24 December 2015

CD REVIEW: Riccardo Zandonai — FRANCESCA DA RIMINI (C. Vasileva, M. Mühle, J. Orozco, A. Graziani, K.-L. Strebel, B. Tauran, S. Wilson, M. Jokovic; cpo 777 960-2)

CD REVIEW: Riccardo Zandonai - FRANCESCA DA RIMINI (cpo 777 960-2)RICCARDO ZANDONAI (1883 – 1944): Francesca da Rimini, Opus 4Christina Vasileva (Francesca), Martin Mühle (Paolo il bello), Juan Orozco (Gianciotto), Adriano Graziani (Malatestino), Kim-Lillian Strebel (Garsenda), Bénédicte Tauran (Biancofiore), Sally Watson (Adonella), Marija Joković (Altichiara), Viktória Mester (Samaritana, Smaragdi), Levente Molnár (Torrigiano, Ostasio), Aaron Judisch (Ser Toldo), Alejandro Lárraga Schleske (Fahrender Sänger), Se Hun Jin (Schütze, Gefangener); Freiburger Kammerchor, Opern- und Extrachor des Theater Freiburg, Vokalensemble der Hochschule für Musik Freiburg; Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg; Fabrice Bollon [Recorded in conjunction with concert performances in Rolf Böhme Saal, Konzerthaus Freiburg, Germany, 18 – 23 July 2013; cpo 777 960-2; 2 CDs, 133:26; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

It may come as a surprise to many listeners in the Twenty-First Century that, when Giacomo Puccini died in 1924 without finishing his epic swansong Turandot, the composer’s son Antonio ultimately ignored his wish, seconded by Arturo Toscanini, that completion of the score be entrusted to Riccardo Zandonai, perhaps because it was feared that Zandonai’s fame imperiled full appreciation of the genius of the score as Puccini left it. Since the 1911 première of his Conchita with his eventual wife, soprano Tarquinia Tarquini, in the title rôle, Zandonai had been esteemed as one of Italy’s finest composers of opera. As trends in European music in the years between and after the World Wars migrated away from the nutrient-rich feeding grounds of late-Romantic tonalism of the kind espoused by Zandonai, however, the composer’s fame quickly faded, especially after his death following gallstone surgery in 1944. When the Dante-inspired Francesca da Rimini was first brought to life on the stage of the Teatro Regio di Torino in 1914, though, Zandonai’s talent shone brightly in the Italian firmament. Recorded in Rolf Böhme Saal of Konzerthaus Freiburg in 2013, cpo’s new recording of Francesca da Rimini unapologetically luxuriates in the white-hot melodrama of Zandonai’s chameleonic score—a bit too much so, in fact, resulting in the sound becoming muddied in passages of greatest cacophony. As in cpo’s excellent recording of Cilèa’s L’arlesiana [reviewed here], conductor Fabrice Bollon and Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg evince an entrancingly sympathetic absorption of Zandonai’s unique style. Bollon conducts Francesca da Rimini as idiomatically as Toscanini or Serafin might have done, ignoring none of the score’s violence in favor of lyrical effusions: his galvaning leadership of the opera’s bellicose second act would distinguish a performance of Richard Strauss’s Elektra. Respectively trained by Lukas Grimm and Bernhard Moncado, the Freiburger Kammerchor and Opern- und Extrachor des Theater Freiburg are joined by the young singers of Vokalensemble der Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, and all of the choristers respond to Bollon’s sword’s-edge guidance of the performance by offering commendably euphonious, dramatically exciting singing whether representing ladies of the Polentani court or much-harangued crossbowmen in the service of the Malatesti. [An added pleasure of this recording of Francesca da Rimini is confirmation in the accompanying booklet that Bollon and the Freiburgers will be heard again on cpo in Spring 2016 in a recording of Karl Goldmark's seldom-performed 1875 opera Die Königin von Saba.] Mastery of Zandonai's music is no small accomplishment, and there indeed is nothing ‘small’ about the level of accomplishment on this very welcome recording of Francesca da Rimini. How a Zandonai ending for Turandot might have sounded must remain a mystery, but how bewitching his mysterious, ferociously amorous Francesca sounds!

It is a testament to the fact that Freiburg is still home to one of the world's few genuine companies of singers that this recording of Francesca da Rimini can boast of an ensemble of singers eminently capable of singing their rôles. As Biancofiore, Adonella, and Altichiara, Francesca's companions, soprano Bénédicte Tauran and mezzo-sopranos Sally Wilson and Marija Joković are uniformly impressive, combining keen dramatic instincts with fresh, accurately-pitched vocalism. Tenor Se Hun Jin excels as both the Balestriere and as the voice of Montagna, the prisoner tortured and executed by the bloodthirsty Malatesti in Act Four.

Born in Transylvania and raised in Hungary, baritone Levente Molnár is a product of the combined traditions that produced great baritones like Nicolae Herlea and György Melis. Singing Ostasio in Act One, Molnár reveals a voice with the potential to fulfill the promise of the legacies of his lauded predecessors. He voices ‘Che fai qui, manigoldo?’ with youthful exuberance, and the firm core of the voice is exceptionally valuable in his singing of ‘Questi giullari et uomini di corte.’ Molnár is no less effective as the Torrigiano in Act Two, his interactions with Francesca sung with easy command of the range and laudable attention to detail. Young tenor Aaron Judisch, an Iowan with studies with Mignon Dunn, Sherrill Milnes, and William Warfield to his credit, is similarly convincing as Ser Toldo, delivering ‘Voi dovete pur sapere’ in Act One with bright tone and leading-man flair. Swiss-reared soprano Kim-Lillian Strebel matches her colleagues’ achievements with her depiction of Garsenda, particularly in her urgent voicing of ‘Viene! Viene! Madonna Francesca, ecco che viene dalla parte del giardine’ in Act One.

A native of Veracruz, Mexico, baritone Alejandro Lárraga Schleske sings splendidly as il Giullare, the traveling minstrel who regales the Polentani household with tales of legendary lovers. The singer’s voice rings with boyish wonder in ‘So le storie di tutti i cavalieri,’ his delight in telling his stories as great as the assembled ladies’ joy in hearing them. Who would not relish such comely, clarion sounds emanating from his own throat? Lárraga Schleske phrases ‘Come Morgana manda al re Artù’ with the enthusiasm of the consummate storyteller, eager to hear the next development in his scenario. Those who hear Lárraga Schleske’s stories within the context of the opera clearly hang on his every word; so do ears that hear them flowing from the recording.

From a post-Freudian perspective, the decadent language of Tito Ricordi’s libretto introduces a suggestion that Samaritana’s attachment to her sister Francesca is unnaturally close. Theirs is the language of lovers, not sisters, and when Samaritana’s music is sung as passionately as Hungarian mezzo-soprano Viktória Mester sings it in this performance there is an unnerving eroticism in the sisters’ encounters. Typified by her dramatically panicked but vocally poised ‘Francesca, dove andrai?’ in Act One, Mester is a Samaritana of unshakable devotion, the tessitura managed with panache except in a few passages that take the singer beyond the parameters of her vocal comfort zone. Even when under stress, the tone remains ingratiating, however. A further psychological dimension is injected into the performance by having Mester also sing the rôle of the Schiava in Act Three—an emotional slave to her sister before Francesca's marriage and later a physical manifestation of that self-imposed servitude, perhaps. The Schiava’s music is not as demanding as Samaritana’s, and Mester sings it with absolute assurance.

Italian tenor Adriano Graziani deploys a lean, pointed timbre in Zandonai’s difficult music for the duplicitous Malatestino. It is a credit to the singer’s portrayal of the character that one quickly wishes that Francesca had been right when she thought that his battle wounds were fatal. The character’s reptilian creepiness oozes from Graziani's singing of ‘Fuggirà, fuggirà’ in Act Two, but it is in Act Four that Malatestino fully reveals his loathsome agenda. The insinuation of the tenor’s voicing of ‘Tu m’aizzi. Il pensiero di te m’aizzi l’animo, continuamente’ is appropriately repulsive, all the more so because the actual vocalism is appealing. The despicable conniver Graziani creates explodes with fury in ‘Tradimento! Io credea, mia cognata, che tal parola ardesse le vostre labbra,’ leaving no doubt that there are no depths of evil to which he will not descend in order to satiate his carnal appetite. ‘È se il fratello vede che taluno’ is intoned with venomous arrogance, crowning a performance in which Graziani displays his fluency in the language of operatic villains. After all, those miscreants who are most dangerous—Tancredi Pasero’s Ramfis, Giuseppe Taddei’s Scarpia, José van Dam’s Golaud, and now Adriano Graziani’s Malatestino—are those who wreak havoc most mellifluously.

The treacherous Gianciotto is a figure whose character, like that of Verdi’s Rigoletto, is shaped by psychological manifestations of physiological deformities. Were the man conjured by Ricordi and Zandonai not so sickeningly smug in his malfeasance, it might be possible to pity a man compelled to resort to fraud in order to win the love of his betrothed. Hailing from Hidalgo, Mexico, baritone Juan Orozco lends Gianciotto a suggestion of rough-hewn dignity, but the growling menace of his performance—a faithful reading of the part, that is—annihilates any redeeming qualities. From his first appearance in Act Two, Orozco is a snarling but musical force in the drama. His singing of ‘Per Dio, gente poltrona, razzaccia sgherra’ exudes enmity, but the actual vocalism is not as solid as the baritone’s acting. Gianciotto’s emphatic music demands of Orozco a level of intensity that undermines the voice’s focus. Still, Orozco’s tonal unsteadiness neither effects his intonation nor detracts from the startling potency of his characterization. The pinnacle of his performance is his virulent ‘Mia cara donna, voi m‘attendevate?’ in Act Four. The slight problems with his singing in this performance notwithstanding, Orozco’s is a voice of excellent quality, and he is a Gianciotto whose savagery seems as intrinsic as his malformed physique.

Here singing Paolo with unrelenting energy and an attractive if not conventionally beautiful voice, consistent in support and projection throughout the range, tenor Martin Mühle would be a wonderful asset in performances of many operas of vintages similar to Francesca da Rimini. His timbre as recorded is sometimes reminiscent of that of the under-appreciated Gianfranco Cecchele, and though he is a product of Brazil and Germany Mühle’s singing is convincingly Italianate. Throughout Act Two, the tenor’s singing is a marvel of power and security, his intonation sure to the top of his range. Top notes ring out thrillingly, and Mühle emotes unabashedly in his fervently-sung ‘Onta et orrore sopra di me!’ In Act Three, his singing of ‘Inghirlandata di violette m’appariste ieri’ and ‘Nemica ebbi la luce’ generates sparks that ignite the smoldering ardor between him and Francesca, culminating in their fateful kiss. Mühle completes his searing portrait of a tragic hero in Act Four with performances of ‘O mia vita, non fu mai tanto folle’ and ‘Ti trarrò, ti trarrò dov’ è l’obblio’ that radiate sensuality and sybaritic tension. Mühle’s phrasing is occasionally slightly pedestrian, but his singing is never routine. Like Mario del Monaco and Plácido Domingo in celebrated performances from the past, Mühle is a Paolo whose magnetism would attract any Francesca.

Bulgarian soprano Christina Vasileva is in some ways a frustrating Francesca. There are sufficient beauty and natural quality in the voice to elevate expectations for her portrayal of the ill-fated heroine to great heights, and she meets these expectations to an extent that makes shortcomings more disturbing than they would seem in the context of the work of a less-qualified singer. It was Frances Alda who introduced Metropolitan Opera audiences to Francesca in the opera’s United States première in 1916, and the forty-three performances staged in the years between 1916 and 2013, when Francesca da Rimini was last heard at the MET, have featured singing actresses of the caliber of Renata Scotto and Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title rôle. On disc, Vasileva’s foremost rivals are Maria Caniglia, Leyla Gencer, Magda Olivero, and Raina Kabaivanska. The soprano comes so near to reaching these ladies’ plane of achievement in the part that it is easy to focus on her few weaknesses rather than her many strengths. In Act One, Vasileva phrases ‘Pace, amica cara, piccola colomba’ with affection that seems almost incestuous, and she credibly depicts a bashful young girl awakening to love throughout the act. The increased maturity that she conveys in Act Two is vital to the drama, her guardedly inquisitive ‘Ah! dove siamo noi?’ evocative of the inner torment that she strives to conceal. Vasileva’s resolute proclamation of ‘Questo cimento è il guidizio di Dio per la saetta’ contrasts cogently with her volcanic utterance of ‘Paolo! Paolo! Che mai è questo, o Dio?’ The air of alarm that she raises in ‘Sciagura! Non vedete? Non vedete Malatestino’ hints at a benevolent nature that has not been entirely corrupted by the mistreatment to which she has been subjected. Vasileva’s reading of the story of Lancelot and Guinevere in the extended duet with Paolo in Act Three surges with innuendo, her voicing of ‘E Galeotto dice: „Dama, abbiatene Pieta”’ simmering with personal implications. The exhaustion of a woman who has resisted her own heart’s desires for far too long resounds in her exclamation of ‘Paolo, datemi pace!’ Francesca’s histrionic journey reaches its tragic terminus in Act Four, the inexorable course of her love for the man she erroneously believed to be her husband leading to Gianciotto’s brutal vengeance for the betrayal begotten by his own deception. Vasileva sings ‘Perchè tanto sei strano?’ with keen sensitivity, seeming to sense like Verdi’s Desdemona that her path leads only to death. The ambiguities of her accounts of ‘Via, perchè pensate a quel che dissi leggermente?’ and ‘O Biancofiore, piccola tu sei!’ are evidence of a mind already preoccupied with inevitable destiny, but Vasileva detonates a ‘Perdonami, perdonami!’ that is like a slap to the face of her husband. Whatever awaits her in the pages of Dante’s Inferno, death is for this Francesca a kind of freedom, a release from the oppression of convention that enables her to be united with her true love, even if only in hell. It is at least a hell different from that in which she has languished in life. Vasileva’s upper register is strange. The lower reaches of the voice are voluptuous and smoothly-produced, but the highest notes are often wiry though true of pitch. The vibrato on high is markedly different, too: it sometimes seems as though the top notes are being produced by an altogether different voice. Even so, it is difficult to imagine a more involved and expressive Francesca among the handful of today’s singers with the appropriate voix du rôle.

Seventy-one years after the composer’s death, the operas of Riccardo Zandonai still sit on the sidelines, waiting to be recalled to the field to demonstrate their ability to make big plays, but the obstacles that now prevent a score like Francesca da Rimini from reaching the end zone are failures of personnel, not musical deficiencies. When opportunities to perform Zandonai’s music are limited at best, which of today’s conscientious Toscas and Cavaradossis would subject their throats to the demands of Francesca and Paolo? This recording confirms that, when taken judiciously, the risks of performing Francesca da Rimini pay off. Fabrice Bollon, Christina Vasileva, and Martin Mühle are the Most Valuable Players of a team of musicians who score more than enough points to legitimize Zandonadi’s participation in the game.