30 December 2018

CD REVIEW: Mark Abel — TIME AND DISTANCE (J. DeStefano, H. Plitmann, C. Rosenberger, T. Tadmor, M. Abel, B. Carver; Delos DE 3550)

IN REVIEW: Mark Abel - TIME AND DISTANCE (Delos DE 3550)MARK ABEL (born 1948): Time and DistanceJanelle DeStefano, mezzo-soprano; Hila Plitmann, soprano; Carol Rosenberger and Tali Tadmor, piano; Mark Abel, organ; Bruce Carver, percussion [Recorded at The Bridge, Glendale, California, USA, June – November 2017; Delos DE 3550; 1 CD, 57:03; Available from Delos Music, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Poets, philosophers, and similarly-inclined personages have long proposed that music is a universal language, one in which sentiments impervious to the communicative capacities of words alone can be satisfactorily and comprehensibly articulated. Music can be argued to be a sort of communal mother tongue in which differences of accent, syntax, and vocabulary do not impede understanding. Its dialects are as numerous as combinations of melody and harmony, but it is not ‘speaking’ its language but hearing its discourses that wields the true connective energy of music. The sounds of Zydeco are meaningful to the listener whose first language is that of Zelenka or Zandonai because they stimulate the heart as boldly as they provoke the brain. Minds perceive as they are trained to do, but hearts are governed by a consistent mechanism. One man’s tunes are different from another’s, but, like the hearts to which they appeal, they are propelled by beats that any man can discern.

Music can peer clear-sightedly into corners of the psyche in which the eyes perceive only darkness, but time and distance are confoundingly convoluted concepts for musical explication. Spatially, they are remarkably analogous entities: tangible in their physical manifestations but intrinsically intangible, their shared power is that of separation. The mind assesses the ravages of time and the displacements of distance, yet the solemn duty of gauging the emotional tolls of the effects of time and distance falls to the heart. In the works of American composer Mark Abel featured on Delos’s masterfully-recorded release Time and Distance, the intricacies of the relationships that inexorably link humanity with the divisive repercussions of the physical and emotional separations wrought by time and distance are examined in songs of grace and gravity. The music on this disc does not inhabit the shadows made by abstractions. Too plentiful to enumerate are the passages in this music that are so wrenchingly private that they may compel the listener to ask, ‘How can this man whom I have never met know so much about my life?’ This intuition, uncanny and unifying, is the foundation of Abel’s unique musical language and the quality that makes Time and Distance a disc that severs new veins of raw emotion each time that it is heard.

With an unsettlingly personal text by the composer, ‘The Invocation’ is an apt preamble to the metaphysical exploration of Time and Distance. Performed by mezzo-soprano Janelle DeStefano and pianist Carol Rosenberger with a suggestion of futile inquisitiveness, questioning having failed to penetrate the closely-guarded justification of the status quo, the song emerges as its own kind of inquisition. To what or to whom is the eponymous invocation addressed? For what response can flawed beings truly hope? Abel advances this searching pragmatism with music in which the writing for voice and piano echoes the ambivalent coexistence of optimism and cynicism that permeates the text. Rosenberger plays with an ideal equilibrium of dramatic impetus and aloofness, enabling DeStefano to emphatically evince the stark irony of words such as ‘We are tempted, we succumb, sometimes dangle from the bottom rung / And still we ask: Why must happiness be earned?’ without disrupting the organic progression of the music. This is not a performance that seeks to hide unpleasant realities behind façades of artificial loveliness: neither singer nor pianist rejects stringency when it is required, and the openness of their collaboration yields candid interpretive beauty.

In ‘Those Who Loved Medusa,’ Abel utilizes a provocative text by a fellow Californian, poet Kate Gale, as a catapult for some of his most theatrical music. Materializing in an atmosphere that undulates with the jangling of pseudo-ancient crotales, conjured by the work of percussionist Bruce Carver, the voice of soprano Hila Plitmann shimmers against the backdrop of Rosenberger’s pianism like a mirage of a lone Joshua tree in the Mohave, ephemeral but identifiable. Plitmann’s moonlight timbre contrasts markedly with the bleak imagery of the words, heightening the discomfort inflicted by the poet’s stinging irony. The soprano delivers the line ‘Fear the woman with her own snakes’ with restrained vehemence that discloses a deeply intellectual grasp of the text’s inherent contradictions, Medusa becoming Eve, Pandora, and every woman who has tasted the bittersweet elixir of destruction. Rosenberger plays hypnotically, charming the music’s writhing serpents, but the spell is easily broken. The vocal line strikes at the heels of tonality, Plitmann’s accuracy of pitch and verbal clarity claiming for battered womanhood a sonorously venomous victory.

The composer again looked to his own words for In the Rear View Mirror, Now, creating a triptych of songs with both strongly individual temperaments and an abiding cohesiveness. Plitmann is here accompanied by pianist Tali Tadmor and Abel as organist, and the structure of the music is paralleled by the cooperation of this musical trinity. A composer’s performance of his own music cannot be accepted as definitive without scrutiny, but Abel’s skill at the keyboard rivals Rachmaninoff’s playing of his works for piano, preserved on recordings and piano rolls. Tadmor’s work is no less successful, lyricism tempering bursts of bravura. The first song, ‘The Long Goodbye,’ is sung with a consistency of purpose embodied by Plitmann’s fervent singing of the words ‘Blame is ugly,’ her voice lending allure to the most disquieting nuances of the text. Reaction to the cultural disintegration instigated by gentrification of the San Francisco Bay Area shapes ‘The World Clock.’ Plitmann infuses the momentous lines ‘Technology changes / But people? Never / A simple principle, ages old’ with potent urgency, intensified by the sensitive accompaniment. There is an unmistakable kinship between the prevailing mood of Abel’s ‘The Nature of Friendship’ and the emotional claustrophobia of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. ‘Platonic love’s a most welcome narcotic’ and ‘They’d have kicked you off the Titanic’s lifeboat if it came to that’ are lines that the reclusive genius of Amherst might have written, and Abel’s musical settings amplify the essence of his words. Plitmann sings this music with concentrated directness. Her performance of In the Rear View Mirror, Now brings to mind the statement inscribed on vehicles’ side mirror: ‘objects in mirror are closer than they appear.’ ​Moving forward may increase the measurable distance between past and present, Abel intimates, but sentimental proximity is affected by no rules of logic or physics.

Herself an accomplished singer, Joanne Regenhardt published in a collection entitled Soundings a series of poems that radiate musicality, the sonic implications of her words rendering even an uninflected recitation of her verse a tuneful experience. Abel’s handling of her texts in The Ocean of Forgiveness bears the hallmarks of complementary sensibilities, the composer’s poetic insight leading him to the fathomless levels of meaning within the words. This artistic symbiosis also permeates DeStefano’s and Tadmor’s performance of the songs, initiated with an account of ‘Desert Wind’ that invites the listener to participate viscerally, transforming hearing into a conduit for feeling. In her forthright, almost frighteningly sincere voicing of ‘Sally’s Suicide,’ DeStefano enunciates the line ‘Existence like a sea anemone had become a fastened thing’ with unforgettable eloquence, seeming to find in those words an outlet for an exclamation from her own soul. The focus of the singer’s and pianist’s performance of ‘In Love with the Sky’ is also internalized, their partnership elucidating details of Abel’s shifting musical tableaux that less-attentive artists might overlook. The subtleties of textual cadences and thematic development that provide the momentum for the transition from ‘Reunion’ to ‘Patience’ are realized by DeStefano and Tadmor with uncommon cognizance of the words’ function as the blueprint for the music’s architecture. The Ocean of Forgiveness is a musical edifice as complex as the ideas that dwell within its depths: galvanized by the confident performance that they receive on this disc, these songs impart a genuinely moving awareness of the fear of drowning that prevents many people from surrendering to the tide of absolution.

Having begun with ‘The Invocation,’ concluding Time and Distance with ‘The Benediction’ bestows an element of finality upon the disc’s final moments—journey’s end, destination achieved. Composed in 2012, ‘The Benediction’ returns to Abel’s own poetry, enlivened in this performance by Plitmann’s verbal acuity. She and Tadmor find in the song’s surging plangency aspects of all of the songs heard on Time in Distance, revisiting the disparate tributaries of the disc’s primary expressive flow with an air of resolution reminiscent of that of the music that follows Brünnhilde’s immolation in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Abel’s is not a musical language of full stops, however: this is music of commas and semicolons, phrases completed but anticipating the arrival of new ideas.

Much contemporary vocal music is marred by a disconcerting disparity between the spirit of the words and the aural persona of the music, so pronounced in some pieces that one questions composers’ literacy. The peculiar sorcery of words’ transfiguration by music that gave birth to song is too often sacrificed to ego, creators seeking accolades at the expense of artistry. Franz Schubert earned praise by composing Lieder in which melody uplifted poetry. Johannes Brahms earned praise by writing songs in which the hidden secrets of the heart were exposed more graphically than in an autopsy. With the songs on Time and Distance, Mark Abel earns praise for musical innovation. Moreover, he garners affection by recapturing the enchantment of song. Man may never conquer the challenges of time and distance, but he comes nearest to triumph in music.

23 December 2018

CD REVIEW: Boyhood’s End — The Mozartists and Ian Page explore Mozart’s formative years with MOZART IN LONDON (R. Bottone, E. Dennis, A. Devin, M. Grimson, A. M. Labin, H. Sherman, B. Johnson, R. Murray; Signum Classics SIGCD534) and GRABMUSIK / BASTIEN UND BASTIENNE (A. L. Richter, J. Imbrailo, A. Fisher, D. Jeffery; Signum Classics SIGCD547)

In Review: MOZART IN LONDON (Signum Classics SIGCD534) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's GRABMUSIK / BASTIEN UND BASTIENNE (Signum Classics SIGCD547)[1] KARL FRIEDRICH ABEL (1723 – 1787), THOMAS AUGUSTINE ARNE (1710 – 1778), SAMUEL ARNOLD (1740 – 1802), JOHANN CHRISTIAN BACH (1735 – 1782), WILLIAM BATES (died 1778), EGIDIO DUNI (1708 – 1775), WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791), DAVIDE PEREZ (1711 – 1778), GIOVANNI BATTISTA PESCETTI (circa 1704 – 1766), and GEORGE RUSH (circa 1730 – circa 1780): Mozart in LondonRebecca Bottone, Eleanor Dennis, Anna Devin, Martene Grimson, Ana Maria Labin (sopranos); Helen Sherman (mezzo-soprano); Ben Johnson, Robert Murray (tenors); Steven Devine (harpsichord); The Mozartists; Ian Page, conductor [Recorded during live performances at Milton Court, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, UK, 20 – 22 February 2015; Signum Classics SIGCD534; 2 CDs, 144:50; Available from Signum Records, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART: Grabmusik, K. 42/35a (original 1767 version) and Bastien und Bastienne, K. 50 (original 1768 version)Anna Lucia Richter (Der Engel, Bastienne), Jacques Imbrailo (Die Seele), Alessandro Fisher (Bastien), Darren Jeffery (Colas); The Mozartists; Ian Page, conductor [Recorded at Blackheath Concert Halls, Blackheath, London, UK, 7 – 9 January 2018; Signum Classics SIGCD547; 1 CD, 66:24; Available from Signum Records, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Unlike most of the Twenty-First Century’s population centers, London was by the turn of the Nineteenth Century a teeming metropolis. It is estimated that, by the time of the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, London’s streets were congested by the traffic of 100,000 residents, and nearly 1.1 million Londoners were counted when the first modern census was conducted in 1801. Eight hundred miles away, there were likely 15,000 inhabitants of the Austrian city of Salzburg, then an independent archiepiscopal seat, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born there on 27 January 1756. Neither a small town as suggested by the fictional incarnation of Antonio Salieri who appears in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus nor the cultural Hinterland depicted in early biographies of Mozart, Salzburg was nevertheless dwarfed by London, which the composer’s youthful eyes first beheld on 23 April 1764, when he arrived from the Continent with his father and sister, poised to beguile the music-loving denizens of Georgian society.

It is hardly surprising that London should have exerted a strong effect upon the young Salzburger, his native city’s hilltop Schloss so different from the English capital’s elegant palaces. For the modern traveler visiting London for the first time, the enormity of the place can be daunting, but it is difficult to fathom how a boy with only eight years to his credit must have reacted to the city’s splendors. With the cataclysmic fire of 1666 less than a century in past at the time of the Mozarts’ arrival, many of Sir Christopher Wren’s architectural masterpieces were then still new by London standards. Still recent, too, was the absence from the London musical scene of Georg Friedrich Händel, who died on 14 April 1759. History has extolled Paris and Vienna as the centers of musical innovation in the Eighteenth Century, but the musical legacy of Georgian Britain rivals that of the period’s much-lauded literature.

That Leopold Mozart elected to remain in Britain for fifteen months, departing on the homeward journey on 24 July 1765, demonstrates that the discerning father valued the educational benefit of Wolfgang’s and his sister Nannerl’s extended exposure to England’s music and musicians. Subsequent generations have judged Vater Mozart harshly, deeming him to have been an unapologetic opportunist whose concern for his children’s well-being was outweighed by his cognizance of their earnings potential, but the nurturing of their natural talents that their work ultimately revealed at least provisionally rehabilitates Leopold’s parental reputation.

Unfortunately, none of Nannerl’s compositions are known to have survived, but her younger brother’s works on The Mozartists’ and Ian Page’s Signum Classics release Mozart in London, as well as his 1767 Grabmusik (K. 42/35a) and 1768 Singspiel Bastien und Bastienne (K. 50), the featured pieces on a subsequent Mozartists recording, vindicate the wisdom of Leopold’s judgment. In his correspondence, Mozart often discussed the influence of fellow composers whose music he admired, but the misconception that the creator of Così fan tuttle and Die Zauberflöte was the product solely of his own genius regrettably persists. Exploring music likely to have captivated his inquisitive young ears in 1764 and 1765, Mozart in London melodiously provides Mozart’s musical growth with historically-appropriate context.

Had encounters with The Mozartists and Ian Page transpired during the Mozarts’ 457 days in England, the family might well have remained in London indefinitely. A lingering problem in performances of music dating from the first two decades of Mozart’s life is the tendency to approach the music from the perspective of the works of his final fifteen years, unnecessarily and in many cases detrimentally imposing an inflated grandiosity on the music. No one now questions the legitimacy of Mozart’s genius: performing the works of his youth as though were written with the same inventiveness that shaped later pieces enlarges the distance between Mozart and the listener. This is a mistake never made by The Mozartists, whose goal to recreate the sound world in which Mozart was immersed in London in the 1760s is achieved with that most vital of historically-informed virtues—common sense.

In terms of aural balances, clarity, and avoidance of distracting noises off, these discs, recorded during concerts in London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, offer the listener an ideal sonic environment in which to appraise the novelties of this music. This is of course inconsequential if the quality of the performances is inferior to that of the recorded sound. Page ensures that the musicianship on Mozart in London is pristine, conducting with his customary stylistic flexibility and unflagging concentration. The musical dialects spoken by these pieces range from late Baroque to fledgling Romantic, and Page communicates effectively in each of them. The Mozartists play with indefatigable elegance that never stands in the way of evincing the music’s inherent passions. The instrumentalists play with an incontestable sense of responsibility for the successes of both Mozart in London and their performances of Grabmusik and Bastien und Bastienne. Their endeavors engender discs for which any musician would be proud to claim responsibility.

The composer’s shade hopefully will not be too incensed by the assertion that the selections from Mozart’s own early compositions are the least-interesting pieces included on Mozart in London, though only because they are not new to recordings. Performances of these works are not even a fraction as frequent as are those of his later music, but they are far from unknown. Rarely are they played as idiomatically as in these performances, however. Composed in Chelsea during August or September 1764, whilst his father convalesced from a minor malady, the Symphony No. 1 in E♭ major (K. 16) is a piece with ebullience that is little encumbered by musical reflections of characteristic English clouds and fogs. Page insightfully manages the tempo transitions among the Molto allegro, Andante, and Presto movements, his pacing brisk but by no means rushed.

The Allegro, Andante, and Presto chapters in the narrative of Symphony No. 4 in D major (K. 19) also receive nuanced but persuasively straightforward readings. The composer’s manuscript misplaced and feared lost for two centuries, the Symphony in F major (K. 19a) was Mozart’s inaugural venture in symphonic form, and it is here played with an apt air of discovery. Page and The Mozartists energetically limn the youthful zest of the Allegro assai and Presto movements, and the delicacy with which they articulate the melodic lines of the Andante exhibits what an ear for beauty that Mozart already possessed at the age of eight.

A setting of words from Pietro Metastasio’s much-used libretto Ezio, ‘Va, dal furor portata’ (K. 21) was Mozart’s first concert aria and was likely never performed during the composer’s lifetime. The performance by tenor Ben Johnson on Mozart in London is enjoyable despite fleeting insecurity in passagework. From the inception of his composition of vocal music, Mozart wielded a rare affinity for identifying the innate musicality of words, whether in German, Italian, or Latin. Johnson’s clear diction enables the listener to fully appreciate the cleverness of Mozart’s reaction to Metastasio’s text, and his burnished but light-textured voice perfectly suits the music.

Karl Friedrich Abel was among the German-speaking composers who followed the Hannoverian dynasty to London, led by Händel’s example. Rediscovery of his music has disclosed that he was a pioneering symphonist who deserves to be recognized in the company of the innovative Haydn brothers. In this performance by Page and The Mozartists, Abel’s Symphony in E♭ major (Op. 7, No. 6) is proved to be worthy of inclusion not just in this programme but also in the standard orchestral repertoire. The vivacity of the opening Allegro movement crackles in the strings, and the genteel part writing with which the composer wove the Andante is delivered with focus on the music’s aural tapestry. As in the concluding movements of Mozart’s symphonies, Page sets a tempo for Abel’s Presto that is utterly right for the music.

IN REVIEW: a view of London’s Grosvenor Square, circa 1750; engraving by T. Bowles [Image © by Mayson Beaton Collection]Square deal: a view of London’s Grosvenor Square, circa 1750, in an engraving by T. Bowles
[Image © by Mayson Beaton Collection]

Now principally remembered for the rousing ‘Rule, Britannia’ from his Masque of Alfred, Thomas Arne was one of Eighteenth-Century Britain’s most gifted native sons. A master of many of the musical forms in vogue during his career, he garnered considerable praise with his penchant for writing stirring works for the stage with texts in English—an aspect of his artistry that, surveyed by an ensemble of expert musicians, enlivens this visit to London as Mozart knew it. Sampling Arne’s oratorio Judith, soprano Ana Maria Labin sings a pair of arias that confirm their composer’s work to have merited Mozart’s admiration. First, she phrases the enchanting ‘Sleep, gentle Cherub! Sleep descend,’ a piece that would not sound out of place in Händel’s Orlando, with superb breath control, heightening the emotional impact of the words and the auditory luster of her evenly-produced tones. The wrenching ‘O torment great, too great to bear’ renders Arne’s Israelite woman a cousin of Händel’s Theodora, and Labin reanimates this finely-crafted music with stylish but ingratiatingly full-bodied vocalism.

During his time in England, Mozart studied singing under the tutelage of the noted castrato Giusto Fernando Tenducci, who created the rôle of Arbaces in Artaxerxes, the only one of Arne’s operas to have seized a foothold in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, aided in no small part by the initiative of Classical Opera, Ian Page, and Signum Classics. For Mozart in London, mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman stands in for Tenducci as Arbaces, singing two of the character’s arias with technical assurance and emotional honesty that teach the listener about what Mozart likely learned in London two-and-a-half centuries ago. Sherman’s account of ‘Amid a thousand racking woes’ exhilarates, the singer’s command of the requisite musical idiom allied with perceptive use of the words. No less rousing is her singing of the very different but equally engrossing ‘O too lovely, too unkind.’ In both arias, her voice gleams. Composers and fellow singers could learn much from Sherman’s singing of this music.

As performed by soprano Rebecca Bottone and tenor Robert Murray, the most delightful of Arne’s pieces on Mozart in London is the duet ‘O Dolly, I part’ from The Guardian Outwitted. As they disclose in their individual assignments, they are exemplary exponents of this repertoire: combining their voices and their histrionic skills, they bring Dolly and her swain to life and make the centuries that divide today’s listeners from them disappear. Bottone’s upper register strikes like lightning, electrifying her exchange with Murray. She goes on to sing ‘Hist, hist! I hear my mother call,’ one of the numbers that Samuel Arnold composed himself for his pastiche The Maid of the Mill, with disarming simplicity. Arnold also included a number from Italian composer Egidio ​Duni​’s 1758 opera La fille mal gardée in The Maid of the Mill, given in English as ​​‘To speak my mind of womankind,’ and Murray’s brilliantly mercurial singing accentuates the music’s tremendous charm. Displaying the well-honed versatility of her own artistry, Bottone tenders a mellifluous tribute to the craftsmanship of the forgotten William Bates with an evocatively unaffected performance of ‘In this I fear my latest breath’ from Pharnaces.

The names of Giovanni Battista Pescetti and George Rush are now little more than footnotes in the chronicles of music in the Eighteenth Century, but their work was sufficiently regarded in the 1760s for it to be likely that Mozart heard some of their music during his time in Britain. Voicing ‘Caro mio bene, addio,’ an aria by Pescetti included by the production’s primo uomo in a pastiche version of Metastasio’s Ezio staged at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket in November 1764, with appealing tone and earnest feeling, soprano Martene Grimson stimulates curiosity about what other gems are hidden among this composer’s scores. The success of the 1764 Drury Lane première of George Rush’s The Capricious Lovers did not prevent its librettist, Robert Lloyd, from ending his own life less than a month after the opera’s opening, but the three-part Overture, an example of the type of operatic Sinfonia that evolved into the Classical symphony that receives from The Mozartists a reading of aptly-scaled buoyancy, understandably enjoyed popularity as a concert piece that outlived the titular lovers’ presence on the stage. Had artists active in the years that separate Rush’s lifetime from the Twenty-First Century sung ‘Thus laugh’d at, jilted and betray’d’ as Robert Murray sings it on Mozart in London, The Capricious Lovers might never have ceded its grasp on the public’s attention.

Born in Naples but most known for his tenure at the Lisbon court of José I, Davide Perez brought Metastasio’s libretti to the Portuguese capital. Metastasio’s protégé Giovanni Ambrogio Migliavacca was the author of the libretto of Perez’s Solimano, a text that, like many of Metastasio’s libretti, was utilized by a number of composers, including Pescetti, following its initial use by Johann Adolf Hasse in 1753. Perez’s adaptation of the text was first staged in Lisbon in 1758. It was for a patchwork presentation of Solimano that Perez’s aria ‘Se non ti moro a lato’ was pressed into service in London in 1765, but the text of this aria was derived from Metastasio’s Adriano in Siria rather than Solimano. Sir Walter Scott might have perceived in this muddle a proverbial ‘tangled weave,’ but Martene Grimson unravels the enticement of Perez’s music with an eloquent, touching traversal of the aria.

Among the composers with whose work Mozart became acquainted whilst visiting London, none made a stronger or longer-lasting impression than Johann Christian Bach. Often called the London Bach, this youngest son of Johann Sebastian Bach enjoyed royal patronage and popularity with the public during his time in England. During his family’s travels and his time in Vienna, Mozart either met many of the age’s foremost composers or knew their music, and the significance of his profound respect for Johann Christian Bach’s music is indicative of the caliber of his work. The Mozartists’ keyboardist Steven Devine finds much to stimulate but nothing to overextend his abilities in Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D major (Op. 1, No. 6). He dispatches Bach’s spirited writing in the outer Allegro assai and Allegro moderato movements with abundant virtuosity, but it is his playing of the central Andante that dazzles, the nobility of his phrasing reminding the listener of the expressivity of which the harpsichord is capable when handled by a true master of its sounds.

Unlike his father, the London Bach was a successful composer of music for the stage, and it is likely that the young Mozart knew a number of his older colleague’s operatic scores. Though recent years have witnessed increased interest in the stile galante typified by Bach’s music, his extant operas have received comparatively little attention. The three works sampled on Mozart in London intimate that, like Händel’s and Mozart’s, Bach’s mastery of the art of using music to convey emotion was superior to that of many of his contemporaries. The lyricism of ‘Non so d’onde viene,’ an aria from Bach’s Alessandro nell’Indie that was sung in the London pastiche Ezio, finds a natural exponent in Ben Johnson, the lovely patina of the tenor’s voice accentuating the gracefulness of the music.

Performed in London in a 1765 pastiche based upon the same libretto by Antonio Salvi set by Händel in 1737 as Berenice, regina d’Egitto, the aria ‘Confusa, smarrita’ was extracted from Bach’s Catone in Utica. Soprano Anna Devin intrepidly conquers the aria’s formidable tessitura whilst also projecting the sentiments of the text. The famously critical Charles Burney recorded that the 1765 première of Bach’s Adriano in Siria was at least partially a failure despite the presence of a beyond-capacity audience. Emirena’s accompagnato ‘Ah, come mi balza il cor’ and aria ‘Deh lascia, o ciel pietoso’ in Adriano in Siria were written for the same singer who portrayed the title rôle in Berenice, the Torino-born soprano Teresa Scotti. Scotti perhaps did not meet Burney’s expectations, but, singing the scene magnificently on Mozart in London, Devin exceeds the high standard set by Margaret Marshall in a 1988 Vienna concert performance of Adriano in Siria conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. The rôle of Farnaspe was sung in Adriano’s first performance by castrato Giovanni Manzuoli, who would collaborate with Mozart in creating the name part in Ascanio in Alba in Milan in 1771. For this recording, Farnaspe’s aria ‘Cara, la dolce fiamma’ is interpreted by soprano Eleanor Dennis, and hers is some of the finest singing heard on Mozart in London, her comfort with Bach’s style facilitating a fantastic performance of this ​meticulously-crafted music.

Mozart in London is unquestionably an educational release, but it melds its pedagogy with extraordinary musicality. Visiting London in 1764 and 1765 must have been much the same for Mozart. There was something to be learned at virtually every turn, but how much easier lessons are when they are tunefully taught!

IN REVIEW: the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as painted by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni, circa 1763 [Image © by Mozarteaum Foundation]Wunderkind about town: portrait of the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni (1721 – 1782), circa 1763
[Image © by Mozarteum Foundation]

Having absorbed the lessons of London and other destinations along his family’s musical tour, Mozart returned to his native city with increased awareness of both his own abilities and the stylistic developments promulgated by his contemporaries. In 1767, the eleven-year-old Mozart was challenged by the penultimate Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Sigismund von Schrattenbach, to rapidly produce a score that silenced skepticism about the preternatural cleverness attributed to the boy. It is surmised that Mozart composed his Grabmusik (K. 42/35a), a Passion-themed cantata that likely received its first performance at Salzburger Dom during 1767’s Holy Week, in response to his patron’s test. Little is known of the work’s reception, but it is not difficult to suppose that Graf von Schrattenbach, who was considerably more cordial to Mozart than his archiepiscopal successor, Hieronymus von Colloredo, would prove to be, was pleased by the result of his young subject’s toil.

Illustrative of a Teutonic liturgical tradition that predated Mozart by several centuries, Grabmusik’s dialogue of a soul and an angel before the tomb of Christ, sung in this performance by baritone Jacques Imbrailo and soprano Anna Lucia Richter, is a direct descendent of the sort of philosophical discourse found in Händel’s Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno, a mode of theological explication that in other parts of Europe was already outdated in 1767—and one to which Mozart did not return in the remaining twenty-four years of his life. Belying the age of its composer, the maturity of the musical language reflects the depth of Mozart’s remarkably erudite understanding of the discourse.

From the first notes of Die Seele’s recitative ‘Wo bin ich? bittrer Schmerz,’ Imbrailo delivers the soul’s utterances with secure, sonorous tones. Guided by Page’s tempi, pensive but never ponderous, the baritone lends his voicing of the aria ‘Felsen, spaltet eurer Rachen’ an aura of wonderment. Richter answers with declamations of Der Engel’s ‘Geliebte Seel’, was redest du?’ and ‘Betracht dies Herz und frage mich’ that spotlight Mozart’s youthful but surprisingly advanced sensitivity to layers of meaning in the text. The spontaneity of Imbrailo’s pronouncement of ‘O Himmel! was ein traurig Licht’ heightens the sense of fulfilled faith that permeates the music. The concluding duet, ‘Jesu, was hab’ ich getan,’ is an obvious step along the path that leads from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions to Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. Ending a heartfelt performance of the duet by both soprano and baritone, Richter’s statement of the Angel’s announcement of absolution, ‘Es verzeihet deinem Schmerz,’ is a genuinely cathartic resolution, musically and emotionally.

In the year after his Grabmusik was composed, Mozart continued the experimentation with composing for the operatic stage begun with Apollo et Hyacinthus with a small-scaled work for voices intended to parody Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1752 intermède Le devin du village, one of the most successful operatic pieces of its decade. One of Mozart’s earliest biographers, his widow’s second husband, speculated but could not substantiate that Bastien und Bastienne (K. 50/46b) was first performed by forces funded by the renowned German doctor Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer at his palatial residence in Vienna and may also have been commissioned by him. [Regardless of the discord that it inspired, later lampooned by Mozart in Così fan tutte, Mesmer’s concept of animal magnetism was clearly a profitable postulation.] Corroborating assertions concerning events conjectured to have transpired a quarter-millennium ago is difficult under the best of circumstances, but reconstructing the chronology of Bastien’s genesis was aided by the Twentieth-Century rediscovery of the autograph score, which affirmed details of the work’s initial composition and later revision. However Mesmer was involved with its creation, The Mozartists​ definitively show Bastien und Bastienne to be an endearingly hypnotic example of the young Mozart​’s ingenuity.

Though uniformly well-intentioned and thoroughly musical, previous recorded performances have tended to treat Bastien und Bastienne as a museum piece rather than a viable work for the stage. After all, how theatrically savvy could a twelve-year-old boy possibly have been? As in all of his Mozart recordings to date, Page focuses solely on performing the music as the score dictates and leaves answering questions about the piece’s dramatic effectiveness to the listener. The first performance of Bastien und Bastienne that can be conclusively verified took place in Berlin in 1890, but so revelatory is The Mozartists’ animated account of the score that it might be the world-première performance.

The sincerity exuded by Anna Lucia Richter’s singing as Der Engel in Grabmusik gives her portrayal of Bastienne a palpable charisma, evident in every note of her performance but particularly in ‘Er war mir sonst treu und ergeben.’ Tenor Alessandro Fisher’s ardent, euphoniously-sung Bastien is a worthy partner, the character’s fickleness notwithstanding. Fisher wholly avoids the temptation to approach Bastien as a Tamino in training, instead singing the rôle on its own terms. His voicing of ‘Meiner Liebsten schöne Wangen’ is a perfect expression of hormonally-charged young love, and he joins with Richter in a feisty ‘Geh! geh! geh, Herz von Flandem!’ that in their performance is precisely the kind of lovers’ quarrel and reconciliation that would now be conducted via text message. Colas, the mediating force in Bastien und Bastienne, is brought to life with astute theatrical instincts and resonant vocalism by bass-baritone Darren Jeffery. Incisive in speech and song, the latter supplemented by the inclusion of Mozart’s 1769 revision of Colas’s second aria, Jeffery finds in Colas an older brother of Osmin in Die Entführung aus dem Serail with his own unique musical personality. His work exemplifies the prevailing virtue of The Mozartists’ performance of Bastien und Bastienne: the makings of Mozart’s eventual operatic flair are always audible, but this Bastien und Bastienne is a fully-formed organism, not a glorified embryo.

Paradoxically, it is easy to undermine estimation of Mozart’s enduring significance to Western music by overstating the scope of his originality. The cinematic representation of Mozart as an irreverent, even ridiculous conduit for divine inspiration is undeniably intriguing, but it distorts modern observers’ view of the composer and the musical community that fostered his artistic upbringing. The Mozartists and Ian Page encourage the listener to abandon the idea that one must respect Mozart simply because he is acknowledged as one of music’s greatest geniuses. Rather, these musicians urge today’s listeners to ask why Mozart deserves continued attention and affection. Who was the man who made this music, and from whence came the tools needed to build such a legacy? With Mozart in London, Grabmusik, and Bastien und Bastienne, The Mozartists further their commitment to offering fastidiously-researched, joyously-performed answers to these questions.

20 December 2018

December 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, & Gaspare Spontini — SPIRITO (Marina Rebeka, soprano; Prima Classic PRIMA001)

December 2018 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, & Gaspare Spontini - SPIRITO (Prima Classic PRIMA001)VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), and GASPARE SPONTINI (1774 – 1851): SpiritoMarina Rebeka (soprano); Irene Savignano (soprano), Marco Ciaponi (tenor), Francesco Paolo Vultaggio (baritone), Gianluca Margheri (bass-baritone); Coro ed Orchestra del Teatro Massimo di Palermo; Jader Bignamini, conductor [Recorded at Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Sicily, Italy, in July 2018; Prima Classic PRIMA001; 1 CD, 77:57; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

When hearing recent performances of operas by Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini, and their contemporaries, it has been all too easy to forget that, freely translated, bel canto means ‘beautiful singing.’ Discussion of whether the singing of the artist widely celebrated as the Twentieth Century’s foremost exponent of this repertory, Maria Callas, truly epitomized the beauty of vocal emission that is so fundamental a component of bel canto continues more than a half-century after her last performances of bel canto rôles, but few operaphiles, even those whose experiences of Callas’s artistry are confined to recordings, would dispute the assertion that Callas’s gallery of bel canto heroines indelibly altered perceptions of this music and notions of how and by whom it is sung.

In the four decades since Callas’s death, assessments of her career have engendered debate about whether any bona fide successors to her legacy as guardian of bel canto have emerged. There have been fine voices and earnest, thoughtful interpreters of an ever-expanding array of bel canto rôles, to be sure, but has their work sustained and advanced Callas’s revitalization of bel canto repertory? The paradox of Callas’s artistry is that, for all the emotional complexity of her characterizations, her method of bringing rôles to life was remarkably simple: the foundation of every performance was fidelity to the score, allied with an intuitive musicality that approached every music difficulty as an extension of a character’s dramatic situation. In this unteachable amalgamation of musical integrity and dramatic sincerity, Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka has proved in the last decade to be a uniquely-qualified champion of her own variation on the Callas mystique. Her homage is not the flattery of mimicry but the advancement of Callas’s sublimely uncomplicated concept of bel canto.

In the first half of the Twentieth Century, a soprano’s path to operatic stardom deviated from the course traveled in previous generations by Giuditta Pasta, Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, and Dame Nellie Melba. With larger theatres came instrumental ensembles and operatic dramas on scales calibrated to fill them, and voices were required to adapt by projecting greater volume over greater distances. By the middle of the Twentieth Century, the vehicles of career-defining triumphs on the world’s operatic stages were more likely to be operas by Verdi, Wagner, or Puccini than the bel canto scores in which prime donne of the Nineteenth Century made their reputations.

The persistent implications of this paradigm shift notwithstanding, the essential tenets of bel canto technique, foremost among which is an inviolable concentration on maintaining purity of line, remained unchanged. Though sung in Italian translation rather than the composer’s German, a 1962 RAI Torino broadcast performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg affirms with an ensemble of voices that seem better-suited to L’elisir d’amore or Don Pasquale than to Wagner repertory—Giuseppe Taddei as Hans Sachs, Bruna Rizzoli as Eva, Luigi Infantino as Walther von Stolzing, and Renato Capecchi as Beckmesser—that there are natural habitats for bel canto even in artistic territory with musical topography very different from that found in the operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. Rebeka’s Mimì in Wiener Staatsoper’s November 2018 revival of Puccini’s La bohème perpetuated this employment of bel canto technique in performance of other repertory. In the work of some singers, this sort of stylistic synthesis might be construed as evidence of laziness or incomplete training, but, like Callas, Rebeka exhibits uncommon awareness of the intrinsic bel canto in every piece that she sings.

Expanding a discography that already includes beautifully-sung recordings of operatic arias and scenes by Mozart and Rossini and performances of Vitellia in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and Verdi’s Luisa Miller, Rebeka débuts on new label Prima Classic with Spirito, an insightfully-curated, lovingly-presented, and superbly-recorded programme of scenes from Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and Il pirata, Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, and Gaspare Spontini’s too-little-performed La vestale. Aided by Latvian National Opera’s music librarian Marija Beate Straujupe in an exploration of autograph materials that revealed that, after two centuries of scrutiny by performers and scholars, many discrepancies separate composers’ original intentions from modern performance traditions, Rebeka imbued Spirito with an aura of indefatigable advocacy for this music before singing a note.

The magnitude of her dedication to restoring glamour to this repertory is complemented by the idiomatic performances of the Teatro Massimo di Palermo chorus and orchestra and the elegant, elastic conducting of Jader Bignamini. Spirito is markedly enriched by the participation of a team of artists whose work displays focus on a unified aesthetic goal: with musicianship of this caliber supporting her singing, the listener is freed to contemplate the beauties of Rebeka’s vocal tableaux without fearing that their foundation will crumble beneath her.

Rebeka’s career to date at the Metropolitan Opera, where she débuted in 2011, includes much-lauded outings as Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Mathilde in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata, and Musetta in Puccini’s La bohème. In October 2017, she sang two performances of the title rôle of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, a part added to her repertory in Trieste in 2016, and she opens Spirito with an assured, affectionately-sung account of the scene in which Bellini’s heroine is introduced to the listener.

Giuditta Pasta, Bellini’s first Norma, uninhibitedly expressed her reservations about the musical and dramatic viability of her entrance aria, the rightly-feared ‘Casta diva.’ To her credit, her apologies were equally uninhibited when the composer’s faith in the music’s power to move audiences was rewarded with an euphoric reception for the piece. No other music in opera surpasses the elongated cantilene of ‘Casta diva’ as a paragon of the purest bel canto, and Rebeka’s singing of the aria exudes profound respect for Bellini’s melodic inspiration. She navigates the ascending phrases with the formidable breath control that the writing demands but so seldom receives, and her clear, unaffected diction elucidates the emotional depth of the composer’s treatment of the text. Here and in all of the scenes on Spirito, she is equally successful in communicating the dramatic trajectories of passages of recitative. Rebeka delivers the cabaletta ‘Ah! bello a me ritorna’ with technical brilliance, managing the music’s tessitura and intricate fiorature with an exuberance that diversifies her depiction of Norma’s temperament. Among the courageous ladies who sing Norma, many sopranos excel in either the aria or the cabaletta: few are the singers who, as Rebeka does on Spirito, fully master all of the music in this daunting scene.

Four years prior to the première of Norma, Bellini enjoyed a resounding success with the introduction of his Il pirata at La Scala, advancing the reputation for melodic fecundity instigated by his earlier work. The rôle of Imogene in the first production of Il pirata was entrusted to Henriette Méric-Lalande, whose connection with Bellini began a year earlier in Naples with the première of Bianca e Gernando and who went on to be the first Adelaide in Bellini’s La straniera in 1829 and the creator of the title rôle in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in 1833. In the Twentieth Century, Imogene’s music was dominated first by Maria Callas, whose staged performances at La Scala and 1959 Carnegie Hall concert performance with American Opera Society are still discussed with reverence, and then by Montserrat Caballé, whose espousal produced the first studio recording of Il pirata.

Rebeka’s selection of the opera’s final scene for inclusion on Spirito broadens a continuing revival of interest in Il pirata. The melancholic prelude to the opera’s final scene receives from Bignamini and the Palermo musicians a performance of haunting beauty, the exquisite writing for cor anglais and flute delivered with expressive finesse. The soprano makes ‘Oh! s’io potessi’ a very personal utterance, the maelstrom of the character’s feelings churning in the vocalism. Rebeka intones ‘Col sorriso d’innocenza’ with subtlety that heightens the emotional impact of Bellini’s delicately-crafted vocal line. As in the scene from Norma, she utilizes the music linking Imogene’s aria and cabaletta as a portal into the character’s constitution, finding within the composer’s setting of words like ‘Qual suono ferale’ the essence of the psychological trials that Imogene faces in the course of Il pirata. The grim resignation of ‘Oh! Sole! Ti vela di tenebre oscure’ is powerfully realized in Rebeka’s performance, her timbre brightening as waves of anguish and defiance flood the music. Bignamini’s sensible tempo for the cabaletta enables the singer to give every note its due, and she capitalizes on this opportunity to provide a traversal of this music that is notable for both its accuracy and its emotive efficacy.

The title rôle in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda was created in the opera’s 1835 première by another of the Nineteenth Century’s most renowned singers, the Spanish-born Maria Malibran. Daughter of the tenor and pedagogue Manuel García, Rossini’s first Conte Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Malibran was heiress to a vocal tradition that was a cornerstone of bel canto. Joined in the performance of the finale ultima of Maria Stuarda on this disc by tenor Marco Ciaponi as Roberto, the Earl of Leicester, baritone Francesco Paolo Vultaggio as Lord Guglielmo Cecil, soprano Irene Savignano as Anna Kennedy, and bass-baritone Gianluca Margheri as Giorgio Talbot, each of whom sings with discernible involvement, Rebeka established herself in a 2016 Riga concert performance of the opera as an interpreter of La Stuarda with the potential to rival Leyla Gencer’s, Caballé’s, and Beverly Sills’s unforgettable portrayals of the doomed Queen of Scots. She furthers this impression with her graceful but gutsy singing on Spirito.

The controlled conflagration of Rebeka’s singing of Bellini’s music also flickers in her performance of Donizetti’s work. Vitally, the passions that she evinces are always those present in the music. The indignation of a wronged woman enlivens the soprano’s declamation of ‘Io vi rivedo alfin!’ The nobility of her voicing of ‘Deh! Tu di un’umile preghiera’ intimating the character’s aristocratic bearing, this Stuarda is a queen to the marrow of her bones even when facing execution. Again following the emotional courses of the music, Rebeka wrenchingly conveys the gravitas of the sentiments that torment the condemned woman in her final moments. There is nonetheless a serenity in her singing of ‘Ah! Se un giorno da queste ritorte’ that touchingly asserts the heroine’s unwavering belief in the righteousness of her actions. No less unfaltering is Rebeka’s technical acumen. She unflinchingly articulates the passagework and ascends above the stave without grandstanding. There is an undeniable vein of showmanship in this music, but, as Rebeka sings it here, it is as much the character as the singer who displays the marvels of her voice.

The operatic incarnation of the second wife of Henry VIII in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, premièred at Milan’s Teatro Carcano a year to the day before Bellini’s Norma reached the stage of La Scala, was, like Norma, also a Pasta rôle. Callas’s interpretation of the title rôle in La Scala’s groundbreaking 1957 production of Anna Bolena instituted a benchmark to which other singers’ efforts are compared, almost universally unfavorably. Rebeka made her rôle début as Anna Bolena at Opéra National de Bordeaux on 5 November 2018, and like her Maria Stuarda, her inaugural depiction of Anna was already a distinguished portrayal.

The voices of Percy and Smeton in this recorded performance of Anna Bolena’s closing scene are provided by Ciaponi and Savignano, who again sing attractively and characterfully. Rebeka interacts with them and the gruesome reality of Anna’s fate as though on stage, voicing ‘Piangete voi?’ with moving desperation and umbrage. The innate dignity of the soprano’s reading of ‘Al dolce guidami,’ the centerpiece of what is typically described as a mad scene but is in Rebeka’s handling a study of a woman in complete command of her faculties grappling with the consequences of circumstances beyond her control, is enhanced by the unflappable musicality of her phrasing. The ugliness of the character’s impending demise never imperils the tonal beauty with which ‘Che mai sento’ is sung. The interpolated E♭ in alt with which Rebeka resolves her forceful, imaginatively-ornamented account of the cabaletta ‘Coppia iniqua’ sounds slightly strained, but it ably imparts the exasperation of a fiercely proud woman meeting an unjust end, and it excitingly concludes an inspired, intrepid performance of this music.

There is perhaps a parable about opera’s incessant struggle for acceptance beyond the ranks of its devotees to be gleaned from the fact that Saint-Domingue-born soprano Alexandrine-Caroline Branchu is now most remembered by history not for her creation of the rôle of Julie in the 1807 Paris première of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale but for her brief stint as Napoléon Bonaparte‘s paramour. In terms of frequency of performance, La vestale may be the least-familiar of the operas sampled on Spirito, but Julie is a rôle embraced by acclaimed bel canto divas including Callas, Gencer, Renata Scotto, and Caballé, albeit in Italian translation rather than Spontini’s authentic French.

For this recorded survey of Julie’s scene from Act One of La vestale, Rebeka prefers the original French, and it is apparent from the first words of ‘Ô des infortunés’ that her mastery of French vowels comes within a diphthong’s distance of equaling the quality of her Italian diction. The attention devoted to textual nuances in the Bellini and Donizetti selections is similarly valuable in the soprano’s singing of Spontini’s music. The poise with which she enunciates ‘Toi, que j’implore avec effroi’ befits a priestess of Vesta, but there is no lack of the ardor expected of a young woman in love with a Roman general. Rebeka envelops the vocal line with singing of silken sensuality, her zeal potently limning the conflict between duty and desire that vexes Julie. The meaning of the words and Spontini’s musical response thereto propel this performance of ‘Sur cet autel sacré’ to a lofty summit of expression. The kinship between Julie’s ‘Impitoyables Dieux’ and Elettra’s incendiary ‘D’Oreste, d’ajace’ in Mozart’s Idomeneo, re di Creta is unmistakable, and Rebeka immerses herself in the music’s volatile deluge with Callas-like intensity. Comparisons with Callas and other eminent mistresses of bel canto are inevitable, but one of Rebeka’s most commendable accomplishments on Spirito is honoring the traditions of both the original and later interpreters of the music whilst cultivating her own mesmerizing individuality.

Too often, analyses of bel canto singing are hijacked by obsessions with fanciful coloratura and interpolated high notes. These of course can be enjoyable aspects of bel canto performances, but it is unlikely that Bellini, Donizetti, or Spontini would have cited a singer’s agility or prowess above the stave as the most important trait that a Norma, Imogene, Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena, or Julie should possess. As the creators of this music would appreciate, her bravura technique and gleaming upper register are but two of the joys of Rebeka’s singing on Spirito. It is the sensitivity of her musical recreations of the plights of five fascinating ladies that is the disc’s heart. Many singers perform and record this repertory, but this recording asserts Marina Rebeka’s manifestation of the true spirito of bel canto.

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.