28 January 2018

DVD REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini — NORMA (M. J. Siri, S. Ganassi, R. Pelizzari, N. Ulivieri, R. Lo Greco, M. Pierattelli; Dynamic 37768)

IN REVIEW: Vincenzo Bellini - NORMA (Dynamic 37768)VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835): NormaMaria José Siri (Norma), Sonia Ganassi (Adalgisa), Rubens Pelizzari (Pollione), Nicola Ulivieri (Oroveso), Rosanna Lo Greco (Clotilde), Manuel Pierattelli (Flavio); Coro Lirico Marchigiano “Vincenzo Bellini”; Complesso di palcoscenico Banda “Salvadei”, Fondazione Orchestra Regionale delle Marche; Michele Gamba, conductor [Luigi Di Gangi and Ugo Giacomazzi, Directors; Federica Parolini, Set Designer; Daniela Cernigliaro, Costume Designer; Luigi Biondi, Light Designer; Carlo Morganti, Chorus Master; Recorded ‘live’ during performances in Arena Sferisterio, Macerata Opera Festival, Macerata, Italy, July – August 2016; Dynamic 37768; 1 DVD / Blu-ray, 144:00; Available from Dynamic (DVD / Blu-ray), Naxos Direct (DVD / Blu-ray), and major music retailers]

Amidst the rugged peaks carved in the craggy range of the Italian soprano repertoire by Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Giordano, and fellow composers remembered and forgotten, there is no altitude more elevated than that reached by Vincenzo Bellini in his Norma. In Felice Romani’s adaptation of Alexandre Soumet’s drama Norma, ou L’infanticide, first performed in Paris only eight months before the operatic Norma reached the stage of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on 26 December 1831, Bellini had at his disposal one of the finest libretti of the Nineteenth Century, one in which the poet achieved near-perfect equilibrium between action and reflection. With Romani’s words as his impetus, the sensitive Bellini created the defining masterpiece of Italian bel canto and at its center one of the most feared and career-defining rôles composed for the female voice. Since first sung in 1831 by Giuditta Pasta, Norma has revealed her secrets to each subsequent generation of listeners via the voices of members of one of opera’s most exclusive sororities. The lady who ascends unscathed to Norma’s pinnacle, from which the views of opera’s past and future extend from Monteverdi to Mascagni, earns the laurels of a high priestess of bel canto.

The history of recording Norma parallels the well-documented disintegration of bel canto technique in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. A tacit testament to the demands of the title rôle is the fact that, unlike recorded portrayals of many operatic heroines, there is not one Norma heard on a studio recording of the opera who did not sing the rôle on stage. Few sopranos can resist the understandable temptation to sing Norma’s ‘Casta diva’ in concert, but Norma is among the few pieces in the approach to which a modicum of common sense persists. Still, many voices that should not have been singing the rôle have been heard in Norma’s music in recent years. Increasingly, this must be said of all of the opera’s rôles: rare is the performance that can boast of fielding a wholly qualified voice in each part. Like all histories, opera’s continuing evolution is inherently cyclical, but it is now difficult to imagine a return to an era like that in which, in April 1970, the Metropolitan Opera presented Norma with Dame Joan Sutherland in the title rôle, Marilyn Horne as Adalgisa, Carlo Bergonzi as Pollione, and Cesare Siepi as Oroveso.

Staged in the vast space of the Arena Sferisterio in conjunction with the 2016 Macerata Opera Festival, the present Norma was filmed for DVD and Blu-ray release under the direction of Tizio Mancini as a showcase for the accomplishments of a well-integrated team of artists and craftsmen. Visually, this Norma is a fascinating, sometimes frustrating fusion of tradition and innovation. Employing primary-color sets and costumes by Federica Parolini and Daniela Cernigliaro, co-directors Luigi Di Gangi’s and Ugo Giacomazzi’s production occasionally seems to gaze southward, over the Pyrenees, from Bellini’s and Romani’s Gaul to a staging of Bizet’s Carmen. In some moments, there is a sultriness that seems wholly out of place, especially as it disappears when it might prove dramatically viable. Most regrettably, the production does not capitalize on its greatest assets. With one of today’s most experienced interpreters of Adalgisa returning to the rôle, there was no need to resort in this production to stock gestures superficially representative of the naïve priestess’s transition to betrayed, broken woman. Moreover, a youthful, attractive Norma does not need to strike poses in order to earn and engage the viewer’s attention and interest.

Luigi Biondi’s lighting designs are more difficult to assess in the context of a video recording, in which the frame of reference is established by the cinematography, than in the theatre, but they unobtrusively illuminate the tough, primeval world in which this Norma dwells. Violence lurks in every landscape and gesture: in this setting, Norma’s contemplation of slaying her own children is sickeningly credible. This vein of brutality flows in Bellini’s music and Romani’s words but is ultimately tempered by a triumph of humanity that in this productions seems implausible. Perhaps doing so brings the piece closer in mentality to modern audiences, but staging Norma as pseudo-verismo melodrama is a mistake. There is much in this Norma that is beautiful to behold, but the authentic spirit of bel canto is absent. Without it, Norma is just another opera, no matter how well it is performed.

Musically, this Norma is on stronger but far from ideal footing. Conductor Michele Gamba clearly knows and respects the score and has devoted careful study to mastering its many challenges. One of the greatest of those challenges is pacing a performance with tempi that keep the drama moving without distorting Bellini’s exquisite melodic lines or rushing the singers. This Gamba largely manages to do, navigating a course that avoids most of the pitfalls that upset conductors’ earnest efforts at successfully realizing the score’s expressive potential. Whether their efforts emanate from the pit or the stage, the musicians of Fondazione Orchestra Regionale delle Marche and Complesso di palcoscenico Banda “Salvadei” deliver their parts with enthusiasm that makes occasional untidiness of ensemble and intonational uncertainty forgivable, and chorus master Carlo Morganti’s preparation of Coro Lirico Marchigiano “Vincenzo Bellini” produces choral singing that is exciting even when it is not altogether accurate. Though their endeavors also often seem to originate in a musical age that is not Bellini’s, Gamba and his orchestral and choral colleagues restore a measure of the requisite bel canto style missing from the production.

Ably representing Rome in Gaul as Pollione’s comrade in arms Flavio, tenor Manuel Pierattelli brings more voice to his music than many portrayers of the rôle have at their command. In fact, his clear, well-supported tone and forthright diction suggest that Pierattelli might prove to be an equally capable Pollione. Similarly, Bellini’s writing for Norma’s attendant Clotilde is entrusted to soprano Rosanna Lo Greco, who makes a strong impression despite the paucity of opportunities to display her voice’s best qualities. It is too much to ask that a Clotilde sound as though she might sing Norma acceptably, though it must not be forgotten that Joan Sutherland sang Clotilde opposite Maria Callas’s Norma at Covent Garden in 1952, but Lo Greco’s vocalism reveals that hers is a name to remember. Like their colleagues in this production, Pierattelli and Lo Greco are representatives of a new breed of singing actors whose vocal acumen is matched by naturalness before both audiences and cameras.

Hailing from the Alpine town of Arco, south of Brenner Pass in Italy’s Trentino province, bass Nicola Ulivieri honors the historical legacy of his native comune by depicting Oroveso with Italianate fervor and Teutonic discipline. At his entrance in Act One, Ulivieri voices ‘Ite sul colle, o druidi’ virilely, immediately establishing his Oroveso as a younger, stronger-willed figure than the character is in many productions. This is slightly at odds with his vocalism, which is more lyrical than declamatory, particularly in Act One. In Act Two, however, Ulivieri sings with surprising power, intelligently depicting Oroveso’s transition from spiritual leader in his nobly-sung ‘Ah! del Tebro al giogo indegno’ to warmonger in the explosive ‘Guerra, guerra! Le galliche selve quante han querce producon guerrier.’ In the opera’s final scene, the bass makes Oroveso’s realization that he is the grandfather of half-Roman children a moment of true emotion, the horror of his hatred being turned against his own daughter and grandchildren clawing at the unyielding man’s heart. Ulivieri lacks the resonance of Tancredi Pasero, Ezio Pinza, and Cesare Siepi, but he is an effective, musical Oroveso.

The Pollione of tenor Rubens Pelizzari is a brash, rough-hewn soldier whose pursuit of Adalgisa seems more obsessive than affectionate. However passionate their liaison might have been, a woman of Norma’s temperament would surely feel glad to be rid of him. Nevertheless, Pelizzari has good ideas about interpreting Pollione and would likely be more sympathetic in a production that allows him to portray the character as an ordinary man rather than a chauvinistic archetype. Vocally, the tenor also displays a fine command of Pollione’s music. He omits the written top C in his otherwise solid performance of the aria ‘Meco all'altar di Venere,’ and his voicing of the cabaletta ‘Me protegge, me difende’ exudes an apt bravado. Pelizzari’s upper register lacks the squillo brought to the music by Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli, but he duets forcefully with Adalgisa in ‘Va’, crudele,’ gaining intensity as the vocal line rises above the stave. He holds his own in the magnificent trio that ends Act One, singing first ‘Norma! de’ tuoi rimproveri segno non farmi adesso’ and then ‘Fremi pure, e angoscia eterna pur m’imprecchi il tuo furore!’ with ardor.

Confronted in their Act Two duet with the news that Norma resolved to slaughter their children in retaliation for his infidelity, this Pollione groans ‘Ah! t’appachi il mio terrore’ in appalled apprehension. Pelizzari’s demeanor becomes lachrymose in the opera’s final scene, his statement of ‘Ah! troppo tardi t’ho conosciuta’ imparting self-pity instead of awe inspired by Norma’s sacrifice. Not unlike Ulivieri’s Oroveso, Pelizzari’s Pollione is a professional, not an unforgettable reading of the part, but professionalism in this music is not to be scorned.

Mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi has sung Adalgisa in an array of very different productions and opposite Normas of widely varying degrees of proficiency. With acclaimed performances of numerous Rossini rôles to her credit, Ganassi has the wonderful benefit of thorough knowledge of bel canto, and, not surprisingly, she contributes the most idiomatic singing to this Norma. When she begins to sing ‘Sgombra è la sacra selva’ in her Act One scene, there is no doubt that this is a deeply sensitive Adalgisa. Ganassi genuinely performs rather than merely singing the scene, articulating ‘Deh! proteggimi, o dio: perduta io sono’ with crushing emotional weight. She immediately seizes control in the duet with Pollione, phrasing ‘E tu pure, ah! tu non sai quanto costi a me dolente!’ with unmistakable sense of purpose.

Though shamed by her illicit relationship with Pollione, this Adalgisa asserts herself without hesitation in the first of her duets with Norma. Ganassi intones both ‘Sola, furtiva, al tempio io l’aspettai sovente’ and, moving into the trio, ‘Oh! qual traspare orribile dal tuo parlar mistero!’ with complete immersion in the text. Her delivery of ‘Ah! non fia, non fia ch’io costi al tuo core sì rio dolore’ is a lesson in the art of dramatic bel canto: with words and music in perfect balance, no exaggerated characterization is required.

In order for their exchanges in Act Two to be dramatically convincing, Adalgisa and Norma must be musical equals, and Ganassi enriches this performance with involved, intuitive singing. She pronounces ‘Norma! ah! Norma, ancora amata’ with burgeoning anxiety. The traversals of ‘Mira, o Norma, a’ tuoi ginocchi questi cari pargoletti!’ and ‘Sì, fino all'ore estreme compagna tua m’avrai’ that follow are uncommonly cathartic: Adalgisa’s joy and relief at her reconciliation with Norma are touchingly enacted. Intermittent unsteadiness and effort now affect Ganassi’s singing, but she remains a powerhouse Adalgisa for whom no apologies must be made. Bellini and Romani proffered no resolution for Adalgisa, leaving audiences to wonder what becomes of her after the deaths of the man she loved and her dearest friend. Come what may, an Adalgisa such as Ganassi’s surely lands on her feet.

From the first bars of the recitative with which Norma introduces herself, ‘Sediziose voci,’ it is apparent that Uruguayan soprano Maria José Siri brings to her inaugural assumption of the title rôle an important voice in the tradition of Gilda Cruz-Romo and Ljiljana Molnar-Talajić, sopranos with extensive Verdi and Puccini credentials who adapted their spinto voices to Norma’s cantilene and coloratura. In this performance, Siri’s portrayal of Norma recalls the interpretations of several of her celebrated predecessors. The abandon with which she acts the role with the voice resembles the Norma of Gina Cigna, heard in both the earliest complete radio broadcast performance and in the first studio recording of Norma. The emphasis on proper placement of tones brings to mind Zinka Milavov’s 1944 and 1954 Metropolitan Opera Norma broadcasts. Like Radmila Bakočević, she sings Norma without reticence, fully committed to the rôle and holding nothing back.

Intriguingly, Siri’s performance is strongest where many singers’ weaknesses are most apparent, in the much-loved preghiera ‘Casta diva, che inargenti queste sacre antiche piante.’ In the aria’s opening bars, the focus of the soprano’s tone is flawless, utterly untouched by nerves. As the line ascends to the high filigree that troubles many singers of the rôle, slight insecurity intrudes, but Siri’s account of the piece is among the most distinguished on a commercial recording of the opera. She imperiously catapults the recitative ‘Fine al rito; e il sacro bosco sia disgombro dai profani’ into the arena, but the fiorature in the cabaletta ‘Ah! bello a me ritorna del fido amor primiero’ threaten to defeat her. Siri and Ganassi communicate without musical or dramatic barriers in ‘Ah! sì, fa’ core, e abbracciami,’ interweaving their timbres without forcing. In the polacca in the opening sequence of the Act One finale, ‘Oh, non tremare, o perfido,’ the pair of top Cs that punctuate the phrases are produced with ease. Norma’s ire boils in Siri’s voicing of ‘Oh! Di qual sei tu vittima crudo e funesto inganno!’ and, even more scorchingly, ‘Vanne, sì: mi lascia indegno, figli oblia, promesse, onore.’

The scene that begins Act Two is one of the formidable tests of a Norma’s histrionic suitability for the rôle, and Siri emerges victorious, phrasing ‘Dormono entrambi’ with tragic grandeur and exclaiming ‘Ah! no! son figli miei!...miei figli!’ as though she wounded herself with the blade meant for her children. Rejoined by Adalgisa, Siri answers Ganassi’s eloquent singing with a beautiful ‘Deh! con te, con te, li prendi,’ and both ladies suffuse their performances of ‘Sì, fino all'ore estreme compagna tua m’avrai’ with effervescent musicality.

As the opera progresses towards its tragic dénouement, Siri rises to Shakespearean heights of expressivity in ‘Ei tornerà... Sì, mia fidanza è posta in Adalgisa,’ undauntedly braving the punishing tessitura. The low center of vocal gravity in ‘In mia man alfin tu sei’ is more comfortable for Siri than for many Normas, and she spars with Pelizzari’s Pollione in a battle of wills in which the tenor has no hope of prevailing. She then floats ‘Son io,’ Norma’s fatal mea culpa, with particular radiance. The sublime ‘Qual cor tradisti, qual cor perdesti quest’ora orrenda ti manifesti’ and ‘Deh! non volerli vittime del mio fatale errore’ with which Norma takes her leave of the society that condemns her for the crime of following her heart here burn as brightly as the flames meant to consume her. This Norma is no spent woman going gently into that good night of inexorable consequence. Siri will likely build greater assurance in satisfying the musical demands of the rôle with additional opportunities to sing it, but her portrayal of Norma in this production is an auspicious and enjoyable start.

In a time in which singers with the comprehension of bel canto necessary to sing the music as Bellini would have expected it to be sung are in short supply, it is sometimes asked why Norma continues to be performed with regularity. Would it not be preferable, perhaps more respectful to Bellini and Romani, to shelve the score until the emergence of a legitimately important Norma warrants its revival? The dangerous problem with that question is that it ignores the fact that few of history’s significant Normas exhibited their significance in their first attempts at singing the rôle. Her initial reluctance to sing ‘Casta diva’ suggests that not even Giuditta Pasta was a Norma of instantaneous, Athena-like decisiveness. Especially for those who love the opera, a poor Norma is one of opera’s most damnable miseries. This is by no means a poor Norma, but that will not preclude doubts about its value. Its many virtues notwithstanding, this Norma is valuable as a first step along one Norma’s road to potential greatness. With this performance, Maria José Siri is not yet ordained as a high priestess of bel canto, but the altar is within sight.

26 January 2018

CD REVIEW: Nicola Antonio Porpora — GERMANICO IN GERMANIA (M. E. Cenčić, J. Lezhneva, M.-E. Nesi, J. Sancho, D. Idrisova, H. Bennani; DECCA 483 1523)

IN REVIEW: Nicola Antonio Porpora - GERMANICO IN GERMANIA (DECCA 483 1523)NICOLA ANTONIO PORPORA (1686 – 1768): Germanico in GermaniaMax Emanuel Cenčić (Germanico), Julia Lezhneva (Ersinda), Mary-Ellen Nesi (Arminio), Juan Sancho (Segeste), Dilyara Idrisova (Rosmonda), Hasnaa Bennani (Cecina); Capella Cracoviensis; Jan Tomasz Adamus, conductor [Recorded at Radio Kraków, Kraków, Poland, 23 July – 3 August 2016; DECCA 483 1523; 3 CDs, 217:39; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Anyone who saw Gérard Corbiau’s fanciful 1994 cinematic reimagining of the life of the celebrated castrato Farinelli was introduced to a frazzled, ill-tempered Nicola Antonio Porpora who bullied his illustrious pupil into becoming one of history’s most revered singers. Corbiau’s ogre of a Porpora, impersonated with consummate gruffness by Omero Antonutti, was undeniably entertaining and effective as a component of a narrative that portrayed Farinelli as a hapless victim of fate, but this boorish incarnation of the composer little resembles the Porpora who emerges from his surviving music, too little of which has been made available via good-quality recordings to listeners willing to reassess the man and his work.

Born in Naples in 1686, Porpora was a product of the cosmopolitan musical culture of his native city, dominated during his formative years by Alessandro Scarlatti, whose compositional style strongly influenced the young Porpora’s artistic development. No less significant in the evolution of Porpora’s own style, particularly in writing for the voice, was his encounter with the poet Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, then not yet known as Metastasio: the most renowned librettist of the first half of the Eighteenth Century, he would author the texts for some of Porpora’s most successful operas. Success was not something to which Porpora ever became accustomed, however. Praised and popular at times in his career, his compositions often sprang to life amidst difficult circumstances.

Though his operas gained traction with London audiences during his much-publicized rivalry with Georg Friedrich Händel in the 1730s, the company for which they were written, the Opera of the Nobility, nonetheless failed. Perhaps most cruelly, Porpora suffered the fate of outliving appreciation of his individual musical language. By the time that he returned to Naples in 1759, his artistic journey having taken him to many of Europe’s music-loving metropolises, the emerging stile galante was rapidly supplanting the florid Baroque style of which Porpora was an exponent. Prone to hardship even when he employed as a scantily-paid valet the young Joseph Haydn, who would later acknowledge the obstinate Neapolitan as a teacher of inestimable value to his musical education, Porpora was tormented during the final years of his life by debilitating poverty. At the time of his death in 1768, he lacked the money to pay for his own burial.

It is principally as a composer that Porpora is remembered in the Twenty-First Century, but his legacy as a trainer of voices, glimpsed in Corbiau’s film, endured well into the Nineteenth Century, when castrati last originated rôles in Europe’s opera houses. Like the similarly sensationalized depiction of Antonio Salieri in Peter Shaffer’s play and Miloš Forman’s film Amadeus, Corbiau’s treatment of Porpora in Farinelli is not entirely without merit: injurious as it is to historical accuracy, there is undeniable benefit in even a brief, unrealistic glance at Porpora’s impact on vocal tutelage. The glimmer of the meticulously-honed pedagogy that, enabling him to write masterfully for the voices known to him, facilitated commissions to compose operas like his 1732 Germanico in Germania increased the public’s curiosity about Porpora’s music. Now, more than three decades after the film’s theatrical release, ​with the availability of singers capable of meeting the grueling demands of Porpora’s vocal writing, reviving the composer’s operas is again feasible. These rebirths of curiosity and feasibility intersect persuasively in this recording of Germanico in Germania.

First performed in Rome’s Teatro Capranica in February 1732, Porpora’s setting of a finely-crafted libretto by Niccolò Coluzzi charges into the conflict between Germanico, the figurehead of Roman authority in the feudal domains that constitute modern Germany, and the fiercely independent Arminio, leader of a realm under Rome’s unwanted dominion. This being Baroque opera, the courses of neither love nor war proceed smoothly, here complicated by the struggles of a Germanic chieftain loyal to Rome, Segeste, whose two daughters’ fealties are divided between embracing and resisting Roman rule. To the credit of composer and librettist, as well as to the performance that transpires on this recording, what amounts to a convoluted story told in a score of long duration is surprisingly easy to follow. The extensive passages of secco recitative move swiftly but logically, aided immeasurably by the clarity and commitment with which they are sung in this performance.

Recorded in the studios of Radio Kraków, ​​this performance plays out in an acoustical space that falls marginally short of DECCA’s long-established high standards of technological excellence. The timbres of the instruments of Capella Cracoviensis are sometimes adversely affected, giving the recording an one-dimensional, studio-bound setting in which musicians, conductor, and singers must work harder to enliven the performance. By adopting generally quick tempi, Jan Tomasz Adamus strives to maintain musical propulsion throughout the performance, but there are passages in which the singers might have benefited from more sympathetic leadership and stricter, more consistent guidance of ornamentation.

Supplementing the conductor’s own efforts at the keyboard, harpsichordist Marcin Świątkiewicz​ plays nimbly—slightly too nimbly in some instances. It is unlikely that anyone listens to Baroque opera solely in order to enjoy secco recitatives, no matter how cleverly they are accompanied. In this performance, the accompaniments are indeed very clever and irreproachably musical but sometimes overwrought. Tiziana Azzone injects the theorbo into the soundscape with expert judgement, however, balancing the continuo and heightening the expressivity of several key scenes. The intrepidity of horn players Anneke Scott, Olivier Picon, and, in Cecina’s Act Two aria ‘Se dopo ria procella,’ Martin Lawrence yields exhilarating if not always attractive realizations of Porpora’s punishing writing for the valveless horns. The recording’s dry acoustic harshens the orchestral sonorities, but the sheen of the players’ collective virtuosity is undimmed. Germanico in Germania is not an opera that can triumph without support from pit and podium, and, overcoming a few problems, Capella Cracoviensis and Adamus offer the singers a setting in which triumph is within reach.

Ever a vivid presence who figuratively transports a recorded performance from studio to stage, tenor Juan Sancho contributes some of his finest singing on disc to date to this traversal of Germanico in Germania. He has in the rôle of Segeste, the Germanic chieftain who has embraced Roman citizenship, an exceptionally congenial part with vocal writing that exploits the strongest of his technical and interpretive skills. As in many of his recorded performances, Sancho sets an example for his colleagues with his alert, responsive singing of recitatives. In Act One, he sings Segeste’s aria ‘Nocchier, che mai non vide l’orror della tempesta’ with blazing tone and fiery demeanor, spotlighting the character’s temperamental kinship with Bajazet in Händel’s Tamerlano. His aria in Act Two, ‘Scoglio alpestre in mezzo all’onde,’ inhabits a vastly different emotional world, and, prefaced by particularly pointed delivery of recitative, the tenor limns the transition with resourcefulness, luring the listener into the quicksand of Segeste’s predicament.

Sancho can reach greater heights of dramatic intensity in a few bars of accompanied recitative than some singers attain in ten-minute arias, as he demonstrates in his zealous delivery of the accompagnato ‘Empi, del vostro scherno’ in Act Three of Germanico in Germania. Segeste’s final aria, ’Saggio è il cultor,’ is sung with strength and subtlety. With the exceptions of the parts in his London operas and oratorios that Händel wrote for John Beard, rôles for tenor in Baroque works rarely achieved the levels of distinction occupied by the notable castrato parts, but Sancho’s portrayal of Segeste takes full advantage of every detail of characterization devised by Porpora and Coluzzi. Vocally, he has few rivals in music of this vintage, his domination of which he increases with this performance.

Since her earliest performances, Julia Lezhneva has reliably displayed extraordinary technical prowess that thrives in the bravura excesses of Baroque music. Nevertheless, the expressive maturity of her depiction of Segeste’s younger, Rome-friendly daughter Ersinda in this performance is as impressive as her confident handling of Porpora’s music. More so than in any of her previous recordings, Lezhneva connects with the character on a profound level, conveying the psychological conflict of a young girl both devoted to her father and his ideology and sensitive to her sister’s staunch support of her husband in defiance of their father. Ersinda’s inherent naïveté does not preclude flashes of ardor, here invigorated by Lezhneva’s agile vocalism. The sole problem with the soprano’s singing of Ersinda’s first aria in Act One, ‘Al sole i lumi pria mancheranno,’ is the over-ambitious embellishment, which causes the intended coloratura feats to seem slightly beyond the singer’s capacity to execute them. This is especially unfortunate as no proof of Lezhneva’s talents other than her unflappable negotiations of the difficulties of Porpora’s vocal lines is required.

Tellingly, Lezhneva subsequently sings the aria ‘Se sposa d’un Romano’ with unerring control and stylishness, the meaning of the text palpably imparted. She further refines her depiction of Ersinda with singing in Act Two in which virtuosity and insightfulness are united in service to the drama. The savage fiorature of ‘Veder vicino il suo contento’ are tamed with astonishing ease, and her effortlessly sparkling trills recall Beverly Sills’s finest singing. The dramatic consequence of the contrast with ‘Sorge dall’onde’ is accentuated without exaggeration, Lezhneva’s clear enunciation of vowels sharpening the focus of her analysis of Ersinda’s actions and motivations. The pinnacle of Lezhneva’s performance is her account of the Act Three aria ‘Se possono i tuoi rai vedermi ognor penar.’ The best of her artistry shines in her singing of this music: the voice is magnificent, of course, but the heart is no less awe-inspiring. ​Along the course of her pursuit of technical excellence, Lezhneva has also deepened her understanding of the emotional aspects of bringing an operatic character to life, and in this performance she expresses Ersinda’s feelings as expertly as she sings her music.

Born in Morocco, soprano Hasnaa Bennani brings to her performance as the Roman captain Cecina in Germanico in Germania a wealth of experience in French Baroque repertoire that has polished her instincts for finding the expressive cores of dizzying fiorature. The results of this aptitude are evident in every moment of Bennani’s singing in this performance. A dynamic participant in recitatives, she brings similar boldness to Cecina’s aria in Act One, ‘Splende per mille amanti un bel sereno volto,’ voicing both words and music with fervor. She is wholly in her element in Cecina’s accompagnato exchange with Arminio in Act Two, unleashing volleys of adroitly-aimed vocal javelins. The brilliance of Bennani’s management of the punishing divisions in the rousing martial aria with obbligato horns ‘Se dopo ria procella’ is matched by the sincerity of her singing of ‘Serbami la tua fede,’ the voice at its most prepossessing when the character reacts to adversity. In Act Three, Bennani makes the aria ‘Serbare amore e fede’ a sonorous statement of Cecina’s principles. Porpora’s music offers the soprano few moments in which to exercise her talent for lyrical singing, but Bennani convincingly projects Cecina’s bravado without coarsening the lovely texture of her natural timbre.

The tremendous promise that soprano Dilyara Idrisova revealed in her performance as Sabina in DECCA’s studio recording of Pergolesi’s Adriano in Siria comes to fruition in the young singer’s portrayal of Arminio’s wife and Segeste’s daughter Rosmonda in Germanico in Germania. At odds with her father owing to her steadfast backing of her husband’s opposition to Rome, the determined lady’s introductory aria, ‘Rivolgi a me le ciglia,’ receives from Idrisova a captivating reading, the voice’s intrinsic delicacy bolstered by adventurous but mostly tasteful ornamentation. The sequence from the accompagnato ‘Sposa infelice, sventurata figlia’ to the cyclonic aria ‘Son qual misero naviglio’ is spanned with imagination and idiomatic musicality, the singer’s restraint in a rôle prone to flamboyance enhancing manifestation of the character’s latent decency.

Idrisova’s superb coloratura singing lends Rosmonda a more distinct profile in Act Two, not least in the aria ‘Il padre mi sgrida,’ in which the singer’s imperturbable assurance is astounding. In both the touching ‘Priva del caro sposo’ and the terzetto with Germanico and Arminio, Idrisova’s Rosmonda refuses to hide in the shadows of male egos. Her interpretation of the aria ‘Dite, che far degg’io?’ in Act Three is molded with punctilious care for maintaining the line without lessening the poignancy of the text. Wife and husband blend their voices handsomely in Rosmonda’s duetto with Arminio, Idrisova phrasing ‘Se viver non poss’io’ with guileless simplicity. The considerable challenges of Porpora’s music for Rosmonda notwithstanding, the touchstone of Idrisova’s performance is dramatic directness. The evenness of her singing is sporadically compromised by thinning of the tone above the stave, but she is a Rosmonda whose few moments of stress are unflinchingly integrated into an honest depiction of a woman whose prevailing loyalty is to love.

Created in Germanico’s Roman première by the celebrated castrato Caffarelli, Farinelli’s rival for the distinction of being remembered as Porpora’s most accomplished pupil, the proud Teutonic chieftain Arminio is inimical to the colonizing Romans despite the danger to himself and the people he loves. Casting rôles written for Caffarelli can be one of the most daunting aspects of modern productions of Eighteenth-Century operas: generally both high and florid, music tailored to the castrato’s abilities is awkward for many countertenors and mezzo-sopranos. In this performance of Germanico in Germania, mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi sings Caffarelli’s part with swagger that suggests that the castrato’s boasts that he rather than Farinelli was Porpora’s greatest protégé were not unfounded. From Arminio’s first entrance in Act One, Nesi makes the valiant warrior a dangerous adversary for Rome and Germanico, presenting his defiance with unshakably firm vocalism. There are ungainly moments in her register shifts in the aria ‘Serba costante il core,’ but she commands the tessitura with few of the shortcomings that mar other singers’ performances of similar music.

The communicative power of Nesi’s voicing of ‘A lei, che il mondo adora’ discloses the rewards of her artistic shrewdness, but here and in the riveting accompagnato scene with Cecina in Act Two it is above all the quality of the voice that compels admiration. The fiendish divisions in ‘Empi, se mai disciolgo’ are dispatched with galvanizing precision at a brisk tempo, elevating the tension that erupts in her nuanced, radiantly beautiful account of ‘Parto, ti lascio, o cara.’ In Nesi’s performance, the character’s integrity is always apparent in the emotionally volatile terzetto with Rosmonda and Germanico. The mezzo-soprano wields such histrionic authority in her articulation of ‘Nemica del valor barbara sorte!’ that this scene in Act Three could veritably be an opera in its own right. The tenderness of this Arminio’s discourse with his wife in the duetto with Rosmonda, ‘Se viver non poss’io,’ is endearing, and, in the opera’s final scene, the accompagnato ‘Vindice Dea’ draws from Nesi declamation of poetic potency. Nesi has ever been a noteworthy interpreter of music originally composed for castrati, but her singing on these discs confirms that her work is one of the most cogent vindications of the rejuvenation of this repertoire.

Expanding his enlightening gallery of portraits of forgotten operatic heroes that already includes compelling portrayals of Händel’s Alessandro, Arminio, and Ottone and Hasse’s Siroe, countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić here assumes command of the Roman forces in Porpora’s and Coluzzi’s Germania as Germanico, a rôle written for the castrato Domenico Annibali, who was also Händel’s first Arminio. Always possessing a timbral richness atypical of countertenors, Cenčić’s singing in Germanico in Germania exhibits an unforced grandeur that ideally suits the imperious but ultimately magnanimous leader and Porpora’s musical profile of him. [Cenčić’s exploration of Porpora’s musical portraiture continues with the release of a DECCA recital of opera arias in March 2018.] The machismo of Germanico’s Act One aria ‘Questo è il valor guerriero d’un’anima romana?’ suits the countertenor’s emphatic style of utterance, and he sustains an aura of sovereignty even when delving into the da capo’s disparate sentiments. The seething fiorature of ‘Qual turbine’ are also familiar territory for Cenčić, and he deftly steers a course through the music that maximizes excitement without devolving into vacuous grandstanding. He sometimes indulges in the invention of elaborate cadenzas that would be more at home in arias by Galuppi or Mysliveček, but his ornamentation of Germanico’s vocal lines is laudably musical.

Were it not for the hive of buzzing strings into which Porpora plunges the melodic line, Germanico’s Act Two aria ‘Nasce da valle impura vapor che in alto ascende’ might exert the allure of Händel’s most beguiling arias, especially as Cenčić sings it here, but the incessant din of the accompaniment spoils the music beyond any singer’s capacity to rescue it. Still, Cenčić’s performance of the aria is eloquent and charismatic. He joins the seditious Arminio and Rosmonda in their terzetto with an incendiary statement of ‘Temi lo sdegno mio, perfido traditore,’ but, unlike some holders of political sway, this Germanico seems to actually listen to his foes. In Act Three, Cenčić sings ‘Per un momento ancora’ ebulliently, and he accepts the resolution of his clash with opponents of his jurisdiction with affability. Like his previous portrayals for DECCA, extending back to a mellifluous Erster Knabe in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte whilst he was a member of the Wiener Sängerknaben, Cenčić’s Germanico is a winning synthesis of scholarship and showmanship.

When Porpora is last seen in the film Farinelli, he is a disheveled, disenfranchised remnant of a fading era. Sadly, history avows that, to some extent, Corbiau got this right. Porpora’s life was undoubtedly burdened by deprivation, but Germanico in Germania is not the work of an embittered, perennially disagreeable man. His career was impaired by the eternal fickleness of fashion, but the silver lining of that capriciousness is the retribution of rediscovery. With this bar-raising recording of Germanico in Germania, Porpora claims this retribution at last.

22 January 2018

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Sandro Ivo Bartoli resurrects the forgotten piano music of Giacomo Puccini (Solaire Records SOL1007)

FROM STAGE TO SALON: Sandro Ivo Bartoli plays the complete piano works of Giacomo Puccini (Solaire Records SOL1007)GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924) and CARLO CARIGNANI (1857 – 1919): Complete Piano Works and Selected Opera TranscriptionsSandro Ivo Bartoli, piano [Recorded in Steinway Haus Berlin, Berlin, Germany, 4 – 5 July 2017; Solaire Records SOL1007; 1 CD, ; Available from Solaire Records and major music retailers]

I do not deny that I often drown even my noblest intentions in deluges of words. The greatest danger of approaching the analysis of music with a literary mind is allowing the love of writing to overwhelm the necessity of being read. Too frequently, I cannot overcome the compulsion to write an Edward Everett oration when a Gettysburg Address with easily-extracted talking points would be preferred. It is a disease that resists therapy and is perhaps ultimately fatal to the integrity of an earnest crusade to restore to criticism its own kind of artistry.

Sandro Ivo Bartoli’s Solaire Records recital of music for solo piano by Giacomo Puccini, supplemented by Carlo Carignani’s arrangements of themes from Puccini’s operas, is a disc that inspires appreciation that must not be fed to the insatiable beast of verbosity. As in all of his recorded performances with which I am familiar, the technical skill that Bartoli brings to his playing is irreproachable: were there a need for such stunts, he could undoubtedly play the most difficult of Alexander Scriabin’s piano sonatas whilst blindfolded and subjected to all sorts of adverse conditions. Bartoli is not a well-designed automaton, however, and he does not play like one. Rather, his performances breathe. By the motions of his wrists, the music before him inhales and exhales, the notes and chords becoming atoms and molecules in the atmospheres that emanate from composers’ scores. Even if the music that he performs is sparse and atonal, his playing retains a pervasive aura of bel canto.

It became fashionable in the second half of the Twentieth Century and inexplicably remains a badge of honor in some musical circles in the Twenty-First Century to dismiss Puccini’s music as formulaic, undistinguished, and embarrassingly sentimental. Passages from virtually every score that Puccini produced can be cited in validation of these accusations, but it is not an honest operaphile who proclaims that every bar of Le nozze di Figaro, Tristan und Isolde, or Falstaff bears obvious evidence of genius.

In an effort at fairly assessing the merits of Puccini’s music, consider La bohème, a score labeled by some connoisseurs as unendurably saccharine. On stage and in studio, Mimì and Rodolfo are sometimes older than convention suggests that amorous Bohemians ought to be, sometimes fatter, sometimes older and fatter, and, among listeners who surrender their prejudices to the music, has a truly well-sung but zaftig Mimì ever prompted the notion that her death might have been affecting had binoculars been required to see her waistline from the first row of the stalls? There are combinations of emotional qualities in Puccini’s scores that refuse to be suppressed. Bad performances reveal the blemishes, to be sure, but performances like Bartoli offers on this disc celebrate the beauties of Puccini’s music with a blaze of passion that no pseudo-academic disapprobation can wholly extinguish.

Among the pieces included on this disc, only the first six are the work of Puccini in the sense that the composer himself was wholly responsible for their creation—and, in the cases of at least two of the pieces, that attribution is not universally accepted as factual. Possibly a study for the slow movement of an unfinished D-major string quartet that occupied Puccini in 1882, whilst he was studying composition under the tutelage of Antonio Bazzini, the Adagio in A major is a delightful discovery, its graceful melodic lines, eventually adapted to new surroundings in 1883 in both the Capriccio sinfonico and the opera Le Villi, bewitchingly extended by Bartoli’s phrasing. The limited but imaginative thematic development suggests that the music may well trace its genesis to the aborted string quartet, but Bartoli brings it to the piano with panache.

Composed in 1894, the Lento molto Piccolo Valzer eventually metamorphosed into Musetta’s aria ‘Quando m’en vo’ soletta per la via’ in Act Two of La bohème, its opening theme as familiar as the melodies of Verdi’s ‘La donna è mobile’ and Puccini’s later ‘Nessun dorma.’ Bartoli conveys the wistfulness of the tune more touchingly than almost any Musetta: without the subtext of the character’s toying with Alcindoro and Marcello, the melancholic core of the melody resounds. Bartoli plays without a trace of artifice, the sincerity of his performance heightening the piece’s expressivity. Similarly, Bartoli wields compelling—and fitting—energy in his playing of the Marcetta brillante Scossa Elettrica, commissioned in 1899 to celebrate the centenary of Alessandro Volta’s invention of the electric battery.

In Bartoli’s handling, both the ‘moderato’ and the ‘con affetto’ components of Puccini’s instructions for Foglio d’Album are realized with subtlety. This and the Piccolo Tango possess harmonic nuances of near-Impressionistic colorations, almost as though Puccini learned the art of composition for the piano from the young Debussy. The lack of autograph manuscripts has exposed these pieces to doubts about their origins, but Bartoli’s idiomatically persuasive performances of them silence any debat. Verification of their authorship may be difficult, but enjoying the pianist’s playing is easy. A mere sixteen bars in duration, the Calmo e molto lento Pezzo per pianoforte was written in 1916 in tribute to the appalling human toll of World War One, the effects of which reverberated through the Arts until the atrocities of the Second World War dominated cultural consciousness. Lovingly played here by Bartoli, Puccini’s piece is poignantly understated, imparting collective senses of loss and reflection. For sixteen bars, Puccini gave the piano the communicative power of Wilfred Owen’s poetry, and Bartoli’s interpretation of Pezzo per pianoforte conveys the full meaning of Owen’s declaration that, when writing of the horrors of war and human cruelty, ‘the Poetry is in the pity.’

An almost exact contemporary of Puccini, as well as a fellow native of Lucca and an accomplished musician in his own right, Carlo Carignani created arrangements for piano of excerpts from Puccini’s operas that divulge abundant musicality. Both of the pieces from Tosca included on this disc, the cantata ‘Sale, ascende l’uman cantico’ and Tosca’s aria ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ from Act Two, project the moods of the respective scenes in the opera. How much more effective many performances of Tosca would be were their leading ladies capable of sculpting the line as artfully as Bartoli does in his ‘singing’ of the aria! The Preludes to Act One of Le Villi and Act Three of Edgar were reimagined for the piano by Carignani and are delivered by Bartoli with complementary intelligence, the calibre of the former’s craftsmanship honored by the depth of the latter’s concentration.

The central episode in Il trittico, premièred at The Metropolitan Opera in 1918 with Geraldine Farrar as its titular postulant, Suor Angelica falls victim to particularly vehement scorn for its musical construction and its narrative of a woman who receives absolution after ending her own life upon learning of the death of the child from whom she was separated. In Bartoli’s performance of Carignani’s arrangement of the opera’s Intermezzo, one hears the devastated mother’s restlessness as she prepares the potion that will reunite her with her son, anticipating the elation of the meeting between parent and child. Music is often a realm of extremes in which middle ground can be difficult to find and even harder to occupy, and this year’s centennial of Il trittico’s world première is a suitable occasion for reminding listeners of the foolishness of slavishly replicating others’ preconceptions. Puccini unquestionably aimed for the tear ducts in Suor Angelica, but is the idea of feeling empathy for a grieving mother, albeit a fictional one, really so deserving of contempt? Transcending music, Bartoli’s performance of the opera’s Intermezzo is a timely lesson in compassion.

The principal subjects of Cio-Cio San’s aria ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ and the Coro a bocca chiusa (the Humming Chorus) from Act Two of Madama Butterfly are two of Puccini’s most widely-known melodies, and Carignani arranged them for piano with remarkable sensitivity. The ambiance of Puccini’s Nagasaki permeates Carignani’s work, and Bartoli’s finesse brings Cio-Cio San to life with moving immediacy. With his articulation of ‘Un bel dì vedremo,’ Bartoli evokes the simplicity of Margaret Sheridan, the heartbreak of Maria Callas, and the eloquence of Renata Scotto. In his playing of the Humming Chorus, Butterfly’s yearning for Pinkerton’s return surges in the music’s familiar strains. Before hearing this disc, I would never have anticipated one of the foremost interpreters of Cio-Cio San’s tragedy being a pianist.

As he was preparing to depart from New York City after attending performances of Manon Lescaut and Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, Puccini and his wife bade farewell to their American hosts with gracious remarks that were preserved for posterity by Columbia Phonographic Company. Recorded on 21 February 1907, those few words provide today’s listeners’ sole opportunity to hear Puccini’s voice—until the release of this disc, that is. No words are spoken here, but Puccini speaks as clearly in the performances on this disc as he did in Columbia’s studio more than a century ago. With his playing, Sandro Ivo Bartoli translates Puccini’s discourse into language that all hearers can understand.

18 January 2018

CD REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin, & Franz Liszt — PIANO WORKS (Alexei Melnikov, piano; Acousence Classics ACO-CD 13217)

IN REVIEW: L. van Beethoven, F. Chopin, & F. Liszt - PIANO WORKS (Acousence Classics ACO-CD 13217)LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827), FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN (1810 – 1849), FRANZ LISZT (1811 – 1886): Piano Works—Alexei Melnikov, piano [Recorded at Campus Fichtenhain, Krefeld-Fichtenhain, Germany, 1 – 3 March 2017; Acousence Classics ACO-CD 13217; 1 CD, 62:10; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

On 15 July 1909, the Leipzig-born pianist Wilhelm Backhaus entered the fledgling HWV studio, then only seventeen months along in its life in the wake of its formation as a branch of the Gramophone Company, and recorded a six-minute abridgment of Edvard Grieg’s Opus 16 Piano Concerto in A minor. Twenty-five years old at the time, Backhaus was already well advanced in a career that would endure war, political upheaval, and unfortunate associations. Though hardly the first recording of music for piano and amounting to nothing more than a small fragment of one of the cornerstones of the piano repertory, those six minutes of Grieg were revolutionary. With that recording, an acknowledged master of the instrument recognized and validated the legitimacy of the art of recording piano music. It was an auspicious development in the relationship between music and technology, a relationship that in the subsequent century has evolved in ways that even a visionary like Backhaus could not have foreseen.

Whether the medium is acetate, vinyl, magnetic tape, plastic, or digital coding, the objective of recording music for piano has remained constant: by faithfully reproducing the combinations of sounds that a musician cajoles from the piano, a recording preserves an unique performance via which the distances that separate composer, performer, and listener are closed. In this sense of sharing the emotional proximity between music and musician with the listener, Alexei Melnikov’s Acousence Records recital of music for piano by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt is a noteworthy success. What makes this disc so special, however, is the opportunity that it affords the hearer to experience the artistic coming of age of a pianist with traits much like those that Backhaus brought to the HMV studio in 1909. Insightful, intelligent, adventurous, and abidingly musical, Melnikov is a young artist who life and training span two millennia but whose passion for the communicative power of music is shown by this disc to be of timeless profundity.

A prize winner in a number of prestigious international competitions, native Muscovite Melnikov was born in 1990, beginning his journey at a time of extraordinary change in his homeland. Especially in an era in which any child with a keyboard, a means of recording video, and an internet connection can aspire to being the next online sensation, he is now hardly a novice, but neither the extensiveness of a musician’s experience nor his age constitutes maturity. In this instance, it is his playing—recorded by Acousence in an appealingly intimate acoustic ambiance that places the listener at the pianist’s side, sensing the movement of his fingers and wrists and the vibrations of the strings before him—that divulges the state of Melnikov’s artistic cultivation. The hallmarks of nationalistic schools of pianism are now only memories that can be revisited in recordings from prior generations, but there are in Melnikov’s playing on this disc reminiscences of the style of his countryman Sviatoslav Richter, not least in the obvious commitment to approaching music without agenda or artifice. It is virtually impossible to wholly avoid egotism in achieving the level of technical mastery necessary to focus on interpreting complex pieces rather than getting the notes right, but Melnikov channels the drive to perform at his best into a conscious desire to be the catalyst that facilitates listeners’ reactions to composers’ musical narratives. The three pieces selected for this disc are very different in substance and structure but strikingly similar in the immediacy of their emotional storytelling, and it is as a teller of these stories that Melnikov seizes the imagination.

Composed during the first years of the Nineteenth Century, a period of great personal struggle during which the composer was compelled to confront his increasing deafness, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor (Opus 57)—not given its traditional appellation of Appassionata until a decade after the composer’s death—continues after more than two hundred years to be regarded as one of the most difficult sonatas in the standard repertory. Like much of Beethoven’s music, the Appassionata is susceptible to being made ridiculous by pianists who overdo the histrionics in wrongheaded pursuits of metaphysical context for the Sonata. The music is brooding and bleak, but it is music, not a series of aural hieroglyphics awaiting decoding. Melnikov executes the score without affectation, focusing on what exists in the music rather than on its Existential implications.

Unsurprisingly, the writing in octaves that is a vital component of Beethoven’s presentation of thematic material in the Sonata’s opening Allegro assai movement makes no demands to which Melnikov’s technique is not equal, and the fluidity of his delivery is impressive. The music’s inherent instability, conveyed by churning arpeggios, is meaningfully imparted without being unduly emphasized. The beautifully simple principal subject of the Andante con moto movement is phrased with understated eloquence that persists in Melnikov’s handling of the variations. It is all too easy for pianists to fall into the trap of encumbering this music with saccharine emoting, but the young pianist here circumvents this obstacle by playing straightforwardly and allowing the connection between music and listener to guide his interpretation. Melnikov’s playing of the Allegro ma non troppo – Presto finale is admirably accurate, his grasps on the movement’s rhythmic transitions and the intricacies of the Sonata’s expansive coda unfaltering. Beethoven has long been cited, perhaps apocryphally, as having asserted that playing without passion is far more damaging to music than playing wrong notes. The playing of some very famous pianists has substantiated the sagacity of Beethoven’s alleged observation, but Melnikov’s performance of the Appassionata is one of the finest recorded examples of how strikingly modern the Sonata can sound when performed with both passion and precision.

It is not necessary to attempt to count its appearances on every aural medium in order to discern that Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor (Opus 48, No. 1) has amassed a discography more extensive than that of almost any other piece in two-and-a-half centuries of piano literature. In the company of recordings by virtually every noteworthy pianist of the past hundred years, it is now tremendously difficult for any artist to bring originality to a recorded performance of the Nocturne without also approaching it with idiosyncrasy that is a disservice to both Chopin and the listener. Remarkably, Melnikov plays the Nocturne with an abiding sense of individuality that remains wholly faithful to the score. As in an aria by Bellini, whose work Chopin knew and admired, the melodic line is of paramount importance, and the pianist negotiates the interplay of the primary and secondary subjects, as well as the shift from Lento to Poco più lento, with resourcefulness that intensifies rather than diluting the composer’s distinctive expressivity.

Almost since the piece first appeared in print in 1854, Franz Liszt’s mammoth Piano Sonata in B minor (S.178) has confounded pianists, audiences, and musicologists. Essentially through-composed in the manner of an expansive, half-hour tone poem for solo piano, the Sonata’s construction has ignited debates about Liszt’s intentions, namely whether the piece was conceived as a single movement or should be viewed as a progression of interconnected movements played without pause. With his performance of the Sonata on this disc, Melnikov espouses neither theory, preferring to concentrate on surmounting the score’s many difficulties and allowing the listener to seek clues within the music.

The naturalness of the recorded sound is a great boon to Melnikov’s performance of the Liszt Sonata, enabling the listener to fully appreciate the contrasting delicacy and power of the pianist’s control of the clarion-toned Shigeru Kawai instrument at his disposal. The full emotional effect of the brief Lento assai introduction is realized in Melnikov’s performance, and the piano’s keys gallop beneath his fingers in his playing of the Sonata’s Allegro energico episode. The pomposity in this reading of the Grandioso section is Liszt’s, not Melnikov’s, and the conversational directness of the pianist’s reading of the Recitativo passages initiates a dialogue among the Sonata’s competing thematic fragments.

The pulse of bel canto beats unmistakably in this maneuvering of the Andante sostenuto heart of the Sonata, and the significance of the return to Allegro energico is spotlit by the drive with which it is accomplished. Melnikov observes Liszt’s cantando espressivo marking with sophistication matched by the zeal of his launching of the following Stretta quasi presto. The course from Presto to Prestissimo is traced with dynamism that lends the recurrence of the Andante sostenuto heightened psychological force. From this apex, the path to the Sonata’s resolution is carved through Allegro moderato and Lento assai terrain, and the descent is effectuated in this performance with athletic agility. The clarity of Melnikov’s navigation of Liszt’s contrapuntal writing reveals the composer’s prowess as a steward of long-established musical forms. It is not without justification that the Liszt Sonata is a piece that pianists add to their repertoires only after acute study. Melnikov’s study yields a rousing, revelatory account of the Sonata—rousing in its traversal of Liszt’s craggy musical topography and revelatory in its manifestation of its player’s abilities.

Comparisons of one pianist’s performances with those of other pianists are often as pointless as they are inevitable, but they are sometimes useful in providing a benchmark against which a young artist’s work can be measured. In the context of Melnikov’s playing on this disc, the most apt comparison is with Edith Farnadi, whose interpretations of music by Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt, exemplified by her 1954 Westminster recording of the Liszt Sonata, possessed an analogous balance between mood and momentum. At least since the 1960 release of Johnny Tillotson’s version of the pop song with the title, the notion of ‘poetry in motion’ has been a cliché, but it is an apposite description of Farnadi’s work. As he plays Beethoven’s Appassionata, one of Chopin’s most affecting Nocturnes, and Liszt’s B-minor Sonata on this disc, his commercial recording début, Alexei Melnikov’s artistry also embodies kinetic lyricism. Above all, the performances on this disc beget an enticing question: what comes next for this erudite pianist?

14 January 2018

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | January 2018: DEBUT – Music for Horn (Ben Goldscheider, horn; Daniel Hill, piano; Willowhayne Records WHR045CD)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | January 2018: DEBUT - Music for Horn (Willowhayne Records WHR045CD)YORK BOWEN (1884 – 1961), VOLKER DAVID KIRCHNER (born 1942), NIKOLAUS VON KRUFFT (1779 – 1818), ESA-PEKKA SALONEN (born 1958), ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856), and JÖRG WIDMANN (born 1973): Debut – Music for HornBen Goldscheider, horn; Daniel Hill, piano [Recorded in Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton, UK, 22 – 24 September 2017; Willowhayne Records WHR045CD; 1 CD, 74:36; Available from Willowhayne Records, Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Six decades after his death, one man’s name continues to reverberate in the affections of English-speaking people who appreciate the complex art of horn playing: Dennis Brain. Sufficiently esteemed beyond the linguistic and musical diasporas of Britain to have inspired Francis Poulenc to compose his moving Elégie for horn and piano on the day after the musician’s untimely death in a motorway crash, Brain came in his brief life to dominate public awareness of his instrument to a degree that perhaps no other Twentieth-Century musician managed to do. A virtuoso of both technique and style, Brain displayed a remarkable understanding of the evolution of writing for the horn, including in his repertoire music ranging from Eighteenth-Century concerti by Joseph Haydn and Mozart to then-new pieces created for him by his contemporaries. The world’s orchestras are continually populated with capable horn players, but lamentations for the lack of musicians of Brain’s caliber among today’s horn sections are misleading. In truth, like singers of the stature of Kirsten Flagstad and Maria Callas, a horn virtuoso of Brain’s technical and interpretive abilities is ever exceedingly rare. The emergence of Hertfordshire-born horn virtuoso Ben Goldscheider is therefore all the more exciting. A musician whose credentials belie his youth, Goldscheider proclaims with this impressively-engineered, absorbing Willowhayne Records release that he is poised to honor Brain’s legacy with his own once-in-a-generation artistry.

Ideally, a musician’s début recording should provide the listener with introductions not only to the player’s technique but, more importantly, to his artistic personality, as well. Any young musician given an opportunity to make a recording must be presumed to have achieved a respectable level of technical proficiency, but conservatories regularly produce phalanxes of able technicians. Beyond satisfying the listener’s curiosity about the player’s mastery of his instrument, the question that a début recording should answer is this: what makes this musician unique? As an exhibition of the singular qualities that set him apart from his colleagues, this disc is especially valuable, but Ben Goldscheider’s Debut is equally enjoyable as a recital of astutely-chosen pieces that survey the development of writing for the horn during the past two centuries. Crucially, Goldscheider approaches each work on its own terms, consistent in his command of the horn’s mechanics but also splendidly attentive to the ever-adapting styles of the music.

The Air for solo horn of German clarinetist, conductor, and composer Jörg Widmann is a logical starting point for the young musician’s exploration of his instrument’s and his own capacities for expression. Here and in all of the selections on the disc, his management of intonation and dynamics is impeccable, and the evenness of tone that he produces is indicative of superb breath control. Beauty is not always a trait that can be cited in assessments of brass playing, but the singing quality that Goldscheider achieves in his shaping of the lyrical lines of Widmann’s music is truly beautiful. A horn’s valves make smooth transitions among intervals reliant upon the player’s finesse, and Goldscheider impresses with extended spans of legato.

A contemporary of Beethoven, Viennese composer Nikolaus von Krufft was also a cofounder of the prestigious Wiener Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung and an early champion of German Lied whose publication of a collection of finely-crafted songs in 1798 paved the way for Schubert and subsequent composers of Lieder. There are Lied-like episodes worthy of Schubert’s melodic prodigality in von Krufft’s skillfully-written Sonata for piano and horn in E major, in his performance of which Goldscheider is joined by pianist Daniel Hill. The collaboration between Goldscheider and Hill is indeed like that of a Lieder singer and accompanist, their playing following not only the dictates of the music but also the nuances of one another’s phrasing. In the opening Allegro moderato movement, reminiscent of Antonio Salieri’s similarly-conceived music for wind instruments, hornist and pianist share thematic material like voices in a Monteverdi madrigal, sustaining an elegant flow of melody. The central Andante espressivo is pensive without being melancholic, and Goldscheider interweaves his tones with the piano’s textures to conjure an atmosphere of Arcadian serenity. There are hints of Mendelssohn in the Moderato Rondo alla polacca that concludes the Sonata, hints that Goldscheider amplifies by playing with an effervescence that inspires the wish that Schubert might have written the obbligato in his Lied ‘Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’ for horn rather than for clarinet.

A piece that contrasts markedly with von Krufft’s Sonata, Robert Schumann’s Opus 70 Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano harkens back in spirit if not in actual structure to Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ music. The introductory Adagio discloses an obvious kinship with the slow movements of Schumann’s string quartets and exquisite Opus 44 piano quintet. Hill’s performance displays an admirable understanding of the composer’s intricate writing for the instrument, and Goldscheider plays with a quintessentially Romantic suggestion of yearning, mining the emotional lodes of Schumann’s harmonic progressions. The energetic pulse of the Allegro courses through both musicians’ playing. Schumann’s chamber music is rarely genuinely extroverted, but Goldscheider and Hill unearth the subtle smiles in the Allegro and translate them into alluring sounds.

Native Londoner York Bowen was renowned as both a violist and a horn player, so it is not surprising that his Opus 101 Sonata for horn and piano in E♭ major shows evidence of great affinity for composing for the horn. Even more so than in Schumann’s Sonata, horn and piano—and their players—are engaged in an eloquent, sometimes impassioned conversation. Though he was a contemporary of the leading exponents of the avant garde in British music during the first half of the Twentieth Century, Bowen’s compositional idiom was prevailingly Romantic, allying him more with Elgar than with Britten in his writing for the horn. This might have been perceived as a liability during the course of Bowen’s career, but it is a definite virtue in the context of his Opus 101 Sonata, composed in 1937. There is a pervasive, very British decorum in the Moderato espressivo movement that receives wonderfully gracious handling from Goldscheider and Hill, and the Poco lento maestoso that follows is played with sensitivity that never devolves into sentimentality. As in the final movement of the Schumann Sonata, Goldscheider and Hill bring to their performance of the Allegro con spirito in Bowen’s Sonata a tremendous emission of musical electricity, illuminating the savvy of the composer’s fusing of the horn’s and piano’s timbres. Perhaps the advocacy of a recorded performance as affecting as this one will propel the Sonata along the path to the greater recognition that it so deserves.

Building upon the tradition of music for horn and piano furthered by von Krufft’s and Schumann’s works, German composer Volker David Kirchner’s Tre poemi are evocative, challenging pieces that polish vastly different facets of Goldscheider’s musical persona. The shadows that lurk in ‘Lamento’ are dispelled by the purity of his pitch, the music’s straightforward emotion enhanced by the complete absence of artifice with which both Goldscheider and Hill deliver it. The joviality of ‘Danza’ is guarded, almost like an anxious breeze before a hurricane, but the musicians transport the listener to an uncomplicated celebration in a village town hall. ‘La Gondola funebre’ churns with the relentless motion of water, its mood more one of resignation than of despair. Hill’s playing is hypnotic, luring the listener into the recesses of the music and forcing confrontation with the horn, which seems to emerge from some enigmatic place deep within the harmonies. As Goldscheider plays, it is as though in his tones one is eavesdropping on one’s own thoughts.

Renowned in many musical circles more for his conducting than for his composing, Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen is without question one of the most imaginative musicians in recent memory. His compositional style is difficult to define within the boundaries of tradition parameters, but a compelling intensity often takes root and blossoms organically in his music. This is certainly true of his Concert Étude for solo horn. Its title notwithstanding, the Étude is anything but academic. It is undeniably a learned piece, but its wisdom is personal, not pedantic. The piece demands concentration and rhythmic precision that Goldscheider supplies, but he does not play with a student’s reticence. The years of life to his credit may be few, but the maturity of his performance of Salonen’s Étude is unmistakable. It is difficult music that is here executed with technique and expressivity in optimal equilibrium. Journalists speak of the question behind the question: Goldscheider reaches the music beyond the notes.

Debut is a deceptive disc. During its seventy-five minutes, it is possible to believe that playing the horn is a task at which anyone with good lungs and a bit of patience might succeed. Were it solely a task, perhaps more people could succeed at it, but even the casual music lover knows that more unfortunate Leonores than can be counted have suffered their performances of the formidable ‘Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?’ being marred by poor horn playing and that many traversals of Mahler’s Second Symphony have sunk under the weight of horns’ faltering intonation. The physics of blowing into a twisted tube of metal provides the sound, but it is artistry that makes it music. Debut answers the necessary question about what separates Ben Goldscheider from the ranks of well-qualified horn players. He is a young man with a timeless gift. In his hands, the horn is not an instrument but a conduit for making emotions audible.

13 January 2018

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini — IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA (D. Pershall, C. Hall, A. Owens, T. Simpson, D. Hartmann, S. Foley Davis, R. Hill, J. Kato, C. Blackburn; Greensboro Opera, 12 January 2018)

IN PERFORMANCE: Conductor JOEL REVZEN leads the cast of Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE IN SIVIGLIA in rehearsal, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Il barbiere di Siviglia, ossia L’inutile precauzioneDavid Pershall (Figaro), Cecelia Hall (Rosina), Andrew Owens (Il conte d’Almaviva), Tyler Simpson (Don Basilio), Donald Hartmann (Dottor Bartolo), Stephanie Foley Davis (Berta), Ryan Hill (Fiorello), Jacob Kato (Un sergente), Christian Blackburn (Un notaro); Greensboro Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Joel Revzen, conductor [David Holley, Producer and Stage Director; James Bumgardner, Chorus Master; Jeff Neubauer, Lighting Designer; Greensboro Opera, UNCG Auditorium, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 12 January 2018]

George Bernard Shaw may never have actually said that youth is wasted on the young, at least not with those exact words, but the sentiment is very true to Shaw’s guardedly cynical world view. Could even the thorny Dubliner have thought that the marvels of youth were wasted on the young Gioachino Rossini? Fate dealt the prodigy of Pesaro a most ingenious paradox from the start, decreeing that he would be born on 29 February 1792, and, while his crib may not have been padded with music paper as Mozart’s must have been, the lad squandered no time in steadying his artistic gait. Rossini already had no fewer than sixteen operas, not all of them successful, under his belt when his iconic melodramma giocoso Il barbiere di Siviglia was first performed in Rome on 20 February 1816, nine days before his twenty-fourth birthday. Utilizing Cesare Sterbini’s enchantingly witty adaptation of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s Le Barbier de Séville ou la Précaution inutile, the young Rossini’s opera fell victim to the Roman audience’s lingering affection for Giovanni Paisiello’s 1782 setting of Il barbiere di Siviglia, a now-neglected score that in 1816 was still performed frequently throughout Italy. Vindication of Rossini’s musical cunning was not long in coming, however, establishing within a decade that Beethoven was right when he predicted that the popularity of Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia would persist as long as Italian opera continued to be performed.

The universal resonance of Beaumarchais’s story, the timeless cleverness of Sterbini’s words, and the perennial charm of Rossini’s score make staging Il barbiere di Siviglia an easy decision for opera companies large and small, but few companies present the work with the boundless imagination, musicality, and sheer fun that were the hallmarks of Greensboro Opera’s production. Since taking the helm as the company’s Artistic Director in June 2013, David Holley has steered Greensboro Opera towards markedly heightened artistic integrity and hard-won financial security. Both by bringing the 2015 convention of the National Opera Association to Greensboro and by casting Greensboro Opera’s productions with singers with wide-ranging credentials, Holley has increased Greensboro’s stature as a noteworthy operatic destination. This production of Il barbiere di Siviglia, produced and directed by Holley, embodied the rejuvenated company’s mission of making opera on a world-class level accessible to all residents of central North Carolina.

Using eye-pleasing scenery by Peter Dean Beck and costumes by Susan Memmott Allred, on loan from Utah Opera, Holley’s production created on the stage of UNCG Auditorium a Barbiere di Siviglia that was at once gratifyingly familiar and rousingly novel. Barbiere di Siviglia is a piece that many directors immerse in deluges of stock gestures and purposeless foolishness. A singer himself, Holley is sensitive to the physical demands of singing and supervised a staging of Rossini’s fast-paced musical gambol in which every movement was inspired by music and text. Too often, productions of Il barbiere di Siviglia and the singers who populate them seem awkward because they attempt to make the opera funny. The comedy exists in the score and libretto: a production’s success depends upon finding, not inventing it. Aided by the expert guidance of stage manager Shelby Robertson and assistant stage managers Caroline Stamm and Abigail Hart, the singers assembled by Holley exhibited natural comedic timing, the thoughtful illumination of their antics by Jeff Neubauer’s lighting designs ensuring that the audience’s attention was always focused on the nucleus of the action. With all participants in the production collaborating to realize Holley’s vision with complete conviction, the true focus was on Rossini—precisely where it should be in any performance of Il barbiere di Siviglia.

IN PERFORMANCE: baritones DAVID PERSHALL as Figaro (left) and RYAN HILL as Fiorello (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]Factotum della città: baritones David Pershall as Figaro (left) and Ryan Hill as Fiorello (right) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

That what is now universally recognized as Il barbiere di Siviglia’s overture is one of the most familiar pieces of Classical Music would not surprise Rossini, who was fond enough of it—and was sufficiently idle—to have previously used it to open both Aureliano in Palmira and Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, a pair of his serious operas. The eventual popularity of its third companion, with the comedic tone of which it fits handily despite sharing no thematic material with the balance of the score, ensured that Barbiere was its final destination. Energized by conductor Joel Revzen’s nimble negotiations of the music’s abrupt changes of pace and mood, the Greensboro Opera Orchestra’s playing of the spry Sinfonia set the tone for an evening of well-rehearsed and high-spirited musical merrymaking.

Throughout the performance, Revzen adopted tempi that kept the show moving without bullying the singers. Perhaps the greatest challenge of Barbiere for conductors and directors is the disproportionate duration of Act One, but Revzen and Holley ensured that members of the Greensboro audience were not glancing at their watches and wondering how many more bars would whizz past before the interval. Accompanied by Revzen, the secco recitatives churned with the excitement of feisty Spaniards consumed by amorous intrigue. The Temporale in Act Two, enacted by Holley with a welcome avoidance of nonsensical stage business, had the effect of a discharge of the dramatic electricity that crackled through the preceding scene. Occasionally, Revzen’s conducting lost momentum, most noticeably in solo numbers, and there were sporadic mishaps in the orchestra, none of which upset the overall musical equilibrium of the performance. Under the direction of chorus master James Bumgardner, the twelve gentlemen of the Barbiere chorus—Christian Blackburn, Ian DeSmit, John Huff, Lucas Johnston, Jacob Kato, Brian Kilpatrick, Mark Loy, Wesley McLeary-Small, Wendell Putney, Ben Ramsey, D’Andre Wright, and John Warrick—both sang and acted their parts to perfection, portraying Conte Almaviva’s band of hired musicians and the too-eager recruits of Seville’s constabulary with gusto that matched the orchestra’s playing. Like their colleagues behind the scenes, orchestra, chorus, and conductor gave of their best in service to Rossini.

IN PERFORMANCE: tenor ANDREW OWENS as Conte Almaviva (left) and mezzo-soprano CECELIA HALL as Rosina (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]Il conte e la sua Rosina: tenor Andrew Owens as Conte Almaviva (left) and mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall as Rosina (right) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

With music like Rossini’s to sing, even small rôles in Barbiere di Siviglia need large personalities with vocal talents to match, and in Greensboro Opera’s performance they had them. Supplementing their choral duties, Kato and Blackburn were valuable assets to the performance as the police sergeant dispatched to investigate the cause of the tumult chez Bartolo in the Act One finale and the notary summoned to formalize Bartolo’s union with Rosina in Act Two. Baritone Ryan Hill was an unusually sonorous Fiorello, launching the opera’s opening scene with a handsomely-voiced ‘Piano, pianissimo, senza parlar.’

In too many performances of Barbiere, the ladies who portray Bartolo’s housekeeper Berta look and sound as though they may have studied the rôle under the tutelage of Rossini himself. A particular joy of Greensboro Opera’s Barbiere was the casting of mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as a Berta who sang powerfully in every scene in which she appeared without prompting fears that she would need to be defibrillated at the end of every phrase like a broken-down bel canto incarnation of Offenbach’s Olympia. A dramatic whirlwind in the Act One finale, Foley Davis delivered a wonderful account of Berta’s Act Two arietta ‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie,’ rising to top A with ease. Ideally, a Berta should sound as though she might be a capable Rosina: Foley Davis would undoubtedly be considerably more than capable and was a magnificent Berta.

IN PERFORMANCE: Bass-baritones DONALD HARTMANN as Bartolo (left) and TYLER SIMPSON as Basilio (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]La calunnia è un venticello: bass-baritones Donald Hartmann as Bartolo (left) and Tyler Simpson as Basilio (right) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

Following the trend started by Berta, it is apparent in many productions of Barbiere that Don Basilio has devoted many years to his parochial pursuits, with the vocal attrition to prove it. Rossini’s music for the rôle indicates that he expected Basilio to at least temporarily wield virility potent enough to make his conspiratorial machinations believably threatening. Basilio need not be genuinely menacing to make his mark, but there was a hint of sadism at the core of bass-baritone Tyler Simpson’s interpretation of the part that lent the not-so-holy man’s treachery atypical forcefulness. In this performance, Basilio’s encounter with Bartolo in Act One eerily foreshadowed Filippo’s fateful sparring with the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi‘s Don Carlo: laughter still reigned here, but the effect of casting a young, clarion-toned singer as Basilio was palpable. Expectedly, Simpson sang Basilio’s Act One aria ‘La calunnia è un venticello’ with galvanizing persuasiveness and vocal assurance, firing the repetitions of ‘colpo di cannone’ into the auditorium with Scarpia-like glee. Arriving for Rosina’s singing lesson in Act Two to the unexpected news of his replacement and dire illness, Simpson imparted Basilio’s bewilderment with a credibility that only an intelligent singer can achieve. Astutely-honed stagecraft shone in Simpson’s every note, word, and motion, especially in ensembles, and his vocalism was unfailingly secure and stimulating.

IN PERFORMANCE: bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Bartolo in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]A un dottor della mia sorte: bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Bartolo in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

Every conservatory should offer mandatory courses designed to foster comprehension amongst prospective singers that comedy and stupidity are vastly different concepts. Rossini and Sterbini obviously intended Barbiere to be funny, but not even at its zaniest is the opera ever stupid. In this performance, that course was taught by bass-baritone Donald Hartmann, whose characterization of the vain, blustering Dottor Bartolo was hilarious because there were glimmers of vulnerability beneath the gaudy veneer of self-congratulatory smugness and implacability—and the wig that was surely borrowed from the estate of Georg Friedrich Händel. As a potential consort for Rosina, Hartmann’s Bartolo was amusingly ridiculous, but as a man of a certain age whose romantic possibilities are decidedly limited his desperation was deeper than mere farce. In the Act One scene with Basilio, Hartmann was transformed from a bumbling grouch into a man with victory in sight as Basilio shared his plan to disgrace Conte Almaviva. The aria ‘A un dottor della mia sorte’ was sung with total mastery of its tricky phrasing and patter, and Hartmann’s Bartolo was the epitome of exasperated indignation in the madcap Act One finale. Catapulting into Act Two with a dejectedly ironic but never idiotic ‘Ma vedi il mio destino,’ this Bartolo exuded ennui during Rosina’s singing lesson but dearly relished showing off his own musical pedigree—in the course of which, as Shakespeare put it, a few strays clearly got over the wall—in the mock-archaic arietta ‘Quando mi sei vicina, amabile Rosina.’ Touchingly, he wistfully gazed after the heartbroken Rosina as the Temporale began, then believing her swain Lindoro’s intentions to be impure, suddenly sensitive to the sting of his dishonesty. Underestimating Rosina’s resilience and thwarted at every turn by her scheming with Figaro and the disguised Conte, Hartmann’s Bartolo accepted defeat with self-preserving affability. As ever, Hartmann deployed the sort of imposingly percussive singing that is precisely right for the music. He can probably sing Bartolo in his sleep, but this performance was so engaging that he might have been performing the rôle for the first time, Rossini’s music and Sterbini’s words sounding newly-minted.

IN PERFORMANCE: tenor ANDREW OWENS as Conte Almaviva (left) and mezzo-soprano CECELIA HALL as Rosina (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]Un nobile soldato e la sua signora: tenor Andrew Owens as Conte Almaviva (left) and mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall as Rosina (right) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

Returning to Greensboro to portray the lovesick Conte Almaviva, tenor Andrew Owens repeated the triumph of his portrayal of Don Ramiro in Greensboro Opera’s 2015 production of La Cenerentola, again confirming the validity of his Rossinian credentials with singing of seemingly effortless virtuosity. From his first entrance, Owens’s Conte radiated the confidence of an aristocrat tempered by the anxiety of a young man still finding his footing as a lover. Owens’s tastefully-ornamented account of the cavatina ‘Ecco ridete in cielo spunta la bella aurora’ seemed marginally cautious, but his ascents to the top As and B in bravura flourishes were flawless. It was a humorous if anachronistic invention to have this Conte begin Nemorino’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore instead of Lindoro’s serenade, but Owens went on to declare ‘Io son Lindoro che fido v’adoro’ with dulcet tones and a spectacular trill, supported by the fine playing of guitarist Kevin Dollar. Invigorated by Rosina’s requital of his interest, this Almaviva rocketed through the duet with Figaro on wings of love, voicing ‘Su vediamo, su vediam di quel metallo’ with uncontainable joy. Owens launched the Act One finale with panache, bringing the lovable inebriation of Mayberry’s Otis to the operatic stage, and he returned at the start of Act Two with a bevy of perfectly-timed repetitions of ‘Pace e gioia’ as an hysterically arthritic Don Alonso. In the sequence of quintetto, terzetto, and finale ultima, the tenor’s voice soared through the difficult tessitura and fiorature, his timbre beautiful from the bottom of the stave to his gleaming top C, and his acting was boundlessly charismatic. Time constraints deprived Owens of the opportunity to sing the Conte’s seldom-performed aria ‘Cessa di più resistere,’ but his depiction of the character lacked nothing else.

IN PERFORMANCE: mezzo-soprano CECELIA HALL as Rosina in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]La futura contessa: mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall as Rosina in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

The Rosina of mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall has matured appealingly since she performed the rôle with North Carolina Opera in 2016. The prevailing youthfulness of her characterization remains unchanged, but there is now greater seriousness in her negotiations of Rosina’s predicaments. In Greensboro, Rosina was pert and playful but also mindful of the consequences of her actions and the lifelong implications of perhaps finding herself married to Bartolo. Aside from trills that never fully materialized, she made her entrance in Act One with beguiling singing. Her traversal of the cavatina ‘Una voce poco fa qui nel cor mi risuonò’ was delightful despite a lack of crispness in her executions of fiorature. Here and in the duetto with Figaro, ‘Dunque io son tu non m’inganni,’ she avoided unnecessary aspiration in her coloratura singing, however, and she immersed herself in the capers of the Act One finale without forcing either the voice or the comedy. Smiling beneath her prim ginger wig, a creation of Trent Pcenicni, she sometimes looked uncannily like the very young Beverly Sills. In Rosina’s lesson scene in Act Two, Hall eschewed the practice of interpolating music from other scores and sang Rossini’s authentic ‘Contro un cor che accende amore’ brilliantly, encountering no difficulties with its top As. Her voice could not always be heard amidst the cacophony of the quintetto, but her declamation of ‘Ah! qual colpo inaspettato!’ in the terzetto rang out boldly. Gratifyingly, hers was a Rosina who did not posture and pout: her emotions were softer and more subtle but always discernible. In Hall’s performance, Rosina was determined but not truly minxish, her good nature never obscured by her willingness to resort to capriciousness—in other words, she gave Rosina her own unique character rather than portraying her as a coloratura Carmen. Vocally, she was stronger in her middle and upper registers than at the bottom of the range. Dramatically, her performance divulged no weaknesses.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) tenor ANDREW OWENS as Conte Almaviva, mezzo-soprano CECELIA HALL as Rosina, and baritone DAVID PERSHALL as Figaro in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA, January 2018 [Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]I tre conspiratori allegri: (from left to right) tenor Andrew Owens as Conte Almaviva, mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall as Rosina, and baritone David Pershall as Figaro in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, January 2018
[Photo by Star Path Images, © by Greensboro Opera]

Operatic Spain is a natural habitat for baritone David Pershall, who revisited the land of flamenco, previously the setting for his exhilarating Escamillo in Greensboro Opera’s 2017 staging of Bizet’s Carmen, with a captivating portrayal of Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia, the rôle in which he débuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2015. There is no more familiar entrance aria in opera than Figaro’s Act One cavatina ‘Largo al factotum della città,’ and with his crowd-pleasing performance of the number Pershall introduced his Figaro, one by whom the top Gs were not feared. Pershall’s singing was a reminder of a bygone era in which ‘big sing’ baritones like Robert Merrill and Nicolae Herlea included Figaro in their repertoires. In the ebullient duet with the Conte, the baritone voiced ‘All’idea di quel metallo’ incisively, his Figaro’s ideas seeming to genuinely be extemporaneously engendered by the clinking of coins in his hand. Then, implementing his plan to facilitate her rendezvous with the Conte, he joined Rosina in a rollicking account of their duetto, singing ‘Di Lindoro il vago oggetto siete voi, bella Rosina’ with irrepressible conviviality. Like Merrill and Herlea, navigating Rossini’s labyrinths of fiorature does not come naturally to Pershall, but his technique is equal to even Figaro’s most intricate vocal filigree, as he elatedly demonstrated in the Act One finale. As Figaro’s stratagems teetered on the brink of disaster in Act Two, Pershall emphasized the barber’s resourcefulness, taking charge with the authority of a Hollywood director—authority that the lovers under his protection were often too distracted by their canoodling to heed. The seat-of-his-trousers bravado of his vocalism in the quintetto was diverting, and his Figaro’s euphoric extolling of the efficacy of his handiwork in the terzetto truly earned the audience’s laughter. With such a skilled Figaro at the center of the action, there was never any doubt that all would end well, but one of the most endearing aspects of Pershall’s performance was its spontaneity. Still, not even the most genial Figaro succeeds solely with his acting of the part, and it was Pershall’s vibrant, ruggedly masculine singing that made the strongest, most lasting impression.

Perhaps more so than any other musical genre, and more so in the Twenty-First Century than ever before, opera is a community effort that depends upon a carefully-managed coordination of artistic, financial, and logistical collaborations. Putting on good shows with good singers is not sufficient to ensure an opera company’s survival. An opera company must look beyond the stage upon which its productions come to life for the raw materials with which to build its future. Most vital amongst these raw materials is involvement in the host community. Under David Holley’s stewardship, Greensboro Opera’s rôle in its community has metamorphosed from the elitist indulgence typical of opera in the United States to an advantageous cultural symbiosis. With this fantastic, superbly-sung production of Il barbiere di Siviglia, Greensboro Opera’s standing in both its local and global communities is solidified: no longer just Greensboro’s hometown opera, Greensboro Opera is a home for opera performed as composers and librettists intended.