02 December 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Domenico Freschi — ERMELINDA (N. Printz, S. Couden, K. Scharich, J. Montigne, D. Rosengaus; Ars Minerva, 22 November 2019)

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano NIKOLA PRINTZ as Ermelinda (left) and soprano KINDRA SCHARICH as Rosaura (right) in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]DOMENICO FRESCHI (1634 – 1710): ErmelindaNikola Printz (Ermelinda), Sara Couden (Ormondo), Kindra Scharich (Rosaura), Justin Montigne (Aristeo), Deborah Rosengaus (Armidoro); Cynthia Black (violin I), Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo (violin II), Aaron Westman (viola), Gretchen Claassen (cello), Adam Cockerham (theorbo); Jory Vinikour, harpsichord and conducor [Céline Ricci, Stage Director; Entropy, Projections Designer; Matthew Nash, Costume Designer; Thomas Bowersox, Lighting Designer; Teaghan Rohan, Makeup; Nicole Spencer Carreira, Graphic Designer; Ars Minerva, ODC Theater, San Francisco, California, USA; Friday, 22 November 2019]

When a conclave of music-loving intellectuals and Classical scholars first devised the premise of opera as Twenty-First-Century audiences know it, their principal objective was to recreate the fusion of drama, music, and dance that was the foundation of Ancient Greek theater. Discarding ego with the aim of focusing on communicating emotions via stylized speech and movement that transcended the polyphonic complexities of Renaissance music, opera’s earliest composers were charged with allying emotions with melodic and harmonic interplay that illuminated their hidden facets. Rooted in the fertile traditions of Antiquity, it is not surprising that opera found source material in mythology. Rejuvenated in pioneering scores by opera’s early masters, figures like Daphne, Diana, and Orpheus leapt from the pages of Ovid and his contemporaries onto the stages of Italy, not least in Venice, where public theaters enabled composers like Claudio Monteverdi and Pier Francesco Cavalli to extend opera’s reach from aristocratic salons to La Serenissima’s canals, streets, and piazze—and, by the middle of the Seventeenth Century, throughout much of Europe.

In its native land, opera was rapidly established as an integral component of indigenous culture, its melodies embodying the Italian spirit in times of celebration and crisis. For Venetians, opera became by the time of Monteverdi’s death in 1643 a vital element of their city’s Carnevale, the boisterous period of indulging hedonistic impulses that preceded the austerity of Lent. The flamboyant masks of Carnevale, affirmed by history to have been as intriguing in the Seventeenth Century as they remain in 2019, disclose a communal theatricality that complements opera’s dramatic aesthetics. Dedicated to rediscovering neglected scores composed as entertainments for the Carnevale season, San Francisco-based Ars Minerva transports the marvels and mysteries of La Dominante to California’s Bay Area. Furthering the success of previous productions of Daniele da Castolari’s La Cleopatra, Carlo Pallavicino’s Le amazzoni nell’isole fortunate, Pietro Andrea Ziani’s La Circe, and Giovanni Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide with the first known staging since the Seventeenth Century of Giovanni Domenico Freschi’s drama per musica Ermelinda, Ars Minerva recreated in San Francisco’s Mission District a fascinating, unjustly-forgotten chapter in opera’s and Venice’s vibrant histories.

Born in Vicenza in the Veneto on 26 March 1634, Freschi emerges from the pages of Ermelinda as a conservative but innovative artist. As in Brahms’s works, careful but creative adaptation of the styles and structures inherited from his forebears yields music that cleverly and compellingly transcends its conventionality. Premièred in 1680 in the Teatro delle Vergini in the Piazzola sul Brenta compound of the Contarini family, where Freschi’s opera Berenice vendicativa also received its first staging, Ermelinda inhabits the musical and dramatic realm populated by Cavalli’s La Calisto and Veremonda, l’amazzone di Aragona and Antonio Cesti’s Orontea and Il pomo d’oro, operas that predate Ermelinda by a quarter-century. [Some sources suggest that Ermelinda was first performed in 1682, but existing evidence makes a more convincing case for 1680.]

The composer having achieved biological and vocational longevity that was unusual for the time in which he lived, it is reasonable to hypothesize that much of Freschi’s music has been lost, undermining musicological assessment of the trajectory of his artistic development, but, its relative adherence to long-established traditions notwithstanding, passages in the score of Ermelinda prefigure later works, especially the operas of Agostino Steffani. There are also moments in Ermelinda that look forward to works from opposite ends of Georg Friedrich Händel’s career, the early Agrippina and the late Serse. Staged in the intimate space of ODC Theater, Ars Minerva’s Ermelinda irrefutably justified the company’s decision to resurrect the piece. Tastes change rapidly and inexplicably, but how can music of this quality have been forgotten?

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) countertenor JUSTIN MONTIGNE as Aristeo, mezzo-soprano KINDRA SCHARICH as Rosaura, and contralto SARA COUDEN as Ormindo in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]La follia dell’amore: (from left to right) countertenor Justin Montigne as Aristeo, mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich as Rosaura, and contralto Sara Couden as Ormindo in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

Logically, singers should be the most effective directors of opera productions. It is said, probably rightly, that doctors are the worst patients, however, and the applicability of this adage to singers directing opera has been demonstrated by the unsuccessful efforts of acclaimed singers. An uncommon singer whose extraordinary voice is partnered by artistry of equal caliber, Ars Minerva’s founder and Artistic Director Céline Ricci presented Ermelinda not as a ridiculous romp in antiquated sexual politics but as a grippingly modern examination of gender identities, individual ethics, and conflicts between duty and desire. In insensitive productions, operas of Ermelinda’s vintage can seem interminable, but Ricci’s concept, aided by the decision to present Freschi’s three acts in two parts with an interval following the fourth scene of the composer’s Act Two, limned the work’s convoluted narrative with cinematic efficiency and clarity. Meticulously maintaining an equilibrium between comedy and seriousness in all aspects of the production generated a performance in which humor heightened the emotional significance of the opera’s humanistic ethos. Building to a wrenchingly moving dénouement, Ricci’s pacing of the drama exhibited pervasive intelligence, her passion for giving new life to Freschi’s music apparent in every gesture, movement, and expression.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Ricci’s leadership was the consistency of the dedication and ingenuity exhibited by the artists engaged to bring her vision to fruition. Matthew Nash’s costume designs are rightly revered in and beyond San Francisco, and his work for Ars Minerva’s production of Ermelinda was whimsical, intricate, and splendidly provocative. The swirling patterns of male characters’ waistcoats paid homage to the brilliant brocades of authentic Venetian dress of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, and the stylized hoops within which Ermelinda was bound artfully evoked both servitude and forced femininity. The rosettes with which Rosaura’s gown was festooned were astoundingly beautiful and appropriately indicative of the lady’s flirtatious, frivolous constitution. Inventively dressed by Nash and refined by Teaghan Rohan’s makeup mastery, the characters’ physical appearances embodied their functions within the drama.

Similarly, Entropy’s projection designs reflected the opera’s constantly-changing moods. Often gorgeous but never distracting, the projections forged alluring tableaux that lent spatial specificity to Ermelinda’s fanciful geographical setting. Tastefully illuminated by Thomas Bowersox’s lighting, the scenic incarnation of the agricultural prison to which the defiant Ermelinda was exiled was reminiscent of California’s verdant central valley, and the facility of transitions among times of day augmented the pliant continuity of Ricci’s direction. An indispensable participant in the production whose witty antics emerged from her surroundings, Elisabeth Flaherty added a delightful human dimension to the staging, the ebullience with which she alternated alliances—and genders—in the performance of her duties providing welcome levity in moments of calamity. Born of unmistakable regard for music and text, Ars Minerva’s production unearthed in Ermelinda a pertinent modernity that the centuries-old score wore with the ideal fit of one of Nash’s costumes.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano DEBORAH ROSENGAUS as Armidoro in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © Ars Minerva]L’amante usurpante: mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus as Armidoro in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

The virtuosity displayed by the musicians assembled by Ars Minerva was no less awe-inspiring for being expected in a performance of this sort of music. Individually and in ensemble, violinists Cynthia Black and Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo and violist Aaron Westman played with intonational accuracy and rhythmic effervescence. Cellist Gretchen Claassen and theorbist Adam Cockerham propelled the continuo indefatigably, modulations from major to minor and transitions among scenes managed with dramatic cohesion. Like Ricci’s direction, the musical guidance of conductor and harpsichordist Jory Vinikour divulged obvious cognizance of and respect for singers and singing, as well as an innate affinity for Freschi’s style. Ritornelli did not merely preface individual numbers or accompany characters’ entrances and exits: under Vinikour’s supervision, these interludes intensified the emotions of the scenes they punctuated.

There are few places in the United States in which the joke of inserting a few bars of Cleopatra’s ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ and Almirena’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Händel’s Giulio Cesare and Rinaldo into the scene in which music is proposed as an effective treatment for amorous maladies could be expected to be appreciated, but the hilarity of this anachronism was not wasted on Ars Minerva’s audience. [So eloquent was the musicians’ playing of these fragments that Freschi would surely have forgiven Rosaura for succumbing to the temptation to sing the arias.] Vinikour collaborated with his orchestral colleagues with the camaraderie of a chamber musician, but his stewardship of the drama was the handiwork of a talented conductor not merely of specialized repertoire but of any music that he chooses to study. That this performance of Ermelinda was fastidiously prepared was palpable, but the energy and exuberance of the music making engendered an atmosphere of edge-of-the-seat spontaneity.

Hearing many recent performances of a variety of repertoire, the novice listener might understandably deduce that operatic duplicity is mandated to be depicted with unpleasant sounds. Endeavoring to seize power and love to which he is entitled by neither birth nor conquest, Armidoro in Ermelinda is indubitably a man of moral and ethical ambiguity, but mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus’s performance substantiated that the most effective operatic antagonists are those who sing appealingly. Dispatching Gs at the top of the stave with inviolable poise, she sang ‘Amo e peno e pur sò che fortuna non ho’ confidently, effortlessly projecting her tones into the theater. The bravado with which she voiced ‘Ride il fior, e ride il prato’ was captivating, her excellent diction emphasizing the skill with which Freschi employed musical effects to spotlight textual nuances.

Rosengaus navigated the dramatic course traversed by Armidoro’s ‘Hor ch’il mal fatt’e palese al rimedio,’ ‘Oggi di sol giova fingere,’ and ‘S’havessi creduto Amor si crudel’ with theatrical savvy, her depictions of the character’s disillusionment, anger, and wounded pride animated by incisive vocalism. Rosengaus suffused her singing of ‘Belle e brutte, son così le donne tutte’ and ‘Voi piangete, e fatte piangere’ with bitterness rooted in the  scorned man’s vulnerability. Whether plotting with Aristeo, sparring with Ormondo, or lamenting his unrequited love for Ermelinda, Rosengaus’s Armidoro sang beguilingly.

IN REVIEW: countertenor JUSTIN MONTIGNE as Aristeo (left) and mezzo-soprano KINDRA SCHARICH as Rosaura (right) in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]Gli schemi in azione: countertenor Justin Montigne as Aristeo (left) and mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich as Rosaura (right) in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

The rôle of Ermelinda’s closed-minded, self-serving father Aristeo was sung with uninhibited immersion in the character’s conniving, commendable technical acumen, and an uproarious nervous tic by countertenor Justin Montigne. In his account of ‘L’huom dotato al mondo fù di ragion e libertà,’ he set a high standard with his capable voicing of dizzying fiorature—a standard that he reliably met in subsequent scenes. The countertenor’s tone occasionally lacked ideal support at the lower extremity of the range, as in ‘D’una febre ch’e amorosa Arder sà la gioventù,’ but he largely avoided pushing the voice. The ironic sentiments of ‘Povera humanità,’ ‘Non sperar ch’io t’ami più,’ and ‘Vanno al pari honor, e vita’ received from him wonderfully uninhibited readings. At one point gleefully donning gloves of the type that a veterinarian might wear whilst delivering a breeched calf, Montigne exulted in the zany quirks of his rôle without compromising musical integrity. Aristeo is an unapologetic hypocrite and a reprehensible father, but Montigne’s strongly-sung performance exerted an eerie charisma.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano KINDRA SCHARICH as Rosaura in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]La bellezza della vendetta: mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich as Rosaura in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

Capriciousness of the operatic variety can be diverting but is seldom as endearing as it was in mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich’s portrayal of Ermelinda’s inconstant companion and confidante Rosaura. An inveterate manipulator, this Rosaura enjoyed no pastime more than amorous intrigue. From the first notes of ‘Maledico Amor e sorte,’ Scharich fashioned a characterization of irresistible charm, deploying Rosaura’s femininity as a dazzling, disorienting weapon. Nonetheless, a tender heart could be discerned in her singing of ‘Non giova piangere,’ and her performances of ‘Altro non è l’Amor, ch’un pazzia’ and ‘Benedico Amore e sorte’ bewitchingly conveyed the amazement of a young woman who was as confused by her own feelings as by others’ actions.

Absolute domination of a lavender wig is not a guarantee of success as an opera singer, but Scharich’s integration of her wig as an extension of Rosaura’s persona was an art unto itself. Still, it was her vocalism that garnered admiration, particularly in the demanding ‘Non sperar t’ami più.’ Declaiming ‘Frà il timor e la speme confusa ancor rimango’ with emotional candor, she sang ‘Il timore col cieco Amore fan ch’io speri e sì e nò’ mesmerizingly, her sensual timbre flickering with indecision. Scharich found surprising expressive depths in ‘Mi dice il mio core che giova sperar’ and ‘Non mi perdo di speranza,’ voicing these numbers glamourously. Declaring war on the wiles of men with adroitly-executed flamenco steps, Scharich’s Rosaura bandaged her battle wounds with fresh stratagems. For this Rosaura, the thrill was perhaps in the chase rather than in the catch, but Scharich’s singing ensnared the audience’s affection.

IN REVIEW: contralto SARA COUDEN as Ormindo in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]Il vero principe: contralto Sara Couden as Ormindo in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

Rarer amongst today’s singers than a capable Brünnhilde and a fully-qualified Siegfried is a true contralto. Rarer still are productions in which contraltos are not compelled to portray mothers, witches, harlots, or crones. Ars Minerva had in Sara Couden a genuine contralto with a voice of superb quality, and she had in the rôle of the Phoenician prince Ormondo, disguised as the simple but sincere Clorindo in order to be near to his beloved Ermelinda, a part in which her artistry shone. Hurling herself into the drama, Couden voiced ‘Bella madre di pensieri’ and ‘Con grazie si cortesi’ powerfully, the resonance of her lower register evincing Ormondo’s nobility. Musically and emotionally, the contralto’s singing of ‘Pupillette s’io vi miro, mi sforzate ad adorar’ was arresting, her performance achieving a depth of feeling that transformed the opera’s plot from harmless farce to romance on the brink of tragedy. The comedic implications of the contrast with her singing of ‘T’adoro sì, ma nò, pensier cangiando io vò’ therefore could not have been more significant: in an environment in which honesty was folly, feigned madness was a convenient refuge for this cunning prince.

Couden’s technical prowess furnished a myriad of memorable passages, one of the most exhilarating of which was ‘Non bastava, o Ciel, così tormi al cor la libertà,’ but a potent feature of her interpretation of Ormondo’s music was her uncanny ability to reveal the psychological motivations of coloratura. With her shrewd acting, she differentiated the temperamental contours of ‘Fà quanto sai, Fortuna, nò, non lascierò d’amar’ and ‘Bella, la libertà che doni a questo piè,’ but it was again her voice that stunned in ‘Stelle, contro di me tanto rigor perche si fieri,’ her sumptuous tone enveloping the music in a cloak of vocal velvet. The sincerity of Couden’s statement of ‘Per tè vivo, e a me son morto’ was heartbreaking, and her poignant enunciation of ‘Che mai si può far’ was profoundly touching, Ormondo’s despair expressed with riveting simplicity. Significantly, it is not by Ermelinda but by Ormondo that the opera’s final aria is sung, and Couden voiced ‘Gioje care, volatemi in petto’ mirthfully, rejoicing in the triumph of the prince’s fidelity. Couden’s was an unforgettable performance in which the singer’s formidable gifts were wholly devoted to serving the composer.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano NIKOLA PRINTZ as Ermelinda in Ars Minerva's November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi's ERMELINDA [Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]La figlia ribelle: mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz as Ermelinda in Ars Minerva’s November 2019 modern-world-première production of Domenico Freschi’s Ermelinda
[Photograph by Teresa Tam, © by Ars Minerva]

The title rôle in Ermelinda is an ancestor of Händel’s Rodelinda, Beethoven’s Leonore, and Puccini’s Minnie, a woman unafraid of living, loving, and dying on her own terms. In mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz’s portrayal for Ars Minerva, Freschi’s heroine endured misfortune and abuse but was no wilting victim. Voicing ‘Mi vuoi viva’ ‘Le dirò che non ha core chi resiste a tua beltà’ commandingly, Printz validated Ermelinda’s place at the center of the drama, the other characters’ paths intersecting in their interactions with her. The polished-mahogany timbre of Printz’s voice gleamed in their singing of ‘L’Amar corrisposto, e un caro morire,’ and the expressivity with which they phrased ‘Nò, stelle rubelle, sperar più non vò’ and ‘Deh, stringetevi al mio piè, cari lacci’ accentuated the subtleties of Freschi’s word settings.

The anguish that emanated from Printz’s accounts of ‘Dolce Amor, pur ti stringo a questo sen’ and ‘Colli aperti, erme foreste vengo a voi per lagrimar’ bared Ermelinda’s dauntless but sensitive soul to the audience, securing empathy for the maltreated woman’s plight. The mezzo-soprano uttered ‘Ch’io adori quell volto possibil non è, nò’ with grim resolve, and, imparting Ermelinda’s anticipation of a blissful reunion with Ormondo in death, they sang ‘Nelle Elisio ove t’aggiri teco accogli i miei sospiri’ ethereally, the voice echoing the meaning of the words. Their ardent, assured vocalism coupled with unpretentious acting, Printz portrayed Ermelinda as a woman governed by no will but her own.

At the time of its first performance in 1680, Ermelinda was already archaic, and it is unlikely that, then or in the subsequent three decades before his death in 1710, Freschi imagined that his opera would return to the stage after an absence of 339 years. Virtually every piece that has been reawakened in recent years has advocates who extravagantly extol its virtues, but Ars Minerva’s production proved that Ermelinda’s long slumber was unwarranted. With this spectacular, stylish staging, Ars Minerva righted one of operatic history’s egregious wrongs.

22 November 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — MANON LESCAUT (L. Haroutounian, B. Jagde, A. C. Evans, P. Skinner, C. Oglesby, A. Dixon, Z. Bai, S. Baek, C. Pursell, A. E. Moser, J. Thomas, L. Cameron Porter, S. Mouzon; San Francisco Opera, 20 November 2019)

IN REVIEW: the cast of San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Manon LescautLianna Haroutounian (Manon Lescaut), Brian Jagde (Chevalier Renato des Grieux), Anthony Clark Evans (Lescaut), Philip Skinner (Geronte), Christopher Oglesby (Edmondo), Ashley Dixon (Un musico), Zhengyi Bai (Il maestro di ballo, Un lampionaio), SeokJong Baek (Un oste, Il comandante di marina), Christian Pursell (Un sergente degli arceri), Angela Eden Moser (Madrigal singer), Jesslyn Thomas (madrigalista), Laurel Cameron Porter (Un madrigalista), Sally Mouzon (Un madrigalista); San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Nicola Luisotti, conductor [Olivier Tambosi (Director), Frank Philipp Schlößmann (Production Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer), Dave Maier (Fight Director), Lawrence Pech (Choreographer), Ian Robertson (Chorus Director); San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, USA; Wednesday, 20 November 2019]

When the opera that solidified his reputation as the best-qualified successor to Giuseppe Verdi, his setting of Abbé Prévost’s 1731 novel L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut, was premièred at Torino’s Teatro Regio on 1 February 1893, Giacomo Puccini was thirty-four years old; hardly a child prodigy but still a young man by Twenty-First-Century standards. The son of a musical family, Puccini honed his craft via works in a variety of genres, but the early scores Le Willis and Edgar affirmed that the composer’s natural habitat was the opera house. Possessing an exceptional aptitude for theatricality that has prompted some observers to dismiss his operas as overly sentimental, Puccini wielded his talent for creating beguiling melodies—intermittently overused, admittedly—that characterized the music of Bellini and Verdi. Though his work exhibits many of the verismo aesthetics championed by his contemporaries, Puccini was an unabashed Romantic at heart. Manon Lescaut is a score in which the Twentieth Century is near on the musical horizon, but its defining qualities are neither radical nor pedantic. The essence of Manon Lescaut is a young composer’s passionately tuneful paean to a literary heroine who garnered his love.

The complicated gestation of Manon Lescaut suggests that, in this instance of Puccini’s pervasive affection for his opera’s heroine, Shakespeare’s well-known anecdote proved to be frustratingly apt: the course of true love indeed was not smooth. Though eager to capitalize on the enthusiasm that greeted Puccini’s first efforts in operatic form, the publisher Giulio Ricordi was openly hostile to the notion an operatic setting of Prévost’s L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut. Already familiar to European audiences when Puccini was falling victim to Manon’s charms were Daniel François Esprit Auber’s 1856 opéra comique Manon Lescaut, its libretto written by the influential Eugène Scribe, and Jules Massenet’s 1884 treatment of the story, not as widely known or beloved in 1893 as it is today. Nevertheless, Puccini refused to be dissuaded. The hands of Marco Praga and Domenico Oliva were the first to touch the libretto of Manon Lescaut, which ultimately became a muddle to which Puccini’s frequent collaborators Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, the composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, Giulio Ricordi, and Puccini himself contributed. Finally, Giuseppe Adami made minor alterations at Puccini’s request, engendering the edition of the work that is now familiar to Twenty-First-Century audiences. To Puccini’s credit, the sutures in the text are not apparent in the music: in a well-rehearsed, intelligently-staged production like the one mounted by San Francisco Opera, Manon Lescaut displays a captivating wealth of musical invention and homogeneity.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) bass-baritone CHRISTIAN PURSELL as Il sergente degli arceri, tenor BRIAN JAGDE as Chevalier des Grieux, and soprano LIANNA HAROUTOUNIAN as Manon Lescaut in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Una battaglia per amore: (from left to right) bass-baritone Christian Pursell as Il sergente degli arceri, tenor Brian Jagde as Chevalier des Grieux, and soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Manon Lescaut in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Introduced to the company on 28 September 1926, with the legendary Claudia Muzio in the title rôle, Manon Lescaut has amassed a performance history at San Francisco Opera that reflects the opera’s and its composer’s popularities. In 1927, the inaugural production was reprised, with Frances Peralta (née Phyllis Partington and therefore of no relation to the celebrated Mexican soprano Ángela Peralta) portraying the eponymous heroine and Giovanni Martinelli as des Grieux. Two performances in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles in October 1949 united Licia Albanese and Jussi Björling, the latter of whom later returned to San Francisco to sing des Grieux opposite the Manon of Dorothy Kirsten. Mario del Monaco sang des Grieux in San Francisco in 1950. The Manon of Pilar Lorengar graced War Memorial Opera House’s stage, and two of the most memorable Manons of recent decades sang their débuts in the rôle in San Francisco, Leontyne Price in 1974 and Mirella Freni in 1983. When the present staging, a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago, débuted in 2006, it was with Karita Mattila as Manon. Especially in the United States, San Francisco Opera’s advocacy of Manon Lescaut has advanced the opera’s fortunes as markedly as the score legitimized Puccini’s global standing as Verdi’s successor as Italy’s most successful composer of opera. That advocacy has also created exalted standards to which the current and future productions of Manon Lescaut will inevitably be compared.

Director Olivier Tambosi’s staging of Manon Lescaut is largely traditional but is not one in which adherence to tradition is substituted for interpretive insight. Rather than conjuring the kinds of vague, fairy-tale evocations of Eighteenth-Century France that please the eyes but leave the emotions unmoved, this production strives for temporal and locational specificity. Allied with Frank Philipp Schlößmann’s elegantly-proportioned set designs, the colorful but period-appropriate costumes, and Duane Schuler’s expertly-realized lighting, Tambosi’s direction largely concentrated the viewer’s attention according to the dictates of Puccini’s music, delivering the opulent visuals expected of a production by a company of San Francisco Opera’s renown but avoiding dwarfing the intimacies of the drama.

Aside from an overabundance of climbing on furniture that particularly victimized Edmondo, a noteworthy accomplishment of this production was the relative absence of conventional operatic mannerisms and affectation: owing to Tambosi’s vision, supported by Lawrence Pech’s choreography and Dave Maier’s fight direction, the performers on stage moved as people move rather than behaving like creatures that exist only in opera. There were critical moments, not least during Manon’s death scene in Act Four, in which characters were not where they logically ought to have been, however, and the emotional connection between stage and audience was diminished. Still, too many of today’s opera productions demonstrate various degrees of ignorance of the basic goals of staging opera, foremost among which is the fabrication of an environment in which singers can plausibly portray characters whilst singing music that demands constant immersion in the rhythms and the words. This Manon Lescaut was perceptibly guided by cognizance of the score and respect for the artists performing it.

IN REVIEW: tenor CHRISTOPHER OGLESBY as Edmondo (center) in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Un principe tra gli studenti: tenor Christopher Oglesby as Edmondo (center) in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

In the current revival, supervision of San Francisco Opera’s musical forces was entrusted to the company’s former Music Director, Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti. Luisotti’s tenure as Music Director was not without difficulties, but his leadership of this performance exerted many felicities that distinguish the conductor’s work. Particularly commendable was the reliable coordination between stage and pit during large ensembles. Not least in the public scenes of Acts One and Three, the singing of the San Francisco Opera Chorus was thrilling, Ian Robertson’s much-admired training begetting uncommon accuracy without impeding dramatic involvement. Likewise, the marvelous playing of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra musicians disclosed thorough preparation and acquaintance with the score. Assured of the capabilities of the musical personnel at his disposal, Luisotti focused on exploring nuances of Puccini’s scoring, drawing lithe, flexible playing from the strings.

The conductor’s handling of the Intermezzo was stirring, the wall of sound constructed by the orchestra never permitted to overwhelm Puccini’s carefully-wrought interplay of thematic threads, but, both in large ensembles and, to a lesser extent, in smaller-scaled passages, the orchestra often overwhelmed the singers. [Patrons seated in other locations reported that this was less obtrusive elsewhere in the house.] There were moments in which Luisotti’s tempi seemed at odds with the singers’ inclinations, but there was compensatory adaptability, his pacing free from the dictatorial insensitivity that can spoil a performance. Luisotti provided propulsion and poetry as needed. A conductor’s objective in opera should be to mold performances in which the music seems to emerge from the drama. This was often true of this Manon Lescaut, in which Luisotti’s comprehension of Puccini’s style was manifested in an idiomatic, emotive performance.

Long one of America’s most nurturing training centers for emerging artists, San Francisco Opera cultivates an environment in which young singers refine their techniques by performing alongside established artists. This performance of Manon Lescaut was enriched by the participation of some of the company’s gifted young artists, several of whom are current Adler Fellows. The madrigal singers in Act Two—sopranos Angela Eden Moser and Jesslyn Thomas and mezzo-sopranos Laurel Cameron Porter and Sally Mouzon—delivered their parts mellifluously, complementing the lovely voice of mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, who began the madrigale with an appealing account of ‘Sulla vetta tu del monte erri, o Clori.’ Bass-baritone Christian Pursell was an engaging presence, vocally and dramatically, as the Sergente degli arceri in Act Three, voicing ‘Il passo m’aprite’ forcefully. Similarly, baritone SeokJong Baek was engaging as both the Oste in Act One and the Comandante in Act Three, declaiming the latter’s ‘È pronta la nave’ with requisite authority. Tenor Zhengyi Bai deployed a bright timbre and sure-footed dramatic instincts, first in his singing of the Maestro di ballo’s ‘Vi prego, signorina’ in Act Two and later in the Lampionaio’s atmospheric ‘...e Kate rispose al Re’ in Act Three.

IN REVIEW: soprano LIANNA HAROUTOUNIAN as Manon Lescaut (center left) and tenor ZHENGYI BAI as Il maestro di ballo (center right) in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]La signora balla: soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Manon Lescaut (center left) and tenor Zhengyi Bai as Il maestro di ballo (center right) in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Portraying the rabble-rousing student Edmondo, tenor Christopher Oglesby sang characterfully without making his depiction a caricature. As embarrassingly puerile performances of the part affirm, this distinction is not achieved without consummate artistry. Oglesby’s ribald but tasteful depiction left the impression that the tavern in Amiens visited in Act One is a far livelier place when Edmondo is imbibing its offerings. The tenor’s singing of ‘Ave, sera gentile’ rose to an easy top A, and the adventurousness with which he sang ‘La tua ventura ci rassicura’ made the projected translation of the words redundant. In Oglesby’s portrayal, Edmondo’s mocking of the out-witted Geronte, ‘Vecchietto amabile, incipriato Pluton, sei tu,’ was unquestionably mischievous but not genuinely mean-spirited. Youthful joie de vivre emanated from his voicing of ‘Il colpo è fatto.’ Stating that a singer’s performance exhibited great promise is now so clichéd as to be inconsequential, but Oglesby’s secure, charismatic singing of Edmondo’s music—music that, like Puccini’s later writing for Goro in Madama Butterfly, Nick in La fanciulla del West, and Prunier in La rondine, merits voices finer than those to which it is typically assigned—identified him as a singer whose endeavors are likely to brighten opera’s future.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone PHILIP SKINNER as Geronte in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Il finanziere dei sogni: bass-baritone Philip Skinner as Geronte in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Bass-baritone Philip Skinner was the sort of Geronte di Ravoir for which Puccini surely hoped, his acting bringing the doting—not confused with dotage, as is often the case—roué to life with complete credibility but without his vocalism being marred by the aural scars of long experience. Plotting Geronte’s abscondment with Manon in Act One, Skinner sang ‘Questa notte, amico, qui poserò’ with the nonchalance of a man who was certain of the brilliance of his scheme. The implicit irony that oozed from the bass-baritone’s articulation of ‘Dunque vostra sorella il velo cingerà?’ succinctly disclosed the codger’s lecherous intentions, and he voiced ‘Di sedur la sorellina è il momento’ with seriousness that heightened the ridiculousness of Geronte’s pursuit of Manon.

In the scene with the pampered Manon in Act Two, Skinner’s performance emphasized the kinship between this episode in Puccini’s opera and the lesson scene in Act Two of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. Later returning to his paramour’s boudoir to discover Manon reunited with des Grieux, the ferocity of his voicing of ‘Affè, madamigella, or comprendo il perchè di nostr’attesa!’ was exhilarating. The impact of the climax of Act Two can be blunted if Geronte cannot summon vocal muscle with which to threaten Manon and des Grieux. In this performance, Skinner flexed that muscle menacingly, his firm, flinty singing lending Geronte a depth beyond that of the usual aging libertine. His Geronte turning the tables on Manon by compelling her to observe her desperate state in the mirror with which she haughtily ridiculed him, Skinner brought the curtain down on Act Two with an astounding coup de théâtre.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone PHILIP SKINNER as Geronte (left) and baritone ANTHONY CLARK EVANS as Lescaut (right) in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Signori con piani: bass-baritone Philip Skinner as Geronte (left) and baritone Anthony Clark Evans as Lescaut (right) in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Manon’s brother and guardian Lescaut received from baritone Anthony Clark Evans a depiction in which limning the character’s ambiguous motivations was secondary to imparting obvious fraternal affection and, above all, singing the part with élan. In Act One, the baritone was a source of dramatic momentum, his utterances taking a vital part in the events that put the opera on the path to its tragic conclusion. Evans sang ‘Malo consiglio della gente mia’ engrossingly but without exaggeration, his phrasing faithful to the cadences of Puccini’s word setting. Holding court with his sister, chez Geronte, in Act Two, Evans’s Lescaut partnered his Manon handsomely, voicing ‘Sei splendida e lucente!’ with fervor that peaked on his well-projected top Fs. A steely core emerged in the singer’s voice during the final moments of Act Two, Lescaut’s instinct to protect Manon—and his own interests—tested by Geronte’s actions.

His character accompanying des Grieux on the quest to rescue Manon from deportation at the beginning of Act Three, Evans’s vigorous vocalism plaintively expressed the gravitas of the situation. His singing of ‘Perduta è la partita!’ touchingly communicated Lescaut’s sense of helplessness and despair. Lescaut is one of opera’s most complicated and, in many performances of Manon Lescaut, unlikable characters, but Evans’s portrayal, though heeding all of Puccini’s and his librettists’ instructions, made Manon’s paradoxical sibling atypically endearing.

IN REVIEW: tenors BRIAN JAGDE as Chevalier des Grieux (center left) and CHRISTOPHER OGLESBY as Edmondo (center right) in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Un inno all’amore: tenors Brian Jagde as Chevalier des Grieux (center left) and Christopher Oglesby as Edmondo (center right) in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Richard Tucker cited Puccini’s Renato des Grieux as his favorite rôle. Hearing recordings of his performances of the part opposite Dorothy Kirsten, Renata Tebaldi, Licia Albanese, and Raina Kabaivabska at the Metropolitan Opera, Montserrat Caballé in Buenos Aires, Virginia Zeani in Rome, and the inimitable Magda Olivero in Caracas, it is easy to discern why the rôle appealed to Tucker. Perhaps des Grieux is not tenor Brian Jagde’s favorite rôle, but his inaugural interpretation of the part revealed a superlative affinity for the music. Upon his first entrance in Act One, Jagde suffused his des Grieux with youthful disenfranchisement that enhanced the believability of the character’s impulsiveness. The tenor sang ‘Tra voi, belle, brune e bionde’ with suitable ennui, fostering a significant contrast with his awestruck enunciations of ‘Dio, quanto è bella!’ and ‘Cortese damigella, il priego mio accettate’ after Manon’s arrival. ‘Donna non vidi mai simile a questa!’ is one of Puccini’s finest arias for the tenor voice and, melodically, can be argued to be more gratifying than several of its companions in the Puccini canon. Jagde sang the piece ardently, untroubled by the top B♭s. Enchanted by his Manon, this des Grieux voiced ‘Oh, come gravi le vostre parole!’ rapturously.

Finding Manon ensconced in the splendor of Geronte’s Parisian residence, des Grieux’s wounded pride and anger electrified Jagde’s voicing of ‘Sì, sciagurata, la mia vendetta.’ It was necessary for him and all of his colleagues to boost their volume in order to be heard over the orchestra, and rarely deviating from forte sometimes deprived Jagde’s vocalism of finesse. Still, the intensity of his singing of ‘Senti, di qui partiamo’ and ‘Con te portar dei solo il cor’ was exciting, the latter taking him to a magnificent top B. Des Grieux’s music undergoes a further metamorphosis in Act Three, and Jagde responded with a lyrical reading of ‘Manon, disperato è il mio prego!’ that, as in his transition from sangfroid to romantic zeal in Act One, facilitated a meaningful distinction between the sadness of the act’s first scene and the avidity of the subsequent scenes. Jagde’s galvanizing voicing of ‘No! no! pazzo son io!’ recalled Franco Bonisolli’s singing of this music, his traversal of the largo sostenuto ‘Guardate, pazzo son’ throbbing with emotion and cresting on another ringing top B.

Vocally, Jagde was on near-best form throughout the evening: dramatically, he was most effective in Act Four. The voice remained strong, but the tenor’s demeanor as he sang ‘Tutta su me ti posa’ exuded exhaustion and faltering determination. Jagde approached ‘Vedi, vedi, son lo che piango’ and ‘Tutto il mio sangue per la tua vita!’ without artifice, and the emotional directness of his singing of ‘Nulla rinvenni l’orizzonte nulla mi rivelò’ was touching. As Jagde’s experience in the rôle grows, he is likely to discover more subtleties in the music and his interpretation of it, but he was in this performance a forthright, clarion-toned des Grieux.

IN REVIEW: soprano LIANNA HAROUTOUNIAN as Manon Lescaut in San Francisco Opera's November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's MANON LESCAUT [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Sola, perduta, abbandonata: soprano Lianna Haroutounian as Manon Lescaut in San Francisco Opera’s November 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

The title rôle in the present revival of Manon Lescaut is the third Puccini heroine that Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian has sung with San Francisco Opera. Like her des Grieux, Lescaut, Geronte, and Edmondo, Haroutounian made her rôle début in the first performance of this run, adding the part to her repertoire before an audience that has proved to be appreciative of her artistry. For a ruminative singer, taking on a new rôle in a house in which the part was sung by sopranos of the caliber of Claudia Muzio, Dorothy Kirsten, and Leontyne Price is surely intimidating and humbling, but Haroutounian coped admirably with Manon’s musical and dramatic demands and with the inescapable legacy of San Francisco Opera’s progression of illustrious exponents of the rôle.

Introducing Manon to des Grieux and the audience, Haroutounian sang ‘Manon Lescaut mi chiamo’ beautifully, but the irresistible magic that this passage can have was missing. She gracefully eschewed cloying silliness in ‘Il mio fato si chiama’ and ‘Vedete? Io son fedele alla parola mia,’ preferring a straightforward depiction of Manon as an ambitious young woman rather than a coquettish ingenue. The altered trajectory of Manon’s fate in Act Two was immediately palpable in the soprano’s voicing of ‘Dispettosetto questo riccio!’ The spoiled girl momentarily distracted from the luxury of her surroundings by thoughts of des Grieux, her ‘In quelle trine morbide’ was beautifully sung and crowned with lovely top B♭s. The top C in the scene with Lescaut was properly euphoric, but Manon’s trills were tentatively sketched. Haroutounian presented ‘L’ora, o Tirsi, è vaga e bella’ as a calculated performance that pandered to Geronte’s vanity. The lack of self-restraint that permeates ‘Ah! Manon te solo brama’ was underplayed, but the biting cruelty of ‘Amore? Amore! Mio buon signore, ecco!’ was in Haroutounian’s portrayal more injurious than physical violence.

Placing Manon in an elevated prison cell, stage right, with des Grieux and Lescaut behind a gate at the rear of the stage, reinforced the audience’s appreciation of the emotional toll of Manon’s separation from her lover and brother, but the physical distance caused the pathos of ‘Tu, amore!? amore? Nell’onta non m’abbandoni?’ to seem more self-indulgent than poignant. Nonetheless, Haroutounian voiced ‘Ah! una minaccia funebre io sento!’ movingly, and, though she, too, struggled to project above the orchestral din, her singing in the act’s closing scene was vivid. The sorrow of ‘Sei tu che piangi?’ in the opera’s final act was only partially realized, but Haroutounian transcended awkward acting to lavish inviolable musicality on ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonataIo t’amo tanto e muoio!’ There were few histrionics in this Manon’s death: instead of resorting to the raspy Sprechstimme with which some singers intone the character’s final lines, Haroutounian truly sang Puccini’s notes. Manon does not inspire the kind of empathy that Mimì can impel in a good performance of La bohème, but Haroutounian’s portrayal was an honorable beginning to what will hopefully become a long relationship with the rôle—and an enjoyable addition to San Francisco Opera’s gallery of storied portraits of the first of Puccini’s piccole donne.

15 November 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Ruggero Leoncavallo — PAGLIACCI (B. S. Russell, S. Kantorski, R. Zeller, D. Pershall, J. Sorensen, C. Blackburn, S. Toso; Greensboro Opera, November 2019)

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (center left), tenor BRANDON SCOTT RUSSELL as Canio (center right), and the cast of Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919): PagliacciBrandon Scott Russell (Canio), Suzanne Kantorski (Nedda), Richard Zeller (Tonio), David Pershall (Silvio), Joel Sorensen (Beppe), Christian J. Blackburn (Un contadino), Sean Toso (Un contadino); Members of Burlington Boys Choir, Greensboro Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Steven White, conductor [David Holley, producer and stage director; James Bumgardner, chorus master; Bill Allred, children’s chorus master; Jeff Neubauer, lighting designer and technical director; Greensboro Opera, UNCG Auditorium, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; 15 and 17 November 2019]

No year in the four centuries since the first performances of Jacopo Peri’s and Claudio Monteverdi’s pioneering favole in musica has been wholly uneventful, but 1892 was an especially momentous year in the history of opera. In addition to the world premières of Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally and Umberto Giordano’s Mala vita, Jules Massenet’s Werther belatedly received its first performance. The year witnessed the births of conductors Artur Rodziński and Victor de Sabata and singers Dame Eva Turner, Renato Zanelli, and Ezio Pinza. Amidst this sequence of musically-significant occurrences, the work upon which Ruggero Leoncavallo’s reputation as a composer of opera would ultimately depend, Pagliacci, premièred at Milan’s Teatro dal Verme on 21 May 1892. In this operatic ‘slice of life,’ Leoncavallo altered the course of opera’s evolution, reacting to the waning of one style by instituting a new one. Less than a year after Pagliacci’s première, the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, signaled the end of one of the most productive eras in Italian opera. With works like Pagliacci, the idealized passions of Romanticism gave way to the grittier vigor and violence of verismo.

Scenically, Pagliacci is a piece that can be—and in several infamously unconventional stagings has been—wholly effective despite directorial misadventure. Set by Leoncavallo, whose libretto for the opera was inspired by his father’s recollection of a criminal investigation over which he presided as a judge, in Calabria in the latter half of the 1860s, Pagliacci’s betrayal, marital infidelity, unrequited love, and class strife are, when approached with intelligence and respect, easily relocated to virtually any combination of place and time. In Greensboro Opera’s production, the company’s General and Artistic Director David Holley sagaciously looked to Leoncavallo for guidance in staging Pagliacci. Originally devised for Sarasota Opera, the sets evoked a rural Italian village, in which the AT Jones-designed costumes and Trent Pcenicni’s wig and makeup wizardry believably arrayed the choristers as hardworking folk gathered in their town’s piazza to celebrate the Feast of Assumption and enjoy an evening of revelry.

Aided by Jeff Neubauer’s logical lighting designs and technical direction and attentive work from stage manager John Lipe and assistant stage managers Alexandra Scott and Eliya Watson, Holley presented Pagliacci as an exceptionally intimate drama. More so than in many productions, the townspeople on stage—and, by extension, the audience—were intruders in a very private realm. The dichotomy of personal strife playing out in a public setting has broad implications in Italian culture, and Holley’s direction exploited this ambivalence by focusing on blocking that simultaneously drew the observer into the drama and heighened the sense of encroachment. This is what verismo should achieve: as in this Pagliacci, the audience’s experience should be as visceral as the events that transpire on stage.

IN REVIEW: tenor JOEL SORENSEN as Beppe (left), baritone RICHARD ZELLER as Tonio (center), and soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (right) in Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderBeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]La commedia futile: tenor Joel Sorensen as Beppe (left), baritone Richard Zeller as Tonio (center), and soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Nedda (right) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]

Like their counterparts who created the bel canto works of the first half of the Nineteenth Century, the masters of verismo are rarely praised for the inventiveness of their orchestrations, which are frequently dismissed as inferior to the scoring of Germanic composers influenced by Richard Wagner. In artfully adapting the full symphonic panoply of the late-Romantic orchestra to the opera house, Engelbert Humperdinck, Richard Strauss, and lesser-known exponents of Teutonic scoring had few peers originating south of the Alps, but Leoncavallo’s writing for the orchestra in Pagliacci exhibits deftness and imagination that sometimes eluded even Puccini.

Conductor Steven White led the Greensboro Opera Orchestra, here on excellent form, in a performance in which the composer’s creativity and ingenuity were fully apparent. In the orchestral introduction to the Prologo and the stirring Intermezzo, both beautifully played, Leoncavallo’s stimulating use of instrumental timbres and cleverly-wrought counterpoint were highlighted by White’s insightful reading of the score. Similarly, the choral writing was fantastically executed by the Greensboro Opera Chorus, trained by James Bumgardner and joined in this performance by members of the Burlington Boys Choir under the direction of Bill Allred. Brilliant throughout the performance, the choral singing in the tricky Chorus of the Bells was particularly laudable. White paced a taut, fast-moving account of the score but was also alert to the singers’ needs. Ensembles possessed clarity and energy, and the emotional impact of the opera’s conclusion was substantially increased by the subtlety with which White navigated the paths that lead to it.

Greensboro Opera productions typically feature talented singers in supporting rôles, and this  Pagliacci was enlivened by a cast without weakness. As the pair of villagers who interacted with Canio upon his troupe’s arrival, baritone Christian J. Blackburn and tenor Sean Toso sang handsomely, Blackburn voicing ‘Di’, con noi vuoi bevere un buon bicchiere sulla crocevia?’ with conviviality and Toso delivering ‘Bada, Pagliaccio, ci solo vuol restare per far la corte a Nedda!’ suggestively.

Having appeared in acclaimed productions in many prestigious opera houses throughout the world, tenor Joel Sorensen brought extensive experience to his portrayal of Beppe. In the opera’s opening scene, his acting was a masterclass in the art of vibrant but understated characterization. As Canio’s ire and suspicion threatened to upend his troupe’s rapport with the villagers, Sorensen’s Beppe sang ‘Padron! che fate! Per l’amor di Dio!’ incisively, as though only he was truly aware of the impending danger. In the Act Two play, the tenor sang  Arlecchino’s serenata delightfully, maintaining an ideal balance of comedy and musicality. He was a wonderfully wily Beppe, always present but never outstaying his welcome.

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (left), baritone DAVID PERSHALL as Silvio (right), and tenor BRANDON SCOTT RUSSELL as Canio (right rear) in Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]Gli amanti illeciti e la spia: soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Nedda (left), baritone David Pershall as Silvio (right), and tenor Brandon Scott Russell as Canio (right rear) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]

In recent Greensboro Opera seasons, baritone David Pershall has earned the adulation of Triad audiences with expertly-sung portrayals of Figaro in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (the rôle in which he débuted at the Metropolitan Opera on 29 December 2015), Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen, and Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Silvio in Pagliacci is one of the rôles in which Pershall has found acclaim at San Francisco Opera, and his performance of the part in Greensboro Opera’s production of Leoncavallo’s opera was the work of a bonafide leading man in the tradition of the young Robert Merrill. In Silvio’s amorous rendezvous with Nedda, Pershall voiced ‘Sapea ch’io non rischiavo nulla’ with bravado, introducing his Silvio as an intrepid lover who wielded soaring high notes like sultry embraces.

Incensed by Nedda’s reluctance to surrender to his ardor, Pershall sang ‘Nedda, Nedda, rispondimi’ with wrenching immediacy, palpably evincing the young man’s yearning for his beloved. The erotic frenzy of his singing of ‘E allor perchè, di’, tu m’hai stregato’ was epitomized by a stunning top G. Watching Nedda’s performance in the Act Two play from the crowd, prepared to escape with her at the play’s conclusion, Pershall’s Silvio uttered ‘Io mi ritengo appena!’ and ‘Santo diavolo! Fa davvero’ with horror as he realized that Canio’s rage was no longer feigned. Rather than fleeing, this Silvio’s primary instinct was to protect Nedda—an act of chivalry that cost him his life. All of Pershall’s Greensboro Opera performances have been enjoyable, but his portrayal of Silvio, a rôle for which his vocal and dramatic gifts are ideal, reached a new height of artistic excellence.

In April 2019, renowned baritone Richard Zeller’s ingeniously comedic and touchingly human portrayal of Shakespeare’s mercurial Sir John was the heart of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Verdi’s Falstaff. The rôle of Falstaff was created in that opera’s 1893 première by Victor Maurel, who had also sung Tonio in the first performance of Pagliacci. Honoring Maurel’s legacy, Zeller followed his witty Falstaff with a menacing, melancholy Tonio. The baritone’s traversal of Pagliacci’s famous Prologo was majestic and multifaceted, his tonal colors metamorphosing with the changing moods of the text. The legato of his phrasing of ‘Un nido di memorie’ and ‘E voi, piuttosto che le nostre povere gabbane d’istrioni’ was a testament to Zeller’s Verdian credentials, as was his resonant top G. His transformation into the bitter, bating Tonio was an example of operatic acting of the highest order.

The loathing exuded by his breathless growl of ‘La pagherai! brigante!’ was terrifying, but it was in Tonio’s pivotal scene with Nedda that Zeller most compellingly demonstrated his consummate mastery of his rôle. His statement of ‘È colpa del tuo canto’ was touchingly sincere, and the pathos of his ‘Non rider, Nedda!’ affirmed that, for all his faults, this Tonio was a man, not a monster. The poignant beauty of tone with which Zeller voiced ‘So ben che diforme, contorto son io’ made the fury of ‘Per la Vergin pia di mezz’agosto, Nedda, io giuro’ and the venomous spite of ‘Cammina adagio e li sorprenderai!’ all the more shocking. Summoning the villagers to the play in Act Two, Zeller declaimed ‘Avanti, avanti, avanti!’ excitingly. In this performance, Taddeo lurked in the shadows, spying on Colombina’s assignation with Arlecchino like a panther ready to pounce. The opera’s ominous final line, ‘La commedia è finita,’ was here uttered by Tonio rather than Canio, and Zeller spoke the words unaffectedly, his Tonio pleased by his own treachery but also shattered by the brutality of Canio’s vengeance. In Zeller’s nuanced, strongly-sung performance, Tonio was unmistakably a descendent of Rigoletto, a decent man twisted by disability and rejection into a depraved but still pitiable figure who hates what he cannot love.

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (left) and baritone RICHARD ZELLER as Tonio (right) in Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]La moglie ed il mostro: soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Nedda (left) and baritone Richard Zeller as Tonio (right) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]

A prototypical verismo leading lady, Leoncavallo’s Nedda is, from a dramatic perspective, one of the most difficult rôles in the soprano repertoire. The prevalence of poorly-sung performances of the part divulges that the music is also far from easy, but a number of singers who conquered the rôle’s musical demands failed to create a plausible, sympathetic character. Greensboro Opera’s Nedda, soprano Suzanne Kantorski, crafted an engaging portrait of this complicated, sometimes confounding character. With her straightforward singing of ‘Confusa io son!’ after Canio’s outburst about the mercilessness with which he would punish infidelity, Kantorski displayed a trait that many characterizations of Nedda lack: though she does not truly love Canio, she has no desire to deliberately hurt him. [The question of whether Canio is physically abusive to Nedda, which seems likely, was unanswered in this production, as it is in the score.] Recalling her mother’s stories of nature’s freedom, this Nedda voiced ‘Qual fiamma avea nel guardo!’ and ‘O che bel sole di mezz’agosto!’ rhapsodically. The trills that launch the Ballatella, ‘Stridono lassù, liberamente lanciati a vol,’ were honorably attempted, and the soprano vaulted notes above the stave with pinging precision.

The scorn with which Kantorski infused Nedda’s response to Tonio’s wooing erupted in her singing of ‘Ah! ah! Quanta poesia!’ and ‘Hai tempo a ridirmelo stasera, se brami,’ the latter marked ‘con elegenza’ and ironically rendered accordingly in this performance. It was an altogether different woman who subsequently sought refuge in Silvio’s arms. Kantorski voiced ‘Non mi tentar!’ delicately, her top B♭ gleaming, and the churning emotions of ‘Nulla scordai sconvolta e turbata’ received from her a surge of expressivity. The soprano joined Pershall in a gorgeous account of ‘Tutto scordiam!’ in which their voices intertwined with obvious carnal symbolism. Their lovemaking interrupted by Canio’s approach, Kantorski sought divine protection for her paramour with a meaningful ‘Aitalo Signor!’ From the start of the play in Act Two, Kantorski’s Colombina was the personification of barely-concealed defiance, her desperate attempt to lure Canio back into their scripted farce seeming coy and half-hearted. Her febrile top B, more slashing than the whip that she turned on Tonio, was the exclamation of a woman who demanded immediate liberty or death. Perhaps representing Nedda’s shame and unhappiness, Kantorski’s back was often to the house, lessening her connection with the audience, but she proposed viable solutions to a number of Nedda’s dramatic riddles and sang the rôle exceptionally well.

IN REVIEW: soprano SUZANNE KANTORSKI as Nedda (center left) and tenor BRANDON SCOTT RUSSELL as Canio (center right) in Greensboro Opera's November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]I coniugi condanatti: soprano Suzanne Kantorski as Nedda (center left) and tenor Brandon Scott Russell as Canio (center right) in Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Paglacci
[Photograph by Becky VanderVeen, © by VanderVeen Photography & Greensboro Opera]

Owing to his widely-known, often-parodied aria ‘Vesti la giubba,’ Canio is arguably verismo’s most recognizable protagonist. Perhaps only Wagner’s valkyries are as familiar beyond the ranks of opera aficionados as Leoncavallo’s weeping clown. [The commedia dell’arte figures in Pagliacci are of course not clowns in the strictest modern sense, but when has popular culture worried about distorting historical distinctions?] From Enrico Caruso and Beniamino Gigli to Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli, the legacies of past interpreters of Canio still haunt the opera, but Greensboro Opera’s Canio, tenor Brandon Scott Russell, never emulated another singer’s performance. Every tenor naturally wants to replicate Caruso’s diction, Gigli’s emotional candor, del Monaco’s vocal brawn, and Corelli’s peerless upper register, but Russell brought his own qualities to the rôle, one of the most admirable of which was evenness of tonal production that granted his lower register atypical force. The top G♯ that he dispatched in his delivery of ‘Itene al diavolo!’ was equally impressive, and his voicing of ‘Un grande spettacolo a ventitrè ore’ was a proclamation of vocal grandeur that suited the text. Russell sang ‘Un tal gioco, credetemi’ sensitively, the top A emotive rather than ostentatiously demonstrative, and his unassuming enunciation of ‘Adoro la mia sposa!’ was movingly frank.

Canio is changed by Tonio’s report of having seen Nedda with another man, and Russell’s portrayal became more volatile as Canio pursued Silvio, the tenor singing ‘Derisione e scherno!’ with scorching intensity. Doubt clouded Canio’s mind in ‘E se in questo momento,’ plaintively sung by Russell. His was a performance of ‘Recitar! Mentre presso dal delirio’ that was despondent but not overwrought. The sorrow that pervades ‘Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina’ did not tempt the singer to break or distort the melodic line, and, in this performance, there was no need to project ‘Ridi, Pagliaccio’ to the theater’s last row: Russell had drawn the audience into Canio’s innermost thoughts. In Act Two, the conflicting anger and sadness with which Russell voiced ‘Nome di Dio! quelle stesse parole!’ indicated the deterioration of Canio’s mental state. His singing of the cutting ‘No! Pagliaccio non son’ and the exquisite ‘Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva’ recalled Richard Tucker’s unforgettable performances of this scene, Russell’s top B♭ effortlessly filling the auditorium with anguished but beautiful sound. There were isolated moments in which the tenor’s upper register was not projected as effectively as the voice’s lower reaches, but tonal quality was splendidly consistent. Russell’s was a young man’s Canio, sung with technical assurance that has become all too uncommon among singers of any age.

In opera, the term ‘warhorses’ is often used pejoratively, describing works that are performed so often as to have become disinteresting. Popularity can be damning, especially with would-be cognoscenti eager to prove their superiority by condemning scores that are loved by the masses. Pagliacci is undeniably a warhorse, and there are productions of it that merit disdain. Nevertheless, there are almost always legitimate reasons that explain a work’s popularity with the public and productions that remind audiences of why they love it. Performances of Pagliacci are plentiful, but performances of Pagliacci of the caliber exhibited by Greensboro Opera are exceedingly rare.

14 November 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Richard Wagner — SIEGFRIED Act Three (R. Cox, A. LoBianco, M. Ngqungwana, N. Piccolomini; North Carolina Opera, 10 November 2019)

IN REVIEW: Richard Wagner - SIEGFRIED Act Three (North Carolina Opera, 10 November 2019; Graphic © by North Carolina Opera)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Siegfried, WWV 86C – Act ThreeRichard Cox (Siegfried), Alexandra LoBianco (Brünnhilde), Musa Ngqungwana (Der Wanderer), Nicole Piccolomini (Erda); North Carolina Opera Orchestra; Timothy Myers, conductor [North Carolina Opera, Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 10 November 2019]

As Americans’ celebrations of the centennial of their declaration of independence helped to heal the still-fresh wounds of the Civil War during the summer of 1876, a new revolution was coming to fruition on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Artists from a plethora of nations and traditions, dignitaries, disciples, and naysayers gathered in the idyllic Bavarian town of Bayreuth, where Richard Wagner, by that time widely acknowledged as an artist with uncommon vision but still a divisive, controversial figure, brought to the stage of a purpose-built theater the first complete performance of his genre-transforming tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen. With this epic work, an extended parable imparted by a Teutonic view of Norse mythology, Wagner immortalized his singular concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, an idea borrowed from the German thinker Karl Friedrich Eusebius Trahndorff. The first Bayreuth Ring was arguably less consequential than the American colonists’ struggle for independence, but, with the inauguration of Der Ring des Nibelungen and the Bayreuther Festspiele, Wagner unquestionably celebrated truths that he held to be self-evident.

Premièred on 16 August 1876, the third of the Ring operas advances the cycle’s narrative from Wotan’s abandonment of his spirited daughter Brünnhilde, the eponymous valkyrie who in Act Three of Die Walküre is banished from Valhalla and left to slumber, protected by fire, until she is awakened by a hero who knows no fear, to the maturation of the man destined to be Brünnhilde’s champion. Following its title character’s journey from his untamed youth under the nefarious guidance of Mime to his discovery of Brünnhilde, Siegfried is unique among its companions in Wagner’s ‘Bühnenfestspiel’ in having a third act that is longer in duration than the acts that precede it. [Das Rheingold, Der Ring’s ‘Vorabend,’ is of course structured in a single act, without interval.] Moreover, there is in Siegfried an extraordinary wealth of thematic development, Wagner’s Leitmotivs weaving the dramatic threads of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre into a fabric that unfurls to reveal the cycle’s dénouement in Götterdämmerung. In North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Act Three of Siegfried, Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall resounded with an overwhelming account of one of opera’s most emotionally tumultuous sequences, as the old order represented by Erda and Wotan is supplanted by the purifying passion of Brünnhilde and Siegfried.

Productions of Wagner’s operas by the world’s best-funded opera companies are sometimes financially ruinous. The monetary benefits of performing a work like Siegfried in concert are obvious, but there can also be considerable artistic advantages not only to concert performances but also to performing single acts of Wagner’s operas. [It was by performing successive acts of the four operas in a period spanning October and November 1953 that Wilhelm Furtwängler recorded his much-discussed complete Ring for Italian radio.] Having already offered Triangle audiences memorable performances of Act One of Die Walküre (2013), Act Two of Tristan und Isolde (2014), and Das Rheingold (2016), North Carolina Opera assembled a group of artists who capitalized on every virtue of performing Act Three of Siegfried in concert. Without visual imagery to animate the opera’s drama, singers, instrumentalists, and conductor relied upon the music to exert its enchantment, aided by musicianship that brought the soul of Bayreuth to life in the heart of Raleigh.

Under the baton of the company’s former Artistic Director Timothy Myers, the playing of the North Carolina Opera Orchestra, expanded for this performance to fulfill the requirements of Wagner’s scoring, was superlative. Siegfried’s vocal demands are so formidable that, especially in the context of staged productions, the difficulties of the orchestral writing do not always receive the attention that they deserve. Wagner’s taxing music for horns is heard throughout Der Ring des Nibelungen, but Act Three of Siegfried also contains some of the composer’s most intimidating but incredibly beautiful music for woodwinds and strings. In North Carolina Opera’s Siegfried, the woodwinds rose to every challenge of their parts, Kevin Streich’s, Brian French’s, and Tony Granados’s respective playing of the bass clarinet, bass trumpet, and contrabass tuba garnering particular admiration. In the passage depicting Siegfried’s ascent to the summit of Brünnhilde’s rock, the violins traverse virtually the entire compass of their instrument, from the open G3 of the lowest string to harmonics at the tip of the fingerboard. The efforts of North Carolina Opera Orchestra’s violinists were laudably accurate in pitch and ensemble. Also noteworthy was the work of harpists Jacquelyn Bartlett and Grace Ludtke, their playing heightening the eroticism of Brünnhilde’s awakening and interaction with Siegfried.

Though his work on the score commenced two decades before the opera reached the stage, Wagner’s final revisions to Siegfried’s orchestrations were completed in 1871, when plans for the Festspielhaus’s recessed orchestra pit were also nearing completion. The positioning of the pit surely influenced the extremes of dynamics that provide much of the score’s momentum—and that make performing any of Siegfried’s three acts in concert, with the orchestra on stage with the singers, troublesome. In North Carolina Opera’s performance, Myers observed Wagner’s dynamic instructions with tremendous care, evading none of the score’s cacophonous climaxes, but silence was as significant as sound in the conductor’s reading. Myers’s emphasis on pauses magnified the emotional impact of the waning of Wotan’s power and Siegfried’s first pangs of fear. His pacing of orchestral passages, support for the singers, and intuitive handling of Leitmotivs revealed that Myers is a master of both the big moments that some conductors belabor and small details that are sometimes forsaken. In Myers’s handling, Wagner’s music was equally radical and accessible, the singularity of Wagner’s artistic vision omnipresent but never impeding enjoyment of what is, despite its countless subtexts, an uncomplicated story of social decay and renewal.

First heard in Das Rheingold, Erda returns in Act Three of Siegfried, her manifestation in response to the Wanderer’s summons anticipating Siegfried awakening her daughter Brünnhilde. The failure of her prescience also prefigures the opening scene of Götterdämmerung’s Prologue, in which the oracular faculties of the Norns of whom she sings are extinguished. In Raleigh, Erda’s sparring with the Wanderer was voiced with gravitas by mezzo-soprano Nicole Piccolomini. Her singing of ‘Stark ruft das Lied’ was a stern rebuke of the Wanderer’s intrusion into her repose, but there was also a seductive aloofness in her tones that persuasively portrayed Erda as a figure who once inflamed proud Wotan’s libidinous desire.

As sung by Piccolomini, Erda’s statement of ‘Mein Schlaf ist Träumen, mein Träumen Sinnen, mein Sinnen Walten des Wissens’ was not merely a metaphysical conceit: divining the fates of gods and men was for this Erda a profoundly personal burden. The mezzo-soprano voiced ‘Männerthaten umdämmern mir den Muth’ with bracing intensity, and her declamation of ‘Wirr wird mir, seit ich erwacht’ crested on a striking top A♭. The disdain with which this Erda hurled ‘Du bist nicht, was du dich nenn’st!’ at the Wanderer was crushing. The natural resonance of Piccolomini’s lower register lent Erda’s words seismic fortitude, and the unmistakable finality of the measured exit of Piccolomini’s beautifully statuesque Erda intimated that the twilight of the gods was imminent.

It is as the Wanderer in Act Three of Siegfried that Wotan is last seen in Der Ring des Nibelungen, though Leitmotivs associated with his actions recur in Götterdämmerung. In the guise of a nomadic Wanderer, he comes to rouse and question Erda, the earth spirit who bore him Brünnhilde, and South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana assumed the tormented god’s mien with a powerful voicing of ‘Wache, Wala!’ From this entrance until the Wanderer’s ambivalent exit, the weary god both wounded by the demise of his authority and relieved to cede control over the fate of the world to a noble youth, Ngqungwana rose with galvanizing security to the top E♭s and Fs in the rôle’s music.

Asked by Erda why he disturbed her rather than posing his queries to their daughter Brünnhilde, Ngqungwana’s Wanderer replied with a voicing of ‘Die Walküre mein’st du, Brünnhild’, die Maid?’ in which the father’s pain was still raw. The bass-baritone sang ‘Dich Mutter lass’ ich nicht zieh’n, da des Zaubers mächtig ich bin’ with vehemence, the Wanderer’s frustration with Erda clearly a reflection of his own inner turmoil. Heralding the approach of Siegfried with a tense but good-humored ‘Dort seh’ ich Siegfried nah’n,’ this Wanderer interrogated his grandson with genuine interest, seeking in the young man’s words hallmarks of the heroism upon which the redemption of the world depended. Ngqungwana sang ‘Ich seh’, mein Sohn, wo du nichts weißt’ and ‘Kenntest du mich, kühner Sproß’ with dramatic potency that belied the fact that this was his first public performance of the Wanderer’s music. Neither ‘Es floh dir zu seinem Heil!’ nor ‘Fürchte des Felsens Hüter!’ over-extended the bass-baritone’s prodigious resources, and the zeal with which he delivered ‘Fürchtest das Feuer du nicht’ was tinged with resignation. There were moments in which Ngqungwana lost the Wanderer’s battle with the orchestra, a virtual inevitability in a concert performance with the orchestra at his back, but the superb quality of the voice was never eclipsed.

In the 143 years since Siegfried was first performed, there have been Brünnhildes who did not bring the character to life as vividly in fully-staged performances as soprano Alexandra LoBianco portrayed her in this concert presentation. As in her performance of the title rôle in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Puccini’s Tosca, none of her gestures was superfluous: even the simple action of the singer donning her glasses was dramatically involved, symbolically paralleling her surroundings gradually coming into focus as Brünnhilde viewed the world through a woman’s rather than a valkyrie’s eyes. When the soprano inhaled deeply in preparation for her first line, her smile shone as brightly as the sun she greeted with a luminous ‘Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!’ Unlike some Brünnhildes, LoBianco neglected none of the rôle’s trills, her innate musicality faithfully serving the composer and the character.

Extolling her liberator with an exclamation of ‘O Siegfried! Siegfried! seliger Held!’ that conveyed adoration and apprehension, this Brünnhilde was unusually communicative of the uncertainty that grips her as she, like Siegfried, experiences womanhood for the first time. Though her vocalism was aptly valiant, LoBianco did not eschew lyricism, voicing ‘O wüßtest du, Lust der Welt’ and ‘Dort seh’ ich Grane, mein selig Roß,’ Brünnhilde’s greeting to her beloved horse, with affecting restraint. This contrasted markedly with the stark wariness that emerged from her singing of ‘Kein Gott nahte mir je!’ and ‘Sonnenhell leuchtet der Tag meiner Schmach!’ In a concert performance, LoBianco might have trusted her voice to evince Brünnhilde’s evolving emotions, but, not least in her expansively-phrased ‘Ewig war ich, ewig bin ich,’ her singing was supplemented by unflagging concentration on the subtleties of the character’s feelings. The exultant top C on ‘Leuchtender Sproß!’ and the progression of top Bs that followed were exhilarating without being over-asserted. That the final pages of Siegfried build to the euphoric top C with which Brünnhilde ends the opera is undeniable, but the resulting expectation is often disappointed. LoBianco projected the note into the hall with exuberant ease, achieving the sort of concupiscent catharsis that Wagner surely wanted. Musically, LoBianco was a Brünnhilde who impressed by singing the part accurately and alluringly, but the greatest joy of her performance was the expressive sincerity with which she depicted this iconic character’s bittersweet embrace of femininity.

There are Wagner aficionados who might argue that, by performing only Act Three of Siegfried, the tenor to whom the title rôle was assigned avoided the part’s most punishing music, notably the forging song in Act One. It is true that Siegfried is a mammoth rôle: solely in Act Three, he sings nearly as much as several of Puccini’s tenor protagonists sing in their complete operas. It was no easy task that tenor Richard Cox faced in North Carolina Opera’s performance of Siegfried’s third act, but this gifted artist acquitted himself ably and often splendidly. Ignorant of the fact that the mysterious impediment on his path to locating Brünnhilde is his own grandfather, Siegfried replies to the Wanderer’s quizzing impetuously, and Cox sang ‘Mein Vöglein schwebte mir fort!’ and ‘Was lach’st du mich aus? Alter Frager!’ with the arrogance and annoyance of a scolded adolescent. There was as much satin as steel in his articulations of ‘Bleibst du mir stumm, störrischer Wicht?’ and ‘Zurück, du Prahler, mit dir,’ but the tenor’s bright top A emboldened his singing of ‘Meines Vaters Feind, find’ ich dich hier?’ Cox’s utterance of ‘Hoho! Hahei! Jetzt lock' ich ein liebes Gesell!’ disclosed no unkindness, instead focusing on the playfulness and insouciance of Siegfried’s banter.

Surveying the landscape from the vantage point of Brünnhilde’s rock, this Siegfried exclaimed ‘Selige Öde auf sonniger Höh’!’ with an aura of wonder, and his surprise upon perceiving Grane coursed through a dulcetly-phrased account of ‘Was ruht dort schlummernd im schattigen Tann?’ Siegfried’s transformative realization that the sleeping Brünnhilde is not a fatigued warrior but a spellbound maiden prompted an awestruck voicing of ‘Das ist kein Mann!’ that predictably received ill-timed laughter from the audience. The shyness in Cox’s voicing of ‘O Mutter! Mutter! Dein muthiges Kind!’ was endearingly boyish, and the tenor’s sensitivity to the emotional nuances of Siegfried’s music was apparent in his singing of ‘Süß erbebt mir ihr blühender Mund’ and ‘O Heil der Mutter, die mich gebar!’ Like his Brünnhilde, this Siegfried made an honorable attempt at executing their unison trill. The growing ardor of ‘Wie Wunder tönt, was wonnig du sing’st’ and ‘Durch brennendes Feuer fuhr ich zu dir’ smoldered in Cox’s vocalism, but it was in his singing of ‘Nacht umfängt gebund’ne Augen’ and ‘Dich lieb’ ich: o liebtest mich du!’ that he was at his best, his top As fired into the auditorium thrillingly. Cox was an atypically thoughtful Siegfried, the young man’s lack of fear here not equated with brutishness. There was ample force in Cox’s singing, but volume was but one of his Siegfried’s attributes. Most rewardingly, his was an appealingly-sung rather than a shouted Siegfried.

Sadly, earnest Twenty-First-Century Wagnerians learn quickly that enjoyment of many of today’s performances of Wagner’s operas necessitates tolerance of loud, wobbly singing, indifferent conducting, and bizarre stagings. It is easily forgotten that one of Wagner’s musical idols was Vincenzo Bellini, for whose bel canto masterpiece Norma he composed an alternate aria. North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Act Three of Siegfried was not merely a rare performance of music from Der Ring des Nibelungen by a regional company: it was a still rarer event in which none of the defects of modern Wagner performances inhibited appreciation of the score’s staggering beauty.