23 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 October 2018

BEST VOCAL RECITAL DISC OF 2018: Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti, & Giuseppe Verdi — A TE, O CARA - Stephen Costello sings bel canto (Stephen Costello, tenor; Delos DE 3541)

BEST VOCAL RECITAL DISC OF 2018: A TE, O CARA - Stephen Costello sings bel canto (Delos DE 3541)VINCENZO BELLINI (1801 – 1835), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), and GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): A te, o cara – Stephen Costello sings bel canto Stephen Costello, tenor; Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra; Constantine Orbelian, conductor [Recorded at Kaunas Philharmonic, Kaunas, Lithuania, 14 – 19 May 2017; Delos DE 3541; 1 CD, 49:57; Available from Delos, Naxos Direct, and major music retailers]

The bitterest complaint uttered by many disenfranchised opera lovers is that the first two decades of the Twenty-First Century have produced no true heirs to the traditions perpetuated by the great singers of the past. It may be true that the continued vitality of opera depends upon the discovery of Flagstads, Bergonzis, and Siepis, but it is particularly regrettable that the cacophony of disapprobation for the present state of singing often distracts aficionados from appreciating the efforts of earnest artists with voices of quality. No less important than singers being properly trained in the art of nurturing, projecting, and maintaining their instruments is audiences being adequately conditioned to listen with respect. At its core, the survival of opera has always depended upon its strongest advocates ignoring what they are told to think and listening with both their ears and their hearts. The sounds that emerge from tenor Stephen Costello’s Delos recording A te, o cara provide bel canto lovers’ ears with copious reasons to rejoice, but it is heart—the hearts of the characters whose music is sung, the heart of the singer bringing them to life, and the reactions of the listener’s heart to these performances—that makes this disc one to be celebrated as an important artist’s homage to the art that uplifts him.

The Philadelphia-born Costello’s talent was acknowledged on a deservedly grand scale with the 2009 Richard Tucker Award, the Nobel Prize of young American singers, and his career has taken him in the subsequent decade to many of opera’s most venerated venues. Having created the rôle of Greenhorn—Melville’s Ishmael—in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick and appeared alongside a number of today’s preeminent singers, he has enjoyed fruitful collaborations with musicians who complement his sensibilities, among whom conductor Constantine Orbelian and the instrumentalists of Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra must now be included. Conducting broad arrays of voices and repertoire, Orbelian has affirmed his affinity for spotlighting his colleagues’ strengths on critically-lauded recordings.

Orbelian paces the performances on A te, o cara with equal concerns for supporting the singer and preserving the natural contours of the music. None of the arias on the disc is an orchestral showpiece, and Orbelian rightly guides the listener’s attention to the voice. The Kaunas musicians’ playing sometimes lacks the polish heard in performances by major German and Austrian orchestras, but their vigor is preferable to antiseptic precision. Performances of arias out of context can sometimes seem perfunctory, and there are transitions on A te, o cara that seem slightly abrupt, as though Costello and his colleagues were thinking in the complete paragraphs of full scenes rather than the individual sentences of arias. Above all, however, this is a disc that celebrates the joy and catharsis of singing, and the musicians unite their gifts in performances that captivatingly impart those qualities to the listener.

Costello made his rôle début as the naïve Tyrolean Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment with San Diego Opera in 2013, expanding his bel canto credentials with a gamble that paid richly musical dividends. Possessing a timbre more robust than the sounds wielded by the sort of tenore di grazia often heard in this rôle, Costello here sings with an appealing lightness but is also wholly true to his voice’s natural amplitude. He dispatches the cavatine ‘Ah! mes amis, quel jour de fête’ with quicksilver articulation of its rhythms and clear, unaffected diction. Few numbers in opera are more adored by audiences—and frequently sung badly—than the cabaletta ‘Pour mon âme quel destin.’ Costello’s vocalism discloses no difficulties in his ascents to either the eight written top Cs or the traditionally-interpolated ninth repetition of the tone that concludes the piece, but showmanship never supersedes his connection with the sentiments of the text.

In San Diego, the Marquise de Berkenfield from whose protective custody Costello’s Tonio sought to retrieve Marie was portrayed by the redoubtable Ewa Podleś, but not even as domineering a guardian as Podleś’s Marquise could disregard this Tonio’s ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie,’ handsomely sung in California and delivered with extraordinary beauty and passion on A te, o cara. Phrasing with the finesse of a poet extemporaneously finding words to convey what his soul longs to say and eschewing the interpolated top C♯ gracelessly howled in this music by some singers, Costello confirms that Donizetti’s music as written is far more effective than variations on it. Rather than granting him Marie’s hand, many a Marquise might herself fall in love with the singer of such a heartfelt plea!

First performed in Paris in 1838, Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal is one of Donizetti’s most innovative but least-familiar scores. Though espoused by a few enterprising singers, conductors, and opera companies, the work’s Italian incarnation, Don Sebastiano, re di Portogallo, has fared little better. A popular number on tenors’ recorded recitals since it was committed to 78-rpm disc by Enrico Caruso on 10 January 1908, Sebastiano’s romanza ‘Deserto in terra, che più m’avanza’ (originally ‘Seul sur la terre, en vain j’espère’) ends the opera’s second act with an outpouring of despair. The defeated king has escaped death only by a loyal lieutenant having assumed his identity and the woman he loves consenting to marry another man, and the character’s emotions galvanize Costello’s singing. He follows Alfredo Kraus’s and Pavarotti’s example by substituting an A♭ for the first of the written top Cs, but the subsequent top Cs and D♭ ring out dazzlingly. Here, too, it is the expressivity of the tenor’s performance that enchants.

The lovesick Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore is one of Costello’s best rôles, one in which the natural plangency of his timbre lends his characterization endearing sincerity. Whereas Pavarotti’s much-loved Nemorino was a charismatic lady’s man who wore his heart on his sleeve, the Nemorino enlivened by Costello is a shy, pensive lad whose awakening to the joys and pains of true love is deeply touching. The wide-eyed awe with which the younger tenor sings the Act One cavatina ‘Quanto è bella, quanto è cara’ is invigorating, the excitement of extolling the virtues of Nemorino’s beloved propelling his navigation of the vocal line. Aided by Orbelian’s well-chosen tempo, Costello then sings the romanza from Act Two, ‘Una furtiva lagrima,’ sublimely. Hearing it sung by voices as unsuited to this music as a featherweight tenorino is to singing Wagner’s Siegfried, it is easy to forget how affectingly lovely the piece can be. Costello’s performance is a welcome reminder of the music’s expressive potential, and the tonal beauty and unexaggerated pathos of his singing recall the similarly-interpreted Nemorino of Cesare Valletti. Depicting another amorous young man, an obvious temperamental relative of Nemorino and another rôle in which Valletti excelled, Costello’s performance of ‘Sogno soave e casto,’ the cantabile from Ernesto’s duet with the title character from Act One of Don Pasquale, radiates the essence of youthful romantic ardor.

A highlight of Costello’s recent engagements was his interpretation of Fernand in Gran Teatre del Liceu’s production of the La favorite, still rarely performed in the original French guise premièred in Paris in 1840. As in the selection from Dom Sébastien, Costello sings Fernand’s scene from Act Four of La favorite in its more widely-used Italian translation. He enunciates the recitative ‘Favorita del re! qual negro abisso’ with anguish befitting a man who has discovered that his betrothed is another man’s mistress, but the distress of Fernand’s predicament never distorts the integrity of Costello’s shaping of the vocal line. His breath control makes his account of ‘Spirto gentil’ competitive with the best on disc, the fervor of his singing bringing Giuseppe di Stefano’s famed 1949 Mexico City performance to mind.

​Costello’s portrayal of Riccardo Percy—history’s Henry Percy, the sixth Earl of Northumberland—in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena has been applauded in Dallas, New York, and Vienna, and his stylish, searing singing of Percy’s Act Two aria ‘Vivi tu, te ne scongiuro’ on this disc reveals how acutely he identifies with the part. On stage, his Percy has exhibited surprising modernity, the plight of the honorable lover ensnared by political maneuvering resonating as powerfully with listeners now as when Anna Bolena was first heard in 1830. The verve of Costello’s reading of the cabaletta ‘Nel veder la tua costanza’ is effortlessly sustained up to his pulse-quickening top Cs and D. In both the aria and the cabaletta, the recorded sound obscures the singer’s handling of chromatic passages like the B♭–B♮–C progressions that preface resolutions of phrases: the commendable accuracy of his intonation elsewhere suggests that minimally-altered microphone placement might have engendered increased clarity.

It was as Arturo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor that Costello made his Metropolitan Opera début on 24 September 2007. A month later, on 25 October, he enthralled the New York audience with his first MET portrayal of Edgardo. In the years between the world première of Lucia di Lammermoor in 1835 and the Twentieth-Century revival of interest in bel canto, performances of the opera often ended with the heroine’s mad scene, denying audiences the pleasure of hearing some of Donizetti’s most exquisitely-written music for the tenor voice. The gravitas of the tragedy that has befallen Edgardo pulls at this tenor’s voice as he utters ‘Tombe degli avi miei,’ but the voice soars above the orchestra. Among so much stirring singing, his performance of ‘Fra poco a me ricovero’ is perhaps Costello’s finest achievement on A te, o cara. Rising to a gleaming, easy top B, Edgardo’s desperation courses through his voice, the character bursting to life in a few minutes of emotive, evocative singing.

The disc’s title is borrowed from the text of the aria with which Arturo makes his entrance in Act One of Bellini’s I puritani, ‘A te, o cara, amor talora.’ This music epitomizes bel canto, and many tenors with voices completely wrong for Arturo—Franco Corelli, for instance—have recorded ‘A te, o cara.’ Costello’s voice is of course nothing like Corelli’s, but the solid, sonorous top C♯ that he deploys in his performance of ‘A te, o cara’ is by no means unworthy of comparison with his predecessor’s much-cherished top notes. Few tenors past or present have offered listeners a performance of this aria that more deserves to be described as bel canto than Costello’s, which exults in Bellini’s distinctive cantilene.

Whilst still a student at his native city’s Academy of Vocal Arts, Costello was an acclaimed Duca di Mantova in Verdi’s Rigoletto, his singing of the rôle in AVA performances in metropolitan Philadelphia identifying him as a Verdian of tremendous promise. As his career has advanced, the Duca has continued to be a cornerstone of his repertoire, serving as his début rôle with Houston Grand Opera and the vehicle for success in the MET’s Las Vegas-set production. He has been forthright in sharing his misgivings about the Duca’s philandering nature, but hearing the immediacy with which he sings ‘Ella mi fu rapita,’ the recitative that opens the scene that launches Rigoletto’s second act, annihilates any doubt about Costello’s fondness for Verdi’s music. In the aria ‘Parmi veder le lagrime,’ a kinder facet of the Duca’s persona is momentarily glimpsed as he sings of his concern for Gilda, and this Duca heightens the significance of this episode of civility by voicing it with unmistakable conviction. The potency of his dramatic accents notwithstanding, the subtitle of this disc is ‘Stephen Costello sings bel canto,’ and his performance of the Duca’s music manifests that designation.

The sole disappointment of A te, o cara is its duration, which at less than fifty minutes is brief even by the standards of the LP era. Perhaps there is an elucidation of the disc’s brevity to be gleaned from the dedication that it bears, which merits being quoted.

The love of a friend can have a powerful impact on one's life. This album is for you, Dima. Without you, none of this would have been possible. You are still as present in the world today as when you walked among us.
That Costello’s friendship with the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky was a source of inspiration for this disc divulges how meaningfully their lives intersected. Whether by intention or by inference, this disc, which could have accommodated so much more music, can be construed as a heartbreaking metaphor for a life ended too soon. At its most joyous, there is almost always a vein of wistfulness in bel canto, and A te, o cara is a disc in which smiles and tears meld with staggering verisimilitude. This is one of the glorious capabilities of music, and Stephen Costello brandishes it on this disc and on stage with vocal gold and artistic generosity.

14 October 2018

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG, Adalgisa in North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Bellini’s Norma, brings 21st-Century star power to old-fashioned bel canto

SINGER in the SPOTLIGHT: Internationally-acclaimed mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG [Photo © by Kristin Hoebermann; used with permission]Belle of bel canto: internationally-acclaimed mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, whose critically-lauded interpretation of Adalgisa anchors North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma on 21 October 2018
[Photograph © by Kristin Hoebermann; used with permission]

Her beauty, her voice, and her dramatic genius [have] long been the theme of universal admiration. The successor of Pasta, the rival of Malibran, and the contemporary of Jenny Lind...

It was with these and a plethora of additional words that the editors of The London Review and Weekly Journal of Politics, Literature, Art, and Society, in an article dated 27 July 1861, reverently bade farewell to the legendary Milanese singer Giulia Grisi, who had announced her retirement from staged opera. Almost three decades earlier, on 26 December 1831, Grisi chiseled her name in the annals of operatic history when she created the rôle of the Druid priestess Adalgisa in the world première of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma. Although it was not as Adalgisa but as Norma that Grisi was heard in London, her British admirers’ parting paean echoed the plaudits that greeted her inaugural Adalgisa, a part in which many of her artistic successors have struggled. A century-and-a-half after Grisi’s death on 29 November 1869, however, those auspicious words of praise for the traits that defined Grisi in the hearts of her devotees—‘her beauty, her voice, and her dramatic genius’—might be used with equal validity to describe one of the few singers who embody Grisi’s legacy in the Twenty-First Century: American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong.

Virtually every aspect of making a career as an internationally-renowned singer has changed drastically since Grisi left the stage, but a keystone of the native Pennsylvanian DeShong’s artistry that her illustrious predecessor would recognize is an uncompromising commitment to performing every rôle in her repertoire with musical fidelity and dramatic sincerity. ​Her technical acumen was undoubtedly shaped by her early study of the piano and later honed by her tenure at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music, but the innate musicality exhibited by DeShong’s singing cannot be taught by the most gifted mentor. Recipient of Washington National Opera’s 2010 Artist of the Year award, a distinction proved by her portrayal of Ruggiero in the company’s 2017 production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina [reviewed here] to have been wholly justified and a harbinger of triumphs to come, this glamorous lady has delighted audiences with the kind of electrifying singing that is now often feared to be endangered or even extinct. In the decade since her Metropolitan Opera début as Suzy in Giacomo Puccini’s La rondine, DeShong has joined the rosters of many of the world’s iconic opera companies, including the Wiener Staatsoper and London’s Royal Opera House. The Chicago Tribune asserted that ‘her velvety, focused and pliant vocalism supported a credible characterization’ of Adalgisa in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2017 production of Norma. On 21 October 2018, her Adalgisa comes to Raleigh for North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Norma, offering Triangle-area bel canto aficionados a singular opportunity to hear a significant singer in a rôle that has often been compromised by insignificant singing. Milan had Grisi: felicitously, Raleigh has DeShong.

Far more advanced in experience than in years, DeShong exudes—both in performance and in conversation—comprehensive understanding of her goals, her methods of striving to meet them, and the importance of adapting them to reflect the realities not only of the voice but also of her emotional health. Surveying the path that she has traveled in her career to date, she is mindful of obstacles that she and other singers confront in the formative years of their professional lives. Not least among these challenges is the necessity of determining whether a singer’s career is an vocation or merely an avocation. Thinking of how she would counsel fellow singers questioning the wisdom of pursuing artistic careers, she says, ‘I would ask if they can picture doing anything else with their lives. If the answer is “yes,” I’d say that they should consider the alternate path. If the answer is “no,” my next question is, “Why do you sing?”’ This, she intimates, must be a critical element of an artist’s endeavor to attain self-awareness. She continues, ‘Even when [or] if you are successful in this business, you will have days, weeks, months, even years, when you will question [whether] the sacrifices are too great. This is a truth for me and a truth that I’ve heard from many, if not most, of the singers [whom] I know. We love the music, we are dedicated to our art and sharing it with others, and we see the tremendous advantage that living a global existence can provide to our personal worldview and overall human experience.’

Having garnered myriads of critical praise for her performances of a broad repertory of operatic rôles and concert pieces, DeShong is also uncommonly aware of the rewards that await a thoroughly-rehearsed, insightful artist. ‘There are moments of pure musical and dramatic magic that you will experience on stage, moments so joyful and blissful that the sacrifice of time and comfort will seem well worth it,’ she says. Still, she cautions, ‘the sacrifices are many, and, if you are discouraged at the beginning stages of your career, you may be in for a long and difficult journey.’ Heeding one’s own instincts is paramount, she insists, and fulfillment can only be achieved when one’s decisions are guided by an inviolable consciousness of one’s best interests. ‘Well-trained singers and instrumentalists have a lot to offer in areas other than performance. Your love of music and musical training can be channeled into so many valuable positions in artistic fields. Many of the best managers, directors, stage managers, artistic advisors, costume designers, et cetera come from performance backgrounds. Changing course is not a failure, and it doesn’t mean that your talent is “less-than.”’

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG as Ruggiero in Washington National Opera's 2017 production of Georg Friedrich Händel's ALCINA [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Prima donna as primo uomo: mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Ruggiero in Washington National Opera’s 2017 production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina
[Photograph by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

Stylistic versatility is a hallmark of DeShong’s work. There are many historical precedents for singers essaying very different rôles—in DeShong’s case, Händel’s Ruggiero and Suzuki in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, for example—and, like Grisi in Norma, eventually taking on multiple rôles in some operas. A principal consideration in DeShong’s repertory deliberations is whether an engagement is vocally, dramatically, and emotionally appropriate, such contests being decided by a multi-faceted analysis of suitability. ‘“Can I” versus “Should I” is tricky,’ the mezzo-soprano confides. ‘My particular instrument falls a bit outside of the normal framework, and it has afforded me the great luxury of having choices in repertoire and the timing of those choices.’

DeShong concedes that this luxury is not free from pitfalls. ‘I won’t pretend that this is always an easy choice for a singer to make,’ she states. ‘One has to pay the bills, so when the choice is “sing this role or starve,” there is little option. That said, there is also a mindset that can get singers into trouble. Emotions and desires can be tricky for an artist and can lead to decisions that make the heart/ego immediately happy but put vocal health in danger.’ Is there a template that she follows when assessing potential engagements? ‘My process, if you want to call it that, goes something like this: the rôle offer comes in; I head to the piano with the score and sing through the rôle,’ she states. Then, the self-interrogation begins. ‘How did my voice feel after [singing the rôle]? Which rôles am I scheduled to sing before and after this project? What size is the theatre [in which] I am being asked to sing the repertoire? Is the character as appealing as the music? [With whom] will I be singing the music?’

Answering these questions to her own satisfaction enables DeShong to retain a remarkable degree of control over the course of her career, adding new rôles to her operatic repertory according to her level of comfort with the music and the conditions under which she will sing it. That she sings a wide array of rôles compellingly indicates that DeShong’s philosophy is emphatically right for her. ‘Much of the dramatic mezzo and contralto repertoire is comfortable for me now,’ she says. ‘I will sing Amneris, Erda, Azucena, et cetera.’ After pausing for a moment, she elaborates with an air of contemplation. ‘I won’t go as far as to say I wouldn’t sing these rôles now, but the timing and surrounding factors would have to be right. It has always been my intention to sing as young as possible, as long as possible. If the option is there, why not explore as much repertoire as I can, while keeping my voice as healthy as possible?’

Vocal health is a boon that must be continually nurtured and safeguarded, DeShong believes. ‘Singing a lot of Händel, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini has kept my voice flexible, even, and focused. The Humperdinck, Puccini, Strauss, Berg, Dvořák, Verdi, and other rôles have given me the variety that I crave and opportunities to prove that I am up for a challenge and refuse to be boxed into any one style.’ Many young singers rely upon platitudes as the defining precepts of their artistic personalities, but DeShong rejects generalities, preferring to devise her own specific artistic parameters.

Looking beyond the musical immersion that is a vital component of her method of learning new rôles, DeShong is also attentive to the practical motivations that fuel her drive to diversify her repertory. ‘I’ve touched on why I focus so much energy on variety. The challenge in doing this is, for me, primarily one of time and energy,’ she says. ‘There are moments when I envy singers who have three or so “go-to” leading rôles that they take all over the world. I’ve done my share of Suzukis and Hermias [in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream], and it is always lovely to return to them. Aside from the fact that I love both of those characters dearly, they provide much-needed mental and physical breaks from the demands of the bel canto heroes [who] make up a larger and larger portion of my repertoire. Constantly adding new roles is exciting but exhausting.’

Turning her thoughts to Norma and the opera’s performance history, a history of which she is now so salient a part, DeShong is appreciative of the different qualities that celebrated interpreters have brought to the daunting title rôle. If she could sing Adalgisa alongside any of the great Normas of the past, who would she choose? ‘May I create a hybrid of two singers?’ she asks with characteristic candor. ‘I would take the dramatic intensity and use of text that Callas brought to Norma and infuse it with the poise, clarity, and warmth of sound that Caballé produced. Should we call her “Caballas”...Wait, doesn’t that translate to “mackerels” in Spanish?’ she laughs. Sí, ¡es verdad! ‘Okay, forget that!’

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG as Adalgisa in Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2017 production of Vincenzo Bellini's NORMA [Photo by Cory Weaver, © by Lyric Opera of Chicago]Mira, o Norma: mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Adalgisa in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2017 production of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by Lyric Opera of Chicago]

Its drama propelled by the fallout of two resilient women’s betrayal by the same man, Norma wields uncanny relevance in today’s atmosphere of hyper-charged sexual politics. In some performances of Norma, Adalgisa is little more than a second Norma, lacking depth and individuality. In her studies of the rôle, DeShong has examined Bellini’s score and Felice Romani’s libretto in search of Adalgisa’s true identity, and she expresses her conclusions with obvious affection for the lady she portrays. ‘Adalgisa is a young girl who knows that her person is defined by the strength of her character,’ she suggests. ‘She sees that the greater value is always in what does the most good for the most people, even at her own expense. She knows that her own happiness can never be gained at the expense of another.’

DeShong is astonishingly successful at imparting this sense of Adalgisa’s psyche in staged productions of Norma, but North Carolina Opera’s concert performance facilitates intensified concentration on revealing Adalgisa’s soul via her words and music. ‘For me, good singing can only happen with complete connection to the text,’ DeShong relays. ‘The text informs my vocalism, so that I can paint colors into my vocal line that best convey my character’s intention. Vocally, my Adalgisa in concert will be every bit as focused and dramatically driven as in a staged version. A benefit of concert versions of operas, especially of Norma, is that you can fully utilize your color palette. By avoiding some of the stage action, you are able to devote every bit of your physicality to the sound you are producing, which adds greater varieties of tempi and dynamics that are sustainable.’

As an intelligent, independent, proudly spirited woman, DeShong is sensitive to the chauvinistic implications of many of the operas that she sings, but she maintains that cognizance of the historical contexts of art is the sole means of reconciling the bothersome societal dilemmas of opera with modern notions of gender and personal responsibility. ‘It can be difficult to make peace with some of the toxic masculinity that drives many operas,’ she admits. ‘The stories represent bygone eras and the socially-accepted inequalities that were present at those times. That said, if you look closely at the characters, you can often find more complexities in the characters and plots than are explored in many productions.’ She sees this as one of opera’s most exciting avenues of continued growth. ‘We can find ways to present these stories that don’t lazily fall back on weak stereotypes and gender-biased comedy.’

What does this discerning artist perceive as her part to play in the ongoing evolution of opera as a cultural entity? ‘In a way, my voice type has freed me from portraying “victims,”’ she muses. ‘In fact, looking at the characters I’ve played, I don’t see any of them as being truly at the mercy of their male counterparts. For me, I just try to find the core being of the character I am playing. Gender is often a tertiary consideration. Calbo [in Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo] can easily be played as a feminist. Arsace [in Rossini’s Semiramide] is an extremely sensitive guy. These men can be played as victims of their circumstances, forced to become soldiers in spite of their true desires and natures. It would be easy to simply assume a wide stance, grab a weapon, and create an one-dimensional portrayal. We are only as confined by the stereotypes as we want to be, in many instances.’ Nothing is more apparent in her performances than the fact that neither DeShong’s singing nor her thinking are confined by stereotypes.

Revisiting Adalgisa in preparation for North Carolina Opera’s Norma, in which performance her Adalgisa will be partnered by Leah Crocetto’s Norma and Chad Shelton’s Pollione, DeShong faces one of opera’s preeminent unanswered questions: how does Adalgisa’s story continue after Norma’s ends? ‘I’d like to think that some young composer is writing a feminist tale that shows Adalgisa returning to take Norma’s children and Clotilde away from the tragedy and starting a new life together,’ the mezzo-soprano declares. ‘Perhaps, together, Adalgisa and Clotilde would reinvent the ancient tenants of Druid priestess-hood by eschewing sacrifice by fire, revoking abstinence based [upon] devotion to deities, and reimagining the magic of the forest as a call to conservationism. The children would grow up to be thoughtful and progressive future leaders.’ Moreover, DeShong has a request for the composer who accepts this assignment: ‘Call me. I want to première that piece!’

That Giulia Grisi was an artist of enduring consequence and not merely the first but a definitive Adalgisa must now be taken on faith, but Elizabeth DeShong displays on and off the stage that she is an artist who, like the late Tatiana Troyanos, dedicates herself not to performing but to fully living music. She articulates this with typical humility and honesty. ‘In every performance, it is my goal to give the audience every bit of my being.’ Addressing her audience, she adds, ‘It is my hope that you will be consumed by the story, music, and character so much that you will forget Elizabeth DeShong in the moment. There are many who would probably advise against this goal. You’ll know it is me by my voice, but I hope we go to places none of us recognize, together.’ Every artist’s journey is unique, but, when asked whether there is a message that she would communicate to all young singers striving to find their own places in the operatic community, she responds, ‘Trust that you belong.’ Whether surrendering herself to music by Händel, Bellini, or Puccini, Elizabeth DeShong unequivocally belongs.

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG as Arsace in The Metropolitan Opera's 2018 production of Gioachino Rossini's SEMIRAMIDE [Photo by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Figlio ed amante: mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Arsace in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2018 production of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

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

Please click here to access more information or to purchase tickets for North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Norma in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall.

Sincerest thanks to Ms. DeShong for her time, frankness, and wit and to Mindi Rayner of Mindi Rayner Public Relations for her invaluable assistance with this interview.

13 October 2018

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: Adiós, La Superba — remembering MONTSERRAT CABALLÉ, 1933 – 2018

IN MEMORIAM: Soprano MONTSERRAT CABALLÉ (1933 - 2018) in the title rôle of Francesco Cilèa's ADRIANA LECOUVREUR at The Metropolitan Opera in 1978 [Photo by James Heffernan, © by The Metropolitan Opera] Prima donna del cuore: soprano Montserrat Caballé (1933 – 2018) in the title rôle of Francesco Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur at The Metropolitan Opera in 1978
[Photograph by James Heffernan, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

12 April 1933 – 6 October 2018

In an era in which ‘alternate facts’ are employed in battles of veracity that render the very notion of truth irrelevant, it is not surprising that Art, itself essentially a sort of alternate fact in too-literal society, is undeniably divisive. After the death of an individual who was almost universally acclaimed as a great artist, it is sadly inevitable that someone with opinions and a forum via which to share them feels compelled to cite all of the reasons why the departed individual was not great. That this has transpired in the wake of the passing of Catalan soprano Montserrat Caballé is indicative of the precarious nature of humanity’s grasp on civility. No one can or should be forced to share the view that Caballé was an important singer, but what harm is there in choosing to remember her at her best?

There is nothing that can be written about Caballé’s life that has not already been extensively documented. Listing her achievements is pointless: those who care are acquainted with them, and those who do not care are unlikely to be converted to appreciation of the singer and her work by reading a litany of her notable performances. Her reputation for withdrawing from performances was wholly earned, but her singing repeatedly affirmed the legitimacy of her artistic significance. Her method of vocal production could be mannered, even lazy, but she made sounds that continue to remind listeners of the visceral appeal of opera. Like Zinka Milanov, she possessed the ability to project pianissimi that hung in the air with remarkable resonance. Like Leyla Gencer, she could hurl dramatic thunderbolts in passages like ‘Giudici! Ad Anna!?’ in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena without wholly disrupting the bel canto line. Such was her breath control that she could accomplish feats like the long-held top B with which she triumphed over the Metropolitan Opera Don Carlo—and the MET’s Don Carlo, Franco Corelli—of 22 April 1972.

I do not recall when or in what context I first heard Caballé. Her final performance at the MET—in the title rôle of Puccini’s Tosca on 10 October 1985—was more than a decade before I first attended a performance there. Less than a year after her departure from the MET, she sang Cleopatra in a Paris concert performance of Händel’s Giulio Cesare that was recorded for broadcast by Radio France. Venturing into repertory in which she had little experience, at a time in her career at which she might have honorably eschewed unfamiliar music, she sang superbly. Delivered with a voice heavier and less agile than in past, it was not a performance destined to please advocates of historically-informed practices, but it was a performance in which Cleopatra sprang to life, at once both crushingly imperious and sweetly vulnerable. This is almost certainly not the first Caballé performance that I heard, but it continues to convince me that she was an inquisitive, engaging artist who occasionally disappointed but frequently surprised.

I had the privilege of hearing Caballé only once, many years after the tremendous successes of her career. The magic was faded, but it still enchanted. Rather than merely singing, she seemed to disappear into the music and find her way back to reality by following the sound of her voice. Perhaps that was not greatness, but it was Montserrat Caballé.


Caballé on the record...

​These are the recordings to which I listen when I want to temporarily escape from my mediocrity by being reminded of Caballé’s greatness; and which I therefore recommend to others who seek the essence of Caballé’s artistry.

    • Bellini’s Norma with Bianca Berini and Pedro Lavirgén; Philadelphia, 18 April 1972 — The 1974 Orange Norma in which Caballé was joined by Josephine Veasey, John Vickers, and the Mistral is rightly celebrated, but, like many singers, she was inspired by singing in Philadelphia. Caballé lacked Callas’s poetic temperament and Sutherland’s formidable accuracy, but she was often a thrilling Norma.

    • Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia with Alain Vanzo, Jane Berbié, and Kostas Paskalis; New York City, 20 April 1965 — It was in this performance, in which she substituted in the title rôle for expectant mother Marilyn Horne, that Caballé made her American début. Like Callas’s 1959 American Opera Society Pirata and concerts in the last year of Elvis Presley’s life, many more people than Carnegie Hall accommodates claim to have been present for this performance. It was an occasion that warrants hyperbole.

    • Massenet’s Manon with John Alexander and Louis Quilico; New Orleans, 13 and 15 April 1967 — It was in another French rôle, Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, that Caballé débuted at the MET on 22 December 1965. That was, in fact, her only MET performance of a French rôle. This New Orleans Manon reveals how persuasive she could be in French repertoire. Like her fellow Catalan Victoria de los Ángeles, Caballé allied incredible timbral beauty with a captivatingly feminine demeanor in a moving portrayal of Massenet’s mercurial heroine. Unlike de los Ángeles, Caballé also sang Puccini’s incarnation of Manon.

    • Puccini’s Tosca with José Carreras, Ingvar Wixell, and Samuel Ramey; Philips studio recording — Dramatically, this Tosca pales in comparison with Callas’s 1953 studio recording and many live performances, including Caballé’s own MET broadcasts. Tosca’s music has never been sung more unflinchingly or alluringly than by Caballé on this recording, however, and, despite the rôle ideally requiring slightly greater vocal amplitude than nature granted him, this Cavaradossi is among Carreras’s finest performances on disc.

    • Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier with Teresa Żylis-Gara, Edith Mathis, and Otto Edelmann; Glyndebourne, 30 May 1965 — Though she sang and recorded Strauss’s Salome to great acclaim and was a radiantly-vocalized Ariadne at the MET in 1976, the Marschallin—the rôle of her Glyndebourne début—is not a part typically associated with Caballé, but she was very touching as the still-young Princess who ponders her mortality and desirability.

    • Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco with Plácido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes; EMI studio recording — This is Caballé in the full glory of youth, singing with astonishing beauty and ease, alongside colleagues in similar vocal estate.

    • Verdi’s Luisa Miller with Richard Tucker, Sherrill Milnes, Giorgio Tozzi, and Ezio Flagello; The Metropolitan Opera, 17 February 1968 — Caballé’s gorgeously-voiced and refreshingly unaffected Luisa is paired with an uncommonly ardent Rodolfo from Richard Tucker.

    • Verdi’s Il trovatore with Ludovic Spiess, Irina Arkhipova, and Peter Glossop; Orange, 23 July 1972 — Several fine performances of Trovatore featuring Caballé’s quintessentially Spanish Leonora are widely available, but this is a rare performance in which she went for—and, after a search, found—the D♭6 traditionally interpolated in the Act One finale.

    • Vives’s Maruxa with Ana Riera, Vicente Sardinero, and Pedro Lavirgén; Alhambra studio recording — To hear Caballé‘s portrayal of Rosa in this recorded performance of Amadeo Vives’s 1914 zarzuela Maruxa is to experience singing that can only be described as exquisite.


Muchas gracias, La Superba.

IN MEMORIAM: Soprano MONTSERRAT CABALLÉ (1933 - 2015) in the title rôle of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA at The Metropolitan Opera in 1985 [Photo by James Heffernan, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Vissi d’arte, vissi d’arte: soprano Montserrat Caballé (1933 – 2018) in the title rôle of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca at The Metropolitan Opera in 1985
[Photograph by James Heffernan, © by The Metropolitan Opera]