09 July 2016

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL (J. Archibald, N. Reinhardt, M. Schelomianski, D. Portillo, R. Gilmore; Alpha Classics 242)

IN REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - DIE ENTFÜHRUNG AUS DEM SERAIL (Alpha Classics 242)WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Die Entführung aus dem Serail, K. 384Jane Archibald (Konstanze), Norman Reinhardt (Belmonte), Mischa Schelomianski (Osmin), David Portillo (Pedrillo), Rachele Gilmore (Blonde), Christoph Quest (Bassa Selim); Ensemble Aedes; Le Cercle de l’Harmonie; Jérémie Rhorer, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in concert at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 21 September 2015; Alpha Classics 242; 2 CDs, 120:51; Available from NAXOS Direct (USA), Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

When spurred in 1781 by an irreconcilable row with his Salzburg-based employer to abandon the town of his birth and seek his fortune in the Hapsburg capital, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart found Vienna a city as much in the musical clutches of Italians as it had been when Antonio Vivaldi took his last breaths there forty years earlier. Muzio Clementi dominated Viennese keyboards, Antonio Salieri was director of the imperial Italian opera and would in seven years’ time become imperial Kapellmeister, and Metastasio remained the court’s favored librettist. Into this environment was infused the enlightening influence of Emperor Joseph II, who had been Holy Roman Emperor since the death of his father in 1765 but did not assume total control of the Hapsburg realms until the passing of his mother, Maria Theresa, in November 1780. Whilst still sharing the throne with his formidable Mutter, Joseph II initiated a groundbreaking, five-year project (1778 – 1783) intended to advance opera in German as a viable rival for the Italian opere serie that held sway in Viennese theatres. The phenomenal success of Joseph II's Nationalsingspiel initiative was the twenty-six-year-old Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, premièred in Vienna’s Burgtheater on 16 July 1782. The inaugural performances of Entführung having taken in more money than Mozart earned for a year’s toil at Salzburg’s archiepiscopal court, it might seem that composer’s financial security was serendipitously assured, but his windfall amounted to only slightly more than a third of the box office receipts for the opera’s first two performances. What Entführung established beyond dispute, however, was that Mozart was a composer whose musical brilliance and uncanny insights into the human condition were potent in any language.

It is sometimes erroneously suggested—or, more dangerously, assumed—that Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s first foray into composing opera auf Deutsch, but his career prior to his relocation to Vienna included the composition of the 1768 Singspiel Bastien und Bastienne, extensive (and overtly operatic) incidental music for the drama Thamos, König in Ägypten, and Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe, a 1780 reworking of his 1775 opera La finta giardiniera with a German text. It was his presentation of the score of his unfinished 1779 Singspiel Zaide to Nationalsingspiel director Johann Gottlieb Stephanie der Jüngere that solidified the commission for Die Entführung aus dem Serail, but assertions that Zaide, which Mozart initially entitled Das Serail, was essentially a ‘trial run’ for Entführung are also inaccurate. [A forthcoming recording by Classical Opera and an excellent cast, scheduled for release by Signum Classics in September 2016, is certain to fully reveal Zaide's merits.] Mozart put Zaide aside in order to compose Idomeneo, which premièred in Munich on 29 January 1781, six months to the day before the young composer received the Entführung libretto—frequently dismissed by later observers and acknowledged by Mozart himself as one of the weakest that he set to music—from Stephanie. The text may have disappointed Mozart, but the colorful, by modern standards not-quite-tactful tale of rescued lovers and collisions between oriental and occidental cultures stimulated his imagination, motivating the composition of a score that continues to challenge performers and enchant audiences.

Conducted with seemingly inexhaustible verve by Jérémie Rhorer, whose pacing of this performance, recorded in performance in Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in September 2015, places him in the company of Josef Krips, Karl Böhm, and Sir Colin Davis among conductors with natural affinities for handling this deceptively uncomplicated score, the musicians of period-instrument ensemble Le Cercle de l’Harmonie and singers of Ensemble Aedes maintain unparalleled presences in this performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, clanging and clamoring raucously but shortchanging none of the too-often-unheralded brilliance of Mozart’s music. Not surprisingly, the percussionists jingle and jangle merrily, taking advantage of every opportunity given to them by Mozart’s Turkish-inspired writing, but their enthusiasm never spills over into playing loudly merely for the sake of creating a good-natured din. There is a clear purpose to every drumbeat and tinkling of the triangle, purpose discerned from rather than in spite of Mozart’s instructions. Not least in the introduction to Konstanze’s aria ‘Martern aller Arten,’ the woodwind playing is extraordinary, the balances among instruments and unassailable intonation remarkable for a live performance. Rhorer’s tempi and Mozart’s robust orchestrations make daunting demands on the strings, and the Le Cercle de l’Harmonie players respond to every challenge with vigor and virtuosity. The choristers exude high spirits in their ideally-blended singing of the Janissaries’ choruses. Rhorer is an experienced Mozartean, but, intuitively serving his cast and the twenty-something composer, his is an effervescently youthful Entführung.

Presiding over his seraglio with fleet-tongued authority, Berlin-born thespian Christoph Quest’s Bassa Selim is a winsomely straightforward tyrant who is slow to anger but ferociously menacing when his pride is offended. Quest’s diction is appropriately patrician without being ridiculously stilted, and his avoidance of distorting syllables even when raging enables comprehension of every word of his part. When he realizes that the game is up and that he has been outwitted, Quest’s Selim is gracious in defeat—a trait from which scores of today’s authority figures from Addis Ababa to Zagreb could learn much. Many actors have made a star turn of Selim, but Quest creates a legitimate character who lurks in the shadows of the drama even when his voice is silent.

In the 234 years since the première of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, there cannot have been a more beautifully-sung and thoughtfully-acted Pedrillo than Texas-born tenor David Portillo. Delivering every line of his dialogue with sure timing, he makes Pedrillo a lovable figure before singing a note, but his greatest strengths are revealed when he joins Belmonte and Osmin in the Act One trio, ‘Marsch, marsch, marsch!’ Portillo is a born comedian whose musicality matches his skillful use of text, and in his Act Two aria ‘Frisch zum Kampfe!’ he is the rare Pedrillo not brought to grief by the top As and B. Pedrillo’s rollicking duet with Osmin, ‘Vivat, Bacchus,’ is one of the score’s highlights, and Portillo’s uninhibited, golden-toned singing makes this and the quartet with Konstanze, Belmonte, and Blonde, ‘Ach Belmonte! Ach mein Leben,’ exhibitions of gloriously-sustained bel canto. The young tenor voices the Act Three romance ‘In Mohrenland gefangen war ein Mädel hübsch und fein’ with feeling and superb phrasing, and his lines in the penultimate scene’s vaudeville, ‘Nie werd’ ich deine Huld verkennen,’ stand out. Already an artist of refinement, Portillo possesses a voice of superlative quality and the technical security to nurture it properly. As he sings Pedrillo here, it is an invaluable pleasure to hear a true tenore di grazia in a rôle in which grace is too often a pitifully scarce commodity.

Nearly as dulcetly charismatic as Portillo’s Pedrillo is the Blonde of American soprano Rachele Gilmore. Like her colleague and her character’s beloved, she faces every obstacle in her music unhesitatingly, plunging below the stave as intrepidly—though not always as effectively—as she vaults into the vocal stratosphere. In the latter realm are the zeniths of Blonde’s Act Two aria ‘Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln,’ in which Gilmore ascends to the trio of E6s as though doing so were as easy as speaking. The fun-loving Blonde is at her minxish best in her duet with Osmin, ‘Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir,’ and Gilmore and her Osmin sing the number delightfully, relishing their characters’ barbed banter without turning their sparring into a yelling competition. The soprano’s sunny jaunt through the aria ‘Welche Wonne, welche Lust’ is as frothy as fresh meringue, and she sings pertly in the quartet and the vaudeville. In dialogue, Gilmore is often genuinely funny. Vocally, only a handful of slightly off-center notes betray nerves or technical pitfalls, but she is a hard-working, no-holds-barred Blonde who earns her laughs and ovations.

In recent years, Osmins have often been the weak links in performances of Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Calling for an extensive range, agility, and comedic abandon, the rôle is as difficult to cast as the more sober Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte. The part of Selim’s grumpy overseer does not sound like a wholly natural fit for Russian bass Mischa Schelomianski, but he conquers the music, singing rather than barking and proving all the more amusing for approaching the rôle with a measure of restraint. It is only just a measure, though, and he grumbles and gripes hilariously in the Act One Lied, ‘Wer ein Liebchen hat gefunden,’ and the subsequent duet with the inconveniently intruding Belmonte. The bass’s sturdy intonation and excellent breath control are decided assets in his singing of the aria ‘Solche hergelaufne Laffen.’ He hurls vitriol at Belmonte and Pedrillo with deadpan insouciance in ‘Marsch, marsch, marsch!’ In Act Two, Schelomianski is a suitable partner for Gilmore in the duet with Blonde, ‘Ich gehe, doch rate ich dir,’ and for Portillo in the scintillating ‘Vivat, Bacchus!’ Osmin’s Act Three aria ‘O! wie will ich triumphieren!’ is the pinnacle of the rôle and one of the finest comic arias for the bass voice in the repertory. Schelomianski reaches the aria’s D2s without substantial effort (and also without sufficient volume), but his negotiations of the roulades, almost a parody of Händel’s writing for his bass villains, are imprecise. He bawls nastily in the vaudeville: the servant is not as dignified a loser as the master. Schelomianski does not rival Gottlob Frick and Kurt Moll as an exponent of Osmin’s music, but his is a satisfying performance that is anything but a weak link in this Entführing.

A rising star in the operatic firmament whose Houston Grand Opera portrayals of Cassio in Verdi’s Otello and Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte thrilled audiences, American tenor Norman Reinhardt is here a stylish, polished Belmonte whose earnestness is expressed in clear tones and long-breathed lines. Immediately establishing his character’s determination to find and free his adored Konstanze, Reinhardt sings his Act One aria ‘Hier soll ich dich denn sehen, Konstanze!’ resolutely, divulging no vulnerabilities in the music’s range or expansive lines. This Belmonte’s frustration boils in the duet with Osmin, but the brief recitative ‘Konstanze! dich wiederzusehen!’ and aria ‘O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig,’ strongly but sweetly sung, coruscate with anticipation and renewed purpose. Happily reunited with Pedrillo but further thwarted by the unrelentingly obstructive Osmin, Reinhardt’s Belmonte brings unflagging concentration to their trio, ‘Marsch, marsch, marsch!’ The Act Two aria ‘Wenn der Freude Tränen fließen’ receives from the tenor a performance of consummate stylishness, and his vocalism in the quartet is ardent and handsome. Reinhardt, who will sing the fearsomely difficult rôle of Rodrigo di Dhu in Rossini’s La donna del lago opposite Cecilia Bartoli’s Elena and Vivica Genaux’s Malcolm at the 2017 Salzburg Whitsun Festival, performs Belmonte’s frequently-omitted Act Three bravura aria ‘Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke’ with gusto and confident command of the divisions. He unleashes a current of focused, flowing tone in the duet with Konstanze, ‘Welch ein Geschick!’ There are passages throughout the rôle, particularly in Act One, in which greater vocal heft would be welcome, but Reinhardt avoids forcing the voice in climaxes, wisely relying upon projection rather than volume to carry the sound over the orchestra. This is a Belmonte in the tradition of George Shirley and Stuart Burrows, and Reinhardt’s debonair singing whets the appetite for his future appearances on disc.

Not surprisingly for a rôle virtually composed to order for soprano Caterina Cavalieri, Salieri’s star pupil and one of the most admired singers in Vienna, and bearing the name of the woman who became his wife nineteen days after the première of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mozart lavished an astounding array of musical riches on Konstanze. In Acts One and Two essentially a tragic heroine in the lineage of Händel’s Rodelinda, Hasse’s Ipermestra, and Jommelli’s Armida, Konstanze is transformed in Act Three into a rejuvenated young woman ready for romantic adventure. In this performance by Canadian soprano Jane Archibald, the transition is obvious, the glinting steel in the voice in the scenes before Konstanze’s reunion with Belmonte tempered by vocal velvet that her swain’s attention replenishes. In her Act One aria, ‘Ach, ich liebte, war so glücklich,’ Konstanze expresses herself in arching phrases that test but never defeat the singer’s breath control. Archibald launches the recitative ‘Welcher Wechsel herrscht in meiner Seele’ in Act Two with dramatic thrust that contrasts markedly with the time-suspending desolation that shapes her singing of the aria ‘Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose.’ The timbres of Archibald’s and Gilmore’s voices are similar enough to make vocal colorations crucial as a means of discerning which lady is singing, and, though Archibald’s palette is limited in the extremities to which her music often takes her, she is attentive to adapting the silvery patina of her sound to the moods of the words. Many singers, including Maria Callas, have deemed ‘Martern aller Arten’ the most difficult aria ever composed for the soprano voice, and this assessment is not without justification. In this one aria, the soprano is asked to span the entire range required of the Kaiserin in all of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, extending to D6, and to execute fiorature akin to those braved by the Königin der Nacht in Die Zauberflöte and Strauss’s Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. There is far more to Konstanze than this aria, but it is often the gauge by which a Konstanze’s success is judged. By this criterion, Archibald’s performance is impeccable, her singing of ‘Martern aller Arten’ stunningly assured. Konstanze’s lines in the quartet are voiced with resilience, and Archibald partners Reinhardt and their colleagues hypnotically in the duet with Belmonte and the vaudeville in Act Three. Konstanze is a rôle that has unexpectedly fared quite well on disc. A wiry voice like that of Erika Köth tapped unanticipated reserves of solidity, and a radiantly beautiful voice like that of Arleen Augér produced power without being pushed. Archibald displays in this performance that she is eminently capable of singing both beautifully and boldly, and she is a satisfyingly complete Konstanze.

What makes this Alpha Classics recording of Die Entührung aus dem Serail such a special release is the uncommon distinction and consistency of its casting. As performances at the Metropolitan Opera in the 2015 – 2016 Season confirmed, Entführung is an opera with singular requirements that are not easily met even by very accomplished singers. Intelligently guided by Rhorer and bolstered by masterful orchestral playing and choral singing, this Die Entführung aus dem Serail takes flight on streams of Mozart singing of a caliber seldom heard since the storied days of Schwarzkopf, Streich, Wunderlich, and Haefliger.