GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848) and GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Verdi ● Donizetti — Michael Fabiano, tenor; London Voices; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Enrique Mazzola, conductor [Recorded in St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London, UK, August and September 2018; Pentatone PTC 5186 750; 1 CD, 57:03; Available from Pentatone, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), fnac (France), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]
Assessing the technical and artistic merits of voices is a divisive endeavor in any context, but in the realm of aficionados by whom voices and music written for them are revered it can be dangerous. This assertion seems ridiculous, but it should be remembered that as earnest a proponent of important voices as Schuyler Chapin, General Manager of The Metropolitan Opera for four tumultuous seasons in the 1970s and one of opera’s true gentlemen, received death threats from New York’s organized crime families for suggesting to the aging Renata Tebaldi that she might consider singing a few carefully-selected mezzo-soprano rôles. His dual aims were prolonging the career and preserving the legacy of one of opera’s greatest singers, but the reaction to what some of the soprano’s admirers perceived as an unforgivable affront is indicative of the fervor with which aficionados debate the virtues and vices of voices and the singers who brandish them.
It is unlikely that any singer in the history of opera has garnered universal acclaim or condemnation. Wagnerians who recognize no idols other than Kirsten Flagstad allege that Birgit Nilsson’s singing was cold and mechanical: Nilsson’s champions assert that Flagstad’s characterizations were inert and matronly. Perceptions of artistry are as subjective as those of natural wonders: there are always observers who regard the Grand Canyon as an over-hyped hole in the ground. Like the river that carved the Grand Canyon, voices can sometimes seem like ungovernable forces of nature, functioning independently of their owners’ artistic impulses, but the finest voices are managed with meticulous control that requires intellectual engagement matching the caliber of the natural instrument. That tenor Michael Fabiano has a voice with a rare ability to enthrall is unmistakable, but his singing’s power to inspire what in opera can be regarded as universal appreciation is evidence of artistic acuity of the sort for which listeners yearn.
Since being selected as the 2014 recipient of the prestigious prize awarded by the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, Fabiano has assumed a prominent rôle in the generation of young American tenors whose work furthers Tucker’s initiatives to cultivate, celebrate, and encourage artistry of the highest order among America’s singers. During his three-decade MET career, Tucker excelled in a varied repertoire that encompassed Ferrando and Tamino in Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte, Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, and many of Verdi’s and Puccini’s leading rôles for tenor.
In the trajectory of his career to date, Fabiano has exhibited artistic kinship with Tucker, having enjoyed success in rôles that formed the foundation of his forebear’s career. With his début recording for Pentatone, expertly engineered to place the voice in a vibrant but remarkably clean acoustical space, Fabiano examines the artistic kinship that linked Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi via the work of the tenors who sang their music. Through his performances with Arturo Toscanini, Tucker had a direct connection to Verdi: though he was born after Tucker’s untimely death, Fabiano honors his memory by continuing the legacy of advancing respect both for opera in America and for American singers in the opera community by singing with musicality and artistic integrity that pay homage to Tucker, Toscanini, and the heritage they sustained.
The study of history relies upon chronologies, but the evolution of music has rarely been straightforwardly linear. That bel canto existed long before it was refined by Donizetti is apparent in the almost Bellinian vocal line of a piece like Oronte’s aria ‘Un momento di contento’ in Händel’s Alcina: proof of bel canto’s survival far beyond the careers of Donizetti and Verdi can be found in the music of Philip Glass—though repetitive, the writing for Gandhi in Satyagraha embodies a bel canto aesthetic—and Jake Heggie. It is not difficult to erroneously glean from musicological analysis of Italian opera in the Nineteenth Century that, with his post-Nabucco operas, Verdi wrote the obituary for true bel canto, but this disc guides the listener to the discovery of a vastly different reality.
Though it can be argued that in propelling operatic expressivity towards verismo Verdi obliterated the formulaic tenets of bel canto, it cannot be denied that a piece like Rodolfo’s oft-excerpted aria from Verdi’s Luisa Miller is a paragon of bel canto grace. One of Fabiano’s most notable triumphs in Verdi repertory was his unapologetically romantic portrayal of Rodolfo in San Francisco Opera’s 2015 production of Luisa Miller, and he revisits the character’s music by opening this disc with deftly-delivered accounts of the recitative ‘Oh! fede negar potessi’ and aria ‘Quando le sere al placido.’ Liberated from the necessity of projecting a column of sound into the vast expanse of a space like that of San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, the tenor’s singing of the aria is here more nuanced than it was in San Francisco. Shifts in dynamics and vocal coloring are more pronounced, and the immediacy of his verbal articulation is undiminished. Fabiano approaches the aria not as a showpiece but as a moment of reflection in Rodolfo’s dramatic development, accentuating the manner in which Verdi integrated the subtle hues of bel canto into the bolder tones of his musical palette.
The Duca di Mantova in Verdi’s Rigoletto is another rôle in which Fabiano has won praise from both critics and audiences, not least in Claus Guth’s 2016 Opéra de Paris production. On stage, Fabiano is a Duca whose actions disclose inner conflict: credible as a dangerously seductive cad, his interpretation of the part also conveys a redeeming vulnerability, intimating that the Duca’s debauchery is driven as much by desperation born of the loneliness of his position as by libido. In this recorded performance of the Duca’s most famous music, ‘La donna è mobile,’ the focus is primarily on the aria’s musical impact, but the tenor’s singing imparts compelling dramatic impetus. Sounding alluringly youthful but wearied by the demands of his rank, this Duca’s commentary on the fickleness of women and their affections seems empirical rather than cynical. Vocally, Fabiano brings a bronzed, virile timbre to the music, lending even the flippant cadenza uncommon gravitas.
Following his Festival début as Alfredo in La traviata in 2014, the title rôle in Donizetti’s tale of Christian piety, conjugal love, and martyrdom in Imperial Rome, Poliuto, endeared Fabiano to Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s discerning patrons anew in 2015. Glyndebourne’s Poliuto was conducted by Enrique Mazzola, whose marshaling of the stylishly sonorous vocal and instrumental forces of London Voices and the London Philharmonic Orchestra contributes indelibly to the success of this release. With the conductor’s support, the tenor offers a performance of ‘Veleno è l’aura ch’io respiro’ that is genuinely communicative, his diction heightening the aural impact of the words. The momentum with which he advances the melodic line in ‘Fu macchiato l’onor mio’ confirms the potency of the composer’s theatrical savvy. Fabiano sings the cabaletta ‘Sfolgorò divino raggio’ with ardent swagger that elucidates the skill with which Donizetti adapted the principles of bel canto to his own unique dramatic sensibilities. The tenor is in easy, exhilarating voice in all of the selections on this disc, but his singing of this music from Poliuto is a valuable document of his mastery of bel canto.
From the lean lyricism of Ferruccio Tagliavini to the Wagnerian heft of Jon Vickers, a surprising array of voices have effectively sung Verdi’s music for Gustavo—or his American alter ego Riccardo—in Un ballo in maschera. The blend of light-hearted jocundity, amorous zeal, and inviolable commitment to duty that makes Gustavo difficult to portray convincingly suits Fabiano’s stage persona, by which the joyous facets of even the most tragic figures are illuminated. In his singing of ‘Forse la soglia attinse’ and ‘Ma se m’è forza perderti’ on this disc, the relationship between Fabiano and Richard Tucker is especially meaningful. An integral component of Tucker’s memorable interpretation of Riccardo was his capacity for plausibly shouldering the weight of the affairs of state that trouble the man without overshadowing the ebullience that is the core of his charisma. Fabiano achieves this, too, the duality of Gustavo’s constitution manifested in his candid, unreserved vocalism. His dedication to fully realizing the dramatic potential of every rôle that he depicts can occasionally lead Fabiano to sing too strenuously, but his earnestness in this miniature portrait of Gustavo never overwhelms his innate musicality.
Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is a part that Fabiano sang with the gusto that has become a hallmark of his artistry even when he was a student at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, and his returns to the character in the Spring 2018 revival of the MET’s Mary Zimmerman production and in Opera Australia’s July 2018 staging disclosing the thoughtfulness with which he continues to hone his interpretation of the rôle. In the performance on this disc, a deluge of anguish surges in his voicing of ‘Tombe degli avi miei,’ the despair of a young man reeling from his beloved’s betrayal evoked in the singer’s febrile phrasing. The poise of his singing of ‘Fra poco a me ricovero’ contrasts tellingly with the angst of the preceding recitative, reflecting the solemnity that Edgardo feels amidst the tombs of his ancestors. The inviolable security of the tenor’s intonation throughout the range gives his Edgardo greater strength than some interpreters of the music can muster, again revealing the narrowness of the musical divide between Donizetti and Verdi.
At this juncture in his career, the younger tenor’s voice does not possess the pulse-quickening thrust at the very top that his illustrious predecessor’s voice wielded, but, in the performance of the recitative ‘Qual sangue sparsi’ and aria ‘S’affronti la morte’ from the 1862 St. Petersburg version of Verdi’s La forza del destino that is one of this disc’s musical zeniths, Fabiano’s timbre is often arrestingly reminiscent of Franco Corelli’s. Fabiano’s forays into heavier Verdi repertory have thus far been confined to the title rôle in Don Carlo, but this performance of Alvaro’s death scene, excised when Verdi revised La forza del destino for its 1869 La Scala première, provides a tantalizing preview of future endeavors. Though La forza del destino is unquestionably a more coherent work in the 1869 guise that is typically preferred in modern stagings, the beauty and brawn of Fabiano’s traversal of ‘S’affronti la morte’ grant credence to the efficacy of Verdi’s first thoughts on the opera’s ending. Fabiano’s vigorous but appropriately-scaled singing also reminds Twenty-First-Century listeners that, two decades before the première of La forza del destino, the first Alvaro, the Roman tenor Enrico Tamberlik, made his operatic début as Gennaro in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgina, another rôle that Fabiano has sung with great success.
First performed at Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater in 1843, Maria di Rohan is deemed by some musicologists to be Donizetti’s finest score despite the neglect from which it is only beginning to emerge. A compact, fast-moving drama, the opera is indisputably distinguished by some of its composer’s most thrilling and emotionally affecting music. The brilliance of Fabiano’s performance of Chalais’s brief aria ‘Alma soave e cara’ is wholly worthy of the music: the voice intertwining with a lovely flute obbligato, the sentiments of the text are entrancingly limned with bel canto sensitivity.
Aside from Nabucco, which has clung to popularity with audiences, Verdi’s early operas sadly have not sustained the attention that they received in conjunction with 2013’s celebrations of the Verdi bicentennial. Charges that the scores that came before the transformative triumvirate of La traviata, Rigoletto, and Il trovatore—pieces that are now frequently denigrated, as well—are musically inferior to the composer’s later masterworks are not unfounded, but there are abundant pleasures to be found in the early operas, foremost among which is a profusion of unforgettable Italianate melodies that no other composer’s efforts have surpassed.
Unlike its fellow products of Verdi’s ‘galley years,’ Ernani continues to be performed with relative regularity, including at the MET, where, in 101 performances between 1903 and 2015, the title rôle has been sung by an impressive progression of lauded tenors including Giovanni Martinelli, Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti. Proving himself to be a splendidly-qualified prospective Ernani [rôle débuts as both Ernani and Gustavo in Un ballo in maschera are planned for future seasons], Fabiano sings ‘Odi il voto’ with a bona fide Verdian line, and his reading of the cabaletta ‘Sprezzo la vita’ resounds with heroic fortitude. Here and in all of the performances on this disc, ascents above the stave are always evocations of the character’s predicament rather than demonstrations of the singer’s ego.
Jacopo Foscari, the younger half of the eponymous Byronic protagonists of Verdi’s I due Foscari, is a rôle for which Fabiano’s emotive immediacy is ideal, and he sings both ‘Notte, perpetua notte’ and ‘Non maledirmi’ with attention to detail that uncannily adheres to the requisite bel canto idiom whilst also emphasizing the ingenuity with which the young Verdi transcended conventionality. Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio, premièred at La Scala in 1839, and, though its first production was lukewarmly received, the promise apparent in the score was sufficient to prompt La Scala’s management to commission Verdi to compose two additional operas for the theater. On disc, Fabiano’s best-known rival in Riccardo’s music is Carlo Bergonzi. In these performances of ‘Ciel, che feci!’ and ‘Ciel pietoso,’ he does not yet equal Bergonzi’s finesse, but the voice, very different from Bergonzi’s, withstands comparison with the most exalted standards of Verdi singing.
Fabiano is one of the few living tenors of international renown who can boast of singing Corrado in a complete performance of Verdi’s Il corsaro [the 2014 Washington Concert Opera performance in which he portrayed Corrado is reviewed here]. He is unlikely to have plentiful opportunities to return to Corrado’s music, making the inclusion of a scene from Il corsaro on this disc all the more welcome. Fabiano voices both ‘Ah sì, ben dite’ and ‘Tutto parea sorridere’ handsomely, his burnished tones engendering an impression of maturity atypical for a singer who has only recently celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday. The cabaletta ‘Pronti siate a seguitarmi’ is a prototype for Manrico’s ‘Di quella pira’ in Il trovatore, and Fabiano sings it with the swashbuckling masculinity of an important Manrico in the making. He has captivated audiences with his portrayals of rôles including Gounod’s Faust, Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, Jean in Massenet’s Hérodiade, Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, and Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème, but his singing on this disc establishes the operas of Donizetti and Verdi as this stage animal’s musical natural habitat.
Activist, indefatigable advocate for Arts education, aviation enthusiast, avid sports fan, and debonair man about town, Michael Fabiano revives the jet-setting glamour of opera’s storied past in an era in which not even the greatest artists escape the scrutiny of naysayers armed with internet access and social media accounts. Glamour is a vital aspect of the operatic experience, perhaps more so in today’s age of high-definition cinecasts than ever before, but the most basic ingredient in an operatic feast is the same now as it was when Donizetti and Verdi were testing their musical recipes: the voice. The sounds made by Fabiano on this disc are those of a major voice that is already extraordinary but not yet in its prime. That is to say that, building upon the accomplishment of this fantastic recording, the best is yet to come for this artist who, like Donizetti and Verdi, is redefining opera.
Verified Verdian: tenor Michael Fabiano in the title rôle of San Francisco Opera’s 2016 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]