12 November 2018

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Music for Two Harpsichords by J.S. Bach and his Circle — Jory Vinikour and Philippe LeRoy, harpsichords (Asheville, North Carolina; 20 October 2018)

IN PERFORMANCE: internationally-acclaimed harpsichordists JORY VINIKOUR (left) and PHILIPPE LEROY (right), who brought a recital of music for two harpsichords to Asheville, North Carolina, on 20 October 2018 [Photo by the author, © by Joseph Newsome / Voix des Arts; used with the artists' permission]JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750), WILHELM FRIEDEMANN BACH (1710 – 1784), JOHANN LUDWIG KREBS (1710 – 1783), and JOHANN GOTTFRIED MÜTHEL (1728 – 1788): Music for Two Harpsichords Jory Vinikour and Philippe LeRoy, harpsichords [28 Chairs; Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, Asheville, North Carolina, USA; Saturday, 20 October 2018]

In her informative but hardly enlightening autobiography, A Prima Donna’s Progress, legendary soprano Dame Joan Sutherland recalled of the experience of recording the title rôle in Georg Friedrich Händel’s oratorio Athalia with the Academy of Ancient Music in 1985 that ‘the old (or reconstructed to ancient specifications) instruments were frankly a bore, wasting enormous amounts of time being tuned and constantly losing pitch again.’ La Stupenda was a pioneering interpreter of Händel’s music whose ornamentation and unapologetically colossal-scaled vocalism, regarded as unorthodox by her contemporaries, now often seem surprisingly tasteful, especially in comparison with other singers’ excesses, but a visionary proponent of period-appropriate performance practices she clearly was not. Were she preparing to sing Alcina, Rodelinda, Cleopatra, or Athalia today, advances in the practical mechanics of historically-informed performances might alter Sutherland’s opinion, but resistance such as hers to the demands and results of playing period instruments is thankfully now unusual.

Not so long ago, playing the keyboard music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries on modern pianos, for the Eighteenth-Century prototype of which Bach expressed disdain, was commonplace, not only in recitals but also on recordings. Bach’s mastery of form was advanced to a degree that makes adaptation of his music for instruments other than those for which it was composed feasible and often effective, but hearing Bach’s keyboard music played on instruments approximating the timbres and temperaments of the instruments of the composer’s time discloses attributes that the modern piano’s mechanism obscures. A well-attended recital in Asheville, North Carolina, by world-renowned keyboard virtuosi Jory Vinikour and Philippe LeRoy exhibited the bountiful musical pleasures to be had from experiencing the music of Bach and three composers of similar vintage played with an aesthetic approach that would have been familiar to them.

Presented in the lovely, intimate sanctuary of Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, the recital was organized by 28 Chairs, an enterprising, District of Columbia-based initiative launched and led by indefatigable arts advocate Jessica Honigberg. A feat like bringing a recital featuring two harpsichords to Asheville is typical of what Honigberg and 28 Chairs accomplish—and bringing her goal of hearing music for two harpsichords in her hometown to fruition was truly a feat! On loan from Elaine Funaro, the harpsichords were first transported the 220 miles from Durham to Asheville, a journey paralleling Bach’s famed 200-mile trek on foot from Arnstadt to Lübeck to hear the Abendkonzerte organized by the renowned organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude, and then readied for the recital by noted harpsichord builder, restorer, and technician Richard Kingston. Honigberg’s efforts were rewarded with a performance that filled the beautiful space with music making worthy of it.

Repertoire written or successfully adapted for two harpsichords is sparse, but it is hardly surprising that one of the finest pieces in this genre is the work of Bach, whose prowess in writing for the keyboard set new standards for his own and subsequent generations of composers. In Asheville, Vinikour and LeRoy exhibited exceptional mastery of Bach’s intricate, intertwining writing in his Concerto in C major for two harpsichords (BWV 1061a). Navigating the complex rhythmic exchanges of the opening Allegro movement, Vinikour and LeRoy fostered the kind of artistic synergy that transcends the coordinated playing of notes. The antiphonal competition between the two instruments found ideal combatants in these musicians, whose very different styles accentuated the nuances of the composer’s ingenuity. The harpsichordists’ complementary phrasing shimmered in the delicate strains of the Adagio ovvero Largo movement. [Vinikour and LeRoy reprised the Adagio ovvero Largo as their encore, trading instruments for the second playing, and they found entirely new subtleties in the music.]​ Bach was arguably the foremost doyen of counterpoint in the whole history of music, and his handling of thematic development in BWV 1061a’s Fuga combines near-mechanical rhythmic precision with harmonic inventiveness that no algorithms could produce. The energy of Vinikour’s and LeRoy’s playing as subjects flowed between them was electrifying.

Born during his father’s second tenure in Weimar, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was the eldest son of Bach and his first wife, Maria Barbara. His reputation is now overshadowed to some extent by the wider familiarity of the work of his younger brothers Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, but Wilhelm Friedemann possessed musical intelligence of the highest order and inherited his father‘s penchant for seeking his own artistic path. The innovative spirit of his compositional style is apparent in his Sonata in F major for two harpsichords, brilliantly played in Asheville by Vinikour and LeRoy. Their delivery of the passagework in the sonata‘s Allegretto e moderato movement was the musical equivalent of an extended volley between two tennis dynamos, and here, as in their performance of the elder Bach’s concerto, the clarity with which these artists communicate was unmistakable. The rhapsodic nature of LeRoy‘s playing was particularly suited to the lyricism of the central Andante movement, his beautifully-phrased answers to Vinikour’s statements like the echoes of lovers’ sighs. The Presto‘s rapid-fire figurations could find no better exponents than this pair: wholly untouched by artifice, their performance of this exhilarating music radiated the pure delight of fastidiously-cultivated artistic camaraderie.

For the recital’s second half, Vinikour and LeRoy looked beyond the Bach family without leaving Johann Sebastian’s circle of acquaintance. Johann Ludwig Krebs studied the organ under Bach’s tutelage in Leipzig, and his Concerto in A minor for two harpsichords, though slightly more Classical in construction than the bulk of Bach‘s music in similar form, bears the hallmarks of the teacher’s influence. Vinikour’s and LeRoy’s playing of the Allegro movement that launches Krebs’s Concerto also displayed the symbiotic attention to detail that characterized their performance of Bach’s music. As is often true of these artists’ work, their imaginative articulation of even the most intricate writing yielded surprising expressivity, disclosing seldom-explored emotional gradations in the music. In this performance, the central Affettuoso movement was reminiscent in its hypnotic interaction between the instruments, if not in basic structure or thematic material, of the duet for Andonico and Aspasia in Händel’s Tamerlano, ‘Vivo in te, mio caro bene.’ The Concerto’s final Allegro movement received from Vinikour and LeRoy a reading of indefatigable effervescence, the unexpected hairpin turns in the music’s harmonic progression executed with suspenseful spontaneity.

Like Krebs, Johann Gottfried Müthel also studied with Bach, arriving in Leipzig only months before Bach’s death on 28 July 1750. His direct exposure to Bach’s erudition was brief, but Müthel undoubtedly learned much from that fleeting experience and from the legacy of Bach’s stint as cantor of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche. Müthel’s Duetto in E♭ major for two keyboards, published in 1771 with the designation of ‘für 2 Claviere, 2 Flügel, oder 2 Fortepiano,’ was the most galant in style of the music heard in this recital, the writing in the Allegro moderato, e cantabile movement prefiguring Muzio Clementi’s music for pianoforte. Vinikour and LeRoy reveled in the conversational reciprocity of the music. Müthel’s musical language being better-suited to instruments of later design than to the harpsichords in Asheville, the Adagio mesto e sostenuto, con affetto movement was sensibly omitted, but the concluding Allegretto was played with vitality that made use of every capability of the instruments at Vinikour’s and LeRoy’s disposal.

Despite conscientious endeavors by champions of historically-accurate performance practices, including Jory Vinikour and Philippe LeRoy, whose founding of Great Lakes Baroque brought appropriately-performed music of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries to metropolitan Milwaukee, period instruments and performances of music written for them remain relatively scarce in many parts of the United States. Performances like this 28 Chairs recital in Asheville are the most effective campaigners for a bolder presence for period instruments in America, but, in reality, playing like Vinikour’s and LeRoy’s will never be bountiful in Asheville, Amsterdam, or Abu Dhabi. Musicianship such as theirs is so rare that it is itself virtually a period instrument.

IN REVIEW: the harpsichords played by JORY VINIKOUR and PHILIPPE LEROY in recital in Asheville, North Carolina, on 20 October 2018 [Photo by the author, © by Joseph Newsome / Voix des Arts]Baroque in the Blue Ridge: the harpsichords played by Jory Vinikour and Philippe LeRoy in recital in Asheville, North Carolina, on 20 October 2018
[Photograph by the author, © 2018 by Joseph Newsome / Voix des Arts]

11 November 2018

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — MADAMA BUTTERFLY (J. Gardner, C. Austin, D. Pershall, S. Foley Davis, J. R. Wright, D. Hartmann, R. Hill, K. Horn-Pershall; Greensboro Opera, 9 November 2018)

IN REVIEW: Greensboro Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY, staged in UNCG Auditorium in November 2018 [Photo by Vanderveen Photography, © by Greensboro Opera]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Madama ButterflyJill Gardner (Cio-Cio-San), Cody Austin (Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton), David Pershall (Sharpless), Stephanie Foley Davis (Suzuki), Jacob Ryan Wright (Goro), Donald Hartmann (Lo zio Bonzo), Ryan Hill (Il principe Yamadori), Katie Horn-Pershall (Kate Pinkerton), Brian Kilpatrick (Lo zio Yakusidé), Christian J. Blackburn (Il commissario imperiale), Jacob Kato (L’ufficiale del registro), Kayla Brotherton (La madre di Cio-Cio-San), Clarice Weiseman (La zia di Cio-Cio-San), Leanna Crenshaw (La cugina di Cio-Cio-San), Samuel Pershall (Dolore); Greensboro Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Steven Byess, conductor [David Holley, Stage Director; James Bumgardner, Chorus Master; Jeff Neubauer, Lighting Designer and Technical Director; Greensboro Opera, UNCG Auditorium, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 9 November 2018]

There has been much and sometimes rancorous debate in recent years about the scope of the rôle played by the United States of America on the geopolitical stage. Since thirteen very different colonies intertwined their destinies and declared independence as a single, unified nation, the nature of that nation’s mandate to foster the cultivation of its ideals elsewhere in the world has fostered division in America and abroad. History abounds with instances of American intervention in global affairs, regarded by some observers as actions necessary to the preservation and propagation of democracy and by others as gross abuses of America’s influence. A fatal incarnation of the treacherous business of hearing what one wants to hear in pivotal discourse that afflicts modern society is the spark that ignites the tragedy of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Mesmerizingly staged in UNCG Auditorium by Greensboro Opera, the cultural conflict between Cio-Cio-San’s Japan and B. F. Pinkerton’s America hurled Madama Butterfly into the fractured political climate of the Twenty-First Century with heartbreaking frankness.

Unsuccessfully premièred at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in February 1904, subsequently revised, and reintroduced to acclaim in Brescia three months later, Madama Butterfly continued the fascination with women in dire circumstances already evident in Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and La bohème. The ambitious Manon is felled by the harsh consequences of her own caprices, and the sweet-natured Mimì is betrayed by her body’s frailty, but, on the surface, Cio-Cio-San seems to retain a measure of control over her destiny. Beneath the ritualized veneer of traditional Japanese honor, her death is as much a result of judgment and disease as those of her Puccinian sisters, however. Abandoning the relative comfort of the life she knew in her first fifteen years, a life with many difficulties, Cio-Cio-San clings to an illusion of her own making. To Pinkerton, she is a plaything; an object of infatuation, without question, but a living trinket to be stored away with souvenirs of more boisterous times. For Cio-Cio-San, Pinkerton is a savior in Navy whites, at once husband, idol, and surrogate father. Blinded by his pursuit of fleeting pleasure, he realizes only after her wings are broken that his butterfly’s spirit is too pure to have recognized his caddishness. Ultimately serving as the instrument of retributive justice for her offenses against her principles, sacrificing herself in order to spare her child the indignity of her disgrace, Cio-Cio-San is more a sister to Bellini’s Norma than to Manon Lescaut and Mimì.

IN PERFORMANCE: SAMUEL PERSHALL as Dolore in Greensboro Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY, 9 November 2018 [Photo by Vanderveen Photography, © by Greensboro Opera]Tu? tu? piccolo Iddio: Samuel Pershall as Dolore in Greensboro Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, 9 November 2018
[Photograph by Vanderveen Photography, © by Greensboro Opera]

Under the guidance of the company’s General and Artistic Director David Holley, Greensboro Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly focused on the opera’s timeless simplicities without overlooking its carefully-wrought, sometimes troubling intricacies. Himself an accomplished Pinkerton, Holley brought to his direction of the opera practical knowledge of both score and libretto, animating the characters’ exchanges with deep understanding of conversations in which he has participated. The essential elements of Madama Butterfly’s plot render it a piece that too often falls victim even in thoughtfully-conceived productions to tired clichés and stereotypes. Though a well-meaning product of its time, the broken-English dialogue for Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s source for the plot of Madama Butterfly, John Luther Long’s short story ‘Madame Butterfly,’ is embarrassingly primitive, more Mikado than Meiji. As in all of his work for Greensboro Opera and UNCG Opera Theatre, Holley’s direction of Madama Butterfly elucidated a myriad of details that, like pieces of a puzzle, assembled to produce an exceptionally faithful account of the opera. In Holley’s handling, Puccini’s and his librettists’ dictates were fully honored, proving, as Holley’s productions invariably do, that a venturesome musical imagination is inspired, not inhibited, by adherence to the score.

Designed for Sarasota Opera by David P. Gordon and constructed and painted by Center Line Studios, the sets for Greensboro Opera’s Madama Butterfly were evocatively utilitarian, the transformable house rented by Pinkerton for 999 years as diverting as Goro describes it to be. Jeff Neubauer’s lighting designs and technical direction reliably centered attention on the focal points of the drama, and stage manager Shelby Robertson and assistant stage managers Abigail Hart and Eliya Watson ensured that everything and everyone appeared where and when the production’s blocking prescribed. The costumes by Malabar Limited were tastefully colorful and approximated stylistic authenticity without unduly infringing upon the physical demands of singing. The sandals worn by Cio-Cio-San in Act One were an exception: obviously uncomfortable and impeding the singer’s ease of movement, the shoes were an unnecessary obstacle to the soprano’s performance. Trent Pcenicni’s wigs and makeup designs were also credibly Japanese but manageable. These visual elements of Greensboro Opera’s Madama Butterfly harmonized with Holley’s direction, transporting the audience to a Nagasaki of idealized natural beauty that contrasted portentously with the opera’s raw emotions.

IN REVIEW: the cast of Greensboro Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY, 9 November 2018 [Photo by Vanderveen Photography, © by Greensboro Opera]Ancora un passo or via: the cast of Greensboro Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, 9 November 2018
[Photograph by Vanderveen Photography, © by Greensboro Opera]

Musically, Madama Butterfly is a far more sophisticated, distinctly modern score than it has sometimes been admitted to be. There are passages of remarkably innovative orchestration not unworthy of comparison with the music of Igor Stravinsky. Much of Puccini’s writing for woodwinds is intoxicatingly sensual, strikingly so in the duet for Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton that ends Act One, heightening the exoticism and eroticism of the music. Conductor Steven Byess paced the performance with intelligently-chosen tempi that maintained momentum and allowed passages of particular significance to exert their dramatic gravity without exaggeration. Strangely, though, the tension that Byess carefully kindled throughout the performance dissipated in the opera’s final scene, causing Cio-Cio-San’s suicide—one of the most harrowing scenes in opera—to seem disappointingly anticlimactic. Balances between stage and pit were also often problematic: many of the singers’ lines disappeared into the orchestral cacophony. The auditorium’s acoustic may account for this, in part, but similar issues were not audible in Greensboro Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen in the same venue.

Under the direction of chorus master James Bumgardner, the choristers sang strongly, not least in the arduous Humming Chorus that bridges the transition between Acts Two and Three, and plausibly portrayed the denizens of Cio-Cio-San’s Nagasaki. Regrettably, it was a rough evening for their colleagues in the pit, instances of ragged ensemble, wiry string tone, and mistakes by the wind players compromising the musical integrity of the performance. There were plentiful passages that were splendidly played, nonetheless, and neither the professionalism nor the preparedness of the orchestra was ever doubted. Their popularity encourages the assumption that Puccini’s operas are not as demanding as other operas in the standard repertory, but this is an opinion with which anyone who has performed Madama Butterfly would surely disagree; and one that the sporadic flaws in Greensboro Opera’s characteristically well-rehearsed performance of Madama Butterfly contradicted.

A most welcome hallmark of Greensboro Opera productions under David Holley’s leadership is the high quality of the ensembles that he assembles, his shows treating Triad audiences to performances featuring artists in supporting rôles who are often better qualified than the singers engaged for leading parts by other companies. The value of this is perhaps easy for the casual spectator to underestimate, but the singers’ involvement is of even greater importance than a production’s scenic elements to the creation of a believable setting for the drama. This is especially true of Madama Butterfly, in a performance of which the impact of the opera’s tragedy relies upon the context established by the supporting players.

The stark reality of the cultural divide that ultimately claims Cio-Cio-San’s life roared into UNCG Auditorium in her uncle’s chilling denunciation of her conversion to Christianity, voiced with startling power by bass-baritone Donald Hartmann. This Zio Bonzo was unmistakably a scion of a way of life in which there is no sin greater than deviation from convention, and Hartmann’s sable-hued voice projected the character’s castigation of Cio-Cio-San with the devastating might of the Unzen volcano. Portrayal of the matriarchal contingency of Cio-Cio-San’s family was entrusted to mezzo-soprano Kayla Brotherton as her mother, soprano Clarice Weiseman as her aunt, and soprano Leanna Crenshaw as her cousin, each of whom enriched the ensemble, as did baritone Brian Kilpatrick’s depiction of Cio-Cio-San’s uncle ​Yakusidé.

Baritone Christian J. Blackburn authoritatively represented the Chrysanthemum Throne as the Imperial Commissioner, singing with vocal assurance and fittingly ceremonial bearing, and Jacob Kato shone in the Registrar​’s brief moment in the spotlight. ​Ryan Hill was an appropriately regal Yamadori, singing the earnest suitor’s music without the unbecoming whining often heard in the part. Looking like a figure who emerged from a Merchant Ivory film, Katie Horn-Pershall lent Pinkerton’s ‘sposa americana’ Kate an unusual sensitivity, diluting the poison of her cruel question to Sharpless about the veracity of Cio-Cio-San’s promise to surrender her child to the Pinkertons’ care. Young Samuel Pershall earned his ovation for his star turn as that child, a feisty lad who in this performance endearingly embodied his father’s—Pinkerton’s, that is—untamable personality.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS as Suzuki, SAMUEL PERSHALL as Dolore, soprano JILL GARDNER as Cio-Cio-San, and baritone DAVID PERSHALL as Sharpless in Greensboro Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY, 9 November 2018 [Photo by Vanderveen Photography, © by Greensboro Opera]Che tua madre: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Suzuki, Samuel Pershall as Dolore, soprano Jill Gardner as Cio-Cio-San, and baritone David Pershall as Sharpless in Greensboro Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, 9 November 2018
[Photograph by Vanderveen Photography, © by Greensboro Opera]

The marriage broker Goro was in tenor Jacob Ryan Wright’s portrayal more of an opportunistic meddler than a deplorable schemer, the sole motivation of his machinations being the acquisition of American greenbacks. He was clearly thoroughly pleased with his own ingenuity when educating Pinkerton on the tricks of his newly-leased house, and his commentary about Cio-Cio-San’s family history was the chatter of the community gossip rather than the venomous colloquy of a calculating villain. There was no spite in this Goro’s amused reaction to Cio-Cio-San’s naïveté, and the impetus that fueled his enthusiastic endorsement of Yamadori’s wooing was the hope of receiving a substantial financial reward for facilitating an advantageous liaison. There is nothing in either score or libretto to suggest that Goro’s concern for Cio-Cio-San transcends her commercial usefulness to him, but, ably voicing the part without sneering and derision, Wright interpreted Goro as a man whose avaricious maneuvering was not indicative of heartlessness.

This Madama Butterfly was incredibly fortunate to have in mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as fine a Suzuki as has graced any performance in the opera’s 114-year history, on stage or in a recording studio. Suzukis capable of producing all of the notes required by the part are not uncommon, but Suzukis who produce all of the notes within the rôle’s compass with the ease and tonal beauty that Foley Davis wielded on Friday evening are extraordinarily rare. In Suzuki’s nervous patter in the opera’s first scene, the mezzo-soprano articulated each note clearly, and her diction allowed every word of the part to be understood. The heartfelt directness with which this Suzuki delivered her prayers was profoundly touching: when she asked her gods to end Cio-Cio-San’s weeping, the character’s sorrow cascaded through her voice. Pushing her apprehension aside, she joined Cio-Cio-San in a mellifluously girlish performance of the Flower Duet. Realizing in Act Three that Pinkerton has returned with his American wife in order to take custody of his child, Foley Davis’s Suzuki succinctly imparted her dread and despair in her unaffected statements of ‘povera Butterfly.’ The grief that flooded Foley Davis’s singing and acting of Suzuki’s final interaction with Cio-Cio-San was overwhelming. So absorbing was her performance that Suzuki’s response to Cio-Cio-San’s fate was as wrenching as the heroine’s demise. Foley Davis’s vocalism was nothing short of magnificent in a rôle that often endures mediocrity. Few of even the greatest Cio-Cio-Sans have been partnered by a Suzuki of this caliber.

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano JILL GARDNER as Cio-Cio-San (left) and tenor CODY AUSTIN as Pinkerton (right) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY, 9 November 2018 [Photo by Vanderveen Photography, © by Greensboro Opera]Vogliateme bene: mezzo-soprano Jill Gardner as Cio-Cio-San (left) and tenor Cody Austin as Pinkerton (right) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, 9 November 2018
[Photograph by Vanderveen Photography, © by Greensboro Opera]

A favorite with Greensboro Opera audiences, baritone David Pershall returned to the Gate City to portray the American consul Sharpless in Madama Butterfly. Though his credentials in pieces similar to Madama Butterfly include performances of Schaunard in La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera and a recent rôle début as Silvio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci at San Francisco Opera, Sharpless offered Pershall few chances to display the best qualities of his artistry. His handsome voice traversed Puccini’s music with considerable bravado, but there was little in the rôle that elicited the resourceful interpretive scrutiny of which this gifted singer is capable. Sharpless’s exasperation with Pinkerton’s libidinous shortsightedness was palpable in Pershall’s performance, but this was not readily distinguishable from his attitude towards Cio-Cio-San, which communicated annoyance more than empathy. That is not an invalid reading of the part, especially from a perspective critical of American imperialism, but Puccini’s score conveys more compassion than irritation. There was tenderness in the scene in which Cio-Cio-San counters the consul’s tormented confirmation of Pinkerton’s abandonment by revealing her child, and Pershall voiced his part in the ensemble with Suzuki and Pinkerton in Act Three with increased immediacy. As the buffer between Cio-Cio-San’s innocence and Pinkerton’s duplicity, Pershall’s Sharpless was only partially effective, but the baritone’s singing deftly met all of the music’s requirements.

Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is perhaps a model sailor when at sea, but his behavior as a ‘Yankee vagabondo’ in port dishonors his uniform and his country. He is one of opera’s most loathsome characters, but the most despicable Pinkerton is one who permits the audience to experience the charm that so enchants Cio-Cio-San. Vocally and histrionically, the performance of Greensboro Opera’s Pinkerton, tenor Cody Austin, was engaging but frustrating. The needed vocal and temperamental ranges were present, but the voice was not ideally controlled. Inspecting Goro’s handiwork in the opera’s opening scene, Austin’s Pinkerton was appropriately nonchalant, and the tenor managed the onslaught of top B♭s in his arias ‘Dovunque al mondo lo Yankee vagabondo’ and ‘Amore o grillo, dir non saprei’ without incident. His upper register was generally solid throughout the performance, but the accuracy of his intonation faltered in the lower reaches of the music. In his arias and in the expansive love duet with Cio-Cio-San, Austin’s phrasing was occasionally disjointed. Vocally, he was most confident when declaiming Pinkerton’s vehement repudiation of Cio-Cio-San’s admonishing relations. Austin’s most nuanced singing of the evening was reserved for the ensemble with Suzuki and Sharpless and the Act Three aria ‘Addio, fiorito asil.’ In these numbers, the line soared, and the voice’s metallic patina gleamed. Pinkerton’s impetuosity suited Austin’s emphatic style of singing, but the cumulative efficacy of his portrayal was compromised by vocal instability.

IN REVIEW: soprano JILL GARDNER as Cio-Cio-San in Greensboro Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY [Photo by Vanderveen Photography, © by Greensboro Opera]Io sono la fanciulla più lieta del Giappone: soprano Jill Gardner as Cio-Cio-San (center) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, 9 November 2018
[Photograph by Vanderveen Photography, © by Greensboro Opera]

A noteworthy Puccinian whose portrayals of Tosca, Suor Angelica, and Minnie in La fanciulla del West have been justly lauded, soprano Jill Gardner renewed her acquaintance with Cio-Cio-San in Greensboro Opera’s Madama Butterfly, and hers was an interpretation of this singularly daunting rôle that was equally thrilling and affecting. From the start of Cio-Cio-San’s entrance music, ‘Ancora un passo or via,’ Gardner’s mastery of Puccini’s musical language was apparent in her phrasing, and she greeted the beginning of a new life with her American husband with a radiant interpolated top D♭. Evincing the guilelessness that the fifteen-year-old Cio-Cio-San should exude is beyond the capabilities of many sopranos, but Gardner believably evoked the girl’s youth without resorting to imprudent antics. The ambivalent doubt and burgeoning passion of the love duet were spiritedly bespoken by the soprano’s expressive singing, and her triumphant scaling of the heights of Puccini’s melodic lines was undermined only by a marginally flat top C at the duet’s conclusion.

In Act Two, hoarseness crept into the lower octave of Gardner’s voice, and she toiled valiantly to focus tones and retain projection. A few phrases strayed in the direction of Sprechstimme, but this is not without precedent: Margaret Sheridan, despite being on excellent form, employed similar effects in the performance recorded by Teatro alla Scala for Voce del padrone in 1929 - ’30, and she is known to have been cited by Puccini as a favorite interpreter of the rôle. Gardner sang ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ stirringly, and she emphasized Cio-Cio-San’s dignity in the interview with Sharpless. Injured by the consul’s words, her voicing of ‘Che tua madre dovrà’ was emotionally crushing. The exhausted joy of her sighting of Pinkerton’s ship in the harbor was followed by a performance of the Flower Duet in which the voice veritably waltzed through the theatre.

Brought by her overnight vigil to the brink of collapse, Gardner’s Cio-Cio-San sensed immediately upon seeing Kate Pinkerton waiting at the garden gate that the sole reason for their shared husband’s return was claiming his son. With that realization, the chill of death overtook her, and Gardner’s vocalism assumed an icy precision until the child’s unexpected appearance unnerved the fiercely protective mother, inciting an incendiary exclamation of ‘Tu? tu? piccolo Iddio.’ In Gardner’s portrayal, Cio-Cio-San’s death was agonizingly direct: hesitant for only an instant, she approached her work as executioner as solemnly as she esteemed her responsibilities as a mother. Gardner’s performance was a tremendous demonstration of a consummate artist’s perseverance. Integrating periodic vocal struggles into her depiction of Cio-Cio-San’s plight, Gardner made the girl’s suffering and sacrifice all the more moving.

Some musicologists continue to delight in ridiculing Puccini’s operas and the devotion they inspire among many opera lovers. Reviewing a 1911 Metropolitan Opera performance of Madama Butterfly in which Emmy Destinn sang the title rôle, a critic whose words have outlived his name wrote that ‘Puccini’s works, now that Madama Butterfly has become one of the most frequently-repeated operas of the season, are certainly maintaining the popularity which many persons have insisted they have deserved.’ Many persons have indeed insisted that Puccini’s operas merit the frequency with which they performed and have reinforced their advocacy with ticket purchases. Listening to the orchestra’s representation of the blade tearing Cio-Cio-San’s life from her body as Pinkerton calls to her cannot be described as pleasure, but Greensboro Opera’s performance of Madama Butterfly afforded the pained pleasure of shedding tears for a Cio-Cio-San who captivated and broke the heart. For all of its complications, the appeal of Madama Butterfly truly is that simple.

07 November 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Jarmila Novotná — MY LIFE IN SONG (Edited by William V. Madison; The University Press of Kentucky ISBN 978-0-8131-7611-6)

IN REVIEW: Jarmila Novotná - MY LIFE IN SONG (The University Press of Kentucky ISBN 978-0-8131-7611-6)JARMILA NOVOTNÁ (1907 – 1994): My Life in Song — Edited by William V. Madison; Foreword by Brian Kellow [The University Press of Kentucky ISBN 978-0-8131-7611-6 (hardbound) / 978-0-8131-7613-0 (PDF) / 978-0-8131-7612-3 (EPub); 296 pages with 60 photographs; Available from The University Press of Kentucky, Amazon (USA), and major literary retailers]

In the years since the tragic events of 11 September 2001, many aspects of society have changed in ways both unmistakable and barely perceivable. The atmosphere of unity that enveloped not only the United States of America but much of the world in the days and weeks following that devastating day, a kind of unity absent from humanity since the end of World War II, has been replaced by a morass of division and desensitized hatred in which decency struggles to maintain a foothold in the global conscience. Almost overnight, the necessity of ensuring the security of people and premises made the dressing rooms and backstage antechambers in which operaphiles of previous generations fêted beloved singers as inaccessible as the subterranean realm haunted by Gaston Leroux’s opera ghost. This opened a chasm between opera and its aficionados that tools like social media can only partially bridge. Opera may never have been miscreants’ target, but an integral component of its foundation was damaged.

In times of disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, opera thrives more than ever on glamour of the kind brought to the Metropolitan Opera between the World Wars by the ‘Tennessee nightingale,’ Grace Moore. Moore’s death at the age of only forty-eight in a January 1947 airplane crash, less than a year after her final performance at the MET, dimmed the glow of the company’s galaxy of stars, but two beautiful singers and fellow Hollywood leading ladies brought fresh infusions of chic to the MET roster: mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens (1913 – 2013; MET début on 22 November 1938, as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier) and soprano Jarmila Novotná. The University Press of Kentucky’s publication of a new edition of Novotná’s memoirs, My Life in Song, reintroduces this luminary of the operatic stage and silver screen, still known for her performance opposite Mario Lanza in MGM’s The Great Caruso, with a compelling sense of the magnetism that she wielded with the skill of a singing sorceress.

Born in Prague on 23 September 1907, Novotná studied with her countrywoman Emmy Destinn (1878 – 1930), now best remembered for creating the rôle of Minnie in Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West but whose career at the MET also included the American premières of D’Albert’s Tiefland, Catalani’s La Wally, Franchetti’s Germania, and Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya dama. Perhaps the most significant intersection in the sopranos’ respective repertoires was the rôle of Mařenka in Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevĕsta (Die verkaufte Braut during Destinn’s 1909 – 1912 tenure in the part; The Bartered Bride in Novotná’s seven MET performances in 1941 and 1942), a spirited but dutiful young girl saved from a loveless arranged marriage by her heart’s chosen mate ultimately being discovered to be another son of the father to whose offspring she was betrothed. Novotná’s charm and charisma undoubtedly shone in her portrayal of Mařenka, but, beyond its musical attractions, the rôle surely had tremendous private significance for her.

IN REVIEW: Czech soprano JARMILA NOVOTNÁ as Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA at The Metropolitan Opera in 1940 [Photo by Wide World Studio, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti: Czech soprano Jarmila Novotná as Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at The Metropolitan Opera in 1940
[Photograph by Wide World Studio, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

After establishing herself in Berlin and Vienna, in which cities she partnered Richard Tauber in the world premières of Jaromír Weinberger’s Frühlingsstürme in 1933 and Franz Lehár’s Giuditta in 1934, the darkening political climate in Europe that culminated in the 1938 Anschluss Österreichs pressed Novotná into uprooting her operatic career and seeking safety on the opposite side of the Atlantic. It was as Mimì opposite Jussi Björling’s Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème that Novotná débuted at the MET on 5 January 1940. During the subsequent sixteen years, she was heard in New York as Gluck’s Euridice, Mozart’s Cherubino, Donna Elvira, and Pamina, Verdi’s Violetta, Wagner’s Freia, Antonia—and on a single occasional as Giulietta—in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, Massenet’s Manon, Orlofsky in Johann Strauß’s Die Fledermaus (the rôle in which she sang her last performance at the MET, on 15 January 1956), Richard Strauss’s Octavian, and Debussy’s Mélisande.

In editing Novotná’s memoirs for this publication, eminent television producer, author, and indefatigable advocate for opera and musical theatre William V. Madison preserved the candor that emanates from the singer’s chronicle whilst also producing a book that reads like the plot of a Tinseltown epic reduced to an intimate scale. A decade after Kristallnacht propelled Europe along the path to war, Novotná’s homeland was submerged in the deluge of post-World War II communism. Especially after her retirement from the MET, Novotná dedicated the conscientiousness that begat her reliable musicality to advocating for her countrymen’s freedom. As effective a player on the world stage as in opera houses, she championed the Czech people’s right to self-rule, endearing herself to a nation from which she was involuntarily absent for a half-century. The manifest sadness of Novotná’s longing for democracy in Czechoslovakia is balanced by the joy with which she describes her adventures in Hollywood, the world’s opera houses, and the art of living.

Vitally, it is Novotná’s voice that emerges from the pages of My Life in Song. Though Madison’s editorial adroitness is apparent throughout the book, there is no appreciable effort on his part to manage or manipulate the narrative or the subject’s artistic persona. The foreword by late Opera News editor Brian Kellow, both a meaningful tribute to its author and an affectionate prelude to Novotná’s story, launches the book’s trajectory, a course that Madison follows with the unerring instincts of an accomplished storyteller. This is not a chronology that buries the soul of its subject beneath mounds of valuable but tedious statistics: this is a book in which an artistic soul is reincarnated through her own words.

Both great artists and opportunities to interact with them are now sadly rare, victims of a changing world with changing priorities. For today’s opera lovers, that Jarmila Novotná was a great artist can only be discerned from recordings and accounts of her work, but My Life in Song initiates a deeply personal conversation between the reader and this intriguing lady, a quarter-century after her death. The harmonies in My Life in Song are sometimes discreetly updated, but the melodies remain Novotná’s own, sung as only she could sing them.

IN REVIEW: Czech soprano JARMILA NOVOTNÁ as Freia in Richard Wagner's DAS RHEINGOLD at The Metropolitan Opera in 1944 [Photo uncredited, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Eine schöne Göttin: Czech soprano Jarmila Novotná as Freia in Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold at The Metropolitan Opera in 1944
[Photograph uncredited, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

06 November 2018

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Mezzo-soprano KATE LINDSEY revitalizes ancient poetry in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Charles Gounod’s seldom-heard Sapho

SINGER in the SPOTLIGHT: Mezzo-soprano KATE LINDSEY [Photo by Richard Dumas, © by Alpha Classics]Modern muse: world-renowned mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, poised to breathe new life into the title rôle in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Charles Gounod’s seldom-heard Sapho on 18 November 2018
[Photograph by Richard Dumas, © by Alpha Classics]

Opera is an invigorating, inspiriting, infuriating amalgamation of serendipitous circumstances, fortuitous mistakes, unflagging ambitions, and missed opportunities. With cyclical imprecision that mimics all of life’s most rewarding pursuits, operatic trends are as changeable as weather, the musical climate reacting with varying conviction to an enormous array of stimuli. So prominent was Charles Gounod’s Faust in the annals of the first decade of the history of New York’s Metropolitan Opera—it was with a performance of Faust that the MET was inaugurated on 22 October 1883, and Edith Wharton’s 1921 novel The Age of Innocence begins with a bemusedly satirical account of New York society’s fondness for the piece—that the new company’s venue was known as the Faustspielhaus. After being performed by MET forces in Philadelphia and Chicago, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette became the first French opera to be sung in its original language at the Metropolitan. Aside from a short-lived double bill that bizarrely partnered Philémon et Baucis with Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, four performances of Mireille in 1919, and accounts of the oratorio Mors et vita and the motet Gallia, Gounod’s popularity with MET audiences has been sustained by Faust and Roméo et Juliette.

It is often folly to extrapolate conclusions about broader tastes from the endeavors of a single entity, but, in the case of global interest in the music of Charles Gounod, the MET’s concentration on two of his operas at the expense of his other scores is generally reflective of the fate suffered by the composer’s music, particularly outside of his native France. Though his lesser-known operas have started to emerge from the shadows, some of them—La nonne sanglante and Le tribut de Zamora, for instance—having been both performed and recorded in recent seasons, the commercial domination of their ubiquitous brethren remains unchallenged. Far from the exalted stage of the MET, both Faust and Roméo et Juliette have been produced by Charlotte’s Opera Carolina, but, regardless of an encouraging venture into unfamiliar repertory with a staging of Rachmaninoff’s Aleko, further exploration of Gounod’s œuvre has not transpired. Whether in Paris, New York, or Charlotte, an opera company’s foremost goal must be to give audiences what they will pay to hear, but the enduring vitality of opera relies upon occasional initiatives by opera companies to lead audiences into new niches of repertoire.

Amongst the most welcome operatic trends of 2018 is the initiative that brings Virginia-born mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey back to Lisner Auditorium to sing the title rôle in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gounod’s rarely-presented first opera, Sapho, on Sunday, 18 November 2018. First performed by the famed Opéra de Paris in Salle Le Peletier on 16 April 1851, Sapho inducted its thirty-two-year-old composer into the contentious community of opera in the French capital, in which environment he would pursue success for the next three decades. Prior to the genesis of Sapho, much of Gounod’s artistic energy was devoted to the study and composition of liturgical music, and, despite having won the prestigious Prix de Rome with his cantata Fernand in 1839, the young composer pondered abandoning music and taking holy orders. The obstacles to its resounding notwithstanding, a musical voice as affecting as Gounod’s cannot be silenced.

Hearing Kate Lindsey sing affirms that hers, too, is a voice of irrepressible eloquence and zeal. Though well established in a busy, widely-acclaimed international career, Lindsey continues to approach performances with wonderment and inquisitiveness, whether she is singing a rôle for the first or the fiftieth time. Stylistic adaptability is widely demanded of younger singers, but Lindsey wields musical versatility with uncommon prowess. Since her 2005 début there as Javotte in Massenet’s Manon, she has been heard at the Metropolitan Opera in parts as diverse as Mozart’s Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Second Lady in Die Zauberflöte, and Annio in La clemenza di Tito, Tebaldo in Verdi’s Don Carlo, Wagner’s Rhinemaiden Wellgunde in both Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, Nicklausse and the Muse in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, Humperdinck’s Hänsel, and the Kuchtík in Dvořák’s Rusalka. Only weeks ago, she returned to the origins of opera in its modern form as a period-appropriate but dangerously seductive Nerone in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at the 2018 Salzburger Festspiele. Not surprisingly, a singer with French diction as impressive as this singer’s has also portrayed Siébel in Faust and Stéphano in Roméo et Juliette, enhancing these scores’ appeal to today’s listeners.

SINGER in the SPOTLIGHT: Mezzo-soprano KATE LINDSEY as Cherubino (right), with soprano Anja Harteros as Contessa d’Almaviva (left), in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s LE NOZZE DI FIGARO at The Metropolitan Opera in 2007 [Photo by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Che soave zeffiretto: mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Cherubino (right), with soprano Anja Harteros as Contessa d’Almaviva (left), in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at The Metropolitan Opera in 2007
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © The Metropolitan Opera]

A pinnacle in Washington Concert Opera’s three-decade history is Lindsey’s fiery singing of Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi [reviewed here], the musical richness of which she rivaled with her depiction of Léonor in the company’s 2016 performance of Donizetti’s La favorite [reviewed here]. Created in 1840 by Rosine Stoltz, the latter rôle was also sung with great distinction by celebrated mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, whose encouragement after an auspicious meeting in early 1850 induced Gounod to contemplate the composition of an opera. Viardot increased the persuasiveness of her motivation by renegotiating her contract with the Opéra de Paris for the 1850 - 1851 Season to include a stipulation that Gounod must be commissioned to write an opera. The commission was duly issued, a libretto was obtained from eminent man of letters Émile Augier, and the eventual composer of Faust and Roméo et Juliette immersed himself in the legend of history’s earliest female lyric poet. The presence of Viardot and tenor Louis Guéymard, who would go on to create rôles in La nonne sanglante and La reine de Saba for Gounod, in the cast of the opera’s first production was insufficient to capture the public’s attention, but discerning ears noted a talent for writing for voices that merited espousal and nurturing.

Learning the title rôle in Sapho for Washington Concert Opera’s performance, in which she will be joined by tenor Addison Marlor as Phaon, soprano Amina Edris as Glycère, bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana as Pythéas, and baritone Brian Vu as Alcée, under the baton of WCO’s Artistic Director Antony Walker, Lindsey is conscious of the influence that Pauline Viardot exerted upon the opera’s inspiration and genesis. ‘Viardot was absolutely committed to the dramatic nature of any piece she performed. She worked with Gounod from the ground up on this work,’ Lindsey recently said of Sapho. The individuality of her artistry is apparent in Lindsey’s work, but her renowned predecessor’s legacy in the propagation of Sapho looms large in her study of the part. ‘They wrote to each other constantly, as he lived in her country house, composing, while she was traveling and singing abroad,’ she said of Viardot and Gounod. ‘[Viardot’s] fingerprint is all over the score because she was such an essential element to the opera’s creation. Most specifically, she asked that the final aria [the oft-recorded ‘Ô ma lyre immortelle’] be modeled directly from Gounod’s beautiful “Chanson du pêcheur.” She found his original version of the opera’s conclusion too fragile and feeble for the character of Sapho, so she suggested this change, which Gounod readily embraced. Now, of course, it’s the most known music from this opera, so I suppose her instincts proved correct!’

Instinct is a vital component of Lindsey’s artistic constitution, and she has examined the disparities among Sapho’s plot and Twenty-First-Century perceptions of duty, integrity, and gender rôles with exceptional clarity and insight. Gounod’s and Augier’s tale of a woman who first forgives a man who betrays and curses her without full cognizance of the reasons for her actions and then ends her own life provides plentiful fodder for critics who revile opera’s dated sensibilities. Such censures are not wholly unjustified, Lindsey feels. ‘There probably is a chauvinistic element to all of this because [of] the social and cultural environments around which this opera was conceived and built,’ she admitted, but she went on to fervently articulate her confidence in Sapho’s timeless pertinence. ‘At the conclusion of this piece, I think most people would feel that Sapho is the character with the deepest level of integrity and conscience, which I think makes her incredibly strong. Her decision to sacrifice herself in order to protect the person she loves and to whom she must be loyal represents deep self-awareness and integrity.’ Sapho’s deeds are perhaps not palatable for modern audiences, the mezzo-soprano conceded, but the emotions that drive her are palpably, even painfully, relevant. ‘No, not many people would do that sort of thing today in the name of love, but, in a modern context, it’s not unlike what we ask from the military and many others in their willingness to sacrifice for love of country, cause, or conviction.’

Though Sapho will be performed in concert, a revealing aspect of Lindsey’s preparation for the performance is her erudite scrutiny of Sapho’s dramatic parallels with other rôles in—or soon to be in—her repertory. ‘[One] character I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is Orlando, based on the Virginia Woolf novel. In a year, I’ll be performing the rôle of Orlando in a new opera at the Wiener Staatsoper, so this character is on my mind a lot,’ she shared. She identifies a strong connection between Sapho and Orlando. ‘In the novel, Orlando is a poet in addition to being a character who seems to have eternal life, living on from generation to generation in a constantly-changing world. Not only that, Orlando begins the novel as a boy and then, many years later, he suddenly wakes up one day as a woman. There’s no doubt that Virginia Woolf, in writing this, was exploring layers [in] her own identity, and I’m fascinated to continue to examine and reflect upon this writer and the character of Orlando through whom she spoke.’ Lindsey’s observations suggest that, in a sense, this is a journey that began two-and-a-half millennia before Woolf’s lifetime with the historical Sappho‘s ‘Ode to Aphrodite.’

SINGER in the SPOTLIGHT: Mezzo-soprano KATE LINDSEY as Nerone (rear), with soprano SONYA YONCHEVA as Poppea (front), in Claudio Monteverdi’s L’INCORONAZIONE DI POPPEA at the 2018 Salzburger Festspiele [Photo by Maarten Vanden Abeele, © by Salzburger Festspiele]L’imperatore deviante: mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Nerone (rear), with soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Poppea (front), in Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at the 2018 Salzburger Festspiele
[Photograph by Maarten Vanden Abeele, © by Salzburger Festspiele]

It is tempting to presume that débuting a new rôle in concert is more congenial than singing it in a fully-staged performance, but Lindsey is mindful of the formidable challenges of forging a complete characterization without the benefits of scenic support. Daunting as this is, this adventurous singer is excited by the chance to find the character within the score rather than fitting the music to a director’s concept of the rôle. In the context of Washington Concert Opera’s performance, she stated with zest, ‘it’s all about the music. The drama derives entirely through the union of musicians on stage, and as singers we have to rely on our voices to convey the emotional and musical subtleties, which can sometimes be overshadowed in a big, staged production.’ This is not to say that Lindsey is immune to the thrill of the proverbial smell of the greasepaint, of course. ‘I certainly enjoy the big productions, which fill most of my schedule,’ she continued, ‘[but] it’s tremendously refreshing to return to the absolute essence of the music, especially in a new and less-familiar piece.’

In the 167 years since the first performance of Sapho, the opera’s fortunes have improved little. Many singers have included Sapho’s ‘Ô ma lyre immortelle’ in recitals, both on stage and on disc, but few of them have been advocates for Sapho. The score lacks the effortless emotional engagement of Faust and Roméo et Juliette, but its many musical and dramatic virtues can be very rewarding. To what can the neglect to which Sapho has been subjected be attributed? ‘I must say [that] I’m perplexed about this,’ Lindsey opined. ‘The only thing I can surmise is that it’s a rôle that really demands everything from one’s vocal range. For a mezzo, it is “death by high B” from the very start of the piece. For a soprano, perhaps it asks for too many moments of sustained lower-voiced passages.’

Lindsey is not the sort of singer who accepts an offer to perform a rôle simply because the notes that the part requires are in the voice. Offers to sing Sapho are unlikely to ever be plentiful, making Lindsey’s decision to participate in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Sapho an uniquely precious gift to Capital-Region opera lovers, but the rôle has still more attractions for this intrepid singer. ‘Well, Sapho is a woman, for one,’ she laughed. ‘For a singer who mostly plays trouser rôles, this is nice because subconsciously I find that there can be a different way I might approach the execution of a musical line or text based on the nature of the character.’ With Lindsey, though, the essence of any rôle is found in the composer’s music. ‘I enjoy the nobility with which [Sapho] is composed,’ she said. ‘In order to sing this, the voice has to be open, open, open! It’s a good lesson for me in that regard, as I don’t get so many opportunities to sing this sort of bel canto repertoire. It’s a real physical release to let the voice free in the currents of long, flowing, and soaring lines. Musically, it’s incredibly beautiful, impassioned, and poignant, and it contains multitudes of “goose-bump moments”.’

As Washington Concert Opera’s performance aims to prove, Sapho possesses all of these qualities, validating her status as a worthy sister to Faust and Roméo et Juliette. Washington Concert Opera patrons already know that incredible beauty, passion, poignancy, and an abundance of goose-bump moments are trademarks of Kate Lindsey’s artistry.

SINGER in the SPOTLIGHT: mezzo-soprano KATE LINDSEY [Photo © by Rosetta Greek]Passionate poetess: mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, star of Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Charles Gounod’s Sapho on 18 November 2018
[Photograph © by Rosetta Greek]

To learn more about Kate Lindsey’s career and upcoming engagements, please visit her official website.

Please click here to obtain more information or to purchase tickets for Washington Concert Opera’s 18 November concert performance of Sapho in Lisner Auditorium on the campus of The George Washington University.

Sincerest thanks to Ms. Lindsey for her thoughtful and thought-provoking responses to questions for this Spotlight.

23 October 2018

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini — NORMA (L. Crocetto, E. DeShong, C. Shelton, A. Li, W. Henderson, K. Felty; North Carolina Opera, 21 October 2018)

IN REVIEW: North Carolina Opera's concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA at Meymandi Concert Hall; Sunday, 21 October 2018 [Graphic © by North Carolina Opera]VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835): Norma Leah Crocetto (Norma - rôle début), Elizabeth DeShong (Adalgisa), Chad Shelton (Pollione), Ao Li (Oroveso - rôle début), Wade Henderson (Flavio), Kathleen Felty (Clotilde); North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Antony Walker, conductor [Performed in concert by North Carolina Opera in Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 21 October 2018]

Virtually every niche of operatic repertory has its behemoths that test opera companies’ musical, scenic, and financial resources—Händel’s Rinaldo, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Verdi’s Aida, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, Puccini’s Turandot, Heggie’s Moby-Dick... Successfully staging works such as these legitimizes an opera company’s standing in the Arts community: produce an Aida or a Turandot that is memorable for the right reasons, and doubts about an opera company’s viability and artistic merit are largely dispelled. There are many works in the bel canto repertory that, if performed in accordance with their composers’ and librettists’ intentions, make fearsome demands on everyone involved with the performance of opera, but the glorious beast among the beauties is unquestionably Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma.

Premièred at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on 26 December 1831, with a cast that included Giuditta Pasta as Norma, Giulia Grisi as Adalgisa, Domenico Donzelli as Pollione, and Vincenzo Negrini as Oroveso, Norma is one of a handful of bel canto operas that never wholly disappeared from the repertory in the years between initial successes and the Twentieth-Century revival of interest in music of this era. Norma was first performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on 27 February 1890, in the company’s seventh season, upon which occasion the opera was sung in German by a cast headed by Lilli Lehmann’s Norma. [As of its most recent hearing in December 2017, Norma has been performed 174 times at the MET, whereas Bizet’s Carmen has received 1,010 performances to date, and Puccini’s La bohème has amassed 1,326 MET performances.] In the nine decades since Rosa Ponselle sang her first Norma at the MET in 1927, some of the world’s most acclaimed singers have been heard as Norma, but encountering a performance of Norma beyond operatically-inclined major metropolitan areas remains relatively rare. That North Carolina Opera brought Norma to Raleigh was remarkable enough, but the virtues of the company’s concert performance in Meymandi Concert Hall verified what many attentive opera lovers already know: world-class opera is no longer the exclusive property of famous opera houses.

North Carolina Opera’s Norma benefited from the leadership of Australian conductor Antony Walker, whose mastery of bel canto has been particularly apparent in his many performances with Washington Concert Opera. Bellini’s music has been accused of being boringly simplistic, with a preponderance of common time making his operas dully foursquare, but Walker’s approach proved from the opening bars of the Sinfonia that blandness afflicts interpretations of Norma rather than the music itself. The physicality of Walker’s conducting is reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein, but any suggestion of showmanship in his work is mitigated by his musicality. In Raleigh, he paced Norma effectively but sometimes idiosyncratically. Tempi in Act One were occasionally lugubrious, causing what dramatic momentum could be generated in the concert setting to stall.

The most baffling aspect of the performance was the cuts, which trimmed little time from the opera’s duration but were jarring, especially in the orchestral postlude to Norma’s cabaletta: here, even the musicians sounded lost in the perfunctory conclusion of the scene. Walker’s conducting was more consistent in Act Two, with stimulating but sensible tempi in Norma’s scenes with Adalgisa and Pollione. Nothing in the maestro’s work was arbitrary. Even when unusual, his choices of tempo always seemed justified by clear-sighted interpretive nuances allied with a discernible consciousness of the performance’s overall trajectory. As in his performances with Washington Concert Opera, Walker’s work substantiated the musical advantages of performing bel canto repertory in concert, foremost among which is facilitating appreciation of the score without visual diversions.

Under Walker’s baton, the playing of the North Carolina Opera Orchestra was mostly expert, the musicians executing their parts with energy and enthusiasm. Mistakes were commendably few, but there was an overall roughness to the playing that was perhaps a symptom of the sort of brief rehearsal schedule typical of concert performances. It was difficult to discern whether orchestral balances were compromised or the instruments’ sounds were adversely affected by the concert hall’s dry acoustic. From house left, the harp was inaudible, and wind instruments emerged from the soundscape with distracting prominence. Observation of Walker’s cuing of individual sections of the orchestra hinted at the conductor​’s awareness of sonic challenges, but these were only partially conquered. Nevertheless, North Carolina Opera’s musicians played capably and conscientiously, their finest moments rivaling the work of orchestras with long-established acquaintances with Bellini’s music.

Like their orchestral colleagues, the ladies and gentlemen of the North Carolina Opera Chorus performed spiritedly. Trained by an invaluable asset to North Carolina’s musical life, High Point University professor and acclaimed baritone Scott MacLeod, the choristers launched the opera’s first act with an account of ‘Dell’aura tua profetica’ that exuded the mystery of the Druids’ primordial sylvan world. Their statement of ‘Norma viene’ imparted a genuine sense of anticipation that transformed into exasperation as their quest for rebellion was denied by Norma’s counsel. In Act Two, their singing of ‘Attendiam: un breve inciampo non ci turbi’ radiated laudable engagement with the meaning of the words. The sincerity of the Druids’ exclamations of ‘Guerra, guerra!’ was beyond doubt, and the visceral excitement of their vocalism was electrifying. The best choral singing of the afternoon came in the opera’s final scene. The shock, horror, and sadness of her community’s reactions to Norma’s confession of having broken her vows were palpably conveyed. There were momentary lapses in ensemble and instances of singing that was more accurate dramatically than musically, but this was a chorus of blood-thirsty Druids, not carefree rustic townsfolk. Plotting war against Rome was surely not always perfectly-tuned business.

A stalwart veteran of North Carolina Opera productions and musical events throughout and beyond the Triangle, tenor Wade Henderson imbued his portrayal of the Roman centurion Flavio in North Carolina Opera’s Norma with vocal security that lent this often-overshadowed character a vibrant musical profile. Singing only in a single scene in Act One, Flavio has little to do, but the music with which he is entrusted is often sung poorly by singers who appear as though they would rather be doing something else. This Flavio, however, was a man would sounded like a willing agent of imperial authority. Henderson voiced ‘In quella selva è morte’ with apt gravitas, and his intoning of ‘Odi? I suoi riti a compiere Norma dal tempio move’ conveyed a palpable sense of alarm. Henderson should always be singing leading rôles, but this Norma was enriched by his depiction of Flavio.

Also contributing markedly to the strengths of this Norma was the performance of mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty, who sang the rôle of Norma’s confidante Clotilde with firm, attractive tone, the impact of which could have been improved by intensification of her focus on forward projection of the voice. In her brief appearance in Act One, Felty sang ‘E qual ti turba strano timor’ pensively, credibly portraying the loyal friend’s sympathy for Norma. Compassionately describing Adalgisa’s anguish to Norma in Act Two, this Clotilde voiced ‘Ella qui presso solitaria si aggira’ with solemnity. The urgency of the character’s utterance of ‘Al nostro tempio insulto fece un romano’ was only partially realized by Felty’s measured enunciation, but, like Henderson, she brought a voice of fine quality to her assignment.

The rôle of Norma’s father Oroveso is often marginalized, both by directors and by indifferent, uninteresting singing. The part is reduced to a comprimario onlooker by merciless excision of his music on a major-label studio recording of Norma, in fact, but as unforgiving a critic of Italian opera as Richard Wagner deemed Oroveso important enough to warrant his composition of an alternate aria for him, intended to be sung by Luigi Lablache in a Paris Norma but seemingly not heard until the Twentieth Century. [Wagner’s aria for Oroveso, ‘Norma il predisse, o druidi,’ is now sporadically included in performances of Norma, including in Boston Opera’s 1971 performances and Florida Grand Opera’s 2016 production.] Singing his first Oroveso, Chinese bass-baritone Ao Li rightly preferred Bellini’s original music, but his performance legitimized Wagner’s confidence in the rôle’s potential. The superb caliber of Li’s instrument was immediately evident upon his entrance in Act One. His assured voicing of ‘Ite sul colle, o druidi’ and ‘Sì: parlerà terribile da queste querce antiche’ established Oroveso as a consequential participant in the drama, and Li was a sonorous, involved presence in the scene prefacing Norma’s ‘Casta diva.’

Oroveso faces a crisis of conscience in Act Two, Norma’s crimes against her sacred calling pitting the character’s paternal instincts against his responsibilities as a defender of his ancient culture. Li declaimed the recitative ‘Guerrieri! a voi venirne credea foriero d’avvenir migliore’ with unstinting brawn. Though undeniably impressive, the raw power of the bass-baritone’s vocalism was intermittently wearying. The character’s shifting emotional predicament calls for more variation in the singer’s delivery than Li offered, but this will likely come with further performances of the rôle. His singing of ‘Ah! del Tebro al giogo indegno fremo io pure’ was marginally uneven in phrasing but uniformly handsome of tone—and concluded with a full-bodied low F. In the subsequent scene with Norma and the final scene, Li lucidly evinced Oroveso’s inner conflict. His command of the subtleties of Bellini’s music was not yet complete, but Li sang Oroveso’s music with striking proficiency.

Tenor Chad Shelton’s Pollione was heard earlier in 2018 opposite Liudmyla Monastyrska’s still-new depiction of the title rôle in Houston Grand Opera’s Norma, and his experience in the part was apparent in the unapologetic bravado of his performance. Shelton made his entrance in Act One with barely-containable machismo, the libidinous proconsul’s passions sweeping through the tenor’s body language. The fervor of his enunciation of ‘Svanir le voci!’ was largely effected through volume, but there were signs of a lighter touch in the cavatina ‘Meco all’altar di Venere era Adalgisa in Roma,’ which in Shelton’s performance shared a latent eroticism with Iago’s duplicitous description of Cassio’s dream in Verdi’s Otello. The swagger of the cabaletta ‘Me protegge, me difende un poter maggio di loro’ suited the singer’s emphatic style better than any other music in the score and was sung with abandon. Though on stentorian form, Shelton avoided the written top C in the aria and the B♭ traditionally interpolated in the cabaletta’s coda.

Shelton’s voice had no shortage of resonance in Pollione’s duet with Adalgisa, but, here and elsewhere, his efforts at subtlety seemed contrived. The tenor voiced ‘Va’, crudele; al dio spietato offri in dote il sangue mio’ lustily, and his ‘Vieni in Roma, ah! vieni, o cara’ was more domineering than persuasive. Shelton hurled out ‘Norma! de’ tuoi rimproveri segno non farmi adesso’ in the tempestuous trio with defiance, and his negotiation of Pollione’s awkwardly disjointed vocal line was predictably rousing. Absent from Act Two until the blazing duet with Norma that precipitates the opera’s ultimate tragedy, Pollione makes a final attempt to thwart his former lover’s desire for vengeance, and Shelton roared ‘Ah! t’appaghi il mio terrore’ with the distress of a man suddenly perceiving the limitations of his fortitude. Never retreating from the chest-beating masculinity of his portrayal, he tried valiantly to draw his Norma into a musical battle of wits. Shelton’s Pollione did not complacently surrender to his fate in the opera’s finale: like Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, he unhesitatingly sought death. Vocally, Shelton’s work was variable, bruising Bellini’s music, but his Pollione had brashness and courage absent from many depictions of the part.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) tenor CHAD SHELTON as Pollione, mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG as Adalgisa, and soprano LEAH CROCETTO as Norma in North Carolina Opera's concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA, 21 October 2018 [Photo by Michael Zirkle, © by North Carolina Opera]Three’s a crowd: (from left to right) tenor Chad Shelton as Pollione, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Adalgisa, and soprano Leah Crocetto as Norma in North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, 21 October 2018
[Photograph by Michael Zirkle, © by North Carolina Opera]

North Carolina Opera had in mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as satisfying an interpreter of Adalgisa as could be heard anywhere in the world today; and one in full communion with the sisterhood of exalted past exponents of the rôle. The delicacy of her first notes in her introductory scene gave her articulation of ‘Sgombra è la sacra selva’ compelling honesty, the dulcet femininity of her singing creating an arrestingly multidimensional portrait of the character. So heartfelt was DeShong’s singing of the beautiful largo ‘Deh! proteggimi, o dio: perduta son io’ that the depth of Adalgisa’s illicit love for Pollione was wrenchingly evident. In the fast-moving duet with Pollione, DeShong voiced ‘E tu pure, ah! tu non sai quanto costi a me dolente!’ impulsively, effortlessly rocketing to the climactic top notes. The elusive art of bel canto shone in her readings of ‘Ciel! così parlar l’ascolto sempre, ovunque, al tempio istesso’ and ‘Sì, fedele a te, a te sarò,’ her top B♭ unforced but forceful. At the start of her scene with Norma, there was unmistakable apprehension in the mezzo-soprano’s statement of ‘Alma, costanza,’ and the finesse of her handling of ‘Dolci qual arpa armonica’ disclosed an abiding understanding of the text. Her top C in ‘Ripeti, o ciel, ripetimi’ was not without strain, but she reached and sustained it resiliently. DeShong dominated the trio: with Norma and Pollione sparring around her, this Adalgisa exerted herself with newfound surety and vocal eloquence indicative of the character’s spiritual purity.

When DeShong’s Adalgisa acquiesced to Norma’s summons in Act Two, Bellini’s request that ‘Me chiami, o Norma’ be sung ‘con timore’ was touchingly honored. DeShong elucidated the genius of Bellini’s writing for Adalgisa in ‘Sì, giurai ma il tuo bene’ by shaping each phrase with concern for its cumulative effect. Here, the written top Cs came easily but were always integrated parts of the melodic line. Adalgisa’s second duet with Norma is one of the most perfect flowerings of Bellini’s meticulously-cultivated bel canto and in DeShong’s performance sounded like it. She phrased ‘Mira, o Norma, a’ tuoi ginocchi questi cari pargoletti’ with incredible breath control, the limpidity of her tones ideal for the music. Walker’s brisk tempo for ‘Sì, fino all’ore estreme’ posed no problems for DeShong, whose technique triumphed over every obstacle. Joining Norma on a bright, secure top C, she finalized her portrayal of Adalgisa with an exclamation point. As a demonstration of impeccably-prepared, unforgettably beautiful, and poignantly expressive bel canto singing, DeShong’s performance was in a class of its own.

The singer who contemplates her rôle début as Norma without trepidation either has both nerves and a throat girded with iron or has not truly learned the music. The historical precedents for failure in the rôle are far more prevalent than those for success, renowned and generally able singers having come to grief in their performances of Bellini’s music, but the accolades that reward efficacious Normas make assaying the rôle a risk that ambitious singers are willing to take. Already a praised Semiramide, Luisa Miller, and Aida, soprano Leah Crocetto added Norma to her repertoire with this performance. Wielding a lirico spinto voice with carefully-honed agility and a band of steel at the upper extremity, Crocetto possesses basic qualifications needed to sing Norma’s music properly. Nonetheless, cogently inhabiting the rôle relies upon far more than vocal endowment, and Crocetto’s inaugural Norma was a work in progress, promising but still notably incomplete.

Inevitable and pardonable nervousness was likely to blame, at least in part, for several missed cues in the soprano’s performance, but it cannot be pretended that, in the context of a concert performance in which scores were employed, this was not worrying. In general, Crocetto was quick to recover from these lapses in timing. In her first scene in Act One, she traversed ‘Sediziose voci’ cautiously, the voice sounding inadequately supported in the lower octave. Interestingly, though, the sublime cavatina ‘Casta diva, che inargenti queste sacre antiche piante,’ a piece known to defeat singers who otherwise thrive in the part, was the most satisfying episode in Crocetto’s performance. The repeated top As and the B♭s on which the filigree-laden lines crest were produced without pushing the voice, but the wisdom of utilizing a variation of the aria’s conclusion devised for Maria Malibran was controverted by a trill that never materialized. ‘Fine al rito’ was dramatically inert but musically potent. She sang the cabaletta ‘Ah! bello a me ritorna del fido amor primiero,’ a repurposed piece found in two of Bellini’s pre-Norma operas, adventurously, unbothered by the written top Cs. Moreover, the explosive top C with which she ended the cabaletta may have caused structural damage to the auditorium.

The first of Norma’s momentous scenes with Adalgisa paired Crocetto with DeShong, whose stylish singing positively affected the soprano’s vocalism. She sang ‘Vanne, e li cela entrambi’ incisively, and there were mesmerizing sounds in her reading of ‘Oh! rimembranza! io fui così rapita al sol mirarlo in volto.’ Crocetto was motivated by DeShong to devote to ‘Ah! sì, fa’ core, e abbracciami’ heightened concentration on the unique accents of Bellini’s musical language. The mounting agitation of the great trio spurred the soprano to elevate the dramatic temperature of her performance. The pair of top Cs in the polacca, ‘Oh, non tremare, o perfido,’ were unerringly placed, and Crocetto handled the fiorature with aplomb. The ire that erupted from her Norma in ‘Oh! di qual sei tu vittima’ and‘ Vanne sì: mi lascia, indegno’ epitomized the rightly-feared fury of a woman scorned. Her top D was a figurative blow to the man who dared to toy with her affections.

Whether staged or performed in concert, the scene that begins Act Two is—or can be—one of the most tense scenes in opera. Unsettled by the revelation of Pollione’s relationship with Adalgisa, Norma contemplates slaying her own children, the innocent reminders of her amorous weakness. Walker initiated the scene with an oppressive aura of foreboding, and Crocetto voiced ‘Dormono entrambi’ with burgeoning tragedy that contrasted with the tenderness flooded her singing of ‘Teneri, teneri figli.’ The​ terror and disgust of ‘Ah! no! son miei figli!’​ were subdued​, but, in Norma’s final exchange with Adalgisa, the soprano sang first ‘Deh! con te, con te, il prendi’ and then ‘Ah! perchè la mia costanza vuoi scemar con molli affetti,’ her rejoinder to Adalgisa’s ‘Mira, o Norma,’ with increased zeal. She ably partnered DeShong in ‘Sì, fino all’ore estreme,’ achieving an agreeable balance between their very different timbres.

Crocetto crowned ‘Ei tornerà’ with a hauntingly beautiful top C, and her imposing bravura—again minus trills—suffused her singing in the duet with Pollione, ‘In mia man alfin tu sei,’ with vitality that her dramatic deportment lacked. Norma’s response of ‘Son io’ when pressed to reveal the identity of the errant priestess is among the opera’s most grueling passages, one in which even Maria Callas famously failed to please an obstreperous La Scala audience, and Crocetto’s pronouncement of the calamitous words was appealing but aloof. The arching vocal lines of the music with which Norma reproaches the vanquished Pollione and embraces her fiery demise provided Crocetto with opportunities to exhibit her legato faculties, and both ‘Qual cor tradisti, qual cor perdesti’ and ‘Deh! non volerli vittime del mio fatale errore’ received her most inward, intimate singing of the afternoon, but her legato was not equal to Bellini’s music. Musically, Crocetto displayed some of the traits needed to succeed as Norma, but the fundamental equipoise of voice and technique was not yet present. Dramatically, her first Norma was too impersonal to be convincing as a priestess willing to renounce her way of life for a forbidden love.

Bel canto connoisseurs wary of hearing inept performances of the operas that they love sometimes advocate shelving Norma until singers comparable to the quartet who sang in the opera’s first, sadly incomplete, Metropolitan Opera broadcast—Rosa Ponselle, Gladys Swarthout, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, and Ezio Pinza—emerge to perform the principal rôles with the requisite dexterity and glamour. Doing this would deprive whole generations of listeners of fully experiencing this magnificent music. Furthermore, singers do not leave conservatories with diplomas that magically render them fit to sing Norma. This is music to which exceptional voices and techniques must acclimate, and that is accomplished solely by studying, rehearsing, and performing the opera. North Carolina Opera’s Norma was not an illustrious afternoon in the opera’s nearly-two-century performance history, but it was a significant event in the annals of opera in Raleigh and, imperfections notwithstanding, a respectable attempt at scaling the heights of one of opera’s most perilous peaks.

19 October 2018

BEST CONTEMPORARY MUSIC RECORDING OF 2018: Harold Meltzer — SONGS AND STRUCTURES (P. Appleby, M. Cuckson, N. Katyukova, B. McMillen, Avalon String Quartet; Bridge Records BCD 9513)

BEST CONTEMPORARY MUSIC RECORDING OF 2018: Harold Meltzer - SONGS AND STRUCTURES (Bridge Records BCD 9513)HAROLD MELTZER (born 1966): Songs and Structures Paul Appleby, tenor; Miranda Cuckson, violin; Natalia Katyukova and Blair McMillen, piano; Avalon String Quartet [Recording venue(s) and date(s) not specified; Bridge Records BCD 9513; 1 CD, 60:51; Available from Bridge Records, Naxos Direct, Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

When hearing new music, it is imperative to remember that at some time all music was contemporary. Bach, Brahms, Beatles, or Beyoncé, the evolution of the music of any artist or age can be traced to a finite beginning before which its influences and inspirations were only disparate noises and notions. Physiologically, artistic creation is owed to fortuitous ignitions of synapses within complex cognitive processes, but there is something unknowable and unnameable in the mind that sees a raindrop, a star, or a skyscraper and perceives within and beyond its shape, past the limits of sight, the song that it sings into the void. The ability to hear these songs and to recreate them in sounds that other ears can perceive is eternally new. The sounds become familiar, but it is too often the familiarity of words repeated but not comprehended. In the most basic sense, contemporary music is nearer in temporal proximity to the listener than the music of past masters, but the dissolution of time is one of music’s most potent powers. The music by American composer Harold Meltzer on this Bridge Records release, Songs and Structures, is new not solely owing to its recency but, more significantly, because it makes audible the songs of iconic structures of modern life, physical and psychological. Just as Bach’s Passions are forever contemporary, the works on Songs and Structures are newly ageless.

A quartet of settings of verses by British poet Ted Hughes, Meltzer’s song cycle Bride of the Island was premièred by tenor Paul Appleby and pianist Natalia Katyukova in 2016. Composer and tenor have fostered a professional relationship not unlike the one between Franz Schubert and Johann Michael Vogl, the baritone whose performances of Schubert’s Lieder motivated the composition of some of the finest songs in the canon. In his performances on Songs and Structures, Appleby sings Meltzer’s songs as though both music and words are his own, instinctively fusing his vocalism with Katyukova’s versatile pianism. From the first bar of ‘Reveille,’ tenor and pianist entwine their instruments with shared awareness of aural textures.

Meltzer traced the narrative trajectory of ‘Reveille’ in music of absorbing simplicity, and Appleby deftly manages the ascents to Gs and A♭s above the stave. Katyukova articulates the swirling aquatic figurations that cascade through ‘Sugar Loaf’ with rhythmic exactness that propels but never hurries the performance. ‘The water is wild as alcohol’ is among Hughes’s most evocative lines, and Meltzer seized the opportunity of its musical potential by crafting a vocal line that enhances the words’ histrionic strength. It is the tenor’s lyricism that illuminates the paradoxes of ‘Thistles.’ His direct enunciation of ‘Every one a revengeful burst of resurrection’ reveals the poetic erudition of Meltzer’s treatment of the text. Appleby and Katyukova perform ‘Hay’ with a suggestion of cynicism that reaches its—and the cycle’s—climax in the line ‘Her heart is the weather.’ The disquieting honesty of Appleby’s delivery of the words ‘She loves nobody’ infuses Meltzer’s subtle musical prosody with startling immediacy. The contrast of the passage taking the tenor to top A, sung triumphantly as stipulated by the composer’s instructions, with the song’s ‘ghostly’ resolution ends Bride of the Island with a glimmer of deceptive serenity.

It is not difficult to conclude from a superficial survey of the history of Art Song that American music lacks a complementary literary tradition liked that of German Lieder, shaped by poets of the order of Goethe, Heine, and Schiller. Such a conclusion, however misguided, cannot be wholly rejected, but its validity is substantially reduced by works such as Meltzer’s Beautiful Ohio. The composer found in the poems by James Wright from which Beautiful Ohio’s texts are drawn an economy of words with layers of meaning that, like Shakespeare’s sonnets and the works of William Blake, reveal different truths to each observer. Beautiful Ohio shares with Schubert’s Winterreise an ambivalence about coping with loss, but it is Brahms’s adaptations of biblical texts in his Vier ernste Gesänge that Meltzer’s emotionally-charged treatments of Wright’s words most closely parallels.

Appleby premièred Beautiful Ohio in 2010, and he and Katyukova prove in the performance on Songs and Structures to be as musically and dramatically well-matched in this music as in Bride of the Island. The vivid imagery of the opening song, ‘Small Frogs Killed on the Highway,’ as bizarrely poignant as its title intimates, is communicated assertively but without exaggerated pathos. Appleby and Katyukova approach ‘Little Marble Boy’ reverently, as though performing the song in the hollow, hallowed space conjured in Wright’s poem, their sounds demonstrating the skill with which Meltzer instilled the mood of the text in his music. In ‘Beautiful Ohio,’ the tenor voices ‘I know what we call it / Most of the time’ with particular eloquence, echoing the wariness that haunts the music.

In all of these songs, Katyukova’s playing provides a second voice, not disinterested accompaniment, and her technical mastery of Meltzer’s writing for the piano allows her to focus on nuances of phrasing that reinforce details of her colleague’s interpretation, not least in ‘Caprice.’ Untroubled by the tricky chromatic writing centered in the passaggio, Appleby voices ‘The trouble is / They keep turning faces toward me / That I recognize’ confidently. He and Katyukova boldly stride through the demands of ‘Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,’ unflinchingly confronting the ambiguities of both music and text. Though there is no real stylistic kinship between the works, the emotional currents by which the narrator’s journey in Beautiful Ohio is transported recall the bittersweet integration of thankfulness and sorrow at the core of the music composed by Henry Purcell for the funeral of Queen Mary II in 1695. The philosophical threads that bind words to music in Beautiful Ohio are more tangled than those woven into Purcell’s music, but Meltzer’s songs are no less reliant than any others upon performers’ prowess. Beautiful Ohio and Bride of the Island could be performed differently but surely no better than by Appleby and Katyukova on this disc.

Aqua for string quartet is a musical response to the visual and spatial impact of Aqua Tower, a residential building at 225 N. Columbus Drive in Chicago’s Lakeshore East development that was designed and built under the supervision of a team headed by noted architect Jeanne Gang. Meltzer’s writing in Aqua is as intrinsically ‘vocal’ as in his song cycles, the interactions among instruments here probing the metaphysical implications of an edifice’s marriages of earth and sky, steel and glass, public and private. One of the most intriguing aspects of Meltzer’s artistry is his gift for fabricating gossamer strands of sound that metamorphose into vast vistas. The performance of Aqua by Avalon String Quartet on this disc is a celebration of musical camaraderie, the instruments’ timbres combining to produce an engrossing sonic silhouette of Aqua Tower. The ways in which Meltzer’s part writing exploits traditional tonal relationships are reminiscent of Arvo Pärt’s syntheses of plainsong. The Avalon musicians are clearly as aware of their colleagues’ playing as of their own. They are also unmistakably aware of how Aqua dissolves the boundaries between visible monuments to man’s ambitions and the intangible pursuit of community.

Composed in fulfillment of a commission by the Library of Congress for a work to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the death of celebrated Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962), Meltzer’s Kreisleriana pays homage both to Kreisler and to the music that he espoused. Organized in six movements, the piece might be described as a series of variations on a theme of virtuosity. Kreisler studied with Bruckner, Delibes, and Massenet in the course of an education that exposed him to virtually every trend in composing for the violin and gave him technical assurance sufficient to write his own pieces and successfully masquerade them as works by renowned composers.

Meltzer’s music traverses a broad spectrum of musical influences, but his own voice remains audible, especially in the inimitably innovative development of thematic material. The performance of Kreisleriana by violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blain McMillen is a whirlwind of technical wizardry of which Kreisler would be proud, but there is depth in this music greater than virtuosity alone can infiltrate. Cuckson never attempts to mimic Kreisler’s singular style of playing: rather, she plays Meltzer’s music with her own impassioned phrasing, which McMillen supports with pianism of sensitivity and suavity. Kreisleriana does not attempt to be an Enigma-esque musical portrait of its subject. If Meltzer tasked himself with composing music that reimagines Kreisler’s artistry from a Twenty-First-Century perspective, he succeeded. In this performance, Cuckson and McMillen succeed in playing Meltzer’s music as Kreisler played Beethoven’s.

All music is a tribute to something—a person, a place, an event, an idea. The composer’s imagination is besieged by a realization or a recollection, and music seeps or surges from the creative deluge that results. It is not necessary for the listener to know the circumstances of a piece’s genesis in order to feel the pull of the music’s sentimental gravity. The connections between listener and composer, not esoteric bonds, determine the relevance of music. In order to enjoy the music on Songs and Structures, the listener needs no acquaintance with the literary world of Ted Hughes, the sights of Ohio and Chicago, or the career of Fritz Kreisler. Harold Meltzer’s musical tributes come with no prerequisites: the performances on Songs and Structures need only to be heard to be understood.