30 January 2017

CD REVIEW: Franco Faccio — AMLETO (A. Richardson, A. L. Hamza, J. Hubbard, C. Worra, S. De Vine, M. Curran, J. González, J. Beruan; Opera Southwest 888295410748)

IN REVIEW: Francesco Antonio Faccio - AMLETO (Opera Southwest 888295410748)FRANCESCO ANTONIO FACCIO (1840 – 1891): AmletoAlex Richardson (Amleto), Abla Lynn Hamza (Ofelia), Joseph Hubbard (Orazio), Caroline Worra (Geltrude), Shannon De Vine (Claudio), Matthew Curran (Polonio, Primo becchino), Paul Bower (Marcello, Un sacerdote), Javier González (Laerte), Jeffrey Beruan (Lo spettro, Luciano), Jonathan Charles Tay (Un araldo, Il re Gonzaga), Heather Youngquist (La regina); Chorus and Orchestra of Opera Southwest; Anthony Barrese, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during performances at Opera Southwest, Albuquerque Journal Theatre, National Hispanic Cultural Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, 26 and 31 October and 2 November 2014; Opera Southwest 888295410748; 2 CDs, 149:36; Available from Opera Southwest and major music retailers]

It is irrefutably true that artists are no less subject than any other men to John Donne’s oft-quoted assertion that ‘no man is an island,’ but plentiful are the opportunities for drowning in the tumultuous seas that separate creative geniuses from the nearest neighboring shores. Fond as modern society is of attaching labels to every possible entity, a sobriquet like ‘the Czech Mozart’ is as damaging as it is flattering to the modern reputation of the Eighteenth-Century composer Josef Mysliveček, heightening interest but also suggesting a discernible element of conventionality. In a sense, promoting Franco Faccio’s Shakespeare-derived opera Amleto as the ‘missing link between Verdi and verismo’ places this forsaken score in a context that emphasizes its significance in the evolution of Italian opera in the Nineteenth Century but undermines its merits as a destination in its own right. With a libretto by Arrigo Boito, the composer of the still-under-appreciated Mefistofele and Nerone whose libretti for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff qualify him for the title of Italy’s most gifted operatic adaptor of Shakespeare, Amleto first recreated something rotten in Denmark on the stage of Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice on 30 May 1865, with Mario Tiberini, Verdi’s first Don Alvaro in the revised version of La forza del destino that continues to be preferred today, in the title rôle. Neither a rousing success nor the dismal failure that its subsequent neglect might suggest it to have been, Amleto can be said to have suffered a variation of the fate endured by its protagonist: misrepresented, misunderstood, ignored, and dismissed, Faccio’s most accomplished score now seeks in today’s reappraisal the retribution that it deserves.

Born in Verona in 1840, two months before Tchaikovsky was born four thousand kilometers away in today’s Udmurt Republic, Francesco Antonio Faccio honed his gifts at the Milan Conservatory, where his studies brought him into contact with Boito. The friendship that developed between them was both productive and potentially injurious: their barbed and very public criticism of the Italian musical establishment earned them the ire of Verdi, the undisputed sovereign of that establishment. Fortunately for Faccio, Verdi was capable of graciousness and seeing talent despite triviality, eventually facilitating the younger man’s appointment as conductor at Teatro alla Scala and advocating for Faccio’s conducting of the first performances and momentous productions of Verdi’s own later operas. Faccio was only twenty-five years old when Amleto was premièred in Genoa and not yet thirty-one when his revision of the score was first heard at La Scala in 1871. Though Faccio was to live for another two decades [ironically, Verdi, bastion of the ‘old guard’ against which Faccio and Boito railed, outlived his younger Veronese colleague by ten years], this is where Amleto’s journey stalled until the Twenty-First Century. Dramatically, Boito’s libretto for Amleto is in no way inferior to his Shakespeare libretti for Verdi. Musically, Faccio’s score is the equal or superior of many of the pieces that have been resurrected in recent years, including Filippo Marchetti’s Ruy Blas, the title rôle in which was created in 1869 by the first Amleto, Mario Tiberini. Faccio’s mastery of orchestration is sometimes more striking than his skill as a melodist, but Amleto is a work that profusely rewards the listener’s curiosity.

Recorded during critically-acclaimed performances at Albuquerque’s Opera Southwest, this release provides Amleto and its creator with a substantial measure of the vengeance to which the opera’s neglect entitles them. Like Shakespeare’s play, which is gripping when read but can be overwhelming in performance, it is apparent that Faccio’s opera is better suited to the stage than to the studio. Even at their most bountiful, noises from stage and audience in this recording are not bothersome, the extraneous sounds contributing to the performance’s palpable atmosphere—a trait invaluable to both Hamlet and Amleto. Also crucial in the creation of the atmosphere that the opera needs are the efforts of the Opera Southwest Chorus and Orchestra. The orchestra’s playing luxuriates in the richness of Faccio’s part writing, the few mistakes that remind the listener that this recording documents live performances indicating the difficulty of the music. Orchestral textures are for the most part ideal, and balance of ensemble is thoughtfully managed, especially in the grand public scenes. Faccio’s choral writing prefigures passages that Verdi would create in Act Two of Aida and the opening scene of Otello, and the choral singing in this performance is one of Opera Southwest’s foremost achievements. The choristers consistently deliver energetic accounts of their music, often giving the performance the dramatic force of Greek tragedy, and their efforts are unerringly musical. With this recording, Opera Southwest’s personnel provide further evidence of the fantastic work being done by America’s regional opera companies, work often superior to the efforts of larger companies in and beyond the United States.

That resurrecting Amleto was not merely a project but a personal crusade for composer and conductor Anthony Barrese is audible in every second of this recording. Having prepared the critical edition of Faccio’s score, now receiving attention throughout the world, he conducts the performance on these discs as though his life, as well as the opera’s fortunes, depended on it. In Barrese’s hands, an electric ambience is engendered via the opera’s opening pages that permeates the performance, the dramatic tension maintained until the final chord of Faccio’s score. Musical gestures are always at the service of the narrative, the conductor facilitating a reading in which the climaxes of every scene are fully realized but organically fused within the opera’s overall structure. The chosen tempi keep the opera moving without pushing any of the performers on stage or in the pit beyond the limits of comfort or good taste. Unlike the endeavors of many proponents for overlooked repertory, Barrese’s pacing of Amleto does not attempt to force the listener to accept the opera as a rediscovered masterpiece: rather, Faccio’s music is performed with equal measures of passion and precision, and the listener is invited to draw his own conclusions. It is impossible to know how Mendelssohn’s conducting of the Bach Passions sounded, but, as it was guided by the affections of rediscovery and dauntless advocacy, it can be surmised that, in spirit, it must have resembled Barrese’s conducting of Amleto.

Heard as both the Araldo and Il Re Gonzaga, tenor Jonathan Charles Tay exemplifies the meticulous casting that was enacted in filling the roster for Opera Southwest’s production with singers qualified to make the most positive of impressions with their handling of Faccio’s music. In the second part of Act Two, Tay sings ‘Vieni, compagna, un tiepido orezzo verspertin fa carolar le mammole nel placido giardin’ with total immersion in the drama, the singer’s vocal colorations reflecting the subtleties of the text. Similarly, tenor Javier González injects a rigid spine into Laerte, a figure too often inert in performances of Hamlet, voicing ‘Sovra il desco inebriato piovan canti, incenso e fiori’ in Act One with steady tone and sure dramatic instincts. These gentlemen’s performances are complemented by the strong, sonorous vocalism of bass Matthew Curran as the Primo Becchino and Polonio. In the latter rôle, this imaginative singer is a credible father to González’s Laerte and the fragile Ofelia, even his most pompous political passages softened by paternal tenderness. The insightful wisdom of his ‘To thine own self be true’ speech notwithstanding, the loss when Shakespeare’s Hamlet erroneously slays Polonius is rarely deeply felt, but Curran makes the character truly amusing in his self-importance and genuinely sympathetic in his vestiges of humanity, not least by sculpting ‘Quand’ei qui giunga, a lui verrà mia figlia’ in Act Two with dignity and distinguished tone.

In addition to honorably aiding Faccio as Opera Southwest’s chorus master, baritone Paul Bower sings the composer’s music for Marcello and Un Sacerdote with vigor and well-projected tone, setting a fine example for the choristers under his direction. Joining the chorus in following that example, soprano Heather Youngquist contributes singing of excellent quality as La Regina in the traveling troupe’s play—the play that is the thing in which Hamlet contrives to ‘catch the conscience of the king.’

One of the most fascinating aspects of Amleto is the manner in which Faccio endowed characters that function in Shakespeare as little more than stock figures who set the moods of scenes or advance literary conceits with innovative, interesting, and skillfully-written music. It is therefore strange to observe how comparatively few opportunities for musical expression Faccio provided for Orazio, Shakespeare’s Horatio and one of Hamlet’s most consequential figures. [In the First Folio edition of Hamlet, Horatio speaks 292 lines, fewer than several characters but 122 more than Ophelia!] In this performance of Amleto, bass Joseph Hubbard grants Orazio the stature of his Shakespearean counterpart. Singing with imperturbable concentration, Hubbard precisely gauges the gravity of each note and word of his part, attaining the difficult balance between urgency and levity. Faccio’s Orazio is basically a conventional operatic secondo uomo, but Hubbard’s Orazio is a man with his own identity, in Amleto’s service but never in his shadow.

Bass Jeffrey Beruan is a singer whose performances often inspire that most frustrating of operatic questions: why are so many companies casting less-qualified vocalists for appropriate rôles when an artist of Beruan’s caliber is available? Interpreting Luciano and the pivotal part of Lo Spettro in this performance of Amleto, the bass exhibits his considerable strengths in singing of thrilling impact. In the second part of Act One, Beruan’s articulation of the ghost’s ‘Tu dêi saper ch’io son l’anima lesa del morto padre tuo’ is chilling, the effect on the listener as great as that on Amleto. Equally potent is his voicing of ‘Ma intorno io sento come un olir di soffio mattutino,’ his enunciation of text as imposing as his musical prowess. ‘Figliuol, dal cieco furiar rimanti’ in Act Three is conveyed with galvanizing conviction. In certain passages, the range of the ghost’s music challenges Beruan, taking him into territories both above and below the stave in which intonational security momentarily falters. Occasionally, too, the singer’s declamation is slightly more emphatic than the music necessitates, and the raw force expended takes a toll on tonal quality. Still, Beruan’s performance is shaped by an earnest response to the score, and he haunts this Amleto with artistry of a high order.

The villainous Claudius is the point at which all of Hamlet subplots intersect. Guilty of both fratricide and regicide, in addition to having married his murdered brother’s wife, Claudius is the quarry of Hamlet’s messy, meandering quest for revenge. Portrayed by baritone Shannon De Vine, Faccio’s and Boito’s Claudio is an usurper who is both conniving and cowardly, not the equal of Verdi’s and Boito’s Iago but a plausible catalyst for Amleto’s neuroses. In Act One, De Vine assumes an imperious stance in ‘Di giulivi clamori sorga un tuon per le splendide sale,’ the baritone cloaking the character’s treachery in smooth vocal acting. The baritone sings ‘Libiam! La lagrima sul ciglio spunti’ with bravado, manifesting a sweeping contrast with the burgeoning nervousness that grips Claudio during the play within a play in Act Two. The near-manic sentiments of ‘O nera colpa! Orribilmente inflitta entro l’occhio dell’anima!’ in the first part of Act Three are imparted by De Vine with resonant certitude. De Vine’s reading of ‘S’empian le coppe di prezioso vino’ in the second part of Act Four trembles with the conflicting emotions of a man who senses that the game is up. Dramatically, De Vine is a Claudio worthy of the Globe: musically, he speaks Faccio’s musical language with compelling fluency.

In Ambroise Thomas’s operatic incarnation of Hamlet, it is the titular prince’s mother Gertrude who claims much of the best music, particularly in her duets with Claudius and Hamlet and the arioso ‘Dans sons regards plus sombre.’ Faccio’s Geltrude enjoys a similar caliber of music, and she receives from soprano Caroline Worra a portrayal of visceral immediacy apt for the character and musical poise befitting a queen. To the mother’s tense dealings with her son and the wife’s increasingly troubled discourses with her husband Worra brings emotional directness and singing of white-hot charisma. In the scene with Claudio and Polonio in the first part of Act Three, the soprano excels as a mistress of dramatic utterance allied with undeviating adherence to exalted musical values. Worra’s voicing of ‘Ah! che alfine all’empio scherno mi ribello, o snaturato!’ reverberates with feeling. The singer’s easy command of the tessitura of Geltrude’s music is wonderful, and the scope of Worra’s artistry is revealed by the extent to which she exerts a prodigious histrionic presence even in the context of an audio recording.

Ophelia is among the Bard’s most one-dimensional heroines, her function in Hamlet being largely that of a witness to other characters’ machinations. Great actresses have managed to make her more than a static figure who strikes poses akin to Sir John Everett Millais’s famous depiction of the drowned Ophelia, but, whether the score before her bears the name of Faccio or Thomas upon its cover, the soprano portraying Ophelia faces a problematic task when seeking to infuse the character with anything resembling unaffected verisimilitude. From the first notes of her entrance music, soprano Abla Lynn Hamza strives admirably to create an engaging Ofelia, phrasing the lovely ‘Dubita pur che brillino degl’astri le carole’ artfully and rising to the fortissimo top C with assurance. In Act Two, Hamza’s account of ‘Signor, da gran tempo - tenevo nel cor di rendervi questa - memoria d’amor’ exudes femininity, but this is no shrinking-violet Ofelia: rather than being lost in the character’s delicacy, this soprano embraces it, making it an integral but not the defining element of her interpretation. Unsurprisingly, the pinnacle of Faccio’s writing for Ofelia is her mad scene in the second part of Act Three. Here, Hamza’s thoughtfulness produces a traversal of ‘La bara involta d’un drappo nero move alla volta del cimitero’ that transcends oft-parodied operatic insanity. Hamza’s Ofelia persuasively and movingly relinquishes her grip on rationality, but the singer’s grasp on the music remains firm. When this Ofelia sings ‘Ahimè! chi piange? è il salice, che piange, e piange tanto che l’acqua del suo pianto formò questo ruscel,’ she seems to have already entered a state beyond mortality. Hamza’s technique meets the strenuous demands of Faccio’s music without resorting to trickery, and her vocal confidence markedly enhances her kaleidoscopic portrait of Ofelia.

The title rôle in Hamlet is among the greatest creations in theatre and literature, the tormented Danish prince having captivated audiences throughout the world in an extraordinary array of portrayals in different styles, methods, and languages. On stage and screen, he has been hearty and handsome, narcissistic and near-demented, idealistic and idiosyncratic, and, as brought to life in Opera Southwest’s production of Faccio’s Amleto by tenor Alex Richardson, he is awkward and disenfranchised, an adolescent catapulted into adulthood by events with which he seems scantily equipped to cope. That he is fully cognizant of his uncle’s misdeed and his mother’s complicity is never in question, and the evolution of Richardson’s Amleto is guided by his journey from brooding indignation to unhesitant brutality. That transformation is initiated in Act One with the tenor’s agitated statememt of ‘Ah si dissolva quest’abbietta forma di duolo e colpe! si dissolva in nulla.’ He reveals a wholly different facet of Amleto’s psyche with his reverent but robust ‘Gran Dio!... misericordia!... Vegliate su di me, santi del cielo!’ in the opening act’s second part. The ambivalence of Amleto’s monologue ‘Essere! o non essere!’—the equivalent of Shakespeare’s ‘To be or not to be’—is heightened by a restless cello obbligato and shifting tempi, but Richardson’s verbal fluidity and solid top A and B♭ confirm that this Amleto’s resolve is ‘to be.’ There is stinging irony in his singing of ‘Fatti monachella. Sì fatti monachella,’ and in the second part of Act Two the tenor’s performance misses none of the pointed meaning of ‘Osserva, Orazio, su quella fronte non vedi un funebre strano pallor?’ In Amleto’s scene with his mother, uncle, and Polonio in the first part of Act Three, it is obvious that the desire for vengeance has become an all-consuming obsession in which distinctions of right and wrong and good and evil are obscured. Richardson sings ‘Che rubi e insudici troni e corone’ powerfully, followed by an account of ‘Celesti spirti! O lugubre spettro del padre morto’ in which the singer’s voice is as resilient as the character’s mind is anguished.

Another of Hamlet’s most familiar scenes is that in which the prince ponders the transience of life whilst the gravediggers go about their work, and Richardson phrases ‘Ahimè! Povero Yorick! Me ’l rammento io pure’ in Faccio’s setting with an abiding aura of poetic wonder. Richardson’s vocalism is at its most refined in the opera’s final scene, but he is an Amleto who is more rugged than cerebral, one who actively rejoices in the pursuit of retaliation for his father’s murder. Like Alvaro in Verdi’s La forza del destino, Faccio’s Amleto needs both force and finesse, and Richardson, here an expressive but never ‘soft’ singer, approaches the rôle with commendable straightforwardness, avoiding the trap of over-acting. Faccio’s music wages war against the tenor’s upper register, but Richardson never surrenders, conquering the composer’s writing with corpuscular sturdiness that recalls Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. Though greater expressive nuance and dynamic shading would be welcome, Richardson genuinely sings music that many tenors would likely be inclined to shout, and he is a bold, heroic Amleto.

‘The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge,’ Shakespeare wrote in Act Three of Hamlet, and, thunderously projecting its voice via this recording, Faccio’s Amleto at last enjoys the satisfaction of reprisal. The score’s virtues are many, and it is intriguing to consider what a triumph an ensemble like La Scala’s celebrated 1962 ‘night of seven stars’ cast for Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots might have scored with Franco Corelli as Amleto, Dame Joan Sutherland as Ofelia, Giulietta Simionato as Geltrude, Nicolai Ghiaurov as Claudio, and Giorgio Tozzi as Orazio. It is not unrealistic to conjecture that Carlo Bergonzi would have been an Amleto of Shakespearean depth, and what dramatic infernos might Renata Scotto and Maria Callas have kindled in Ofelia’s and Geltrude’s music? That Amleto inspires such musing is a testament to the quality of Faccio’s score and to the probing performance that it receives from Opera Southwest on this recording. This Amleto is a brilliant vindication of the eminence of the music and its composer that, echoing Shakespeare’s words in Henry IV, Part One, is ‘like a comet of revenge, a prophet to the fall of all [their] foes!’

20 January 2017

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Bridging the genre gap—what Madama Butterfly can learn from Mrs. Brown

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Sixties Soul, Still Going Strong - PETER NOONE of Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone [Photo by the author - Carlos Alvarez Studio Theatre, Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, San Antonio, Texas; 20 March 2016]Sixties Soul still going strong: Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone in performance in the Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater, Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, San Antonio, Texas, on 20 March 2016
[Photo by the author]

There is an oft-cited quip suggesting that, if you can remember the 1960s, you were not there. Now, a half-century after Motown drove across the continent and the British Invasion reclaimed the colonies, there are less-jovial connotations to that quaint maxim. Illness and injury are continually decimating both the memories and the mortalities of those who witnessed and participated in the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, and too many of those who, like me, were born in the less-interesting decades that followed have never queried the sources of musical munificence in their own homes about the sounds and experiences that defined an era. If our grandparents, the courageous women and men who selflessly abandoned their everyday lives and battled not for the status quo but for preservation of the freedom for there to be a status quo, were the Greatest Generation, then our parents, the children of the turbulent but tremendously tuneful Sixties, are surely the Grooviest Generation. The photos of their haute couture and piled-high coiffures amuse us now, but follow George Jackson’s and Bob Seger’s advice, take any of those old records off the shelf, and there arises from the scratch of stylus on vinyl an atmosphere shaped by far more than words and lyrics. Better still, return to the source: hear an artist like Peter Noone, still playing in excess of 130 gigs each year with undimmed enthusiasm and professionalism, and the subtle and substantial changes in music of all genres are plainly, painfully apparent. Ours is a brave new world that has lost both its bravery and its novelty, especially in the exalted realm of Classical Music. There are ears that will ever respond more readily to Saint-Saëns’s Henry VIII than to Herman’s Hermits’ ‘I’m Henry VIII, I Am,’ but there are many questions that gnaw at the core of Classical Music in the Twenty-First Century that might find no better answers than those proposed by still-swinging Sixties showmanship.

That this undoubtedly seems an unlikely theme for Voix des Arts necessitates a brief stint in the confessional. I principally write about Classical Music because this is my comfort zone. During my youth in the last millennium, I studied violin [no Arthur Grumiaux, to be sure], piano [no Artur Schnabel], and voice [no Caruso, Gigli, or even Poggi]. Regardless of whether I seriously considered a career as a professional musician, it is impossible to ascertain whether I possessed less ambition or talent. Despite having studied it in some depth, I love music. Loving music, I lead a double life, my Clark Kent guise boring the Classically-inclined public with my Tolstoy-length, excessively-detailed reviews by day and then, by night, donning my cape—a glow stick, actually—and transforming into a freeway-burning follower of Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone. [There comes a time, fellow travelers, when what one claims to be one’s parents predilections should and must be acknowledged as one’s own.] With today’s incarnation of the Hermits, comprised of master musicians Vance Brescia, Dave Ferrara, Rich Spina, and Billy Sullivan, Noone tours in the United States and abroad, appearing in as many different kinds of venues as there are towns to build them. Friday evening might find me critiquing a performance of Carmen; Saturday evening, singing along with ‘Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat.’ Rather than complicating my focus on the former, I find that the latter markedly sharpens my perspectives on all music.

I have during my time in the trenches met a few ‘serious’ singers, and, rightly or [mostly] wrongly, have even considered a few among them friends. For me, opera is life—not a means of making a living but life itself. I try to convey this in my writing and to apply this passion to my analyses of performances and recordings. Whether the work at hand is a Bach partita, a Bellini opera, a Brahms symphony, or a Bacharach song, a musician’s endeavor deserves attention from the critic at least as great as the effort expended in the performance. A performance of two hours’ duration, prepared over many more hours, seldom merits being assessed—or, more accurately, dismissed—in a single sentence, and, in those cases in which this is warranted, there is no complaint that cannot be stated civilly. My credo, unimpeded by editorial limitations, is profoundly simple: be thorough, honest, and courteous; and, if there is nothing positive to be said, say nothing at all. Complementing my great appreciation for his music and his unwavering commitment to making it at the highest level is my recognition of Noone’s embodiment of the critical tenets of my philosophy. He falls ill, experiences disappointments and losses, has aches and pains, and faces days when the voice wants rest, but audiences who discern this in his performances are far more perceptive than I. There are no cancellations, no complaints, and no excuses: the priority is the quality of the ticket buyer’s experience, not cosseting the artist’s ego.

As an opera lover [barely] under the age of forty, I am fascinated and admittedly mystified by tales of opera-going of generations past. Reflecting on the passing of Roberta Peters, a gracious lady rightly acclaimed as one of America’s most gifted and giving singers, I find it almost impossible in the context of today’s Classical Music environment to fathom an era in which singers like Peters, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Renata Tebaldi received their fans like friends. In a classic case of diving in at the deep end, my first exposure to professionally-produced opera was the Franco Zeffirelli production of Bizet’s Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera, a 1997 performance with Denyce Graves in the title role and Plácido Domingo as Don José. To her credit, Graves was a throwback to the divas of bygone days, amiably holding court with her admirers at the stage door. In this aspect of the operatic experience, the going has for the most part been downhill from that auspicious start.

Many keystrokes are expended in discussions of the struggles that opera and Classical Music face, especially in the United States. With funding imperiled on virtually every front, financing opera is a challenge of epic proportions, one that companies must meet with intelligence and innovation. Fundraising is a necessity, but it is also a significant current in the tsunamis of arrogance and elitism that have drowned opera in America in recent seasons. Yes, opera has almost always been and will likely always be perceived as an elitist art form, not without justification, but the language and stylistic barriers that frighten potential new audiences are made still more off-putting by the disconnect between stage and seats. The interaction that caused a boy from North Carolina to feel that Denyce Graves cared about whether he enjoyed her performance is now so often lacking. Graves is as charismatic a lady in the MET parking garage as she is on the MET stage, but many of today’s younger singers are also kind, insightful, approachable people—and there, dear readers, is the rub. Of what use is approachability when one can never be approached?

To be sure, ours is a world unlike the one inhabited by Sutherland and Tebaldi; unlike even the one in which I first attended a performance at the MET, for that matter. Security is a paramount concern. Artists’ safety is an inviolable right, but it is not often than an enthusiastic child is denied the opportunity to greet an idolized performer after a show because of security concerns. No, there is a private reception for donors, an invited-guests-only function, some sort of ‘Average Folks are not welcome’ event that adds another layer of bricks to the wall separating Art from Public. This is understandable and unavoidable but undeniably disheartening. I have often wondered whether I would have been so keen to return to the opera had Denyce Graves not taken five minutes from her life—five minutes to which my ticket emphatically did not entitle me—to say, ‘Thanks for coming to the show, kid. I’m glad that you enjoyed it and proud to have been part of your first night at the opera.’ For me, the obsession was already growing, but what about the child who now has no opportunity to utter awe-induced nonsense to the Figaro, Papageno, or Rodolfo who has won her heart?

When Peter Noone performs, it is the Herman persona that sent teeming crowds into frenzies in the 1960s who takes the stage. When he greets newly-won and decades-loyal fans in post-performance autograph lines that sometimes seem interminable, it is an amalgamation of Herman and Peter Noone who remembers names, inquires about absent spouses and children, and carries on witty banter worthy of Benny Hill. There of course are private receptions, backstage meetings for a fortunate few, and closed-door concessions to the pockets that pay venues’ bills, but Noone’s dedication to converting every creature in a seat into a fan is why, fifty years after he charmed Ed Sullivan and the youth of America, I remember as many Herman’s Hermits lyrics as da Ponte and Hofmannsthal libretti. Artistic responsibility is a two-way street. Perhaps I was not the most eager of attendees the first time that I heard Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone in concert, but I immediately sensed the abiding cognizance of responsibility for my enjoyment that Noone and the musicians with whom he surrounded himself exuded. I therefore felt a similar responsibility to switch off my prejudices and let the music minister to me on its own terms. I have felt that in the opera house, too, but the toil is greater. How many potential opera lovers and benefactors never deem it worth the effort to make the kinds of connections that open minds, hearts, and checkbooks?

However greatly we have come to rely upon social media and technology for communication, there is so much more to meaningfully enjoying, promoting, and supporting art than liking Facebook pages and following Twitter accounts. Art is an exchange, a sharing of ideas from which no one can be excluded if art is to remain viable. That opera has become a commodity that is bought and sold on a closed but visible market is abundantly apparent. Such is progress, and, if managed properly, opera and its future can benefit from it. No one would admit more quickly than Noone that singing ‘Leaning on the Lamp Post’ is not as strenuous an undertaking as performing Isolde’s Liebestod, but no one is more aware than Noone that selling ‘Leaning on the Lamp Post’ is as vital to the success of a Herman's Hermits starring Peter Noone as the emotional and musical power of a soprano’s Liebestod is to the effectiveness of a performance of Tristan und Isolde. In an unpoetically commercial sense, the essence of artistry is the sales pitch. As pivotal in the effort to preserve opera as in that to keep music from the 1960s playing is convincing consumers to buy something that they know that they do not need.

What can Madama Butterfly learn from Mrs. Brown? One might think that the view from high atop the hill overlooking Nagasaki’s harbor is ideal for peering over the horizon into the future of opera, but that view is too often obstructed by reflections of the dizzying misfortunes to which opera in the Twenty-First Century, like Cio-Cio San, is susceptible. Still, Herman would remind us that ‘it ain’t no good to pine.’ I fear for the survival of opera not because of the quality or validity of the music or the aptitude of young singers but because the pressures of sustaining a career in too many instances no longer allow singers to be the kind of crusaders for opera that Peters, Sutherland, and Tebaldi were, garnering as much veneration after the curtain fell as when on stage. It is upon veneration of singers and singing that the perseverance of opera depends. Opera could learn much from Peter Noone about the elusive art of maintaining uncompromising seriousness in one’s artistry without forgetting that the surest method of earning a listener’s respect is to sincerely and palpably reciprocate it.

15 January 2017

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Georges Bizet — CARMEN (S. Piques Eddy, D. Vania, D. Pershall, M. Whittington, J. Martinson, S. Foley Davis, D. Hartmann, S. MacLeod, J. Wright, T. Federle; Greensboro Opera, 13 January 2017)

IN REVIEW: Mezzo-soprano SANDRA PIQUES EDDY in the title rôle (left) and tenor DINYAR VANIA as Don José (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Georges Bizet's CARMEN, January 2017 [Photo © by Greensboro Opera]GEORGES BIZET (1838 – 1876): CarmenSandra Piques Eddy (Carmen), Dinyar Vania (Don José), Melinda Whittington (Micaëla), David Pershall (Escamillo), Joann Martinson (Frasquita), Stephanie Foley Davis (Mercédès), Donald Hartmann (Zuniga), Scott MacLeod (Le Dancaïre), Jacob Ryan Wright (Le Remendado), Ted Federle (Moralès); Members of Greensboro Youth Chorus, Greensboro Opera Chorus; Greensboro Opera Orchestra; Ted Taylor, conductor [David Holley, Stage Director; James Bumgardner, Chorus Master; Franco Colavecchia, Scenic Designer; Jeff Neubauer, Lighting Designer and Technical Director; Susan Memmott Allred, Costume Designer; Greensboro Opera, UNCG Auditorium, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 13 January 2017]

Few premières in the history of opera have triggered more extensive hyperbole, theorizing, analysis, and sheer Romantic yarning than the first performance of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Introduced to the discerning Parisian audience at the famed Opéra-Comique on 3 March 1875, Carmen suffered a difficult birth that left the score and its sensitive composer battered and bruised. Many accounts would have modern observers believe that the opera’s première was an unmitigated fiasco that undermined Bizet’s spiritual and physical health and sent him to an early grave. Indeed, it was just less than three months after Carmen’s opening that Bizet died, a misfortune allegedly supernaturally foreseen by the first Carmen during the Act Three card reading scene. It should be noted that this premonition transpired during the thirty-third performance of the opera. Scandal is often the most productive tool of propaganda, and first-night audiences and critics still accustomed to the formulae of Auber, Halévy, Meyerbeer, and Gounod were undoubtedly scandalized by the myriad of musical and dramatic innovations in Bizet’s setting of Henri Meilhac’s and Ludovic Halévy’s adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s like-named novella. Regardless of contemporary critical reaction to the opera, Carmen having amassed thirty-three performances at the Opéra-Comique within ninety days of the première is representative of the kind of ‘failure’ to which many creative artists might aspire. Still, Bizet was disappointed by the reception that Carmen received from the musical community, and that disappointment surely took a toll on his precarious health. Had the delicate young composer, not yet thirty-seven years old at the time of his death, witnessed Greensboro Opera’s January 2017 production of his beloved opera, perhaps he might have taken strength from the endearment that his score inspired. If there was uncertainty about Carmen’s merits in 1875, there was none about the enduring magnestism of Bizet’s magnum opus or the complete success of Greensboro Opera’s performance of it.

Mérimée’s Carmen is hardly Fifty Shades of Grey, but the novella is a work of stark brutality—starker and more brutal than Bizet’s Carmen reflects, in fact, the composer and his librettists having intentionally blunted the edges of the principal characterizations. Don José in particular is far more sympathetic in Bizet’s Carmen than in Mérimée’s, in the context of which he is a homicidal bandit even before encountering Carmen. Brought to the stage under the guidance of Greensboro Opera’s Artistic Director David Holley, Greensboro’s operatic savior, this production of Carmen beautifully and creatively eschewed modern trends in directorial enterprise by evocatively recreating Carmen’s Andalucía. First seen at Chautauqua Opera, Franco Colavecchia’s sets filled the UNCG Auditorium stage with the essence of Spain, their earth tones providing a vivid but unobtrusive backdrop for the coruscating passions of the opera’s drama. Likewise, Susan Memmott Allred’s costumes, designed for Utah Opera, exuded the sabor picante of Sevilla without subjecting the cast to an evening of discomfort or embarrassment. ​The scenic representation of Lillas Pastia’s tavern at the start of Act Two was markedly enhanced by a picturesque paso doble choreographed by Michael Job and splendidly danced by Maria-Elena Surprenant and D. Jerome Wells. A singer himself, Holley is reliably attentive to the physiological demands of singing and conceives his stagings with this in mind. His Carmen, thoughtfully illuminated by Jeff Neubauer’s lighting designs, exuded compendious acquaintance with Bizet’s score, understanding of the opera’s dramatic and historical contexts, and an abiding sense of responsibility for supporting his cast. The product of that responsibility was a performance notable for deftness and effectiveness of ensemble and its fidelity to the composer’s music and librettists’ words.

Presiding in the orchestra pit was Texas-born conductor Ted Taylor, a member of the faculty of Yale University’s esteemed School of Music who is recognized as one of America’s finest collaborators with singers, whether on the podium or at the keyboard. Challenged by a rehearsal period disrupted by the effects of a winter storm, Taylor and the Greensboro Opera Orchestra delivered a performance of Bizet’s score that immediately established and unerringly maintained the momentum that a performance must possess in order for the opera’s tragic narrative to engage the listener. Taylor’s choices of tempi and command of rubato, judiciously employed, were consistently commendable, the organic course of the drama—one of Bizet’s greatest achievements and one for which he does not receive sufficient credit—propelled but never pushed. It was largely owing to Taylor’s handling of the score that the performance conveyed the humor, inventiveness, and grandeur of Bizet’s music.

String playing in the opera’s raucous Prélude was unsettled, and instances of ragged ensemble noticeably but harmlessly recurred elsewhere in the performance. To an extent, Carmen falls victim to the curse of popularity: exceptionally popular works often tend to be deemed far easier than they actually are, and the strings’ efforts were unfailingly committed even when the results were less praiseworthy that the concentration. There was no lack of spirit in the orchestra’s performance of the first Entr’acte, its rhythms tautly executed by Taylor and the musicians. The superb wind playing in the exquisitely beautiful second Entr’acte drew audible murmurs of appreciation from the audience, and, conjuring an atmosphere of tranquility, the piece ably served as a distinctly-contrasted backdrop to the ire that boils in the act’s final minutes. Likewise, the horn obbligato in Micaëla’s Act Three aria was played by principal hornist Abigail Pack with excellent intonation and artful phrasing. The third Entr’acte, an Aragonaise that would not be out of place in Manuel Penella’s El gato montés, received from Taylor and the orchestra a buoyant reading. In opera, passion and perfection are not always wholly compatible, but this performance exhibited that an earnest abundance of the former compensates for a marginal lack of the latter.

Impeccably prepared by their director, Ann K. Doyle, members of Greensboro Youth Chorus proved themselves to be consummate professionals despite the dates on their birth certificates. They sang the Chœur des gamins, ‘Avec la garde montante, nous arrivons, nous voilà,’ charmingly and contributed boisterously to the scene outside of the plaza de toros at the start of Act Four. Their adult counterparts, drilled by chorus master James Bumgardner, sang fantastically whether portraying soldiers, cigarette girls, or townspeople. The gentlemen’s performance of the soldiers’ ‘Sur la place chacun passe, chacun vient, chacun va’ was sonorous, and the ladies’ account of the Chœur des cigarières, ‘Dans l’air, nous suivons des yeux la fumée, la fumée,’ was captivating. In the finales of Acts Two and Three, the choral singing was thrilling. The difficult rhythms in Act Four defeat many choristers but not this group: here and elsewhere in this Carmen, they sang better than the choruses of some of the world’s most famous opera companies.

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano SANDRA PIQUES EDDY as Carmen (right) and tenor DINYAR VANIA as Don José (left) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s CARMEN, January 2017 [Photo © by Greensboro Opera]Les amants condamnés: Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as Carmen (right) and tenor Dinyar Vania as Don José (left) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, January 2017
[Photo © by Greensboro Opera]

The Moralès of baritone Ted Federle, a graduate of both the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, seized his opportunities to make a positive impression in Act One, launching ‘À la porte du corps de garde’ with firm, resonant tone. Cheeky insinuations oozed from his dulcet voicing of ‘Regardez donc cette petite qui semble vouloir nous parler,’ and the boyish glee of his ‘Non, ma charmante, il n’est pas là’ in response to Micaëla’s query about Don José’s whereabouts left no doubt concerning Moralès’s willingness—no, eagerness—to substitute for José in whichever activities Micaëla had in mind. A suggestion of wistfulness blended with licentiousness in Federle’s delivery of ‘L’oiseau s’envole, on s’en console,’ adding a pang of loneliness to his obvious longing for female companionship. French vowels suited Federle’s lovely lyric voice, and he wore Moralès’s uniform handsomely.

The smugglers Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado were entrusted to a pair of wonderful singers whose curricula vitarum also contain North Carolina connections, baritone and High Point University faculty member Scott MacLeod and tenor Jacob Ryan Wright, another UNCG alumnus and scholar at the UNCSA A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute. Bravely singing despite battling influenza, MacLeod reaffirmed his artistic integrity by singing not just capably but excellently. He may well have collapsed offstage in illness-exasperated exhaustion, but when on stage he radiated energy and good vocal health. In the Act Two scene chez Lillas Pastia, he voiced ‘Pas trop mauvaises les nouvelles, et nous pouvons encore faire quelques beaux coups!’ wittily. In the sparkling Quintet and throughout Act Three, both he and Wright satisfied musically and convinced dramatically. Wright’s reedy tenor and MacLeod’s flexible baritone intertwined attractively, and they made most winsome partners in crime.

One of the foremost accomplishments of Sir Rudolf Bing’s storied two-decade tenure as General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera was the cultivation of a true company of well-trained singers for supporting rôles who could be called upon to step into larger assignments when circumstances so dictated. A rôle like Zuniga in Carmen could therefore be entrusted to singers of the caliber of Osie Hawkins, Norman Scott, and Morley Meredith, a now-extinct boon to MET performances resurrected in Greensboro with the casting of bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as the dragoons’ licentious lieutenant. In his Act One exchange with José, ‘C’est bien là, n’est-ce pas, dans ce grand bâtiment, que travaillent les cigarières,’ Hartmann goaded his distracted colleague, and with ‘Ce qui t’occupe, ami, je le sais bien: une jeune fille charmante, qu’on appelle Micaëla, jupe bleue et natte tombante’ he amusingly provoked José into confessing that his thoughts were occupied by Micaëla. Ordering José to bind Carmen’s hands and conduct her to prison after her fight in the cigarette factory, Hartmann’s singing of ‘C’est dommage, c’est grand dommage, car elle est gentille vraiment!’ was delightful, his Zuniga never more in his element than when personifying hypocrisy. Admonishing Carmen in Act Two for choosing José, a mere soldier, rather than an officer—himself, that is—with ‘Le choix n’est pas heureux; c’est se mésallier de prendre le soldat quand on a l’officier,’ this natural comedian and not the projected supertitle earned the audience’s laughter. Later, acquiescing at gunpoint to Carmen and her cohorts, he bade the performance adieu with his trademark spot-on timing and saturnine timbre. Stating that Hartmann sang well is like saying that oceans are deep, but his Zuniga was a burst of sunlight in Carmen’s smoky world, ever a cad but never a clown.

Singing Mercédès and Frasquita, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis, one of central North Carolina’s musical treasures, and native North Dakotan soprano and highly respected local pedagogue Joann Martinson infused Act Two with a potent dose of gypsy grit, reveling in their lines in the Quintet and finale. Both ladies sang dashingly in Act Three, not least in the card-reading Trio, in which their refrains of ‘Mêlons! Coupons! Rien, c’est cela! Trois cartes ici... Quatre là!’ first established the playful mood of the scene and later sought to reclaim it after Carmen’s fateful turn with the cards. Martinson’s radiant top B♭s and Cs in ensembles were matched by Foley Davis’s excursions into her dark-chocolate lower register. One of the most emotionally-charged details of the production was Frasquita’s and Mercédès’s final farewell to Carmen in Act Four: having seen Don José lurking in the crowd, her friends intuited that Carmen’s death knell was sounding, and their desperate pleas for her to flee quickly transformed into heartfelt goodbyes. Both Martinson and Foley Davis are significant talents, and their performances significantly boosted the already-high benchmark of this Carmen.

An alumna of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, by the campus of which institution Greensboro Opera’s Carmen was hosted, soprano Melinda Whittington treated the near-capacity audience to a portrayal of the innocent Micaëla that delved further into the character’s psyche than most conventional operatic ingénue interpretations manage or attempt to do. Deflecting Moralès’s flirtation in the Act One scene in which she seeks José among the soldiers on duty, this Micaëla was polite to a fault, clinging to her serene decorum as a defense against impropriety. Having located her martial swain, Whittington sang ‘Oui, je parlerai; ce que l'on m'a donné je vous le donnerai’ in the duet with José gorgeously, her projection a model of proper placement of French vowels in the mask. The sweetness with which she uttered ‘Un baiser pour son fils! José, je vous le rends, comme je l'ai promis’ was touching, the intimacy of the sentiment imparted with absolute sincerity. Though in a purely musical sense it is perhaps the single finest number in the score, rarely is Micaëla’s aria in Act Three, ‘Je dis, que rien ne m’épouvante,’ the zenith of a performance of Carmen, but Whittington’s traversal of the aria, crowned with a phenomenal top B, deservedly received the most enthusiastic ovation of the evening. Unusually, the soprano’s plea for José to return to the arms of his dying mother in the Act Three finale seemed even to briefly move Carmen. Whittington voiced ‘Moi, je viens te chercher’ without artifice, ascending to a perfectly-controlled climactic top B♭. By insightfully depicting Micaëla as a smart, resilient young woman whose purity is a conscious choice rather than a byproduct of prudishness, Whittington raised the stakes in this Carmen. Often, why Don José’s head is so easily turned by Carmen is all too apparent, but the tragedy in this performance was intensified by the woman he discarded singing so beautifully and poignantly.

IN PERFORMANCE: Baritone DAVID PERSHALL as Escamillo (center) in Greensboro Opera's production of Georges Bizet's CARMEN, January 2017 [Photo © by Greensboro Opera]Bravo, toréro: Baritone David Pershall as Escamillo (center) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, January 2017
[Photo © by Greensboro Opera]

Debonair baritone David Pershall brought to the arrogant, self-assured toreador Escamillo precisely the vocal and histrionic panache that the rôle requires. Already a seasoned artist among whose leading ladies in theatres throughout the world, including the Metropolitan Opera and Wiener Staatsoper, are luminaries such as Nelly Miricioiu and Anna Netrebko, Pershall gave Escamillo—a character who, when sung by unimaginative vocalists, can all too easily devolve into a cipher in sequins—a bravado-driven presence. His entrance in Act Two, heralded by the chorus, is one of the most memorable in opera, and Pershall’s confident, ringing performance of the famous Chanson du toréro, ‘Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre,’ was unforgettable. The baritone’s impactful top Fs electrified the auditorium more reliably than the power grid, and his top G in the Act Three duet with José, initiated with a smugly ironic ‘Quelques lignes plus bas et tout était fini,’ wielded a force like Krakatoa’s. In the Act Four scene before the bullfight, Pershall’s singing throbbed with swagger and raw masculinity, but there was also genuine tenderness in his conversation with Carmen. There was a loving heart beneath the proud exterior. This, as with Whittington’s Micaëla, sharpened appreciation of both the character and the artist portraying him. In Spanish culture, great matadors have often been among the most popular celebrities, and Pershall enriched Greensboro Opera’s Carmen with an Escamillo worthy of the front pages of El mundo and El país.

Expanding his presence in the operatic activities of the Piedmont regions of North Carolina and Virginia, where he has been heard in recent months as Alfredo in Opera Roanoke’s production of Verdi’s La traviata and Cavaradossi in Piedmont Opera’s Tosca, tenor Dinyar Vania brought to Greensboro Opera’s Carmen an interpretation of Don José in which honor and brutality were in near-constant conflict. In his discourse with Zuniga in Act One, Vania’s José articulated ‘Mon officier, je n’en sais rien, et m’occupe assez peu de ces galanteries’ with humility. The change in the volatile young man’s demeanor after his first meeting with Carmen was therefore all the more pronounced. The wonder that flooded the tenor’s voice and expression as he sang ‘Quels regards! Quelle effronterie! Cette fleur-là m’a fait l’effet d’une balle qui m’arrivait!’ after receiving the flower from Carmen was the first glimpse of infatuation. His reverie broken by Micaëla’s arrival, Vania’s José could only partially focus on his girlfriend and her news of his mother. Still, in their duet, Vania sang ‘Parle-moi de ma mère!’ yearningly, the sinewy strength of the voice softened by expansive phrasing. In the act’s final minutes, convinced to aid Carmen in her escape at the expense of his own freedom, Vania’s increasingly white-hot vocalism divulged that obsession had taken root.

First heard in Act Two from afar, Vania voiced ‘Halte là! Qui va là? Dragon d'Alcala!’ as José approached Lillas Pastia’s tavern with the elation of a virile young soldier en route to a rendezvous with his lover. The subsequent duet with Carmen magnified the tension already beginning to fracture their relationship, mirrored in vocalism of bronzed brawn. Vania’s performance of José’s andantino aria ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’—not designated as an aria in Bizet’s manuscript, incidentally—was impassioned but impressively restrained, the ascent to its notorious top B♭ handled with finesse and astonishing ease. Throughout the performance, Vania’s upper register was deployed with unforced vigor, the evenness of timbre and support from bottom to top recalling the best singing of Mario del Monaco. In both the Act Two finale and the opening of Act Three, Vania made José’s desperation palpable. He answered the bullfighter’s affable irony with full-throated threats in the duet with Escamillo, the hospitality of his initial ‘Je connais votre nom, soyez le bienvenu; mais vraiment, camarade, vous pouviez y rester’ replaced with hostility when he realized that he was Carmen’s cast-off paramour to whom Escamillo referred. Here, too, Vania’s top B♭ was exhilarating.

Verdi is justly credited with having created one of opera’s most novel scenes with the ‘Miserere’ that follows Leonora’s aria in Act Four of Il trovatore. No less novel is the final scene of Carmen, in which the protagonists’ final struggle transpires in counterpoint with the offstage exclamations of the crowd observing the bullfight. Reacting to Carmen’s declaration of being oblivious to José’s anger, Vania sang ‘Je ne menace pas, j’implore, je supplie; notre passé, Carmen, je l’oublie’ with eloquence, his José clearly believing in that moment that his intention was to win back Carmen’s heart instead of plunging his dagger into it. The moment of his psychotic break and murder of the object of his desire was shockingly visceral. There were no screams and stock gestures, but so visceral was the strike of his blade that the blow lifted Carmen off the stage like a doll. The Otello-like ‘Ah! Carmen! ma Carmen adorée!’ was the anguished cry of an irreparably broken man, sung rather than shouted. Bringing to his rôle a voice of dimensions virtually ideal for the music, Vania sang with animalistic fervor, but it was the flawed humanity of his performance that made his not just a well-sung but a deeply affecting Don José.

The array of different voice types that have graced the world’s stages in the title rôle of Carmen is mind-boggling. From the earthy mezzo-sopranos of Gladys Swarthout and Risë Stevens and the Gallic sopranos of Emma Calvé and Zélie de Lussan to the Wagnerian voices of Lilli Lehmann, Olive Fremstad, and Régine Crespin and utterly unique talents like Geraldine Farrar, Florence Easton, Maria Jeritza, Rosa Ponselle, and Lily Djanel, Carmen has appealed to artists of diverse Fächer and schools of singing. Bruna Castagna, Fedora Barbieri, and Giulietta Simionato, three of the greatest legitimate Verdi mezzo-sopranos of the Twentieth Century, were acclaimed Carmens, and Bizet’s eponymous gypsy was an early Auckland rôle for pre-Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, before the start of her international career. Carmen was created by Célestine Galli-Marié, a high mezzo-soprano whose surname, like that of Cornélie Falcon, became synonymous with a Fach comprised of rôles for which she was acclaimed, most notably the name parts in Thomas’s Mignon and Offenbach’s Fantasio, and this succinctly demonstrates the singularity of Carmen’s music: so unique was the voice of the singer for whom the part was written that, not unlike the character herself, she fomented her own mythology.

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano SANDRA PIQUES EDDY as the title heroine in Greensboro Opera's production of Georges Bizet's CARMEN, January 2017 [Photo © by Greensboro Opera]Oui, elle est gentille vraiment: Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as the title heroine in Greensboro Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, January 2017
[Photo © by Greensboro Opera]

Among the ranks of notable Carmens, it was Teresa Berganza’s portrayal that was brought to mind by the feisty Carmen of mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy. Her singing of her first recitative in Act One [the Guiraud recitatives were utilized], ‘Quand je vous aimerai,’ introduced a Carmen who teased without malice: her barbs were made for eliciting reactions, not for drawing blood. Piques Eddy purred and growled ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle que nul ne peut apprivoiser,’ the well-known Habanera, her F♯s and Gs at the top of the stave secure and the quality of the voice as superlative at piano as at forte. Jockeying for dominance in the melodrama with José and Zuniga, she dispatched ‘Tralalalala, coupe-moi, brûle-moi, je ne te dirai rien’ insouciantly but with an iron grip on its effects on her audience. The seductive Séguedille, ‘Près des remparts de Séville,’ was in Piques Eddy’s performance like the piping of a snake charmer: deaf men might well have been hypnotized by the serpentine lilt of this siren’s song.

Transported to Lillas Pastia’s tavern in Act Two, the beguilingly beautiful mezzo-soprano intoned the Chanson bohème, ‘Les tringles des sistres tintaient avec un éclat métallique,’ with feline grace. Joining her comrades in the Quintet, this Carmen was unquestionably sincere in her statement of ‘Mes amis, je serais fort aise de partir avec vous ce soir’ despite their good-natured mocking. Taunting José in their duet upon his arrival at the tavern, Piques Eddy made Carmen’s contemplation of José’s flower aria a marvel of shifting emotions, seeming to sense that she was already in over her head. Their quarrel interrupted by Zuniga’s unwitting arrival, this quick-thinking Carmen silenced Don José and then dealt with Zuniga with a slyly dangerous ‘Bel officier! bel officier, l’amour vous joue en ce moment un assez vilain tour.’ There was no doubting that the core tenet of Piques Eddy’s Carmen’s philosophy was ‘La liberté,’ and her singing in the Act Two finale was a rousing paean to the freedom of her bohemian lifestyle.

It was in Act Three that Piques Eddy’s Carmen was subtlest. She sought refuge from her torment in ensembles, subjugating her individuality to the relative safety of community. In the Trio with Frasquita and Mercédès, she voiced ‘Carreau, pique...la mort! J’ai bien lu...moi d’abord’ with abandon, and her brief musing on the unchangeability of destiny, a passage that could almost have been extracted from an opera by Händel, was wrenching. After bitterly mocking José in the act’s finale and demanding that he return with Micaëla to his native village and his dying mother’s bedside, Piques Eddy’s Carmen broke down in tears as José fled. Precisely which emotions assailed her can only be conjectured, but the singer gave the character a vulnerability that she often lacks, the gypsy’s soul as upended in that awful moment as the soldier’s.

In progression, Act Four presented tableaux of Carmen in each of the consequential relationships that define her existence in the opera. First entering by Escamillo’s side and then greeting the anxious Frasquita and Mercédès, she symbolically reconciled present and past, already cognizant of what fate had in store for her. The expressive dignity with which Piques Eddy voiced ‘L’on m’avait avertie que tu n’étais pas loin, que tu devais venir; l’on m’avait même dit de craindre pour ma vie mais je suis brave et n'ai pas voulu fuir’ was remarkable, the character’s poise and the singer’s personality indivisible. She fired ‘Carmen jamais n’a menti’ at José with the unstoppable fury of a landslide. She could speak only the truth when a lie might have spared her, but Piques Eddy was a Carmen for whom the inescapable slavery of living dishonestly was a sentence worse than death. Like her colleagues, she sang extraordinarily well, but hers ultimately was not a performance in which the notes were the emphasis. When she was on the UNCG Auditorium stage, she was Carmen, and the notes came not from her throat but from her heart.

That Bizet’s Carmen is one of opera’s finest scores cannot be denied even by those who do not appreciate or enjoy it. In its ebullient scenes, there are hints of Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms, and Saint-Saëns and Ravel hide in the sophisticatedly Gallic melodies of the opera’s most lyrical passages. Wagner is there, tiptoeing through the motivic writing, and Tchaikovsky peeks from the orchestra pit. Nevertheless, the voice that emerges most clearly is no one’s but Bizet’s. Often, though, it is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to discern during performances why Carmen’s popularity never wanes. At her core, Carmen is not as complicated as is often suggested: she lives to love and loves to live, and some productions stand in her way. Its musical standards higher than those achieved by many companies with far deeper pockets, Greensboro Opera’s Carmen encouraged unfeigned characterizations, not abstract concepts. Carmen’s magic does not require complex spells and exotic potions. Allow Bizet’s characters to sing the music that he composed for them without impediments, and they work their magic. In Greensboro, how it worked!

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano SANDRA PIQUES EDDY as Carmen and tenor DINYAR VANIA as Don José in Greensboro Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s CARMEN, January 2017 [Photo © by Greensboro Opera]Ah! Carmen! ma Carmen adorée: Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as Carmen and tenor Dinyar Vania as Don José in Greensboro Opera’s production of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, January 2017
[Photo © by Greensboro Opera]

11 January 2017

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | January 2017: Alban Berg — WOZZECK (R. Trekel, A. Schwanewilms, M. Molomot, N. Berg, G. Gietz, R. McPherson, K. Ciesinski, C. Griffin, S. Schultz, B. Ryan; NAXOS 8.660390-91)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | January 2017: Alban Berg - WOZZECK (NAXOS 8.660390-91)ALBAN BERG (1885 – 1935): Wozzeck, Opus 7Roman Trekel (Wozzeck), Anne Schwanewilms (Marie), Marc Molomot (Hauptmann), Nathan Berg (Doktor), Gordon Gietz (Tambourmajor), Robert McPherson (Andres), Katherine Ciesinski (Margret), Calvin Griffin (Erster Handwerksbursche), Samuel Schultz (Zweiter Handwerksbursche), Brenton Ryan (Der Narr); Members of Houston Grand Opera Children’s Chorus, Deutsche Samstagsschule Houston, Chorus of Students and Alumni of Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music; Houston Symphony Orchestra; Hans Graf, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ during concert performances in Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Houston, Texas, USA, 1 – 2 March 2013; NAXOS 8.660390-91; 2 CDs, 97:52; Available from NaxosDirect, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

It is now difficult to believe that Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Händel’s Tamerlano, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s La forza del destino, virtually all of Wagner’s mature operas, Strauss’s Salome and Elektra, and Britten’s Peter Grimes were considered radical when they were first performed. The history of opera is shaped by innovations, advancements in compositional techniques enacted upon the stage in efforts conscious and unconscious to propel musical invention. Each generation’s operatic revolutions provide the foundations for subsequent generations’ efforts at progress. In the decades since the course of Western music as a whole was altered by cataclysmic World Wars, the question with which opera companies, record labels, and opera lovers have contended is whether new scores have taken opera in directions that are artistically and fiscally sustainable—a question for which there are no easy answers. There were certainly no prefabricated responses to the social and psychological stimuli that led Viennese composer Alban Berg to grapple during the moral and physical devastation of the Great War with making an opera of Nineteenth-Century playwright Karl Georg Büchner’s thorny Woyzeck. Written over the course of eight years, 1914 – 1922, and premièred in Berlin with Erich Kleiber on the podium, Berg’s Wozzeck proved to be a turning point for German opera, largely deserting Wagnerian Romanticism in favor of a starker, tonally ambiguous modernity that continues to be manifested in the music of Aribert Reimann and Basel-born Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini, whose E.T.A. Hoffmann-inspired opera Der Sandmann embodies aesthetics not unlike those of Wozzeck. Not surprisingly, Wozzeck, too, was deemed a radical, dangerous piece in 1925, and it is as chameleonic an opera as has ever been written, one with music that can take on an astonishing array of colors in the glows of different performances. Documenting a pair of concert performances by the Houston Symphony Orchestra that earned praise from the local press, this new NAXOS recording, expertly engineered and edited by Bradley W. Sayles, enriches the Wozzeck discography with an uncommonly dignified reading of the score. In short, what makes this Wozzeck radical is its uncompromising musicality.

There are a plethora of reasons for singers, orchestras, conductors, opera companies, record labels, and listeners to fear Wozzeck. For opera companies and record labels, a production or recording of Wozzeck rarely equates with robust sales, and conductors often receive credit, fairly or unfairly, for performances’ failures of both commission and omission. Wozzeck is indeed a score to be approached with caution, and it is with the caution of dedication to treating the opera with the unconditional preparedness that it merits that Austrian-born conductor Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony Orchestra approach it in this performance. In Graf’s case, that preparation occasionally leads to an atmosphere of stolidity that deprives the performance of momentum. Graf’s pacing emphasizes the score’s cinematic construction, his focus on the quixotic humors of each of the fifteen scenes facilitating a traversal that accentuates Wozzeck’s episodic rather than its cumulative might. The unfailingly capable playing of the Houston Symphony musicians undoubtedly owes much to Graf’s leadership, but their individual virtuosity, not least in the gripping D-minor Interlude in Act Three, confirms that their conscientiousness is no less comprehensive than their director’s. [At the time of the Wozzeck performances in 2013, Graf was completing his final season as Houston Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director, at the end of which he assumed the title of HSO’s Conductor Laureate.] ​Trained by chorus mistress Karen Reeves, the singing of members of Houston Grand Opera Children's Chorus​ in the opera’s final scene is ideal, sounding thoroughly professional but credibly childlike in music that can be spoiled by the well-meaning efforts of youngsters who sound as though they wandered in from a choir school. Likewise, the work of the chorus of students and alumni from Rice University's Shepherd School of Music is accomplished without being too refined: the denizens of Wozzeck are hardly courtiers singing madrigals, and the impact of Berg’s choral writing is undermined by singing that lacks the grit exhibited by the Houston choristers. With these personnel all on peak form, recording Wozzeck in concert yielded an aural document which preserves the tension of live performance without the distractions of stage noises. Though lacking consistent musical and narrative propulsion, this is a Wozzeck in which everyone’s best efforts are audible, an achievement of which few studio-recorded Wozzecks can boast.

The first voice heard in Wozzeck is that of ​the Hauptmann, the petulant captain whose puerile and frankly bizarre taunting of Wozzeck heightens the title character’s disenfranchising isolation and social ineptitude—often with sounds of dubious musicality. In this performance, that voice belongs to tenor Marc Molomot, whose intrepid singing of the Hauptmann’s angular, awkwardly high-lying music is one of this Wozzeck’s greatest strengths. Precisely what motivates the Hauptmann’s idiosyncratic actions is one of Büchner’s and Berg’s gnawing enigmas, but Molomot, ever a shrewd artist with an uncanny ability to topple façades and reveal the most basic foundations of a character and his music, employs his incisive vocalism in the opening scene of Act One with aptly insinuating insipidity that contrasts with the enticing sheen of his timbre. Singing ‘Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam! Eins nach dem Andern!’ with absolute security and an uncommon degree of intonational accuracy, he endows the performance with a Hauptmann who both intrigues and repulses. The clarity of the tenor’s diction lends his utterance of ‘Es wird mir ganz angst um die Welt​’ unanticipated dramatic force. In the second scene of Act Two, Molomot’s Hauptmann momentously spars with the Doktor, his voicing of ‘Wohin so eilig, geehrtester Herr Sargnagel?’ bursting with irony. Then, in the fourth scene of Act Three, Molomot weights his delivery of ‘Es ist das Wasser im Teich. Das Wasser ruft. Es ist schon lange Niemand ertrunken. Kommen Sie, Doktor! Es ist nicht gut zu hören’ with intensity appropriate to the meaning of the text but without forcing or artificially inflating his tonal amplitude. His singing allows the listener to hear far more of the notes that Berg wrote for the rôle than is typical of most depictions, and, moreover, they are notes that one actually enjoys hearing. In many performances, the Hauptmann is more a pathetic jester than a serious combatant in the psychological contest that precipitates Wozzeck’s ultimate tragedy. Molomot’s Hauptmann is a three-dimensional figure, however, a Twentieth-Century cousin of Rameau’s Platée who perhaps victimizes Wozzeck because he has in some unknown way been a victim himself. Vocally, not even Hugues Cuénod’s RAI Roma Hauptmann in italiano is more distinguished.

As sung by​ bass-baritone Nathan Berg, the sinister Doktor is both a suitably neurotic foil to Molomot’s Hauptmann and a menacing catalyst in the tragic chain of emotional reactions that destroy Wozzeck. In the fourth scene of Act One, Berg—the fortuitously-surnamed native of Saskatchewan is presumably of no close relation to the composer—pours out ‘Was erleb’ ich, Wozzeck? Ein Mann ein Wort?’ lustily, his dark-hued voice enfolding music and words like the melodramatic twirl of a silent-film villain’s cape. The eery suggestiveness of his statement of ‘Ich hab’s geseh’n, Wozzeck, Er hat wieder gehustet​’ is unsettling and, again complementing Molomot’s Hauptmann, all the more riveting for being so handsomely sung. Berg’s command of Baroque repertory is evident in his Doktor’s incisive exchanges with the Hauptmann in Act Two’s second scene, the bass-baritone articulating ‘Wohin so langsam, geehrtester Herr Exercizengel?’ with the sure timing of a singer skilled at enlivening secco recitatives. Berg’s Doktor is unnerving without being wholly unhinged; irredeemable, to be sure, but not altogether unsympathetic. With the voice always under complete control, Berg creates a characterization that is as steeped in sadness as in sadism, a convincing individual both troubled and troubling rather than an unimaginative shadow of Josef Mengele.

There is nothing foolish about tenor Brenton Ryan’s voicing of ​Der Narr’s fateful pronouncement of ‘Ich riech, ich riech Blut!​’ in the fourth scene of Act Two: for once, the quality of the singer’s voice is equal to the significance of the character’s words. Similarly, the Erster and Zweiter Handwerksburschen of bass-baritone Calvin Griffin and baritone Samuel Schultz bring voices of excellent caliber and potential to their duties in the fourth scene of Act Two. Upholding the standard set by her male colleagues, mezzo-soprano Katherine Ciesinski ​brings the often-negligible Margret to life with vocalism of inviolable concentration that makes her a fitting partner for the opera’s equivocal heroine in the Act One scene with Marie. [Incidentally, Ciesinski’s sister Kristine is a celebrated Marie, so perhaps there is a genetic predisposition to mastery of Berg’s music.] In the third scene of ​Act Three, Ciesinski articulates ‘In’s Schwabenland, da mag ich nit​’ with apposite simplicity, an exemplary example of the benefit of the work of a major artist in a minor rôle.

Wozzeck’s comrade Andres, like Margret a rôle that is frequently forgettable even in effective performances, receives from versatile tenor Robert McPherson a portrayal of musical and dramatic integrity bolstered by fine singing. In his appearance in Act One’s second scene, this Andres phrases ‘Das ist die schöne Jägerei’ with stirring vigor, the character’s presence broadened by the suppleness of the singer’s musical declamation. In the fourth scene of Act Two, McPherson’s sonorous account of ‘O Tochter, liebe Tochter, was hast du gedenkt’ exudes a quality rarely deployed in Wozzeck: charm. McPherson’s enunciation of text is occasionally slightly wooden, at odds with his smooth vocal production, but there are alluring nuances in his handling of Andres’s music that are also seldom encountered in performances of the opera. Wozzeck is a man who is much in need of a true friend, and McPherson here adds a new facet to the work’s cataclysmic dénouement by subtly bringing Andres from the periphery to the center of the drama.

The ​Tambourmajor is one of the most loathsome characters in opera, a sexual predator exhilarated by the pursuit of challenging prey. Nevertheless, like the confrontation between Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Donna Anna, there is uncertainty about the extent of Marie’s complicity in the sexual assault perpetrated upon her by the Tambourmajor. By accepting his gift of earrings, the latent symbolism of which would have been bounteous fodder for Sigmund Freud, there is at least an implication of receptiveness, but it is clear that Marie is taken by brutality, not by wooing. The Tambourmajor of Alberta-born tenor Gordon Gietz is that most threatening of psychopaths, one who masks his neurosis with normalcy. His portrayal is a study of the sort of irrepressible appetite for carnal conquest that engenders a dissociative disbelief in both the act and the concept of refusal. The drive with which Gietz sets this in motion places too much pressure on the voice in some passages, but the singer never allows the actor to push too perilously. In the contest of wills with Marie in the final scene of Act One, Gietz’s Tambourmajor hurls out ‘Wenn ich erst am Sonntag den grossen Federbusch hab’, und die weissen Hanschuh!​’ scorchingly, the voice resounding with a metallic ring that would be welcome in Siegfried’s forging song. His prevailing musical muscularity notwithstanding, this is a thinking Tambourmajor, one who transcends the mindless trumpeting of a libidinous fraternity brother obsessed with his own erotic prowess.

Acclaimed for her compelling interpretations of Richard Strauss’s operatic heroines, German soprano Anne Schwanewilms ignites this Wozzeck with a forceful, fascinating interpretation of the prismatic Marie. Like Nedda in Leoncavalli’s Pagliacci, Giorgetta in Puccini’s Il tabarro, and Zemfira in Rachmaninov’s Aleko, Schanewilms’s Marie is a woman in crisis, not so much a conventional operatic damsel in distress as a working-class Mother Courage whose circumstances crush idealism. Interestingly, Schwanewilms’s performance on this recording often brings to mind the work of two very different musical personalities, the unflappable Eleanor Steber, the Metropolitan Opera’s first Marie, and Regina Resnik, a magnificent singing actress who was not a MET Marie but should have been. In Schwanewilms’s singing here, the luminosity of the upper octave of Steber’s voice is combined with the evenness of the young Resnik’s negotiations of vocal registers. Vocally, Schwanewilms is as talented a technician as has ever been heard as Marie, and she rivals Steber, Eileen Farrell, Christa Ludwig, and Sena Jurinac for tonal luster in this music. From her lulling ‘Tschin Bum, Tschin Bum, Bum, Bum, Bum! Hö​rst Bub? Da kommen sie!’ at her entrance in the third scene in Act One to the final note of her part, Schwanewilms inhabits the rôle with conviction, breathing life into Marie with atypical decorum and no shortage of temperament. She voices ‘Mädel, was fangst Du jetzt an?’ ardently, and this tigress reveals her claws in her first faceoff with Wozzeck. In the fifth scene, battling the Tambourmajor, Schwanewilms’s manages Marie’s erupting fury with the adroitness of a great Brünnhilde in Act Two of Götterdämmerung. She both goads and recoils from her attacker, and the soprano’s measured, perceptive singing juxtaposes meaningfully with Gietz’s more savage emoting.

In the opening scene of Act Two, Schwanewilms phrases ‘Was die Steine glänzen? Was sind's für weiche? Was hat er gesagt?’ with keen judgment of the gravity of the text, and she pilots the discourse in the succeeding scene with Wozzeck with a voicing of ‘Ich bin doch ein schlecht Mensch’ of unmistakable purport. In the act’s third scene, she again seizes the advantage over Wozzeck, investing her declaration of ‘Lieber ein Messer in den Leib, als eine Hand auf mich’ with a wealth of expressive zeal. In Act Three, Schwanewilms’s Marie is a woman at her breaking point who nonetheless possesses reserves of resilience and defiance. The first scene is representative of the sophistication of the soprano’s artistry: at once flinty and seductively feminine, even romantic, she sings ‘Und ist kein Betrug in seinem Munde erfunden worden’ with fervor. Her Marie faces her final conflict with Wozzeck unflinchingly, seeming to embrace death at her partner’s hand as the inevitable destination of her harrowing journey. By turns maternal, sensual, dominating, and demure, Schwanewilms’s performance has markedly greater depth than many Maries, eschewing the commonplace trend of portraying the character as a soulless harridan. Above all, it is an unexpected and therefore increased pleasure to hear the rôle truly and glamorously sung.

German baritone ​Roman Trekel is a Wozzeck with a Lieder singer’s suavity and sensitivity, recalling the Wozzeck of his countryman Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau but bringing to Berg’s music a tougher, more rugged natural instrument and a notion of the rôle defined more by machismo than by metaphysics. This is not to intimate that Trekel’s Wozzeck is a bumbling simpleton, but the resonant bonhomie of his singing of ‘Wir arme Leut! Sehn Sie, Herr Hauptmann, Geld, Geld!’ at his first appearance in Act One is redolent more of testosterone than of grey matter. In the scene that follows, Trekel intones ‘Du, der Platz ist verflucht!​​’ with glimmers of the frustration, violence, and inability to overcome social barriers that eventually overwhelm and obliterate him. The very different demands of the dialogues with first Marie and then the Doktor in the ensuing scenes are met with commendable comprehension of the consequence of their dramatic volatility.

Reuniting with Marie in the first scene of Act Two, Trekel’s growling ‘Was der Bub immer schläft!’ reflects Wozzeck’s discomfort with the social rôles he is expected to play. Tellingly, he is more comfortable in the next scene with the Hauptmann and the Doktor, dispatching ‘Herr Hauptmann, ich bin ein armer Teufel!’ with assurance. Insecurity steals back into the characterization with Marie’s return in Scene Three, but the baritone’s singing of​ ‘Der Mensch ist ein Abgrund, es schwindelt Einem, wenn man hinunterschaut mich schwindelt...’ is formidably solid. Trading gibes with Andres in Scene Four and jeers with the Tambourmajor in Scene Five, Trekel’s vocalism flickers with growing discontent and angst.

In the opera’s final act, Trekel’s portrait of Wozzeck is painted in dark colors that do not entirely obscure the lighter aspects of the tormented man’s psyche. What light has shone in Wozzeck’s spirit is extinguished in the second scene of Act Three, however, his exasperation exploding into deadly ferocity with a vehement account of ‘Bist weit gegangen, Marie.’ The raw expressivity of Trekel’s pained ‘Tanzt Alle; tanzt nur zu, springt, schwitzt und stinkt, es holt Euch doch noch einmal der Teufel!’ in Scene Three is haunting, but it is his despondent ‘Das Messer? Wo ist das Messer? Ich hab’s dagelassen...’ in Scene Four that breaks the heart. Partnering Schwanewilms with comparable eloquence and captivating vocalism, Trekel rescues Wozzeck from the caricatured Punch and Judy show buffoonery in which it has often been mired in recent years. Dramatically, Trekel’s Wozzeck is a peer of Tito Gobbi’s astute interpretation, and his singing is some of the finest heard in Wozzeck’s music since Hermann Uhde introduced the character to the Metropolitan Opera in 1959.

It is indicative of the adaptive artistry of this cast that, with the addition of a pair of capable sopranos, they might constitute a near-perfect ensemble for Richard Strauss’s Arabella. If this suggests that the voices in this performance are plusher than those in many Wozzecks, it is a valid suggestion. The voices are, in fact, the glory of this Wozzeck. They are the pith of a performance in which the many beauties of Berg’s score are permitted to cast their spells on the listener, shattering the stigmas of atonality and Sprechgesang. When there is ugliness in this performance, it arises from the text rather than from the music, Berg having set the text with extraordinary responsiveness to its complexities. Seemingly paradoxically, the preeminence in this performance’s ethos of unveiling the oft-hidden beauties of the music causes the score to sound more, not less, revolutionary. There can be no single definitive Wozzeck, but this is a brilliant one in which the music appeals as powerfully as the drama appalls.

09 January 2017

ARTS IN ACTION: Maestro del bel canto — Italian conductor RICCARDO FRIZZA to lead Bellini's Norma for Lyric Opera of Chicago début

ARTS IN ACTION: Italian conductor RICCARDO FRIZZA, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA on 28 January 2017 [Photo © by J. Henry Fair]

​A score of such profound beauty that as vitriolic a critic of Italian opera as Richard Wagner extolled its virtues, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma has in its 185-year history come to epitomize bel canto in the hearts and minds of many opera lovers. First performed at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on 26 December 1831, by a cast that included Giuditta Pasta in the title rôle, Giulia Grisi as Adalgisa, Domenico Donzelli as Pollione, and Vincenzo Negrini as Oroveso, Norma was celebrated almost immediately as Bellini’s magnum opus, a distinction made all the more apparent by the musical and dramatic miracles wrought by the singers to whom the opera’s creation was entrusted. Considering that he famously remarked that the success of a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore depends upon as minor a thing as the engagement of the world’s four greatest singers, how might Enrico Caruso have assessed Norma’s demands? As evidenced by performances featuring an array of Normas of varying technical and histrionic abilities, ranging from Maria Malibran to Maria Callas and from Ángela Peralta to Angela Meade, a Norma with a wholly-qualified exponent of its eponymous heroine at its core can be one of opera’s most memorable experiences. A Norma with an ill-suited or ill-prepared Druidess, on the other hand, cannot be forgotten quickly enough. The ferocity of the title rôle’s demands notwithstanding, the part in Norma that is too easily overlooked when performed well but is impossible to ignore when poorly done is that of the conductor. Rarely is the presence on the podium the prime attraction of a performance of Norma, but Lyric Opera of Chicago’s January – February 2017 presentation of Kevin Newbury’s production of Bellini’s bel canto juggernaut will offer audiences what they now so seldom encounter: a conductor with the interpretive and musical skills necessary to bridge the divide between the people on the stage and those in the seats. Débuting with the company with this Herculean labor, Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza brings to the Windy City an acquaintance with Italian repertory that might justifiably be characterized as one of today’s most productive love affairs.

Born in Brescia in Italy’s Lombardia region, where he assumes a place in a centuries-old musical legacy including one of the world’s most influential schools of violin making and the eminent pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Frizza has in the course of the fifteen years since his professional début in a Pesaro performance of Rossini’s Stabat mater restored to performances of Italian repertory in many of the world’s important theatres aspects of authentic Italianate style lacking since the età d’oro of Arturo Toscanini, Victor de Sabata, and Tullio Serafin. Surprisingly for someone so comfortable in the topsy-turvy world of opera, Frizza’s earliest musical encounters were not with the great divas of his youth, and he maintains that unmistakable comfort by observing the vital difference between being a servant to music and a slave to the demands of an international career. ‘When I go on holiday, I don’t want to hear music,’ he offers. ‘If it’s obligatory to take an iPod to a desert island, I would load it with music of rock bands from the 1980s and ’90s, which is the music I grew up with.’ Recalling the example of Callas, whose intensity on stage was reportedly offset by a fondness for television cartoons when she was away from the stage, Frizza is cognizant of the necessity of balancing industry with repose. ‘I need to rest my brain,’ he imparts. This is one of the important lessons that he has learned from the progress of his career, about which he is characteristically circumspect, as candid about failures as about successes. ‘If I could go back, I would try not to make some of the mistakes I made,’ he muses. ‘The experience I gained by myself. I started young and never worked with a great conductor. Having not had that chance, I precluded the opportunity to make myself known when I was very young. In today’s media market, to start now, at thirty-five you’re old!’ Now only in his mid-forties, Frizza exudes healthful, youthful energy both in conversation and in performance, an artist in his prime who possesses a great conductor’s interpretive sagacity and a rock star’s easy charisma.

Launching a tenure at New York’s Metropolitan Opera that has to date encompassed sixty-eight outings in operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, and Puccini, Frizza first bowed at the MET in a 2009 performance of Rigoletto. His focus at the MET on these cornerstones of the Italian repertory has both sharpened his attention to details of familiar scores that are overlooked in many performances and intensified his appreciation for the defining lifeblood of Italian opera. The masterworks of Italian opera constitute their own sort of alternate universe, Frizza suggests; one that enthralls opera lovers not with artificial relevance but with its liberating implausibility. What happens in opera stays in opera, one might say, but are there situations in the operas that he conducts that Frizza might strive to convince the composers to alter to better suit modern sensibilities? ‘If someone suggested that I try to get a composer to change something—I am just an interpreter!’ he exclaims without hesitation. ‘I have the background and information I need from the composer himself or herself. We must always think about the historical periods in which these works were written and the value they had at those times,’ he says. This, he asserts, is critical not merely to the enjoyment but also to the survival of opera in and beyond the Twenty-First Century. ‘If [these values are not considered],’ he adds, ‘all the works of the Italian melodrama would never be performed. Who would believe today that we can avenge a lover’s betrayal? It is far-fetched.’ How, then, does opera forge a path forward that balances respect for composers’ intentions with contemporary social trends and the prospective expectations of future audiences? Returning to his commitment to upholding the sanctity of composers’ and librettists’ endeavors, past, present, and future, Frizza states, ‘To a lesser degree, it is appropriate not to change something that was perfect in the era in which it was composed but to write new works.’ The dramatic struggles of Norma and Rigoletto are precisely as Romani, Bellini, Piave, and Verdi meant them to be. Today’s attitudes belong in scores written to express them, Frizza philosophizes, not in the distinctive milieux of works of past generations.

ARTS IN ACTION: Italian conductor RICCARDO FRIZZA, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA on 28 January 2017 [Photo from the 2013 Richard Tucker Gala © by Dario Acosta]Stage creature in his natural habitat: Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma on 28 January 2017, conducting at the 2013 Richard Tucker Gala [Photo © by Dario Acosta]

Among Frizza’s sixty-eight appearances at The MET are acclaimed performances of Rossini’s Armida, Bellini’s Norma, and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, joining lauded productions of other bel canto scores that the conductor has paced throughout Europe and with San Francisco Opera. If not a conscious specialization, Frizza’s mastery of this repertory has garnered recognition of his unaffectedly stylish handling of bel canto—recognition that, as Frizza is eloquent in conveying, begets enormous responsibility. ‘Performing and interpreting the bel canto style is a challenge,’ he confides, ‘because it requires special care and, above all, a musical vision of the writing from the point of view of the voice.’ This seems obvious, especially in the analysis of an idiom that can be translated as ‘beautiful singing,’ but Frizza is uncommonly sensitive to the abuses that bel canto has suffered as the principal focus of opera has deviated from voices. ‘The writing cannot be separated from the vocal quality and technique of the interpreter,’ he insists. ‘Basically, it’s like we wanted to play a Chopin piano concerto, ignoring the characteristics, attitudes, and tendencies of the pianist. In bel canto, the same thing happens.’ How, then, does he pursue his goal of remedying the distortion to which bel canto has been subjected in recent years? ‘What I like to emphasize in my performances of bel canto operas,’ the spirited Maestro shares, ‘is the chance to not betray the spirit and the will of the composer, while using the “peculiarities” of each individual voice with which I am working.’ Without pause, he concedes that this is anything but an easy task. ‘It’s a very difficult challenge, but I don’t think there can only be one interpretation for bel canto works, as well as for opera in general. To the contrary, each piece is transformed by the same element that makes it alive: the voice!’

Though twenty years have passed since Bellini’s Norma was last heard at Lyric Opera of Chicago, with June Anderson in the title rôle, the company’s relationship with the score began in LOC’s inaugural season, when the formidable quartet of Maria Callas, Giulietta Simionato, Mirto Picchi, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni treated Chicagoland to two performances of Norma in November 1954. Frizza perceives the significance of this history more clearly that anyone. ‘Performing Norma is difficult for all the interpreters: singers, conductor, and director,’ he says. ‘From my perspective, the greatest difficulty is to tell the story with a lot of tension, without ever letting it falter, supported by the slow moments and elasticity of Bellini’s writing.’ With these ‘slow moments’ in mind, are there ways in which Frizza feels that Norma could be improved? ‘Honestly, I wouldn’t change anything in either the libretto or plot,’ he responds, echoing his thoughts on efforts to ‘modernize’ works of the past. ‘I think that the central theme of the finale is well demonstrated by the protagonist by making us reflect on the rôle of a mother and her bond with her children.’ How does Adalgisa fit into this stratagem, Romani and Bellini having omitted her from the opera’s penultimate and final scenes and denied her tribulations resolution? ‘Adalgisa actually serves to help us get to this,’ Frizza proposes. ‘She is just a means to help the story evolve: she is not central but only functional.’

The title rôle in Norma is altogether another matter, however. In his career, Frizza has worked with several of today’s most celebrated Normas, each of whom brings unique qualities to her interpretation. In Frizza’s view, the act of singing Norma initiates a singer into a sorority that is rightly respected, the rôle being easy, as Zinka Milanov quipped, only if sung badly. ‘All Normas become legendary when they die or when they stop singing,’ the Maestro surmises, but he quickly augments this with a more nuanced assessment. ‘Well, I think that after Maria Callas there have not been many other legendary Normas—excellent, yes, and great, as well, but not legendary. I wish that I could have been able to work with La Divina, more to learn some secrets of her art than for me to give her something. It is obvious that when two artists collaborate, there’s always a synthesis of different ideas that merge when each brings something and then receives something in return.’ While elevating performances of Norma to the greatest heights of lyric tragedy, this exchange of ideas can make the opera difficult going for the novice. ‘I would say that Norma is not the work I would propose as a first opera,’ Frizza confesses, ‘but I’d try to make [a first-time operagoer] understand how music and poetry together are the tools to express the highest and deepest feelings.’ Frizza’s performances confirm that he is among the very small number of conductors, of whom there are likely no fewer now in previous generations, who is capable of making a listener’s first or fiftieth Norma an unforgettably moving experience.

ARTS IN ACTION: Italian conductor RICCARDO FRIZZA, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA in January 2017 [Photo © by Merri Cyr]From Brescia, con amore: Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma on 28 January 2017
[Photo © by Merri Cyr]

Looking beyond Norma, Frizza’s advocacy for bel canto repertory has done much to rejuvenate the spirit of the renaissance spurred by Callas, Sutherland, Gencer, Sills, and Caballé. Leading performances of Donizetti’s still-too-seldom-performed Linda di Chamounix in Rome in 2016, Frizza verified to audiences that Donizetti at his best equaled Verdi as a dramatist. Asked about the progress and the work still to be done in advancing the cause of bel canto, Frizza summarizes, ‘I believe that in bel canto there has been a tremendous resurgence of study and rediscovery. There are some composers who have not yet become known or totally understood. I think that Donizetti is a composer who today is unfortunately too misunderstood and poorly exhibited in productions. Rossini, on the other hand, has done very well.’ The mistreatment of Donizetti in no way results from any deficiency on the composer’s part, this devoted exponent of his work argues. ‘I think that [Donizetti] is brilliant,’ Frizza asserts, ‘and I’m sure that in the next few years, with the help of the Fondazione Donizetti and the Festival Internazionale Donizetti Opera di Bergamo, we will get to know him.’ There is no doubt that Riccardo Frizza’s help will also contribute invaluably to that acquaintance.

Leonard Bernstein said that ‘technique is communication: the two words are synonymous in conductors.’ This is true in the literal sense that a conductor’s gestures communicate to the musicians under his guidance the course that their efforts are to take. Less tangible but no less meaningful is the conductor’s rôle as the bridge over which composers’ ideas cross into audiences’ collective consciences. That he describes the essence of his artistry as a ‘burst of energy’ that electrifies a performance ‘without overpowering the voices’ indicates the prodigious gifts of technique and communication that Riccardo Frizza brings to his work. Virtually every music lover has his own definition of a great conductor, but Bernstein’s wisdom is as solid a foundation as any: a conductor in whose work technique and communication are synonymous has the potential to achieve greatness. Rather than grabbing at greatness by attempting to reconfigure masterpieces of Italian opera to conform with today’s tastes, this son of Brescia earns greatness by reminding audiences of composers’ tastes. In a field too often mired in egotism and elitism, Riccardo Frizza is a Rooseveltian conductor who walks softly but wields a baton with big impact.

ARTS IN ACTION: Italian conductor RICCARDO FRIZZA, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA in January 2017 [Photo © by J. Henry Fair]Norma’s leading man: Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza, débuting at Lyric Opera of Chicago in Vincenzo Bellini's Norma on 28 January 2017
[Photo © by J. Henry Fair]


Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Bellini’s Norma featuring Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma, Elizabeth DeShong as Adalgisa, Russell Thomas as Pollione, and Andrea Silvestrelli as Oroveso opens on Saturday, 28 January 2017, and repeats on 1, 5, 9, 13, 18, and 24 February. To purchase tickets, please visit LOC’s website.

To learn more about Riccardo Frizza and his engagements throughout the world, please visit his official website and follow him on Twitter.

Sincerest thanks are extended to Maestro Frizza for his engaging, intelligent responses and to Karen Kriendler Nelson of KKN Enterprises for liaising with Maestro Frizza and translating his responses for this article.