30 November 2015

RECORDING OF THE MONTH / November 2015MACEDONIAN SESSIONS (Corinne Morris, cello; Macedonian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Morris Music Productions MMP1307)

CD REVIEW: MACEDONIAN SESSIONS - Corinne Morris, cello (Morris Music Productions MMP1307)WOLDEMAR BARGIEL (1828 – 1897), MAX BRUCH (1838 – 1920), MANUEL DE FALLA (1876 – 1946), GABRIEL FAURÉ (1845 – 1924), JULES MASSENET (1842 – 1912), CORINNE MORRIS, ASTOR PIAZZOLLA (born 1921), CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921), PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893), and JOHN WILLIAMS (born 1932): Macedonian SessionsCorinne Morris, cello; F.A.M.E.’S. Macedonian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Philip Hesketh, conductor [Recorded in F.A.M.E.’S. Project Studio M1, Skopje, Macedonia, 29 June – 1 July 2013; Morris Music Productions MMP1307; 1 CD, 61:08; Available on CD and in digital form from Amazon UK]

There is not in medicine, science, or religion any remedy to the maladies of men more restorative than music. Music has the capacity to comfort as neither the words nor the deeds of men can do, a capacity to, as Beethoven described it, go from heart to heart, undiluted and without need for translation or interpretation. There are also in music sparks that, when exposed to the proper elements, ignite resilience on a scale that obliterates adversities internal and external. The healing powers of music are epitomized both by gifted cellist Corinne Morris and by her remarkable disc Macedonian Sessions, so named because the disc was recorded in Skopje, Macedonia, with F.A.M.E.’S. Macedonian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Philip Hesketh. It is virtually impossible—and patronizing—to attempt to recreate with feeble words the ‘darkness visible’ into which Morris was plunged when a debilitating injury separated her from the cello, but the joy of her return to the instrument, facilitated by a corrective procedure developed for the treatment of athletes, sprints through every bar of Macedonian Sessions. There are a few moments on the disc in which the cellist’s intonation is not completely perfect, but there is not one stroke of her bow that does not reach the listener’s heart with a jubilant, profoundly grateful cry of ‘I am back!’

Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei (Opus 47) is the most substantial piece on Macedonian Sessions, and it offers at the disc’s start a wonderfully complete overview of Morris’s artistry. Demanding both virtuosity and expressivity, the Protestant Bruch’s 1880 setting of Jewish themes, taking its title from the Aramaic prayer recited at the start of Yom Kippur, is played by Morris with vitality and emotional sincerity. Bruch’s intentions in composing Kol Nidrei were solely musical rather than religious or sentimental, and Morris’s avoidance of saccharine affectation enhances the raw impact of the music. Camille Saint-Saëns’s Allegro Appassionato (Opus 43) is also a piece in which feeling and fleet passagework are combined with ingenuity, and Morris brings an appealing Gallic airiness to her performance of the piece, complemented by the effervescent charm evinced by Hesketh and the Macedonian musicians, who prove to be wonderful, infallibly musical companions on Morris’s journey throughout Macedonian Sessions.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne (Opus 19, No. 4) is a sublime masterpiece in miniature, and Morris’s dulcet but dramatic style finds an ideal outlet in the piece, the cellist’s burnished tones extracting every thread of meaning from the tapestry of the music. Adapted from the second movement of the composer’s Opus 11 String Quartet No. 1, the famously plaintive principal theme of Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile, here played in an arrangement that honors its origins in the Quartet, is derived from Russian folksong. So poignant is Tchaikovsky’s representation in sound of the collective Russian soul that it is recorded in the composer’s own correspondence that Leo Tolstoy was moved to tears by hearing the Andante Cantabile for the first time. His response to hearing Morris’s shimmering performance of that haunting subject might have been the same, his tears blending with exclamations of joy at the rebirth of so valuable an artist. Morris’s vibrato gently caresses melodic lines rather than obscuring pitches, and, especially in the Tchaikovsky selections, she finds the emotions within the music instead of arbitrarily establishing moods and then molding her performances to adhere to them.

The name Woldemar Bargiel is now virtually unknown even to curious musicians, and were he not Clara Schumann’s half-brother he might be wholly forgotten. The quality of Bargiel’s Adagio (Opus 38), played with sonorous tone and emotive phrasing by Morris and the orchestra, prompts curiosity about Bargiel’s work, not least his seldom-performed String Quartets. A well-crafted piece that validates the influence of Bargiel’s acquaintance with the work of his half-sister and her husband, Robert Schumann, as well as Felix Mendelssohn and even the young Brahms, the Adagio receives from Morris and her Macedonian colleagues a reading of depth and heartfelt intensity, the orchestra’s strings creating a halo of sound in the center of which Morris’s playing gleams.

The iconic Theme from John Williams’s score for Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust film Schindler’s List, so memorably played on the motion picture soundtrack by Itzhak Perlman, has rightly transcended the context of the film and assumed a place in the concert repertory. Hopefully, Morris’s performance on Macedonian Sessions will inspire other cellists to add the piece to their repertories. Like the Hebraic themes in Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, the indelible melody of Williams’s Schindler’s List Theme possesses a bizarrely disquieting dignity, and there is an almost Klezmer-like cadence to Morris’s playing. Through the resounding warmth of her cello, an 1876 instrument by Claude Augustin Miremont, the contrasting optimism and pathos of the music are subtly but resolutely disclosed. Here and throughout the music on Macedonian Sessions, Morris’s marvelous bowing technique is allied with an intuitive grasp of the structures of each piece, the latter being a trait that Hesketh shares.

Originally intended as the slow movement for a sonata that was never completed, Gabriel Fauré’s C-minor Elégie (Opus 24) was written for cello and piano and later orchestrated by the composer. The inimitable Catalan cellist Pau Casals premièred the orchestrated version, and Morris’s playing of the piece on Macedonian Sessions brings to mind the rhythmic solidity and polished-garnet timbre that characterized Casals’s mature artistry. The contrast between the bittersweet wistfulness of the piece’s first subject and the red-blooded energy of the tempestuous central section is heightened by the instinctive differentiation of Morris’s approach, her varied playing looking far beyond mere changes of tempo. The familiar strains of the gorgeously lyrical ‘Méditation’ from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs are no less effective when played on the cello than on the violin. Indeed, so lovely is Morris’s playing of the piece’s ethereal harmonics that only the most attentive of casual listeners might perceive the change in instrumentation. The French portion of Morris’s soul soars in her graciously idiomatic playing of the music of Fauré and Massenet.

Originally written for the composer’s beloved bandoneón, Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion transforms the Skopje studio and the listener’s imagination into a deserted bar in Buenos Aires. It is just after closing, when the sounds of a new day begin to disturb the weary barkeep’s reverie. Morris’s bewitching performance of Piazzolla’s music steals in with the determined playfulness of day chasing night into the corners, illuminating the dark peripheries of the piece. The transcription of the ‘Ritual Fire Dance’ from Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo employed by Morris is no less effective in its conjuring of a specific but universal atmosphere. The earthy qualities of de Falla’s witty tone painting scintillate in Morris’s performance, and her efforts are seconded by particularly cogent work from Hesketh and the young Macedonian musicians.

The arrangement for cello and orchestra of Morris’s own song ‘Un’ ultima volta’ has an unapologetic Romantic lushness that transports the listener to Italy in the 1950s, to windswept towns by the Mediterranean and piazze baked by the sun. Composed for voice and orchestra whilst Morris was unable to play the cello, the song’s gentle melancholy is beautifully conveyed by the unmistakably ‘vocal’ cello line. Like Bargiel’s Adagio, ‘Un’ ultima volta’ whets the appetite for more of Morris’s compositions. Not surprisingly, there is an aura of authoritativeness to her playing of ‘Un’ ultima volta,’ but this is true of her performances of every selection on the disc. In filling the fluid melodic lines of the song, she becomes the Renata Tebaldi of the cello, the reserves of power bolstering the tone always audible but never obtrusive. This is music that embraces late-Romantic, Italianate tonalism as affectionately as Gian Carlo Menotti did in Amelia al ballo and The Last Savage, and Morris plays as enjoyably as she composed.

Macedonian Sessions is in many ways as much a statement of individual triumph as it is a musical experience. Above all, though, it is a love story told in eleven pieces via which a master musical communicator regains and rejuvenates her power of speech. As spoken by Corinne Morris and her cello, music is a language not of words but of responses to life both too intimate and too intricate to be verbalized. For all of the egotism, vanity, and cut-throat competition that afflict today’s Performing Arts community, it remains a quintessentially Existential environment in which, as John Donne might have suggested, one artist’s incapacitation is a loss inflicted upon all artists and laypeople alike. Not least owing to Macedonian Sessions, Corinne Morris’s reunion with the cello is likewise a felicitous occasion that enriches the Arts beyond measure. Solely from a musical perspective, though, few ‘Welcome Back’ celebrations are as delectable as Macedonian Sessions.

23 November 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini — SEMIRAMIDE (J. Pratt, V. Genaux, T. Stayton, W. Tigges, E. Hughes, W. Wu; Washington Concert Opera, 22 November 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: The cast of Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's SEMIRAMIDE, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): SemiramideJessica Pratt (Semiramide), Vivica Genaux (Arsace), Taylor Stayton (Idreno), Wayne Tigges (Assur), Evan Hughes (Oroe), Natalie Conte (Azema), Patrick Cook (Mitrane), Weí Wu (L’ombra di Nino); Washington Concert Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Antony Walker, conductor [Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., USA; Sunday, 22 November 2015]

In the simplest essence of a wondrously complicated art form, opera is a study in the surrender of reality to imagination. Audiences in Raleigh, Rome, or Riyadh are asked to accept that, with composers and librettists as their travel agents, they are whisked in the relative comfort of their seats to locales known and unknown. There are women who look like men, men who sound like women, and women dressed as men impersonating women. Barbers in Seville somehow speak Italian, Veronese youths converse even from distant balconies in perfect French, and Spanish noblewomen and their English maids spout defiance at Turkish pashas auf Deutsch. Gods descend from the heavens, volcanoes erupt, towns are swallowed by seas, and avalanches end mountainside liaisons. Amidst all of these peculiarities and improbabilities, among the dwarves and dragons, however, there are veins of emotional truth and humanity that surge through the layers of artifice like geysers. Beyond the stage, people rarely pause to sing five-minute arias as they die, but people die—of disease like Violetta and Mimì, in tragic misadventures like Gilda and Siegfried, and by their own hands like Werther and Cio-Cio San. People betray and are betrayed, love and are loved, fear and are feared. At its core, opera is neither obviously relevant nor a straightforward means of escape from reality. The most gifted composers of opera created scores that inspire audiences to think, and it is in the thinking that the relevance and escape are born. Audiences cry for Violetta and Mimì not because they know Violettas and Mimìs but because there are in virtually every life stories like theirs. Many critics and musicologists exclude Gioachino Rossini from the ranks of great composers of opera, but the listener willing and able to look beyond the farcical comedy in Il barbiere di Siviglia finds a timeless tale of young people in love. In Le siège de Corinthe, there are the painfully modern collisions of passion and faith. In Semiramide, premièred at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on 3 February 1823, the volleys of roulades yield a drama shaped by warped relationships, political ambitions, hidden identities, and assassinations realized and thwarted. His final opera composed for an Italian theatre, Semiramide is the culmination of the lyric art that Rossini inherited from Händel and Hasse via Jommelli, Mysliveček, Mozart, and Cherubini. With its litany of intrigues and power-brokering, could any opera be better-suited to being brought to life in the American capital by Washington Concert Opera than Semiramide?

Concert performance is an ideal medium for Rossini’s Semiramide. Setting a libretto based, like that of his 1813 Tancredi, upon a drama by Voltaire, Rossini had in Semiramide a subject that engaged his imagination on an exalted level. Unusually for Rossini, the Overture—joyfully played in Lisner Auditorium by the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra—makes use of thematic material from the opera, perhaps the finest manifestation of which is the sublime ​Andantino for ​a quartet of ​horns​. The wealth of musical invention in Semiramide is extraordinary by any standard but truly remarkable for Rossini, who, though only thirty years old at the time of Semiramide’s première, had lost patience with the whims and caprices of Italian opera and its practitioners. In Washington Concert Opera’s March performance of Guntram, Artistic Director Antony Walker established himself as an insightful interpreter of the music of Richard Strauss, but pacing Semiramide enabled him to return to the bel canto repertory of which he is an acknowledged master. Walker is an animated conductor who puts his whole body at the service of the music, so there is nothing dainty about his bel canto: when Rossini requested extremes of volume and dramatic thrust, Walker complied unhesitatingly. Moments of lyrical restraint were handled with equal imagination, and the singers were clearly encouraged to take risks in a supportive, nurturing environment. As in the Overture, the orchestral musicians played capably throughout the performance, their confidence more noticeable than in several WCO performances in the recent past. Rossini is rarely cited as an innovative orchestrator despite the ingenuity of his part-writing, but how marvelously he composed for the woodwinds in Semiramide! Fortunately, the WCO wind players met the demands of Rossini’s score exuberantly, and their high level of musical excellence was undermined by only a few mishaps. [The sources of several awkward squeaks and squawks in quiet moments were mysterious. Was the shade of Nino lurking, poltergeist-like, among the horns?] Gita Ladd’s leadership of the cello section remains a trove of mellow tone and artful phrasing. Trained by Bruce Stasyna, the singers of the WCO Chorus were, as ever, to be commended for both their preparation and the gusto of their performance. In Act One, they sang with rousing pagan piety, and their account of ‘Di plausi qual clamor giulivo eccheggia’ was aptly evocative of trepidation. ‘Un traditor, con empio ardir’ at the start of the Act Two finale was exhilaratingly delivered, and the choristers’ closing thoughts, ‘Vieni, Arsace, al trionfo, alla Reggia,’ were expressed with celebratory musicality. Undoubtedly owing both to conscientious rehearsal and genuine affection for Rossini’s score, this Semiramide was, in terms of orchestral playing, choral singing, and conducting, among WCO’s finest performances, one that not only satisfied in the moment but also intensified appreciation of Rossini’s genius.

As is often the case in WCO performances, the choristers’ ranks were mined for singers for secondary rôles, and the results in this Semiramide were indeed gems. Taking the part of Mitrane, the captain of the guard, tenor Patrick Cook sang strongly, the timbre attractive and the technique capable of fulfilling all of Rossini’s requests. He was particularly noteworthy in Act Two, articulating ‘Alla Reggia d’intorno, canto Arbace dispone I tuoi più fidi’ ​and ‘Calmati, Principessa’ with clear diction and equivalent dramatic clarity. The princess Azema has far less to sing than her importance as the object of Arsace’s, Idreno’s, and Assur’s affections would seem to warrant, but soprano Natalie Conte sang every note entrusted to her impressively, effortlessly filling the auditorium with gleaming sound. She might well prove a worthy Semiramide.

IN PERFORMANCE: Bass WEÍ WU as L'ombra di Nino, bass-baritone WAYNE TIGGES as Assur, Maestro ANTONY WALKER, and the WCO Chorus and Orchestra in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's SEMIRAMIDE, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]L’ombra e l’assassino: Bass Weí Wu as L’ombra di Nino (left, foreground), bass-baritone Wayne Tigges as Assur (center, on stage), Maestro Antony Walker, and the WCO Chorus and Orchestra in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Having Chinese bass Weí Wu, a galvanizing presence as Friedhold in WCO’s Guntram, on hand to intone the warnings of L’ombra di Nino, the ghost of Semiramide’s murdered husband (and, it is eventually revealed, Arsace’s—né Ninia—father), was the epitome of luxury casting. His is a voice destined for Sarastro and Gurnemanz, and he used the instrument to tremendous effect in Nino’s dire pronouncements from the tomb, music obviously influenced by the scene for the Commendatore’s effigy in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

A commanding presence both vocally and physically as Oroe, the High Priest of the Magi, young bass-baritone Evan Hughes brought muscle and nuance to the considerable range of his music. Beginning with a sinewy account of the recitative​ ‘Si, gran Nume, t’intesi’ in the opera’s Introduzione, he proceeded to a fiery voicing of Oroe’s lines in the quartetto with Semiramide, Assur, and Idreno, 'Di tanti Regi, e popoli.' In Act Two, his scene with the chorus, ‘In questo augusto soggiorno arcano,’ was sung with blazing intensity. The zeal with which Hughes’s Oroe incited Arsace to exact revenge on Assur was viscerally conveyed by the flinty grandiloquence of his singing. Hughes sounded as though he could have sung Assur on a moment’s notice, but his Oroe was the sonorously-sung dramatic spine of the performance.

The duplicitous Assur was portrayed with smug smirks and big, bold tone by bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, a singer whose versatility and snarling, somewhat nasal timbre recall Norman Treigle. Throughout the performance, Tigges’s singing possessed towering impact despite his occasionally seeming under-rehearsed. The voice was slow to warm up, but in the quartetto with Semiramide, Idreno, and Oroe in Act One he sailed through Assur’s roulades fearlessly if not always accurately. In the duet with Semiramide in Act Two, a prototype for the duet for Nabucco and Abigaille in Act Three of Verdi’s Nabucco, Tigges’s Assur prodded and threatened his queen with relish. Assur’s mad scene, one of the finest scenes in the opera and a prefiguring of Macbeth’s encounter with the apparition of Banco in Verdi’s Macbeth, drew from Tigges his best singing of the evening. The aria, ‘Deh! ti ferma,’ was phrased with subtlety and finesse, and the hateful character could for a moment almost be pitied. The cabaletta, ‘Que’ Numi furenti, quell’ombre frementi,’ was voiced with electrifying machismo. Not all of Tigges’s passagework was executed cleanly: the defining quality of his Assur was bravado rather than bravura, but it was a characterization of unmistakable malevolence. Even in music for which it is not ideally suited, the pleasures of hearing such a hearty, healthy voice used with flair are self-recommending, and Tigges provided many moments of edge-of-the-seat vocal excitement.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor TAYLOR STAYTON as Idreno in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's SEMIRAMIDE, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Il re di Rossini: Tenor Taylor Stayton as Idreno in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

A native Ohioan and an alumnus of Philadelphia’s star-making Academy of Vocal Arts, tenor Taylor Stayton is carving a place for himself among the celebrated tenori di grazia of his generation. His singing of Idreno in Washington Concert Opera’s Semiramide, his début in the rôle, expanded that place, furthering the reputation as a bel canto stylist confirmed by his recent performances as Percy in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena at the Metropolitan Opera.​ Even by Rossini’s standards, Idreno is an extraordinarily difficult rôle, his bravura demands on par with the most challenging music ever composed for the tenor voice. From his appearance in Act One in the terzetto with Oroe and Assur, ‘Là, dal Gange, a te primiero,’ his coloratura is often terrifying, but Stayton’s performance exuded confidence. ​So confident was his singing, in fact, that the loss of Idreno’s magnificent aria in Act One, ‘Ah dov’è, dov’è il cimento,’ with its pair of top Cs and climactic top D, was truly lamentable. Semiramide constitutes a long evening, of course, but cutting ‘Ah dov'è’ deprived Stayton of an opportunity to further display his Rossinian mettle. The Act Two aria con coro ‘La speranza più soave’ littered the tenor's path with musical hurdles, however, and he cleared every one of them with the assurance of an Olympian. Negotiating the ferocious coloratura with the appearance of ease, he rose to top B and C​ with ringing enthusiasm. Looking the part of the calm, collected, debonair leading man, Stayton’s fantastically-vocalized performance exuded suavity and swagger.

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX as Arsace in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's SEMIRAMIDE, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, L'uomo più piuttosto della festa: Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Arsace in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

In a career now spanning two decades, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux has made a specialty of Rossini’s travesti rôles, having credibly evinced masculinity while dispatching coloratura with astounding technical faculty in parts like Falliero in Bianca e Falliero, Malcolm in La donna del lago, Néoclès in the La Scala version of Le siège de Corinthe, and the title rôle in Tancredi. As Arsace in WCO’s Semiramide, her coloratura singing was a marvel, but no less remarkable, particularly in a concert performance, was her nuanced acting. Her Arsace seemed truly shocked by turns of events, and Genaux’s reading of Nino’s letter describing the circumstances of his death should be a model for all interpreters of Verdi’s Lady Macbeth and Violetta. The quiet awe of her singing of Arsace’s opening recitative, ‘Eccomi alfine in Babilonia,’ was intriguing, and the Andantino ‘Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento’ was magnetically sung. Her 'Oh, come da quel di tutto'​ ​was musically and dramatically magical. Genaux declaimed Arsace’s recitatives with wide-eyed wonder and joined Tigges in a darkly suggestive performance of the duet ‘È dunque vero,’ her shaping of the line in ‘Bella imago degli Dei’​ appropriately amorous and her comment to Assur that he does not understand love youthfully sincere rather than mean-spirited. ‘Serbami ognor sì fido il cor,’ the first of Arsace’s duets with Semiramide, the pinnacles of Rossini’s genius and veritable templates for Bellini’s duets for Norma and Adalgisa and Donizetti’s scene for Anna Bolena and Giovanna Seymour, united mezzo-soprano and soprano in a vocal exhibition of the art of bel canto, the ladies’ breath control enabling outstanding feats of sustained phrasing. Genaux’s singing was equally accomplished in ‘Alle più calde immagini.’​ ​Again duetting with Semiramide in Act Two, the mezzo-soprano’s singing in ‘Se la vita ancor t’è cara’ personified a nobility of spirit made even more apparent in ‘Quella, ricordati.’ The triplets in ‘Ma implacabile’ were delivered with astonishing degrees of rhythmic precision and synchronization. ​The Washington audience obviously felt that Genaux’s performance of Arsace’s aria con coro ‘In sì barbara sciagura’ was the zenith of the performance, and the imperturbable dexterity with which she dashed through the fiendish coloratura in the bottom octave of the voice proved them right. The final duet with Semiramide, ‘Ebben, a te, ferisci,’ was engagingly sung, the desperation and fear in ‘Giorno d’orrore, e di contento!’ reaching exalted heights of expression in the perfectly-executed trills and coloratura in thirds. Genaux infused ‘Madre, addio!’​ with far more emotion than two words could ever be thought to express. There were passages in mid-range in which Genaux’s voice seemed to lose support, but she compensated with especially rich tones at the bottom of the voice. Musically and dramatically, her performance was moving and revealing: it was to possible to fully appreciate the extent to which Arsace is a man in crisis because the voice was under such meticulous control.

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX as Arsace and soprano JESSICA PRATT in the title rôle in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Rossini's SEMIRAMIDE, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Figlio e madre: Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Arsace (left) and soprano Jessica Pratt (right) in the title rôle in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Rossini’s Semiramide, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

It was only a short time ago that English-born, Australian by relocation, and now Italian by adoption soprano Jessica Pratt sang the title rôle in Semiramide for the first time, but her comfort with Rossini’s music was greater than some interpreters of Semiramide have acquired after many years of experience. Appearing like a goddess from a Botticelli painting after the male-dominated start of Act One, Pratt regally took command of her music from her first phrase in the quartetto with Idreno, Oroe, and Assur, ‘Trema il tempio, infausto e vento,’ her voice unfurling above the men’s voices like the Stars and Stripes above the nearby White House. The opera’s most familiar vocal number, the cavatina con coro ‘Bel raggio lusinghier,’ was delicately sung, not even the slightest suggestion of nervousness audible in Pratt’s sumptuously-phrased cantilena, but the weakness of the lower voice was evident. She caressed the text of ‘Dolce pensiero, di quell’istante,’ and the meteoric interpolated E6 with which she crowned the aria ​may well have been heard on the opposite bank of the Potomac. Partnering Genaux in the ​duet ‘Serbami ognor sì fido il cor,’ she increasingly sang with the assurance of a true mistress of bel canto confident of being in the company of an equal. She and her colleagues blended their voices stunningly in the quintetto in the Act One finale, ‘Giuri ognuno, a’ sommi Dei,’ she, Genaux, and Stayton building wonderful arcs of sound upon the unshakable foundation laid by Hughes and Tigges. Most at ease at the top of her range, where the voice rang out with amplitude uncommon for a singer with Pratt’s coloratura ability, she voiced ‘Qual mesto gemito da quella tomba’ in the middle of the voice with credible dramatic apprehension but a lack of the brawn that the music needs. Her voice stood out in the frenetic stretta, ‘Ah! Sconvolta nell’ordine eterno,’ ending Act One with a laser-bright starburst above the imposing wall of sound. Beginning Act Two with a resolute ‘Assur, I cenni miei fur sacri, irrevocabili,’ Pratt portrayed an endearingly feminine Semiramide who nonetheless would endure none of Assur’s treacherous threats in their duet, intrepidly engaging Tigges in a match of vocal wills. Then, she regained the falsely safer ground of conversing with Arsace, her voice growing fuller and more piercing as she learned that the man she loved was, in truth, her long-absent son. Her fluency in Rossini’s difficult triplets matched Genaux’s—no small achirvement!​​ In ‘Ebben, a te, ferisci!’ and ‘Giorno d’orrore, e di contento!’ the soprano’s bravura technique shone: not since Dame Joan Sutherland​—who Pratt’s tonal plushness and billowing light-auburn hair bring to mind—sang the title rôle opposite Giulietta Simionato, Lauris Elms, Monica Sinclair, and, legendarily, Marilyn Horne have Semiramides and Arsaces been as evenly-matched in terms of raw ability as Pratt and Genaux were in Washington. Pratt’s traversal of Semiramide’s Preghiera, ‘Al mio pregar t’arrendi,’ was beguilingly-phrased, but here, too, the relative pallor of the lower voice betrayed the singer’s first-rate intentions. Meeting her demise as the unintended victim of her son’s sword, this Semiramide sang gloriously in the terzetto with Arsace and Assur, ‘L’usato ardir.’ The notion of a character being misunderstood is often invoked comically, but Pratt’s interpretation of Semiramide suggested that there are far greater depths to the lady than other singers’ performances have suggested. Whatever she has done, she is no scheming Lucrezia Borgia. Compelled by the concert setting to seek the woman solely in Rossini’s score, Pratt brought her to life with a significantly wider spectrum of emotions than many staged productions have allowed the complicated queen. Such is the truest measure of a singer’s artistry, and Pratt’s performance qualified her as a rewardingly expressive artist.

Semiramide is a difficult opera—difficult to sing, difficult to conduct, difficult to stage; or, in the context of Washington Concert Opera’s performance, difficult to bring to the stage. That an opera company large or small can assemble an ensemble of conductor, choristers, instrumentalists, and renowned singers, some of whom have never before performed their assigned rôles, and, in the span of a week, prepare an opera like Semiramide for performance is little short of miraculous. That the performance that resulted from Washington Concert Opera’s preparations was as enjoyable as this Semiramide is, in reality, anything but a miracle. Opera is not an art of perfection. Above all, it is an art of collaboration and communication, achieved not by miracles but by motivation. Not every note was perfect, but the performance that transpired on the stage of Lisner Auditorium was a collaboration of committed artists that communicated the exquisite potency of the opera with which Rossini bade Addio to his native land.

IN PERFORMANCE: Maestro ANTONY WALKER, WCO's Artistic Director, during Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's SEMIRAMIDE, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Il Maestro: WCO Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker during Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide, 22 November 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

21 November 2015

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — AIDA (A. Harteros, J. Kaufmann, E. Semenchuk, L. Tézier, E. Schrott, M. Spotti, P. Fanale, E. Buratto; Warner Classics 0825646106639)

CD REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi - AIDA (Warner Classics 0825646106629)GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): AidaAnja Harteros (Aida), Jonas Kaufmann (Radamès), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Amneris), Ludovic Tézier (Amonasro), Erwin Schrott (Ramfis), Marco Spotti (Il re d’Egitto), Paolo Fanale (Messaggero), Eleonora Buratto (Sacerdotessa); Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; Sir Antonio Pappano [Recorded in Sala Santa Cecilia, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, Italy, during February 2015; Warner Classics 0825646106639; 3 CDs, 145:36; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Those who love the music of Giuseppe Verdi or opera on a grand scale cannot fail to greet the release of a new recording of Aida with excitement. Many performances of the opera in the past three decades have done anything but excite true operaphiles, however, the dearth of singers and conductors with the requisite technical and interpretive capacities to perform Aida at the level that the music demands and deserves having steadily grown more widespread. Truly, when hearing many recent efforts at performing the score it seems that eons have passed since the evening of 3 January 1985, when Leontyne Price gave her final performance of a complete rôle at the Metropolitan Opera as Aida. She was not as formidably secure in the music as she had often been throughout her quarter-century tenure at the MET, but she was still Leontyne Price—and, pivotally, she was still Aida in a way that almost no sopranos have been in the thirty years since her retirement from the stage. What so many singers, conductors, and directors now seem to fail to grasp is that an Aida's success depends upon far more than a solid top C in 'O patria mia.' Whether sung on stage or in studio, the rôle requires not only technical and dramatic concentration of the highest order but also a setting in which success is fostered, not compromised. Warner's new recording featuring the musical forces of Rome's Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the institution that contributed so meaningfully to Renata Tebaldi's first studio recording of Aida more than six decades ago, creates an environment not of cardboard pyramids and a spray-painted Nile but one of unfailing musicality and appreciation of the atmosphere that emanates from the pages of Verdi's score. This is not a perfect Aida, but, following Leontyne Price's example, it is unmistakably a sincere, legitimately devout one—in short, an Aida that honors rather than hiding Verdi.

For many listeners, the principal attraction of this Aida will understandably be its preservation of Jonas Kaufmann's inaugural interpretation of Radamès, one of Verdi's most demanding tenor rôles. This is a wholly valid reason for hearing this Aida, of course, and one that is rewarded with some fine singing, but Kaufmann's performance is thankfully not the recording's only virtue. The prevailing asset of this performance is the conducting of Sir Antonio Pappano. Not surprisingly, his approach to the score is strongly rooted in the grand Italian tradition but is also quite original. In some passages, particularly in Act One, Pappano's tempi seem laborious on first hearing, but the results that the conductor achieves ultimately reward listeners for having faith in his approach. Even in the controllable environment of the recording studio, ensembles have rarely been as ideally balanced and cleanly articulated as they are under Pappano's direction. The Preludio that introduces the opera is paced very expansively, but taut rhythmic control worthy of a Bach fugue ensures that momentum is not sacrificed to beauty. ​​The Santa Cecilia musicians play with passion that never jeopardizes the reliable fidelity of their executions of Verdi’s instructions. The high string writing in the Preludio is delivered with a rapt beauty that fully discloses the music’s kinship with similar passages in Wagner’s Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. In the public scenes, not least the Triumphal Scene, the sheer grandeur of the music is stirringly conveyed without obscuring the intensely private emotions that flow beneath the surface. In the introduction to Aida’s celebrated aria ‘O patria mia,’ the crickets among the reeds and the lapping of the inky Nile at its banks are audible, viscerally placing Aida in the scene that Verdi intended and touchingly evincing her isolation and increasing anxiety. Both the ‘Danza sacra delle sacerdotesse’ in Act One and the ‘Danza di piccolo schiavi mori’ in Act Two are also played with brio and bustling rhythmic vitality.The orchestra’s idiomatic command of the difficulties of Verdi’s score is matched by the choral singing. Apt to be taken for granted, choristers' jobs in a performance or recording of Aida are of great importance: perhaps a well-sung Aida is not ruined by a poor showing by the chorus, but even the poorest Aida is improved by a strong performance by the chorus. As the Egyptian populace, Amneris’s Moorish slaves, and the priests who stand in judgment of Radamès, the Santa Cecilia choristers sing powerfully and characterfully.

Rather than mimicking many productions’ casting by employing second-rate singers as the Messaggero and Sacerdotessa, this performance benefits from the work of a pair of excellent artists for whom Aida is atypical vocal territory. The days in which one might hear voices of the quality of those of Charles Anthony, Robert Nagy, and the young James McCracken as the Messaggero are perhaps gone forever, but this recording gives a delightful nod to this tradition. Tenor Paolo Fanale voices the Messaggero’s ‘Il sacro suolo dell’Egitto è invaso dei barbari Etiopi’ in Act One with a Lieder singer’s acute pointing of words and a youthful, rousingly handsome timbre that retains its pliancy from the bottom of the range to the part’s top G. Soprano Eleanora Buratto is equally effective as the ethereal Sacerdotessa, singing ‘Possente, possente Fthà, del mondo spirito animator’ in Act One with sensuality that lends the ritual blessing of the Egyptian warriors a suggestion of eroticism. She returns in Act Three with an emerald-hued ‘Soccori, soccori a noi’ and phrases ‘Immenso, immeno Fthà del mondo spirito animator’ in Act Four enchantingly. The beauty of Buratto’s voice is itself a worthy offering to the gods.

Italian bass Marco Spotti sings Verdi’s declamatory music for il Re with suitable pomposity and authority. Spotti’s voice is not a plush, opulent instrument, but its core of iron serves him—and Verdi—well in this rôle. In Act One, he manfully braves the depths of ‘Alta cagion v’aduna, o fidi Egizii’ and hurls out ‘Su! del Nilo al sacro lido accorrete, Egizii eroi’ with unanswerable bravado. He addresses the victorious Radamès in Act Two with an imposingly stentorian ‘Salvator della patria, io ti saluto.’ Spotti does not command the tonal amplitude that some singers have unleashed in il Re’s music, but it is a great pleasure to hear his music sung so securely. Some listeners may be surprised to learn by hearing Spotti’s spot-on performance that wobbling in il Re’s music is not, in fact, demanded by Verdi’s score.

Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott is a tremendously versatile singer, with intelligent portrayals of rôles ranging from Mozart’s Figaro and Don Giovanni to Colline in Puccini’s La bohème to his credit. Except in the context of a project such as this recording, Ramfis is now a rôle unlikely to appeal to a singer of Schrott’s caliber, but he here sings the part with stony allure. He opens the opera with a resonant statement of ‘Sì: corre voce che l’Etiope ardisca sfidarci ancora,’ and he articulates ‘Gloria ai Numi! ognun rammenti ch’essi reggono gli eventi’ with greater imagination than the passage typically inspires. Throughout the performance, Schrott creates a complex character who is implacable but not wholly unsympathetic. His firm, propulsive singing of ‘Spirto del Nume sovra noi discendi!’ drives the Judgment Scene in Act Four to its chilling conclusion. Schrott’s incisive portrayal of Ramfis is a crucial spoke of the wheel of fate that ultimately crushes Aida and Radamès but also considerably more engaging than the usual, relentlessly ramrod personification of the part.

French baritone Ludovic Tézier had not sung Amonasro before taking the rôle in this recording, but he offers a rounded, fully-formed interpretation of one of Verdi’s most grueling baritone rôles. It is not only Amonasro’s music that is daunting: it is easy to depict him as an embittered bully and thus to ignore the nobility that his daughter’s virtue suggests that he exemplified at some point in his life. Tézier’s Amonasro appears in Act Two with the force of a herd of beasts stampeding across the Serengeti. Paraded among the vanquished Ethiopians, he sings ‘Suo padre. Anch’io pugnai, vinti noi fummo’ with biting irony. This contrasts markedly with his august shading of tone in the Andante sostenuto ‘Quest’assisa ch’io vesto vi dica che il mio Re,’ the repeated rises to top F costing him little effort. In the Act Three scene with Aida, Tézier intones ‘A te grave cagion m’adduce, Aida’ menacingly, the father’s wounded pride suddenly turned against his daughter, but there is tenderness in the baritone’s thorny reading of ‘Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate, le fresche valli.’ There is little doubt that this is an Amonasro willing to resort to brute physicality should his verbal persuasion prove ineffective, but he maintains an inherent aristocracy even when confronting Radamès. A studio recording is not always an indication of how a portrayal will work on stage, but on disc Tézier is a vividly-enacted Amonasro who sings Verdi’s music exceptionally well.

Though surely not the sole raison d’être for this Aida, Jonas Kaufmann’s freshman Radamès is a primary source of interest in the recording. Acclaimed in recent seasons as Manrico in Il trovatore, Alvaro in La forza del destino, and Don Carlo, he has also enjoyed successes as the Duca di Mantova in Rigoletto, Alfredo in La traviata, and Cassio in Otello. It is strange, then, that the music of Verdi often seems to be regarded by many observers as an addendum to rather than a central component of his repertory. Radamès was one of the best rôles for Franco Corelli, to whom Kaufmann is frequently compared, but the comparison is a misjudgment. Kaufmann's is a more compact, more flexible instrument—he has sung Mozart’s Idomeneo to general praise, after all—with less refulgence but near-equal reliability in the upper register. If Corelli’s voice was a trumpet in a rôle like Radamès, Kaufmann’s is an oboe, darker in timbre, reedier, and more refined but no less thrilling in climaxes. Perhaps only Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio and the Kaiser in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten face entrance music as fearsome as Radamès’s recitative ‘Se quel guerrier io fossi!’ and aria ‘Celeste Aida, forma divina’ in Act One of Aida. Kaufmann phrases both recitative and aria expansively and produces the aria’s first top B♭ with élan. His conscientious effort at honoring Verdi’s request for a morendo on the repetition of the tone is accomplished more with falsetto than true mezza voce, but it is beautifully done. Kaufmann encounters no difficulties in the high tessitura of Act Two with which he is not eminently capable of dealing, and he depicts the returning conqueror on a jubilant scale. In Act Three, he voices ‘Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aida’ with seductive intensity. The inner conflict that tears at Radamès as he weighs his duty against his love for Aida is apparent in Kaufmann’s expressive singing. Discovered in the act of unwittingly betraying his countrymen to Amonasro, he surrenders himself with an exclamation of ‘Sacredote, io resto a te’ punctuated by ringing top As. Sparring with Amneris in Act Four before facing Radamès’s trial for treason, Kaufmann voices ‘Di mie discolpe i giudici mai non udran l’accento’ arrestingly, lashing at the top B♭ with determination. Silent in his own defense, he descends into the tomb where his life is condemned to end with an account of ‘La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse’ in which his fingers can almost be felt caressing the offending stone. The sorrow that exudes from Kaufmann’s phrasing of ‘Morir! si pura e bella!’ as Radamès thinks of Aida turns to panic when she appears from the shadows, but the quiet radiance with which he and his Aida trade top B♭s in ‘O terra addio’ gives the final scene the aura of a transcendent Liebestod. There are compromises in Kaufmann’s singing: though not heavy, his voice is a baritonal instrument, not the ideal spinto voice of a Corelli or a Richard Tucker, and Radamès’s high center of vocal gravity is not always completely comfortable for Kaufmann. A benchmark of his artistry is his commitment to wholly meeting the technical requirements of a rôle, however, and he succeeds as Radamès as almost none of his contemporaries have managed to do.

It is significant that, like Azucena in Il trovatore, Verdi considered Amneris the emotional and dramatic nucleus of Aida. Like Eboli in Don Carlo, her own actions alter the destiny of the man she loves, and her tragedy is being unable to alter either herself or the damning juggernaut she sets in motion. Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk is the member of this cast with the most extensive experience in her rôle, and she portrays a dangerous Amneris vulnerable only to her own insecurities. In the Act One duet with Radamès, there is an air of playfulness in her singing of ‘Quale insolita gioia nel tuo sguardo,’ an attitude that changes in an instant to one of barely-concealed scorn when, as Aida enters, she purrs ‘Vieni, o diletta, appressati.’ She reveals the perilous extent of Amneris’s jealousy with her venomous ‘Trema! o rea schiava!’ Hailing Radamès as the decreed savior of her people, Semenchuk portrays a haughty but deeply amorous Amneris. She and Giulietta Simionato are unique in making something of the scene for Amneris and her Moorish slaves at the start of Act Two, a rare instance of Verdi including a scene of little dramatic importance in an otherwise tightly-constructed score. As Senenchuk sings it, though, ‘Ah! vieni, vieni, amor mio, m’inebria fammi beato il cor’ assumes a degree of significance by granting the listener a glimpse of Amneris with her guard down. The contempt with which she articulates ‘Io son l’amica tua’ in the subsequent duet with Aida is telling, and it is with a flood of malice that she admits to the despairing Aida that Radamès not only survived the battle with the Ethiopians but rose to glory in the fray—a flood of malice that overflows into her solemnly-voiced contributions to the final pages of Act Three. As Verdi envisioned, it is Amneris who dominates Act Four in this performance. Semenchuk’s stark ‘L’abborrita rivale a me sfuggia’ is defined by artful manipulations of the contrasts between the singer’s vocal registers, and her exasperation with Radamès’s obstinacy in ‘Già i sacerdoti adunansi’ grows to a fury epitomized by her pair of climactic, white-hot top B♭s. Semenchuk commandeers the Judgment Scene not with overwrought histrionics but by portraying with absolute sincerity a powerful woman powerless to halt the course of her own justice. Her searing top A at the conclusion of the scene is the sound of her soul breaking beneath the figurative weight of the stone that will seal Radamès’s tomb. In the opera’s final scene and throughout the performance, Semenchuk’s Amneris is a woman not of insinuations and tears but of action and instigation. Most importantly, hers is a voice of ample dimensions for the rôle, only occasionally slightly unwieldy, and she sings as impressively as she acts with the voice.

Following Kaufmann's and Tézier's examples, this recording and the concert performance that followed the studio sessions were German soprano Anja Harteros's first attempts at assaying the title rôle in Aida. Like Maria Callas and Zinka Milanov before her, Harteros is an Aida for whom the rôle is defined by an emotional journey rather than a single aria and its famous high note. A resourceful singer whose operatic repertory extends from Händel to Richard Strauss, Harteros here connects with Aida’s plight with an immediacy that is especially commendable in the context of a studio recording. At her first entrance in Act One, she introduces the listener to a circumspect Aida who joins in the trio with Amneris and Radamès with an unsettling ‘Ohimè! di guerra fremere l’atroce grido in sento.’ In Radamès’s company, her confidence blossoms until her true spirit bursts forth on the fortissimo top B. The top C in the ensemble in which Radamès is appointed commander of the Egyptian defense taxes her, but she is careful to approach the note without applying undue pressure to the voice. Harteros’s performance of ‘Ritorna vincitor! E dal mio labbro uscì l’empia parola!’ simmers with doubt and self-recrimination, Aida physically pained by the splitting of her loyalties between victory for her people and her lover’s safety. She accentuates the despondence of ‘L’insana parola, o Numi, sperdete!’ and dispatches the fortissimo top B♭ like a blow against her predicament. Then, her frenzy gives way to delicacy with the soprano’s eloquent handling of ‘I sacri nomi di padre, d’amante né profferir poss’io, ne ricordar.’ In the scene with Amneris in Act Two, Harteros enunciates ‘Felice esser poss’io lungi dal suol natio, qui dove ignota m’è la sorte del padre e dei fratelli?’ with emotional honesty, unflinchingly ascending to the top B♭. The expressivity of her ‘Ah! pietà! Quest’amor nella tomba io spegnerò’ is evidence of a profound understanding of Verdi’s meticulously-crafted melodic line, and she treats the top C as an organic extension of the line rather than an isolated note intended to highlight the singer’s vocal prowess. She approaches the galvanizing repeated top B♭s and C♭s in the Triumphal Scene with similar acuity, facing the notes as they come rather than breaking the line—and the character’s demeanor—to prepare for them. As Callas often found with the pair of top Cs in the ensemble that ends Act One of Bellini’s Norma, how much more easily the notes come when they are simply sung, not scrutinized! The great scene in Act Three is generally perceived as the measure of an Aida’s success or failure, and many a moving Aida has been dismissed solely because of a poor top C in ‘O patria mia.’ In this performance, Harteros’s singing of the recitative ‘Qui Radamès verrà!’ is as riveting as her exquisitely-wrought traversal of ‘O patria mia.’ The serene dignity with which she sculpts the line in ‘O cieli azzuri, o dolci aure native’ in the aria is breathtaking, and she soars to a truly dolce if slightly blanched top C. Both fear and relief course through her cry of ‘Ciel! mio padre!’ when Amonasro unexpectedly appears on the bank of the Nile, and she repeats his sentiments with uncertainty in her hesitant but increasingly tranquil ‘Rivedrò le foreste imbalsamate! le fresche valli, i nostri templi d’or!’ Harteros’s ‘Fuggiam gli ardori inospiti di queste lande ignude’ is the heartfelt plea of a woman who senses that happiness is slipping from her grasp. Emerging from the darkness of her subterranean tomb in the opera’s final scene, Harteros’s Aida embraces Kaufmann’s Radamès with a voice drenched not with sadness but with the ecstasy of eternal devotion and self-sacrifice. Their ‘O terra addio’​ is like a pas de deux in sound, their voices intertwining like beams of light blending into a single beacon. Singers’ first assumptions of rôles as demanding as Aida invariably leave room for further refinement, but Harteros’s initial Aida is a study in subtle vocal colorations and beautiful, well-schooled singing. Whether Aida is a rôle that she will choose to add to her stage repertory remains to be seen, but the Aida discography is richer for having welcomed her.

It is no exaggeration to state that this Aida, a rare studio recording in an age in which ‘live’ recordings have become the industry standard, was one of the most eagerly-anticipated releases of 2015. It is also no exaggeration to state that many eagerly-awaited recordings have proved disappointing to those eagerly awaiting them. Any committed Verdian has both a favorite Aida and a favorite Aida that a new recording and a new interpreter of the title rôle are unlikely to supplant except with a strenuous fight. In addition to being an enjoyable performance in its own right, Warner’s new Aida is a true contender. Perhaps its most admirable achievement is its restoration of confidence in the Verdian credentials of this ensemble of singers, musician, and conductor.

19 November 2015

CD REVIEW: Charles Gounod — LA COLOMBE (E. Morley, J. Camarena, M. Losier, L. Naouri; Opera Rara ORC53)

CD REVIEW: Charles Gounod - LA COLOMBE (Opera Rara ORC53)CHARLES-FRANÇOIS GOUNOD (1818 – 1893): La colombeErin Morley (Sylvie), Javier Camarena (Horace), Michèle Losier (Mazet), Laurent Naouri (Maître Jean); Hallé Orchestra; Sir Mark Elder, conductor [Recorded at Hallé St Peter’s, Ancoats, Manchester, UK, in June 2015; Opera Rara ORC53; 2 CDs, 79:59; Available from Opera Rara, harmonia mundi USA, Amazon (USA), jpc (de), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

When, six years after it was first performed in Baden-Baden, Charles Gounod’s frothy opéra comique La colombe premièred in Paris in 1866, France was a nation in flux. Napoléon III’s Second Empire was crumbling rapidly, imperial designs in Mexico were unraveling, and a retaliatory invasion of Korean territory was bringing oriental and occidental interests into conflict on an unprecedented scale. It was a time in which jovial evenings at the theatre were surely welcomed by all stations of society. Based upon Jean de la Fontaine’s poem Le faucon, Jules Barbier’s and Michel Carré’s libretto for La colombe infused the Opéra Comique with a spirit of guarded jocularity that twinkled in the sunny glow of Gounod’s score. Missing from La colombe are the grandeur and religiosity of Faust, the unapologetic Romantic excess of Roméo et Juliette, and even the wistful charm of Mireille, but Gounod’s little dove wields a singular allure all of her own. Gounod is a composer in descriptions of whom mentions of his consummate theatrical sensibilities are often laced with pejorative connotations, his skill for writing effectively for the stage inexplicably interpreted as a superiority of invention over inspiration, but the enduring popularity of Gounod's operas when those of many of his contemporaries have disappeared into the footnotes of books no one reads reflects the appeal that the music has exerted on the public for the past 150 years. A 1947 French Radio performance with an idiomatic cast including Janine Micheau as Sylvie offered glimpses of La colombe’s beautiful musical plumage, but Opera Rara’s studio recording of the opera, expertly engineered by Jonathan Stokes and Neil Hutchinson for Classic Sound and presented with documentation by Hugh Macdonald that is wholly worthy of the label's legacy, frees Gounod's score from its gilded cage and allows it to soar into the Twenty-First Century on wings of restored radiance.

It is not surprising for an Opera Rara release to provide listeners with opportunities to savor little-known scores as their composers intended them to be performed, but even among the treasures in the label’s discography this recording of La colombe is especially valuable. French coach Nicole Tibbels earns gratitude for facilitating a performance in which, in speech and song, the American leading lady and Mexican leading man are virtually indistinguishable from their native Québécoise and French colleagues. From the first notes of the Introduction, the authentic Gallic atmosphere is perpetuated by the Hallé’s playing and Sir Mark Elder’s conducting. Whether performing music by Gounod, Wagner, or Elgar, Elder and the Hallé musicians consistently combine British discernment and discipline with idiomatic mastery of the music at hand. In La colombe, Elder paces Gounod’s score with attention to detail that does not distract him from the carefully-constructed architecture of the opera as a whole. The challenges of Gounod’s score are met with virtuosic confidence by the Hallé players, the joie de vivre that streams through the music cascading through every bar of this performance. The orchestra’s playing credibly relocates the performance from Peter Street to Place Boieldieu.

As sung by Québécoise mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier, a more beguiling start to Act One than Mazet’s romance ‘Apaisez, blanche colombe’ is unimaginable. Possessing a voice of a type ever in short supply, ideal for rôles like Siebel in Gounod’s Faust—also a collaboration with Barbier and Carré—that demand both a measure of thrust and lightness of approach, Losier sings the romance enchantingly, her perfect placement of nasalized vowels proving that the correct production of these sounds does not require unattractive distortion of the tone. Losier makes no concerted efforts at sounding masculine, which is to the good as her timbre is so lovely. In Mazet's trio with Horace and Maître Jean that follows, ‘Qu’il garde son argent,’ Losier is joined by tenor Javier Camarena and bass-baritone Laurent Naouri. Singing Horace, Camarena displays every quality that contributed to his Metropolitan Opera début being one of the most memorable in recent seasons. Gounod’s music does not make the kinds of demands that rôles like Don Ramiro in Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment inflict upon him, but Camarena here voices Horace’s top B♭s in the trio as impressively as he has delivered the top Cs in Tonio’s ‘Pour mon âme, quel destin!’ Though this is not music that provides Camarena with fodder for his bravura technique, his comfort with the high tessitura is marvelous: not since the primes of Nicolai Gedda and Alain Vanzo has music like Horace’s been sung so capably and without strain. After dispatching his lines in the trio with gusto, Naouri, one of France’s finest singers, raucously vents his character’s frustrations in Maître Jean’s ariette, ‘Les amoreux.’ Accomplished in a wide repertory, Naouri knows his way round Gounod’s style, emoting with the glee of a child following a beloved secret path. Naouri’s sustained tones are sometimes slightly unsteady, but his intonation is largely unerring. Moreover, he finds in Maître Jean a part that might have been written for him. The vibrant air ‘Je veux interroger ce jeune homme et connaître’ introduces Sylvie, and in singing it soprano Erin Morley proclaims, ‘Alright, I am here: laissez les bons temps rouler!’ As she has been an admired Olympia in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann at the MET, the security of her top C♯s and D♯s is not unexpected, but the elation that she conveys in singing the sopracuti is remarkable. Morley has also been a Rhinemaiden in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung and an aptly high-flying Waldvogel in Siegfried at the MET, so hers is not a standard-issue leggiero voice without a firm core. In her performance of the air, her energy is matched by imagination. Losier returns with a galvanizing account of Mazet’s couplets, ‘Ah! les femmes! les femmes!’ The Fs and Gs at the top of the stave hold no terrors for her, and she copes with equal aplomb with the trills and top B♭. Morley's top B♭ is tested in Sylvie’s terzetto with Mazet and Horace, ‘Ô vision enchanteresse,’ and the soprano passes the test without resorting to cheating, musically or dramatically. Joined by Naouri for the quatuor that ends Act One, ‘Ô douce joie,’ the singers deliver their lines exuberantly, Morley tossing off Sylvie’s top D uninhibitedly.

Elder and the Hallé set the stage for Act Two with an ebullient performance of the Entr’acte, revealing every detail of the cleverness of Gounod’s part-writing. Though he excels equally in comic and dramatic rôles, Maître Jean’s air ‘Le grand art de cuisine’ is clearly home territory for Naouri. The wit and humor that emanate from his singing of the aria are charming, and Naouri’s vocalism is here at its strongest. Losier and Camarena make Mazet’s and Horace’s duo ‘Il faut d’abord dresser la table’ a highlight of the performance, the shimmer of Losier’s singing complemented by Camarena’s effortless top B. Sylvie’s romance ‘Que de rêves charmants emportés sans retour!’ is sung by Morley with boundless enthusiasm tempered by an intuitive grasp of the contours of Gounod’s melodies. Splendid as her top notes are, the resonant middle octave of the soprano’s voice is particularly advantageous, and the thoughtfulness with which she uses text as the springboard that propels her characterization of Sylvie is inspiriting. An unencumbered flow of attractive, graceful tone is the hallmark of Camarena’s singing of Horace’s madrigal, ‘Ces attraits que chacun admire.’ Despite a few vowels that betray his Latino heritage, Camarena is as convincing a Francophone hero as Michel Sénéchal, and he brings precisely the proper vocal weight to Gounod’s dulcet but not anemic vocal lines. The sparkling quartettino ‘Déjà son cœur semble tout bas souscrire a tous mes vœux!’ receives expert handling from each member of the cast, Naouri anchoring the ensemble with vocal solidity, Losier’s quicksilver inflections glistening, Camarena portraying the love-wearied idealist with poise, and Morley delivering the top line with real distinction. Soprano and tenor interweave their voices like the finest chocolate and Breton caramel in ‘Hélas, seigneur, pardonnez-moi si j’ose vous demader l’unique chose,’ Sylvie’s and Horace’s duo, making the number the opera’s emotional climax. Spared the draconian dénouement of de la Fontaine’s poem, the curtain falls on La colombe to the strains of ‘Apaisez, blanche colombe,’ in this performance of which the fine soloists rise to the occasion of Gounod’s celebratory music with compelling bravado. Like the dove sailing into the heavens, Morley ascends to the heights to which Sylvie’s coloratura transports her with imperturbable elegance and the sound of a smile in the voice that listeners cannot help replicating on their faces, just as Gounod, Barbier, and Carré surely intended.

Paris at the time of the Opéra-Comique première of La colombe was a city in transition, clasping modernity with hands still stained with the blood of the Revolution and Terror. Whether in 1789, on the eve of occupation in World War II, as gunmen took aim at the artists of Charlie Hebdo, or in the wake of terrorist attacks that indiscriminately took lives in cafés and concert hall, Paris is ever a work in progress, somewhere between revitalization and reinvention. La colombe is set in Florence, but there is no doubt that the eternal ethos of Paris infuses every page of Gounod’s score. Opera Rara’s La colombe is what every opera recording should aspire to be: a performance that explores every nuance of the composer’s score and the librettists’ text with appropriate style and musicality. Like a rainbow after a ferocious storm, this perfectly-timed, frolicsome La colombe embodies Emily Dickinson’s familiar conceit: hope is indeed the thing with feathers.

14 November 2015

CD REVIEW: Sergei Prokofiev — PETER AND THE WOLF IN HOLLYWOOD (Alice Cooper, narrator; Bundesjugendorchester; Alexander Shelley, conductor; Deutsche Grammophon 479 4888)

CD REVIEW: Sergei Prokofiev - PETER AND THE WOLF IN HOLLYWOOD (Deutsche Grammophon B0024038-02)SERGEI PROKOFIEV (1891 – 1953): Peter and the Wolf, Opus 67, plus music by Paul Dukas, Sir Edward Elgar, Edvard Grieg, Gustav Mahler, Modest Mussorgsky, Giacomo Puccini, Erik Satie, Robert Schumann, Bedřich Smetana, Richard Wagner, and Alexander von Zemlinsky—Alice Cooper, narrator; Bundesjugendorchester; Alexander Shelley, conductor [Recorded in Probenstudio Stolberger Straße, Cologne, Germany, during April 2014 (Peter and the Wolf), Funkhaus Berlin Nalepastraße, Germany, during September 2014 (other musical excerpts), and 5A Studios, London, UK, during June 2015 (narration); Deutsche Grammophon 479 4888 (also available with narration in German by Campino, 479 4894); 1 CD, 49:34; Available from DGG, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany - English version | German version), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Neither recording Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with narrations provided by celebrities of all artistic (and non-artistic) varieties nor reimagining Classics with the goal of making them more accessible for Twenty-First-Century audiences is uncommon, but neither endeavor has produced results more delightful than Deutsche Grammophon’s Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood. With the orphaned Peter relocated to the care of his Tommy Chong-esque grandfather in an idealized Los Angeles, Giants Are Small’s concept places the familiar story in a context both timeless and surprisingly, menacingly, wondrously modern. Composed in four days in 1936 in fulfillment of a commission for a work designed to encourage the development of musical taste among young schoolchildren, Peter and the Wolf has in the past seventy years amassed a discography containing performances narrated by luminaries of culture and politics ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Dame Edna Everage. Like so many works of divergent degrees of profundity, Peter and the Wolf has retained the popularity that it garnered in the decade after its first performance, according to Prokofiev a failure played to a mostly-empty house, not because it is a simplistic piece but because it cleverly, almost unperceivably inspires listeners of all ages to think and imagine. Prokofiev’s Leitmotivs in Peter and the Wolf are hardly of Wagnerian dimensions, musically or dramatically, but associating Prokofiev’s melodic units and instrumental timbres with Peter, his Grandfather, and the creatures of their acquaintance is a wonderful education in the art of interpreting musical characterization. Heightening the inherent eloquence of Prokofiev’s score, the heart of Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood beats not in a caricatured musical marionette show but in a vibrant, earnest depiction of a displaced young boy’s journey into a frightening, turbulent new world.

The brainchild of visual artist Doug Fitch, filmmaker and producer Edouard Getaz, and multimedia entrepreneur Frédéric Gumy, Giants Are Small is the product of an initiative focused on engendering fascinating new frames of reference for some of the most beloved works in the repertory. The prequel narrative devised for Peter and the Wolf, establishing Peter’s origins in Russia and the circumstances of his transplantation into the strange world of Hollywood, is nothing short of brilliant, an extension of Prokofiev’s metaphorical story that is a thoughtful, organic addendum rather than an imposition. Imaginative moments are plentiful, but the sequence at the end of the prequel linking Giants Are Small’s backstory to the adaptation of Prokofiev’s original tale proves unexpectedly moving. As Peter seeks sanctuary in his bedroom and peruses his photo album, seeing photos of himself as an infant, as a toddler, fishing by a lake, with his parents, and finally alone, the listener is given a window into the boy’s very adult senses of loss and isolation. The subsequent encounters with each member of Peter’s new milieu, including the wolf, therefore assume the increased significance of elements of the lad’s assimilation into his new existence. Aided by the voice work of Cristina Aragon as Dr. Mendoza and Fitch as the newscasters, Alice Cooper’s narration is an integral component of the tremendous success of Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood. Both in Giants Are Small’s prequel and Prokofiev’s score, Cooper’s mellifluous voice is virtually an instrument in the orchestra, used like the bassoon, the clarinet, or the oboe. Cooper’s voice is an instrument for which any composer might be proud to write. It is no surprise that Cooper’s musicality is impressive, but his affinity for Dickensian narration is unexpected. He delivers the narration without a modicum of affectation or condescension, never inflating Peter’s drama beyond the dimensions set by Prokofiev’s music. In the company of his fellow Peter narrators, Cooper’s approach combines Lorne Greene’s sonorousness, Sir Ben Kingsley’s articulation, and Sir Peter Ustinov’s sly humor but is entirely his own. It is not inconsequential when considering his musical pedigree and his faculty for revealing the music of words that Cooper’s iconic album School’s Out credited both Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim among its artistic personnel. In Prokofiev’s drama, Cooper’s performance is no less effective than his splendidly witty reading of ‘King Herod’s Song’ in the 1996 London cast recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Even in a career that has taken him to the top of the charts, this disc is one of Alice Cooper’s finest achievements.

Under the baton of young British conductor Alexander Shelley, whose rhythmic flexibility gives Prokofiev’s score an engaging ‘swing’ worthy of Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, the young musicians of the Bundesjugendorchester play Prokofiev’s score and the excerpts from other composers’ works with an ideal combination of technical prowess and youthful exuberance. It is unfortunate that the fallacy persists that, like Humperdinck’s Händel und Gretel, Peter and the Wolf is an undemanding piece because it was conceived as an entertainment for children. Peter and the Wolf is no Siegfried or Mahler symphony, but Prokofiev’s score deserves the respect given to his ‘serious’ music. One of the foremost accomplishments of Shelley’s work to date is his uncanny gift for looking past but not indiscriminately discarding accumulated traditions and forming his own interpretations of familiar pieces. In Shelley’s hands, the music selected to complement themes from Prokofiev’s score in Giants Are Small’s prequel fits seamlessly into the flow of the story, woven together by Cooper’s vocal silk. Represented by the Prelude from Act One of Lohengrin, the Prelude from Act Three of Tristan und Isolde, and the Walkürenritt from Act Three of Die Walküre, the music of Richard Wagner is featured prominently, and the Bundesjugendorchester players maintain a high level of proficiency in the gossamer string writing. Robert Schumann’s ‘Von fremden Ländern und Menschen’ from Kinderszenen and Erik Satie’s ‘Je te veux’ make effective appearances, as do bits from the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’ and ‘Catacombs’ from Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the first movement of Zemlinsky’s The Little Mermaid, Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, and the Knights’ Dance from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. ‘W.M.B.’ and ‘Nimrod’ from Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations are thoughtfully employed, and it is intriguing to note how aptly Russian the principal theme from Bedřich Smetana’s Vltava seems in the setting of an evocation of Peter’s heritage. Only a fleeting few bars from the Largo introduction to Act Three of Puccini’s Tosca seem superfluous, but how Gershwin-like ‘Quando m’en vo,’ Musetta’s waltz from La bohème, sounds as played here! The contrasting playfulness and peril in Prokofiev’s score are intertwined spellbindingly in Shelley’s and the Bundesjugendorchester’s performance, every detail examined both for its own importance and its function in the work as a whole. Shelley’s storytelling is no less effervescent than Cooper’s, and conductor and orchestra ‘speak’ as compellingly as the narrator.

Peter and the Wolf is a work that will never gain universal acceptance among the most elitist cliques of the cognoscenti, for whom snobbery is its own kind of advocacy. It is a piece that was intended by its composer not for close study in the concert halls of great orchestras but for the enjoyment and musical edification of schoolchildren, and what is wrong with that? In a world plagued by disorder and distress, there must be moments of frivolity, moments when children and adults can come together in fun, not fear. Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood provides fifty minutes of those moments. It is a very timely reminder that, though there are dangers of which a boy can hardly dream, there are love and friendship enough in the world to sustain and swell even the smallest spark of hope.

11 November 2015

ARTS IN ACTION: Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide brings the best of bel canto to the District

ARTS IN ACTION: Washington Concert Opera performs Gioachino Rossini's SEMIRAMIDE on 22 November 2015 [Graphic © by Washington Concert Opera]

Few partnerships among artists and their muses have affected the development of a genre as wondrously as the relationship between Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1868) and the remarkable Spanish diva who eventually became his wife, Isabella Colbran (1785 – 1845), enriched opera. When Semiramide premièred at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice in 1823 with Colbran in the title rôle, the thirty-year-old Rossini was already nearing the end of his career as a composer of opera, a career that enveloped Europe in a musical temporale that uprooted the groves of bel canto from Vienna to London. Like the earlier Tancredi, Semiramide allied Rossini’s musical prowess with a drama by Voltaire, the warped tale of the murderous queen of Babylon inspiring Rossini to create not only one of his most distinguished scores but also an especially fine part for the Falcon-esque Colbran. Not even memories of Colbran’s fire-breathing interpretation of Semiramide were sufficient to preserve the opera’s place in the repertory, but occasional revivals reminded subsequent generations of the score’s merits. No less a judge of artistic quality than Oscar Wilde admired Semiramide when he heard a performance in Cincinnati in 1882. Uniting a phenomenal cast with a team of first-rate musicians under the direction of Artistic Director Antony Walker, a conductor with a rare gift for bel canto, Washington Concert Opera’s 22 November concert performance of the opera has every ingredient necessary to prepare a feast that satisfies the hunger for a Semiramide that serves every morsel with the musicality that Rossini the consummate operatic chef concocted.

Among many American music lovers, Semiramide is only slightly more familiar than Guillaume Tell, holding the advantage over the later score of having both a frequently-heard Overture and a famous aria, the title character’s ‘Bel raggio lusinghier.’ Like the obscurity in which so many of Rossini's serious operas still slumber, the neglect to which Semiramide has been subjected is in no way mandated by the quality of the score. Interestingly, Semiramide was first performed by the Metropolitan Opera on tour in Boston as early as 1892, when the title rôle was sung by the legendary Adelina Patti, and was introduced to the MET’s New York audience two years later by Dame Nellie Melba. In January 1894, an anonymous critic wrote in The New York Times that ‘it is not likely that any one takes Semiramide very seriously in these days. It is a string of display pieces which give the singers abundant opportunity to exhibit the agility of their vocal organs. The music has no connection with the plot, which is very imperfectly explained even by the libretto, and which, indeed, is better left unexplained.’ Is it possible that New Yorkers in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century heard a different Semiramide than the one that inspired Rodney Milnes to write in Opera in response to the 1990 MET revival of the opera that ‘it is a work that grips the imagination from first to last’? In actuality, Semiramide’s famous Overture is the rare such work in the Rossini canon that incorporates thematic material from the score it was intended to introduce, and the level of inspiration in evidence in Rossini’s settings of Gaetano Rossi’s text elevates the opera to a higher histrionic plane than that occupied by many of the composer’s operas. Whether or not a listener is willing to accept Semiramide as a profound work, the challenges that the score poses to singers cannot be denied, and it is the clearing of these musical hurdles that is certain to be the defining virtue of Washington Concert Opera’s performance of the opera.

ARTS IN ACTION: Soprano JESSICA PRATT, Semiramide in Washington Concert Opera's 22 November performance of SEMIRAMIDE, as Amira in Gioachino Rossini's CIRO IN BABILONIA at Pesaro's Rossini Festival, 2012 [Photo by Eugenio Pini, © by Rossini Festival, Pesaro; used with permission]Rossinian cousins: Soprano Jessica Pratt, Washington Concert Opera’s Semiramide, as Amira in Gioachino Rossini’s Ciro in Babilonia at Pesaro’s Rossini Festival, 2012 [Photo by Eugenio Pini, © by Rossini Festival, Pesaro; used with permission]

An Englishwoman by birth and an Australian since her teens, soprano Jessica Pratt recently sang the title rôle in Semiramide for the first time with Opéra Municipal de la Ville de Marseille. The finicky French press wrote that her performance was of a quality that caused the audience to wish that time would stop in order to prolong enjoyment of her singing. There is surely some sort of cosmic significance in the fact that it was a pair of fellow Australians whose efforts prevented Semiramide from being lost forever in the mists of Babylon’s hanging gardens. Dame Nellie Melba was Semiramide in eight of the Metropolitan Opera’s nine performances of the opera in the Nineteenth Century: after 1895, Semiramide was not heard again at the MET until 1990, depriving MET audiences of hearing the great Australian interpreter of the Twentieth Century, Dame Joan Sutherland, who sang the rôle opposite the Arsace of Marilyn Horne in California, Boston, and Chicago. Melba’s and Sutherland’s voices were very different instruments from what historical accounts suggest that Colbran’s was, but these ladies memorably carried Semiramide’s mantle until it could be hoisted aloft in the Twenty-First Century by their talented countrywoman. Bringing her newly-minted portrayal of Rossini’s conflicted queen to Washington, Pratt is committed to refining and deepening the characterization that garnered acclaim in Marseille. ‘I would like to highlight her vulnerability and her very precarious position, her determination to survive and rule in a masculine world,’ the soprano commented. Whereas many singers are understandably concerned solely with meeting the technical demands of the rôle, Pratt, one of the finest technicians among today’s generation of young bel canto singers, is dedicated to revealing unexpected facets of Semiramide’s personality. ‘I would like her to be seen less as a fearsome tyrant queen and more as a brave, intelligent, and ambitious woman trying her best to survive in a world where every day could be her last if her past crime comes to common knowledge.’ That she sets this goal whilst facing some of Rossini’s most ferocious bravura writing is a testament to her artistic fearlessness and confidence in the solidity of her technical foundation.

ARTS IN ACTION: Mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX, Arsace in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's SEMIRAMIDE on 22 November 2015 [Photo © by Michel Juvet; used with permission]Ardent Arsace: Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, Arsace in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide on 22 November 2015 [Photo © by Michel Juvet; used with permission]

Created by coloratura contralto Rosa Mariani, whose brother Luciano was Rossini's first Oroe, the rôle of the noble warrior Arsace in Semiramide is among Rossini's most challenging parts for the modern mezzo-soprano voice—and, indeed, one of the most formidable travesti rôles in opera. Ideally, an Arsace must be both chest-thumpingly masculine and sensitive, a combination that is difficult for a female singer portraying a male character to achieve. In Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Semiramide, Arsace will be brought to life by one of the world's most acclaimed Rossini singers, Alaska-born mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux. In a career spanning two decades, Genaux has sung many of Rossini’s great travesti rôles, as well as his contralto heroines such as Angelina in La Cenerentola, Isabella in L’italiana in Algeri, and Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia. Like Marilyn Horne before her, she has scored well-deserved successes as Arsace in Semiramide, not least opposite Angela Meade and Lawrence Brownlee at Caramoor in 2009. Having previously sung Angelina in La Cenerentola and Falliero in Bianca e Falliero for Washington Concert Opera, Genaux comes to Washington on the heels of a much-lauded Norwegian début as Romeo in Bellini's I Capuleti ed i Montecchi with Stavanger Symfoniorkester and Fabio Biondi. ‘I’m very excited to sing the role of Arsace again,’ Genaux recently said. ‘Semiramide is one of my favorite operas: the music is so full and rich, with gorgeous duets and ensembles paired with the virtuosity and intensity of the arias. To me, it’s one of Rossini's finest works, and I can't wait to share this amazing experience with the Washington Concert Opera!’ That she has such esteem for Semiramide is of course very meaningful considering Genaux’s experience with Rossini repertory. Not surprisingly, her affection for the opera is greatly influenced by the music for Arsace. ‘Arsace is very representative of the mezzo rôles in Rossini's dramatic operas in that he is a young man who, through the course of the opera, is called upon by circumstances to take on the responsibilities of an adult,’ Genaux stated. ‘I love walking in his shoes every time I sing him, feeling how the bewilderment and uncertainty of the youth matures into the conviction and complete dedication of the man.’

ARTS IN ACTION: Tenor TAYLOR STAYTON, Idreno in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's SEMIRAMIDE on 22 November 2015 [Photo © by Amy Allen; used with permission]Idiomatic Idreno: Tenor Taylor Stayton, Idreno in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide on 22 November 2015 [Photo © by Amy Allen; used with permission]

The third variable in Semiramide’s Pythagorean equation of ambitions, amorous intrigues, and assassinations is the Indian king Idreno, who will be sung in Washington by thrilling young tenore di grazia Taylor Stayton. Idreno’s allegiances and perspectives are continually trapped in the crossfire of the drama throughout the opera, and his music—much of which has often been cut for a variety of reasons, foremost among which is tenors’ inability to sing it—reflects his near-constant state of flux. One of America’s most exciting young singers and one capable of mastering Idreno’s music on Rossini’s terms rather than his own, Stayton recently wowed audiences at the Metropolitan Opera with his singing as Percy in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, a rôle in which he has shone since his time at Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts. Though Rossini and Donizetti are often misleadingly pigeonholed together, Stayton is keenly aware of the stylistic chasm that divides Semiramide from Anna Bolena. ‘There is a definitely a difference, musically, between Rossini and Donizetti,’ he indicated. ‘Percy is the beautiful standard of Donizetti: the long legato lines, ascending to slow beautiful cadences at the ends of arias, and always demanding complete vocal control. For me, Idreno is more [representative] of the intense vocal fireworks that Rossini is known for in his operas and [of] maintaining that vocal control with virtuosic agility—a completely different ball game.’ Particularly with music demanding technical concentration as great as that required by Idreno’s searing—and stratospheric!—Act One aria ‘Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento,’ it can be very difficult to achieve a credible characterization of a rôle in the concert setting. ‘Since WCO champions concert versions of opera,’ Stayton remarked, ‘my focus is on the music. I hope the audience will enjoy and have as much fun listening to Semiramide as we do performing the opera.’

For the lower-voiced male rôles in Semiramide, Washington Concert Opera’s performance offers a trio of fantastic voices wielded by expert stylists. Assur, a part in which Samuel Ramey excelled to the degree that a New York critic wrote that Ramey’s performance of the music at the MET put the bel in bel canto, is entrusted to bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, a singer whose versatility, not unlike Ramey’s, enables him to follow his Assur for Washington Concert Opera with an assumption of the titular seagoing wanderer in Virginia Opera's Spring 2016 production of Richard Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer. Oroe, the High Priest of Baal, will be sung by bass-baritone Evan Hughes, a native Californian whose sonorous voice and interpretive intelligence have delighted audiences in recital halls and opera houses. Chinese bass Weí Wu, the engaging Friedhold in WCO’s March 2015 performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram, returns to Lisner Auditorium to intone the dramatically vital utterances of L’ombra di Nino.

Despite the increased traction that the opera has achieved on the European circuit in recent years, it has now been more than two decades since Semiramide was performed at the Metropolitan Opera. Of course, it was not until 1997 that La Cenerentola, one of Rossini’s most popular scores, was performed at the MET, where recent seasons have offered audiences première productions of Rossini’s Armida and Le comte Ory. Without question, the difficulty of the music puts Semiramide out of the reach of all but the most gifted Rossinians. Fortunately, it is an ensemble of precisely such artists that Washington Concert Opera will assemble in Lisner Auditorium on 22 November. With a rare performance of Donizetti’s La favorite in the original French scheduled for 4 March 2016, Washington Concert Opera’s 2015 – 2016 Season again provides audiences with opportunities to experience gems of bel canto as they were meant to be performed.

Sincerest thanks to Jessica Pratt, Vivica Genaux, and Taylor Stayton for responding to questions for this preview and to Kendra Rubinfeld of Kendra Rubinfeld PR and Tim Weiler of O-PR Communications for facilitating the artists’ responses.

For more information about Washington Concert Opera’s 2015 – 2016 Season and to purchase tickets, please visit the company’s website.