29 March 2016

CD REVIEW: F. Chopin, R. Schumann, & A. Eliasson — PERSONAE (Beth Levin, piano; Navona Records NV6016)

IN REVIEW: F. Chopin, R. Schumann, & A. Eliasson - PERSONAE (Beth Levin, piano; Navona Records NV6016)FRÉDÉRIC FRANÇOIS CHOPIN (1810 – 1849), ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856), and ANDERS ELIASSON (1947 – 2013): PersonaeBeth Levin, piano [Recorded at Peter Karl Studios, New York City, USA, on 27 July 2015; Navona Records NV6016; 1 CD, 67:32; Available from ClassicsOnline HD (Download | Streaming), Amazon (USA), iTunes, Presto Classical (UK), Spotify, and major music retailers]

One of the foremost keys necessary to discerning an important pianist from the teeming throngs of people who endeavor to make their living by playing the instrument is the manner in which that key’s significance alongside its eighty-seven siblings is examined, analyzed, and conveyed to the listener. If such an assertion seems to be an exercise in semantics, that is because, as Hamlet might have suggested, knowing not ‘seems,’ it is, but it is nevertheless a logical assessment. The world’s conservatories continue to flood concert stages and recital halls with highly-educated pianists with chrome-plated techniques who play as though they cannot distinguish a ground bass from a gruppetto. When such distinctions are also lost on many audiences, it is too easy to surmise and accept that artistic standards no longer matter. Thankfully, vitally, there are some few artists like Beth Levin and discs of the calibre of her Navona release Personae to remind everyone from the casual listener to the aspiring pianist that important art and artists inevitably distinguish themselves: observers need only have the good sense to surrender to their charms. In the performances of works by Chopin, Schumann, and Eliasson on this disc, engineered by Peter Karl with balance and clarity that replicate the warm acoustic of an intimate recital hall, one of today’s most poetic pianists crafts musical verses that proclaim, ‘The legacy of great pianism is far from dead when fingers such as these still the keyboard tread.’

It is sometimes suggested that aural evidence of Robert Schumann’s struggles with sanity is manifested in his music. Perhaps there is some validity in this assertion, but it is equally valid to argue that the very act of attempting to translate one’s thoughts into musical notation that can be followed by others is madness. Insanity, it has been said, is performing the same action repeatedly with an expectation of different results, but is this not a defining property of artistic endeavor? That Beth Levin’s playing of Schumann is different from other pianists’ is what makes her work unique and markedly elevates the intrinsic merit of Personae. Essentially dances in name only, Schumann’s Opus 6 Davidsbündlertänze—mature works despite the opus number—are vibrant pieces that soar to the euphoric highs and plunge to the despondent lows that characterized the composer’s courtship of his beloved Clara. In the first three of the ‘dances,’ I. Lebhaft, II. Innig, and III. Mit Humor, Levin immediately discloses her uncanny ability to simultaneously pinpoint the vast differences among the pieces and establish and maintain an extraordinary degree of continuity. The extent to which Levin conveys the essence of each individual piece is exceptional, but her ability to identify and perpetuate the parallels among them is a hallmark of an atypically perceptive musician. The next sequence—IV. Ungeduldig, V. Einfach, and VI. Sehr rasch—also reveals surprising breadth of kinship, complemented by the searching treatment that they receive from Levin. Her approach to VII. Nicht schnell is particularly successful, but she plays VIII. Frisch, IX. Lebhaft, and the ingenius X. Balladenmäßig - Sehr rasch with similar effectiveness, the irreproachable rhythmic consistency of her playing lending each number its own expressive microcosm and also links it to its brethren among the Davidsbündlertänze. Most significantly, Levin unaffectedly realizes Schumann’s goal of pacing Davidsbündlertänze as a metaphysical conversation between his much-discussed musical alter egos, Florestan and Eusebius. In XI. Einfach, XII. Mit Humor, XIII. Wild und lustig, and XIV. Zart und singend, the debate rages, points and counterpoints discharged by Levin’s wrists with electric intensity. The final four pieces—XV. Frisch, XVI. Mit gutem Humor, XVII. Wie aus der Ferne, and XVIII. Nicht schnell—are played as thoughtfully as they are powerfully, the pianist’s technique encompassing fingering that enables her to bring off marvels of phrasing that elucidate frequently-overlooked details of Schumann’s impressive musical architecture. Some pianists make the mistake of misinterpreting the title of Davidsbündlertänze and playing the score as though it were a miniature Swan Lake, thereby depriving the work of much of its special cogency. Levin’s performance is perfectly calibrated to the scale of the music, divulging both the inventiveness of Schumann’s music and her incredible skill for playing it.

Playing Frédéric Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B♭ minor (Opus 35), often called the Funeral March owing to its emblematic third movement and the prevailing sobriety of the Sonata as a whole, is a pianist’s equivalent of singing the Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde. The opening movement, Grave – Doppio movimento, demands the concentration of a prize fighter: if the pianist loses focus for a moment, Chopin’s music will leave her breathless and embarrassed on the mat. Levin’s playing of the movement combines the near-operatic phrasing of Ivan Moravec with the pragmatism of John Ogdon, but her reading is very much her own. Her handling of the Scherzo shudders with aggression masquerading as broad humor, and the rhythmic precision of her performance never jeopardizes the elasticity of her emotional response to the music. It is here especially difficult to believe that all of the music on Personae was recorded in a single day: few performances edited from material recorded in multiple sessions reach the levels of technical and sentimental mastery of the music that Levin exhibits. She plays the bel canto Marche funèbre: Lento with unexaggerated sincerity, finding Chopin’s tempo and dynamic markings liberating rather than confining. In the final movement, Finale: Presto, the pianist consistently places principal emphasis on the music itself rather than her playing of it, meeting Chopin’s requirements with unperturbed dignity. This is an account of the Sonata projected not to the last row of a recital hall but to each listener’s singular sensibilities, both engaging and empowering the hearer’s imagination. With her performance of the Sonata on Personae, this Brünnhilde of the keyboard earns her arms and armor.

Published in 1987 and first performed in Stockholm in 1988, Swedish composer Anders Eliasson’s Disegno 2 for piano solo is a mature but exploratory work, roughly contemporary with several of the larger-scaled pieces for which Eliasson is most known. The composer’s innovatively contrapuntal idiom is always apparent, but this is audibly the music of an artist still grappling with the collisions of centuries-old formulae with trends in late-Twentieth-Century avant-garde composition. It is a gift for pianists with the technical competency necessary to navigate its difficulties and interpretive insights sufficient to face its evocative nuances head on. Levin brings precisely these qualities to her playing of Disegno 2, her performance highlighting the cleverness of the piece’s construction. The ears are always lured to the primary subject as Eliasson surely intended, but none of the music’s inner voices can complain of being unheard. Perhaps most surprisingly, Levin’s execution of Disegno 2 causes Eliasson’s music to seem a wholly appropriate bridge between the works by Schumann and Chopin.

That Personae is a valuable release is evident from the first bars that issue from it. That it is a disc of rare interpretive insight and technical achievement becomes more evident with each subsequent bar. There are legions of pianists capable of accurately playing notes, but only true artists lift music from the page and give it life that becomes a part of the listener’s community of musical experiences. It seems counterintuitive to state that an artist should carve her own path within the landscape of traditions and methodologies because individuality is such an inalienable component of art, but the work of so many of today’s pianists suggests that they are taught that, like far too much of modern education, the interpretation of music is a conveniently finite, multiple-choice undertaking; not so Beth Levin’s profoundly personal playing on Personae. Emily Dickinson wrote that ‘Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne'er succeed.’ As this disc plays, the sounds of true artistry at the piano fall all the more sweetly upon ears so unused to encountering them.

27 March 2016

CD REVIEW: Lennox Berkeley, Gavin Bryars, Herbert Howells, & John Jeffreys — BRITISH MUSIC FOR HARPSICHORD (Christopher D. Lewis, harpsichord; NAXOS 8.573668)

IN REVIEW: Berkeley, Bryars, Howells, & Jeffreys - BRITISH MUSIC FOR HARPSICHORD (NAXOS 8.573668)SIR LENNOX BERKELEY (1903 – 1989), GAVIN BRYARS (born 1943), HERBERT HOWELLS (1892 – 1983), and JOHN JEFFREYS (1927 – 2010): British Music for HarpsichordChristopher D. Lewis, harpsichord [Recorded at Belvedere Estate, Belvedere, California, USA, 16 – 18 March 2015; NAXOS 8.573668; 1 CD, 71:17; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD (Download | Streaming), Amazon (USA), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Like many aspects of human culture, as well as life itself, music is in many ways inherently cyclical. Musical styles are continually evolving, but the courses of trends in both composition and performance are rarely linear. Perhaps the greatest marvel in music in the past century is the way in which musicians have simultaneously looked to the past and the future, the revival of interest in and study of music from the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Centuries markedly influencing the creation of new music. Still, this is anything but an isolated reality. From the pioneering efforts of Wanda Landowska, now regarded by the outspoken Early Music community in nearly equal measures as pariah and prophetess, to the attention of an array of composers spanning the spectrum from Francis Poulenc to Gerald Busby, the harpsichord has benefited enormously from the unique rejuvenation of an unparalleled fusion of past and present. At the apogee of this juggernaut of reassessment and repurposing of an instrument still linked in the minds of many listeners solely with music composed before 1800 is Welsh harpsichordist Christopher D. Lewis. As much a musical adventurer as a well-trained virtuoso, Lewis takes the listener during the seventy-one minutes of this thoughtfully-planned and expertly-engineered NAXOS disc on a sometimes challenging, always captivating trek through under-explored compositions for the harpsichord by contemporary British composers. Like Poulenc’s Concert champêtre and Busby’s Court Dances, Parallel, and Camera, these works greatly enrich the harpsichord repertory. Hearing them played by Christopher D. Lewis with a delightfully sophisticated but still unsullied blend of youthful exuberance and artistic maturity substantially enriches appreciation of the capabilities of the harpsichord.

Born in Rhiwbina, Wales, Lewis has obviously been influenced virtually since infancy by his native land’s love of music. His pursuit of education and expansion of his cosmopolitan sensibilities having taken him throughout the world and brought him into contact with some of the foremost masters of the harpsichord, he is especially qualified to bring ‘new’ music for the instrument to the attention of today’s listeners. Sir Lennox Berkeley’s Mr. Pilkington’s Toye and For Vere are ideal showcases for Lewis’s abilities. Playing harpsichord music of any era naturally requires mastery of the technical constitution of the instrument’s mechanism, and this Lewis has of course attained and displays uninhibitedly, but engagingly performing music for an instrument that in many modern minds belongs in Baroque basso continuo consortiums and opera house orchestra pits demands interpretive skills of a particular order. It is apparent in his jocular, even impish playing of Berkeley’s Mr. Pilkington’s Toye that Lewis is the man for the job. Of a wholly different emotional fettle is For Vere, but the performance that it receives from Lewis is of complementary excellence, technique again sharing pride of place with expressive intuition. These pieces do not inhabit the progressive world of Berkeley’s Symphonies, the opera Ruth, and the Missa Brevis, but they possess a purity of invention that is tellingly highlighted by Lewis’s unaffected style of playing.

Herbert Howells was one of Britain’s most gifted composers of the Twentieth Century, but aside from his poignant motet Take him, earth, for cherishing, written to memorialize President John F. Kennedy and imbued with the composer’s mourning for the death of his own son, his work is little known and far too infrequently performed beyond Britain’s borders. The excerpts from Howell’s Clavichord presented here by Lewis provide opportunities to examine facets of Howell’s ingenuity that are astonishingly unlike the melancholically atmospheric choral works upon which his reputation is mostly—and not unjustly—founded. The pieces on this disc afford a glimpse of a lighter-hearted Howells, his talent for musical portraiture making the sequence of works played by Lewis a study in the art of tuneful characterization akin to Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The identities of the ‘visitors’ in each of the pieces are not difficult to discern, but the voice that emerges most resonantly from the chorus is Howells’s. The lovely ‘Goff’s Fireside’ is offered in performances on the 1997 Flemish double harpsichord after the Ruckers school by San Francisco-based maker Kevin Fryer employed for the balance of the Howells pieces and a 1982 Australian replica of a 1604 muselar, the peculiar northern European, right-oriented virginal, both responding dulcetly to Lewis’s touch. [Other selections on the disc are played on a Pleyel harpsichord dating from the 1930s, an instrument of the type espoused by Wanda Landowska and in this case originally purchased by Toronto’s historic Eaton Auditorium.] The Arcadian lilt of ‘Patrick’s Siciliano,’ enchantingly phrased by Lewis, is followed by the explosive ‘Jacob’s Brawl,’ in which the young harpsichordist’s nimble fingers deliver jabs and hooks that never miss their marks. Then, the deceptive flow of ‘Dart’s Sarabande’ is transformed by Lewis into a radiant, almost operatic account of ‘Andrew’s Air,’ the musician’s technical and interpretive dexterities finding compelling outlets in Howells’s music. An early champion of restoring to Baroque repertory some measure of authentic, period-appropriate performance practices, Sir Adrian would be thrilled by Lewis’s crisp, rhythmically dazzling playing of ‘Boult’s Brangill.’ ‘Dyson’s Delight’ is, as played here, just that: a delight. ‘Ralph’s Pavane and Galliard’ are unconventionally symmetrical, and the intelligence with which they are dispatched by Lewis gives them elements that bond as naturally as hydrogen and oxygen. The title of ‘Finzi’s Rest’ might at first glance be deemed a misnomer, but the quietude at its core, enhanced by Lewis’s finely-judged approach, confirms the sagacity of Howells’s insight. There is indeed a visionary epic lurking beneath the simple façade of ‘Malcolm’s Vision,’ and Lewis is careful to spotlight but not exaggerate it and succeeds by interpreting the piece succinctly. His performance of ‘Julian’s Dream,’ one of the finest of these pieces, is aptly ethereal without descending into saccharine over-emoting. Any listener whose view of Howells is of a humorless wretch composing in order to excise his demons should hear Lewis’s performance of ‘Walton’s Toye’ if only to realize how unfair it is to thus dismiss this wonderfully multi-dimensional composer. Lewis has performed a great service to Howells with this recording.

Played by Lewis with precisely the right balance of free-spiritedness and seriousness, Gavin Bryars’s After Handel’s “Vesper” is a work of considerable charm and artistic merit, an affectionate homage that wields the cutting edge of typically British parody. There is nothing explicitly satirical in Bryars’s music, per se, but the nod to the great tunesmith of Brook Street is at least as good-naturedly humorous as it is artistically reverential. The same can be said of Lewis’s playing of the piece: in short, his performance is tremendous fun but never farcical. One hears Händel like a voice from another room—a mighty, strongly-accented voice, natürlich, but not an overbearing one. The amiable conversation that Bryars shared with Händel is gleefully shared by Lewis with the listener.

Among the composers whose works are featured on this disc, John Jeffreys will perhaps be the least-familiar to listeners without in-depth knowledge of British music in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Lacking the widespread recognition allotted to Britten and Tippett, Jeffreys was no less a dedicated artist than his more famous countrymen, and in certain respects, not the least of which is its unapologetic melodic appeal, his music is more accessible than his colleagues’ frequently-played scores. His Four Little English Dances in the Georgian manner are vibrant pieces, their broadly-styled structures reminding the listener that, from a strictly historical perspective, the ‘Georgian manner’ encompasses virtually all of the Eighteenth Century and a sliver of the Nineteenth, too. The Poco allegro dance transports the hearer to the stately sitting rooms of Bath, where one might have a turn about the floor with the denizens of Henry Fielding’s novels. There is as much of Sir Arthur Sullivan in Jeffreys’s idiom as there is of Thomas Arne and William Boyce, and Lewis plays the music with sonorous, mercurial charm. He phrases the Andantino with a delicacy that seems more Victorian than Georgian, disclosing a lightness in the music that hints at strict-mannered aloofness. Likewise, the subtle but uncomplicated strains of the Poco andantino might just as accurately be described as being in the Edwardian manner, there being a vein of restraint coursing through the music. Ever a communicative artist, Lewis here divulges that his gift for subtlety is as commendable as his flair for boldness. The vivacious Allegro ma non troppo dance is a boisterous British stag party in musical form: Lewis’s playing earns him—and the composer—a hearty pint.

For many otherwise well-informed advocates of Classical Music, the harpsichord is perceived as an instrument that, in its natural habitats of sorts, tinkled unobtrusively as fat castrati shouted hours of tedious recitative at one another and as bewigged ladies, corseted within a millimeter of asphyxiation, chatted about nothing; and that it is now a living relic, a quaint musical dinosaur encountered without great interest except when entrusted to the hands of virtuosi who play the immortal masterworks of Bach, Händel, Rameau, the Couperins, and the Scarlattis. In music, though, anything of extraordinary merit is unlikely to go unnoticed indefinitely, and it is to their credit that Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century composers have embraced the harpsichord as a thriving, thrilling vehicle for their creative impulses. Neither this fascinating instrument nor the contemporary composers who write for it could hope for representation on disc by a more persuasive musical proselytizer than Christopher D. Lewis.

IN REVIEW: Welsh harpsichordist CHRISTOPHER D. LEWIS [Photo © by Christopher D. Lewis]Old instrument, young master: Welsh harpsichordist Christopher D. Lewis [Photo © by Christopher D. Lewis]

21 March 2016

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel — ARMINIO (M. E. Cenčić, L. Claire, R. Donose, V. Yi, J. Sancho, X. Sabata, P. Magoulas; DECCA 478 8764)

IN REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - ARMINIO (DECCA 478 8764)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Arminio, HWV 36Max Emanuel Cenčić (Arminio), Layla Claire (Tusnelda), Ruxandra Donose (Ramise), Vince Yi (Sigismondo), Juan Sancho (Varo), Xavier Sabata (Tullio), Petros Magoulas (Segeste); Armonia Atenea; George Petrou, conductor [Recorded in Megaron, The Athens Concert Hall, Athens, Greece, 7 – 18 September 2015; DECCA 478 8764; 2 CDs, 150:35; Available from DECCA, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

When Georg Friedrich Händel’s Arminio was premièred in London on 12 January 1737, with alto castrato Domenico Annibali in the title rôle, soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò as Tusnelda, and soprano castrato Gioacchino Conti as Sigismondo, the remaining days of the composer’s career as a purveyor of Italian opera were numbered. The growing popularity of satirical, vaudevillian works in the manner of The Beggar’s Opera, as well as his own English oratorios, combined with decreasing tolerances for singers’ and audiences’ capriciousness and the endless responsibilities of managing operatic enterprises to sour opera in Händel’s esteem. A product of a burst of operatic creativity that also yielded Giustino and Berenice, Arminio is one of its composers tautest scores, musically and dramatically, the skill with which the characters’ emotions are given musical expression exceptional even for Händel. Having created an opera of such quality, Händel’s increasing frustration with the musical fickleness of his adopted countrymen is understandable. What is less easily comprehended is why, in this era of interest in every niche of Händel’s output for the stage, Arminio has waited so long for its sole commercial recording, an engaging performance with the late Alan Curtis leading the Arminio, Tusnelda, and Sigismondo of Vivica Genaux, Geraldine McGreevy, and Dominique Labelle, to be joined in the discography by a competitive alternative. With the gender paradigms of the rôles composed for castrati reversed, DECCA’s new studio recording of Arminio is more than just a welcome alternative to the Curtis set. Few claims in the realm of Baroque music are more provocative than assertions of faithfully restoring to any of Händel’s large-scale theatrical compositions a full measure of authenticity, this being a commodity for which there is no reliable, universally-accepted gauge, but this Arminio provides a carefully-judged performance which the demanding Meister from Halle would surely endorse with enthusiasm and gratitude.

A number of recent DECCA recordings of Baroque repertory have benefited from the playing of Armonia Atenea and the conducting of George Petrou, but their work in this Arminio sets new standards for performances of Händel’s operas. Bolstered by the basso continuo ensemble of Markelos Chryssikos and Petrou on harpsichord, Theodoros Kitsos on theorbo, Iason Ioannou on cello, and Dimitris Tigkas on double bass, the orchestra’s efforts serve as a catalyst to the opera’s drama, not just an accompaniment. Concertmaster Sergiu Nastasa leads the strings in a whirring, invigorating performance that honors the best elements of historically-informed performance practices without compromising listeners’ enjoyment with the acerbic sounds, faltering intonation, and exaggerated rhythms that constitute the worst aspects of period-appropriate methods. Capitalizing on the individually virtuosic but refreshingly tight ensemble playing of the strings and the wonderfully confident winds, Petrou paces the Allegro and Lentement of the Ouverture with fluidity that highlights Händel’s talents for orchestration and prefacing his operas with music that is considerably finer and more imaginatively conceived than similar pieces by many of his contemporaries. The elegant Menuet that launches the opera’s first scene and the tuneful Sinfonie that introduce Acts Two and Three are delivered with panache. Petrou uses Händel’s score as an atlas: each of the opera’s three acts is a journey with a clearly-defined destination. Reaching those destinations is here more enthralling than in the context of almost any other recording of any of Händel’s operas.

That Händel was a master dramatist has been irrefutably confirmed in recent years by productions of Alcina, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, and Tamerlano spanning the spectrum from unforgettable to unsightly, and his mastery of creating vibrant portraits of characters using a musical palette is as evident in Arminio as in any of his more familiar scores. Here, his writing for Segeste, Prince of the Chatti, provides Greek bass Petros Magoulas with the raw materials with which to construct even in the compact space of the rôle’s duration a fully-rounded figure whose part in the action is credibly rendered. Magoulas voices Segeste’s aria in Act One, ‘Fiaccherò quel fiero orgoglio,’ with robust tone and aptly regal declamatory power that in a few stressful passages threatens to upset the singer’s intonation. It is to Händel’s credit that he made from librettist Antonio Salvi’s somewhat stilted words for Segeste a man of flesh and blood, and it is to Magoulas’s credit that he audibly makes Segeste’s flesh ruddy with the rich flow of his vocal plasma.

The Roman Tribune Tullio roars to life in the resonant singing of Catalan countertenor Xavier Sabata, an artist whose every appearance on disc divulges new depths of his bold, charismatic musicality. Tullio’s Act One aria ‘Non deve roman petto dar all’amor ricetto’ inspires Sabata to a performance of uncontainable energy. His timbre glows with overtones that grant his diction special sharpness, and his bravura technique is, as ever, awe-inspiring. Sabata voices Tullio’s aria in Act Two, ‘Con quel sangue dipinta vedrai,’ with an unerring instinct for phrasing that exposes the heart of the text. He is uniquely qualified for enlivening music other singers are content to overlook, and his singing of Tullio heightens the character’s importance in the drama and enhances the histrionic impact of the performance as a whole.

In his heroic portrayal of the Roman general Varo, Spanish tenor Juan Sancho deploys the fearlessness in both fiorature and his upper register that have come to typify his work. In the Act One aria ‘Al lume di due rai più fiero io pugnerò,’ Sancho marches through Händel’s passagework commandingly, the occasional wiriness of the voice enhancing the martial sternness of the character’s proclamations. In Act Three, Sancho dispatches ‘Mira il ciel, vedrai d’Alcide le guerriere armi’ with slancio worthy of a servant of mighty Rome, every challenge met head-on. Sancho’s vocal production can sound strenuous, especially when he seems to be forcing the extreme top of the voice, but it is a process that, while dangerous for other singers, apparently works for him. In Arminio, Sancho’s singing certainly works for Varo.

Singing Sigismondo, Segeste’s son and Ramise’s beloved, countertenor Vince Yi deals handily with the challenging tessitura of music composed by Händel for Gioacchino Conti, known as Gizziello. A singer admired by fellow castrati Caffarelli and Farinelli, arguably the two most famous singers of the Eighteenth Century, Conti’s voice was appreciated for both its emotive capacities and its range, which in Händel’s parts for him extended to C6. A native of South Korea but a child of California, Yi is as plausible a modern stand-in for Conti as could have been engaged for this recording of Arminio, his timbre’s bright patina allied with vowel-centric, on-the-breath vocalism that is here stronger than in past performances and recordings. In Act One, Yi sings Sigismondo’s aria ‘Non son sempre vane larve’ compellingly, his demeanor convincingly masculine and the increased solidity of his singing’s core giving him an edge over similarly-voiced colleagues. Yi’s singing legitimizes Händel’s decision to entrust to Sigismondo the duty of bringing down the curtain on Act One: with his galvanizing account of the aria ‘Posso morir, ma vivere,’ the countertenor verifies that he is among today’s preeminent Händel singers, the voice secure throughout the range and the technique equal to every roulade. Sigismondo’s Act Two aria ‘Quella fiamma, ch’il petto m’accende’ is one of the finest numbers in Arminio, and Yi sings it accordingly, his manner melding refinement with vocal athleticism. In Act Three, Sigismondo’s pair of arias, ‘Il sangue al cor favella’ and ‘Impara a non temer dal mio costante amor,’ are effectively contrasted by Yi’s meticulously-managed tonal shading. Nature provides an unmistakable contrast between Yi’s and Sabata’s voices, but the singers’ stylistic choices, very different but equally effective, enable Yi’s Sigismondo to be easily distinguished from Sabata’s Tullio.

The object of Sigismondo’s affection (and Arminio’s sister), Ramise, is portrayed with sophistication and entrancingly cobalt-hued tones by Romanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose, a singer whose renown does not do justice to the tremendous singing of which she is capable. Marginally off her very best form, she is nonetheless a phenomenal asset to this recording of Arminio. As sung by Donose, Ramise’s Act One aria ‘Sento il cor per ogni lato circondato’ is a tour de force, the vocal line churning with the lady’s emotion and drawing from the mezzo-soprano an effusion of glamorous sound, steady and consistent in quality across the wide range. Of similar effectiveness is Donose’s singing of ‘Niente spero, tutto credo’ in Act Two, her dramatic restraint as mesmerizing as her skyrocketing coloratura. In the Act Three duetto with Tusnelda, ‘Quando più minaccia il cielo,’ Donose touchingly limns Ramise’s emotional response to her predicament, her voice shimmering with a theretofore-unheard determination. The electric atmosphere that she creates in the aria ‘Voglio seguir lo sposo’ is evidence of the breadth of Donose’s confidence in this music: whereas many singers must focus their attention primarily upon getting the notes right, Donose has even the most daunting passages well under control and is therefore free to search in her singing for the meanings beyond the notes. Her voice is a magnificent instrument, but her singing of Ramise here confirms anew that the voice is but one element in her vibrantly reactive musical molecule.

Born in British Columbia, soprano Layla Claire brings to her portrayal of Arminio’s wife and Segeste’s daughter Tusnelda a voice touched by a purity like that of the first autumn snows in the Canadian Rockies. From the start of Tusnelda’s Act One duetto with Arminio, ‘Il fuggir, cara mia vita,’ Claire sings attractively and often ravishingly, the freshness of the sound of her upper register bringing to mind the singing of the young Arleen Augér and Helen Donath. The arias ‘Scaglian amore e sangue’ and ‘È vil segno d’un debole amore quel dolore’ provide complementary vistas of Claire’s artistic intelligence, their sentiments handled with consummate good taste and the musical difficulties sweetly cajoled into submission. In Act Two, Claire summons delightfully unexpected bile in her assured, animated singing of ‘Al furor che ti consiglia.’ Tusnelda ends Act Two with her aria ‘Rendimi il dolce sposo,’ and it is difficult to imagine Anna Maria Strada del Pò singing it more plangently than Claire sings it here, the text communicated with great passion and the melodic line traced with moving delicacy. The youthful soprano voices ‘Ho veleno, e ferro avanti’ in Act Three with unstinting dramatic fortitude, her upper register sparkling. Duetting with Ramise in ‘Quando più minaccia il cielo,’ Claire joins her voice with Donose’s organically, their phrasing almost ideally matched. The arias ‘Tra speme e timore mi palpita il core’ and ‘Va, combatti ancor da forte’ are, like those in Act One, managed insightfully. The level of assurance in fiorature is never less than first-rate but is often stellar, and intonation is virtually unassailable. In her final duetto with Arminio, ‘Ritorna nel core vezzosa,’ Claire’s Tusnelda unites with her husband in a beautiful display of bel canto. Many are the Händel heroines who would benefit from Claire’s singing, but her Tusnelda is a particularly valuable addition to the discography.

Interpreting the title rôle of the proud Germanic prince Arminio, Croatian-born countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić offers some of the best singing he has committed to disc since transitioning from a clarion-voiced male soprano to a mature countertenor with a voice of true star quality. The technical sorcery that Cenčić accomplishes in his traversal of Arminio’s music is not surprising, but it is the incisiveness and ingenuity that he invests in his depictions of the character’s emotions that mark him as an artist of particular importance. When hearing performances of Händel’s music for alto castrati by the preeminent Händel singers of past generations, male and female, the bravura singing is often rousing, but rarely have singers of any era brought to Baroque repertory the finesse and imagination that Cenčić devotes to the music that he sings, not least in Arminio. From his first notes and words in Arminio’s Act One duetto with Tusnelda, ‘Il fuggir, cara mia vita,’ delivered with nobility and focused tone in the lower register that resembles the plangent timbre of a bassett clarinet, Cenčić brings to mind the Angelica of Victoria de los Ángeles in the now-dated Scimone recording of Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso. Cenčić’s singing is a model of Händelian style, of course, but he shares with de los Ángeles a dedication to portraying a character to whose plight listeners will respond rather than crafting an aural pedagogy. The sheer dramatic force of his performance of ‘Al par della mia sorte è forte questo cor’ is riveting. Dominating Act Two as he ought to do, Cenčić’s Arminio lays his soul bare in the aria ‘Duri lacci, voi non siete per me rei di crudeltà,’ the singer’s invigorating vocalism seconded by an actor’s intuitive use of text. He sings ‘Sì, cadrò, ma sorgerà’ with unforced fervor, and his traversal of the exquisitely-written ‘Vado a morir, vi lascio la pace ch’ho nel cor’ throbs with emotion expressed through song. Cenčić catapults into Act Three with a fiery reading of the accompagnato ‘Fier teatro di morte!’ He follows this with an account of the aria ‘Ritorno alle ritorte’ that radiates familiarity with and love for Händel’s vocal idiom, qualities as audible in his singing as his impeccable training and experience. In both the aria ‘Fatto scorta al sentier della gloria’ and the duetto with Tusnelda, ‘Risplende nell’alma amante,’ Cenčić sings superbly whilst also characterizing with laudable specificity. His dexterity remains a marvel, but what distinguishes Cenčić from his countertenor colleagues is the calibre of the voice. Many countertenors sing opera, but Cenčić is a rare countertenor who is a true opera singer in the tradition of Farinelli, Malibran, Pasta, Flagstad, and Callas. His Arminio on these discs is a performance worthy of the tradition of Farinelli’s Artaserse, Malibran’s Maria Stuarda, Pasta’s Norma, Flagstad’s Isolde, and Callas’s Violetta.

Modern technology has in some ways made the recording of opera a far easier undertaking than it was in bygone years, but there are also drawbacks, not the least significant of which is a loss of the unique continuity possible with assembling a group of artists and recording in long takes that, in terms of personal interaction, replicated the excitement of the stage. The performance that the closing chorus, ‘A capir tante dolcezze troppo angusto è ’l nostro cor,’ receives on this recording perfectly illustrates the collaboration that gives this Arminio much of its charisma. The singers truly perform the opera: in recitatives, here rendered as engagingly as on any recording of a Baroque opera, they seem to listen to one another, something that too few singers bother to do even in staged performances. Whether the music being sung is by Händel or Henze, opera is a team sport. With Max Emanuel Cenčić and George Petrou as its co-captains and a team of all-stars playing all positions, this Arminio never misses an opportunity to score.

17 March 2016

RECORDING OF THE MONTH / March 2016: Gaetano Veneziano — LA PASSIONE SECONDO GIOVANNI (R. Pe, L. Cervoni, M. Bussi, R. Dolcini, V. Argentieri; Glossa GCD 922609)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH / March 2016: Gaetano Veneziano - LA PASSIONE SECONDO GIOVANNI (Glossa GCD 922609)GAETANO VENEZIANO (1656 – 1716): La passione secondo GiovanniRaffaele Pe (Evangelista), Luca Cervoni (Christus), Marco Bussi (Pilatus), Renato Dolcini (Simon Petrus, Servus I), Valentina Argentieri (Ancilla, Servus II); Ghislieri Choir; Cappella Neapolitana; Antonio Florio, conductor [Recorded in Collegio Ghislieri, Pavia, Italy, 12 – 15 April 2015; Glossa GCD 922609; 1 CD, 56:04; Available from Glossa, ClassicsOnline HD (Download | Streaming), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

For every work that clings to a place in the international repertory there are countless others that are neglected, forgotten, or lost. This is especially true of musical settings of scriptural accounts of and responses to the Passion of Christ. From the earliest unions of words and music, the persecution, death, and resurrection of Christ have been themes that engage the imagination, the parallels among Christ’s suffering, the tribulations endured—and perpetrated—by the Church, and man’s daily struggles inspiring artists to seek in music modes of expression for sentiments too ephemeral for words alone. From the medieval courts of Europe to the studios of Twenty-First-Century composers, music exploring the anguish of Christ’s crucifixion and the hope of the resurrection has occupied the creative energies of many artists, but it is no exaggeration to assert that the Passion music of Johann Sebastian Bach has not unjustly garnered prominence that casts shadows from which other scores toil, often futilely, to emerge. The prevalence of Bach’s fleet, viscerally exciting Johannes-Passion and compellingly profound Matthäus-Passion in Eastertide performance schedules leaves little time for the Passions of Heinrich Schütz, Johann Mattheson, and Georg Philipp Telemann, all more widely influential in the first half of the Eighteenth Century than Bach’s Passions. Händel’s Brockes-Passion remains lamentably under-appreciated, and even his Messiah, Parts Two and Three of which deal with Christ’s trial, execution, and resurrection, is often inexplicably scheduled for performance only in the Christmas season, especially in the USA. Aside from a pitifully small handful of works by Alessandro Scarlatti, Vivaldi, Pergolesi, Jommelli, Salieri, Paisiello, and Cimarosa, known but rarely performed, Italian Passion music is one of the least-explored niches of Classical Music. From this perspective, Glossa’s recording of Antonio Florio’s new performing edition of Gaetano Veneziano’s little-remembered Passione secondo Giovanni is especially treasurable, but a recording as fine as this one is welcome from any point of view. Given an opportunity of this artistic magnitude to make the case for its renaissance, Veneziano’s music brings John the Apostle’s harrowing recounting of his beloved master’s last days among men to poignant, devoutly melodious life in a performance that makes the more than three centuries of silence to which the score has been subjected all the more mystifying and exasperating.

Born in Bisceglie in the Apulia region of southeastern Italy in 1656, Gaetano Veneziano is now little more than a footnote in musicological tomes documenting the progress of Italian vocal music from the stylistic bellwethers Monteverdi, Cavalli, and Frescobaldi to the High Baroque of Alessandro Scarlatti, Benedetto Marcello, and Vivaldi. A pupil of Francesco Provenzale at Naples’s Conservatorio Santa Maria di Loreto, where he was named maestro di cappella in 1684, Veneziano was sufficiently respected as a composer of sacred music to later be selected as Alessandro Scarlatti’s replacement as director of the Spanish Viceroy’s Capilla Real in Naples—a post from which politics ousted him after only three years when the Austrian Hapsburgs wrested Naples from their Spanish cousins’ control. Early in his Neapolitan tenure, likely in 1685 [the year of Bach’s birth, appropriately enough], Veneziano composed his Passione secondo Giovanni for his adopted city, where he died in 1716. Whether the work, scored for soloists, a choir of nine parts, strings, and basso continuo, was intended for performance by Conservatorio Santa Maria di Loreto personnel is a matter of conjecture, but the dual intimacy and splendor of the edition and performance prepared by Florio suggest that Veneziano’s music would prove uniformly effective in academic, ecclesiastical, or theatrical settings.

The Passione is an intriguingly multi-faceted work, pockets of fiorature in the style of Provenzale mingling with pages of blossoming lyrical expression; and in that vein as much an intersection of old and new styles as Pergolesi’s Stabat mater. Following Florio’s lead, the musicians of Cappella Neapolitana play with technical acumen that never supersedes the beauty of the sounds that they produce. Organist Carlo Barile, harpsichordist Patrizia Varone, and theorbists Franco Pavan and Paola Ventrella collaborate to fashion a basso continuo that is a vibrant organism within the drama. They create a foundation upon which Florio and the strings—violinists Alessandro Ciccolini, Marco Piantoni, Rossella Pugliano, and Matteo Saccà, violist Rosario Di Meglio, cellists Jorge Alberto Guerrero and Adriano Fazio, and double bassist Giorgio Sanvito—create a stunningly beautiful aural edifice, the sounds of their instruments often eerily replicating the moods of the Latin text. It is expected that Florio’s knowledge of and affection for the Passione should be extensive, but the organic cohesion and unflagging drive of his pacing of this performance are admirable in any context. Aided by his cast and chorus, several of whom adhere to Baroque practice by singing solo and choir parts, Florio translates his zeal for revitalizing this score into a performance that, even on disc, exudes a deeply visceral commitment to musical storytelling.

In the introduction to the Gospel that begins the Passion, ‘Passio Domini nostri Jesu Christi,’ it is immediately apparent that the Evangelista will face very demanding music and that countertenor Raffaele Pe will meet every demand unflinchingly. Articulating the words of the Apostle, Pe’s effortlessly-projected voice traverses the range of the music with chameleonic colorations rarely heard in a male alto’s singing. When joined by the sensitive but virile Christus of tenor Luca Cervoni and the chorus in ‘Iesus itaque sciens omnia,' Pe’s Evangelista interacts with his colleagues with far greater immediacy than many Evangelists in Bach’s Passions, participating in the events that are unfolding rather than uninvolvedly reciting Scripture. With the bass incarnations of Christ in Bach’s Passions prominent in the mind’s ears, a tenor Christ is a novelty, and Cervoni’s sympathetic portrayal is characterized by ingratiatingly full-toned but stylish singing. The Ghislieri Choir singers—sopranos Valentina Argentieri, Marta Redaelli, and Sonia Tedla, altos Isabella Di Pietro and Marta Fumagalli, tenors Michele Concato and Paolo Tormene, and basses Renato Cadel and Renato Dolcini—also dedicate their throats and their intellects to serving the needs of the drama, enhancing the performance with utterances that have the impact of chorus interjections in Greek tragedy.

Cervoni’s singing lends ‘Mitte gladium tuum in vaginam’ wonderful momentum, and Pe again delivers the Evangelista’s lines with astounding beauty of tone and a degree of technical accomplishment as near to perfection as is imaginable in such challenging music. Emerging from the chorus, Argentieri and Dolcini provide a dangerous account of the Ancilla’s accusation and a wrenching statement of Simon Petrus’s first denial of Christ. Pe phrases ‘Stabant autem servi et ministri’ with anxious intensity, the focus of his tone imparting the Apostle’s sense of foreboding, and his subtle but nuanced expressivity is matched by Cervoni and Dolcini. Cervoni voices ‘Si male locutus sum’ with refinement, but Argentieri’s reading of the Servus’s denunciation of Simon Petrus introduces a disquieting menace that erupts in Dolcini’s pained fulfillment of the prophecy of his threefold denial of Christ. The choristers again execute their parts with spot-on musical and dramatic instincts.

Bass Marco Bussi’s dark-grained timbre renders his Pilatus easily discernible, but he shares Pe’s gift for insightful inflection though, not inappropriately for Pontius Pilatus, his vocalism is less polished than his colleague’s. Bussi unleashes an unmistakable arrogance in ‘Quam accusationem affertis,’ openly challenging Christ and seemingly reveling in his character’s feeble but insurmountable authority. Singing with the unperturbed grace of undiminished faith, Pe’s Evangelista imparts to the listener that, for all of his self-conscious regality, Pilatus is merely playing the part meant for him by divine will. Here and in ‘Et dabant ei alapas,’ Pe, Bussi, and the choristers employ both their voices and the words that they sing like brightly-hued tiles in a mosaic, creating a landscape in which Gethsemane and Golgotha are conjured with plaintive credibility. The potency of Cervoni’s enunciation of ‘Non haberes potestatem’ is answered by Pe, the chorus, and Bussi in accents of starkly divergent despair and insouciance, differentiated not by compromising tonal quality but by giving full weight to every word and full expression to every emotion.

‘Ut Scriptura impleretur, dicens,’ the Passione’s closing sequence, in many ways resembles an extended motet for the Evangelista and Christus, a powerful exposition of the individual and universal implications of Christ’s death and resurrection. Pe’s interpretation of the Apostle’s words delves deeply into the man’s, not just the disciple’s, love for his master, but it is the unaffected beauty of his vocalism that reveals the Evangelista’s heart to the listener. Cervoni’s Christus, too, is a portrayal focused on examining Christ’s individuality by singing his music stylishly and straightforwardly. In this performance, Veneziano’s music succeeds as few composers’ works in a similar vein have done at humanizing both Christ and the Evangelist: they are archetypes, of course, but they are not carved-stone icons that sink in seas of symbolism. Owing to the uncommon musical integrity of this performance, they are here what they surely were in life: extraordinary, ordinary men.

Some scholars now question not only whether the Apostle John penned the canonical Gospel that bears his name but also whether such a man actually existed. The Twenty-First Century is an era of doubts of which even Thomas could not have dreamed—if there was a doubting Thomas, that is. Like the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare, though, is the question of authorship really so important that appreciation of the quality of the work is lessened by uncertainty? Music of the quality of Gaetano Veneziano’s Passione secondo Giovanni speaks for itself regardless of whose words inspired its melodies. Its beauties communicated by a performance like the one lead by Antonio Florio and Raffaele Pe, the only relevant question that should be asked about Veneziano’s Passione is, ‘How can such a consequential score have been so long unheard?’

14 March 2016

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel — MESSIAH (S. Yoncheva, T. Mumford, R. Villazón, B. Terfel; Mormon Tabernacle Choir; CFN 1631-2)

IN REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - MESSIAH (Mormon Tabernacle Choir CFN 1631-2)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Messiah, HWV 56 [Edition by Mack Wilberg]—Sonya Yoncheva (soprano), Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano), Rolando Villazón (tenor), Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone); Mormon Tabernacle Choir; Orchestra at Temple Square; Mack Wilberg, conductor [Recorded in the Mormon Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, during sessions in February, May, July, September, and December 2014, and August, September, October, and November 2015; Mormon Tabernacle Choir CFN 1631-2; 2 CDs + DVD, 143:26 (Highlights disc also available); Available from Mormon Tabernacle Choir and major music retailers]

Few are the courageous souls who would dare to contradict the notion that Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah is one of the most beloved creations in the history of Western Art. Composed in a three-week period in 1741 at a pace that astounds modern observers but was unremarkable for the famously industrious Händel, the score of Messiah is noteworthy for its relative originality: per capita, more of its numbers are unique to the score than their brethren in many of the composer’s operas and oratorios. What is unjustly less frequently the subject of laypersons’ praise are the extraordinary histrionic quality and emotional impact of Charles Jennens’s (1700 – 1773) libretto for Messiah. His work was merely arranging Biblical passages, it might be argued, but he did so with the theatrical acuity of Metastasio, da Ponte, and Boito. Jennens’s was a life of comfort that enabled him to dabble in the Arts, and his appreciation of Händel’s music yielded libretti for several of the Saxon’s oratorios, not least among which is his persuasive text for the masterful Saul. Jennens’s advantageous situation afforded him considerably greater access to the Arts community in Eighteenth-Century Britain than his talent and education likely merited, but his libretto for Messiah confirms that he was not merely a dilettante with a measure of piety. Relying slightly more upon the poetic prophesying of the Old Testament than on the New Testament’s fulfillment narrative, Jennens created with a commendable economy of words as complete a portrait of the life of Christ as has grace any book, canvas, or score in the two millennia of Christian ideology. His oft-quoted low opinion of Händel’s treatment of his libretto notwithstanding, Messiah was from the time of its 1742 première in Dublin acknowledged as a pinnacle of its composer’s art. In the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, Messiah remains one of the most frequently-performed works in the standard repertory, its popularity having endured a fascinating cycle of performance trends. Like the King James Version of the Bible, Messiah is a compelling work of art whether the individual listener accepts its subject matter as fact, fable, or a synthesis of the two. Regardless of its provenance, this new recording of Messiah by the renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir is most valuable because it approaches the score not as a dogmatic sermon in three parts but as an artistic entity of extraordinary global significance. Recorded with meticulous attention to recreating within the confines of the listener’s space the legendary acoustics of the Mormon Tabernacle, this Messiah distills nearly three centuries of traditions into a performance shaped not by fads and theories but by undeviating trust in the unimpeachable quality of Jennens’s wordsmithing and, above all, Händel’s music.

Owing in large part to the commendable emphases placed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on respecting and maintaining both body and soul, Salt Lake City, Utah, is one of America’s fittest, most vibrantly youthful metropolitan areas, its stunningly beautiful setting at the foot of the Wasatch Range reflected in the exuberantly reverent architecture of Temple Square, the Mormon Church’s Vatican City. When walking the streets of Salzburg, seeing the twin spires of Salzburger Dom and the majestic Festung Hohensalzburg towering over the city, it is impossible to ignore the ethos of the place that must have stoked the young Mozart’s imagination, and a similar energy, the spirit that has inspired generations of Utahans since Brigham Young arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, permeates modern Salt Lake City. It was on 22 August 1847, less than a month after ending his cross-continental trek to Utah, that Young organized the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, thus establishing a musical institution that now has nearly as extensive a history with Messiah as the British choral societies by which the score was stewarded throughout the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. In the performance on these discs, Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Music Director Mack Wilberg offers his own edition of Messiah, combining elements of historically-informed performance practices with vestiges of the Viennese tradition enshrined in the version of the score prepared by Mozart at Baron van Swieten’s request and the monumentally-scaled Victorian approach to the score. With its ensemble of nearly 450 singers and instrumentalists, this is a Messiah that will not find favor with many period practice purists, but not one bar of Händel’s music is expanded to proportions greater than it can support. Under Wilberg’s direction, the Orchestra at Temple Square musicians play virtuosically, the winds making their lines retained from Mozart’s edition of Messiah sound indispensable alongside Händel’s authentic scoring. Propelled by the creative but unobtrusive organ and harpsichord playing of Richard Elliott, Clay Christiansen, and Andrew Unsworth and the cello continuo of Elizabeth Marsh, the orchestra’s performance is robust yet refined. Aided by the expert engineering team, Wilberg molds a traversal of Messiah that is enjoyably grandiose without being detrimentally elephantine.

The familiar names among the quartet of soloists might at first be interpreted as a conscious endeavor to spur sales of this recording. Be that as it may, each of the soloists contributes distinctive qualities that heighten the artistic standard of the performance. The opening bars of the recitative ‘Comfort Ye My People’ reveal Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón to be in fine voice. The surprising fluency in florid writing evident in his previous recordings of Monteverdi, Händel, and Mozart works is even more prominent in his singing here. Villazón’s stylish ornamentation encompasses a genuine trill, and he mostly eschews operatic posturing, instead phrasing with intelligence and straightforward eloquence. His English is accented but clear; far more intelligible, in fact, than the diction of a number of native English speakers who have recorded Messiah. Villazón dispatches the divisions in ‘Ev'ry Valley Shall Be Exalted’ with aptly exultant ease. The sequence of anguished utterances for the tenor in Part Two receives from this tenor a performance of touching simplicity, the drama extracted from rather than imposed upon the music. The stinging bitterness of ‘All They That See Him, Laugh Him to Scorn’ and ‘Thy Rebuke Hath Broken His Heart’ is all the more visceral for the music being sung with such beauty, and Villazón voices the deceptively lilting ‘Behold, and See If There Be Any Sorrow’ as enthrallingly as any tenor who has recorded it, recalling both Jon Vickers’s power and the reedy brilliance of Philip Langridge. The halting uncertainty of his singing of ‘He Was Cut Off out of the Land of the Living’ suggests an inner struggle to express sentiments too appalling to be given voice, but the contrast with the brighter, almost cathartic ’But Thou Didst Not Leave His Soul in Hell’ is stirring, Villazón’s bronzed timbre glowing in the major-key sunlight. An atmosphere of anxiety permeates his readings of ‘Unto Which of the Angels Said He at Any Time’ and ‘He that Dwelleth in Heaven.’ Particularly impressive musically and dramatically is Villazón’s singing of the demanding ‘Thou Shalt Break Them,’ his voice darting through the runs and attacking the tricky intervals with the resonant strike of the rod of iron of which he sings. There is a sense of absolving vindication in his articulation of his lines in the brief duet ‘O Death, Where Is Thy Sting.’ Villazón is a gifted, unfailingly interesting singer whose work is not always conventionally appealing. There is nothing unappealing in his singing in this Messiah, and the healthy dose of Latin fervor that he injects into the performance is welcome when the instrument of its injection is such solid, satisfying singing.

Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel is no stranger to recording Messiah, and it is encouraging to hear his voice on splendid form in this traversal of the bass solos. The passagework in ‘Thus Saith the Lord’ is no longer negotiated as suavely as it was when Terfel first recorded Messiah, but the sheer brawn with which he navigates his way through the music remains impressive. His polished-teak timbre conveys the gravity of ‘For Behold, Darkness Shall Cover the Earth’ and ‘The People That Walked in Darkness’ without artificial heaviness, and he still ascends to E above the stave without strain. The attacks on the fearsome fiorature in ’Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together’ are not completely clean but lack nothing in terms of raw energy, the text coursing through the music like venom. Terfel is at his best in Part Three, in which his voicing of ‘Behold, I Tell You a Mystery’ is characterized by subtlety and enigmatic serenity. Dueling with trumpeter Alan Sedgley in ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound,’ Terfel’s sonorous voice booms authoritatively. Terfel now brings to Messiah the voice of Wotan or Hans Sachs and the slightly reduced flexibility that this implies, but his singing in this performance is by no means undistinguished. He remains a confident, captivating Händelian.

It is unusual for the contralto soloist to be the foremost attraction of a performance or recording of Messiah, but Utah-born mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford is here a pillar of flair and finesse, traits which also defined her portrayal of Smeaton in the recent Metropolitan Opera revival of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. Introduced in the fiery ‘But Who May Abide The Day of His Coming,’ Mumford employs her well-honed bravura technique and flickering vibrato to dig into the text, mastering words and notes with equal sagacity. The tranquility that emanates from her phrasing of ‘Behold, a Virgin Shall Conceive’ is quietly moving, and she beautifully evinces the simple joy in ‘O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion.’ Simplicity is also the hallmark of Mumford’s unaffected singing of ‘Then Shall the Eyes of the Blind Be Opened.’ Her performance of the first part of ‘He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd’ is one of the finest stretches of singing in this Messiah, followed in the opening minutes of Part Two by her exquisitely-wrought ‘He Was Despised.’ The equal of the sublime ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’ in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Matthäus-Passion, ‘He Was Despised’ is essential listening for anyone who questions the extent of Händel’s genius, and Mumford’s singing of it on this recording rivals unforgettable performances by Helen Watts and Dame Janet Baker. The evenness and integration of Mumford’s voice enable her to cover the full range of the music without disruptive register shifts, and she tastefully decorates the aria’s da capo with gorgeous floated notes in the upper octave. The tongue-twisting text in ‘Thou Art Gone Up on High’—try repeating ‘Thou hast led captivity captive’ in quavers and semiquavers!—is nearly as daunting as the music, but Mumford conquers every difficulty. The recitative ‘Then Shall Be Brought to Pass’ and duet ‘O Death, Where Is Thy Sting’ in Part Three draw from the mezzo-soprano radiant, resolute singing. Mumford’s may be the least-familiar of the soloists’ names to many potential purchasers of this Messiah, but her singing is one of the foremost reasons why this recording should be heard.

Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva has in the months since her 2013 Metropolitan Opera début as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto become a much-lauded member of that company’s roster, opening the 2015 – 2016 MET season as Desdemona in a new prodiction of Verdi’s Otello. Though her repertoire includes ‘early’ parts like the title rôle in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, mesmerizingly performed opposite the Nerone of Max Emanuel Cenčić at Opéra de Lille and preserved on DVD by Virgin Classics [reviewed here], Baroque music is hardly a cornerstone of Yoncheva’s renown. Like Villazón, she sings English with an accent that rarely compromises her elucidation of text, but English phrasing and vowel placement are audibly new territory for her. Still, from her entrance in ‘There Were Shepherds Abiding in the Field’ and through the nativity narrative of ‘And Lo! The Angel of the Lord Came Upon Them,’ ‘And the Angel Said unto Them,’ and ‘And Suddenly There Was with the Angel,’ she emits sounds of considerable allure, the focus of the tone only intermittently undermined by difficulties with English phonetics. Her top A is fantastic, however, and she sings ‘Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion’ rousingly, tossing off the roulades with appropriate zeal. Following Mumford in ‘He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd,’ Yoncheva at first seems slightly prosaic, but her experience with bel canto quickly uplifts her extension of lines, her F and G at the top of the stave rounded and full-bodied even when sung softly. In Part Two, the soprano nearly rivals Mumford’s ‘He Was Despised’ with her shimmering singing of ‘How Beautiful Are the Feet.’ After this, her lovely but earthbound traversal of the poignant ‘I Know That My Redeemer Liveth’ at the beginning of Part Three is somewhat disappointing. Nonetheless, her assured voicing of ‘If God Be for Us, Who Can Be Against Us’ just before the final chorus leaves a decidedly favorable impression. In the long history of Messiah on records, prime donne of the operatic stage have rarely been the most accomplished soprano soloists in Händel’s most popular oratorio. Though not yet fully comfortable with words or music in the performance on these discs, further experience with the score—unlikely considering the demands of her international career, alas—might well usher Yoncheva into the company of those few sopranos who sing Messiah and their preeminent operatic rôles with equal excellence.

Not surprisingly, it is the singing of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that is the core of this Messiah even amidst an ensemble of high-calibre soloists—if not its sole raison d’être, surely its principal raison d’écouter. The precision with which a choir of such prodigious numbers executes Händel’s contrapuntal writing is staggering, but the recording fails the choristers to a small degree in this regard. Though balances are for the most part thoughtfully rendered, aside from what sounds like very close recording of the soloists, possibly in an effort to minimize the inevitable acoustical variations among even meticulously-controlled sessions, there are passages in which clarity is lost, especially at top volume. In Part One, the divergent emotions of ‘And the Glory of the Lord,’ ‘And He Shall Purify,’ and ‘O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion’ are contrasted via management of dynamics. The complementary relationship between ‘For unto Us a Child Is Born’ and ‘Glory to God’ has rarely been more apparent in a recorded performance. The wall of sound built by the choristers in ‘His Yoke Is Easy, and His Burthen is Light’ ends Part One with a deluge of unexaggerated devotion. ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ at the start of Part Two could hardly be more different, the singers’ hushed awe surging on a tide of undiluted musicality. The electrifying progression of ‘Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs,’ ‘And with His Stripes We Are Healed,’ and the figuratively and literally breathtaking ‘All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray’ is guided with a sure hand by Wilberg and sung with impeccable poise and formidably reliable tone by the choir. No less gripping are the articulations of ‘He Trusted in God That He Would Deliver Him,’ the exhilarating ‘Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates,’ ‘Let All the Angels of God Worship Him,’ ‘The Lord Gave the Word,’ and ‘Their Sound is Gone Out into All the Lands’ that shape the central arc of the Passion chronicle. The choristers enunciate the ingenious figurations of ‘Let Us Break Their Bonds Asunder’ with gleeful accuracy of intonation and rhythm. Triumphant as the choir’s performance of ‘Hallelujah’ is here, it does not assume greater prominence in the oratorio’s musical and dramatic structures than Händel intended. It is a profound summation of faith and prophecies come to fruition, but it is not bloated as in many performances so that the music that follows seems anticlimactic. Part Three here begins with as galvanizing a performance of ‘Since By Man Came Death’ as has ever been presented in a complete recording of Messiah, and the choir’s soaring tones make ‘But Thanks Be to God’ a number similar in significance to its better-known companions in Messiah. The magnificent fugues of ‘Worthy Is the Lamb That Was Slain’ and the concluding ‘Amen’ are not so much sung as felt: the conviction with which the voices ring out is palpable, igniting sparks that illuminate the skill with which Händel ended this world-altering score.

Amidst the plethoras of challenges facing Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century, efforts to record Messiah are no longer as regular as death and taxes. This makes the appearance of a recording like this new one by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir all the more valuable. Händel’s Messiah is a perpetual feast, and this recording offers a delectable new course. Were he to hear the music performed with the sincerity and grandeur achieved on this recording, might Jennens revise his opinion of Händel’s setting of his carefully-tailored text?

05 March 2016

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — LA FAVORITE (K. Lindsey, R. Bills, J. Arrey, J. Relyea, J. Harvey, R. Sanz; Washington Concert Opera, 4 March 2016)

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz as Léonor and tenor Gilbert Duprez as Fernand in the first production of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE - Paris, 1840 [Lithograph by Émile Desmaisons, after François-Gabriel Lépaulle; public domain]GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): La favoriteKate Lindsey (Léonor de Guzmán), Randall Bills (Fernand), Javier Arrey (Alphonse XI), John Relyea (Balthazar), Joélle Harvey (Inès), Rolando Sanz (Don Gaspar); Washington Concert Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Antony Walker, conductor [Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., USA; Friday, 4 March 2016]

It might never be deduced from its lamentably few appearances in the world’s major opera houses in recent seasons that La favorite is one of Gaetano Donizetti’s finest scores. Composed in fulfillment of a commission from the Paris Opéra, an offer that any ambitious composer could hardly refuse, La favorite was in part adapted from the never-performed L’ange di Nisida, replacing the aborted Le duc d’Albe. Premièred at the Académie Royale de Musique on 2 December 1840, by a cast headed by mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz, whose reign as prima donna of both the Opéra and its manager, Léon Pillet, may have played at least a small part in the demise of Le duc d’Albe, the heroine of which was written for a higher voice, and the famous tenor Gilbert Duprez, La favorite solidified Donizetti’s reputation in the French capital, his home since an irreconcilable feud with the Neapolitan censors prompted him to turn his back on his native Italy. Despite the advocacy of singers as gifted as Giulietta Simionato, Fiorenza Cossotto, and Shirley Verrett, the appreciation that La favorite rightfully garnered in the Nineteenth Century has not persisted in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Last heard at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1978, the opera has been best served in recent years by concert performances, including Opera Orchestra of New York outings in 1975 with Shirley Verrett, Alfredo Kraus, and Pablo Elvira and in 2003 with Jennifer Larmore, Gregory Kunde, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky; a 1989 Wiener Konzerthaus presentation with Agnes Baltsa, Kraus, and Paolo Gavanelli; a previous Washington Concert Opera showing in 1991 with Florence Quivar, Vinson Cole, and Christopher Robertson; the 2014 Salzburger Festspiele account with Elīna Garanča, Juan Diego Flórez, and Ludovic Tézier; and 2015’s Bel Canto at Caramoor offering with Clémentine Margaine, Santiago Ballerini, and Stephen Powell. Compared with recorded souvenirs of these performances, Washington Concert Opera’s 2016 performance in Lisner Auditorium was finer than any of them. Opera lovers’ affection for the genre is sustained by those gloriously few occasions when every aspect of a performance excels. In the past several decades, aficionados have learned to subsist on very meager diets of memorable performances. This La favorite was a gluttonously fulfilling experience for ears and hearts that hunger for genuine bel canto.

Written by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz, the libretto of La favorite examines collisions of regal authority, the power of the Church, and individual emotions in the piquant setting of Fourteenth-Century Castile. Alphonse XI, King of Castile, is a archetypical Latin lover, a playboy whose amorous appetite is not quenched by the attentions of his consort, the daughter of Balthazar, superior of the monastery of the Order of Santiago de Compostela. The King keeps as his preferred mistress—voilà, la favorite—Léonor de Gusmán, a beautiful lady of the court whose fervor at prayer has been noticed by Fernand, a postulant in the monastery who eventually abandons his ecclesiastical intentions, accepts a commission in Alphonse’s army procured for him by Léonor, wins royal favor in battle, and claims as his reward from his sovereign Léonor’s hand in marriage—a hand given with the knowledge of everyone except Fernand that her other hand remains firmly grasped by the King. Fernand rejoices at being granted his wish to marry Léonor without knowing of her liaison with Alphonse: Léonor’s confidante Inès, dispatched before the wedding ceremony to reveal Léonor’s past, having been arrested before communicating the crucial information, Fernand pledges himself to a woman he does not truly know and who believes that she is accepted and loved despite her transgressions. Such a plot can be difficult to sort out in staged performances, and concert presentations can make it even more incomprehensible for listeners, especially those without good French—or, more frequently in the case of this opera, Italian. The atmosphere established by the efforts of all participants in Washington Concert Opera’s La favorite lent the performance a strong dramatic profile, elucidating plot elements despite erratic interactions among the principals. The singers’—soloists and choristers—generally very good diction was advantageous. Concert performances of operas often provide opportunities to more intimately savor scores’ musical qualities without visual distractions, but this La favorite in concert was more histrionically effective than many fully-staged productions of familiar works manage to be.

The leadership of Washington Concert Opera’s Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker reliably brings the excitement of staged opera to the concert setting, never more so than in this performance of La favorite. His work with Pinchgut Opera in his native Australia has revealed the stylistic versatility of his conducting, but his appearances with Washington Concert Opera, with which company his repertoire encompasses lesser-known scores by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, and Richard Strauss, have confirmed that he has a special affinity for bel canto, spotlighting the inherent elements of bel canto as much in Strauss’s Guntram as in Rossini’s Semiramide and Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi. In Walker’s hands, the kinship between La favorite and Verdi’s mature style was particularly apparent. Donizetti’s music for Alphonse XI, the King of Castile, would dovetail perfectly with Verdi’s music for the Conte di Luna in Il trovatore, and Fernand’s high-centered vocal lines might be uttered just as convincingly by Henri in Les vêpres sicilienne. Balthazar’s scenes might have been cut from the same cloth as similar episodes in La forza del destino and Don Carlos. Without applying pressure greater than the music can withstand, Walker’s approach made Donizetti as much a peer of Verdi, Ponchielli, and Boito as of Rossini and Bellini, and the lesson in this is unmistakably legitimized by the composers’ bodies of work. Rodolfo’s ‘Quando le sere al placido’ in Verdi’s Luisa Miller is a close relative of Fernand’s ‘Ange si pur,’ and what is la Cieca’s ‘Voce di donna’ in Ponchielli’s La gioconda if not bel canto? Walker’s tempi were consistently appropriate for music and musicians, and he enhanced the continuity of the score by refusing to linger over ‘purple’ passages. Every emotion, gleeful or doleful, was given its due but not allowed to dominate unless its domination was clearly Donizetti’s intention. The circumstances of the company’s performances prohibit extensive periods of rehearsal, but such was Walker’s commitment—and the commitment that he inspired in his colleagues on the Lisner Auditorium stage—that this La favorite sounded like the culmination of a lifetime of study and preparation.

Under Walker’s guidance, the quality of the playing by the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra continues to improve, the musicians’s slightly rough-edged account of the Ouverture’s opening Larghetto smoothing to a well-integrated, exciting account of the Allegretto mosso. The Act Two ballet, de rigueur in a score commissioned by the Opéra, was omitted from Washington Concert Opera’s performance, but plentiful opportunities for orchestral glory remained. There were a few very small mistakes and instances of imperfect ensemble, but the playing mostly set and adhered to a high standard. The horns that introduced Léonor’s celebrated ‘O mon Fernand’ were commendably sure of intonation, and harpist Eric Sabatino’s playing was always heard with pleasure. Among the sometimes thin-sounding strings, principal cellist Gita Ladd’s spirited rallying of her section remains a marvel: even her pizzicato playing is emotionally charged. As the Santiago de Compostela organist in Act Four, Joel Ayau phrased his music with bel canto sensibility.

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano KATE LINDSEY as Léonor, tenor RANDALL BILLS as Fernand, Artistic Director and Conductor ANTONY WALKER, baritone JAVIER ARREY as Alphonse, tenor ROLANDO SANZ as Don Gaspar, and bass JOHN RELYEA as Balthazar in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE in Lisner Auditorium, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]La favorite et ses hommes: (from left to right) Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Léonor, tenor Randall Bills as Fernand, Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker, baritone Javier Arrey as Alphonse, tenor Rolando Sanz as Don Gaspar, and bass John Relyea as Balthazar in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite in Lisner Auditorium, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Prepared by Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master Bruce Stasyna, the ladies and gentlemen of the Washington Concert Opera Chorus sang with potency and impressive balance. The men intoned the Andante introduction in Act One, ‘Pieux monastère, de ton sanctuaire que notre prière monte vers les cieux,’ expansively, and the ladies were luminous in the scene with Inès, sounding aptly girlist in ‘Rayons dorés, tiède zéphyre, de fleurs parez ce doux séjour.’ In both the Act Three finale and the first scene of Act Four, the dramatic force of the choral singing was gripping. Their accounts of ‘Frères, creusons l’asile où la douleur s’en dort’ and ‘Que du Très-Haut la faveur t’accompagne,’ the latter sung from the wings as Donizetti stipulated, were deeply poignant. Choral music plays a very important part in La favorite, and the success of this performance was considerably influenced by the choristers’ skillful contributions.

Interpreting the part of Don Gaspar, an officer in service to Alphonse, tenor Rolando Sanz acquitted himself expertly, his intuitive mastery of Donizetti’s style evident even in his character’s declamatory lines. Considering the quality of Sanz’s instrument, it was atypically regrettable that Donizetti and his librettists did not give Don Gaspar an aria. This talented tenor made the most of all that his character had to do, however, his voice ringing heroically—no whimpering character tenor, he!—in the scene with Alphonse at the start of Act Two. Sanz proclaimed Don Gaspar’s dramatically portentous lines in the Act Two finale with the machismo of a world-class Pollione. Of similar quality was his execution of his music in the Act Three finale. Sanz’s voice was always audible in ensembles, and even in the concert setting he was the smug, insinuating courtier to the life. Few operatic courtiers match their machinations with such firm, focused singing. It is too much to expect a Don Gaspar to sound as though he might respectably sing Fernand should circumstances necessitate it, but Sanz was one who seemed more than up to the task.

As Léonor’s confidante Inès, beautiful soprano Joélle Harvey enlivened the otherwise dark drama with singing as radiant as her smile. In her Act One scene with the young ladies of Alphonse’s court, she voiced ‘Rayons dorés, tiède zéphyre, de fleurs parez ce doux séjour’ with girlish glee, unleashing a splendid top B♭ in the cadenza. Then, her ‘Doux zéphyr, sois-lui fidèle’ wafted the fragrances and warmth of spring through the chilly auditorium, the spot-on accuracy of her pitch complemented by well-supported projection. She performed her part in the Act Two finale with poise and tireless assurance above the stave. As much a victim of Alphonse’s jealous cruelty as Léonor and Fernand, Harvey’s Inès was as good-natured and golden-voiced a champion of illicit love as Donizetti and the Washington audience could have hoped to hear in the rôle.

At the opposite end of the vocal and dramatic spectrum, the Balthazar of bass John Relyea pronounced the teachings and dictates of the Church with thundering tones that scorched the air with fire and brimstone. In the first scene of Act One, Relyea declaimed ‘Ne vas-tu pas prier avec eux?’ with gravitas, and his handling of Balthazar’s stern counseling of Fernand in the Allegro duet drew from him an imposing ‘Toi, mon fils, ma seule espérance.’ The bass’s voice relayed the wills of God and Pope in the finales of Acts Two and Three with the unanswerable authority of a man personally acquainted with both the Holy Spirit and the Holy Father. Welcoming Fernand into the monastic brotherhood at the start of Act Four, Relyea’s Balthazar assumed a paternal benevolence that shone in his singing of ‘Les cieux s’emplissent d’étincelles.’ Hearing Relyea’s portrayal, utterly solid throughout the part’s two-octave range, it is interesting to note how often Balthazar is easily ignored by recorded Alphonses. Relyea’s emphatic, smoldering singing could not be ignored by King or commoners, but who could have wanted to close his ears to such an electrifying performance of great music?

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano JOÉLLE HARVEY as Inès, mezzo-soprano KATE LINDSEY as Léonor, and baritone JAVIER ARREY as Alphonse in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE in Lisner Auditorium, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Le roi et ses plus belles dames: (from left to right) Soprano Joélle Harvey as Inès, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Léonor, and baritone Javier Arrey as Alphonse in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite in Lisner Auditorium, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Baritone Javier Arrey endowed the throne of Castile in this La favorite with a young, virile Alphonse XI whose vocalism was as handsomely chiseled as his visage. Among high-octane colleagues, he dominated Act Two, phrasing with distinction and respecting Donizetti enough to make an honorable effort at the trill asked of him. Arrey dispatched the libidinous King’s Larghetto aria ‘Léonor! Viens, j’abandonne Dieu, mon peuple et ma couronne’ and cabaletta ‘Léonor, mon amour brave’ with contrasting sensuality and swagger, his easy top Es and Fs ricocheting through the auditorium like musket balls. He and his Léonor blended their voices stirringly in their Larghetto duet, ‘Léonor, Léonor, tais-toi,’ and his vitriolic singing in the Act Two finale was galvanizing. To the trio with Léonor and Fernand, ‘Fernand de votre amour, Madame, vient de me faire ici l’aveu,’ Arrey brought the bemused confidence of royal prerogative, his voice radiating offended pride. A noticeably softer heart pulsed at the core of Alphonse’s Act Three aria ‘Pour tant d’amour ne soyez pas ingrate,’ the baritone revealing the soul of the man rather than the persona of the King. In the Act Three finale, Arrey depicted a touchingly wounded, suddenly frightened monarch on the brink of collapse: denounced by Rome, abandoned by his lover, and mocked by his court, he was a Mediterranean Macbeth stained by sin. Minimizing the significance of a few suspect pitches and moments of compromised tonal quality, Arrey’s performance was both pompous and poetic—and, most winningly, sung with style and nuance.

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano KATE LINDSEY as Léonor and tenor RANDALL BILLS as Fernand in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE in Lisner Auditorium, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]La favorite et le malheureux: Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Léonor (left) and tenor Randall Bills as Fernand (right) in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite in Lisner Auditorium, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Tall and as attractive in white tie and tails as a fair-haired Tony Curtis, tenor Randall Bills was a boyish, earnest Fernand who sang with heartwarming expressivity. In a rôle created by Gilbert Duprez, credited as having been the first tenor to publicly unveil the now-expected ut de poitrine, Bills unsurprisingly faced high tessitura, but his voice retained its youthful bloom to the top of the range. In Fernand’s Larghetto cavatine in Act One, ‘Un ange, une femme inconnue,’ he managed the ecstatic rise to top C♯ without strain, but the most gratifying aspects of his singing were his smooth, clear timbre and impeccable breath control. In the duet with Balthazar, his exclamation of ‘Mon père, je l’aime!’ soared with lovesick sincerity, and he subsequently greeted Inès with a believably awestruck ‘Gentille messagère et nymphe si discrète.’ Finally united with his beloved Léonor, her identity still withheld from him, ‘Pour toi des saints autels j’ai brisé l’esclavage’ poured from him like lava, his vocalism igniting one of Donizetti’s most incendiary duets. Bills gave an understated performance of the martiale aria ‘Oui, ta voix m’inspire,’ its sentiments being in his hands a statement of very private resolve. The first scene of Act Three was defined by Bills’s affectionately-phrased utterance of ‘Me voici donc près d’elle,’ his urgent, athletic singing in the trio with Léonor and Alphonse and the act’s finale surging with emotion and musicality. Hesitating before taking his final vows as a brother in the fraternity of Santiago de Compostela in Act Four, the tenor’s Fernand voiced ‘Dans un instant, mon frère’ with humility. Like the Duca’s ‘La donna è mobile’ in Rigoletto and Rodolfo’s ‘Che gelida manina’ in La bohème, it is Fernand’s C-major Larghetto aria ‘Ange si pur, que dans un songe’ for which audiences eagerly wait in La favorite, and Bills’s performance of the piece, one of Donizetti’s most inspired arias for tenor, fulfilled the expectation engendered by his effective singing throughout the evening. Shaping the aria with obvious mastery of bel canto, he faithfully observed Donizetti’s dynamic marking by taking the famous top C in genuine voix mixte, sustaining the tone beautifully and with the softness requested by the composer. In the harrowing final duet with the dying Léonor, he seemed transformed by ‘Ses pleurs, sa voix jadis si chère portent le trouble dans mes sens,’ his coldness towards his one true love thawed in an instant. This was a Fernand whose suggestion that his fellow monks’ prayers for the repose of Léonor’s soul would on the following day be lifted in requests of intercession for his own seemed inevitable: having borne too much, one could virtually feel the sensitive young man’s heart breaking. Particularly in early scenes, Bills’s gestures revealed nervousness, but the thoughtful young artist’s preparation and innate stylishness prevailed. Further experience will undoubtedly increase his comfort in the rôle, but few of even the most acclaimed Fernands have sung the music so securely and serenely.

After her début at the Opéra in 1837, Rosine Stoltz was frequently compared to one of the most popular singers in Paris, the sui generis Cornélie Falcon. Acclaimed for performances of rôles composed by Rossini for Isabella Colbran, as well as Falcon parts like Rachel in Halévy’s La Juive and Valentine in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Stoltz was admired for the excellent quality of her voice throughout its wide range and the dramatic verisimilitude of her characterizations, attributes that likely made her Léonor de Gusmán a memorable portrayal. The same praise can be justifiably directed at mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, whose Léonor for Washington Concert Opera was a spectacular junction of singer and rôle. In her Act One duet with Fernand, Lindsey caressed the line and cajoled her Fernand with a bewitching ‘Mon idole, mon idole, Dieu t’envoie.’ Her singing in the Act Two duet with Alphonse was better still, the bitterness that flooded her enunciation of ‘Dans vos palais, ma pauvre âme soupire’ altering the mood of the scene and of the opera as a whole. Her voice rocketed through the tricky writing in the Act Two finale. After enduring crippling shame in the trio with Fernand and Alphonse, depicted by Lindsey with unaffected dignity, Léonor’s majestic solo scene is the centerpiece of Act Three and the climax of the opera. Lindsey phrased the recitative ‘L’ai-je bien entendu?’ with great feeling, and her performances of the aria ‘O mon Fernand! tout les biens de la terre’ and cabaletta ‘Mon arrêt descend du ciel’ were galvanizing, a masterclass in the art of dramatic bel canto. Lindsey has flashing, unforced top Bs, used sparingly and to great effect, and her upper register was on sterling form throughout the performance, not least in the difficult Act Three finale. Entering in Act Four, Lindsey delivered ‘Fernand! Fernand! pourrai-je le trouver?’ with a voice already touched by death, and her piano singing of ‘Fernand, imite la clémence du ciel à qui tu t’es lié’ in the final duet was ravishingly plaintive. When singing quietly, Lindsey's tones sporadically lost focus, and her cautious management of vocal registers, commendably maintaining head resonance in the interest of preserving the line, led to a few moments of awkwardness at the bottom of the range. Like Bills, however, she reduced minor imperfections to immateriality with a performance that, taken as a whole, qualified her as a Léonor worthy of the legacy of Simionato, Cossotto, and Verrett.

It is never easy to explain why some of a composer’s operas enjoy enduring success while others of equal or greater quality languish in relative obscurity. For Donizetti’s La favorite, the argument is often made that the opera is neglected because there are no singers active today who are capable of doing justice to the score. Washington Concert Opera’s performance delightfully disavowed that notion. Are audiences’ collective attention spans too brief to enable exploration beyond the handful of Donizetti’s operas that remain in the standard repertory? Do today’s listeners fail to respond to the tragedy of La favorite as readily as Nineteenth-Century observers must have done? Whichever reasons are most valid for explaining the infrequency with which La favorite adorns the world’s stages, performances of the prowess of Washington Concert Opera’s traversal of the magnificent score are worth waiting for.

IN PERFORMANCE: the cast of Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gaetano Donizetti's LA FAVORITE in Lisner Auditorium, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Receiving thanks for a job well done: (from left to right) Bass John Relyea (Balthazar), mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey (Léonor), tenor Randall Bills (Fernand), Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker, baritone Javier Arrey (Alphonse), soprano Joélle Harvey (Inès), and tenor Rolando Sanz (Don Gaspar) in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s La favorite in Lisner Auditorium, 4 March 2016 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]