24 December 2017

BEST INSTRUMENTAL SOLO RECORDING OF 2017: Ludwig van Beethoven — A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY, Volume 5 (James Brawn, piano; MSR Classics MS 1469)

BEST INSTRUMENTAL SOLO RECORDING OF 2017: Ludwig van Beethoven - A BEETHOVEN ODYSSEY, Volume 5 (MSR Classics MS 1469)LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): A Beethoven Odyssey, Volume 5 – Piano Sonatas Nos. 5, 6, 7, and 10James Brawn, piano [Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 20 – 22 April 2017; MSR Classics MS 1469; 1 CD, 71:12; Available from MSR Classics, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

The trouble with the axioms that people often spout as substitutes for original thoughts is that they have an annoying habit of being true. Though so obvious as to seem ridiculous, it cannot be denied that every journey, great or small, begins with a single step—and not necessarily with a step in the right direction. Whether one’s destination is a physical location, a state of being, or a tangible accomplishment, progress is achieved by continually placing one foot ahead of the other, sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively. The distances from the piano in one’s childhood home to the stages of the world’s great concert halls can only superficially be measured in meters or miles. What cannot be quantified is the distance traversed in a musician’s artistic development, a continual voyage in which the only finite destination is failure. To succeed is to keep moving even when at rest: Art arises when the ordinary acquiesces to stasis.

One of the most remarkable journeys in Western Music began in 1796 with the publication of Beethoven’s Opus 2 Piano Sonatas. In the three decades of life that remained to him after the introduction of these first three sonatas, Beethoven advanced music for solo piano from the progressive but quintessentially Classical forms inherited from Haydn and Mozart to the fully-fledged Romanticism of Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms. In the interim between the introduction of the Opus 2 Sonatas and his completion in 1822 of his thirty-second and final Sonata, the incredible Opus 111 Sonata in C minor, Beethoven altered the mechanics of writing for the piano in a manner that necessitated pianists’ reinvention of playing techniques. The intricacies of Haydn’s and Mozart’s works for piano were products of the polite drawing rooms of the Habsburg empire, but, as his career progressed, the focus of Beethoven’s composition of sonatas for piano migrated from aristocratic milieux to public concert halls. Not even in his nine symphonies did Beethoven traverse as much stylistic territory as in the Piano Sonatas, which collectively constitute a body of work for keyboard as significant as Bach’s Wohltemperirte Clavier.

In the eight decades since Artur Schnabel first recorded a complete cycle, many pianists have documented their individual interpretations—or lack thereof—of the Beethoven Sonatas in live and studio recordings. Among these recordings are instances of uninflected playing, innumerable idiosyncrasies, and occasional intersections of technical prowess and interpretive insight. Notable in the company of discs of special merit are the first five volumes of MSR Classics’ A Beethoven Odyssey, of which this fifth volume is the latest—and in some ways the finest—installment. To state that this disc is superior to its four brethren is akin to saying that For Whom the Bell Tolls is a finer book than either Death in the Afternoon or The Sun Also Rises: preferring one does not diminish the value of the others. Played on a warm-toned Steinway instrument, the performances on this disc of four of Beethoven’s most experimental Piano Sonatas are superbly-executed steps that propel the listener along a legitimately Homeric journey. A Beethoven Odyssey shares with Schnabel’s 1930s recordings an unerring sensibility for recognizing each Sonata’s individual qualities and its unique contributions to the development of Beethoven’s pianistic artistry. Whether approached as the continuation of a wonderful series or as a stand-alone recording of a fascinating quartet of Beethoven’s early Piano Sonatas, Volume Five of A Beethoven Odyssey leads the listener on a marvelously fulfilling voyage of discovery.

The personal odyssey of James Brawn began in England and has taken him to performance venues throughout the world via Australia and New Zealand. His direct connections with Claudio Arrau, Solomon Cutner, and Rudolf Serkin are audible in the fluidity of his playing of Beethoven’s music on this disc, his articulations of rapid passagework recalling Serkin’s nimble-wristed playing. It is to be hoped that any pianist who enjoys opportunities to record Beethoven sonatas in studio is capable of executing the scores with technical proficiency, but acumen of the level exhibited by Brawn cannot be taken for granted. Nevertheless, it is not mastery of the keys that captures the imagination in the performances on this disc. Only in his mid-forties, Brawn wields an interpretive maturity of which many pianists cannot boast even at the ends of their careers. A musician can learn how to meaningfully dissect and reassemble a piece, but the musical intuition that shaped Schnabel’s interpretations of Beethoven sonatas cannot be taught. Brawn plays the Sonatas on this disc from within: before his fingers press the keys, the music already flows inside of him. Each Sonata is therefore an excerpt from a larger narrative in progress, presented by Brawn with context drawn from rather than imposed upon Beethoven’s music.

The three Sonatas of Beethoven’s Opus 10 were composed between 1796 and 1798, a volatile time during which the composer was in his late twenties. Having relocated to Vienna from his native Bonn half a decade earlier, Beethoven was greatly affected by the stormy political climate of the Austrian capital: in addition to the Opus 10 and other Piano Sonatas, the final four years of the Eighteenth Century witnessed work on his first half-dozen string quartets and Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. The Allegro molto e con brio movement that introduces Sonata No. 5 in C minor (Opus 10, No. 1) is like a time capsule in which Beethoven buried components of his stylistic evolution for discovery by future generations of pianists. Already adventurous in his use of Classical sonata form, the composer exploited the full timbral spectrum of the instruments of his time. Brawn recreates the magic of Beethoven’s symphonic breadth of expression on the modern instrument at his disposal, phrasing with grandeur that never inhibits interpretive intimacy. The elegant Adagio molto is played with simplicity that allows its melodic development to flow organically to the movement’s ideally-managed cadence. Beethoven was a pioneering advocate of the metronome, but rhythmic rigidity is ruinous to performances of his music. Brawn’s playing of Sonata No. 5’s Prestissimo Finale is characterized by subtle rubato, not least in his realization of the thematic links to the familiar motif from the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The opening Allegro movement of Sonata No. 6 in F major (Opus 10, No. 2) was conceived on a broad scale, its straightforward interplay of ideas engendering a rich vein of melody that Brawn taps with palpable feeling but an absolute lack of sentimentality. In his playing of Beethoven, Brawn consistently wins appreciation for displaying how much more touching the music can be when the listener is encouraged to contemplate the composer’s rather than the pianist’s emotional evocations. Eschewing tradition by substituting an Allegretto minuet for the expected slow inner movement, Beethoven established an atmosphere of uncomplicated contentment atypical of his work in general. Here, Brawn’s performance is mesmerizing: unafraid of figuratively loosening his tie and unbuttoning his collar, he plays the movement with the unaffected joy with which the young Beethoven might have played it for his own amusement. Brawn’s easy command of the contrapuntal writing in the recapitulation of the concluding Presto is thus all the more apparent. In this movement, the defining trait of the pianist’s artistry is concentration, his performance exuding the complete surrender to its spell required by the music.

Sonata No. 7 in D major (Opus 10, No. 3) is the most expansive of the Opus 10 Sonatas, anticipating much of Beethoven’s later work in both mood and scale. The Presto with which the Sonata begins is almost Brucknerian in scope, its sonorities stretching the boundaries of what one expects from piano literature of the last decade of the Eighteenth Century. The immediacy of Brawn’s rendering of the music emphasizes its novelty: even played on a modern Steinway with particularly well-integrated tonal and dynamic compasses, the music sounds surprisingly daring. The D-minor Largo e mesto is devastatingly beautiful in the manner of the slow movements in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Fifth Piano Concerto, its subtly-contrived cantabile effects anticipating the sublime beauties of the late String Quartets. Brawn is too intelligent to overreach in his interpretation of this music, trusting the score to enchant without interference. Both the Menuetto and Trio and the valedictory Rondo are marked allegro, but Brawn highlights the contrasts between the two movements. There is still a measure of Rococo grace in the minuet, but the Rondo sheds formality in favor of the virtuosic exuberance of which Beethoven would become a prolific exponent. Brawn’s navigation of the bravado writing is predictably impressive, but it is again the guileless heart of his playing that brings the listener closer to Beethoven’s own spirit.

Dating from 1798 – 1799, Sonata No. 10 in G major (Opus 14, No. 2) is a slightly later work, the companion of the E-major Sonata that Beethoven subsequently arranged for string quartet. Brahms, Mahler, and Britten rivaled Beethoven in artful manipulation of forms and functions, but the metamorphosis that sonata form undergoes in this compact piece has few equals in the piano canon. Brawn was wise to include this Sonata alongside its Opus 10 cousins: in this company, the radicalism of Beethoven’s invention in the tenth Sonata is complemented rather than contradicted by its recorded companions. The condensed energy of the Allegro springs from Brawn’s fingers, but his reading of the movement is one of total control. By maintaining rhythmic precision, he provides a stage upon which the music’s inherent variety dances excitingly. The pianist plays the tripartite variations on the Andante’s almost hymn-like theme with great resourcefulness, his phrasing accentuating the nuances of Beethoven’s cunning treatment of the principal subject. The unanticipated fortissimo chord that ends the movement is discharged with power and a suggestion of the wry humor that Beethoven surely intended it to impart. A rondo in disguise, the Allegro assai Scherzo is a whirlwind of harmonic hairpin turns and melodic dead ends. As diverting as Brawn’s playing of the fanciful notes is his instinctual handling of the pregnant pauses around which Beethoven constructed the movement. This is Beethoven at his most playful, and Brawn responds with effervescent charisma. In truth, though, all of his performances on this disc convey the irrepressible joy of his music making.

Pianists inevitably long to add their personal impressions to the recorded legacy of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, and there are some among them whose singular concepts of this extraordinary body of work add new dimensions to listeners’ understanding and enjoyment of the Sonatas. Rarest of all the pianists who record the Sonatas are those whose endeavors are dedicated to amplifying Beethoven’s pianistic voice with the aid of their own distinctive voices. It is among these few pianists, the true followers of Schnabel, that James Brawn’s work places him, and this fifth volume of his Beethoven Odyssey makes the 190 years since Beethoven’s death seem like mere moments. These are James Brawn’s own interpretations, but it is not difficult to imagine Beethoven’s playing echoing in them.

20 December 2017

CD REVIEW: Jake Heggie & Terrence McNally — GREAT SCOTT (J. DiDonato, A. Pérez, F. von Stade, N. Gunn, A. Roth Costanzo, K. Burdette, R. Rosel, M. Mayes, M. Hancock, M. Palazzo; ERATO 0190295940782)

IN REVIEW: Jake Heggie & Terrence McNally - GREAT SCOTT (ERATO 0190295940782)JAKE HEGGIE (born 1961) and TERRENCE MCNALLY (born 1938): Great ScottJoyce DiDonato (Arden Scott), Ailyn Pérez (Tatyana Bakst), Frederica von Stade (Winnie Flato), Nathan Gunn (Sid Taylor), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Roane Heckle), Kevin Burdette (Eric Gold, Ghost of Vittorio Bazzetti), Rodell Rosel (Anthony Candolino), Michael Mayes (Wendell Swann), Mark Hancock (Tommy Taylor), Manuel Palazzo (Amor); The Dallas Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Patrick Summers, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in performance at The Dallas Opera, The Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Dallas, Texas, USA, on 30 October and 1, 4, and 7 November 2015; ERATO 0190295940782; 2 CDs, 155:59; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers – WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING]

In a conversation that yielded the title posthumously given to what has become one of Thomas Wolfe’s most popular works, the journalist Ella Winter remarked to the North Carolina-born author, ‘Don’t you know you can’t go home again?’ The novel to which the title You Can’t Go Home Again was ultimately assigned tells of an author whose autobiographical fiction was uncomfortably and unflatteringly real for the neighbors who appear in the story, flimsily disguised. Only in optimistic cinematic epics do conquering heroes return home to universally appreciative welcomes: in the messy actualities of everyday life, few people achieve prominence in any arena without also garnering resentment. One of the greatest trials faced by an artist is that of remaining true to his own experience without betraying the confidences of his fellow journeyers; as Emily Dickinson wrote, to ‘tell all the truth but tell it slant.’ How does one return to discussing the weather with a friend whose life was unceremoniously put on display and then put aside?

A study of the complications of coming home is the crux of Jake Heggie’s and Terrence McNally’s opera Great Scott, premièred and recorded by The Dallas Opera in Autumn 2015. Universally acknowledged as one of the world’s most significant opera singers, Arden Scott returns to her hometown to star in a production of a long-neglected bel canto masterwork unearthed by her own musical sleuthing. Championed by the gregarious patroness of the local opera company, American Opera, Arden herself has found a protégée of sorts, the wily Tatyana. Still in the town she abandoned in pursuit of the notoriety she craves is Arden’s high-school sweetheart, now a single father and renowned architect. In the collisions of these personalities and the characters who surround them, Great Scott invites the audience to participate in the conspiratorial process of making opera whilst navigating the minefield of egos, insecurities, and vulnerabilities with minimal carnage.

McNally is right to contend in his informative, enjoyable, and predictably literary introductory essay that accompanies this CD release that Great Scott should not be classified as a comic opera. As he knows all too well from the research into the career of Maria Callas that shaped his 1995 play Master Class, singers’ lives are rarely comedies, no matter how funny episodes in them may be. The sacrifices made by singers in the pursuit of their careers are never to be played for laughs, especially by those who profit from artists’ loneliness, failed relationships, and missed family events. This, Canio might say, is the lesson of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci: Art is a deadly serious business transacted by people who sometimes can only pretend to be happy. The dichotomy between the humorous mishaps of the stage and the tragedies large and small of artists’ personal lives is the defining ethos of Great Scott. There is abundant comedy in McNally’s witty, often bawdy text, not least in the exchanges for Arden, Arts patron Winnie Flato, and Arden’s former flame, architect Sid Taylor. Arden’s interjection of ‘This shit is hard!’ in her rehearsal of the cadenza of Rosa Dolorosa’s aria and Sid’s correction of Arden’s compliment on his beautiful design for the town library [‘No, it’s fucking amazing!’] are two of the funniest lines in recent opera, but the sentiments that they express are far deeper than conversational humor. The greatest eloquence of McNally’s punctiliously-crafted libretto is its utter lack of pomposity. All of the players are given words that sound wholly right for the characters—and for the singers who portray them, for that matter. McNally has no need to resort to stretches of prose to advance the plot and outbursts of poetry to develop the characters: every person on stage speaks with an individual voice, and, as in any worthwhile opera production, the drama falls into place all around them.

From the mock-Rossinian crescendo of the opera’s rollicking Overture to the madcap Act One finale and the frenetic, touching, almost Mozartean frisson of Act Two, Heggie created a score in which traces of the raw emotions of Dead Man Walking, the quest for understanding of The End of the Affair, the wistfulness of Three Decembers, and the magniloquence of Moby-Dick are fused in a communicative cyclone that sweeps McNally’s words across the footlights. Heggie proves in his writing for the fictitious rediscovered Nineteenth-Century masterpiece at the center of McNally’s scenario to be a latter-day master of bel canto, but Great Scott emphatically is not a pastiche. Rather, the music is a remarkably clever chameleon with different colors for each twist of the plot. In the near-catastrophic rehearsal of Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei that transpires in Act One, Heggie conjures the turbulent climate of a musical Noises Off, but there are moments of soothing tranquility in the eye of the storm. Arden’s articulations of self-doubt, her defense of young Tommy, and her awkward reunion with Sid are set to music of the unadorned expressivity expected of the composer of Pieces of 9/11.

Only someone who loves and respects the art form as completely as he understands it could depict the first night of a much-anticipated operatic production as vividly as Heggie does in Act Two of Great Scott. The continuity with which the transitions from Rosa Dolorosa’s action to backstage antics are managed is worthy of Shakespeare’s—and Britten’s—Midsummer Night’s Dream. Great Scott is a fantastically enjoyable opera turned inside out, but it is also a deeply affectionate paean to the people who make opera happen. Great Scott’s diva, the upstart scheming to replace her, the preening primo uomo, the exasperated conductor, and the long-suffering stage manager are all clichés to some extent, but, energized by McNally’s words, Heggie made them astonishingly genuine people: lovers, parents, rivals, friends. In the opera’s final scene, punctuated by Tommy’s return for a forgotten skateboard, Arden breathes the same air inhaled by the Marschallin in her final moments in Der Rosenkavalier. At peace with the past, embracing the present, and equally anxious and excited about the future, she sheds the artifice of Great Scott and fully, exultantly becomes simply Arden. Her transfiguration is accompanied by music of dazzling serenity, music via which Heggie reminds the listener that the greatest voices of opera are also voices that hush infants’ cries, comfort injured children, and whisper words of apology, acceptance, love, and farewell.

Supervising the circus of bringing opera to the stage is like second nature for conductor Patrick Summers, and his leadership of this performance of Great Scott both expands his reputation as a conductor of modern repertory and confirms that he shares Heggie’s appreciation for the genre and the brave souls who make singing it their lives’ work. Though the obvious benefits likely outweigh the difficulties, it nonetheless must be terrifying for a conductor to début the music of a living composer, especially one of Heggie’s abilities, but Summers has learned from performances of standard, time-tested repertory that the relevance of music of any vintage relies upon excitement, not excesses or excuses. The excitement that his conducting of Great Scott generates ultimately engulfs pit, stage, and audience. Particularly impressive is his response to audience laughter, with which he may have received assistance from the editing of the recording. So persistent and well-timed is the laughter on these discs that Heggie might have scored it as an instrument in the orchestra, and Summers paces the performance with great care for ensuring that not a word of the text is lost to the collective mirth. The contributions of TDO’s Chorus and Orchestra are almost miraculous: in Act One, for instance, it is possible to believe that the curtain was erroneously raised on a volatile private rehearsal, but the musicianship is unfailingly professional. Their tasks are made easier by the affable approachability of Heggie’s style, but rhythm and intonation are as important in Great Scott as in Rigoletto, Lohengrin, and Turandot. Great Scott is a demanding score despite its charms, and the irreproachable performances by Summers and TDO’s choral and orchestral forces invaluably aid the music in casting its spells.

Regrettably, the Amor of dancer Manuel Palazzo can only be imagined in the context of an audio recording, but the prominent part in Great Scott’s drama played by Mark Hancock’s Tommy Taylor, Sid’s young son, is wonderfully evident. Arden’s male colleagues in American Opera’s production of Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei, Anthony Candolino [‘a high-strung singer with a boisterous personality and a top that he is eager to share with the world’] and Wendell Swann [‘a handsome man who wears his matinee idol title proudly and earns his Don Juan reputation daily’], are portrayed with spot-on realizations of their respective identities by tenor Rodell Rosel and baritone Michael Mayes. Both characters are distant relatives of the tenor in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, and these expert singing actors fill their lines with rousing tone and absolute credibility. Few denizens of the theatre could fail to relate to Anthony’s statement in Act Two that ‘no man over twenty should be asked to wear a toga,’ delivered by Rosel with deadpan comic skill. Wendell Swann could hardly be more different from convicted murderer Joseph De Rocher, the rôle in Heggie’s Dead Man Walking for his performances of which Mayes has received great praise, but his turn as the libertine singer is equally successful.

Doubling as conductor Eric Gold and the ghost of Rosa Dolorosa’s composer Vittorio Bazzetti, who appears to Arden as she contends with panic in her preparations to sing Rosa Dolorosa’s grueling music, bass Kevin Burdette is the vodka in this operatic cocktail: effortlessly blending into the ensemble, his sonorously-sung performance emerges with slyly intoxicating hilarity. An ingenious exponent of rôles such as Donizetti’s Dulcamara in L’elisir d’amore and Sulpice in La fille du régiment, Burdette possesses an exceptional talent for highlighting the intelligence and humanity in characters often portrayed by other singers as imbeciles. Maestro Gold is in no way moronic, and Heggie’s music provides Burdette with welcome opportunities to display the splendid caliber of his voice. Similarly versatile, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo is an artist seemingly capable of singing any repertory with unimpeachable authority, and his detailed, demonstrative depiction of the stage manager Roane Heckle—a name worthy of a Dickens novel—in Great Scott is an example of his best work. Like any stage manager worth his salt, Roane veritably earns a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star during the preparation and première of American Opera’s production of Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei, and Costanzo’s singing imparts the character’s manic predicament without even momentarily lapsing into hectoring. Feisty, flirtatious, and genuinely funny, Costanzo is a perfect foil for Burdette.

It is indicative of the effectiveness of Ailyn Pérez’s embodiment of ‘young, talented, fiercely ambitious soprano from Eastern Europe’ Tatyana Bakst that, throughout much of the opera, she inspires a gnawing craving for Tatyana and Arden—or anyone with pugilistic skills superior to Tatyana’s—to come to blows in the fashion of Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni. Wielding a voluptuous timbre and a tremendous top D, Pérez’s Tatyana is a vixen with as many virtues as vices. As the story progresses, the relentlessness with which Tatyana vamps her way along the path to stardom gradually hints that she is a woman with her own demons. Her singing of the national anthem at the Super Bowl is to a certain degree a Pyrrhic victory—a contest without a prize. Though Heggie’s music for the character is daunting, Tatyana is a quintessential ‘party rôle,’ and, liberated from the necessity of carrying the weight of operatic drama upon her shoulders, Pérez is enchanting, singing with unforced élan. Undiplomatic as it is to say so, every singer either knows or is Tatyana, but Pérez’s Tatyana is a fully-drawn portrait of a still-to-be-tamed stage animal rather than a two-dimensional archetype. After all, what is a diva without her temperament?

To Heggie’s music and McNally’s words for Sid Taylor, whose path in life after Arden’s departure from their hometown has been anything but smooth, baritone Nathan Gunn brings verbal clarity, emotional candor, and vocal swagger that match his leading-man stage presence. Chest-thumpingly sure of himself as an architect, Gunn’s Sid is endearingly gauche in his encounters with Arden. There is a suggestion of good-natured competitiveness in his boasting of his professional achievements, but Gunn emphasizes the embarrassment at the heart of Sid’s bravado. His son Tommy is the bridge between Sid and Arden, and the famous singer’s protection of Tommy unmistakably softens the single father’s resolve, reintroducing him to the Arden he loved before opera became her paramour. When Gunn voices ‘Wow, you’re beautiful’ in Act Two, the listener feels the pangs of reawakened passion that resound in his words. The baritone’s vocalism is occasionally slightly unsteady, most noticeably at the ends of phrases, but he uses this to his dramatic advantage, heightening the life-altering implications of his casual banter. Conventional wisdom and the laws of physics assert that opposites attract, but there is no doubt that Arden could only be content with a partner who is her intellectual equal. That is a tall order, but Gunn’s Sid rises charismatically to the challenge.

Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade is one of Heggie’s most trusted collaborators, having created the rôle of Mrs. De Rocher in the 2000 world première of Dead Man Walking and inspired some of the composer’s finest music, and patroness of the Arts Winnie Flato in Great Scott is a marvelous vehicle for her. The part is sympathetically written, but Heggie holds nothing back, and von Stade’s singing justifies every musical choice. Superb singing has been a hallmark of von Stade’s performances since the beginning of her career and is no more surprising now than in decades past, but the self-effacing humor of her characterization of the happily-divorced Winnie is unexpectedly beguiling. Experience in rôles like Thomas’s Mignon and Debussy’s Mélisande has made von Stade an artist who looks beyond obvious interpretive devices in search of the truest essence of a character, and she finds in Winnie’s psyche a maelstrom of emotions that are outwardly reflected in her stress over the production of Rosa Dolorosa, Figlia di Pompei. Her Winnie is a compendium of benevolent patronesses from Christina of Sweden to Jacqueline Badger Mars: surrogate mother, confidante, source of encouragement, and indefatigable proponent. Arden’s success or failure in Rosa Dolorosa is vicariously Winnie’s, as well, and the fate of American Opera is not merely a matter of collecting a return on an investment. It is impossible to overlook the symbolism, von Stade being so integral to the vitality of both American opera and opera in America. From this perspective, Great Scott is in part a letter of thanks to von Stade, one that needed to be written, and she reads it in tones that, as Beethoven put it, come from and aim for the heart.

Only Heggie, McNally, and the singer herself can say (and they would likely say very different things!) whether there is more Arden Scott in Joyce DiDonato or more Joyce DiDonato in Arden Scott. What the listener cannot fail to discern is how completely the mezzo-soprano is immersed in the rôle. Even amongst the Baroque, bel canto, and later rôles in which she has won acclaim [Arden’s tongue-in-cheek observation about having sung her 900th Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia surely drew a sigh of commiseration from her portrayer], DiDonato’s Arden is a remarkable achievement. It should not be presumed that she gives any more of herself in her portrayal of Arden than in performances as Elena in La donna del lago or Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, but she conspicuously adopts Arden as a spiritual sister. Spotlighting the intricacies of a singer’s craft, DiDonato guides the audience into the peculiar, often secretive world of an artist’s routine.

The apex of Act One is Arden’s self-searching monologue, and the immediacy with which DiDonato announces ‘I want to matter’ closes the gap between artist and rôle, for here she enunciates the dearest desire of every earnest singer. Battered by the competing expectations of triumph as Rosa Dolorosa and pressure to début a new, starkly different modern rôle written for her, ‘Medea Refracted,’ Arden teeters on the precipice of artistic collapse, unsure of how to reconcile what she feels that she must do as an artist with what she longs to do as a woman. Confronted in Act Two by the ghost of Vittorio Bazzetti, the desperation and crippling uncertainty that Arden faces in ‘You’ll never be her’ are stingingly poignant. The fluency with which DiDonato sings Rosa Dolorosa’s bravura flourishes is fantastic, but it is her lyrical singing of Arden’s music that thrills and moves. Fiorature are produced by technique, her performance intimates, but singing at its most unaffected emerges as much from the soul as from the diaphragm. As recorded, a few notes at the extreme top of her range tax DiDonato, but, like Gunn, she magnifies flickers of vocal effort into flames of dramatic expression. In terms of feats of technical prowess, Arden Scott is not DiDonato’s most awe-inspiring assignment, but she is an emotional powerhouse whose sensibilities spurred DiDonato to give one of the most thought-provoking performances of her career.

An artist’s life is an enigmatic, ever-changing equation in which ability, ambition, self-promotion, and self-preservation must be carefully balanced. Opera is not conducive to treading lightly, but recognizing and respecting one’s own boundaries are necessities of enduring a career as a singer. The glamour of opera often distracts audiences from the gritty realities of singers’ lives, which is as it should be, but it is easy for audiences to blur the distinctions among persons and personas. There is no shortage of glamour in Great Scott, but there is grit, too. It is the grit of brushing off failures, laughing at oneself, and learning to measure homeward journeys not in miles but in smiles. Take it from Arden Scott: you can go home again but only when you realize that home is a sense of peace, not a point on a map.

17 December 2017

CD REVIEW: HEAR THE ANGEL VOICES — Carl Tanner, tenor (Timeless Music 17822 / Bounty Production 011301782229)

IN REVIEW: Carl Tanner - HEAR THE ANGEL VOICES (Timeless Music 17822 / Bounty Production 011301782229)Hear the Angel VoicesCarl Tanner, tenor; The Northwest Boychoir, The Northwest Sinfonia Choir; Northwest Sinfonia; Steven Mercurio, conductor [Recorded in Bastyr University Chapel, Seattle, Washington, USA, in March 2006; Timeless Music 17822 / Bounty Production 011301782229; 1 CD, 58:24; Available from Amazon (USA) and CD Baby]

In a time before crowdsourcing became necessary merely to advance a recording project beyond initial planning, record labels promoted and supported the artists on their rosters, a notion that must seem to today’s singers as mythical as dragons and unicorns. In that gilded age, not so long ago, recordings of holiday-themed music were virtually rites of passage for significant artists. The making of such recordings was an act of pandering to the masses, of course, but a bit of such pandering has ever been critical to the survival of the Performing Arts. Moreover, the predilections of the masses are not always embarrassingly plebeian. Surveying the history of recorded holiday music, which earnest collector, regardless of his faith, would willingly part with Richard Tucker’s cantorial recordings or Leontyne Price’s rightly legendary recital of Christmas music with Herbert von Karajan and the Wiener Philharmoniker?

Today’s lack of emphasis on preserving singers’ interpretations of holiday music old and new can likely be attributed equally to the financial challenges faced by Classical labels and the secularism prevalent in Twenty-First-Century society. Blame for the relative dearth of seasonal recordings by noteworthy artists of the current generation notwithstanding, the circumstances that yielded Hear the Angel Voices would be fortuitous in any era of recording history. Lifted in celebration of the Christmas season, the powerful voice of Virginia-born tenor Carl Tanner pours from this disc with inspiring candor. One of the few bonafide successors of Aureliano Pertile, Francesco Merli, Mario del Monaco, and Franco Corelli, Tanner is a Radamès and Calàf to the manner born who here leaves crooning to smaller voices and lesser artists. Even a generation ago, a disc of the quality of Hear the Angel Voices would have been heralded with full-page advertisements in pertinent publications and posters in brick-and-mortar music shops. Both the music industry and the way in which holidays are celebrated through music have changed, but great voices and great singing, rare as they are, remain comfortingly constant.

The backing that Tanner receives on Hear the Angel Voices from the choristers of Northwest Boychoir and Northwest Sinfonia Choir, the musicians of Northwest Sinfonia, and brilliant conductor Steven Mercurio rivals the best work of better-known ensembles on classic recordings of holiday music. The singing of the youngsters of Northwest Boychoir merits comparison with the efforts of their counterparts in Tölz and Vienna, and their adult colleagues sing no less admirably. Mercurio wields an extraordinary talent for making music of any style or vintage sound newly minted, and he guides the orchestra in performances in which the players’ instruments seem to sing in tandem with the tenor’s voice. The traditional carols that constitute the heart of Hear the Angel Voices—‘Joy to the World,’ the beguiling Schubert melody of ‘Mille cherubini in coro’ (a piece much loved by Luciano Pavarotti), ‘Adeste Fideles,’ ‘Silent Night,’ and ‘The First Noel’—are sung not with the formality of the opera house but with the fervor of a family church. Tanner addresses his utterances to the Christ child and those assembled in rejoicing rather than to the back row of a grand auditorium or the casual record buyer.

Acclaimed singers of every Fach include ‘O Holy Night,’ Adolphe Adam’s operatic ‘Cantique de Noël,’ in their holiday repertoires, but few of the most renowned among them sing the piece as well as Tanner sings it on this disc. In his performances of each of the selections included on Hear the Angel Voices, Tanner looks to the text for inspiration, focusing his interpretive choices on subtleties of the words. The grandeur of Adam’s music is an ideal vehicle for the tenor’s surging vocalism, but the lovely, more delicate ‘All is Well’ receives from him a reading no less eloquent. Tanner’s account of ‘Panis Angelicus’ from César Franck’s Opus 12 Mass, a setting of a text attributed to Saint Thomas Aquinas, returns to this frequently-heard number the atmosphere of reverence with which its composer originally imbued it. This singer has considerable vocal amplitude at his command, but nowhere on Hear the Angel Voices does he substitute volume for emotional directness when expressing exultation.

Often credited to early Baroque composer Giulio Caccini, the first of the ‘Ave Maria’ settings included by Tanner on Hear the Angel Voices is actually the work of Twentieth-Century Russian composer Vladimir Vavilov. Joining a litany of accomplished artists who have recorded the piece, Tanner performs the song with an uplifting absence of affectation. The second ‘Ave Maria’ on the disc makes use of a melody woven by Charles Gounod into the gossamer textures of the C-major Prelude (BWV 846) from Book One of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Wohltemperirte Clavier, and Tanner follows the meandering vocal line with intensity that builds to an exhilarating climax. Unlike many singers, he never ignores the fact that Albert Hay Malotte’s dramatic treatment of ‘The Lord’s Prayer,’ almost an operatic scena, is a heartfelt plea for deliverance from man’s evils. Here, too, the momentum of Tanner’s performance is thrilling.

Since it was first sung by Bing Crosby on his NBC radio show on 25 December 1941, Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ has become a staple of musical holiday celebrations throughout the world. In his voicing of the song, Tanner recaptures the wide-eyed wonder that Berlin felt as he composed the song during an unexpected California snowfall on New Year’s Day, 1940. The same sentimental authenticity emanates from Tanner’s voicing of ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ written for the Harry Simeone Chorale. Not to be confused with the number featured in A Charlie Brown Christmas, the song ‘Christmas Time is Here’ recorded by Tanner is the work of McLean, Virginia-based composer Katherine Chrishon. If the song was not crafted specially for Tanner, it might have been: his mastery of the demands of both music and text is authoritative.

Adapted from the Intermezzo of the composer’s incidental music for Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne, Georges Bizet’s ‘Agnus Dei’—a misnomer, really, as Bizet neither knew nor approved of the use of his tune—was first recorded in 1936 by Beniamino Gigli. Tanner’s traversal is laudably free of the bull-in-the-china-shop over-singing in which some tenors have indulged in this music, but there is nothing twee in Tanner’s approach. It is impossible to imagine Mel Tormé singing ‘Celeste Aida’ or ‘Nessun dorma,’ but Tanner sings Tormé’s signature holiday number ‘The Christmas Song’ delightfully, achieving complete comfort with the song on his own terms. Throughout Hear the Angel Voices, Tanner is in excellent voice, his upper register projected with an audible ease atypical for larger instruments. His seriousness is no less than it would be were he recording music by Verdi or Puccini, but every song on this disc is placed within a context of jubilation and abiding faith.

More than money and loyalty, perhaps what is most damagingly missing from today’s Performing Arts community is sincerity. When Richard Tucker recorded cantorial music, it was undoubtedly with the hope of selling records, but it was also with his experiences in the synagogues and Jewish congregations of metropolitan New York City filling his heart. Leontyne Price was surely pleased to earn a few dollars by recording ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy,’ but who can question the legitimacy of the shame evinced by her singing of Christ’s humble birth? Like Tucker and Price, Carl Tanner is the steward of one of America’s important voices. With Hear the Angel Voices, he stands with them as one of America’s foremost voices of praise. It is regrettable that industry cynicism now deprives listeners of new recordings of holiday music by many of their favorite Classically-trained singers, but Hear the Angel Voices is all the more invaluable for being a lone light in a world darkened by greed.

16 December 2017

DVD REVIEW: Mark Adamo — BECOMING SANTA CLAUS (J. Rivera, J. Blalock, M. Boehler, H. Plitmann, L. Schaufer, K. Jameson, K. Burdette; The Dallas Opera 888295497824)

IN REVIEW: Mark Adamo - BECOMING SANTA CLAUS (The Dallas Opera 888295497824)MARK ADAMO (born 1962): Becoming Santa ClausJennifer Rivera (Queen Sophine), Jonathan Blalock (Prince Claus), Matt Boehler (Donkey/Messenger), Hila Plitmann (Yan), Lucy Schaufer (Ib), Keith Jameson (Yab), Kevin Burdette (Ob); Members of the First United Methodist Church of Dallas Children’s Handbell Choir; The Dallas Opera Orchestra; Emmanuel Villaume, conductor [Recorded in performance at The Dallas Opera, The Winspear Opera House, AT&T Performing Arts Center, Dallas, Texas, USA, during December 2015; The Dallas Opera 888295497824 (DVD) / 888295497831 (Blu-ray); Available in DVD and Blu-ray and formats from CD Baby – WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING]

In their well-known song ‘Simple Gifts,’ the Shakers sing that ‘when we find ourselves in the place just right, ’twill be in the valley of love and delight.’ It is suggested that this ‘place just right’ is found via continual self-awareness and adjustment, turning one’s life to follow the meandering path of simplicity. This seems straightforward enough, but how complicated it is to be simple in the Twenty-First Century, when every variation of diversion—and perversion—is only a click, a swipe, or a verbal command away, not least in the season of tinsel and twinkling lights!

Too often, the holidays give directors and opera companies excuses to commit and perpetuate artistic atrocities like the plethora of confection-laden, stupidly saccharine performances of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. There are the heartless Nutcrackers and the progressions of Messiahs so dispiriting that the most ardent admirer of the music thinks that affection misplaced. Like so many aspects of contemporary life, the Arts have largely abandoned the contemplativeness of the holidays in pursuit of the coffers-filling commercialism, embracing the tinkles of coins in the till and ignoring the dormant wonder in the eyes of awed, challenged audiences. That The Dallas Opera upended this trend is surprising to no one familiar with the company’s initiatives and the integrity with which they are enacted, but the success of TDO’s world première of composer Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus must have stunned those for whom the holidays are defined by reluctant meetings with family, hours spent in queues in shopping malls, and meals with more calories than flavor.

Like Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, in which there are themes far darker than those explored in many productions, Becoming Santa Claus is not a pièce d’occasion to be performed only when the jingling of sleigh bells perforates the air. No, Becoming Santa Claus is not a festively-attired Ring des Nibelungen in which a department-store St. Nicholas and painted-snow North Pole stand in for Wotan and Walhalla, but Adamo produced a score in which the quest for individual purpose that is the soul of the story forms the foundation of the music’s structure. The development of thematic material in the music complements the interplay of ideas in the text, the musicality of the composer’s libretto meticulously matched with the poetry of his music. To listeners acquainted with Twenty-First-Century opera, the suggestion that a score is accessible to audiences lacking a high tolerance for tuneless droning implies an accusation of banality, but Adamo’s easily-absorbed idiom is sophisticated without demanding that the listener possess an above-average appetite for musical modernity. Both the vocal writing and the orchestrations in Becoming Santa Claus exude ingenuity, but the score’s complexities never mask the opera’s inherent simplicity. The operas of too few contemporary composers exhibit genuine affinity for writing for voices, and one of the greatest accomplishments of Becoming Santa Claus is the adroitness of Adamo’s vocal craftsmanship. Even when dizzyingly difficult, the angular vocal lines are singable and memorable—the hallmarks of effective opera whether composed by Mozart, Verdi, Gounod, Wagner, or Adamo.

In the world-première production preserved on this release, Adamo’s music and words burst into life in The Dallas Opera’s magnificent Winspear Opera House. Stage director and choreographer Paul Curran creates a world in which space is used with exactitude, his movements intrepidly danced by Kym Cartwright, Caradee Cline, Jason Fowler, Matt Holmes, Tom Klips, and Elise Lavallee. The claustrophobia of the opera’s critical emotional conflicts is made all the more gripping by the expansiveness of Curran’s direction, the principals’ individual isolation contrasting tellingly with the lavish brilliance of Gary McCann’s set and costume designs, evocatively illuminated by Paul Hackenmueller’s lighting. The magical transformation of the Winspear stage into a bustling environment in which the significance of moments of profound stillness is apparent is completed by Driscoll Otto’s imaginative projections. David Zimmerman’s wig and makeup designs balance creative uses of the singers as canvases upon which to paint portraits of the characters with practicality that minimizes impediments to motion and vocalism. Above all, the artisans assembled by TDO provided this inaugural production of Becoming Santa Claus with a pervasive atmosphere of open-hearted amazement that fosters the audience’s surrender to the nuances of the opera’s narrative.

Under the musical management of TDO Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, the performance of Becoming Santa Claus on this DVD is an inspiring and never coldly didactic traversal of a score that, as Händel said of his Messiah, was clearly intended to both entertain and enlighten. It is not a score without room for improvement: a few passages, especially those featuring the quartet of elves, could benefit from writing dedicated more to clear articulation of text—a few less words of which would perhaps also prove more effective—than to exploitation of the extremes of the singers’ ranges, and the opera’s dramatic momentum stalls in the final scene. A noted master of the operatic repertoire of his native France [following his début on the podium for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in the 2004 - 2005 Season, Villaume’s engagements at The Metropolitan Opera have included performances of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Bizet’s Carmen, Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, and Massenet’s Manon and Thaïs], Villaume responds to the impressionistic aspects of Adamo’s shimmering tonalism with the same intelligence and energy that guided his leadership of TDO’s 1998 production of Gounod’s Faust. The virtuosic handling of Adamo’s music by TDO’s Orchestra is particularly apparent in Kirk Severtson’s and Brian Bentley’s respective playing of the celesta and harpsichord, the latter tuned a quarter-tone flat at the composer’s instruction, but all of the TDO musicians maintain a high level of achievement in their executions of their parts. The young ringers of the First United Methodist Church of Dallas Children’s Handbell Choir perform their task with charm. Collaborating with manifest camaraderie, TDO’s musical forces successfully recreate in sound the visual allure of the production.

Soprano Hila Plitmann as Yan, mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer as Ib, tenor Keith Jameson as Yab, and bass Kevin Burdette as Ob fearlessly deliver Adamo’s demanding music for the elves, their complete commitment to their rôles heightening the consequence of parts that might all too easily devolve into a collective cliché. Plitmann’s upper register emerges unscathed from the gauntlet of Adamo’s stratospheric writing, and Schaufer sings and acts with unerring musical and dramatic instincts. Yab’s and Ob’s music does not provide Jameson and Burdette with opportunities to reveal the finest elements of their considerable artistries, but their voices shine individually and in ensemble.

The presence in the dramatis personæ of Becoming Santa Claus of a singing messenger in the form of a donkey raises the specter of an operatic Shrek, but fears of that haunting are alleviated by the spiritedly human performance of the rôle by bass Matt Boehler. Like his colleagues in elven guise, Boehler faces music that tests his powers of intonational accuracy and projection across a broad compass. The part’s low center of vocal gravity is not ideal for Boehler, but the singer’s unflappable musicality and theatrical savvy triumph. Wholly avoiding barking and braying, Boehler utters his character’s messages with vitality and evenly-produced tone.

Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera brings to the rôle of Queen Sophine, Prince Claus’s mother and the figurehead of an oppressive social order, a well-trained, artfully-refined technique and credentials including acclaimed interpretations of an array of rôles in various styles. Imperious and imposing in this performance, she portrays Sophine as a flawed woman and a failing parent, a mother whose relationship with her child is affected by the shallowness of her own self-cognizance. The scion of an absent family, Sophine is the bridge between Claus and the duty to which he is bound, and she takes her responsibility as that link very seriously, to the detriment of her own identity. Of unmistakable importance is Adamo’s sympathetic music for the character, however: as in Verdi’s Rigoletto and Il trovatore, the struggling parent captured the composer’s heart. In Rivera’s performance, Sophine earns the observer’s affection, too. The chill of the queen’s persona is warmed by Rivera’s confidently beautiful singing, and her regal glamor gives way to a touching honesty, not as a near-miraculous metamorphosis but as total recognition of the maternal tenderness that defines her. Rivera reveals that the Sophine who terrorizes her court is a façade: beyond the insatiable pursuit of outward perfection is an overwhelmed, vulnerable woman grappling with the demands of raising a pubescent son.

At the core of TDO’s production of Becoming Santa Claus is boyishly handsome tenor Jonathan Blalock, whose portrayal of the adolescent Prince Claus is an understated tour de force. Vocally, the demands of the part are met with assurance, not least in the frequent flights above the stave, and Blalock enlivens Claus’s music with the same technical acumen that he deploys in Rossini’s writing for Conte Almaviva and Don Ramiro. Though he was an eleventh-hour replacement in this production, Blalock embodies his rôle with a naturalness that belies the opera’s fantastical concept. His Claus is the boy becoming Santa Claus, of course, but he is also a boy on the precipice of manhood, a relative of Saint-Exupéry’s petit prince who must find his own way of surviving in the world into which he was born. Endearingly convincing as a boy of thirteen, Blalock depicts Claus’s maturation as a palpable, sometimes painful transition. Even the timbre of his voice seems to undergo a shift from the bright patina of his early scenes to the burnished richness of the opera’s final quarter-hour. The character’s evolution from petulant selfishness to existential awareness is powerfully conveyed. Nevertheless, this is opera, and it is the voice that matters most. Blalock invigorates Claus with a voice kissed by starlight, here placed at the service of a characterization that is at once subtly perceptive and resoundingly uncomplicated.

Enjoyable as they can be, the world little needs new holiday spectacles of the Dickens and Disney varieties. The holidays should be a time of reflection, not of distraction, but bright lights and garish displays are more comfortably scrutinized than internal shadows. Without eschewing the technicolor pageantry of the season, Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus is essentially a very straightforward story. A boy destined to become a man of worldwide prominence must first grow into a man capable of understanding why the part that he plays is relevant. Presenting Adamo’s score with flair, finesse, and an omnipresent belief in the viability of modern opera, The Dallas Opera’s production of Becoming Santa Claus movingly affirms that, even for the most famous bringer of holiday joy, it is indeed a gift to be simple.

IN REVIEW: tenor JONATHAN BLALOCK as Prince Claus in The Dallas Opera’s world-première production of Mark Adamo’s BECOMING SANTA CLAUS, December 2015 [Photo by Karen Almond Photography, © by The Dallas Opera]The little St. Nick: tenor Jonathan Blalock as Prince Claus in The Dallas Opera’s world-première production of Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus, December 2015
[Photo by Karen Almond Photography, © by The Dallas Opera]

15 December 2017

CD REVIEW: A. Boito, S. Donaudy, U. Giordano, R. Leoncavallo, P. Mascagni, A. Mascheroni, A. Ponchielli, G. Puccini, & L. Refice — ETERNAMENTE – The Verismo Album (Angela Gheorghiu, soprano; Warner Classics 0190295780241)

IN REVIEW: Angela Gheorghiu - ETERNAMENTE (Warner Classics 0190295780241)ARRIGO BOITO (1842 – 1918), STEPHANO DONAUDY (1879 – 1925), UMBERTO GIORDANO (1867 – 1948), RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919), PIETRO MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945), ANGELO MASCHERONI (1855 – 1905), AMILCARE PONCHIELLI (1834 – 1886), GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924), and LICINIO REFICE (1883 – 1954): Eternamente – The Verismo AlbumAngela Gheorghiu (soprano); Joseph Calleja (tenor), Richard Novák (bass), Emmanuel von Oeyen (speaker); Pražský filharmonický sbor (Prague Philharmonic Choir); PKF – Prague Philharmonia; Emmanuel Villaume, conductor [Recorded in Smetana Hall, Municipal House, Prague, Czech Republic, on 22 – 24 November and 6, 7, 9, and 10 December 2016 (Gheorghiu) and in Temple Studios, Mistra, Malta, on 10 March 2017 (Calleja); Warner Classics 0190295780241; 1 CD, 60:00; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

There is an inherent irony in the concept of verismo that not even the most ardent opera lover can deny. However powerfully it can manipulate listeners’ emotions, opera is not truly realistic: whether the music at hand is the sparse arioso of Monteverdi or the lush melodic effusion of Richard Strauss, ordinary people do not course through their daily lives in progressions of recitatives, arias, and ensembles. Still, there is a magnetism in opera that can only be attributed to connections among music, the artists who perform it, and the audiences who hear it.

The international career of Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu was catapulted from great promise to established stardom by such a connection: making her rôle début as Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at London’s Royal Opera House in a 1994 production conducted by Sir Georg Solti, the young singer from Adjud refined the connection between Verdi’s suffering heroine and modern listeners. On stage and on disc, Gheorghiu has subsequently drawn audiences closer to music spanning a wide repertory. From the time of her Metropolitan Opera début as Mimì in La bohème on 4 December 1993 [her Musetta on that auspicious evening was Carol Neblett (1946 – 2017), to whose memory this review is dedicated] , the music of Puccini has figured prominently in Gheorghiu’s career, but the works of Puccini’s contemporaries have remained little-explored territory. With Eternamente, this long-anticipated Warner Classics release, Gheorghiu extends the mastery of her characterizations of Violetta and Mimì to the tempestuous heroines of verismo. Some degree of suspension of disbelief is perhaps required to take the passions of the music on this disc at face value, but appreciation of Gheorghiu’s singing, here wholly dedicated to the music’s dramatic impulses, requires no compromises.

Expertly supported by stylish playing by the PKF – Prague Philharmonia and idiomatic, mostly sympathetic conducting by Emmanuel Villaume, Gheorghiu is rightly the central focus of every selection on the disc, grasping the histrionic reigns with the authority of an operatic Sarah Bernhardt. Whether by circumstance, design, or a blend thereof, there is a vein of roughness in the soprano’s vocalism on this disc that lends urgency to her performances of these demanding pieces. Villaume is most effective when highlighting the lyricism that lurks in much of the music, but he is too savvy a musician to linger over moments of repose at the expense of momentum. He and Gheorghiu occasionally seem to disagree about the punctuation of musical paragraphs, perhaps a result of multiple takes in the recording process, but their collaboration benefits from these differences: in moments of discord, the antiseptic polish of the recording studio is overwhelmed by the thrillingly pungent aroma of theatrical greasepaint.

Eternamente’s opening sequence offers three excerpts from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, the score cited by many musicologists as the foundation upon which verismo was built. Prefaced by the Prague Philharmonic Choir’s glorious performance of the ‘Regina cœli,’ both immaculate of ensemble and wholly credible as the en masse effusion of a volatile Sicilian community, Gheorghiu’s account of Santuzza’s ‘Voi lo sapete, o mamma’ is equally defeated and defiant, the character exasperated and exhausted by her predicament. The tessitura of Santuzza’s music is not altogether comfortable for Gheorghiu, but she holds nothing back in her traversal of the romanza, launching the top As with abandon.

Those who supervised the making and release of this disc are to be praised for the candid disclosure of the fact that Gheorghiu’s and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja’s vocals were not recorded in the same place or at the same time, a reality that in the cases of many other recordings has not been disclosed, however audible it may be. On the whole, there are few signs of Calleja’s contributions having been recorded separately and electronically melded with Gheorghiu’s singing in their performance of the exhilarating duet for Santuzza and Turiddu. Amazement resounds in Calleja’s voicing of ‘Tu qui, Santuzza,’ answered by the growing desperation evinced by Gheorghiu’s delivery of Santuzza’s lines. Calleja’s timbre and vocal amplitude are light for Turiddu, but the tenor capitalizes on the advantages of studio recording, successfully animating the character without forcing the voice. Even without the benefit of face-to-face interaction, Gheorghiu and Calleja compellingly enact the parlous contest between the ill-fated lovers.

Mascagni quipped that, the widespread popularity of Cavalleria rusticana having overshadowed his later, arguably better work, he was crowned before he was king. Though the progress of his own career was quite different from that of his colleague’s, Ruggero Leoncavallo might have expressed similar sentiments about the shadow cast by the popularity of his Pagliacci over the other high-quality scores that he produced. It is its rivalry with Puccini’s better-known setting that has prompted occasional interest in Leoncavallo’s La bohème during the past century, but Leoncavallo’s opera is both in some ways the more faithful adaptation of Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de la bohème and a beautifully-crafted, touching work in its own right. Her singing of ‘Ed ora conoscetela’ on this disc imparts that Gheorghiu might prove to be an unusually persuasive advocate for Leoncavallo’s Mimì. The character’s resilience is apparent in this performance of her music, the singer’s sable timbre lending Mimì the world-weary grandeur of a Slavic heroine. Fleana’s ‘Tagliami! Abbruciami!’ from Leoncavallo’s seldom-performed Zingari also proves to be a good fit for Gheorghiu’s vocal estate: though the voice is no longer as pliant as it was when she charmed audiences as Adina in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, the darker colorations now at the singer’s command are employed with sagacity in these performances of Leoncavallo’s music.

The name part in Tosca and Magda in La rondine are Puccini rôles with which Gheorghiu is thoroughly acquainted, but she approaches these ladies’ arias that are included on Eternamente with laudable spontaneity. She sings Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ fervently, her phrasing and ascent to the top B♭ confident and even coarse, intimating that the proximity of a man such as Scarpia taints her noble sentiments with vulgarity. Magda’s ‘Parigi! È la città dei desideri’ is delivered with special sensitivity, the nuances of the character’s dramatic profile clearly of personal significance to Gheorghiu. In both of these selections, the soprano exposes the dualities of the women she briefly portrays, delicacy and determination competing for dominance.

The exquisite ‘Spunta l’aurora pallida’ from Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele is forthrightly sung by Gheorghiu, her focused articulations of Margherita’s exhortations complemented by renowned bass Richard Novák’s impactful enunciation of the title character’s lines and more fine work by the Prague Philharmonic choristers. In Gheorghiu’s traversal of Stephana’s ‘No! se un pensier tortura’ from Umberto Giordano’s Siberia, the spirit of Rosina Storchio, the first Stephana, seems close at hand: Gheorghiu’s instinct for emoting through music is nowhere more skillfully deployed than in this music, in her performance of which suggestions of effort are transformed into expressions of the character’s complex, shifting emotions. Notes above the stave now require more calculated approaches than in past, but Gheorghiu artfully fuses vocal caution with dramatic abandon. Calleja is heard again—and again with total enjoyment—in the title character’s duet with Maddalena from Act Four of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, ‘Vicino a te s’acqueta.’ Here, the effects of the voices having been recorded separately are more noticeable. Ecstatically greeting death with negotiations of punishing tessitura in tandem is more dependent than hurling insults upon precision of ensemble, and a marginal lack of frisson is perceptible. Nevertheless, this is high-octane singing by shrewd, stylish artists, and the spirit of the scene is emphatically imparted.

Several of the most intriguing minutes of Eternamente are devoted to a performance of the title character’s Shakespearean monologue ‘Suicidio! In questi fieri momenti’ from Act Four of Amilcare Ponchielli’s La gioconda. As in the music from Tosca and, to a slightly lesser extent, Andrea Chénier, the principal standard by which Gheorghiu’s navigation of the music is measured is Callas’s handling of the scene. In this context, however, the models that the Romanian soprano’s singing most readily brings to mind are those of Anita Corridori and Milka Stojanović, both uncommonly effective interpreters of Gioconda. Gheorghiu shares with Corridori a bluntness of attack that lends her portrayal raw power, but, like Stojanović, she rounds the sharp edges of her characterization with a tempering dose of decency. Musically, Gheorghiu traverses the scene with less effort than some very memorable Giocondas have expended, but this is a discernibly studio-bound reading, ever admirable but never remarkable.

The products of the excursions of masters of verismo into the realm of Art Song are infrequent destinations in singers’ recital journeys, making the inclusion of three songs, all performed here using tasteful orchestrations by Andrea Tudor, a notable novelty. Stefano Donaudy’s ‘O del mio amato ben’ is the vehicle for some of Gheorghiu’s most sincere and attractive singing on this disc, the melodic line spun with elegant phrasing and handsome tone. Though he is little remembered today, the ordained priest Refice scored a tremendous success with his opera Cecilia, premièred in Rome in 1934 with Claudia Muzio in the title rôle. It was whilst supervising rehearsals for a production of the opera mounted for Renata Tebaldi two decades later in Rio de Janeiro that Refice died, and Cecilia was later espoused by another celebrated mistress of verismo, Renata Scotto. Were she ever to have an opportunity to sing the title rôle in full, Gheorghiu would surely be a worthy heiress to the Cecilia mantle of Muzio, Tebaldi, and Scotto, and she here establishes herself as a puissant advocate for the composer’s music with her refined, reflective voicing of Refice’s song ‘Ombra di nube.’ It is from Angelo Mascheroni’s ‘Eternamente’ that this release takes its name, and Gheorghiu’s singing of the piece exudes an aura of heightened emotional engagement, aptly melodramatic but unexaggerated. Using the text as her blueprint, she builds an impressive musical edifice on the proper scale, the slow simmer of the vocal line brought to a boil by the soprano’s performance. The singing of Lieder has not been a cornerstone of Gheorghiu’s career to date, but her accounts of the songs on Eternamente are evidence of the broad compass of her interpretive gifts.

Some of the sopranos for whom Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Giordano, and their contemporaries wrote music were among the most renowned operatic personalities of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, and Angela Gheorghiu is unquestionably one of their best-qualified successors. The foremost practitioner of authentic verismo, the Italian soprano Magda Olivero, once remarked that ‘if one just sings, without putting in any heart or soul, it remains just beautiful singing, and not a soul that sings.’ The heart and soul of which Olivero spoke are the qualities that separate a true prima donna from the altre donne. They are also the qualities that have defined Angela Gheorghiu’s career. With Eternamente, she expands both her own and listeners’ sensibilities by venturing into neglected niches of verismo repertory. Propelled by an artist of Gheorghiu’s abilities, might not overlooked verismo scores prove just as deserving of rediscovery as the bevies of Baroque and bel canto works revived in recent years?

05 November 2017

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel — ALCINA (A. Meade, E. DeShong, Y. Fang, D. Mack, R. Tester, M. Adams; Washington National Opera, 4 November 2017)

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano ANGELA MEADE in the title rôle (center left) and mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG as Ruggiero (center right) in Washington National Opera’s production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s ALCINA, November 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Alcina, HWV 34Angela Meade (Alcina), Elizabeth DeShong (Ruggiero), Ying Fang (Morgana), Daniela Mack (Bradamante), Rexford Tester (Oronte), Michael Adams (Melisso); Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Jane Glover, conductor [Anne Bogart, Director; Neil Patel, Set Designer; James Schuette, Costume Designer; Christopher Akerlind, Lighting Designer; Barney O’Hanlon, Choreographer; David C. Zimmerman, Hair and Makeup Designer; Washington National Opera, Eisenhower Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC, USA; Saturday, 4 November 2017]

1735 was a remarkable year in the history of London’s Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. The year began with the first production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Ariodante, a splendid setting of a story drawn from Ludovico Ariosto’s then-widely-known epic Orlando furioso, a source of inspiration for composers during and beyond the Eighteenth Century. Three months later, on 16 April, Covent Garden witnessed the première of another Händel adaptation of a subject derived from Orlando furioso, that of the sorceress Alcina and her ill-fated dalliance with the knight Ruggiero. Written for an illustrious cast that included soprano Anna Maria Strada del Pò in the title rôle, castrato Giovanni Carestini as Ruggiero, and tenor John Beard as Oronte, Alcina was liberally adapted from a libretto, now attributed by some musicologists to Antonio Fanzaglia, used seven years earlier by Riccardo Broschi, brother of the celebrated castrato Farinelli. Broschi ignited the words with bursts of bravura fireworks, but Händel gave the story psychological depth that transcended (and continues to transcend) the plot’s pseudo-Medieval pageantry. Since the dawn of the revival of interest in Händel’s operas in the second half of the Twentieth Century, a number of renowned sopranos have sung the title rôle in Alcina with varying degrees of success, but it was the soprano who was perhaps the least-obvious Händelian among them who contributed most thrillingly to the reversal of Alcina’s fortunes: Dame Joan Sutherland. It was in response to her now-legendary 1960 portrayal of Alcina in their city’s Teatro La Fenice that the Venetians awarded Sutherland the epithet La Stupenda, and, though she did not enjoy opportunities to return to her frequently, Alcina remained in her repertory for more than two decades. Sixty years after Sutherland’s first performances of Alcina, a new production by Washington National Opera brings a stupendous soprano who is in many ways the best-qualified successor to Sutherland to Kennedy Center for her own inaugural interpretation of Händel’s tempestuous heroine. The casting of Angela Meade in the title rôle may not have been the sole raison d’être for WNO’s staging of Alcina, but her performance fully demonstrated why, 282 years after it was first heard in London, Alcina remains a vital, engaging work of musical and dramatic ingenuity.

Like most of his operas, Alcina was largely forgotten by the time of Händel’s death in 1759, and the titular amorous conjurer would wait nearly two centuries until a pioneering Leipzig production in 1928 to again cast her spells. Less fantastical in scope than Francesca Caccini’s 1625 La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola di Alcina and Broschi’s L’isola di Alcina, premièred in Rome in 1728, Händel’s Alcina has nonetheless fallen victim in recent years to misguided direction that emphasized the absurdities rather than the still-relevant emotional conflicts in the story. Handsomely evoked by James Schuette’s attractive but not always flattering costume designs, the glowing jewel tones for Alcina and Morgana sharply offset by the drabness of Ruggiero’s and Bradamante’s fatigues, a vague but unmistakably modern locale stood in for the sorceresses’ mythical island in Anne Bogart’s WNO staging of Alcina. A practiced denizen of the theatre with wide-ranging credentials, Bogart’s work is characterized by an obvious dedication to finding inspiration within a piece rather than imposing prefabricated concepts upon it. Under her direction, her introduction to Washington National Opera, charisma was at the core of Alcina’s enchantment: psychological trickery was considerably more treacherous than threats of physical danger, and the performance was most effective when the singers were allowed to connect with the audience via Händel’s music without contrivance or affectation.

The play of Christopher Akerlind’s straightforward lighting on Neil Patel’s spartan sets and David C. Zimmerman’s delightfully uncomplicated hair and makeup designs heightened the contrast between Alcina’s and Ruggiero’s societies that was a principal feature of Bogart’s production, lending Alcina and Morgana an ethereal glamor, reminiscent of the era of Greta Garbo, that was at odds with the militaristic coarseness of the intruders on their island. Only Bradamante, disguising herself as her own brother Ricciardo in order to pursue her wandering betrothed but ultimately clothed in pure white as she reclaimed her rightful identity, seemed capable of inhabiting both worlds. With sequences devised to suit the gifts of the celebrated Marie Sallé, dance played an important part in Alcina at Covent Garden in 1735, and Barney O’Hanlon’s choreography brought movement to the Eisenhower Theater stage that honored this tradition without impeding the opera’s dramatic progress. Notably, this Alcina was uncommonly successful in presenting a cogent linear narrative, mostly avoiding any suggestion of the inert processions of arias in costume that weaken some performances of Händel’s operas. Eliminating the rôle of the boy Oberto, whose search for his missing father on Alcina’s island is dramatically superfluous despite Händel having given him lovely music, and substituting a two-part structure with the split logically placed after Alcina’s ‘Ah! mio cor! schernito sei!’ for Händel’s original three-act design, Bogart’s direction worked in tandem with her colleagues’ efforts to nurture an Alcina that was unafraid of humor but never sought to provoke laughter at the expense of Händel’s impeccably-crafted music.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) soprano ANGELA MEADE in the title rôle, mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG as Ruggiero, baritone MICHAEL ADAMS as Melisso, mezzo-soprano DANIELA MACK as Bradamante, and soprano YING FANG as Morgana in Washington National Opera’s production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s ALCINA, November 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Gli spettatori ad un matrimonio: (from left to right): soprano Angela Meade in the title rôle, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Ruggiero, baritone Michael Adams as Melisso, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack as Bradamante, and soprano Ying Fang in Washington National Opera’s production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina, November 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

Their ranks augmented by the inclusion of harpsichord and theorbo, respectively—and masterfully—played by Michael Baitzer and Richard Stone, the musicians of the Washington National Opera Orchestra exhibited undeniable absorption of the benefit of their occasional proximity in their Kennedy Center home to historically-informed practitioners like Lafayette Opera. A renowned interpreter of Baroque repertory, conductor and WNO débutante Jane Glover further advanced the production’s period-appropriate authenticity, judging tempi with comprehensive knowledge of Händel’s music and generally responding sympathetically to the singers’ needs. In comparison with the leadership of WNO conductors such as Philippe Auguin and the late Heinz Fricke, Glover’s conducting style is unorthodox, but Alcina is unlike Madama Butterfly and Die Walküre. Like Auguin and Fricke, though, Glover was immersed in the music at hand, and the orchestra reacted accordingly, delivering Händel’s score as authoritatively under Glover’s supervision as they have played music by Puccini and Wagner under Auguin’s and Fricke’s batons. Alcina’s crackling Overture was here a fitting preface to both the opera and the performance, its dance rhythms sharply defined by Glover’s beat, and the bits of Händel’s music for Madame Sallé that were retained were nimbly played. Trained by Steven Gathman, the reduced forces of the WNO Chorus sang their numbers vividly, no less involved with conveying the emotions of their music than the principals. Representing the natural and bestial mutations of Alcina’s enemies and discarded lovers, the choristers individually returning to normalcy as the magic that bound them was destroyed in the opera’s final scene came perilously close to mocking the reawakening of the children transformed into gingerbread by the Knusperhexe in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. In reality, it was Glover who brought continuo, orchestra, and chorus to life. In this performance, she was as passionate and persuasive an advocate as Alcina has known in the ninety years since the score’s introduction to the modern age.

Ruggiero’s tutor Melisso, as much a mentor in arms as a moral guide in this production, was sung with suavity and bravado by baritone Michael Adams, a WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist whose technical finesse is matched by the fine quality of the voice. An imposingly masculine, assertive presence whenever he was on stage, Adams’s Melisso was equal parts confidant, mediator, and catalyst. The singer established the character’s pivotal rôle in the drama with his clear, confident manner in recitatives in Act One despite blocking that put him in awkward poses and had him incessantly walking in circles, flailing his arms, and mussing his hair, and his singing of Melisso’s sole aria, ‘Pensa a chi geme d’amor piagata,’ was both stylish and sensitive, accurate in both rhythm and intonation. Adams’s mastery of the production’s stagecraft was as complete as his comfort with the music was natural, and he revealed Melisso to be unexpectedly three-dimensional and himself to be a singer of ebullient charm and inviolable musicality.

Singing Oronte, Morgana’s paramour, WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program alumnus Rexford Tester brought to his music a reedy tenor of timbre and texture virtually ideal for the music. The number of his collaborations with Händel indicates that John Beard was Hanoverian England’s foremost tenor, and the music that the composer created for him leaves no doubt about the quality of his voice. Not unlike Monteverdi’s writing for the hateful Nerone, Händel gave the scheming Oronte music that surely pleased Beard. As sung by Tester, Oronte’s music cannot have failed to please the Kennedy Center audience, as well. The young tenor’s account of the aria ‘Semplicetto! a donna credi?’ was distinguished by evenly-produced tone and undaunted negotiations of fiorature. Oronte’s aria ‘Tra speme e timore’ was lost to editorial prerogative, but Tester launched Part Two with a virtuosic traversal of ‘È un folle, è un vil affetto.’ It can be argued that the bel canto aria for tenor was born with Händel’s aria for Oronte in Act Three [Part Two in WNO’s production], ‘Un momento di contento dolce rende a un fido amante.’ More than a century before Donizetti wrote L’elisir d’amore, Händel perfected the formula that produced Nemorino’s ‘Quanto è bella, quanto è cara’ and ‘Una furtiva lagrima,’ and Tester’s performance of ‘Un momento di contento’ recalled the singing of tenors like Luigi Alva and Nicola Monti, singers who moved effortlessly between Baroque and bel canto repertories. Tester’s crisp vocalism gave Oronte added integrity, making the self-serving character uncommonly deserving of the musical riches with which Händel endowed him.

IN PERFORMANCE: mezzo-soprano DANIELA MACK as Bradamante in Washington National Opera’s production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s ALCINA, November 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Una fidanzata in travesti: mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack as Bradamante in Washington National Opera’s production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina, November 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera

Argentine-born mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack is rapidly garnering recognition as one of her generation’s most talented and versatile singers. Blessed with beauty of voice and appearance, she is poised to achieve a level of stardom rare for opera singers in the years since the death of Luciano Pavarotti. If a mention of Pavarotti suggests some measure of sacrificing artistry in the pursuit of celebrity, the suggestion does not apply to Mack, whose reputation is founded upon the spirit, preparedness, and vocal opulence of her performances. Her portrayal of Bradamante in WNO’s Alcina provided abundant evidence of her boundless aptitude for lifting music and words off of the page and projecting them to audiences with singing of tremendous immediacy. Bradamante’s despair and desperation were apparent from Mack’s first entrance, and her encounter with the amorous Morgana further troubled the young woman’s mission to rescue Ruggiero from Alcina’s clutches. Mack delivered the aria ‘È gelosia’ with easy handling of the music’s difficulties and tasteful ornamentation. Similarly, her command of the bravura effects in the magnificent aria ‘Vorrei vendicarmi del perfido cor’ was astounding, and she impressed all the more by approaching the divisions not as vehicles for vocal showmanship but as organic components of Bradamante’s struggle to reclaim her lover’s affection. The apex of Mack’s characterization was her performance of ‘All’alma fedel l’amore placato,’ which poured from her with the awing inevitability of a waterfall. In the trio with Alcina and Ruggiero, Mack blended her voice with that of her Ruggiero sensually, rejoicing in her hard-fought triumph but continuing to guard against Alcina’s duplicity. Still, the most touching moment in Mack’s performance and the emotional dénouement of the production was a single knowing glance that Bradamante cast upon the vanquished Alcina: even whilst consumed by loathing for her rival’s villainy, Mack’s Bradamante felt the crippling pain of a fellow woman’s heartbreak. With acting as appropriate to the rôle as her singing was to the music, Mack gave this Alcina its conscience.

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano YING FANG as Morgana in Washington National Opera’s production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s ALCINA, November 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]La bella sorella: soprano Ying Fang as Morgana in Washington National Opera’s production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina, November 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

Similar in her petite stature and sparkling timbre to the inimitable Lily Pons, Chinese soprano Ying Fang depicted Alcina’s sister Morgana with singing of gossamer but never insubstantial beauty. She sang her Andante entrance aria, ‘O s’apre il riso, o parla, o tace,’ with a light touch, highlighting the character’s playfulness. A good-natured girl in love with the idea of being in love more than a calculating vixen who derived pleasure from hurting others, Fang’s Morgana was as much a victim of Alcina’s infatuation with Ruggiero as Alcina herself. In WNO’s production, ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’ was sung by Morgana as Händel intended rather than being reassigned to Alcina, and Fang sang the aria dazzlingly, her ascents above the stave unfailingly brought off with dizzying aplomb. Her coloratura singing was wonderful, but the simplicity of her voicing of ‘Ama, sospira, ma non t’offende,’ sung with the excellent violinist Michelle Kim on stage as though performing the aria as an entertainment for Alcina after the manner of Iopas’s ‘O blonde Cérès’ in Berlioz’s Les troyens [later having the horn players on stage during Ruggiero’s ‘Stà nell’Ircana’ made less sense], was hypnotic. Duetting with the ravishing cello obligato, Fang voiced ‘Credete al mio dolore, luci tiranne, e care!’ exquisitely: only a deaf Oronte could have failed to have been moved by her singing. Wielding vocalism of crystalline purity and technical prowess allied with disarmingly ingratiating stage presence, it is only because her colleagues were so capable that Fang did not completely steal the show.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) soprano ANGELA MEADE in the title rôle and mezzo-sopranos ELIZABETH DESHONG and DANIELA MACK as Ruggiero and Bradamante in Washington National Opera’s production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s ALCINA, November 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Due donne ed il loro guerriero: (from left to right) soprano Angela Meade in the title rôle and mezzo-sopranos Elizabeth DeShong and Daniela Mack as Ruggiero and Bradamante in Washington National Opera’s production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina, November 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong returned to the rôle of Ruggiero, which she first sang with Wolf Trap Opera in 2008, with a decade of experience in an extensive repertory to her credit. Earlier in 2017, she partnered Sondra Radvanovsky as Adalgisa in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Bellini’s Norma, and she joins Angela Meade later in the 2017 – 2018 Season as Arsace in the Metropolitan Opera’s much-anticipated revival of Rossini’s Semiramide. Ruggiero might seem an unlikely stop along the path from Adalgisa to Arsace, but DeShong’s performance proved that Händel’s music is a viable destination for any singer with the needed skillset and determination—qualities that DeShong possesses in spades. She sang both of Ruggiero’s arias in Händel’s Act One, ‘Di te mi rido, semplice stolto’ and ‘La bocca vaga quell’occhio nero,’ expertly, meeting both the musical and dramatic demands of the complex writing. The ariosi ‘Col celarvi a chi v’ama un momento’ and ‘Qual portento mi richiama la mia mente a rischiarar?’ received from DeShong performances of concentrated beauty, the voice most focused in the middle of the range, where the intonation of many singers of this repertory falter. Her reading of ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto con l’aspetto del mio bene’ was exemplary, the register shifts sometimes bringing to mind the fearless singing of Huguette Tourangeau, like DeShong an artist most appreciated in other repertory whose Händel performances were uniquely satisfying. This Ruggiero’s reassurance of Alcina of his undiminished fidelity was half-hearted at best, but there was nothing missing from the mezzo-soprano’s submersion in the part. ‘Verdi prati, selve amene’ is rightly one of Händel’s most familiar arias, now as it was in the Eighteenth Century, when Carestini’s singing of it drew praise from Charles Burney, and DeShong won the audience’s approbation with singing of beauty and expressivity. The challenges of ‘Stà nell’Ircana pietrosa tana’ were met unhesitatingly, and the rollicking martial air of the piece, undermined by a few missed notes from the horns, suited DeShong’s feisty persona perfectly. Like Mack, DeShong devoted close attention to maintaining balance with her colleagues in the trio with Alcina and Bradamante. DeShong’s articulations of fiorature were marginally imprecise in a few passages, but she never lost her vocal footing. She was a Ruggiero whose virtues made Alcina’s obsession and Bradamante’s devotion plausible, one who verified DeShong’s place in the annals of excellent Händel singing.

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano ANGELA MEADE in the title rôle in Washington National Opera’s production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s ALCINA, November 2017 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Ombre pallide non più: soprano Angela Meade in the title rôle in Washington National Opera’s production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina, November 2017
[Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

Already an electrifying exponent of the title rôle in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena whilst still a student at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, Angela Meade has built a career that encompasses acclaimed performances of some of the most difficult rôles in the soprano repertoire. She débuted at Washington National Opera in 2013 as Bellini’s Norma, a part to which she returns at New York’s Metropolitan Opera after the conclusion of WNO’s Alcina. Like Sutherland’s, Meade’s is a larger sound than audiences are accustomed to hearing in performances of Händel’s music, but Alcina’s is not a demure, ‘small’ personality. There was audible—and welcome—restraint in Meade’s singing, but the extent to which she maintained fidelity to Händel’s score, eschewing the extravagant ornaments and cadenzas and interpolated top notes of which she is eminently capable, addressed any concerns about the voice’s aptness for Baroque rôles. She sang the Andante larghetto aria ‘Di’, cor mio, quanto t’amai’ with intensity and glistening trills, traits that also gave her account of ‘Sì: son quella, non più bella’ particular elegance. Meade was indeed a very sophisticated Alcina, truly a woman of the world rather than a backwater despot with a magic wand. Ending Part One in Bogart’s production, Meade unleashed a torrent of feeling in the inventive aria ‘Ah! mio cor! schernito sei!’ Händel here set Alcina apart from his other operatic heroines, shaping her musical profile with intervals and chromaticism as redolent of Lully’s Armide as of his own Cleopatra and Rodelinda, and Meade wrung the emotional sap out of every phrase of the music, distilling the surprisingly pungent tonalities into an elixir of intoxicating tragedy.

Surprised and stung by Ruggiero’s betrayal, Meade’s Alcina dug into the words of the accompagnato ‘Ah! Ruggiero crudel, tu non m’amasti!’ with unstinting force, and the soprano enunciated ‘Del pallido Acheronte spiriti abitatori’ not as a sort of Baroque mad scene but as a sudden awareness of blinding clarity. Sensing the twilight of the already-broken woman’s power, Meade voiced ‘Ombre pallide, lo so, mi udite’ with wrenching angst, her rage increasingly turned against herself. This was self-recrimination on a near-Wagnerian scale, echoed by Meade’s singing: in this performance, the music required nothing less. Alcina’s pair of arias in Händel’s Act Three are very different, and Meade sang ‘Ma quando tornerai di lacci avvinto il piè’ with a bitterness that rendered the sadness of ‘Mi restano le lagrime; direi dell’alma i voti’ extraordinarily touching. In the trio with Ruggiero and Bradamante, ‘Non è amor, nè gelosia,’ Meade hurled out Alcina’s lines with defiance, making a brave last stand before crumpling to the ground in defeat. Were this Alcina’s apologies and proposals of mercy sincere? There is no answer, but Meade inspired the listener to care enough to wonder. The histrionic pathos and formidable vocal solidity of her first Alcina offered mesmerizing glimpses of what Meade might achieve in music for a broad spectrum of opera’s long-suffering heroines: Gluck’s Armide, Mozart’s Elettra, Elisabetta in Verdi’s Don Carlo, the Kaiserin in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Cordelia in Reimann’s Lear, among many possibilities. What she achieved in Alcina’s music was, on Händel’s and her own terms, total success.

Händel’s operas may never be marketable in America. Whereas some later operas require the listener to turn up, settle into a seat, listen to pleasing tunes, laugh or cry as the situation dictates, and depart without any great expenditure of intellect, Händel’s operas ask the listener to follow sometimes long threads of recitative, believe that ladies with high voices portray men of virility and heroism, accept that halting the action to ponder emotional strife in ten-minute arias is inevitable, and embrace the unlikely as symbolic of reality. Among Händel’s operas, Alcina is neither the most dramatically cohesive nor the most musically inspired, but it is a score of emotional depth and artistic refinement that reward the modern listener willing to invest time, attention, and inquisitiveness when experiencing a performance. Like the score itself, Washington National Opera’s Alcina was not without problems, but it also was not without many moments of stirring, unforgettable music making. Curiosity may be fatal for felines, but, when it exposes them to singing such as this cast accomplished and this conductor facilitated, it can immeasurably alter the perceptions and gladden the hearts of open-minded opera lovers.