12 September 2017

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — AIDA (L. Crocetto, M. Prudenskaya, C. Tanner, G. Hawkins, M. Robinson, S. Howard; Washington National Opera, 10 September 2017)

IN PERFORMANCE: Francesca Zambello's production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA, seen at Washington National Opera on 10 September 2017 [Photo from San Francisco Opera's 2016 staging of the Zambello production; photo by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): AidaLeah Crocetto (Aida), Marina Prudenskaya (Amneris), Carl Tanner (Radamès), Gordon Hawkins (Amonasro), Morris Robinson (Ramfis), Soloman Howard (Il Re d’Egitto), Madison Leonard (Gran Sacerdotessa), Frederick Ballentine (Messaggero); Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Evan Rogister, conductor [Francesca Zambello, Director; E. Loren Meeker, Associate Director; RETNA, Original Sketches and Concept Design; Michael Yeargan, Set Designer; Anita Yavich, Costume Designer; Mark McCullough, Lighting Designer; Jessica Lang, Choreographer—Washington National Opera, Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC, USA; Sunday, 10 September 2017]

In Italian opera’s wondrous evolution from Paisiello to Puccini in the Nineteenth Century, more than half a century of the art form’s history was dominated by a single composer: Giuseppe Verdi. From the première of Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio in 1839 until the last laugh of Falstaff in 1893, Verdi’s operas were the musical manifestations of the turmoil and triumphs that engendered Italian unification and nationalism. Beyond Italy’s borders, far more composers were influenced by Verdi’s work than would ever have admitted it, and it was from Verdi’s heroines that Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Mimì, Cio-Cio San, Minnie, and Liù received their lifeblood. Now, 116 years after Verdi’s death, affection for his music is stronger than ever. Operatic laity have never hesitated to declare passionate devotion to Verdi’s operas, but elitists and so-called connoisseurs have often hidden their tears for Gilda and Violetta. Perhaps Aida inspires fewer tears than some of her sisters, but few of opera’s protagonists have sparked imaginations and won devotion as Aida has done in the century-and-a-half since she first sang in 1871. Obliged throughout so much of the opera to take refuge within her own guarded hope for deliverance, sustained only by dreams of a life ever receding further into impossibility, she is the rare Verdi heroine for whom escape is feasible. When she might flee to the cherished land of her birth, Aida prefers death in the arms of her lover. Her ultimate choice is not the enslavement of living without the love for which she braved the perils of a princess’s hatred but the liberation of death on her own terms. She is a modern woman in an ancient setting, made timeless by music that throbs with every beat of her tormented heart.

The longtime slogan of the National Endowment for the Arts, ‘a great nation deserves great art,’ can be easily adapted for the opera house. Grand stages deserve—and demand—grand opera. As the intimate theatres in which opera’s infancy and childhood transpired gave way to more expansive spaces, the dimensions of the music written to fill them—the music of opera’s tempestuous adolescence—also grew more imposing. Horns found work as more than harbingers of distant huntsmen, and string sections became small towns. The complex stage machinery of Baroque and Classical opera incorporated every relevant technological advancement, bringing everything from live animals to running water to the world’s opera houses. The charismatic Khedive of Egypt and Sudan, Ismail the Magnificent, undoubtedly wanted an opera that reflected his epithet to inaugurate the opera house built in Cairo as a part of his initiatives to modernize and cosmopolitanize the Egyptian capital. Though the first production suffered the ill effects of the Franco-Prussian War, the score that Verdi produced in fulfillment of the Khedive’s commission ingeniously amalgamated elements of Italian lyricism and Parisian grand opera in a work requiring grandiose scenic effects, episodic dance, and voices of the highest calibre. The set pieces of Verdi’s early and middle periods are still present, but the skill with which Verdi integrated them into the opera’s through-composed structure yielded a piece with tremendous theatrical impact. His republican sensibilities incensed, Verdi bitterly objected to the first Cairo performance of Aida playing to a specially-invited audience of aristocrats and dignitaries. The composer’s revenge goes on unabated: aside from Bizet’s Carmen and Puccini’s Mimì, few operatic heroines have touched as many ‘ordinary’ lives as Aida continues to do everywhere that opera is performed.

IN PERFORMANCE: display of artwork by RETNA in Kennedy Center's Hall of Nations in conjunction with Washington National Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA, September 2017 [Photo by the author]Seeking Aida: a display of artwork by RETNA in Kennedy Center’s Hall of Nations in conjunction with Washington National Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, 10 September 2017
[Photo by the author]

In an absence as inexplicable as many of Washington’s political quagmires, which is to suggest that money is likely at least partly responsible, Aida has not been staged at Kennedy Center since 1990, when the cast included Aprile Millo and Maria Noto as Aida, Vladimir Popov as Radamès, and Stefania Toczyska as Amneris. That the 1990 production failed to win its scheduled leading lady’s approval is part of American opera lore, but Kennedy Center’s new effort, a production shared with San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, and Minnesota Opera, is a colorful, even flamboyant experience in which audiences are asked not only to listen to Verdi’s music but also to ponder why the characters sing it. Under the direction of WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, whose work exhibits an uncanny gift for finding new but valid ways of interpreting familiar repertory. Her groundbreaking productions of Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen enriched these works’ performance histories with visions both innovative and intuitive. With the assistance of Associate Director E. Loren Meeker, whose gorgeous production of Madama Butterfly for North Carolina Opera is among that company’s greatest artistic successes, Zambello staged Aida with an apparent goal of bringing the opera’s narrative closer to modern audiences without distancing it from Verdi and his librettist, Antonio Ghislanzoni.

The political fray that serves as the backdrop against which Aida’s personal dramas play out was meaningfully integrated into the production, emphasizing the tense atmosphere in which Aida’s, Amneris’s, and Radamès’s lives intersect. The tableau of Amneris and Radamès receiving the acclaim of the Egyptian people in the Triumphal Scene was reminiscent of images of Eva and Juan Perón on the balcony of Casa Rosada, and the subjugation of the conquered Ethiopians evoked scenes of oppression from Biblical times to Tiananmen Square. Jessica Lang’s athletic but artistic choreography was characterized by a range of motions both stylized and natural: muscles and emotions moved in tandem, and the dancers—Patrick Coker, Julie Fiorenza, John Harnage, Eve Jacobs, Kana Kimura, Milan Misko, Thomas Ragland, Rachel Secrest, and Jammie Walker, complemented in the entertainment for Amneris at the start of Act Two by a troupe of splendidly acrobatic boys—executed Lang’s steps expertly. The vehemence of the Egyptian priests’ calls for the slaughter of their Ethiopian prisoners was a timely reminder of the sickening toll of fanaticism, making the horrors of Aida’s life at the mercy of her foes real for the audience. Art cannot and must not always be comfortable and comforting. Art plays a vital rôle in altering perceptions and ending prejudices, and in doing so it must press observers to face truths that are less threatening when ignored. Zambello’s Aida is not a Boudicca, Jeanne d’Arc, or Libuše, but she is a woman with a fully-developed social conscience that did not impede her ability to loft Verdi’s melodies to the farthest reaches of the auditorium.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) tenor CARL TANNER as Radamès, mezzo-soprano MARINA PRUDENSKAYA as Amneris, and soprano LEAH CROCETTO as Aida in Washington National Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA, September 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Trema, o rea schiava: (from left to right) tenor Carl Tanner as Radamès, mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya as Amneris, and soprano Leah Crocetto as Aida in Washington National Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, September 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

This Aida leapt from imagination to stage via the concept design and sketches of graphic artist RETNA (né Marquis Duriel Lewis). Patrons who expected a graffiti artist’s Aida were either surprised or disappointed. His was no glitzy but generic Hollywood-esque Old Kingdom with cardboard pyramids and potted palms. Rather, the opera house’s stage became the epicenter of a functioning totalitarian state in which clerical authority superseded even royal prerogative. RETNA’s sketches produced artwork that dressed the stage in dazzling jewel tones. The visual symbolism incorporated into virtually every aspect of the production was remarkable for both looking authentically Egyptian and being wholly original. Even without an ankh to be seen, the production was more faithful to Verdi’s score and Ghislanzoni’s libretto than many stagings that go to ridiculous lengths in efforts at achieving ‘authenticity.’ Bringing to his work on this production nearly fifty years of experience, Michael Yeargan designed sets that were ideal canvases for RETNA’s graphics. Intelligently illuminated by University of North Carolina School of the Arts alumnus Mark McCullough’s lighting designs, the sets were dynamic without being distracting. The military attire central to Anita Yavich’s costume designs for the male characters would not have been out of place in Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Castro’s Cuba, Gaddafi’s Libya, or Mubarak’s Egypt, and Aida’s simple dress contrasted starkly with the stunning citrine, pure white, and sapphire gowns for Amneris. The visual components of this Aida amplified the emotions of Verdi’s music and Ghislanzoni’s words, not grasping at manufactured relevance but harnessing the wealth of pertinence that already exists in the opera’s drama.

Conductor Evan Rogister paced the performance with energy, but his leadership was occasionally undermined by idiosyncratic tempi and breakdowns in coordination between stage and pit. Balances and timing in the largest ensembles were fortunately spot on, but there were instances in which principals and conductor disagreed about niceties of phrasing. Still, Rogister cued the singers impressively, and his conducting was attuned to the subtleties of Verdi’s orchestrations. Verdi composed a large-scale Overture for Aida as an afterthought but ultimately preferred the simpler Preludio with which he originally launched the opera. At Rogister’s slow tempo, the music seemed almost Impressionistic: unexpectedly, Pelléas et Mélisande loomed as prominently on the musical horizon as Otello. Throughout the performance, the WNO Orchestra’s playing was marvelous, with the masters of the difficult herald trumpets in the Triumphal Scene earning particular admiration for their flawless intonation. The rhythmic bite of the musicians’ performances of the dance interludes—the Danza sacra delle sacerdotesse (actually della sacerdotessa in this production) in the second scene of Act One, the Danza di piccoli schiavi mori in the second scene of Act Two, and the Ballabile in the Triumphal Scene—gave these passages the momentum that they need. Chorus Master Steven Gathman rehearsed the WNO Chorus to a level of preparation that rendered the choral singing one of the finest elements of the performance. As Pharaoh’s army, the Egyptian populace, the captive Ethiopians, and the priests standing in judgement of Radamès, the choristers sang fantastically. Unlike their colleagues at Teatro alla Scala and the Metropolitan Opera, WNO’s chorus and orchestra cannot boast of career-long acquaintances with Aida, but their performance benefited tremendously from the absence of routine.

IN PERFORMANCE: mezzo-soprano MARINA PRUDENSKAYA as Amneris (left) and soprano LEAH CROCETTO as Aida (right) in Washington National Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA, September 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Son tua rivale…Figlia dei Faraoni: mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya (left) as Amneris and soprano Leah Crocetto (right) as Aida in Washington National Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, September 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program is a phenomenal source of young talent with which to populate the casts of the company’s productions, and enjoyment of this Aida was markedly enhanced by the presence of well-trained singers with voices of true quality in rôles in which mediocrity is all too frequently encountered. As the Messaggero who brings the momentous news of the Ethiopians’ invasion of Egypt, tenor Frederick Ballentine voiced ‘Il sacro suolo dell’Egitto è invaso dai barbari Etiopi’ incisively, his voice secure throughout the range of the music. In the second scene of Act One, soprano Madison Leonard sang the exotic exhortation ‘Possente Fthà, del mondo spirito animator’ with attractive tone and excellent breath control. Both of these young artists will be welcome additions to the rosters of the world’s opera companies.

Another alumnus of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, bass Soloman Howard has already offered audiences a plethora of evidence of his mastery of Verdi repertory, which he will expand further with his portrayal of Sparafucile in North Carolina Opera’s January 2018 production of Rigoletto. As the Re d’Egitto, the rôle of his Metropolitan Opera début, the strikingly handsome singer’s Pharaoh exuded the confidence that comes with unflappable comfort with the music. Vocally, his performance began promisingly and continued to gather strength with each successive phrase. In Act One, Howard voiced ‘Alta cagion v’aduna, o fidi Egizii’ with firm, rounded tone, and he declaimed ‘Iside venerata di nostre schiere in vitte già designava il condottier supremo’ with the majesty of a man in communion with his deities. His ‘Su! del Nilo al sacro lido’ radiated patriotic fervor. In Act Two’s Triumphal Scene, Howard’s Re addressed Radamès with a robust ‘Salvator della patria, io ti saluto,’ but his solemn delivery of ‘Al tuo consiglio io cedo’ suggested that a shrewd statesman lurked behind the warmongering façade. In the long performance and recording histories of Aida, many voices have been heard in the Re’s music that caused listeners to wonder whether it might have been Pharaoh’s wobbling that dislodged the Sphinx’s nose. There was no wobbling in this performance to endanger the integrity of Egypt’s infrastructure, but the sheer power of Howard’s vocalism was awesome.

IN PERFORMANCE: bass SOLOMAN HOWARD as il Re d'Egitto (center) in Washington National Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA, 10 September 2017 [Photo by the author]Re e guerriero: bass Soloman Howard as il Re d’Egitto (center) in Washington National Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, 10 September 2017
[Photo by the author]

Imposing bass Morris Robinson was a Ramfis who towered over his countrymen, in stature and in menace. A priest who did not hesitate to use violence to advance his agenda [even the unoffending Messaggero fell victim to his fists], this Ramfis was unmistakably an ancestor of the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo. In Aida’s opening scene, he sang ‘Sì: corre voce che l’Etiope ardisca sfidarci ancora’ zealously, and ‘Gloria ai Numi! ognun rammenti ch’essi reggono gli eventi’ poured from him like the surging Nile. ‘Mortal, diletto ai Numi, a te fidate son d’Egitto le sorti’ in the scene in the Temple of Vulcan was dispatched with near-fanatical ardor. There was no lunging for the top F: the note was in the voice, and Robinson found it effortlessly. The rugged brawn of his singing was stirring, but his handling of the lovely cantabile ‘Nume, custode e vindice di questa sacra terra’ was also riveting. It was obvious in his granitic ‘Ascolta, o Re’ in the Triumphal Scene that this Ramfis expected his advice to be heeded. It was equally apparent in ‘Vieni d’Iside al tempio’ in Act Three and in the Judgment Scene in Act Four that neither Amneris’s despair nor her fury were of the slightest consequence to Ramfis. Robinson voiced ‘Spirto del Nume, sovra noi discendi!’ lithely. His thunderous repetitions of ‘Radamès!’ were terrifying: the final utterance of the name, each syllable forcefully articulated, was haunting. In a sense, Ramfis is the last man standing when Aida reaches it conclusion. Aida and Radamès have perished, Amneris is devastated by guilt, and the legitimacy of the King’s reign has been weakened by his espousal of a traitor. In some performances of Aida, these outcomes seem to be the work of destiny, but Robinson was a Ramfis who manipulated the drama from the start. When his machinations were enacted with singing of such vigor and security, the ambitions of this Ramfis could not be thwarted.

IN PERFORMANCE: bass MORRIS ROBINSON as Ramfis (center) in Washington National Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA, 10 September 2017 [Photo by the author]Avanti a lui tremava tutto l’Egitto: bass Morris Robinson as Ramfis (center) in Washington National Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, 10 September 2017
[Photo by the author]

His portrayal of the title rôle in Opera Carolina’s 2014 production of Nabucco confirmed Gordon Hawkins to be one of today’s most accomplished Verdi baritones. In WNO’s 2016 staging of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, his unforgettable Alberich disclosed Hawkins’s ability to markedly influence a performance even as a character whose time on stage is relatively brief. As Amonasro in WNO’s Aida, these feats merged exhilaratingly. First seen among the humiliated Ethiopians in Act Two’s Triumphal Scene, the nobility of Hawkins’s Amonasro was discernible despite the monarch’s efforts at remaining anonymous. His cry of ‘Non mi tradir!’ to Aida was as much a royal decree as a statement of desperation, and the top Fs that punctuated his plea for the conquering Egyptians to show mercy, ‘Questa assisa ch’io vesto vi dica che il mio Re,’ were galvanizing. The voice sometimes sounded unsteady, but Amonasro’s music is ferocious, and Hawkins’s voice is a large instrument used with such control that moments of strain were not worrying.

Reuniting with Aida along the banks of the Nile—evoked by sounds of a nocturnal riparian setting in Verdi’s score if not visually in this production—in Act Three, Hawkins sang ‘A te grave cagion m’adduce, Aida’ muscularly. Then, his account of the cantabile dolcissimo ‘Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate’ was tenderly paternal. There is pitifully little tenderness in Amonasro’s bullying of Aida, and Hawkins hurled ‘Su, dunque! sorgete, egizie coorti!’ at her ruthlessly, roaring the top F♯. As Aida implored him to take pity on her suffering, Hawkins’s Amonasro retreated, covering his face with his hands and clearly feeling the sting of his own cruelty. A father’s compassion returned in the baritone’s voicing of ‘Pensa che un popolo vinto,’ and the ascent to top G♭ was now an expression of victory rather than viciousness. His shout of ‘Di Napata le gole!’ after Radamès unwittingly revealed the secret of the Egyptians’ intended route into battle bore the weight of the blow that turned the opera’s course inexorably towards tragedy. Amonasro is an intriguing anomaly in Verdi’s studies of parent-child relationships, but he is not the heartless brute that some singers portray. There was unusual depth in Hawkins’s realization of the part, and he sang Amonasro’s music with aptitude that is even more unusual today.

IN PERFORMANCE: baritone GORDON HAWKINS as Amonasro (center) in Washington National Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA, 10 September 2017 [Photo by the author]Ciel! sua padre: baritone Gordon Hawkins as Amonasro in Washington National Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, 10 September 2017
[Photo by the author]

Some of the best singing heard at the 2017 Bayreuther Festspiele was supplied by mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya, whose Waltraute in Götterdämmerung brimmed with urgency and vocal opulence befitting a daughter of Wotan. [She returns to Bayreuth in 2018 to sing Fricka and Schwertleite in Die Walküre.] Looking as glamorously regal as Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, Prudenskaya was a calculating Amneris who toyed with Aida and sprang her fatal trap with feline sensuality. The core of her interpretation was restraint, however: there was no excess, not one superfluous gesture. In her Act One duet with Radamès, Prudenskaya intoned ‘Quale insolita gioia nel tuo sguardo!’ caustically, but her purring of ‘Vieni, o diletta, appressati’ in the subsequent trio with Aida and Radamès was slyly casual. Later, celebrating Radamès as the gods’ choice to lead the Egyptians into battle, she voiced ‘Di mia man ricevi, o duce, il vessillo glorioso’ with conspicuous affection.

The scene for Amneris and her attendants that opens Act Two can seem out of place. The ladies in Amneris’s company are identified by Ghislanzoni as slaves but were courtiers in Zambello’s production, a believable departure from the libretto: Amneris shaming Aida before gossiping Egyptian ladies heightened the scene’s dramatic significance. Merely as a setting for Prudenskaya’s supple singing of ‘Ah! vieni, vieni, amor mio,’ the scene was gratifying. In the duet with Aida that follows, the mezzo-soprano unleashed an avalanche of duplicity with ‘Fu la sorte dell’armi a’ tuoi funesta.’ Affected sweetness pervaded her singing of the cantabile ‘Io son l’amica tua’ and ‘Ebben: qual nuovo fremito ti assal, gentile Aida?’ The character’s fury explodes with ‘Trema, vil schiava,’ and Prudenskaya’s heated performance ignited both music and text. Perhaps having learned from the examples of interpreters of Amneris who burn out before meeting the demands of Act Four, there was perceptible caution here and in her traversal of ‘Venga la schiava, venga a rapirmi l’amor mio,’ the treachery imparted by inflection rather than volume. At the start of Act Three, this Amneris responded to Ramfis’s instruction to pray with a touchingly sincere ‘Sì; io pregherò che Radamès mi doni tutto il suo cor.’ The savagery of her censure of Radamès’s treason at the act’s end was intense but tempered by sadness.

To seek a comparison in Prudenskaya’s German repertoire, Act Four of Aida is for Amneris an ordeal similar to what Fricka faces in Act Two of Die Walküre. Alone with her thoughts as the act begins, Amneris contemplates the consequences of her jealousy. Musing over Aida’s escape from Amneris’s clutches, Prudenskaya infused ‘L’abborrita rivale a me sfuggia’ with bile, but she avoided vocal harshness. Confronting Radamès for the last time, this Amneris attempted to maintain a calm detachment in ‘Già i sacerdoti adunansi arbitri del tuo fato,’ but as she sang of her love being supplanted by anger she became increasingly frantic. Her voice seething with emotion, Prudenskaya dominated the pair of exposed top B♭s. Amneris’s loathing of Ramfis and his self-serving exercise of pseudo-religious authority erupted in the Judgment Scene, but the voice was never unduly pushed. The sudden frailty of her ‘Ohimè!...morir mi sento’ and ‘Numi, pietà del mio straziato core’ was a moving indication of Amneris’s love for Radamès. Even the bright, sonorous top A with which she ended the scene was guarded, the ire directed at Amneris’s flawed character as much as at the hypocritical priests. In the opera’s final scene, Prudenskaya sang ‘Pace t’imploro, salma adorata’ as a broken woman. Prudenskaya was an uncommonly cerebral Amneris, a vulnerable woman aware of her power but also powerless. There were ensemble passages in which she could not be heard as clearly as her colleagues, but this perceptive artist took the ethos of the production to heart by looking beyond the notes on the page and sharing with the audience why her Amneris sang them.

IN PERFORMANCE: tenor CARL TANNER as Radamès (left) and mezzo-soprano MARINA PRUDENSKAYA as Amneris (right) in Washington National Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA, September 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Di mia man ricevi, o duce, il vessillo glorioso: tenor Carl Tanner as Radamès (left) and mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya as Amneris (right) in Washington National Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, September 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

Hailing from Arlington, Virginia, a stone’s—or a Washington Nationals pitcher’s—throw across the Potomac from Kennedy Center, tenor Carl Tanner is the standard bearer for the mostly-extinct and little-remembered tradition of his fellow American tenor Barry Morell. Musical, insightful, and effective in lyric and heavier rôles, he shares with Morell the under-appreciated distinction of being an exceptionally reliable artist who brings to virtually every performance the preparedness and dedication that some singers only fitfully exhibit. As Radamès in this Aida, Tanner was bold and charismatic, his singing stentorian when appropriate and always aptly romantic. In the opera’s first scene, his Radamès daydreamed with a schoolboy’s enthusiasm about being chosen to command Egypt’s troops. It is often alleged that Richard Strauss hated the tenor voice, but only in Die Frau ohne Schatten did he rival Verdi’s ‘gift’ to the tenor in Act One of Aida. Beset by the recitative ‘Se quel guerrier io fossi!’ and romanza ‘Celeste Aida’ with only a few moments of warmup, Radamès immediately earns sympathy, but no forgiveness was necessary for Tanner’s performance. He brought to ‘Celeste Aida’ genuine legato and unflinching attack on its three top B♭s. In the following duet with Amneris and the trio that ensues, he sparred almost playfully with Prudenskaya, but the change in his attitude upon Aida’s entry was appreciable in his enunciation of ‘Dessa!’ Radamès having been announced as the celestially-appointed leader of the Egyptian army, Tanner voiced the cantabile ‘Nume, che Duce ed arbitro sei d’ogni umana guerra’ in the second scene with bravado, the repeated top B♭s in the scene’s final pages conveying the character’s pride and elation. In Act Two’s epic Triumphal Scene, Tanner approached both ‘Re: pei sacri Numi, per lo splendore della tua corona’ and ‘Spento Amonasro, il re guerrier, non resta speranza ai vinti’ with the simplicity of a decent man speaking his mind rather than the complexity of a schemer considering the implications of his words.

IN PERFORMANCE: tenor CARL TANNER as Radamès in Washington National Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA, September 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Se quel guerriero io fossi: tenor Carl Tanner as Radamès in Washington National Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, September 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

Rendezvousing with Aida in their duet in Act Three, Tanner’s Radamès was again the free-spirited youth with absolute faith in the kindness of fate. Singing ‘Pur ti riveggo, mia dolce Aida’ with disarming passion and gleaming tone, he made Aida’s task of learning from him the Egyptians’ intended route into battle all the more distressing. He shaped his performances of ‘Nel fiero anelito di nuova guerra il suolo Etiope si ridestò’ and ‘Sovra una terra estrania teco fuggir dovrei!’ with sensitivity, making an admirable endeavor to comply with Verdi’s request for a dolce top B♭. The duped Radamès betrayed by Amneris to the bloodthirsty Ramfis, Tanner fired a preemptive volley with his clarion ‘Sacerdote, io resto a te,’ his top As formidably heroic.

The scene for Radamès and Amneris in Act Four contains some of the most breathlessly tense music that Verdi wrote, and Tanner and Prudenskaya engaged in a battle of wills that was an eery counterpart to their first meeting in Act One. Tanner eschewed bitterness in his traversal of ‘Di mie discolpe i giudici,’ rejecting Amneris’s arguments resolvedly but not unkindly. At the end of an arduous afternoon, Tanner sang particularly beautifully in the opera’s final scene. The resignation expressed by his reading of ‘La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse’ was palpable, and his mezza voce in ‘O terra, addio’ gave Radamès’s final moments humanity and humility, not least by enabling him to avoid resorting to falsetto on the top B♭s. Especially at the top of the range, Tanner was happiest at full volume, but his happiness was never prized above adherence to the composer’s wishes. Tanner sang Radamès’s music extremely well, but the foremost achievement of his performance was his credible depiction of Radamès as a man whom both Aida and Amneris could love.

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano LEAH CROCETTO as Aida (left) and tenor CARL TANNER as Radamès (right) in Washington National Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA, September 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]O terra, addio: soprano Leah Crocetto (left) and tenor Carl Tanner as Radamès (right) in Washington National Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, September 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

Soprano Leah Crocetto, who returns to Kennedy Center in March 2018 to sing Elisabetta in WNO’s production of Verdi’s Don Carlo, was an Aida whose experience in the rôle in the San Francisco première of Francesca Zambello’s production was apparent in every musical and dramatic detail of her performance. The first Aida, Antonietta Anastasi-Pozzoni, was acclaimed in Milan for her portrayal of Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust but transitioned in the years after Aida’s troubled Cairo première to singing mezzo-soprano rôles, making it impossible for modern Verdians to surmise precisely how her voice sounded. Aida was sung in the opera’s first European production at La Scala, considered by Verdi to be the true première, by Teresa Stolz, a versatile singer who was denied the honor of creating the rôle in the Egyptian première by musical politics and for whom Verdi also wrote the soprano solos in his Messa da Requiem. Though she reintroduced Leonora to the public in the first performances of Verdi’s revision of La forza del destino, Stolz also had extensive and much-lauded bel canto credentials. Her refined singing in San Francisco Opera’s 2015 production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller affirmed Crocetto to be an artist worthy of Stolz’s legacy, and her Aida for Washington National Opera was a noteworthy personal and professional success.

Making her first entrance in Act One, Crocetto moved gracefully but deliberately, from the start establishing Aida as a woman of royal lineage subjected to the profound shame of servitude. Joining the trio with Amneris and Radamès, she sang ‘Ohimè! di guerra fremere l’atroce grido io sento’ urgently, her soaring top As and fortissimo top B rousing but unexaggerated extensions of the line. Aida’s aside of ‘Mio padre!’ when it is learned that Amonasro was the leader of the invading Ethiopians was delivered by Crocetto with special emphasis, her character daring to envision her freedom restored. She voiced ‘Per chi piango?’ with dignity, lofting her top C over the ensemble with technical finesse. The challenges of ‘Ritorna vincitor!’ were overcome with lavish assurance. The soprano’s slashing top B♭ crowned an incendiary account of ‘L’insana parola, o Numi, sperdete!’ Crocetto encapsulated the essence of Aida’s anguish with her wrenching ‘I sacri nomi di padre...d’amante.’ Impressive as her full-throttle singing was, it was her ravishingly hushed voicing of ‘Numi, pietà, del mio soffrir!’ that was most memorable.

The dramatic magnitude of Crocetto’s ‘Ritorna vincitor!’ was redoubled in Aida’s Act Two duet with Amneris. Voicing ‘Felice esser poss’io lungi dal suol natio’ mesmerizingly, the soprano projected Aida’s misery and trepidation across the footlights without distorting the musical line. Cresting first on a top B♭ and then on a brilliant fortissimo top C, she gave ‘Che mai dicesti! misera!’ and the agitated ‘Ah! pietà!...che più mi resta?’ wealths of expressivity. The voices of many Aidas are lost in the tumult of the Triumphal Scene, but Crocetto was always audible—and always heard with pleasure. Her exclamation of ‘Che veggo!... Egli?... Mio padre!’ was a poignantly private moment in one of opera’s most opulent public scenes. Verdi’s assault on the soprano’s upper register in the final minutes of Act Two is unrelenting, but the indefatigable consistency of Crocetto’s high notes prevailed.

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano LEAH CROCETTO in the title rôle of Washington National Opera's production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA, September 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Celeste Aida: soprano Leah Crocetto in the title rôle of Washington National Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, September 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

Deceived by Amneris’s false report that Radamès fell in battle but learning that he survived only to lose him to Pharaoh’s proclamation that Amneris’s hand in marriage is to be his reward for valor, Aida’s churning emotions are vented in her solo scene in Act Three. Crocetto phrased ‘Qui Radamès verrà!’ with dramatic uncertainty, Aida’s anxiety about her arranged meeting with Radamès evident in the soprano’s meticulous management of Verdi’s shifts in dynamics. The romanza ‘O patria mia’ is one of opera’s most familiar arias and for many opera lovers it is a test upon which an Aida’s merit depends. Crocetto sang the romanza’s opening passages with total concentration, and the words were the source of propulsion in her rapt account of the cantabile ‘O fresche valli dolce.’ Rogister’s slow tempo forced her to break the line climbing to the top C in order to take a breath, but she instinctively recovered her phrasing as she descended from the well-sustained C. Immersed in the drama, she did not await applause but uttered ‘Ciel! mio padre!’ to startling effect, spurring the audience to feel Aida’s surprise at finding Amonasro intruding upon her reverie. In their duet, Crocetto’s Aida sang ‘Deh! fate, o Numi, che per noi ritorni’ meaningfully and countered her father’s accusations with a pained but sublime ‘Padre!...a costoro...schiava non sono.’ Questioning Radamès with Amonasro’s exhortations in her heart, her ‘Nè d’Amneris paventi il vindice furor?’ was surprisingly confrontational, but the unstoppable tide of Aida’s love for Radamès flooded Crocetto’s singing of ‘Fuggiam gli ardori inospiti di queste lande ignude.’

Slowly revealing her presence to Radamès in the final scene of Act Four, Crocetto’s Aida pronounced ‘Son io’ delicately, the words clearly intended solely for her beloved’s ears. She mastered the tricky writing in ‘Vedi? di morte l’angelo radiante a noi s’appressa,’ transitioning the mood of the scene from one of despondency to one of transfiguration. Crocetto and Tanner performed ‘O terra, addio’ like one singer with two voices, emphasizing the catharsis of their characters’ deaths. Alternately humbling herself before Amneris, scrutinizing her conflicting loves for Radamès and her homeland, or weathering her father’s denunciation, Aida never enjoys true happiness during the course of the opera, and she takes control of her life only by choosing to end it. Crocetto’s performance provided great happiness, however. When sung and acted so compellingly, Aida, too, has her revenge on her oppressors.

As in all of Verdi’s late operas, the real marvel of Aida is its juxtaposition of intimate emotions with storytelling on the grandest of scales, and that grandeur is in the music and the ways in which individual sentiments and universal themes are intertwined. Aida does not need camels and endless parades of shendyt-clad supernumeraries. Aida needs great voices and a thoughtful setting in which they can sing this amazing music, and Washington National Opera’s Aida gave Verdi and those who love his operas a rare opportunity to savor those needs being outstandingly satisfied.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) bass SOLOMAN HOWARD as il Re d’Egitto, baritone GORDON HAWKINS as Amonasro, tenor CARL TANNER as Radamès, conductor EVAN ROGISTER, chorus master STEVEN GATHMAN, soprano LEAH CROCETTO as Aida, and mezzo-soprano MARINA PRUDENSKAYA as Amneris in Washington National Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s AIDA, 10 September 2017 [Photo by the author]Bravi, tutti: (from left to right) bass Soloman Howard as il Re d’Egitto, baritone Gordon Hawkins as Amonasro, tenor Carl Tanner as Radamès, conductor Evan Rogister, chorus master Steven Gathman, soprano Leah Crocetto as Aida, and mezzo-soprano Marina Prudenskaya as Amneris in Washington National Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, 10 September 2017
[Photo by the author]

Apologies to the artists for the poor quality of the curtain-call photographs.

07 September 2017

RECORDINGS OF THE MONTH | September 2017: ÉCHO — Joyce El-Khoury, soprano (Opera Rara ORR252) and ESPOIR — Michael Spyres, tenor (Opera Rara ORR251)

RECORDINGS OF THE MONTH | September 2017: ÉCHO and ESPOIR (Opera Rara ORR252 & ORR251)[1] CARL MARIA VON WEBER (1786 – 1826), FERDINARD HÉROLD (1791 – 1833), GIACOMO MEYERBEER (1791 – 1864), GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1858), FROMENTAL HALÉVY (1799 – 1862), and HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869): ÉchoJoyce El-Khoury, soprano; The Hallé; Carlo Rizzi, conductor [Recorded in The Stoller Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester, UK, in February 2017; Opera Rara ORR252; 1 CD, 79:15; Available from Opera Rara and major music retailers]

[2] DANIEL AUBER (1782 – 1871), GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), FROMENTAL HALÉVY (1799 – 1862), HECTOR BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869), and GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): EspoirMichael Spyres, tenor; The Hallé; Carlo Rizzi, conductor [Recorded in The Stoller Hall, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester, UK, in February 2017; Opera Rara ORR251; 1 CD, 78:25; Available from Opera Rara and major music retailers]

It is unlikely that the existence of any species botanical or zoological has been as vehemently debated as the endangerment, extinction, or survival of bel canto. That the pillars of bel canto rest on the shoulders of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini is little disputed, but the parameters of this ephemeral subspecies of Western music are otherwise difficult to define. Unlike many of the passion-fueled feuds over matters of operatic esoterica, the questions of whether or when the death knell for bel canto sounded are logical considerations. Bel canto has no Fort Sumpter and Appomattox, no convenient and clearly-documented beginning and end. Examining a score like Francesco Cavalli’s 1651 La Calisto, it is obvious in the music for Diana and Endimione that the seeds of bel canto are present, but have they germinated? Is ‘Vivo in te, mio caro bene,’ Händel’s duet for Asteria and Andronico in his 1724 Tamerlano, a prototype of the bel canto lovers’ duet or the thing itself? The quest to understand its past is a vital component of the preservation and perpetuation of any art form, but to obsess over pinpointing the precise moment in operatic history at which its stylistic origins yielded the fully-fledged practice of bel canto is to entomb a still-warm body in a sepulcher of pedantry. For the past four decades, Opera Rara performances and recordings have brought bel canto as inherited from its Nineteenth-Century guardians into the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, and that journey reaches new destinations with two enchanting new releases.

With this pair of discs, homages to two of the Nineteenth Century’s most influential singers by a pair of the Twenty-First Century’s most significant artists, Opera Rara again ventures into the realm of recital discs, returning to territory explored by the label’s invaluable Il Salotto and 100 Years of Italian Opera series. Écho and Espoir, soprano Joyce El-Khoury’s and tenor Michael Spyres’s explorations of music sung by their artistic ancestors Julie Dorus-Gras and Gilbert Duprez, not only continue the tradition of Opera Rara’s extraordinary achievements in recording bel canto repertory but on their own merits raise the stakes for today’s singers with bel canto aspirations. Tastefully supported by The Hallé and Carlo Rizzi, whose playing and conducting exude thorough knowledge and incontestable affection for the music, El-Khoury and Spyres sing with involvement that transforms the recording studio into the stage of an opera house, guiding the listener into the unique dramatic milieu of each selection. Many recital discs are afflicted by blandness that results from removing arias from their proper contexts, but Écho and Espoir are wonderfully successful at conjuring the requisite atmospheres in which the music thrives. Opera Rara’s engineering is not always flattering to El-Khoury or Spyres: as heard on these discs, both of their voices sporadically have harder edges than their performances in the world’s opera houses have revealed. Still, both singers are on magnificent form, and the discs convey the visceral excitement that their singing incites.

Begun in Valenciennes in 1805, the long life of Julie-Aimée-Josèphe van Steenkiste coincided with one of the most tunefully tumultuous eras in the evolution of opera. Known professionally as Julie Dorus-Gras after her 1833 marriage to a violinist in the Paris Opéra orchestra, this extraordinary soprano exerted influence on that musical evolution similar to that wielded by her contemporaries Giulia Grisi, María Malibrán, Giuditta Pasta, and Pauline Viardot. In the course of her own evolution, via which she allied natural talent with technical mastery and interpretive sophistication, Dorus-Gras studied with the widely-acclaimed Italian tenor Marco Bordogni, Rossini’s first Conte di Libenskof in Il viaggio a Reims; the composer Ferdinando Paër; and the respected baritone Henri (né François-Louis Henry), who created Sulpice in La fille du régiment for Donizetti and whose pupils also included Cornélie Falcon. During her lauded career, she was a practical muse to a number of composers, the litany of characters first sung by Dorus-Gras populated by Pauline in Donizetti’s Les Martyrs (a rôle that El-Khoury thrillingly performed in concert and recorded in studio for Opera Rara, partnered by Spyres), Teresa in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, Oscar in Auber’s Gustave III, Princesse Eudoxie and Ginérva in Halévy’s La Juive and Guido et Ginérva, and Alice and Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable and Les Huguenots. By the time of her death in 1896, Dorus-Gras had suffered the fate of many long-lived singers of her time: with a few notable exceptions, the rôles for which she was renowned were no longer present in the international repertoire. Recreating the musical prowess and dramatic directness for which Dorus-Gras was celebrated, El-Khoury proves that the music with which her predecessor’s reputation was made is as impactful now as it was more than a century-and-a-half ago.

In addition to her Pauline in Opera Rara’s Les Martyrs in concert and on disc, El-Khoury’s Donizetti credentials include a triumphant turn as the titular Queen of Scots in Seattle Opera’s 2016 production of Maria Stuarda. The title rôle in Donizetti’s most enduringly popular opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, was sung in the work’s 1835 première by Fanny Tacchinardi Persiani, but Julie Dorus-Gras contributed indelibly to Lucia’s conquests of Europe’s opera houses and the esteem of their audiences. El-Khoury’s ‘écho’ of Dorus-Gras’s Lucia is a performance of the Act One cavatina ‘Regnava nel silenzio’ and cabaletta ‘Quando rapito in estasi.’ In the cavatina, El-Khoury dispatches the fiorature cleanly, but it is her legato that compels admiration. The trills and top Cs in the cabaletta do not come as effortlessly to El-Khoury as to Sutherland and Sills, but the younger soprano shares with Callas, Gencer, and Zeani a particular talent for using bravura writing as an expressive tool. As encountered in this music, El-Khoury’s Lucia is unusually thoughtful and self-assured, potentially making the character’s eventual descent into madness all the more harrowing. In only this aria and cabaletta, El-Khoury gives a more complete and original vocal and dramatic portrait of Donizetti’s and Sir Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor than many sopranos achieve in performances of the full opera.

The infrequency with which Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable has been performed in the past century is indicative of the difficulty of the music. One of the scores that defined Grand Opéra for Nineteenth-Century audiences, Robert’s principal rôles are as near-impossible to cast with complete success as those in Verdi’s La forza del destino and Wagner’s Parsifal. Her accounts of music for Alice and Isabelle on this disc suggest that enterprising opera companies—and Opera Rara’s microphones!—should capitalize on El-Khoury’s affinity for this music by scheduling Robert le diable for her. To Alice’s Act One romance ‘Va, dit-elle, va, mon enfant’ the soprano brings the evenness of tone throughout the compass that makes her singing of lyric repertoire so satisfying, combined here with absolute command of Meyerbeer’s hybridized musical style. Her singing of Alice’s Act Three couplets, ‘Quand je quittai la Normandie,’ is equally enjoyable, the momentum of her singing drawn from her discerning enunciation of the text. Isabelle’s Act Four cavatine ‘Robert, toi que j'aime et qui reçus ma foi’ is perhaps the score’s most familiar number, and El-Khoury’s performance of it on Écho affirms the legitimacy of the piece’s continued prominence in sopranos’ concert repertories long after Robert le diable disappeared from opera houses. This is demanding music, dauntlessly sung, but it is again El-Khoury’s connection with the character and her emotions that earns the greatest praise.

It was in Hector Berlioz’s 1841 arrangement with recitatives replacing the original spoken dialogue, contrary to Berlioz’s wishes, that Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz became known and appreciated in Paris, and it is the French adaptation in which Dorus-Gras sang Agathe. Continuing that legacy, El-Khoury performs Agathe’s scene and aria in French, shaping the difficult vowels with naturalness that eludes many French-born singers. This is especially noticeable in the recitative, in which she articulates ‘Hélas! sans le revoir, faut-il fermer les yeux?’ with such immediacy that the listener has no need to consult the printed text in order to sense the interrogatory frisson of the scene. El-Khoury continues to build tension in her traversal of ‘Ma prière, solitaire, de la terre vole vers Dieu!’ Her cathartic realization of the aria’s climax is wholly stylish but shows Wagner’s heroines to be close on the horizon. Berlioz’s own music is sampled with the scene for Teresa from Act One of Benvenuto Cellini. Here, too, El-Khoury’s handling of words is keenly perceptive. The introductory recitative ‘Les belles fleurs!...Un billet... Cellini!’ is sung with burgeoning passion, and the air ‘Entre l’amour et le devoir un jeune cœur est bien à plaindre’ receives from singer, orchestra, and conductor a performance that seems to come from the stage rather than the recording studio. Though their voices are very different in timbre and weight, El-Khoury’s singing of this music by Weber and Berlioz is delightfully reminiscent of the little-remembered Suzanne Sarroca’s vocalism.

The singer of any Fach who takes on music from Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is a brave adventurer unafraid of tests of stamina and technique. Even removed from its setting in the full opera, Mathilde’s Act Two romance is a formidable trial, looking forward to Élisabeth’s ‘Toi qui sus le néant’ in Verdi’s Don Carlos more than back to music for Rossini’s other soprano heroines. Rossini was Italian, of course, but the musical language of ‘Ils s’éloignent enfin’ is as unmistakably French as the text. El-Khoury voices both the recitative and the aria ‘Sombre fôret, désert triste et sauvage’ plaintively but with technical steel beneath the artistic platinum. This is also true of her performances of arias by Ferdinand Hérold and Fromental Halévy. The Entr’acte and Isabelle’s air ‘Jours de mon enfance’ from Act Two of Hérold’s Le pré aux clercs are delivered with consummate musicality by orchestra and soprano. Rachel’s air ‘Assez longtemps la crainte et la tristesse ont habité les murs de ce palais’ from Act Three of Halévy’s La Juive is sung with perfectly-judged pathos and delicate but resilient phrasing. In her performances on Écho, El-Khoury’s tone remains focused, steady, and darkly beautiful from the bottom of the range to D6. That alone qualifies her as a legitimate successor to Dorus-Gras, but El-Khoury claims this music as her own. No mere echo, this disc is the product of a creative spirit in whom Dorus-Gras would undoubtedly recognize a Twenty-First-Century protégée.

IN REVIEW: Opera Rara's bel canto team of (from left to right) conductor CARLO RIZZI, tenor MICHAEL SPYRES, and soprano JOYCE EL-KHOURY [Photo by Henry Little, © by Opera Rara]Bel canto trio: (from left to right) conductor Carlo Rizzi, tenor Michael Spyres, and soprano Joyce El-Khoury
[Photo by Henry Little, © by Opera Rara]

A native Parisian, Gilbert-Louis Duprez was born in 1806 and, in but one of many parallels with the life and career of Julie Dorus-Gras, died in 1896. Of great significance in the development of his singular technique were his studies with Alexandre-Étienne Choron, a brief-tenured director of the Paris Opéra, where Duprez ultimately shared primo uomo laurels with Adolphe Nourrit, a fellow tenor with an extensive range and groundbreaking approach to their Fach’s highest tones, which theretofore had been produced by falsettone. Taking modal resonance to the top of the range without employing falsetto as previous generations of tenors had done, Duprez was a potent force in the development of modern tenor singing. He appeared as Arnoldo in the first Italian production of Guglielmo Tell and originated the name part in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, but he was—and still is—primarily associated with the music of Donizetti. In addition to creating one of the cornerstone tenor rôles of Italian bel canto, Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Duprez also originated Ugo in Parisina d’Este, Fernand in La favorite, Polyeucte in Les Martyrs [a part originally intended for Nourrit], and the title rôle in Dom Sébastien. Now principally remembered for his exhilarating upper register, Duprez was clearly an artist with patrician sensibilities that complemented those of Dorus-Gras and other eminent musicians of his time. The same can be said of Michael Spyres. The highest tones on Espoir are stunning, but it is the youthful exuberance of Spyres’s singing that truly astonishes. Duprez himself would surely be gratified—and more than a little threatened—to hear his music sung so appealingly.

Though still overshadowed by Verdi’s setting of Shakespeare’s complex examination of prejudice, stereotypes, and uncontrollable jealousy, Rossini’s Otello has gained traction in the international repertory in recent years. The French version of the opera remains virtually unknown, however; a neglect that deprives listeners of music no less characterful than that of Le siège de Corinthe, Moïse et Pharaon, and Guillaume Tell. Rossini’s reaction to the newly-minted do di petto is widely documented, but it is impossible to imagine the composer objecting to any aspect of the performance that Otello’s Act One cavatine ‘Venise, ô ma patrie’ receives from Spyres, The Hallé, and Rizzi. The tenor’s singing is at once tender and thorny, lending this abbreviated portrayal of the character credibility as lover, soldier, and statesman. Musically, there is no finer performance in any language of any of Otello’s music on disc.

Spyres sang Enrico in Donizetti’s Rosmonda d’Inghilterra in the 2016 Opera di Firenze concert presentation in which Alberto Sonzogni’s new critical edition of the score was performed for the first time. Prior to that outing and a subsequent production in Bergamo, Donizetti’s hometown, the opera had by all indications not been heard since the Nineteenth Century except in a 1975 staging in Belfast and a 1994 studio recording of the complete opera with Bruce Ford as Enrico, both produced by Opera Rara. Here revisiting Enrico’s Act One scene, Spyres phrases the recitative ‘Dopo i lauri di vittoria son pur dolci i fiori al prode’ with innate affinity for Donizetti’s style, following the composer’s lead in verbal emphases. He launches the aria ‘Potessi vivere com’io vorrei’ with panache, easily taming the music’s ferocities. Neither the broad melodic arches nor the exposed top D♭ in the protagonist’s Act Two air ‘Seul sur la terre’ from Dom Sébastien overwhelms Spyres’s technique, and his performance of Fernand’s anguished recitative ‘La maîtresse du Roi!’ and exquisite aria ‘Ange si pur, que dans un songe j’ai cru trouver, vous que j’aimais!’ from Act Four of La favorite is a deeply-felt interpretation of music approached by some singers as a vehicle for meaningless vocal display. Spyres’s ringing top C is the utterance of a young man experiencing crippling crises of conscience and faith.

It is astounding to recall that many performances of Lucia di Lammermoor in generations past ended with Lucia’s mad scene, omitting the sublime final scene for Edgardo in which Donizetti reached his greatest heights as a composer of lyric tragedy. Though it was Duprez who first sang this music, it might have been composed specially for Spyres, whose performance of the scene on Espoir resounds with unaffected despair and desperation. His ‘Tombe degli avi miei’ is an inward musing, addressed as much to the spirits of his ancestors as to the tombs of which he speaks, and he sings ‘Fra poco a me ricovero’ with grace redolent of John McCormack’s 1910 recording of the aria. Duetting with the cello in ‘Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali,’ Spyres traces the vocal line with incredible poise and the freedom in the upper register that the music demands but so seldom receives.

The operas of Daniel-François-Esprit Auber and Fromental Halévy have made far less progress than those by Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini in reintroducing themselves to the public, but several productions and recordings in the past decade have demonstrated that Auber’s and Halévy’s scores deserve modern listeners’ attention. The tenacity with which Spyres sings music from Auber’s Le lac des fées inspires curiosity about what other riches hide among Auber’s overlooked operas. The tenor vocalizes Albert’s Act One recitative ‘Ils s’éloignent! je reste...’ with urbane diction and a palpable depiction of the character’s ambivalence. The skillfully-crafted air ‘Gentille fée, au doux sourire’ is handsomely sung, its musical prosody effectuated with technical savvy. Halévy’s La Reine de Chypre was among its composer’s most popular works during the Nineteenth Century, but its charms did not survive the changing tastes that followed the operatic innovations of Verdi and Wagner. Gérard’s air ‘De mes aïeux ombres sacrées’ and cabaletta ‘Sur le bord de l’abime’ from Act Four of La Reine de Chypre are here performed with dizzying virtuosity by Spyres, the repeated acents to top B♭ managed with aplomb.

No music from Halévy’s forgotten Guido et Ginérva seems to have been recorded before Spyres entered the studio to make Espoir, and his voicing of Guido’s Act Three scene does much to make amends. Opening the scene with an aptly luminous reading of ‘Dans ces lieux, Ginérva, ta dernière demeure,’ he then voices the air ‘Quand renaîtra la pâle aurore’ superbly, seconded by Gareth Small’s brilliant playing of the trumpet obligato, an invention not unlike the instrument’s function in Ernesto’s scene at the beginning of Act Two of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. The dramatically momentous duet for the title characters from the fourth act of Guido and Ginérva is the sprawling centerpiece of Espoir, and Spyres is joined by El-Khoury in a potent performance of the scene, their voices blending like two tributaries joining to form a mighty river. When Spyres sings ‘Tu seras donc pour moi sans cesse inexorable,’ it is with Guido’s emotions channeled through his own, and he and El-Khoury voice ‘Ombre chérie! ombre adorée!’ as though expressing their feelings with top Ds were the most basic mode of communication. Could Duprez and Dorus-Gras have sung this music so well?

Paris was unquestionably the operatic capital of Europe during the Nineteenth Century, and the lure of success in the city on the Seine was no less irresistible to Verdi than it had been to Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. Revised with a French text for performance at Salle Le Peletier in 1847, Verdi’s I Lombardi alla prima crociata became Jérusalem, but it was in translation back into Italian that the revised score was espoused by Leyla Gencer and Jaume Aragall in the 1960s. Spyres here sings Gaston’s Act Three scene in the original French with which Duprez was acquainted, and he declaims ‘L’infamie!... prenez, prenez ma vie!’ rousingly. The air ‘Ô mes amis, mes frères d’armes’ is intoned with zeal that discloses how engaging a performance can be without wandering beyond the boundaries of the proper style.

One of the finest events in the 2017 BBC Proms series was a performance of Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust in which Spyres sang the name part with alluring tone and poetic sensitivity that would have pleased even the prickly Goethe. Spyres’s portrayal of the title rôle in Terry Gilliam’s production of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini at English National Opera was also fantastic, and he offers a spectacular performance of Cellini’s Act Two scene on Espoir. The words of ‘Seul pour lutter, seul avec mon courage’ are for Spyres like the molten metals that Cellini metamorphosed into works of art. Molded by the tenor’s musicality, his singing of ‘Sur les monts les plus sauvages’ is a work of art in its own right, the golden top notes glimmering.

It is fitting that the scene for Edgardo and Lucia that ends Act One of Lucia di Lammermoor should be included on both of these recitals, as part of the programme of Écho and as a bonus track in the digital download version of Espoir available from Opera Rara. The camaraderie with which El-Khoury and Spyres sing ‘Verrano a te sull’aure i miei sospiri ardenti,’ this fearless Edgardo soaring to his written top E♭, is representative of all of the music making on Écho and Espoir. As Dorus-Gras and Duprez must have done when learning, rehearsing, and inaugurating the public history of the music on these discs, Joyce El-Khoury and Michael Spyres interact not as star singers flexing their egos but as fellow musicians dedicated to the common task of providing the listener with memorable performances of music worth hearing. This should be the goal of all musicians who have the good fortune to find themselves before microphones, and with Écho and Espoir these musicians and Opera Rara again get it right. Bel canto carries on!

02 September 2017

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Franz Schreker — LIEDERABEND (Brenda Roberts, dramatic soprano; Christian Schmitt-Engelstadt, piano)

IN REVIEW: Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, & Franz Schreker - LIEDERABEND (Brenda Roberts, dramatic soprano)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883), RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949), and FRANZ SCHREKER (1878 – 1934): LiederabendBrenda Roberts, dramatic soprano; Christian Schmitt-Engelstadt, piano [Recorded in performance on 14 September 2001; 1 CD / Digital Download, 40:18; Available from CD Baby]

More diverting than the travails of Dickens characters in many cases are tales from the careers of creatures more fantastical and enigmatic than even Uriah Heep, Mr. Murdstone, and Daniel Quilp: opera singers. Singers’ lives both on and off the world’s stages brim with great expectations, hard times, and experiences that are at once the spring of hope and the winter of despair. Careful singers endure. Embodying William Faulkner’s oft-quoted affirmation, conscientious artists prevail. Amongst the chronicles of bad choices, overzealous ambitions, and abused natural gifts, there are occasional beacons of self-cognizance, well-informed decision making, and unimpeachable musicality, artists whose cognitive abilities are as refined as the products of their vocal cords. Shining amidst these exemplars of nurtured talent and continuously-honed technique is the career of American dramatic soprano Brenda Roberts. Renowned as the youngest singer to brave the demands of any of the three incarnations of Brünnhilde in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the composer’s own Bayreuther Festspiele, her voice bears few of the scars of the sort of imprudence that such a distinction suggests. The story of Roberts’s career to date is a cautionary tale in a vastly different sense than the misadventures of some of her fellow American exponents of Hochdramatische repertoire. Hers is a fire fueled on her own terms, not stoked to unsustainable pyrotechnics and prematurely extinguished.

Her rightly storied portrayal of the Siegfried Brünnhilde at 1974’s Bayreuther Festspiele, an achievement shared with Wagnerians throughout the world via radio broadcast, is but one page in an extensive performance diary that has taken her to opera’s most hallowed halls, from Lyric Opera of Chicago for Strauss’s Elektra—another broadcast performance—and New York’s Metropolitan Opera for the Färberin in the same composer’s Die Frau ohne Schatten to Teatro alla Scala for Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin and the Wiener Staatsoper for Strauss’s Salome. Born in the small northwest Indiana town of Lowell, Roberts set her sights on a career as an opera singer whilst still a schoolgirl and never deviated from that goal, eventually studying at Northwestern University with noted pedagogue Hermanus Baer, a tireless advocate of understanding and mastering the physiological components of singing in order to realize the voice’s full potential whose pupils also included Sherrill Milnes. Her successes on the world’s stages have not diminished Roberts’s lifelong commitment to unceasing vocal training and exploration of new repertoire. Her Carnegie Hall début occurred as recently as 2011, when she sang the music heard in this recorded Liederabend, as well as Gustav Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Following rather than coercing the path of the voice’s development, Roberts continues to exhibit the shrewd judgment that has enabled her to navigate the perils of a career as a singer and among singers.

Recorded in 2001, the present disc is the work of a major artist as well as an exceptionally capable and prepared vocalist. Composed in 1857 and 1858, at the apex of their creator’s passionate but almost certainly platonic obsession with his patron’s wife and host in comfortable exile, Wagner’s Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (WWV 91)—later christened as the Wesendonck-Lieder, taking the name of the author of their texts and the object of Wagner’s infatuation, Mathilde Wesendonck—are the most familiar selections in Roberts’s Liederabend. Familiarity unfortunately does not equate to an overabundance of superlative recorded performances of the Lieder, so this recording by a singer for whom Wagner’s music is congenial territory is atypically welcome.

‘Der Engel’ is frequently offered in recital by singers who do not perform all five of the Wesendonck-Lieder, intensifying debate about whether Wagner’s intention was for the Lieder to constitute an interconnected cycle in the manner of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and Schumann’s Dichterliebe or for the songs to be separate entities linked only by the common authorship of their texts. Rather than clearly espousing either view of the songs’ structure, Roberts focuses on the emotional content of the texts, her superb diction used as a catalyst for the chain reactions with which Wagner builds musical and dramatic tension. Supported in all of the performances on this disc by the elegant, rhythmically alert playing of pianist (and acclaimed organist) Christian Schmitt-Engelstadt, the rare pianist who faithfully observes Wagner’s marking of ‘sehr sart und weich’ at the start of ‘Der Engel,’ Roberts likewise honors the composer’s instruction of ‘Sehr ruhig bewegt.’ The second Lied, ‘Stehe Still,’ also bears a mandate of ‘Bewegt,’ and soprano and pianist discharge this beautifully. In the passage beginning with ‘Wesen in Wesen sich wieder findet,’ in which Wagner requested that the vocal line be sung ‘Sehr ruhig und mäßig,’ Roberts manages the piano ascents to the top of the stave dulcetly. Prefiguring thematic material later heard in the Vorspiel to Act Three of Tristan und Isolde, ‘Im Treibhaus’ was the last of the Lieder to be composed, but Roberts wisely concentrates on the song in its proper context rather than as a study in miniature for Tristan und Isolde. The precision of her intonation, extraordinary for so large a voice, is invaluable in the chromatic writing of ‘Im Treibhaus.’

It cannot be claimed that Mathilde Wesendonck was a major poet, but when a singer traverses the restless line cresting on top A♭ with which Wagner allied her words in ‘Schmerzen’ with the attention to note values and textual clarity that Roberts brings to her performance the earnest Frau Wesendonck’s endeavors assume heightened importance. Poetically, the finest of Wesendock’s texts is that used by Wagner in ‘Träume,’ in which Tristan’s and Isolde’s ecstatic love duet was born. Roberts and Schmitt-Engelstadt unerringly blend the piano vocal line with the pianissimo accompaniment, and the soprano again impresses with the accuracy of her pitches, not least in the A♭-A♮-B♭-B♮-C-B♮-C-C♭ sequence on the words ‘sanft an deiner Brust verglühen’ and the consequential descent from B♭♭4 to C4 on ‘sinken’ in the Lied’s final bars. Roberts refuses to wallow in sentimentality in her singing of these songs, approaching them not as exalted products of a legendary genius but as songs that require no ostentatious grandstanding. Still, this performance of the Wesendonck-Lieder is an indispensable document of Roberts’s preeminence as an interpreter of Wagner’s music.

Virtually all of Richard Strauss’s 174 Lieder for voice and piano are performed with some degree of regularity, but even within this trove there are songs that seldom appear on singers’ recital or recorded programmes. Published in 1918, the Sechs Lieder of Strauss’s Opus 67 are works of great difficulty, appealingly tuneful in the fashion of the composer’s most popular songs but also bitingly modern. The Drei Lieder der Ophelia are settings of passages from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and they suggest that Ophelia might have been as engaging a Strauss operatic heroine as Salome, Elektra, Ariadne, and the Marschallin. Roberts and Schmitt-Engelstadt perform the first of the Ophelia-Lieder, ‘Wie erkenn​’ ich mein Treulieb vor andern nun,’ idiomatically, Roberts’s integration of the climactic top G♯ into her expansive phrasing identifying her as a Strauss singer to the manner of Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac, and Irmgard Seefried born. Her singing of the frenzied vocal line of ‘Guten Morgen, ’s ist Sankt Valentinstag’ conveys the girlish bawdiness of the text, her top A projected with an apt demonstration of the vigor with which Ophelia hurls her words at Claudius in Hamlet. The darkest of the Drei Lieder der Ophelia, ‘Sie trugen ihn auf der Bahre bloss’ is characterized by alternating passages of grim lyricism and manic episodes in triple meter, the vocal line again rising to top A. Here, aided by Schmitt-Engelstadt’s committed playing, Roberts proves herself to be as estimable a Shakespearean heroine as a Strauss singer. Pronouncing the words of Karl Simrock’s translation of Hamlet with the instincts of a great tragedienne, she finds and discloses to the listener the significance of each of Strauss’s shifts of musical direction, elucidating both the character’s and the composer’s psychological motivations.

Employing texts from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s West-östliche Divan, the Drei Lieder aus den Büchern des Unmuts des Rendsch Nameh are the second half of Opus 67, and these songs contrast markedly with the Drei Lieder der Ophelia. The first of the Goethe songs, ‘Wer wird von der Welt verlangen,’ embodies the cynicism that lurks beneath the surfaces of these songs, and the unaffected performance that it receives from Roberts highlights the sagacity with which Strauss mined the loads of philosophical profundity in Goethe’s words. ​In addition to alluding to his Alpensinfonie, Strauss visited the melodic realm of his then-unperformed opera Die Frau ohne Schatten in ‘Hab’ ich euch den je geraten,’ the ‘borrowed’ melodies soaring above the low-lying vocal writing. The plunges to the bottom of the voice do not trouble Roberts, whose intonation is as secure below the stave as elsewhere. Entitled ‘Wanderers Gemütsruhe’ by Strauss, ‘Über’s Niederträchtige niemand sich beklage,’ should be counted among the composer’s finest Lieder. The Lied’s unmistakable kinship with the weary, wistful moods of music dating from three decades later, in the last months of Strauss’s life, is made all the more apparent by the emotional sincerity of Roberts’s singing. Her delivery of the line ‘Wandrer! Gegen solche Not wolltest du dich sträuben?’ is no stentorian outburst: the words are truly sung, not shouted, and the top B♭ is caressed. Many singers perform Strauss Lieder, but far fewer perform these Strauss Lieder—and fewer still perform them well. It is not surprising that an accomplished Salome, Elektra, and Färberin is closely acquainted with Strauss’s music, but Roberts’s performances of the Sechs Lieder of Opus 67 revel in the intimacy that many singers fail to perceive.

It is not inaccurate to assert that Franz Schreker’s music is widely neglected, but the obscurity imposed upon his Lieder is particularly inexplicable and unjust. First published by the Viennese firm Eberle in 1904 and likely composed in 1899, the Fünf Lieder of Schreker’s Opus 4 present many challenges to both singer and pianist, challenges that, when met, reward performers and listeners as marvelously as those of the most popular Lieder. Leo Tolstoy’s words inspired Schreker to writing of unquestionable brilliance in ‘Unendliche Liebe,’ and Roberts reaches first the top A and then the fortissimo top G with obvious reserves of power. The text of ‘Frühling’ is by Karl Freiherr von Lemayer, and Roberts and Schmitt-Engelstadt bring the words to life by punctiliously heeding Schreker’s ‘Zart bewegt’ direction. Theodor Storm’s words in ‘Wohl fühl’ ich wie das Leben rinnt’ are similarly enlivened by Roberts’s vocalism. The technical acumen with which she executes the diminuendo on ‘du bist mein letztes Glück’ should be studied by all aspiring Lieder singers. There is an almost Baroque sensibility to Schreker’s setting of Julius Sturm’s text in ‘Die Liebe als Recensentin,’ and the fidelity of Schmitt-Engelstadt’s realization of the composer’s ‘Zierlich’ marking enables the soprano to traverse the vocal line with perfectly-gauged but what seems like near-improvisatory freedom. The arching phrases of ‘Lenzzauber’ uplift Ernst von Scherenberg’s text, and singer and pianist perform the song with flawless cooperation, both of their instruments singing in tandem. The modicum of toil that it costs her gloriously repaid, Roberts’s sterling top B recalls the fresh-voiced ease of her dashingly youthful Brünnhilde and the blazing top C with which she conquered Bayreuth. That a quarter-century lay between that Bayreuth Siegfried and this Liederabend is scarcely apparent. Voices evolve as they mature, and too few singers demonstrate cognizance as complete as Roberts’s of the fact that artistry must also evolve.

Much as they have suffered in the world’s conservatories and theatres in recent years, large voices have almost never been treated kindly by microphones. Among all of the products of the extensive time that she spent in recording studios throughout her career, only her 1972 recording of the title rôle in Puccini’s Turandot—a part that she never played on stage—conveys a true-to-life sense of the amplitude of Dame Joan Sutherland’s voice as heard in opera houses and, in some cases, on noncommercial recordings. A similar assessment of Kirsten Flagstad’s recordings is not unjustified: her 1954 Norwegian Radio performance with piano accompaniment of ‘Im Abendrot,’ the fourth of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder, is perhaps the single best recording via which to appreciate the pure impact of her voice. There is a disturbing trend of substituting volume for projection evident in the work of many of today’s singers, precipitating forcing that is especially dangerous for large voices. Recorded without the exhaustive processing that renders many discs technological rather than vocal feats, this Liederabend is a rare instance of a recording permitting the listener to encounter a remarkable voice without non-musical impediments. Merely as a recording of one of America’s great voices, this disc is uncommonly enjoyable. As an artistic journey through Lieder by three masters of the form led by the sapient proprietress of that great voice, it is a Liederabend to quiet the laments of those who wrongly believe that the insightful, imaginative, and indefatigably musical interpretation of song is a dead art.

01 September 2017

BEST CHORAL RECORDING OF 2017: Bohuslav Martinů — CANTATAS (Prague Philharmonic Choir; Supraphon SU 4198-2)

BEST CHORAL RECORDING OF 2017: Bohuslav Martinů - CANTATAS (Supraphon SU 4198-2)BOHUSLAV MARTINŮ (1890 – 1959): Cantatas – Legenda z dýmu bramborové nati (H 360), Otvírání studánek (H 354), Romance z pampelišek (H 364), and Mikeš z hor (H 375)Prague Philharmonic Choir; Pavla Vykopalová (soprano), Ludmila Kromková (contralto), Martin Slavík (tenor), Jiří Brückler (baritone), Petr Svoboda (baritone); Jaromír Meduna (narrator); Daniel Havel (recorder), Jan Pařík (clarinet), Jan Vobořil (French horn), Josef Hřebík (accordian), Ivo Kahánek (piano), Patrik Lavrinčík (drumming on chair), Jakub Fišer (1st violin), Štěpan Ježek (2nd violin), Jiří Pinkas (viola); Lukáš Vasilek, conductor [Recorded in the Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic, 22 – 23, 26, 29 October, 21 December 2015, 10 January and 28 April 2016; Supraphon SU 4198-2; 1 CD, 68:13; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Though he was indisputably one of the greatest Czech artists of his own or any other generation, Bohuslav Martinů remains an infrequent guest in the repertoires of American choirs, orchestras, and other musical institutions. Born in the Bohemian town of Polička in 1890, Martinů was an accomplished violinist and a composer who, like Mozart, excelled in many musical genres. A contemporary during his seven decades of life of Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler, the Second Viennese School, and Igor Stravinsky, he underwent a creative evolution that encompassed styles ranging from late Romanticism to Modernism, explored in a vast array of works that display ingenuity, insightfulness, and intelligence. By the time of his death in 1959, Martinů’s place among Czech voices in Classical Music rivaled the long-established significance of Dvořák and Janáček, but America has been less welcoming to him than to his illustrious countrymen. With this recording of the four remarkable Cantatas composed by Martinů during the last five years of his life, Pražský filharmonický sbor—the Prague Philharmonic Choir—and Supraphon, the label responsible for many of the finest recordings of Czech repertoire, give today’s listeners an extraordinary gift: here, in sixty-eight minutes of music, the souls of a man and his art are shown to be as strikingly original and thought-provoking in 2017 as they were six decades ago.

Many periods during the Twentieth Century were difficult times in which to be a Czech artist with a strong social conscience, and Martinů felt the stings of his fatherland’s struggles as sharply as Chopin felt Poland’s injuries a century earlier. Profoundly troubled by the political tide that swept Czechoslovakia into the Eastern Bloc in the years that followed World War Two, the composer ultimately found in the poetry of Miloslav Bureš (1930 – 1978), also a native of Polička, a renewed faith in the resilience and indomitable spirit of the Czech people. Though Martinů died nearly a decade before the rise of Slovak reformer Alexander Dubček and the Prague Spring of 1968, the four cantatas with texts by Bureš that he composed between 1955 and 1959 exhibit the national pride and quest for intellectual independence that characterized the later liberalization movement.

Led by Lukáš Vasilek, the performances of the cantatas on this disc are sung by the Pražský filharmonický sbor with fervor that illuminates Martinů’s music, bringing to each phrase an unwavering commitment to musical accuracy and textual clarity. Like much Czech music, Martinů’s cantatas are shaped by the cadences of language, and the choristers’ superb diction allows even attentive listeners with no comprehension of Czech to follow the narrative progress of each cantata. That Vasilek understands and appreciates these pieces is evident in every moment of these performances, his confident handling of music that is most difficult when it seems most simple disclosing an absolute comprehension of the composer’s word settings. Receiving from Supraphon the gift of sound that reproduces the singular acoustics of Prague’s Rudolfinum with tremendous fidelity, chorus and conductor seize this opportunity to share these treasures of their shared cultural heritage. Their efforts produce performances that, once heard, become adopted components of the listener’s own cultural identity.

Completed in 1956, Legenda z dýmu bramborové nati (The legend of smoke from potato tops, H 360) is scored for soprano, contralto, and baritone soloists, mixed chorus, recorder, clarinet, French horn, accordion, and piano. Any listener who questions Martinů’s adroitness as an orchestrator will find details in this music that wholly dispel skepticism. Respectively played by Daniel Havel, Jan Pařík, and Jan Vobořil, the composer’s writing for recorder, clarinet, and French horn is magical, and these musicians’ sounds combine with those of Josef Hřebík’s accordion and Ivo Kahánek’s piano to create sonorities that sometimes mimic the quaint timbre of the organ in a village church. In the cantata’s opening passage, the choristers sing ‘Ta dobrá pramenů a svělta’ with sonorous authority and are answered by soprano Pavla Vykopalová with ably-voiced statements of ‘Ta dobrá panímáma’ and ‘V tom kraji kameni a říček.’ The choir’s delivery of ‘Potkala se se svým v poli’ is mesmerizingly beautiful, and first contralto Ludmila Kromková’s firm incantation of ‘Můj synku milý’ and subsequently baritone Petr Svoboda’s burnished account of ‘Matko moje milá’ complement the sublime poise of the choral singing. The immediacy with which ‘Když spěchali pláteníci na trh toho rána’ is declaimed by the chorus contrasts tellingly with Vykopalová’s ethereal voicing of ‘Zatím ona v plášti zrajícího žita.’ She and Kromková briefly visit the musical world of Norma and Adalgisa with their sensitively-phrased management of ‘Vesničanku, která sotva umí otčenáš a zdrávas.’ Their unaffectedly earthy singing of ‘Nepoznali ji’ prompting Svoboda’s powerful but poetic ‘Tito chlapci jako srnci ostražití, bdělí,’ the choristers conclude Legenda z dýmu bramborové nati with the unmistakable sincerity of their traversal of ‘Boží máti, sestřenice jeřábu jak plamen čistá.’ This is a true resolution rather than only an end: in this performance, the cantata’s drama, both austere and timeless, transports the listener to an emotional destination, different for each individual but invariably compelling.

Otvírání studánek (The opening of the springs, H 354) is the earliest of the cantatas, dating from 1955, and it is among Martinů’s most engaging works. Written for narrator, soprano, contralto, and baritone soloists, female chorus, two violins, viola, and piano, the music explores the timbres of the instruments individually and in ensemble, creating unique sounds evocative of Bohemian folk music. This cantata’s story is propelled by the spoken narration, and Jaromír Meduna’s recitations emerge from the music with the melodious flow of an oboe. Members of the acclaimed Bennewitz Quartet, violinists Jakub Fišer and Štěpán Ježek and violist Jiří Pinkas play with verve and unpretentious virtuosity that echo the eloquence of Meduna’s speaking, and Kahánek’s pianism is again a source of momentum. The gravitas with which the choristers sing ‘I studánky chtějí býti čisté’ establishes the ethos of the performance, and the resonance of their vocalism is continued in Meduna’s delivery of ‘Tak je to u nás v horách všude.’ Bridged by the recitation of ‘Do půlkruhu obstoupili pramen,’ the choir’s singing of ‘Vedl je přes trávu, před kvítí’ and ‘Králko, milá králko’ exudes mystical connection with the text. Vykopalová’s sparkling voice is deployed with delicacy in ‘Jsem rubínka opuštěná,’ and first the choristers with ‘V tý májový době přicházíme k tobě’ and then Meduna with ‘Tam, kde bylo bahna nejvíce’ perpetuate the nuanced honesty of the soprano’s expressivity. The sequence of the choir’s ‘Když studánku a stružku vyčistili,’ contralto Kromková’s ‘Studánko hlubáňko, kdes tak dlouho byla,’ Vykopalová’s ‘Vítám tě, sasanko, na břehu,’ and Meduna’s ‘Královnička poklekla na šátek rozprostřený’ winds through Bureš’s words and Martinů’s settings of them like an expedition into a much-loved but ever-changing landscape. Prefacing the narrator’s articulation of ‘Jako by studánku za ruce vzali,’ the choristers’ communication—and it is an aural incarnation of the words rather than mere singing—of ‘Zlý moci zahánímn’ conveys the subtle intensity of the poet’s imagery. Baritone Jiří Brückler intones ‘Potkal jsem jeseň’ with rugged charm. There is in the choir’s performance of ‘Studánko hlubáňko’ a moving, humbling universality: these voices are all voices, their singing both that of men and women and of all mankind.

Composed in 1957, Romance z pampelišek (Romance of the dandelions, H 364) is the most inventive of these cantatas, its unusual writing for soprano and tenor soloists, mixed a cappella chorus, and drumming on chair engendering an atmosphere unlike anything else in Martinů’s body of work. Wonderfully realized in this performance by Patrik Lavrinčík, the chair’s percussion recalls the rhythmic use of cajón integrated into modern flamenco by Paco de Lucía, Lavrinčik’s careful execution of Martinů’s instructions giving the cantata an erratic but exciting pulse. Coursing through the music like blood circulated by that pulse, the choir sings ‘Kdybys byl aspoň holubem’ at the cantata’s start with flawless ensemble and timing. Vykopalová enunciates the soprano soloist’s ‘Ach, co jsem se, milý, co jsem se nahledala’ with technical assurance, little troubled here or elsewhere by the range of the music. Following the choir’s tautly-balanced ‘Sedmý rok tvé vojny jak zlé mračno plyne’ with an equally keenly-judged ‘Do prstýnku pro tebe i s kapičkou rosy,’ Vykopalová’s vocalism is fleetingly reminiscent of that of Jana Valášková. Tenor Martin Slavík’s timbre is ideal for ‘Nad ní v tichu krouží holub bílý,’ which he sings with apt emotional directness. ‘Ach, to není holub, to se junák vrací’ and ‘Sedm vrchů přešel a sedm řek k tomu’ reveal the choir’s impeccable training and the skill with which these master musicians translate that training into singing of incredible precision and histrionic power. Joining the chorus in ‘Já mu vzkážu tolik štěstí’ and then soaring unaided in ‘Vzkážu mu i tolik zdraví,’ Vykopalová again proves to be an uncommonly gifted interpreter of Martinů’s challenging music. The humanity that emanated from the chorus’s singing of the final bars of Otvírání studánek also permeates their performance of ‘Ó! Sedm let, to byla dlouhá doba.’ Their total faith in Martinů’s genius makes the inner logic of the music’s construction and the depth of the composer’s affection for the words palpable.

An offspring of the final year of Martinů’s life, Mikeš z hor (Mikeš of the mountains, H 375), requiring an ensemble of soprano and tenor soloists, mixed chorus, two violins, viola, and piano, simultaneously seems autobiographical, accusatory, and aphoristic. Each of these cantatas is highly personal, but Martinů’s own voice resounds more discernibly in Mikeš z hor than in almost any of his other vocal compositions. Whether this was knowingly and intentionally a valedictory piece can only be conjectured, but it is a score in which the composer spoke directly to the world about the past, present, and future of the land of his birth. As in Otvírání studánek, Fišer, Ježek, Pinkas, and Kahánek collaborate to coax from their instruments torrents of tone that unite the polish of the concert hall with the vivacity of the village naměstí. Slavík’s attractive tenor is used with great finesse in ‘Jak povědět, co vítr psal na květy pláněk?’ Vykopalová captures the frisson of the choir’s ‘Šlehá prutem, hej!’ with her intelligent reading of ‘A ony všechny na svých hřbetech.’ Her singing of ‘A kopce, bochánky zelené,’ a majestic valley between the imposing peaks of the choristers’ incantations of ‘A vždycky dvěma o zem opřenz’ and ‘Kolem je všechno zelené a pěkné jako v písni,’ manifests the brilliance of Martinů’s treatments of Bureš’s poetic conceits. Punctuated by the chorus’s fervent ‘Ale co ty jinovatkou posypané chlumy,’ Slavík’s accounts of ‘Země, jak sám sebe v tobě přeberu’ and ‘Jak vyrvat od kořene mráz i fujavici z mraků’ breathe life into the words, heightening the cantata’s cumulative dramatic impact. The choir’s declamations of ‘Pohromy a války!’ and ‘Rozhrnout mraky bouří vzedmuté a vidět do jara a zeleně’ and Vykopalová’s impassioned ‘Všechno je tu vytesáno do povětří’ culminate in their stirring combined outpourings of ‘Ty, jejich bože, dej těm kozlíkům nést’ and ‘A za nimi jako zlatý oblak včely.’ Slavík voices ‘Pro ten příběh šel jsem do pohádky’ with unexaggerated poignancy, pronouncing the words with linguistic and expressive crispness. The resignation beneath the surface of the choir’s radiant singing of ‘Dodnes s Mikešovým stádem dobře je mi’ is extracted from both music and words. Through this performance, Martinů and Bureš communicate with the listener in language that needs no translation.

One of the most dangerous and often ill-considered actions in Classical Music is proclaiming a performance or recording definitive. Mercedes Capsir’s and Lina Pagliughi’s Lucias were considered definitive by some listeners until Maria Callas’s was heard, and fisticuffs like those to which Eighteenth-Century divas Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni reputedly resorted in battling for dominance are hardly an unimaginable outcome of a discussion of whether Kirsten Flagstad, Martha Mödl, Astrid Varnay, Birgit Nilsson, or some other contender was the greatest Brünnhilde or Isolde. Virtually all recordings have advocates who assert their supremacy, and this is one of foremost joys of music: what one listener hears as mediocrity, another hears as magnificence. In truth, Pagliughi’s, Capsir’s, and Callas’s Lucias are all valuable, and the listener who dismisses Flagstad’s Isolde in deference to Mödl’s portrayal does Wagner a grave disservice. Nevertheless, there are recordings that define or redefine listeners’ perceptions of individual works, composers, repertory, or performers. Pražský filharmonický sbor’s recording of Bohuslav Martinů’s four late cantatas invites the listener into the intricacies of this oracular music, encouraging surrender to the hypnotic interplay between music and text rather than doggedly advocating specific interpretations. In the context of this release, then, perhaps definitive is not the proper adjective. Unlike so many new recordings, fine though some of them are, this disc was necessary.