31 October 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini – MADAMA BUTTERFLY (T. Trevigne, M. Brandenburg, M. Sumuel, L. Ammann, I. McEuen; North Carolina Opera, 30 October 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Giacomo Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY at North Carolina Opera, October/November 2015 [Illustration of Cio-Cio San's rejection by her relations by Leopoldo Metlicovitz (1868 - 1944), ©  by Casa Ricordi]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Madama ButterflyTalise Trevigne (Cio-Cio San), Michael Brandenburg (Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton), Michael Sumuel (Sharpless), Lindsay Ammann (Suzuki), Ian McEuen (Goro), Wei Wu (Lo zio Bonzo), Jesse Malgieri (il Principe Yamadori), Charles Hyland (Il Commissario Imperiale), Kate Farrar (Kate Pinkerton), Jacob Kato (Lo zio Yakusidé), Tom Keefe (L’Ufficiale del Registro), Annette Stowe (La madre di Cio-Cio San), Margaret Maytan (La zia), Austenne Grey (La cugina), Ella Fox (Dolore); North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Timothy Myers, conductor [E. Loren Meeker, Director; Mark McCullough, Lighting Designs; Alice Bristow, Costume Designs; David P. Gordon, Set Designs; Sondra Nottingham, Wig and Make-up Designs; North Carolina Opera, Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina; Friday, 30 October 2015]

Writers are often told that the surest path to success is writing about situations and sensibilities that they know from their own experiences. In a pragmatic sense, perhaps the best advice for composers is that they will find greatest inspiration in contemplation of that which cannot be known, those realms of thought and feeling for which words alone are inadequate. There is no better argument in favor of the veracity of this counsel than the genesis of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly. When in the summer of 1900 the composer first encountered David Belasco's dramatization of John Luther Long's 1898 story 'Madame Butterfly,' itself an adaptation of Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthème, on the London stage, his knowledge of English extended little beyond 'Hello.' The play's atmospheric setting and the demeanor of the long-suffering Butterfly herself engaged Puccini's emotions and creative instincts in ways that transcended language, however, and the transformation of the delicate heroine of Long's story and Belasco's play into the operatic Cio-Cio San began in earnest. Considering not only the straightforward evidence of his correspondence but also interpreting his music, it is no exaggeration to state that Puccini fell in love with the ill-fated ladies who populated his scores. Lingering criticism of Puccini's skill and originality as a composer notwithstanding, the uncanny emotional potency of his scores is derived in large part from the fact that audiences, too, fall in love with the proud Manon Lescaut, the idealistic Mimì, the despondent Suor Angelica, and the selfless Liù. Even among her sisters in the Puccini canon, Cio-Cio San is unique. Manon Lescaut dies in her beloved's arms, Mimì is sustained by the boundless love of her friends until disease will be put off no longer, Angelica expires in an ecstasy of absolution and reunion with her child, and Liù gives her life as the purest declaration of devotion. Her wings broken by the betrayal of a man for whom she rejected her own culture, Butterfly dies alone, reclaiming her identity by committing the sole act via which, in the social order into which she was born, the honor of a compromised woman might be restored. There are no sentences of exile imposed by indifferent judges, no ravages of disease, no longing for the company of a departed loved one, no secret more valuable than living: deserted by hope, happiness, and the illusions upon which they were founded, only Cio-Cio San's own hands possess the power to free her. Pinkerton's distant cries of 'Butterfly!'—perhaps the most heartrending instance in opera of too little, too late—serenade a soul already liberated from its purgatory. Psychologically, perhaps the final scene of Madama Butterfly resonates so intensely with many observers because Cio-Cio San's suicide controverts Western philosophies’ unremitting dedication to preserving life at any cost. Emotionally, though, the blade that pierces audiences’ hearts is wielded by Puccini’s music. Treating the score not as a nostalgic postcard from Nagasaki but as a blueprint for crafting upon the stage a cyclorama of humanity, North Carolina Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly sharpened that blade to an acute level of dramatic musicality.

Musically and scenically, Madama Butterfly is very difficult to get right. Though Puccini's intentions were undoubtedly wholly respectful of the ancient customs and traditions of Japan, the opera walks on the edge of the precipice overhanging uncomfortable stereotypes and misguided, ill-informed representations of a timeless culture. In reality, criticism of his sentimentalized use of Japanese folk tunes and 'The Star-Spangled Banner' ultimately possessing little validity, Puccini engaged in very little musical moralizing in Madama Butterfly. There is no doubt that his sympathy was with Cio-Cio San, but there is sufficient beauty in his music for Pinkerton to make the sailor as charming as he is caddish. Charm was an essential component of North Carolina Opera's production, which placed the drama in a Nagasaki of delightful but deceptive natural beauty. Natural imagery is of tremendous importance to the plot of Madama Butterfly, and David P. Gordon’s sets, effectively and sometimes stunningly illuminated by Mark McCullough’s lighting designs, impressively recreated Imperial Japan on the Memorial Auditorium stage. A production of Madama Butterfly need not take every word of Puccini’s and his librettists’, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, staging instructions literally, but the opera demands a greater degree of specificity of time and place than many of its companions in the standard repertory. Unfathomably, the notion of 'traditional' productions continues to be anathema to the decision-makers at many opera companies despite the manifold indications that audiences respond as readily to composers' original thoughts as to today's directors' rethinkings. E. Loren Meeker's direction of North Carolina Opera's Madama Butterfly focused attention precisely where it must be centered if the opera's drama is to realize its full potential to enthrall the senses, on the relationships among the principal characters. There are in a tale of collisions between Eastern and Western cultures so many possibilities for insensitivity, but Alice Bristow's costumes and Sondra Nottingham's wigs and make-up gave every individual upon the stage a clearly-defined rôle in a thoughtful manner that avoided sensationalized exaggeration of the societal chasm between Cio-Cio San and her relations and Pinkerton’s Americanism. Too many productions of Madama Butterfly are an act of jigai away from being The Mikado, but North Carolina Opera’s detailed, discerning production was traditional in the best sense: the audience was privy to a performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, not someone else’s.

Madama Butterfly is a musical chimera that assumes vastly different appearances according to the constituent parts of the score that conductors choose to emphasize. In this performance, North Carolina Opera’s Artistic and Music Director Timothy Myers facilitated a reading of Puccini's score in which the music's lyricism, tinges of verismo, and Twentieth-Century modishness were all given their due. Composed in 1903 and revised to the form known today after an unsuccessful première at Teatro alla Scala in 1904, Puccini’s score is both a continuation of the modes of expression that proved cogent in Manon Lescaut and La bohème and an expansion of the direction in which he traveled in Tosca. The modernity of the music is often overlooked, but Myers unveiled the almost-Stravinskian pungency of many of Madama Butterfly’s harmonies, heightening the significance of the opulently Italianate melodies. One of Voix des Arts' Best Artists of 2015, Myers is a conductor whose approach to music is dedicated in equal proportions to content and context. In exploring the latter, he reminded the casual listener that Madama Butterfly is a contemporary of Richard Strauss's Salome and Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. During his tenure in Raleigh, Myers has nurtured exponential increases in the confidence and capabilities of the North Carolina Opera Orchestra, and the musicians joined him in making of the notes on the pages before their eyes a vibrant world in sound. String playing was consistently well-balanced, especially in the gossamer writing in the love duet, and the brass and woodwind players alternated cacophony and caresses as the score required. The prevalence of poorly-executed performances should eradicate the misconception that Puccini's operas are not as demanding as the scores of many of his non-Italian contemporaries, but Myers and his orchestra gave the impression of effortlessness in their mastery of Madama Butterfly. Equally heartening has been the artistic growth of the NC Opera Chorus in recent seasons, and Chorus Master Scott MacLeod's fastidious training of the ensemble was apparent in the world-class choral singing in this performance. As Cio-Cio San's attendants and relations in Act One, the choristers sang with precision, and their traversal of the famous 'a bocca chiusa' humming chorus that bridges Acts Two and Three was bewitching, sopranos and tenors alike braving the top B♭s fearlessly. Whether singing from the stage, playing from the pit, or presiding from the podium, North Carolina Opera's personnel acquitted themselves with consummate professionalism and the passion for their collective craft that makes Raleigh one of America's foremost destinations for opera lovers.

This was an unusual Madama Butterfly in that there were no singers in supporting rôles who were not up to their tasks. Austenne Grey's Cugina, Annette Stowe's Madre, Margaret Maytan's Zia, Jacob Kato's Zio Yakusidé, and Tom Keefe's Ufficiale were all ably-sung, carefully-acted portraits. Baritone Charles Hyland conducted the wedding ceremony  handily, voicing the Commissario's 'È concesso al nominato Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton' authoritatively, and fellow baritone Jesse Malgieri created a Yamadori of vocal means equal to his wealth with a resonant voicing of 'Tra le cose più moleste è l'inutil sospirar.' Bass Wei Wu roared chillingly as Zio Bonzo, detonating 'Cio-Cio-San! Cio-Cio-San! Abbominazione!' with ferocious muscle and a voice of granitic eloquence. Special mention must be made of Ella Fox, who without singing a single note stole every heart in the theatre with her adorable portrayal of Cio-Cio San's and Pinkerton's child Dolore.

To suggest that Kate Pinkerton is a thankless rôle is an understatement. Audiences are understandably predisposed to vilifying the 'other woman,' but her music, though hardly redolent of empathetic motivations, is not devoid of kindness and sincere concern for the welfare of Pinkerton's child. Mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar was a prepossessing 'sposa americana' who sang her few lines admirably. Both her 'Glielo dirai?' and her 'E le darai consiglio d'affidarmi?' throbbed with reluctance and genuine interest in Dolore's well-being. One of the production's most touching details was the image of Kate hiding herself outside Butterfly's house, weeping for the the poor girl's sad fate and her own unwitting part in it.

It is perhaps when his music is poorly sung that audiences most appreciate what a crucial rôle Goro plays in Madama Butterfly. Inexplicably, the part often seems to be regarded as an opportunity for whining, wheezing, and indulging in embarrassing pseudo-Oriental babbling. By contrast, it is astonishing to note how significantly a good Goro can heighten the impact of a performance of the opera, and North Carolina Opera had in tenor Ian McEuen a singer who upheld the seldom-equaled standard of Piero de Palma. Having recently garnered notice in Nashville Opera's production of Turandot, McEuen came to Raleigh's Madama Butterfly with a battle-tested familiarity with Puccini's style of fast-paced, mock-Asian writing, and his portrayal of Goro was distinguished by a refusal to sacrifice musicality in pursuit of cheap humor and an attractive, well-integrated instrument that required no faking of notes at the range extremes. Propelling the start of Act One with the nervous energy of a salesman eager to please (and to have his commission), McEuen sang 'Vanno e vengono a prova, a norma che vi giova nello stesso locale' with clear, well-placed tone that fell all the more dulcetly upon the ears for being free of caricature. Goro's ramblings have considerably more words than actual content, and McEuen carried on with the glee of an orator who fancies the sound of his own voice. His statement of 'Una stella dai raggi d'oro' disclosed the presence of an imagination far more extensive than many Goros bother to suggest. Furthermore, McEuen's singing in Act Two, when in 'Il ricco Yamadori. Ella è povera in canna' Goro attempts to facilitate a match between the abandoned Cio-Cio San and the affluent Principe Yamadori, was too cordial to be solely commercial in nature. No, this Goro, lurking at the periphery and observing everything, was sensitive to his surroundings and to Butterly's silent suffering, and McEuen's resourceful, splendidly-sung performance displayed the prime quality of Puccini's writing for the character.

North Carolina Opera's Madama Butterfly had in contralto Lindsay Ammann a Suzuki not just capable of singing the rôle—a trait more precious than might be supposed—but also unusually adept at being not merely a companion but a genuine comfort and confidante for her Butterfly. She was the epitome of nervous energy in Act One, rattling through 'Sorride Vostro Onore? Il riso è frutto e fiore' with girlish elation. She voiced 'Ecco! Son giunte al sommo del pendio' beguilingly. Suzuki's prayer at the start of Act Two, 'E Izaghi ed Izanami, Sarundasico e Kami,' received from Ammann firm, focused tones, and there was compassion even in her stark 'Mai non s'è udito di straniero marito che sia tornato al nido,' reminding Cio-Cio San that foreign husbands who return to their distant wives are an unknown species. The contralto's 'Vespa! Rospo maledetto!' was Wagnerian in scope, her top Fs and G♭s flashing like lightning bolts. In Act Three, Ammann's declamation of 'Già il sole!' was a crestfallen acknowledgement that Suzuki's fears were well-founded, and she sang 'Come una mosca prigioniera l'ali batte il piccolo cuor!' heartbreakingly. Ammann projected notes in chest register of which a baritone would have been proud, and she portrayed an animated, poignantly sisterly Suzuki.

Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel was a Sharpless who was unafraid of chastising his friend Pinkerton and was visibly shaken by Butterfly's noble suffering. Dressed in a drab suit, he was the prototypical low-level American bureaucrat to the life. Entering in Act One with a brawny 'E suda e arrampica!' that coursed through the theatre excitingly, Sumuel sang excellently throughout the performance. There was true admiration in his 'Miss Butterfly...Bel nome, vista a meraviglia,' and his blandishments to the unheeding Pinkerton were all the more dire for being so handsomely sung. In his Act Two scene with Butterfly, this Sharpless was virtually crippled by the pain that his visit was inflicting on the proud woman. When quizzed by Cio-Cio San about when robins nest in America, his responses of 'Mi rincresce, ma ignoro' and 'Non ho studiato ornitologia' were infused with tenderness. Unnerved by the interruptions to his well-planned delivery of the news of Pinkerton's abandonment, Sumuel's Sharpless sang 'Ora a noi. Qui sedete, legger con me volete questa lettera?' ponderously, but his quiet pronouncement of 'Quanta pietà!' was the cry of a man who could bear no more. His 'Sovente a questa siepe veniste a riguardare lungi' was a profound moment, the significance of which many Sharplesses ignore. Sumuel was marvelous in Act Three, voicing 'Scegliemmo quest'ora mattutina per ritrovarti sola' and 'Io so che alle sue pene non ci sono conforti!' with rich tone. The kinship between Sharpless and Marcello in La bohème was especially apparent in Sumuel's deeply-felt performance. A thoughtful Marcello conveys that he loves Mimì almost as much as Rodolfo loves her, and Sumuel left no doubt that his Sharpless cared for Butterfly in a way that was far more enduring and pervasive than Pinkerton's infatuation. Sumuel made a character whose level-headedness can seem callous the emotional spine of the performance.

On the surface, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is one of the most despicable characters in opera. As portrayed by young tenor Michael Brandenburg, he was particularly loathsome because he was also so captivating. Tall, handsome, and debonair in his Navy whites, he was a Pinkerton who surely set hearts in every port of call aflutter. Brandenburg launched Act One arrestingly with his boyish singing of 'E soffitto e pareti' and 'Gran perla di sensale!' In his first aria, the Allegro sostenuto con spirito 'Dovunque al mondo lo Yankee vagabondo,' he ascended to the top A and B♭ with fantastic ease, and he phrased 'Amore o grillo, dir non saprei' with true feeling, taking the three top B♭s in stride. His 'Vieni, amor mio!' radiated romance, but his defense of Butterfly against her relations' crushing denunciation raged in his athletic singing of 'Ehi, dico: basta, basta,' the top As piercing the din of the relations' scorn, and 'Sbarazzate all'istante. In casa mia niente baccano e niente bonzeria.' Brandenburg voiced the Andante affettuoso 'Bimba, bimba, non piangere per gracchiar di ranocchi' with hypnotic tranquility that was echoed in his seductive delivery of the Andantino calmo 'Viene la sera.' His fervent delivery of 'Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malìa' in the love duet coruscated with passion, and he was the rare Pinkerton whose decision to join Cio-Cio San on the top C at the duet's close was justified by the gleaming solidity of the tone. Creeping into Act Three with shame already crippling the youthful gait with which he bestrode Act One, Brandenburg voiced Pinkerton's aria 'Addio fiorito asil di letizia e d'amor' with sincerity, the character's regret finding resonant outlets in the top A♭s and B♭. In this performance, Pinkerton's off-stage cries on top F♯s of 'Butterfly!' as Cio-Cio San silently dies were emotionally torturous. Significantly, seeing Butterfly's lifeless body still upright according to the Japanese tradition of dying honorably, it was Pinkerton who collapsed, his virility capitulating to the weight of his carelessness. Brandenburg's vocal comfort in the music was unmistakable, and it was wonderful to encounter in Raleigh what is rare even in the world's largest opera houses: a young, attractive Pinkerton who sang as strikingly as he looked.

Puccini's music for Cio-Cio San brings to mind Richard Strauss's instruction that his Salome should be sung by a teenaged soprano with an Isolde voice. After contending with one of the most demanding entrance scenes in opera, Cio-Cio San playfully declares herself to be fifteen years old, and one of the greatest challenges for a singing actress is credibly depicting the evolution of the child bride of Act One into the mature woman who embraces the fatal mandate of her centuries-old culture in the opera's final scene. Visually, soprano Talise Trevigne was the ideal Cio-Cio San. A petite, delicately-featured lady of great beauty, she did not merely wear her costumes but truly gave them life, inhabiting Butterfly's physical identity to a degree that blurred the boundary between everyday reality and the alternate reality of opera. Indeed, there are native Asian singers who are not so wholly natural as Cio-Cio San as Trevigne was, but hers was a connection with the character and her music at the molecular level rather than a studied, Stanislavskian impersonation. Making her entrance in Act One with the gracefully tuneful 'Ancora un passo, or via,' she soared to top B♭ and thrilled with the freshness of her sound. In fact, not one note of her performance was strained, strident, or wobbly. The disarming sweetness of her 'Siam giunte' was invigorating, and there was not even the slightest hint of self-consciousness in her utterance of 'Nessuno si confessa mai nato in povertà,' the evenness of the bottom octave of the voice counting for much. Her guileless articulation of 'Morto' in response to the question about her father contrasted markedly with the radiance of her account of the beautiful Andante 'Ieri sono salita tutta sola in secreto alla Missione.' Both 'Non piango più' and 'Siete alto, forte' were shaped with the restraint expected of a well-bred Japanese lady, but Cio-Cio San's new-found sensuality blossomed in Trevigne's exquisitely-phrased account of the Andante sostenuto 'Vogliatemi bene un bene piccolino,' the line rising through top B♭s to the glorious top C with which she surrendered to Pinkerton's ardor. The soprano's artless enunciation of 'Pigri ed obesi son gli dèi giapponesi' in Act Two drew laughs from the audience, but there was nothing funny about the despair of her 'Suzuki, è lungi la miseria?' This Butterfly gave great meaning to 'Perchè con tante cure la casa rifornì di serrature' and 'Io te lo dico,' her voice ringing with the conviction of her words. Trevigne made the famous 'Un bel dì, vedremo' an intimate statement of her faith and devotion no less galvanizing than Tosca's 'Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore,' rising to the top B♭s with seemingly limitless breath control. In the scene with Sharpless, her 'Io son la donna più lieta del Giappone' glowed with the joy of promises fulfilled, but the simplicity of Butterfly's happiness was upended in Trevigne's intense singing of the daunting Andante molto mosso 'Che tua madre dovrà prenderti in braccio ed alla pioggia e al vento andar per la città.' The climactic top B♭s poured from her throat like emotions that could no longer be controlled. The affection for her son that emanated from 'O mio piccolo amore, mia pena e mio conforto' was poignant, and few Cio-Cio Sans equal Trevigne's serenity in 'Scuoti quella fronda e dei suoi fior m'innonda.' She met the demands of Act Three without a trace of artifice, her voicing of 'Dormi, amor mio, dormi sul mio cor' eerily calm and comforting, not only quieting Dolore but restoring her own resolve. Her 'Tu Suzuki che sei tanto buona, non piangere!' was a clandestine final expression of love for her devoted maid and companion. Trevigne drained the color from her voice for the parlando 'Con onor muore chi non può serbar vita con onore,' but her singing of 'Tu, tu piccolo iddio! Amore, amore mio, fior di giglio e di rosa' was remarkable for the way in which the warmth of life gave way to the coldness of death. Few people in the audience are apt to have been unaware that Madama Butterfly ends with the heroine's suicide, but there were audible gasps when this performance's Cio-Cio San unaffectedly plunged her father's tantō into her neck. This was evidence of the singular force of Trevigne's portrayal of Butterfly. A beautiful sound is not all that is required to sing the rôle memorably, but the pure beauty of Trevigne's voice was unforgettable. In movement, in voice, and in expressivity, she was a Butterfly worthy of mention alongside Maria Callas, Eleanor Steber, Leontyne Price, and Renata Scotto.

There is an aphorism about even the blind squirrel occasionally finding acorns, and, applying the same logic, every opera lover occasionally witnesses performances that redefine their understanding and responses to composers, scores, particular rôles, or the genre as a whole. North Carolina Opera’s Madama Butterfly was a production that disclosed Puccini’s genius as a musician and man of the theatre in ways that in turns gladdened and broke the heart whether one was experiencing the opera for the first or the thousandth time. In truth, though, one might see Madama Butterfly a thousand times without ever seeing another performance as satisfying as this one.

IN PERFORMANCE: Giacomo Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY at North Carolina Opera, October/November 2015 [Illustration of Sharpless reading Pinkerton's letter by Leopoldo Metlicovitz (1868 - 1944), ©  by Casa Ricordi]Qui sedete, legger con me volete questa lettera: Sharpless reads Pinkerton’s letter in Act Two of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly [Illustration by Leopoldo Metlicovitz, © by Casa Ricordi]

29 October 2015

CD REVIEW: Maurice Ravel – L’ENFANT ET LES SORTILÈGES & MA MÈRE L’OYE (H. Hébrard, D. Galou, J. Pasturaud, J.-P. Fouchécourt, M. Barrard, N. Courjal, I. Perruche, A. Massis; NAXOS 8.660336)

CD REVIEW: Maurice Ravel - L'ENFANT ET LES SORTILÈGES (NAXOS 8.660336)MAURICE RAVEL (1875 – 1937): L’enfant et les sortilèges and Ma mère l’OyeHélène Hébrard (L’enfant), Delphine Galou (Maman, La libellule, La tasse chinoise), Julie Pasturaud (La bergère Louis XV, La chatte, L’écureuil, Un pâtre), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (La théière, Le petit vieillard, La rainette), Marc Barrard (L’horloge comtoise, Le chat), Nicolas Courjal (Le fauteuil, Un arbre), Ingrid Perruche (Le chauve-souris, La chouette, Une pastourelle), Annick Massis (Le feu, La princesse, Le rossignol); Chœur Britten, Jeune Chœur symphonique, Maîtrise de l’Opéra National de Lyon; Orchestre National de Lyon; Leonard Slatkin, conductor [Recorded in Auditorium Maurice Ravel, Lyon, France, in September 2011 (Ma mère l’Oye) and 22 – 26 January 2013 (L’enfant et les sortilèges); NAXOS 8.660336; 1 CD, 71:52; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

One of the most popular pastimes among opera lovers is lamenting the extinction of the nationalistic schools of singing that in near-mythic previous generations divided opera companies' rosters into adherents of the particular styles of French, German, and Italian opera. This new NAXOS recording of Maurice Ravel's exquisite masterpiece-in-miniature L'enfant et les sortilèges reveals in every second of its forty-five minutes that the death knell for the storied French school of singing was rung prematurely. Here, some of today's best French-speaking singers proclaim to the listener that, as Mark Twain might have said, the rumors of the demise of distinctive, distinguished French singing have been greatly exaggerated.

It is indicative of her esteem not only for the composer's work but also for her own that, when the Opéra de Paris proposed to the celebrated French writer Colette that she write the text for a fanciful work for the stage, she was enthusiastic about no collaborator but Ravel. Her libretto for the piece that became L'enfant et les sortilèges took shape in only eight days—an ironic rapidity considering the snail's pace at which the notoriously unhurried Ravel, distracted by his service in the Great War and his mother's death, composed the score. Colette was among the first listeners to realize that Ravel's music was worth the wait: few writers in the history of opera have witnessed their words as lovingly integrated with music as Colette's are with Ravel's music in L'enfant et les sortilèges. Effective recreation of that integration of words and music must be the core of a performance of L'enfant et les sortilèges if it is to be successful, and the performance recorded by NAXOS—a souvenir of live performances, discreet coughs suggest, though this is not specified in the liner notes—balances verbal and musical values on equal footing.

Coupled with a nuanced, surprisingly touching performance of Ravel's 1911 fully-orchestrated ballet suite Ma mère l’Oye, the Orchestre National de Lyon and the ensemble's Music Director, American conductor Leonard Slatkin, collaborate in a reading of L'enfant et les sortilèges that journeys into the dark corners of music and text without getting lost in them. Slatkin's relationship with opera has been tempestuous, particularly in the wake of his widely-publicized withdrawal from performances of Verdi's La traviata at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010, when he alleged, in response to her suggestions that he was inept and unprepared, that his Violetta was insufferably unprofessional. [The often ridiculous politicking of opera is evident in the fact that Slatkin has not returned to the MET since 2010, whereas the soprano in question has appeared numerous times in the subsequent five years, on increasingly precarious form.] Conducting Ravel's and Verdi's scores are very different tasks, and if Slatkin does not achieve the authority and authenticity in L'enfant et les sortilèges that Ernest Bour and Ernest Ansermet exhibited in their recordings of the opera he manages to come very near to their high-water mark. The acoutics on this disc are not as spacious or well-defined as those on many NAXOS recordings, but the countless witticisms of Ravel's orchestrations are never obscured. On the whole, Slatkin's approach to the score is admirable, his tempi suitable for both the music and the personnel performing it. Under his direction, the Lyon musicians play with technical and sentimental virtuosity, unafraid of conveying a degree of saccharine eye-dabbing when Maman's naughty child unexpectedly binds the foot of the squirrel he injured. This is all to the good, for the moment is, somehow, incredibly poignant. Colette and Ravel clearly thought so: Slatkin and Company ensure that the listener thinks—and feels—so, too.

The ladies and gentlemen of all ages of the Chœur Britten, Jeune Chœur symphonique, and Maîtrise de l’Opéra National de Lyon bring their music to life with involvement that makes portraying inanimate objects and woodland creatures sound like the greatest fun in the world. The elegy for the casualties of the child’s assault on the Arcadian wallpaper, ‘Adieu, Pastourelles,’ is sung with an endearing element of sincerity. The various noises of the sylvan environment into which the child is plunged are produced with obvious relish: every hoot, howl, chirp, and croak is delivered with the same conviction with which the singers uniformly enunciate text. The menace that erupts from the choristers’ utterance of ‘Ah! C’est l’enfant au couteau!’ is genuinely frightening, and the contrast with the startled disbelief of their ‘Il a pansé la plaie’ when the denizens of the forest realize that the child has bandaged the squirrel’s wounded paw could hardly be more meaningful. The grand chorus that ends the opera, ‘Il est bon, l’enfant, il est sage,’ virtually a Baroque motet in which the animals find their own voices in order to call out for the child’s mother, is sung handsomely, but here, too, it is the spirit of the singing that is most impressive.

As entrancingly as her voice flickers in the coloratura and top Cs and D of La feu's ‘Arrière! Je réchauffe les bons,’ soprano Annick Massis shines even more brightly as La princesse, her singing of ‘Ah! Oui, c’est Elle, ta Princesse enchantée’ elucidating the impetus for the child's despair when he learns that, owing to his destructive misbehavior, there is no resolution to the princess's story. Massis is at her best as Le rossignol, warbling through the avian trills and top Ds with complete confidence. Simply put, Massis is one of the world’s most talented singers, one with acclaimed performances in the most important opera houses to her credit, but she inexplicably is not as familiar to American audiences and listeners as she deserves to be. For those who do not know her work, this recording will be a wonderful introduction. With refined, engaging accounts of Une pastourelle's ‘Pâtre de ci, Pastourelle de là’ and La chauve-souris's ‘Rends-la moi,’ soprano Ingrid Perruche nearly equals Massis's performance, differentiating her characterizations without deviating from her innate artistic integrity and loveliness of tone. Nicolas Courjal, an exceptionally gifted young bass, impresses with his imaginative singing of Le fauteuil's ‘Votre serviteur humble, Bergère’ and targets the heart with the skill of an expert marksman in his sonorous but sensitive phrasing of Un arbre's anguished 'Ah! Ma blessure...Ma blessure.'

As L’horloge comtoise, the grandfather clock deprived of its pendulum by the child's roughhousing, baritone Marc Barrard intones 'Ding, ding, ding, ding' with near-mechanical precision, but he gives one of the recording's most brilliantly uninhibited performances as Le chat in the riotous ‘Duo miaulé,’ an homage to Wagner's chromatically adventurous writing for Tristan and Isolde that only a pair of agitated felines could bring off. Tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt is a marvel of a singer in the tradition of Michel Sénéchal whose performances radiate very French sensibilities. That he chants as much as he sings in this performance is more to do with the nature of his music, in which Ravel gives him absurd writing rocketing to E♭5 and F5 in falsetto, than with the condition of the voice, which remains in fine fettle. Fouchécourt purrs La théière's ‘How’s your mug?’ with the snobbishness of a very proper English lord before whirling uproariously through the famous Foxtrot. He is even more in his element as Le petit viellard, spouting Old Man Arithmetic's drolleries in ‘Deux robinets coulent dans un réservoir!’ as though they were choicest lines from Shakespeare. Both gentlemen are complemented by the alert, well-honed singing of mezzo-soprano Julie Pasturaud, a Bergère Louis XV whose 'Votre servante, Fauteuil’ is noticed and a Pâtre whose 'L’enfant méchant a déchiré’ has both substance and subtlety. She matches Barrard meow for sultry meow as La chatte in ‘Duo miaulé.’ As L'écureuil, the much-abused squirrel, Pasturaud excels at infusing the little creature with humanity, articulating ‘Sauve-toi, sotte! Et la cage? La cage?’ with grace that highlights her tormenter’s inherent savagery.

Heard most frequently in Baroque repertory, contralto Delphine Galou creates a Maman whose profoundly expressive ‘Bébé a été sage?’ exudes maternal affection despite the exasperation caused by a disobedient child. When this mother sings of the hurt that she suffers because of her son’s recalcitrance, her pain stokes the listener’s sympathy. Galou metamorphoses into La tasse chinoise as if by the enchantment evoked in the opera’s title. She sings the mock-Chinese jibberish in ‘Keng-ça-fou, mah-jong’ as though she were quoting Confucius. Then, she gives the despondent La libellule a soul with her aggrieved voicing of ‘Où es tu, je te cherche.’ Mezzo-soprano Hélène Hébrard depicts an Enfant who is petulant and frustratingly puerile at the start but ultimately atypically poetic. The ennui of her ‘J’ai pas envie de faire ma page!’ and ‘Ça m’est égal!’ is unmistakable, but deeper emotions intrude in ‘Oh! Ma belle tasse chinoise!’ These emotions escalate in Hébrard’s impassioned exchange with the Princesse, ‘Ah! C’est elle! C’est elle!’ She etches the essence of ‘Toi, le cœur de la rose’ into the listener’s memory, and her exclamation of ‘Oh! Ma tête!’ is wrenching. The relief that Hébrard conveys with ‘Ah! Quelle joie de te retrouver, Jardin!’ is sweetly comforting, and her final ‘Maman’ breaks both the drama’s and the opera’s spells. Hébrard credibly portrays a child without endeavoring to sound conventionally childish, but this Enfant emerges from his ensorcelled forest with remarkable maturity.

NAXOS releases often illuminate aspects of scores that other recordings leave in the shadows, and this recording of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye and L’enfant et les sortilèges exposes these chameleonic works to the shimmering Lyonnais sun. Like ragtime and jazz, far more musicians perform the music of Maurice Ravel than actually understand it. This disc provides a rare encounter with two of Ravel’s most beautiful pieces that is guided by the efforts of musicians who both grasp the composer’s singular idiom and truly love the music. This is a L’enfant et les sortilèges to reawaken the incorrigible but good-hearted child in every listener—and the dormant love for true French opera that has longed for signs of life.

26 October 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven – FIDELIO (M. Katzarava, A. Richards, R. Suarez Groen, B. Arreola, A. Funk, K. Pfortmiller, D. Boye; Opera Carolina, 25 October 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: The cast of Opera Carolina's production of Ludwig van Beethoven's FIDELIO, October 2015 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina]LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): Fidelio, Opus 72Maria Katzarava (Leonore), Andrew Richards (Florestan), Raquel Suarez Groen (Marzelline), Brian Arreola (Jaquino), Kyle Pfortmiller (Don Pizarro), Andrew Funk (Rocco), Dan Boye (Don Fernando), (Erster Gefangener), (Zweiter Gefangener); Opera Carolina Chorus; Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Tom Diamond, Director; Michael Baumgarten, Director of Production & Lighting Designer; Dejan Miladinović, Set Designer; Martha Ruskai, Wig & Make-up Designer; A T Jones and Sons, Inc., Costume Designer; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte, North Carolina; Sunday, 25 October 2015]

​If, as Charles Dickens suggested with his affection for David Copperfield, those artistic progeny that cost their creators the greatest effort are the most beloved of their creations, Fidelio surely occupied a prominent place in Ludwig van Beeth​oven's heart. Premièred in its first, three-act form in Vienna's Theater an der Wien in 1805, Fidelio underwent extensive revisions that ultimately spanned nearly a decade of the composer's career. Reduced via Georg Friedrich Treitschke's amendments to Joseph Sonnleithner's libretto, already modified in 1805 – 1806 by Stephan von Breuning, to the two-act form in which the score is most familiar today, the opera was reintroduced to the Viennese public in 1814. Even in its earlier, more florid guise, which now hovers on the periphery of the repertory as Leonore, Fidelio was immediately recognized not only as a work of genius—what else might have been expected from the mind of Beethoven?—but also as a seminal work in the artistic representation of conjugal love. That it utterly eclipsed similar works like Ferdinando Paer's 1804 dramma semiserio Leonora and Johann Simon Mayr's 1805 farsa sentimentale L'amore coniugale ossia Il custode di buon cuore, both of which were, like Fidelio, adaptations of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly's French libretto for Pierre Gaveaux's 1798 opera Léonore ou L'amour conjugal, is indicative both of the profundity of Beethoven's setting and the extraordinary quality of the music. The effectiveness of the unmarried Beethoven's depiction of the sanctity of marriage is evidenced by the fact that it was once customary for newly-engaged German-speaking couples to attend performances of Fidelio as a primer in the art of becoming devoted, well-integrated spouses. In the same manner as Tchaikovsky's Yevgeny Onegin, it is ironic that a man with as anguished an association with the institution of matrimony as was Beethoven's lot should have produced an archetypal representation of spousal commitment, but perhaps there is in Fidelio an essence of what Emily Dickinson meant when she wrote that 'Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne'er succeed.' It was not by luck of the draw that it was Fidelio that was chosen to re-inaugurate the Wiener Staatsoper in 1955, when that fabled house, the stage and auditorium of which were destroyed in World War II, symbolically and literally returned to its rejuvenated home. Fidelio is something special, a phoenix in its own right that has endured the flames of changing fashions. Transporting the opera's drama from Beethoven's Spain to Berlin on the eve of the destruction of the Wall that seemed to figuratively divide humanity as a whole, Opera Carolina's thoughtful, often riveting production of Fidelio took risks that recalled another of Emily Dickinson's iconic conceits: ''Tis not that Dying hurts us so — / 'Tis living — hurts us more.'

When taken at face value, the de facto mission statement cited on Opera Carolina's website for this production is a worrying manifestation of the currently-fashionable predilection for prioritizing efforts at making opera superficially accessible for modern audiences above honoring composers' wishes. 'The fact that Fidelio is the great Beethoven's only opera is unique enough,' the statement begins. 'How do you make it even more fresh and meaningful?'​ How can an opera that deals with a wife who disguises herself as a man in order to gain access to and subsequently liberate her husband from unjust political imprisonment be made more relevant to a society besmirched by wars among power-hungry factions, refugee crises, unfettered corruption, and basest inhumanity? In Opera Carolina's production, insightfully directed by Tom Diamond and expertly lit by Michael Baumgarten, who also created the evocative projections, the endeavor to increase Fidelio's ability to engage the audience prompted relocating the action from Beethoven's and his librettists' Eighteenth-Century Spain to Berlin in the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Opera Carolina's 2014 production of Verdi's Nabucco went wrong temporarily when anachronistically referencing the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust in the context of an otherwise traditionally Biblical setting, but this Fidelio shouldered the burden of its new identity without transferring any of the weight of reinterpretation onto the audience's backs. Via the aptly drab costumes by A T Jones and Sons, Inc., Martha Ruskai's wig and make-up designs, and the stark backdrops of Dejan Miladinović's sets, Beethoven's characters convincingly became citizens of 1989 Berlin. The magnanimous Don Fernando, Fidelio's deus ex machina, was Walter Momper, the first mayor of newly-reunified Berlin. The malevolent Stasi official Walter Ulbricht stood in for Beethoven's Don Pizarro, and his political nemesis Florestan was represented in the Twentieth Century by advocate for democracy Kurt Wismach. Young Jaquino was metamorphosed into Chris Gueffroy, one of the last people killed whilst attempting to scale the Berlin Wall. The production was tasteful and moving, but the source of the emotional power was always Beethoven's music. Recorded contributions by Presidents Kennedy ('Ich bin ein Berliner') and Reagan ('Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall') prefaced the opera's first and final scenes, respectively, and perhaps the most successful departure from tradition was staging Leonore's physical transformation into Fidelio during the Ouvertüre. Transplanting the action into 1989 Berlin gave the opera an atmosphere remembered by most of the audience, but changing characters' names went slightly too far. In practical terms, how many people are more familiar with the names Wismach, Ulbricht, and Momper than with Florestan, Pizarro, and Fernando? If a Twentieth-Century setting was deemed necessary, why not relocate the opera to Franco's Spain and thereby retain the characters' names and fidelity to the text that Beethoven set? Concerns about textual changes notwithstanding, the production proved that Beethoven's score, one of the true masterworks of Western civilization, is eternally 'fresh and meaningful.' In this regard, the production was an unmitigated triumph. [For this review, Beethoven’s original character names and the text as it appears in the score are used.]

IN PERFORMANCE: The Company of Opera Carolina's production of Ludwig van Beethoven's FIDELIO, October 2015 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina; used with permission]O welch ein Augenblick: the Company of Opera Carolina’s production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio, October 2015 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina; used with permission]

With Opera Carolina's General Director and Principal Conductor James Meena on the podium, the task of upholding musical values in this production of Fidelio was entrusted to one of America's ablest conductors of opera, one whose versatility reflects encyclopedic knowledge of repertory and trial-by-fire experience extending back to his formative engagements in Toledo and Pittsburgh. This broad experience is of particular importance when conducting Fidelio, a score in which musical traditions intersect. The music for Marzelline and Jaquino inhabits the world of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte, whereas the writing for Rocco and Don Pizarro combines elements of the Baroque, Classicism, and Romanticism. Leonore is both a heroine in the tradition of Händel's Rodelinda and Deidamia and a prototype for the leading ladies of Weber and Wagner, and Florestan, introduced in Act Two by music that could have been composed by Wagner, Mahler, or Richard Strauss, is an intriguing hybrid, equal parts bel canto and Heldentenor. The act finales are, like Beethoven's Choral Fantasy and the last movement of the Ninth Symphony, sui generis. A conductor who lacks exposure to all of the disparate ingredients that Beethoven combined in the score is at risk of being out to sea in the tempestuous waters of Fidelio, but in this performance Meena masterfully tamed the savage challenges of the music. Spurred by Meena's leadership the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra musicians provided a spirited performance of the opera's familiar Ouvertüre, the writing for horns and woodwinds inspiring the musicians to feats of commendable virtuosity. The Marsch that introduces Don Pizarro in Act One was also vigorously played. The crucial but often-blundered horn parts in Leonore's 'Abscheulicher!' scene were fantastically done except for an all-too-audible mistake in the second statement of the fanfare that introduces 'Ich folg' dem innern Triebe,' and the plangent oboe phrases in Florestan's scene at the start of Act Two were beautifully played. Meena proved refreshingly adept at conveying the grandeur of Beethoven's music without miring the score in pseudo-Wagnerian pomposity. In both his attentive support of the singers and his management of the orchestra, he facilitated appreciation of the fact that Beethoven, though unquestionably a visionary, was also a contemporary of Cherubini, Mayr, and Spontini.

The Opera Carolina Chorus sang splendidly, giving strong but heartfelt performances of some of the most difficult choral writing in opera. The charge was often made during the composer's lifetime that Beethoven never truly learned how to write effective, singable music for the human voice, but the choristers' singing in this performance verified that, when adequately rehearsed and sung with gusto, Beethoven's choruses in Fidelio are unforgettably satisfying. The haunting chorus that launches the Act One finale, 'O welche Lust,' was stirringly sung, and the prisoners' poignant 'Leb wohl, du warmes Sonnenlicht, schnell schwindest du uns wieder' touched the heart. In the Act Two finale, the choristers' exclamations of 'Heil! Heil! Heil sei dem Tag, Heil sei der Stunde' seemed to resound with the collective voice of humanity. The jubilant 'Wer ein holdes Weib errungen, stimm in unsern Jubel ein,' a rather banal tune like the principal themes of the finales of the Choral Fantasy and the Ninth Symphony, was performed with unfettered joy befitting a paean to newly-won liberty. It is unfortunate and unfair that the tenor and bass who emerged from the chorus to sing the First and Second Prisoners' solo lines were not identified and granted the notice that their singing deserved. Both the tenor's 'Wir wollen mit Vertrauen auf Gottes Hülfe' and the bass's 'Specht leise, haltet euch zurück, wir sind belauscht mit Ohr und Blick' were confidently, appealingly done.

Under the guise of Walter Momper, bass-baritone Dan Boye was a Don Fernando of firm-toned magnanimity. He delivered 'Des besten Königs Wink und Wille führt mich zu euch' with the ceremonial pontification of a career politician, but his words rang with sincerity and emotion. Directing 'Du schlossest auf des Edlen Grab, jetzt, jetzt nimm ihm seine Ketten ab; doch halt' to Rocco, his voice seemed to grow in authority as the on-stage populace reacted to his words. Then, addressing Leonore, he sang 'euch, edle Frau, allein, euch ziemt es, ganz ihn zu befrein' with true feeling, restoring to Leonore and Florestan the happiness for which they have suffered so direly.

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano MARIA KATZARAVA as Leonore in Opera Carolina's production of Ludwig van Beethoven's FIDELIO, October 2015 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina; used with permission]Sein Weib: Soprano Maria Katzarava as Leonore in Opera Carolina’s production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio, October 2015 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina; used with permission]

Thankfully, Opera Carolina's production spared Jaquino the fate of the historical Chris Gueffroy, who was fatally shot in 1989 as he attempted to flee East Berlin at the age of only twenty. Looking dashing in his Stasi uniform and sounding even better, Opera Carolina stalwart tenor Brian Arreola was a silver-throated bundle of nerves. In the Act One duet with Marzelline, Arreola voiced 'Jetzt, Schätzchen, jetzt sind wir allein' handsomely, and he conveyed Jaquino's increasing exasperation with body language rather than stridency in the voice. In the exquisite quartet, one of the finest ensembles in opera, he sang 'Mir sträubt sich schon das Haar' with sincerity and star-in-the-making tone. Here and in the finales of both acts he was always audible. He excelled at spoken and sung German, and he again displayed what an asset he is to Opera Carolina's roster.

Soprano Raquel Suarez Groen lent Marzelline measures of humor and humanity that made her part in the opera more vital that many singers have made it. Beginning with the charming duet with Jaquino that opens Act One, she took advantage of every opportunity for detailed characterization that Beethoven gave to her. She sang 'Es wird ja nichts Wichtiges sein' delightfully, the repeated top Gs and coloratura cresting on top A employed to impart Marzelline’s growing frustration with Jaquino’s refusal to accept that she is in love with Fidelio. Suarez Groen sang Marzelline’s Mozartean aria 'O wär' ich schon mit dir vereint, und dürfte Mann dich nennen!' deftly, and, unlike many Marzellines, she ensured that her presence was noticed in the quartet by phrasing 'Mir ist so wunderbar, es engt das Herz mir ein' imaginatively and dexterously negotiating the coloratura. Joining Leonore and Rocco in their fantastic trio, she declaimed 'Dein gutes Herz wird manchen Schmerz in diesen Grüften leiden' beautifully and ascended to the top C with spot-on intonation. Suarez Groen’s reaction to learning Fidelio’s true identity in the opera’s finale provided a precious moment of levity. The soprano’s lovely tones occasionally could not be heard when she descended into the lower octave of her range, but she sang sweetly and illuminated the stage with her radiant smile.

The unshakable cornerstone of Opera Carolina's Fidelio was bass Andrew Funk, whose paternal, dignified incarnation of Rocco was worthy of comparison with legendary performances of the rôle by singers such as Alexander Kipnis, Ludwig Weber, Gottlob Frick, Franz Crass, and Kurt Moll. From his first note, there was no doubting that Funk is a true bass, and his vocalism went from strength to strength as the performance progressed. In the Act One quartet with Leonore, Marzelline, and Jaquino, Funk sang 'Sie liebt ihn, es ist klar, ja, Mädchen, er wird dein' cheerfully, and his performance of the aria 'Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben, kann man nicht ganz glücklich sein,' often a low point in performances of Fidelio, was musically and dramatically invigorating, not least in the allegro section that begins with 'Doch wenn's in den Taschen fein klingelt und rollt.' The cleverness with which Funk as Rocco the eager father sought to bring Marzelline and Fidelio together in their trio was endearing, and he voiced 'Gut, Söhnchen, gut, hab immer Mut' winsomely. Funk wholly avoided the bumbling silliness that many Roccos inflict upon audiences in the duet with Pizarro, uttering 'So sagt doch nur in Eile, womit ich dienen kann' with surety of pitch and purpose. Persuaded by Fidelio to permit the prisoners a turn in the yard in the Act One finale, Funk's Rocco was the personification of noble-hearted decency. In the series of ensembles in Act Two, the bass continually deepened the humanity of his characterization. In the duet with Leonore, his reluctance to obey Pizarro's orders developed into genuine kindness towards Florestan, his hesitant, almost embarrassed singing of 'Nur hurtig fort, nur frisch gegraben' ardently expressing his moral reservations. The solemnity of his shaping of 'Ich labt ihn gern, den armen Mann' in the subsequent trio was telling, and his bewilderment in the quartet as Rocco discovered that his intended son-in-law was actually Florestan's wife in disguise was unexpectedly touching. Too many singers portray Rocco as befuddled rather than benevolent, but Funk made him an intelligent, caring, laudably serious man. Not one note of Rocco's music was outside of Funk's comfort zone, and not one word of the part was spoken or sung haphazardly.

It may seem ridiculous to suggest that the most enjoyable aspect of baritone Kyle Pfortmiller’s portrayal of Don Pizarro was not how he sang the rôle but that he sang it. Singing the music is apparently far less attractive to many Pizarros than shouting it, but Pfortmiller was the exception to this rule, and the performance was all the better for it. In his entrance in Act One, he swept across the stage like a wintry wind, and he sang the aria 'Ha! Ha! Ha! welch ein Augenblick!' with considerably greater depth than the standard cardboard villainy, encountering no difficulties with the profusion of top Ds and E♭s. In the subsequent duet with Rocco, Pfortmiller left no doubt of Pizarro’s murderous intentions in his cold-blooded articulation of 'Jetzt, Alter, Alter, jetzt hat es Eile!’ In the Act Two quartet, he roared 'Er sterbe! Doch er soll erst wissen, wer ihm sein stolzes Herz zerfleischt' frighteningly without abandoning Beethoven’s pitches or his own consummate musicality. The pleasure of hearing Pizarro’s music truly sung, not snarled, cannot be overstated, and the performance was greatly enhanced by having as fine a voice as Pfortmiller’s in the part.

Considering his importance to the plot of Fidelio, Florestan, who does not appear in Act One, has surprisingly little to sing. When he opens Act Two with his recitative 'Gott! welch Dunkel hier!' and adagio cantabile aria 'In des Lebens Frühlingstagen ist das Glück von mir geflohn,' however, his significance both to Fidelio and to the tradition of German music for the tenor voice is immediately established. In Opera Carolina’s performance, it was also immediately apparent that tenor Andrew Richards was a Florestan for whom the rôle’s punishing tessitura was challenging but not damning. After a tiny crack on a descending phrase in the recitative, he coped manfully with the frequent top As and B♭s in the aria and drew the audience into his vision of his ‘Engel, Leonoren.’ Richards’s voice rang out beautifully on 'Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten' in the trio with Leonore and Rocco, and the fortitude that his Florestan displayed despite his weakness in the face of Pizarro’s treachery was rousingly manifested in the quartet, his voicing of 'Ein Mörder, ein Mörder steht vor mir' possessing singularity of purpose that compensated for his physical frailty. In the frenzied duet with Leonore, 'O namenlose Freude,’ a duet that clearly exerted a potent influence on Wagner when he was composing the cataclysmic love duet for Tristan and Isolde, Richards traded gleaming top Gs and As with his Leonore, and his lines in the opera’s finale were imposing expressions of profound joy and relief. Richards’s singing was not without effort, but the effort was repaid by an uncommonly effective, affecting portrait of Florestan.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor ANDREW RICHARDS as Florestan (left) and soprano MARIA KATZARAVA as Leonore (right) in Opera Carolina's production of Ludwig van Beethoven's FIDELIO, October 2015 [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina; used with permission]Die Macht der Hoffnung: Tenor Andrew Richards as Florestan (left) and soprano Maria Katzarava as Leonore (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio [Photo by Jon Silla, © by Opera Carolina; used with permission]

​There were suggestions of the young Éva Marton in the Leonore of Mexican soprano Maria Katzarava. The 1984 Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinée broadcast performance of Fidelio in which the Hungarian soprano was partnered by Jon Vickers, whose singing as Florestan Richards’s performance fleetingly resembled, is as fine a performance as Marton ever sang of any rôle, and Katzarava very nearly surpassed the unexpected brilliance of her predecessor. In a sense, Katzarava's excellence was also surprising. She made a petite prison guard, but big, bold tone poured out of her like a geyser forcing its way through a small crevice in the earth. In the Act One quartet, the soprano exclaimed 'Wie groß ist die Gefahr! wie schwach der Hoffnung Schein!' with fervor, and her statement of 'Ich habe Mut, mit kaltem Blut, mit kaltem Blut will ich hinab mich wagen' in the trio was heartening. There were a few suspect pitches along the way, and notes below the stave were slightly compromised by Katzarava's otherwise admirable avoidance of chest register, but the voice was both attractive and impactful from E4 to B5, where most of Leonore's music is centered. She dove into the famous recitative 'Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin? was hast du vor?' with controlled zeal, and she molded the adagio section of the aria, 'Komm, Hoffnung, laß den letzten Stern,' with bel canto delicacy that made the rise to top B an organic climax. Bolstered by the horns, she mastered 'Ich folg' dem innern Triebe,' little troubled by the two-octave compass extending from low B♯ to top B. The top A♭s and B♭s in the Act One finale held no terrors for her, and her voice was discernible in even the largest ensembles without being over-prominent, which is to say that she consistently achieved balances between power and poise that suited the music. In Leonore's duet with Rocco in Act Two, Katzarava emoted 'Ihr sollt ja nicht zu klagen haben, ihn sollt gewiß zufrieden sein' with passion, fearlessly executing the difficult triplets, and her glowing reading of 'Wie heftig pochet dieses Herz es wogt, es wogt in Freud und scharfem Schmerz' in the trio was bewitching. Compelled in the quartet to take action in order to save her husband's life, this Leonore's 'Zurück! Durchbohren, durchbohren mußt du erst diese Brust' pierced the torso of the drama as sharply as the dagger with which Pizarro meant to murder Florestan. The top B♭ that crowned her statement of 'Töt erst sein Weib!' was like dynamite: in a moment, the perilous threats to life and happiness were blown apart. The still-cautious euphoria of Leonore's and Florestan's reunion exploded in 'O namenlose Freude,' the soprano's climactic top Bs filling the auditorium with the sound of victory. Katzarava's voice soared in the opera's finale, the concentration of her singing of 'O Gott! o Gott! welch ein Augenblick!' meaningfully elucidating Leonore's response to a course of events she was hardly able to believe. The rise to top B♭, on which she was joined by Marzelline, was a musical catharsis, a sort of vocal representation of warming sunlight at last penetrating dense clouds. A marvel of Katzarava's performance was that she was able to summon such impressive vocal amplitude without heaviness: she maintained flexibility even when singing with the weight of a Reiza or Senta. The company of wholly successful Leonores has ever been small, but Katzarava distinguished Opera Carolina’s Fidelio by adding her name to that roll of distinction.

To those who love opera, the world's opera houses are the temples in which the rites of this incredible genre are practiced. Great composers are the prophets, and great singers are the priests who proselytize in efforts to recruit new audiences without shunning existing audiences, especially those individuals with deep pockets. On the rare occasions when whichever cosmic conditions affect the performance of opera are in proper alignment, opera can be a near-religious experience, and few scores in the international repertory are vessels more suited to celebration of the sacrament of opera than Beethoven’s Fidelio. It is a difficult score, and in too many performances its merits, the qualities that set it apart, must be taken on faith. Staged with tenderness, conducted with perceptiveness, and performed with honesty and beauty, Opera Carolina’s Fidelio was to those who love this opera an inspiring answer to prayers.

24 October 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi – RIGOLETTO (R. Overman, A. Maples, R. Barbera, B. Banion, K. Schwecke; Piedmont Opera, 23 October 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor RENÉ BARBERA as il Duca di Mantova (left) and soprano AMY MAPLES as Gilda (right) in Piedmont Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO, October 2015 [Photo © by Christina Holcomb Photography, LLC; used with permission]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): RigolettoRobert Overman (Rigoletto), Amy Maples (Gilda), René Barbera (il Duca di Mantova), Brian Banion (Sparafucile), Kristin Schwecke (Maddalena, la contessa di Ceprano), Jaclyn Surso (Giovanna), Donald Hartmann (il conte di Monterone), Cody Monta’ (Marullo), Simon Petersson (Matteo Borsa), Joshua Conyers (il conte di Ceprano), Patrick Scully (Un usciere di corte), Lindsay Mecher (Un paggio della Duchessa); Piedmont Opera Chorus; Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, Stage Director; Elizabeth Fowle, Choreographer; David P. Gordon, Scenic Designer; Norman Coates, Lighting Designer; Martha Ruskai, Wig and Make-up Designer; Piedmont Opera, The Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Friday, 23 October 2015]

130 years after his death, Victor Hugo is still widely—and rightly—regarded as one of France's most important writers. Acclaimed for his poetry, plays, and the genre-defining novels Notre-Dame de Paris, Les Misérables, and, perhaps his finest but certainly not most familiar work, Les Travailleurs de la mer, Hugo was accustomed to political and cultural adversity but not to seeing his work eclipsed. Set in a fanciful incarnation of the court of François I, where one of the king's mistresses, Françoise de Foix, was intriguing enough to inspire an opera by Donizetti, Hugo's Le roi s'amuse created a sensation when it premièred on 22 November 1832—a sensation significant enough to ensure that the regime of Louis Philippe I, ostensibly responding to perceived insults to His Majesty, banned the play before its second performance. Le roi s'amuse would ultimately wait fifty years to take the stage for the second time. By that time, it could have been debated whether the impetus for the revival was wholly an homage to the esteemed Hugo or at least partially curiosity about the long-unseen play that inspired one of the most successful operas of the mid-Nineteenth Century, Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto. Verdi's opera had its own troubles with the Austrian censors in Venice in advance of its first performance: Francesco Maria Piave's libretto, as faithful an adaptation of its source as has even been prepared for the operatic stage, was deemed as offensive to the the crowned heads in Vienna as Hugo's play was to those in Paris. Though his 1844 Ernani was lauded as an uncommonly adroit setting of the writer's work, it was Rigoletto that solidified Verdi's reputation as the ideal composer to unite Hugo's words with music. Not even the cloud of bureaucratic disapprobation that relocated the drama from France to Mantua could tarnish the brilliant sheen of the première of Rigoletto at Venice's Teatro La Fenice on 11 March 1851, however. So certain was Verdi that he had written a hit tune that would be immediately commandeered by gondoliers and street musicians that he sequestered Raffaele Mirate, the rôle's creator, for rehearsals of the Duca's Act Three canzone 'La donna è mobile.' He was correct, of course, but, in truth, Rigoletto was revealed to be a work of incredible beauty and power from the score's first page to its last. Anyone who has bothered to read it would be unlikely to dispute that Hugo's Le roi s'amuse is a well-written work worthy of its creator, but Verdi's transformation of Hugo's Triboulet and Blanche into Rigoletto and Gilda is the foundation of one of opera's most enduring masterworks. In recent years, it has often seemed that an astonishing number of productions of Rigoletto have sought to convince audiences that their affection for the opera is predicated upon misjudgments of the score's merit. History recounts that Hugo envied the skill with which Verdi delineated each character’s voice and perspective in Rigoletto's iconic quartet, 'Bella figlia dell'amore,' but it is unlikely that a man as dedicated as Hugo to preserving artists’ individuality and creative freedom at all costs could have witnessed the contrasting popularity of Verdi’s opera and neglect of his own play without disappointment. Winston-Salem-based Piedmont Opera offered a Rigoletto on the stage of the Stevens Center that could not have failed to delight both Verdi and Hugo. For all its complications, Rigoletto is essentially a simple tale of distorted love. By focusing not on reimagining Rigoletto from some arbitrary, ‘modern’ point of view but on recreating the opera as it emerged from Verdi’s imagination, Piedmont Opera’s production allowed the audience to appreciate in Rigoletto the Shakespearean majesty that Verdi recognized in Hugo’s Triboulet.

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano KRISTIN SCHWECKE as Maddalena in Piedmont Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]Bella figlia dell’amore: Soprano Kristin Schwecke as Maddalena in Piedmont Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]

Hugo’s countryman Molière wrote that ‘of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.’ Opera is indeed a commodity that is extraordinarily expensive to produce, promote, and enjoy, but Piedmont Opera’s Rigoletto confirmed anew that the extensive budgets of large opera companies do not necessarily facilitate productions richer than those created by America’s regional companies. Directed by Steven LaCosse and choreographed by Elizabeth Fowle, the production provided enough detail to conjure a specific atmosphere without cluttering the opera's physical or ephemeral spaces with distractions. The purest requirement of blocking is placing characters where they are meant to be, when they are meant to be there, and Piedmont Opera's production was particularly commendable for drawing inspiration foremost from Verdi’s score. Only the vicious beating of Giovanna during the courtiers’ abduction of Gilda seemed a misguided and unnecessary extrapolation. David P. Gordon's sets gave the Duca di Mantova's testosterone-infused court suitably decadent surroundings, framing the action effectively but unobtrusively and picturesquely bringing the sights of Mantua to the Stevens Center stage. The costumes by Malabar Limited successfully employed bright primary colors for the Duca and his attendants, earthy tones for Rigoletto and Sparafucile, and virginal blue and white and, in Act Three, opulent emerald for Gilda to draw visual parallels with the characters' functions in the drama. These elements of the staging, as well as Martha Ruskai’s wigs and make-up, seemed extensions of the polished work in the pit by Allbritten and the Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra. The conductor presided over a taut, unsentimental reading of Verdi’s score, executed with laudably few mistakes by the Symphony’s instrumentalists. Allbritten supported the singers with obvious understanding both of the mechanics of singing and of the singular demands of singing Rigoletto. The choristers matched the achievements of their colleagues in the pit with lusty, dexterous singing. Wholly convincing as the hard-partying companions of the Duca, the choristers gave a superb performance of one of the score’s finest inspirations, the storm scene in Act Three. With Allbritten building an unshakable foundation, the orchestra and chorus providing a frame of reliable accomplishment, and the production team decorating that frame enchantingly, Piedmont Opera’s Rigoletto unmistakably conveyed what so many larger companies’ productions conspicuously lack: the spirit of Verdi.

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano AMY MAPLES as Gilda in Piedmont Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]Bella salvatrice: Soprano Amy Maples as Gilda in Piedmont Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]

In filling the ranks of supporting characters, Piedmont Opera's production tapped North Carolina's bounteous lodes of native and adopted vocal talent. Fellows of the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute of the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts made especially strong showings, led by soprano Kristin Schwecke, who sparred seductively with the Duca as the Contessa di Ceprano in Act One and returned in Act Three as a beguiling Maddalena. Schwecke delivered ‘Somiglia un Apollo, quel giovane, io l’amo, ei m’ama…riposi…nè più l’uccidiamo,’ Maddalena’s plea for Sparafucile to spare the Duca’s life, with alluring tone, lacking only complete solidity at the bottom of the line. The Duca's courtiers were in this production a raucous lot who nonetheless preserved a measure of the decorum befitting a duke's court. The Duca is a libertine, to be sure, but a married one, and there is nothing in the score to suggest that his Duchessa would suffer her household to be run both inwardly and outwardly like a bawdy establishment. Baritone Cody Monta’ sang Marullo with unstinting force complemented by the vivacity of tenor Simon Petersson’s depiction of Borsa. Recently acclaimed for his portrayal of the title rôle in Opera Wilmington's production of Rigoletto, baritone Joshua Conyers was in Winston-Salem a Conte di Ceprano who could not be ignored. His garnet-hued voice hurled out every note that Verdi allocated to him with tonal focus and dramatic purpose: the Duca who would dare to toy with this Count's Countess is an unscrupulous fool without the good sense to fear for his own safety. Soprano Jaclyn Surso was a model of good-natured perturbation as Giovanna, Gilda’s duenna, and Lindsay Mecher deployed her attractive mezzo-soprano impressively as the Duchessa’s page. Following his colleagues’ examples, bass Patrick Scully made the most of the usher’s brief contribution.

Equally at home in Rossinian comedy and Verdian tragedy, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann was a Conte di Monterone who made the embittered old man's curse far more than an opportunity for vaguely-pitched shouting. His singing of ‘La voce mia qual tuono vi scuoterà dovunque’ boiled with righteous indignation and an unquenchable longing for revenge for his daughter’s disgrace. Hartmann rose to the top F in Monterone’s curse with galvanizing force. In Act Two, his flinty voicing of ‘Poiché fosti invano da me maledetto, né un fulmine o un ferro colpisce il tuo pette’ was the catalyst that sent the drama hurtling over the precipice to its tragic conclusion. Hartmann was a phenomenal antidote to the seemingly endless parade of tired, wobbly Monterones.

IN PERFORMANCE: Bass-baritone BRIAN BANION as Sparafucile in Piedmont Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]Assassino sonoro: Bass-baritone Brian Banion as Sparafucile in Piedmont Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]

Brian Banion's ironclad bass-baritone voice found a near-ideal outlet in Verdi's music for the assassin-for-hire Sparafucile, via which the singer disclosed a facet of his artistry unlike those that have coruscated in his performances of less-deadly parts. In the wonderful duet with Rigoletto in Act One, Banion portrayed an eerily menacing figure who sang of taking lives as though he were describing sunrises over Arcadian landscapes. His low F when repeating Sparafucile’s name was chilling—and, unlike similar efforts by many singers, audible. In Act Three, Banion’s nonchalance when preparing to murder the Duca was starkly imposing but not without a suggestion of dark comedy. Like Hartmann’s Monterone, his Sparafucile was a source of vocal fortitude all the more welcome for being atypically dependable.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor RENÉ BARBERA as il Duca di Mantova in Piedmont Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]Duca seducente: Tenor René Barbera as il Duca di Mantova in Piedmont Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]

Having thrilled local audiences with his vibrant bel canto singing as Tonio in Greensboro Opera's January 2015 production of Donizetti's La fille du régiment [reviewed here], tenor René Barbera, an alumnus of the UNC School of the Arts, returned to the Triad to portray the womanizing Duca di Mantova in Piedmont Opera's Rigoletto. The same people who assume that Calàf does nothing of interest in Turandot until he sings 'Nessun dorma' in Act Three perhaps also think that the Duca is dormant until being roused to sing 'La donna è mobile' in Rigoletto's Act Three. In the first few minutes of the opera, Verdi encapsulated the Duca's predictably philandering character in an irresistibly tuneful ballata, ‘Questa o quella per me pari sono.’ Leaving no doubt about the nature of the Duca's designs on the Contessa di Ceprano, Barbera sang the number insouciantly, phrasing the ebullient melody with playful sensuality. In the Duca’s duet with Gilda, Barbera’s voice radiated the golden smile of a young man in love. His ‘Uscire!…adesso!…Ora che accendene un fuoco istesso!’ was charming, and the tenor’s timbre gleamed in his voicing of the cantabile ‘È il sol dell’anima, la vita è amore, sua voce è il palpito del nostro core.’ Taking leave of his beloved, this Duca could barely contain his boyish ardor in his rapturous ‘Addio! speranza ed anima sol tu sarai per me,’ Barbera joining his Gilda on a glorious unison top D♭. Opening Act Two with a fervent account of the recitative ‘Ella mi fu rapita,’ he catapulted the scene to a sublime performance of the Duca’s aria ‘Parmi veder le lagrime scorrenti da quel ciglio,’ Verdi’s finest music for the character. Barbera managed to elicit appreciation of the Duca’s noble qualities without ignoring the vein of depravity that precipitates the opera’s tragedy. Thankfully, Piedmont Opera’s production allowed Barbera to sing a verse of the Duca’s cabaletta, ‘Possente amor mi chiama,’ and it was among the evening’s musical pinnacles. In this performance, the over-familiar Act Three canzone ‘La donna è mobile’ sounded winningly spontaneous, and Barbera launched the traditional interpolated top B into the house exhilaratingly. His ‘Un dì, se ben rammentomi, o bella, t’incontrai’ wooed Maddalena with zeal that persisted into the quartet. He traced the supple bel canto lines of ‘Bella figlia dell’amore, schiavo son dei vezzi tuoi’ with elegance and agility, rising effortlessly to the top Bs on which so many tenors flounder. The same tone resonantly crowned the reprise of ‘La donna è mobile’—in Verdi’s score this time round—that awakened Rigoletto to the sickening reality that it is not the Duca’s body that Sparafucile has delivered to him. Barbera is the rare singer who uses projection as ably as volume to fill a space with sound. He sang the Duca’s music without forcing his lyric instrument, but his Duca was a formidable presence whose personality leapt over the footlights.

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano AMY MAPLES as Gilda (left) and tenor RENÉ BARBERA as il Duca di Mantova (right) in Piedmont Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO, October 2015 [Photo © by Christina Holcomb Photography, LLC; used with permission]Speranza ed anima sol tu sarai per me: Soprano Amy Maples as Gilda (left) and tenor René Barbera as il Duca di Mantova (right) in Piedmont Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Christina Holcomb Photography, LLC; used with permission]

​An astonishing array of voices have successfully sung Gilda in the years since Rigoletto's première, ranging from high coloraturas in the tradition of Dame Nellie Melba, Amelita Galli-Curci, and Lily Pons to more substantial voices like those of Maria Callas and Dame Joan Sutherland. The voice of Teresa Brambilla, the soprano who created Gilda for Verdi at La Fenice in 1851, was perhaps of dimensions that placed it somewhere near the center of the spectrum between those extremes. Intriguingly, one of Brambilla's most admired portrayals prior to the first performance of Rigoletto was her Agnese in Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda, a seconda donna rôle composed to complement Giuditta Pasta's singing of the title rôle and, like her cousin Adalgisa in Norma, now traditionally assigned to a mezzo-soprano. Perhaps there was greater validity in Arturo Toscanini's preference for a dramatic voice in Gilda's music—he famously engaged Zinka Milanov to sing the part in a 1944 Madison Square Garden concert performance of Act Three of Rigoletto—than many commentators have been willing to acknowledge. Many of the high notes associated with Gilda in listeners' minds are interpolations, after all, and in moments of direst histrionic duress she has propulsive orchestrations with which to contend. Still, the trills, flexibility, and limpidity of tone demanded by the music necessitate the casting of singers with exemplary technical prowess. Piedmont Opera's production benefited tremendously from the participation of Tennessee-born soprano Amy Maples, a youthfully comely Gilda who met every technical challenge unflinchingly, mostly offered sufficient power when required, and from her first appearance commanded observers' sympathy with acting that made even stock gestures actions of emotional meaning. Bounding onto the stage at the beginning of Gilda's duet with Rigoletto in Act One, Maples met her stage father with a ‘Mio padre!’ that was breathless with excitement but perfectly-placed vocally. The anticipation that shone in her starlit articulation of ‘Voi sospirate! che v’ange tanto?’ established an atmosphere of concentrated emotion in which she unfurled a velvety ribbon of tone in ‘Lassù in cielo presso Dio veglia un angiul protettor.’ Few Rigolettos and Gildas make the connection between father and daughter, who is the sole tangible reminder of her mother, more heartbreakingly tender than it was in this performance. Trading the protective but oppressive arms of her father for those of her suitor, Maples's Gilda seemed a different person in the duet with the Duca, at once a naïve girl and a woman of blossoming sexuality. She wedded her luscious tones with Barbera's in their exuberant ‘Addio! speranza ed anima sol tu sarai per me,' the rocketing top D♭ an organic expression of the love swelling her heart. After a recitative in which she strayed from a few of Verdi’s indicated pitches, Maples’s performance of Gilda's E-major aria ‘Caro nome che il mio cor festi primo palpitar’ was an intimate reverie that she distinguished with sparkling trills and crystalline top Bs. Having produced a beautiful top D♯ in the aria's cadenza, she preferred Verdi's written ending to a gaudy top E, her expertly-sustained trill proving more memorable than any interpolated high note might have been. Of a completely different ethos was the ‘Mio padre!’ with which the abused Gilda greeted Rigoletto in Act Two. The arching, achingly lovely melodic lines of ‘Tutte le feste al tempio mentre pregava Iddio’ inspired Maples to vocalism of impeccable poise and time-stopping expressivity, the sheer beauty of her singing enhancing her demonstration of the pain of lost innocence. The top E♭ with which she brought down the curtain on Act Two was the exclamation of a gentle soul who hoped that her heartfelt singing of ‘O mio padre, qual gioia feroce balenarvi negli occhi vegg’io!’ might succeed in soothing her father’s lethal ire. In Act Three, the despair of the quartet, capped with a dulcet top D♭, gave way to unchangeable determination in her declaration of ‘Che! piange tal donna! né a lui darò aita!’ in the trio with Maddalena and Sparafucile. Only here did she struggle to be heard above Verdi’s orchestrations. The pathos of the final duet, in which Maples phrased ‘Ah, ch’io taccia! a me, a lui perdonate’​ with unerring assurance, was gripping. The deaths of operatic characters are often fodder for derision, but Maples’s Gilda expired without melodramatics. In that, she died as she lived, eloquently and candidly.

IN PERFORMANCE: Baritone ROBERT OVERMAN as Rigoletto (left) and soprano AMY MAPLES as Gilda (right) in Piedmont Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]Padre e figlia: Baritone Robert Overman as Rigoletto (left) and soprano Amy Maples as Gilda (right) in Piedmont Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]

Rigoletto is a fundamental point in the astounding progression of Verdi's music for the baritone voice that extended from Nabucco and Macbeth to Jago and Falstaff. The ambivalence of individuals' struggles with dueling public personas and private anguishes that captivated Verdi throughout his career is at the core of his characterization of Rigoletto, and it was the central pedestal upon which baritone Robert Overman balanced his performance of the rôle. It was apparent at his first entrance that Overman's Rigoletto was a quick-tempered opportunist with an insult on the tip of his tongue for every person he encountered. His taunting of Monterone culminated in a piercing cry of 'Quel vecchio maledivami,' the sting of the old man's curse having penetrated his verbal armor.  Overman intertwined his voice with Banion's mesmerizingly in the duet with Sparafucile, Rigoletto's distaste for his new acquaintance's vocation turning to shock as, in the course of the first of his monologues, ‘Pari siamo! io la lingua, egli ha il pugnale,’ he reflected on the similarities between the character assassination of his own trade and Sparafucile's literal murders. Overman's whole demeanor changed with the first 'Figlia!' in the duet with Gilda. Rigoletto the doting father received from the baritone an impersonation of rapt concentration and dedication: that Gilda was this Rigoletto's sole reason for fleeting happiness was touchingly apparent. In the duet's expansive andante, Overman phrased ‘Deh, non parlare al misero del suo perduto bene’ with fluidity that heightened the emotional devastation of the text. Instructing Giovanna to guard Gilda closely, his stern singing of ‘Ah, veglia, o donna, questo fiore che a te puro confidai’ was underpinned by a disquieting presentiment of looming tragedy. Realizing at last that his comrades at the Duca's court had abducted Gilda, Overman's cries of ‘Ah! ah! ah! la maledizione!’ ended Act One explosively. Generally secure and impactful, Overman's tone was occasionally pushed at the top of the range, but the results that the effort achieved were pulse-quickening. He delivered the potent Act Two oration ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata, per qual prezzo vendeste il mio bene?’ with startling gravity and animalistic drive that were tempered arrestingly by the heartbreak of his wounded, wistful voicing of 'Miei signori, perdono, pietate!’ The last vestige of this Rigoletto's pride was annihilated by his reunion with his now-dishonored daughter, his own shame resounding in Overman's voice as he declaimed 'Ah! Solo per me l’infamia a te chiedeva, o Dio.’ Even as he comforted Gilda with a gorgeously unhurried ‘Piangi, fanciulla, piangi,’ the lust for vengeance blunted the edges of this Rigoletto's paternal compassion. Overman launched ‘Sì, vendetta, tremenda vendetta di quest’anima è solo desio’ as though firing notes and words from a mortar, his rejections of Gilda's entreaties for mercy evoking the inexorable resolution of the opera. His top A♭ rang with the brilliance of a Robert Merrill or Cornell MacNeil. At the start of Act Three, Overman's singing was infused with the frustration of a parent whose child will not listen to reason, and he shaped Rigoletto's lines in the quartet with a sense of burgeoning panic. The near-sadistic glee with which he enunciated ‘Ora mi guarda, o mondo! Quest’è un buffone, ed un potente è questo!’ after collecting from Sparafucile what he assumed to be the corpse of the murdered Duca shimmered with irony. Discovering that the figure in the bloody sack is not the Duca but Rigoletto's own daughter, Overman lent his utterance of ‘Mia figlia!…Dio! mia figlia!’ an unforgettable poignancy. The rawness of his pleading ‘No, lasciarmi non dêi, non morir’ was juxtaposed with the brawny loveliness of the tones with which he sang the line. Then, Gilda dead in his arms, he detonated a volcanic 'Ah, la maledizione!’ that thundered through the auditorium. Too often, a Rigoletto's success is measured solely by the parameters of his singing of the two monumental arias or his mastery of the injurious tessitura. Singing the arias well and scaling the heights of the range that they require are surely estimable feats, but there is more to Rigoletto than a pair of viscerally invigorating scenes and stimulating top notes. Overman’s performance revealed that his physical deformity is perhaps the least of Rigoletto’s challenges. The greatest tragedy of this Rigoletto was that, though he was cognizant of his own shortcomings, he was clearly powerless to change himself or his environment: barbed words were the sole defense left to this broken soul. Overman’s dramatic sincerity and musicality should be models to many a Rigoletto, but the foremost joy of his performance was that it was a portrait of a man, not an archetype.

IN PERFORMANCE: Bartione ROBERT OVERMAN in the title rôle of Piedmont Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's RIGOLETTO, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]Pari siamo: Baritone Robert Overman in the title rôle in Piedmont Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, October 2015 [Photo © by Traci Arney Photography; used with permission]

This is a world in which the scorn of some supposedly enlightened personages compels listeners who love Rigoletto to feel that they must apologize for what is perceived as a shamefully unsophisticated affection. In truth, there have been many productions of the opera in recent years that warranted apologies to singers, audiences, and, above all, Verdi and Hugo. Opera is a wondrous study in implausibilities, and Rigoletto is not and was surely never meant to be a history of people that audiences are expected to recognize or accept as familiars. When performed with respect for the depths of feeling that Verdi instilled in its characters, however, Rigoletto is a work of real insight and sagacity. Its realism is not that of trips to the supermarket and unread emails: it is the universal condition of loving and hoping to be loved. Piedmont Opera's Rigoletto achieved the relevance for which so many productions strive by granting love for the music primacy from the smallest nail in the sets to the grandest bellow from the timpani. It is no coincidence that it was Victor Hugo who wrote that ‘the greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.’ Nearly as great was the happiness born of experiencing Rigoletto so lovingly performed.