's remastering does little to remedy or even disguise the deficiencies of Soviet-era recordings. Indeed, this may be the most unrelenting, loudest Tosca on compact disc: every semiquaver of Puccini's score is blasted merrily by the singers and players of the Bolshoi Theatre Chorus and Orchestra and captured in sonics characterized by rudimentary balances and a wearying preponderance of full-throttle dynamics. There are laudable lacks of peaking and distortion, however. The recording often gives the impression of hearing the score performed in concert, with the orchestra and chorus positioned to the rear of the soloists. On the whole, the Bolshoi choral and orchestral forces acquit themselves admirably, though the decidedly bizarre 'bells' that sound before the singing of the celebratory 'Te Deum' belong in Boris Godunov, not Tosca. Not surprisingly, Italian diction is inconsistent throughout the cast, but there are few moments of true failure. Even without a firm grasp of Puccini’s style, there are moments, sadly too fleeting, in which the performance catches fire. One of the recording's greatest virtues is the conducting of Mark Ermler. A stalwart of the Bolshoi, Ermler was a conductor who bothered to learn scores rather than conducting them solely based upon absorbed traditions. His pacing of Tosca often seems idiosyncratically slow, but the clarity granted to many felicities of Puccini’s orchestrations must be credited to the conductor’s tempi. Like the best conductors of opera, Ermler audibly endeavors to support the singers without shortchanging momentum, and the high quality of his many recordings of Russian repertory suggest that, had his cast been more responsive to his good intentions, he might have presided over an unconventional but wholly satisfactory Tosca.

In supporting rôles, basses Valeri Yaroslavtsev and Vitali Nartov are effective as Angelotti and the Sagrestano despite sounding as though Puccini might have been better served had they switched parts. Scarpia’s scaly agents Spoletta and Sciarrone are capably but forgettably portrayed by tenor Andrei Sokolov, no Piero De Palma, and bass Vladimir Filippov. Mikhail Shkaptsov is cavernous in the Carceriere’s few lines as only a bass trained in the Russian tradition can be, and young Alexander Pavlov, billed by Melodiya in Russian and English as an alto and in French as a boy soprano [similarly, Nartov is a baritone in Russian and English but a bass in French], sings the Pastore’s melancholic canzone at the start of Act Three charmingly.

Among the trio of principals, Polish-born baritone Yuri Mazurok gives the strongest performance. In fact, this lauded exponent of the title rôle in Tchaikovsky's Yevgeny Onegin proves to be a world-class Scarpia who actually sings his music even at full volume, something that could seldom be said of more widely-lauded Scarpias like Anselmo Colzani and Cornell MacNeil. In Scarpia's entrance in Act One, Mazurok produces a wall of sound that rivals the structural integrity of the church into which his Scarpia maleficently saunters. Joining the chorus at the climax of the ‘Te Deum,’ Mazurok hurls out notes at the top of the range with absolute security. His singing of Scarpia’s so-called ‘Credo’ in Act Two, ‘Ha più forte sapore la conquista violenta,’ sizzles with pent-up sexuality, and the slimy directness of his ‘Già, mi dicon venal’ makes the skin crawl: iron-willed would be the Tosca who did not search her surroundings for a suitably injurious weapon in response to such sentiments! Alas, Mazurok’s Scarpia cannot die as impressively as he has lived. Mazurok takes his cue from the gasping, snarling breed of Scarpias, expiring far more noisily than is necessary. Mazurok’s performance is far from the last word in Italianate stylishness, but he dominates this recording as a forceful, robustly-sung Scarpia.

Vladimir Atlantov's solid upper register and stentorian manner of singing qualified him as a sort of Russian Mario del Monaco. Like his Italian colleague, he was capable of nuanced, expressive singing, but there is nothing subtle about his Cavaradossi in this performance. When this Cavaradossi converses with the Sagrestano in Act One, it is with the imperiousness of an arrogant man about town who expects his whims to be indulged. The voice is a burly, handsome instrument, and the top B♭ in 'Recondita armonia' is a predictably clarion tone, but there is little sense of involvement in Atlantov's singing. He sings powerfully in the duet with Tosca in Act One, but his Cavaradossi sounds more likely to be engaged in barroom brawls than found painting the Maddalena in a church. His upper register provides the excitement that his singing generally lacks. The tenor's restraint when his character is under torture in Act Two is welcome, but his exasperation upon discovering Tosca's betrayal and jubilant cry of defiance are dramatically inert when voiced with the same bawling tone unleashed in all of his music, his galvanizing top A♯ notwithstanding. Atlantov sings 'E lucevan le stelle' resonantly, but here, too, his performance is defined by brute strength instead of poetic wonder. There is more tenderness in his singing in 'O dolci mani' than in the duet with Tosca in Act One: finally, there are glimpses of the artistic sensitivity that lends Cavaradossi credibility as more than merely a carnal companion for Tosca. Were Atlantov's Cavaradossi not so rousingly sung, it would perhaps be too little, too late, but his lackluster characterization is substantially redeemed by the quality of the tenor's vocalism.

The Tosca of Tamara Milashkina might easily be underrated or even ill-informedly dismissed. Like Mazurok, the soprano was a frequent visitor to Yevgeny Onegin, but her credentials in Italian opera, though extensive, are not so familiar. Vocally, Tosca's music is well within the boundaries of Milashkina's abilities, and there are aspects of the rôle—not least the three top Cs requested by Puccini—that she brings off as well as the best Toscas on disc. Idiomatic Italian vowels were not hers to command, but her enunciation is no more off-putting than those of many English- and German-speaking Toscas. Milashkina sings Tosca's duet with Cavaradossi in Act One with considerable aplomb, but there is little in her performance to indicate that she is partnering her husband in one of opera's most sensual exchanges. Rather than seeking vestiges of their own marriage in the scene, Atlantov shouts, Milashkina pouts, and the drama rattles on with almost no charisma or personality. Still, there is much to be admired in the reliability of the soprano's singing. There is animation in her traversal of Tosca's confrontation with Scarpia in the church, and she garners appreciation for her eschewal of the often-embarrassing blubbering into which many Toscas dissolve after swallowing the bait of Scarpia's suggestion that Cavaradossi and Marchesa Attavanti are lovers. In Act Two, Milashkina nails the difficult top Cs in the off-stage cantata, here sounding only slightly recessed, and the frenzied outburst after Cavaradossi realizes that she has betrayed Angelotti in order to spare her ungrateful paramour further torture. She possesses sufficient solidity of technical footing to give the top B♭ in 'Vissa d'arte, vissi d'amore' the dulcet treatment that Puccini sought, and her focused, capably-phrased account of the aria wants only a measure of tenderness. Mazurok's Scarpia is a lecher who seems too wily to die, but Milashkina's Tosca dispatches him handily enough; indeed, somewhat matter-of-factly. She goes about the mechanics of posing his body with the crucifix with the calmness of a housewife arranging her laundry. Reunited with Cavaradossi in Act Three, this Tosca seems eager to recount her slaughter of Scarpia, the final top C thrust into the listener's ear as a symbolic recreation of the knife piercing Scarpia's body. Milashkina clearly relishes the melodrama of the opera's final minutes, her breathless utterances delivered with gusto. This Tosca's demise is less impactful than it ought to be, but there is no denying the appeal of the brilliant top B♭ with which the soprano takes her leave. In a setting more congenial to dramatic endeavors, Milashkina might have been a near-ideal Tosca [in a studio recording made a decade earlier, sung in Russian and with Zurab Andzhaparidzye as her Cavaradossi, she was indeed a considerably more engaging presence], her voice more suited by nature for the rôle than that of her countrywoman Galina Vishnevskaya, a celebrated Tosca. In this performance, Milashkina rarely portrays a three-dimensional character, but her singing is often wonderful.

Puccini with a Russian accent is no one’s ideal, especially in an opera as quintessentially Italian of temperament and musical construction as Tosca, but listeners inclined to accept Yevgeny Onegin and Pikovaya dama in Italian in order to enjoy the sublime Tatyana of Rosanna Carteri and Liza of Leyla Gencer can hardly reject a persuasive Tosca sung in Russian-tinted Italian. Ultimately, this is not a consistently persuasive Tosca, but Tamara Milashkina is a Tosca who persuades that another Tosca may not be needed but is always welcome.

07 September 2015

RECORDING OF THE MONTH / September 2015: JOYCE & TONY LIVE AT WIGMORE HALL – Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano, & Sir Antonio Pappano, piano (ERATO 0825646107896)

CD REVIEW: JOYCE & TONY - Live at Wigmore Hall (ERATO 0825646107896)FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN (1732 – 1809), GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868), FRANCESCO SANTOLIQUIDO (1883 – 1971), ERNESTO DE CURTIS (1875 – 1937), et. al.: Joyce & Tony Live at Wigmore HallJoyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Sir Antonio Pappano, piano [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at Wigmore Hall, London, UK, 6 and 8 September 2014; ERATO 0825646107896; 2 CDs, 94:29; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Provided that a listener has ears that hear and a heart that feels, any doubt of Joyce DiDonato's status as one of the world's greatest singers is eradicated by the first twenty minutes of Joyce & Tony Live at Wigmore Hall. Singing Franz Joseph Haydn's cantata Arianna a Naxos (Hob.XXVIb:2), DiDonato leaves prima donna affectations and opera-house melodramatics to lesser artists. In the course of those twenty minutes, seconded by Sir Antonio Pappano's intuitively-attuned piano accompaniment, she walks the shores of Naxos, searching the horizon for her beloved Theseus, not artfully portraying Ariadne but truly experiencing every pang of her panic, fear, and sorrow. DiDonato makes 'Teseo mio ben, dove sei, dove sei tu?' much more than an introductory recitative. Her first notes are breathless with exhaustion and disbelief as though Ariadne has struggled through miles of inhospitable terrain in search of her absent lover. She enunciates Italian with near-native inflections, avoiding the exaggeratedly trilled r's and other typical Americanisms, but the real joy of this performance is her affinity for Haydn's music. She never deviates from Classical poise in her singing of the aria 'Dove sei, mio bel tesoro,' but there is nothing dainty about her depiction of Ariadne's despair: her perfectly-judged phrasing places the aria in the company of Brünnhilde's Immolation, Isolde's Liebestod, and Richard Strauss's music for his Ariadne. [It is significant that DiDonato is an accomplished Komponist in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos. She has experienced Ariadne's predicament from both sides of the music desk, as it were, and her empathy is unmistakable.] The depth of emotion that the singer conveys with only the first four words of 'Ma, a chi parlo?' is extraordinary. Comparing the economy of means with which DiDonato limns Ariadne's staggering psychological trauma with the histrionic excesses to which many singers resort in this music, thoughts of Abraham Lincoln arise, recalling his following of Edward Everett's two-hour oration at Gettysburg with perhaps the ten most eloquent sentences spoken in America in the Nineteenth Century. When DiDonato intones the cantata's closing aria, 'Ah, che morir vorrei in sì fatal momento,' her voice gleams with a focused purity that elevates Ariadne's utterances from self-pity to world-weariness worthy of Dido and Maria Stuarda. The weight of tragedy emanates from her performance without ever depriving the voice of its natural buoyancy. Depicting Ariadne's dark sentiments with her bright timbre, DiDonato gives a performance that, with its surging passion within the parameters of the appropriate style and absolute surrender to both music and text, conjures memories of Leyla Gencer at her estimable best. This is a reading of Arianna a Naxos in which the singer's artistry fully reveals the wondrous dimensions of Haydn's genius.

DiDonato is one of the world's busiest mezzo-sopranos, her repertory spanning nearly four centuries of musical history, and there are occasional signs in the performances on Joyce & Tony of the effects on the voice of her fast-paced career. Tones at the extreme top of the range can be shrill, tremulous, and slightly blanched in quality, but DiDonato's intonational accuracy remains formidable even in the most challenging passages of bravura writing. The voice remains a fresh, evergreen instrument over which its owner exercises near-perfect control, and DiDonato is an artist who is too shrewd to venture into territory that is foreign to her natural gifts. In this performance, she is partnered with wit and impeccable pianistic technique by Pappano, who takes the rôle of conversationalist rather than that of the eyes-on-his-scores accompanist. He and DiDonato carry on lively banter through music, piano and voice teasing, cajoling, and comforting one another in the course of the recital. It is apparent, though, that Pappano views this recital not as vocal chamber music but as an opportunity for one of Classical Music’s finest voices to shine in the spotlight of ideally-chosen repertory. Produced by Alain Lanceron and Stephen Johns and recorded and edited by Jonathan Allen, ERATO’s discs allow DiDonato to do just that. Balances between voice and piano are managed with intelligence that prevents either instrument from being unduly prominent, but the warmth of the Wigmore Hall acoustics is retained. Audience noise is essentially non-existent, but every moment on these discs pulses with the energy of live performance.

The music of Rossini is DiDonato's natural habitat—or, rather, one of this impressively adaptable artist's natural habitats. Composed in 1821, 'Beltà crudele' is among Rossini's loveliest songs and one of a handful written before the death of Franz Schubert, upon whose work Rossini exerted an often-underestimated influence. DiDonato sings 'Beltà crudele' with the same intensity that she might devote to Schubert's most tuneful inventions. As in Arianna a Naxos, her splendid diction highlights the cleverness of the composer's setting of the text, the open vowels used as springboards for launching Rossini's characteristic vocal lines.. 'La danza,' the eighth song in Rossini's Soirées musicales, dates from 1835. This ebullient tarantella requires the vocal equivalent of an acrobat's dexterity, and DiDonato delivers a scintillating account of the piece without making it seem like a carnival act. Rossinian patter is a mother tongue for DiDonato, and she speaks it in this performance with the proud elegance of a Parisian reciting Baudelaire.

Francesco Santoliquido’s 1908 I canti della sera glisten with an autumnal, restrained melancholy that is not unlike the wistful resignation that courses through Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder. The wide-eyed wonder with which DiDonato phrases ‘Vieni, ti voglio dir quel che non dissi mai’ in the opening song, ‘L'assiolo canta,’ discloses the expanse of her imagination, the slightest hint of capriciousness spicing the intoxicating elixir of her interpretation. Similarly evocative of untold feelings is her articulation of ‘Che pace immensa!’ in ‘Alba di luna sul bosco,’ her voice seeming to take on the weight of eternity without being artificially inflated. Then, she voices ‘Dimmi: è un tramonto o un’alba per l’amor?’ with the innocence of a little girl quizzing her father about some unfathomable aspect of life or nature. There is no artifice in DiDonato’s singing of ‘Tristezza crepuscolare’: this is a reflection on unhappy memories, not a wallow in hopelessness. The quiet solemnity of DiDonato’s voicing of the closing ‘L'incontro’ is profoundly moving. The dulcet utterance of ‘Ma oggi forse m’amate un poco’ contrasts sharply with the shuddering, suddenly uncertain statement of ‘Non sorridete più. Ah! La vostra mano trema.’ Santoliquido’s late-Romantic idiom suits DiDonato as organically as Haydn’s eloquent Classicism and Rossini’s effervescent bel canto, and she sings I canti della sera with beauty and poetry redolent of Claudia Muzio.

Ernesto De Curtis's 'Non ti scordar di me,' composed in 1935 for Beniamino Gigli, finds in DiDonato and Pappano interpreters as attentive to the song's seldom-explored nuances as any who have ever recorded it. Like some of the American repertory in this recital’s second half, ‘Non ti scordar di me’ has suffered in the past eighty years from the effects of over-exposure and indifferent performances, but DiDonato and Pappano approach it as though discovering it anew. The familiar themes here sound unhackneyed, and the expressive impact of the song is as great as when Gigli first sang it.

Operatically-trained singers performing musical theatre standards and folksong settings can be dangerous collisions of over-singing, condescension, and overwrought histrionics. Operatically-trained to be sure, DiDonato is unfairly restricted by being designated an ‘opera singer.’ There is no question that she could convincingly sing chart-topping pop songs were it her prerogative to do so, and she here sings Art songs and gems of the Great White Way with the soulfulness of Joan Baez, the unpretentious textual clarity of Kate Smith, and, above all, the inimitable voice of Joyce DiDonato.

The godfather of American popular song Stephen Foster (1826 – 1864) rarely receives the affectionate treatment that his gifts for melody warrant, especially on disc, but DiDonato’s singing of David Krane’s arrangement of ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ cloaks one of the composer's most familiar melodies in the golden garment of a great voice. Here and in all of the selections on Joyce & Tony's second disc, DiDonato resists the temptation to over-sing in a concerted effort to make the music sound important. This is important music, and she simply sings it according to each number's style and mood, just as she sings music for any of her operatic rôles. The potency of her sensibilities for American song is even more obvious in her performances of five selections by Jerome Kern (1885 – 1945). A more alluring exponent of 'The Siren's Song' from 1917's Leave it to Jane than DiDonato is difficult to imagine, and the mezzo-soprano's gift for storytelling in song is no less delightfully exercised in 'Go Little Boat' from the little-remembered Oh, My Dear! of 1918. Show Boat is perhaps Kern's greatest score, and the performances on this disc of 'Life Upon the Wicked Stage' and 'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man' throb with humor and devotion. For once, it is possible to believe that the singer truly cannot help repeatedly falling in love with that certain someone. Stirring as every selection on Joyce & Tony is, DiDonato's singing of 'All the Things You Are' from the 1939 show Very Warm for May, Kern's last Broadway score, is truly special. Not even Mildred Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald sang the song more lovingly than DiDonato. Trade Pappano's deftly-played piano for lute or theorbo, and this could be a ballad by John Dowland or an aria for Händel's Dejanira.

Havelock Nelson's (1917 – 1996) settings of traditional Irish songs reveal a sensitive spirit with tremendous understanding of the relationships between words and melodies. DiDonato sings his 'Lovely Jimmie' with disarming simplicity, the voice echoing the charm and typical Irish ambiguity of the text. Celius Dougherty (1902 – 1986) is a composer whose work should be far more frequently performed, and DiDonato offers an account of the 1949 song 'Love in the Dictionary' that whets the appetite for more of Dougherty's music, her unaffected demeanor and winsome sense of humor making much of the text, which is a literal recitation of a dictionary definition of the word 'love.' The same enterprising sincerity shapes her voicing of 'Lazy Afternoon' from Jerome Moross's (1913 – 1983) 1955 musical The Golden Apple. Singing mesmerizingly, DiDonato is a magnificent advocate for this material.

William Bolcom's (born 1938) Cabaret Songs should be in the repertories of every singer capably of meeting their musical demands and doing justice to their high-spirited texts. DiDonato steps vivaciously into the world of Cathy Berberian with her performance of 'Amor' from the first volume of Cabaret Songs. She infuses the song with the individuality of a personal anthem, following the paths of Bolcom's melodic lines with the unfettered joy of a singer singing for her own amusement. Mimicking Berberian's versatility, she is equally at ease in 'Food for Thought' from Heitor Villa-Lobos's (1887 – 1959) 1948 'musical adventure' Magdalena. Written for Los Angeles, Magdalena is an unjustly-neglected niche in Villa-Lobos's output, but DiDonato sings ‘Food for Thought' from the operetta's first act with a compelling combination of beguiling, forwardly-placed tone and sovereign stylishness that lends the song an air of cherished familiarity.

Richard Rodgers's (1902 – 1976) 'My Funny Valentine' from the 1937 revue Babes in Arms is a well-traveled number recorded by some of America's most recognizable voices, both as a Broadway hit and as a jazz standard. DiDonato’s performance, neither saccharine nor dry, transforms Wigmore Hall into a smoke-filled lounge where people still speak in complete sentences and gentlemen rise when ladies approach, but the sultry insinuation of her mezza voce suggests that a vein of naughtiness flows beneath the glittering façade. Irving Berlin (1888 – 1989) was a tunesmith with a gift for touching the heartstrings even when setting lyrics that failed to match the quality of his music. 'I Love a Piano' from 1915 is an instance of Berlin morphing lyrics from entertaining to enlightening. DiDonato follows his lead, singing ‘I Love a Piano’ with ease and élan that are unforgettable. Harold Arlen's (1905 – 1986) 'Over the Rainbow' from the iconic score of The Wizard of Oz is as clichéd and over-done a number as there is in the Great American Songbook. Frankly, it is a song that is accepted as a classic without most listeners ever having heard performances that justify that distinction. It is difficult to place a stamp of originality on a performance of ‘Over the Rainbow,’ but DiDonato does so in precisely the manner that she conquers every piece on this program—by simply singing the music impeccably. By solving it, she gets at the heart of the problem with the song that scuttles so many singers’ efforts: genuine Joyce DiDonato is infinitely preferable to fake Judy Garland.

Ultimately, Joyce & Tony Live at Wigmore Hall is a very disappointing disc. It is disappointing that, having been recorded during performances in Wigmore Hall, it could not have gone on far longer than its ninety-five minutes. It is disappointing that DiDonato could not include the complete first volume of Bolcom's Cabaret Songs—imagine her 'Over the Piano' and 'He Tipped the Waiter'—and the three companions to Nelson's arrangement of 'Lovely Jimmie.' Most crucially, it is disappointing that Joyce and Tony could not have planned and executed a recital better than merely spectacular. Oh, for a profusion of such disappointments!