29 October 2019

BEST CONCERTO RECORDING of 2019: Antonín Dvořák & Aram Khachaturian — VIOLIN CONCERTI (Rachel Barton Pine, violin; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Teddy Abrams, conductor; Avie Records AV2411)

BEST CONCERTO RECORDING of 2019: Rachel Barton Pine plays Violin Concerti by Antonín Dvořák & Aram Khachaturian (Avie Records AV2411)ANTONÍN DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904): Violin Concerto in A minor, Opus 53 and ARAM KHACHATURIAN (1903 – 1978): Violin Concerto in D minorRachel Barton Pine, violin; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Teddy Abrams, conductor [Recorded at RSNO Centre, Glasgow, Scotland, UK, 21 – 22 August 2018; Avie Records AV2411; 1 CD, 73:11; Available from Avie Records, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Chronicles of recording Classical Music and opera brim with laments for missed opportunities and celebrations of serendipitous happenstances. Regret that Jussi Björling did not sing the rôle of Riccardo on the earlier of Sir Georg Solti’s two studio recordings of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera for Decca is mitigated by appreciation of the superb performance of the part by Carlo Bergonzi of which the set ultimately boasted. In a similar vein, there is the opera-worthy tale of American soprano Eleanor Steber, like Björling an elegant artist with an unfortunate penchant for overindulgent imbibing, arriving at a studio session at which she was scheduled to record Mozart arias, declaring that her mood was incompatible with Mozart, substituting the heroine’s aria ‘Depuis le jour’ from Gustave Charpentier’s Louise, and extemporaneously recording what many listeners continue to regard as the definitive account of the aria on disc. In the whirlwind, competitive world of Classical Music, collisions of the plethora of measurable and intangible effects of personalities and logistics are inevitable. It is rare that unforeseen circumstances yield results of the quality of Bergonzi’s Decca Riccardo and Steber’s ‘Depuis le jour,’ but occurrences such as these are rightly coveted by music lovers.

The fortuitous scheduling conflict that engendered this noteworthy Avie Records recording of Violin Concerti by Antonín Dvořák and Aram Khachaturian provides another compelling reason for gratitude to whichever cosmic forces govern such phenomena. Initially scheduled to record other works with a different conductor, violinist Rachel Barton Pine seized the opportunity presented by an eleventh-hour problem with the intended conductor’s availability to revisit music with which she has been acquainted since the dawn of her career. In her scholarly but engagingly personal essay accompanying this release, Barton Pine reminisces about learning the Dvořák and Khachaturian Concerti at the age of fifteen.

It is not difficult to imagine Mozart or Mendelssohn undertaking the study of such demanding music in adolescence, but this degree of conscientiousness is at odds with perceptions of modern youth. Barton Pine defies many of today’s trends in approaching a career as a violin soloist, however, honoring the legacies of violinists like Nathan Milstein and Arthur Grumiaux by allying comprehensive knowledge of the most popular concerti with explorations of a vast array of chamber music, lesser-known concert works, and new pieces. With an artist of Barton Pine’s adventurousness, the near-spontaneous decision to record the Dvořák and Khachaturian Concerti is perhaps a critical component of the immediacy of her playing of this music.

Recorded in a natural, resonant acoustic in which not even the violin’s highest tones are distorted, the 1742 Guarneri ‘del Gesù’ violin, Dominique Pecatte bow, and Thomastik-Infeld Vision Titanium Solo strings employed by Barton Pine are conduits for uncommon, often revelatory interpretive acuity. [Recently hearing her performance of music by Johann Sebastian Bach at the National Gallery of Art, where the program included a majestic but mesmerizingly intimate traversal of the fourth of Bach’s Partitas for solo violin alongside Sonatas partnering her with harpsichordist Jory Vinikour, confirmed that the violinist’s artistic perspicacity is limited by neither repertoire nor the instrument at her disposal, the Bach pieces having been played on a Nicolò Gagliano violin dating from 1770.] The expressivity of her playing is accentuated by the sympathetic conducting of Teddy Abrams, who receives from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra playing characterized by undeviating technical mastery, rhythmic precision, and well-blended ensemble.

His 2014 appointment as Music Director of The Louisville Orchestra making him America’s youngest principal conductor of a prominent symphonic ensemble, Abrams conducts these works by Dvořák and Khachaturian with convention-flouting pragmatism that complements Barton Pine’s genre-bending aesthetic. The latent Romanticism of Dvořák’s music and the idiosyncratic accents of Khachaturian’s artistic language are omnipresent in the orchestra’s playing, but these are not performances in which choices of tempo, dynamic contrasts, and subtleties of phrasing unimaginatively adhere to traditions.

Abrams’s decisions are commendably faithful to the composers’ scores, indicating an atypical trust in the music’s capacity to advance the best answers to interpretive questions. The rapport among conductor, soloist, and orchestra audible in their recorded efforts is evidence of a shared dedication neither to recreating established interpretations of these pieces nor to consciously creating new ones but to rediscovering the authentic, sometimes ignored or marginalized voices of the composers. It is regrettable that there is novelty in fidelity to the composers’ instructions in this repertoire, but these performances assert how strikingly original faithful service to the music can sound.

Composed in 1879, following an encounter with the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim, who never performed the piece, and premièred in Prague in 1883 by František Ondřiček, a successful composer in his own right, Dvořák’s Opus 53 Violin Concerto had by the turn of the Twentieth Century claimed a permanent, prominent place in the violin concerto repertoire. Though the writing for the soloist recalls aspects of Brahms’s and Tchaikovsky’s violin concerti, both of which were completed in 1878, the music for the orchestra in the opening Allegro ma non troppo movement of the Dvořák Concerto discloses a stylistic pedigree with close ties to Beethoven’s Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Symphonies. Virtuosity is demanded of and here achieved by the orchestra, not least in the movement’s most rhapsodic passages, but it is the deceptively extemporaneous character of Barton Pine’s playing that lifts the music off of the page. In her performances of both of the Concerti on this disc, the violinist’s execution of double stops is superb, her intonation accurate and the paired notes impeccably balanced.

Emerging without pause from an unexpected modification of the first movement’s thematic recapitulation, the central Adagio ma non troppo movement of the Dvořák Concerto evokes the rustic elegance of the Czech folk music that the composer so loved and endeavored to preserve. Her judicious use of vibrato fostering tonal production that emphasizes the warmth of the music and that of the timbre of the Guarneri ‘del Gesú’ violin, Barton Pine draws from the instrument sounds that impart Dvořák’s great affection for the humor and humility of the Czech people. A hallmark of the soloist’s part in the Concerto’s Allegro gracioso ma non troppo finale is the use of repetitive figurations that anticipate the prominence of ostinati in Twentieth-Century music. In Dvořák’s handling, this device functions much like a ground bass in Baroque music, providing the movement’s bustling momentum. Abrams and the RSNO respond to the vigor of Barton Pine’s playing with their own verve. This is an exuberant reading of the Concerto, but the bleaker moods that lurk within the music are not neglected. Above all, this is a superlatively-played performance that illuminates the composer’s ingenuity rather than the performers’ egos.

The Armenian-born Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto was a product of an idyllic sylvan retreat during which the composer’s creative impulses were fueled by the inspiration of nature. Written for and premièred in 1940 by famed violinist David Oistrakh, whose cadenza in the first movement Barton Pine plays—dazzlingly—in this performance [Khachaturian preferred it to his own cadenza, as well], the Concerto was honored in its own time but tainted in short-sighted Twenty-First-Century assessments by being awarded a Stalin Prize by the Soviet Union. Like Dvořák, Khachaturian was inevitably affected by the politics of his time, but he, too, felt profound love for the folk music of his homeland. The innovative rhythms and pungent harmonies that distinguish Khachaturian’s works from those of his contemporaries are integral components of his Violin Concerto, but, perhaps because of the tranquil surroundings of its genesis, this music also possesses episodes of spellbinding emotional sincerity.

In her introductory notes, Barton Pine relates that her fondness for the Khachaturian Concerto began with her recognition of the kinship between Khachaturian’s assertive style and the heavy metal music that she enjoys. Had Steppenwolf or Iron Maiden commissioned a concerto for metal band, they might have turned to Khachaturian, and the Allegro con fermezza movement of his Violin Concerto could have been adapted to accommodate guitar riffs and cacophonous percussion. Barton Pine imposes nothing upon the music, her playing revealing only what she finds in the score, but it is unlikely that any other violinist’s performance of the movement has ‘rocked’ as exhilaratingly as hers. This is overtly elaborate music, tailored to Oistrakh’s abilities, but the playing of Barton Pine and her colleagues is never ostentatious.

Listeners whose familiarity with Khachaturian’s music is limited to frequently-heard pieces like excerpts from his 1942 ballet score Gayane may be surprised by the sentimentality of the Violin Concerto’s Andante sostenuto movement. Abrams’s cogent pacing and the orchestra’s thoughtful playing heighten the impact of Barton Pine’s unpretentious lyricism. This violinist understands that saccharine over-emoting is contrary to the spirit and structure of Khachaturian’s music and phrases accordingly. Building upon this welcome restraint, she holds nothing back in her performance of the Concerto’s Allegro vivace conclusion. Undertaking a performance or recording of this music without certainty of one’s capacity to play it properly is unimaginable, but the exceptional caliber of Barton Pine’s technique is no less astounding for being expected. Fantastic merely as a performance of a fascinating piece, her traversal of the Khachaturian Concerto is invaluable as a delivery of the score from the confines of stodgy concepts of how and by whom ‘serious music’ should be composed, performed, and enjoyed.

For all of its much-promoted claims of increased diversity and accessibility, Classical Music is more exclusive now than ever before in its storied history. There are more performances of more works in more places, and the careers of composers and musicians are no longer sustained by aristocratic patronage. There is hunger for the comfort and unity that music can foster, but there are self-proclaimed guardians of the temple of art who would rather starve those who seek fulfillment rather than relinquish their fiercely-defended grip on standards that in some instances are no longer tenable.

Like Benny Goodman, Rachel Barton Pine is an artist for whom distinctions of musical genres are not insurmountable boundaries but points of departure for journeys that connect people in spite of the differences that divide them. The performances of Violin Concerti by Antonín Dvořák and Aram Khachaturian on this disc are invitations to listeners, whether they are most comfortable in concert halls or mosh pits, to experience music on their own terms. By any standard, Barton Pine here enriches the discography with perceptive, pulse-quickening performances of two of the great concerti for her instrument. Moreover, these are performances that dispel the myths that greatness expired with artists of the past and that the recognition of greatness among today’s artists somehow lessens that of their forebears.

27 October 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Johann Strauss II — DIE FLEDERMAUS (T. Beliy, C. Griffin, S. Toso, M. Friedrich, B. Lail, S. Caplin, L. Sparks, M. Xie, G. Chambers, R. A. Garcia, R. Wells; UNCG Opera Theatre, 24 October 2019)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano CLAIRE GRIFFIN as Adele, mezzo-soprano BAILEY LAIL as Prinz Orlovsky, soprano MUJUN XIE as Ida, and bass RAFAEL ALEJANDRO GARCIA as Ivan in UNCG Opera Theatre's production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamary Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]JOHANN STRAUSS II (1825 – 1899): Die Fledermaus [sung in English translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin] — Tamara Beliy (Rosalinde), Claire Griffin (Adele), Sean Toso (Alfred), Michael Friedrich (Gabriel von Eisenstein), Bailey Lail (Prinz Orlovsky), Sophie Caplin (Doktor Blind), Lorenze Sparks (Doktor Falke), Mujun Xie (Ida), Guy Chambers (Frank), Rafael Alejandro Garcia (Ivan), Robert Wells (Frosch); UNCG Opera Theatre Fledermaus Ensemble and Orchestra; David Holley, conductor, stage director, and producer [Pingyi Song, chorus master; UNCG Opera Theatre, UNCG Auditorium, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 24 October 2019]

Some clichés get it right. Music is indeed a universal language, and, in the treatment of music-receptive ailments, laughter is a highly-effective medicine. This is no less true in America in 2019 than it was in Europe in the 1870s, when the continent was already experiencing the conflicts between nationalism and imperialism that would eventually erupt into the First World War. Encompassing the native lands of diverse peoples in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire was the epicenter of ethnic clashes: it was Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, that precipitated the start of the Great War. It was into this volatile environment that Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus first spread its wings, only seven years after the adoption of the new constitution that hastened the end of the House of Habsburg’s power.

First performed on 5 April 1874, in Vienna’s famed Theater an der Wien, where not only several of Strauss’s operettas but also Beethoven’s Leonore—the earliest incarnation of Fidelio—and Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe received their premières, Die Fledermaus was immediately acclaimed by audiences as a masterpiece of the Viennese operetta genre. By the time that Die Fledermaus reached the stage, the forty-eight-year-old Strauss had been celebrated as a composer for three decades. Continuing his short-lived father’s espousal of the waltz, Strauss had by 1874 come to represent the musical life of Vienna, both in Austria-Hungary and throughout the world. All of Europe danced to his polkas and waltzes, but the success of Die Fledermaus contributed markedly to Strauss’s global fame. Within months of its première, Die Fledermaus had been heard in a host of European cities and had even crossed the Atlantic, receiving its first performance in the United States in New York City on 21 November 1874.

With an uproarious plot drawn from Das Gefängnis, an 1851 comedy by the little-remembered playwright Julius Roderich Benedix that also inspired a once-popular comédie en vaudeville by Jacques Offenbach’s frequent librettists Ludovic Halévy and Henri Meilhac, Die Fledermaus is a riotous romp through timeless themes, all of which ultimately involve affairs of the heart. With marital infidelity, mistaken identities, prison sentences, and grand theft timepiece transpiring in champagne-soaked three-quarter time, what could possibly go wrong? Showcasing the tremendous wealth of talent in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Die Fledermaus confirmed that, in musical comedy, anything that can go wrong must go wrong—and when things go wrong as brilliantly as in this performance, how right it is!

IN REVIEW: baritone ROBERT WELLS as Frosch in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]Falling down on the job: baritone Robert Wells as Frosch in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

With UNCG’s Director of Opera David Holley at the helm, this production of Die Fledermaus was destined to be a show of which cast, crew, university, and community could be proud. Both in his rôle at UNCG and as Artistic Director of Greensboro Opera, Holley brings steadfast integrity to his work, but his staging of Die Fledermaus revealed anew that a vital component of his artistry is not taking himself too seriously. Supervising an entrancingly simple staging in which the action took place in front of the closed curtain, Holley genuinely participated in the performance, not merely as a conductor on the podium but also as an actor with perfect comedic timing. The production’s small scale lent this Fledermaus an intimacy that the score possesses but many stagings lack. Big budgets can buy lavish sets, extravagant costumes, and aggressively-promoted singers, but these expenditures do not guarantee success. The enthusiasm that Holley instilled in this Fledermaus, epitomized by unwavering musicality and clever humor, cannot be bought.

Under Holley’s baton, the excellent orchestra—pianists Anja Arko (Ouvertüre and Act One) and Xiaoxiong Chen (Acts Two and Three), flautist Janet Phillips, oboist Thomas Turanchik, clarinetist Darkson Magrinelli, double bassist Rebecca Marland, and percussionist Erik Schmidt—interacted with the drama rather than merely accompanying it. Fledermaus is a richly-orchestrated score, but not even in the famous Ouvertüre did the playing of UNCG Opera Theatre’s small instrumental ensemble disappoint. In fact, their numbers were perfectly matched with the dimensions of the production, transporting the audience to a chic Viennese café. A few suspect pitches and missed entrances notwithstanding, the musicians’ work was an integral part of the evening’s fun. Similarly, the choristers, drilled by the aptly-named Pingyi Song, sang with gusto—and with English diction that could be understood! Holley’s leadership ensured that every musical detail of the performance was as clear as the chiming of Einsenstein’s troublesome watch.

IN REVIEW: baritone GUY CHAMBERS as Frank in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]Warbling warden: baritone Guy Chambers as Frank in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

The rôle of Ivan, Prinz Orlovsky’s majordomo, is barely noticed in many productions, but he heightened the hilarity of Act Two in this Fledermaus in a wonderfully droll performance by bass Rafael Alejandro Garcia. Catering to the whims of the Prinz’s snobbish guests clearly inconvenienced this servant, a fact that Garcia communicated with rolled eyes and stony expressions of contempt and annoyance. It is a pity that a solo number was not invented for him, perhaps using music from another Strauss score and a purpose-written text: like Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, what stories he might tell! The master not to be outdone by a student, eminent baritone and UNCG faculty member Robert Wells’s much-lauded experience in the Gilbert and Sullivan Savoy operas was apparent in his scene-stealing turn as the chronically-inebriated jailer Frosch. This bumbling keeper of the keys was unquestionably an ancestor of Barney Fife: thankfully, his boss did not trust him with a pistol and a bullet. With an offstage assist from Alfred, Wells’s Frosch pantomimed Nemorino’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore better than some tenors sing it.

IN REVIEW: baritone GUY CHAMBERS as Frank (left) and tenor SEAN TOSO as Alfred (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]Partners in wine: baritone Guy Chambers as Frank (left) and tenor Sean Toso as Alfred (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

Looking stunning in a sapphire-hued gown, Beijing-born soprano Mujun Xie sparkled, musically and dramatically, as Adele’s worldly sister Ida. Though she occasionally seemed uncomfortable with the English dialogue, her comfort with the music was conspicuous. Likewise, soprano Sophie Caplin coped handily with an awkward assignment. There is an established tradition of casting a tenor rather than a mezzo-soprano—or, in recent years, a countertenor—as Orlovsky, but it is far rarer to encounter a female singer as Eisenstein’s blissfully inept solicitor, Doktor Blind. Caplin made the most of Blind’s patter in the Act One trio with Rosalinde and Eistenstein, and she displayed expert comic acting in the put-upon attorney’s appearance in Act Three.

In his guises as the prison warden and his party-going alter ego Chevalier Chagrin, Frank received from baritone Guy Chambers a vibrant, vividly-sung characterization. Launching the trio in the Act One finale, when Frank arrives to convey Eisenstein to prison but, unbeknownst to himself and the absent Eisenstein, finds Rosalinde in the company of her would-be paramour, Chambers sang attractively. Fantastic as the not-quite-French Chevalier Chagrin in Act Two, the baritone managed to avoid being upstaged in Act Three, first with a bit of boisterous stage business involving the predictably incendiary results of falling asleep with a lit cigar and a newspaper and then with a touching suggestion of humility when his real identity as the plebeian warden was revealed to Adele and Ida. Chambers’s vivacious personality and his lovely, evenly-produced voice made Frank’s every moment on stage a delight.

IN REVIEW: baritone LORENZE SPARKS as Doktor Falke (left) and mezzo-soprano BAILEY LAIL as Prinz Orlovsky (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]The prince and the prankster: baritone Lorenze Sparks as Doktor Falke (left) and mezzo-soprano Bailey Lail as Prinz Orlovsky (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

The aristocratic boost to her emergence as an actress that Adele sought from the fraudulent Chevalier was ultimately pledged with self-congratulatory magnanimity by the glamorously androgynous Prinz Orlovsky of mezzo-soprano Bailey Lail. Act Two is Orlovsky’s realm, and Lail crowned her portrayal of the petulant, avowedly hedonistic nobleman with a rousing account of the couplets in which the Priz articulates his anything-goes credo, ‘Chacun à son goût.’ Strauss’s writing for Orlovsky is often unwieldy, especially for modern singers with higher centers of vocal gravity than their Nineteenth-Century counterparts likely had, necessitating difficult changes of register. [The voice of the first Orlovsky, Irma Nittinger, was sufficiently unique that, when she fell ill, scheduled performances of Die Fledermaus at the Theater an der Wien in late Spring 1874 were postponed until she recovered in the autumn.] Lail navigated the rôle’s challenges with aplomb and verbal acuity, though the mandated Russian accent, here sounding as though the Prinz arrived in Vienna via Warsaw, distracted more than it entertained. To distort a conceit often repeated by this production’s Prinz, hearing one Orlovsky in no way equates with having heard all interpreters of the part, but Lail was an Orlovsky whose performance was a joy to hear.

Euphoniously opening Act One with a serenade of melting lyricism, tenor Sean Toso deployed an arsenal of hysterical Italian tenor mannerisms in his portrayal of Rosalinde’s ‘special friend’ Alfred, an obvious randy relation of the great Enrico Caruso. Eisenstein’s well-timed departure facilitating an impromptu assignation with his beloved, this Alfred eagerly began his pursuit of his amorous quarry. In the Act One finale, Toso voiced the Trinklied with the zeal of a man used to playing the lover on and off the stage. In addition to the sputtering ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ commandeered by Frosch, Toso’s Alfred enlivened his time in prison with a few bars from the Duca di Mantova’s ‘La donna è mobile,’ the Brindisi from La traviata, and Radamès’s ‘Celeste Aida,’ and seizing Rosalinde’s hand after her arrival at the jail offered an irresistible chance to sing the first phrase of Rodolfo’s ‘Che gelida manina.’ Toso sang all of these excerpts appealingly, but it was in his singing in the trio with Rosalinde and Eisenstein, the latter posing as Blind in an attempt to elicit a confession of wrongdoing from his wife and her lover, that the tenor’s affinity for musical comedy was most evident. The fervor of his Alfred’s wooing of Rosalinde and his impressive sampling of music from other scores whetted the appetite for hearing Toso in Romantic—and romantic—rôles.

IN REVIEW: soprano CLAIRE GRIFFIN as Adele in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]No time for tidying: soprano Claire Griffin as Adele in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

Should anyone hear her cheerful banter and beguilingly ebullient music and think that the rôle of Rosalinde’s stagestruck maid Adele is an easy sing, considering the fact that the first note of the part is a top B should initiate a return to reality. Nevertheless, soprano Claire Griffin electrified UNCG Opera Theatre’s Fledermaus with an Adele so captivating that singing her demanding music seemed to be as natural as breathing. From her first entrance, reading the letter purportedly containing her sister’s exhortation to use the excuse of a sick aunt to procure an evening off in order to attend Orlovsky’s ball, this Adele had a solution for every problem. In the scene with Rosalinde and the subsequent trio with the chambermaid’s mistress and master, Griffin sang splendidly and animated the rôle with uninhibited antics that included exasperatedly perching herself on clarinetist Magrinelli’s knee whilst Rosalinde and Eisenstein exaggerated their sorrow at facing an eight-day separation. Adele’s couplets in the finale were dispatched with comedic flair worthy of Lucille Ball.

Orlovsky may be the most lascivious host in Vienna, but Griffin’s Adele was irrefutably the belle of the ball in Act Two. Initially the proverbial fish out of water, she quickly perceived that, whether their ranks and titles were real or fictitious, the people around her were inherently fake. Adele’s laughing song is one of the score’s best-loved numbers and on this evening fully earned that distinction. In Griffin’s performance, Adele’s couplets in Act Three were nothing short of a tour de force. Appropriating Holley’s baton, she literally became the director of her own show. Frank and Orlovsky were convinced of the viability of her theatrical abilities, and who could doubt the discernment of a warden and a prince? That Griffin accomplished such a dynamic characterization without even marginally sacrificing musical values exclaimed that she was born for a life upon the wicked stage—the operatic stage, that is.

IN REVIEW: tenor MICHAEL FRIEDRICH as Gabriel von Eisenstein (left) and baritone LORENZE SPARKS as Doktor Falke (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]Boys will be boys: tenor Michael Friedrich as Gabriel von Eisenstein (left) and baritone Lorenze Sparks as Doktor Falke (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

Settling a score with Eisenstein, who abandoned him in the wee hours after a masquerade ball and left him in a public place to be discovered in a bat costume, it is Doktor Falke who organizes the events that propel the plot of Die Fledermaus, but the voices to which the part is entrusted sometimes fail to embody Falke’s importance in the operetta. This is a shortcoming of which UNCG Opera Theatre’s production cannot be accused, Falke having been brilliantly sung and acted in Greensboro by Lorenze Sparks. Falke is a rôle in which one of the foremost masters of Viennese operetta, Austrian bass-baritone Erich Kunz, was greatly acclaimed [he also recorded both Frank and Frosch], and the fact that Sparks’s performance often brought the wit of Kunz’s Falke to mind is indicative of the caliber of the young singer’s efforts.

His range hugging the divide between baritone and tenor, Sparks exhibited vocal assurance throughout the compass of Falke’s music, making his Act One duet with Eisenstein as effective musically as it was comedically. Sparks’s Falke was literally and figuratively the life of the party in Act Two, conspiring with Prinz Orlovsky to bring off his plans in memorable fashion and initiating the ‘Brüderlein und Schwesterlein’ canon with burnished vocalism. Claiming victory in the final act, this Falke rejoiced without overwrought gloating. Vocally and histrionically, Sparks’s performance wielded the complexities of an Austrian Sachertorte: decadent, layered, and filled with a concoction of contrasting sweetness and tartness, it was unforgettably delectable.

IN REVIEW: soprano TAMARA BELIY as Rosalinde (left) and baritone MICHAEL FRIEDRICH as Gabriel von Eisenstein (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]Keeping watch: soprano Tamara Beliy as Rosalinde (left) and baritone Michael Friedrich as Gabriel von Eisenstein (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

Despite an extensive history of the music being sung honorably on stage and in recording studios by baritones, Strauss intended the rôle of Gabriel von Eisenstein, the butt of Doktor Falke’s retributory jest, for a tenor. In many instances, a tenor voice blends more pleasingly with his colleagues in ensembles, and a higher, brighter voice can give the errant husband a more youthful demeanor. Michael Friedrich’s performance in this Fledermaus was an example of a tenor Eisenstein who validated the composer’s choice of vocal range. Devilishly handsome, debonair, and as lithe as a Monty Python trouper, Friedrich’s impersonation of Eisenstein combined the slapstick shenanigans of the young Charlie Chaplin with the vocal elegance of Heddle Nash. Bemoaning the ineptitude of his counselor of record with the temper of a man sentenced to the gallows, he simultaneously sweet-talked Rosalinde and abused Doktor Blind in their Act One trio.

Prospects of champagne baths and frolicking ballerinas galvanized Friedrich’s singing in the duet with Falke, and he could not take his leave of his distracted wife and her meddling maid quickly enough. Like Chambers’s Chevalier Chagrin, Friedrich’s Marquis Renard was a ripping parody of a pretentious grand seigneur. Ensnared by his wife’s cunning, this Eisenstein reacted to the loss of his lady-baiting watch with comical tantrums and pouting. Reporting to serve his jail sentence only to find his cell occupied by a substitute Eisenstein, he was quick to recognize Alfred as a rival and to hypocritically denounce Rosalinde’s inconstancy. Mirroring Falke’s good-natured enjoyment of his revenge, Eisenstein accepted defeat and admitted his own culpability without bitterness. Never pushed beyond its natural lyricism, Friedrich’s voice was as seductive as his smile.

IN REVIEW: soprano TAMARA BELIY as Rosalinde in UNCG Opera Theatre's October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II's DIE FLEDERMAUS [Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]Lady of the house: soprano Tamara Beliy as Rosalinde in UNCG Opera Theatre’s October 2019 production of Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus
[Photograph © by Amber-Rose Romero, Tamara Beliy, & UNCG Opera Theatre]

An imaginatively capricious Meg Page in UNCG Opera Theatre’s ambitious April 2019 production of Verdi’s Falstaff [reviewed here], soprano Tamara Beliy sang Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus with the same intelligence, forthrightness, and musical resourcefulness that characterized her portrayal of the merry wife of Windsor. In the scene with Adele in Act One, Beliy’s Rosalinde was the personification of domestic malaise, so lost in her own thoughts that Adele’s pleading for an evening’s holiday went unheard. The top Bs in the trio with Eisenstein and Doktor Blind rang out imposingly. Here and in the trio with Adele and Eisenstein, there was no confusion about whose will was dominant, chez von Eisenstein. Beautiful of visage, figure, and, most importantly, voice, Beliy gave Rosalinde an aura of cinematic enchantment.

Shocked to meet her husband at Orlovsky’s ball when he is supposed to be serving his jail sentence, this Rosalinde’s composure was only momentarily upset, but Beliy’s vocal control was never compromised. Toying with Eisenstein as she contrived to secure evidence of his duplicity by depriving him of his watch, Rosalinde’s trills and top Bs were sung with the supremacy of a woman who knows that she has the upper hand. Beliy voiced the familiar Csárdás, in which Holley proved to be the rare conductor who did not reduce his Rosalinde to gasping and panicking with an impossibly quick tempo for the Frischka, with panache and persuasively-feigned patriotism, and her top D at the piece’s conclusion was considerably more substantial than the shrieks typically heard. The explosions of indignation in the Act Three trio with Alfred and Eisenstein were handled without resorting to vocal harshness. In some singers’ performances, Rosalinde’s better qualities are hidden behind a minxish façade, but Beliy’s Rosalinde was as sympathetic in anger as in jubilation. In this young soprano’s graceful, expressive singing, Rosalinde’s benevolent spirit was always discernible.

That Die Fledermaus was one of the first scores to be taken into a studio in the early years of sound recording reflects the special affection that audiences have long had for the piece. That 1907 recording omitted the Ouvertüre and much of the dialogue and imposed cuts on the vocal numbers, but these and its technological limitations do not lessen its value as a glimpse into the performance history of a cherished work then only thirty-three years past its world première. With decidedly modern theatrical sensibilities that suited the staging’s ethos, UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Die Fledermaus wrote its own chapter in the operetta’s history, replacing decades’ worth of accumulated artifice with earnest exuberance. Amidst the disconcerting events of the Twenty-First Century, laughter of the operatic variety is truly one of the best medicines.


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The second performance of UNCG Opera Theatre’s production of Die Fledermaus featured Lilla Keith as Rosalinde, Amber-Rose Romero as Adele, Angela Farlow-Rumball as Doktor Blind, Jenna Fife as Ida, Abigail Coy as Prinz Orlovsky, and Forrest Bunter as Frank. Other rôles were performed by the artists who appeared in the 24 October performance. Regrettably, I was unable to attend Saturday’s performance.

23 October 2019

October 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Gregory Spears — PAUL’S CASE (J. Blalock, K. Phares, M. Wimbish, E. Sanzero, A. Crider, M. Slattery, J. Shaffran; National Sawdust Tracks NS-027)

October 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: Gregory Spears - PAUL'S CASE (National Sawdust Tracks)GREGORY SPEARS (born 1977): Paul’s CaseJonathan Blalock (Paul), Keith Phares (Father), Melissa Wimbish (History Teacher, Opera Singer 1, Maid 1), Erin Sanzero (Drawing Teacher, Opera Singer 2, Maid 2), Amanda Crider (English Teacher, Maid 3), Michael Slattery (Yale Boy), James Shaffran (Principal, Bellboy); American Modern Ensemble; Robert Wood, conductor [Recorded in Performing Arts Center Recital Hall, Purchase College, State University of New York, Purchase, New York, USA, 6 – 8 August 2018; National Sawdust Tracks NS-027; 2 CDs, 82:10; Available from National Sawdust Tracks]

When eminent novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of life on the Nebraska prairie Willa Cather died on 24 April 1947, the America of which she wrote in the iconic works O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia was a nation at a crossroads. The optimism of the new century and the Roaring Twenties obliterated by two cataclysmic World Wars and the Great Depression, America in 1947 was a nation in search of renewed identity and purpose, the wounds of past generations still aching beneath new layers of discord and discrimination. Even before the wrath of war and economic collapse upended Cather’s worldview, there were glimpses of darker horizons in her work, their ominous, disquieting hues likely drawn from the recesses of her own temperament. Cather portrayed America as a confederation of microcosms in which the actions of individuals are manifestations of the nation’s spirit.

First published in McClure’s Magazine and subsequently included in the collection entitled The Troll Garden, Cather’s 1905 short story ‘Paul’s Case’ is to a certain extent a thematic anomaly in her output. Examining the tragic consequences of an imaginative young man’s disenfranchisement with the social and fiscal restraints imposed by the reality of his mundane life, the story inhabits a philosophical world that is very different from the Great Plains pragmatism of the works upon which her reputation is based. From a literary perspective, this deviation from the subject matter with which she was most familiar makes ‘Paul’s Case’ one of Cather’s most significant works.

In this story, the suspicion of the industrialization and urbanization of America typical of her work is turned on its head: rather than a rural outsider gazing into the strange world of the emerging bourgeoisie of manufacturing centers, Paul is a denizen of that world who seeks fulfillment beyond the perceived shortcomings of his own environment. The story’s title suggests a deliberate ambiguity that permeates the story. Scientist and specimen, Paul’s social experiments perhaps reveal more about his own psyche than about the community he spurns. Much of Cather’s writing possesses overtly operatic qualities, but Paul is no conventional operatic protagonist. Morally, socially, and sexually ambivalent, Paul is, as Cather subtitled his ‘case,’ ‘a study in temperament.’

Four years before the triumphant world première of Fellow Travelers, his operatic rumination on same-sex relationships in the hostile milieu of Joseph McCarthy’s America, his quest for inspiring texts led American composer Gregory Spears to ‘Paul’s Case.’ Collaborating with eminent writer Kathryn Walat, author of the critically-acclaimed plays Creation and Bleeding Kansas, he transformed the story’s narrative into a work for the stage in which the nuances of Cather’s subtexts are allied with skillfully-managed motivic writing. Shaped by the rhythms of the words, Spears’s musical language creates an aural atmosphere that, like an anthem that to some hearers celebrates freedom but to other ears symbolizes oppression, is at once both claustrophobic and liberating. There are passages in the score that are reminiscent of the melodic expressivity of Finzi, the stylistic sophistication of Britten, and the harmonic complexity of Tippett, but it is Spears’s singular, unmistakable idiom that creates the piece’s hypnotic sound world. Allied with Walat’s masterful wordsmithing, Spears gives the complicated, in some ways repulsive youth of Cather’s story his own irrepressibly alluring voice.

The advocacy of noted champion of contemporary music Robert Wood contributed indelibly to the success of the 2013 première of Paul’s Case by UrbanArias at Artisphere in Arlington, Virginia, and his acquaintance with the score continues to yield tremendous energy and eloquence in this recorded performance. Like vocal works by Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, Paul’s Case needs a conductor capable of facilitating an equilibrium between rhythmic precision and emotive flexibility. The music must be allowed to breathe, simmer, and evolve, but singers’ collective ability to execute their parts with the requisite musical accuracy relies upon a clear, consistent beat. Wood, who also produced the recording, conducts this performance of Paul’s Case with the authority of an artistic steward who has known the score since the ink was still wet. Under his direction, the orchestral forces of American Modern Ensemble rise to the score’s every challenge, playing each note with comprehension of its individual rôle in the opera’s cumulative narrative. The musical foundation of Paul’s Case is a series of understated emotional responses that illustrate the isolation at the opera’s core, intensifying like static electricity until the energy is discharged in climaxes that stun both the characters and the listener. Wood and the American Modern Ensemble musicians handle the opera’s invigorating currents with extraordinary skill and perceptiveness.

It may seem foolish to state that the vocal writing in Paul’s Case is uncommonly singable, but there are far too many instances in which glancing at a few bars of a modern composer’s score reveals ignorance of the science of singing. The voice is a mechanism, but neither a voice nor the singer who operates it is a machine. Physics and physiology govern the production and projection of sound, but the psyche is responsible for giving sounds emotional depth. In this performance of Paul’s Case, tenor Michael Slattery brings an ideal sound to the rôle of the San Francisco-born Yale student who travels to New York City in search of diversion. Spears’s intuitive writing for the part creates a coddled, pied-piper persona that is alternately loathsome and irresistible, and Slattery sings appealingly, every syllable of the text clearly enunciated with the whiff of arrogance expected of an Ivy League man. He perfectly portrays the type of spoiled university student more likely to be found at a fraternity party than in a lecture hall; the type destined to hide his debauched urges and assume his societally-appointed places in a corner office, a smart house in the right part of town, and a seat on a front pew in a smugly respectable church.

As the Principal of the school at which Paul struggles, caught between the miseries of peers who do not understand or accept him and teachers who, prejudiced by their own experiences, perhaps understand him too well, baritone James Shaffran personifies the proverbial bureaucratic despot, mundane and inexplicably menacing. Vocally, the part recalls the low-voiced denizens of mythological realms of death and despondency in Seventeenth-Century Italian opera: Shaffran’s Principal articulates Paul’s offenses with the same bemused repugnance with which the Demonio goads the godly hero of Stefano Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio. With his statement of ‘I’m somewhat sympathetic,’ the Principal succinctly asserts the establishment’s noncommittal credo. Duty demands an attempt at compassion, but conventionality prevents any true connection. Shaffran’s vocalism is reliably steady and sonorous, his well-honed technique enabling him to descend to the part’s lowest notes without faking or forcing. Verbally, as the Principal and the hotel bellboy, the baritone’s diction exhibits a clinical coldness that echoes the characters’ disdain and disinterest.

It is not only assigning multiple rôles to several of the singers that makes Paul’s Case an ensemble piece. The various identities assumed by the three female singers are direct descendants of Dante’s Erinyes and the Drei Damen of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Portraying Paul’s teachers, opera singers, and maids at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where Paul indulges in temporary luxury after fleeing Pittsburgh with the proceeds of his theft, sopranos Erin Sanzero and Melissa Wimbish and mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider sing incisively and, despite the apathy of many of the words that they utter, with palpable involvement in the drama. Sanzero’s performance imparts an unmistakable sense of ennui, the ladies she voices having become indifferent to the social order that mutes their identities. Wimbish wields sensational security in voicing music akin to Jonathan Dove’s writing for the Controller in Flight and the stratospheric lines for Ariel in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. Crider is vocally and dramatically effective in each of the parts she plays, but her singing of the English teacher’s ‘Years ago I walked down the aisle with a wayward boy,’ distinguished by the simplicity of absolute sincerity, is truly touching.

Whilst rehearsing for the still-controversial 1946 NBC broadcast performance of Verdi’s La traviata, Arturo Toscanini, who had first conducted the score six decades earlier, counseled the young Robert Merrill on the integral rôle played by fatherhood in an effective depiction of the impetuous Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont. The eminent conductor’s meaning was of course more figurative than literal, but baritone Keith Phares’s performance as Paul’s father in this account of Paul’s Case rekindles the spirit of Toscanini’s observation. His father is the symbolic figurehead of the forces that oppress Paul, but Phares portrays him not as an archetype but as an ordinary man. The strain of attempting to parent an intractable son unnerves Paul’s father, a stereotypical American man of his time for whom nonconformity is not just inconvenient but genuinely dangerous, but Phares discloses the tenderness that prompts the father’s terse treatment of his son. Society alleges that a failed child is also a parent’s failure, and the parent in this performance is acutely cognizant of his own inability to bond with his son. Phares’s vocalism is unfailingly handsome and sagaciously shaded to suit every mood of the text.

Like Monteverdi’s Nerone, Wagner’s Parsifal, Puccini’s Giorgetta, and virtually all of Britten’s operatic protagonists, the title character in Paul’s Case is troubled by a pervasive sense of discomfort with the society in which circumstance places him. He is a dreamer with a hunger for decadence that his blue-collar existence cannot feed. Spears’s and Walat’s characterization of Paul is Freudian in scope, but the music via which the spirited young man makes his ‘case’ necessitates no marvels of penetrating psychological analysis. As sung by tenor Jonathan Blalock, Paul’s music enables the listener to feel the boy’s loneliness, the pain of rejection, and the disappointment and desperation that saturate his flippant words. There is in Paul’s exaggerated politeness a self-delusion that is not unlike Cio-Cio-San’s impassioned insistence that Pinkerton will return to her in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Blalock’s sweet-toned but iron-willed singing intimates that Paul’s pretentious chivalry is an act of self-preservation.

Often facing dauntingly high tessitura, the tenor voices Paul’s preternaturally poised music with astounding assurance, glorying in the bel canto essence of Spears’s writing. The interaction between Paul and the Yale student is no typical operatic love duet, but, as Paul’s sole grasp at carnal pleasure, albeit superficial, Blalock approaches the music with an awestruck lover’s ardor. Like the denouement of a Greek tragedy, Paul’s suicide is inevitable. In nature, a thing that cannot survive in its environment is cast out, and Paul’s taste of life, however fleeting, makes returning to a living death impossible. The serene beauty of his singing in the opera’s final minutes is the pinnacle of Blalock’s performance. There are agony and despair in the voice, but the prevailing feeling is one of fulfillment. Death is a culmination, and his gruesome means of achieving it is a neglected boy’s quest for notoriety. Spears and Walat gave Paul a voice: Blalock gives Paul’s voice expressive profundity as moving as that of any character in opera.

In the tradition of Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and all successful critics of societal injustice and hypocrisy, Willa Cather humanized the communities about which she wrote by populating them with characters who earn readers’ affection and empathy. In ‘Paul’s Case,’ Cather asked readers to embrace an irascible, ill-adjusted boy trapped in his own fantasies. In a sense, opera is a fantastical escape from reality, and Cather’s Paul finds in Gregory Spears’s and Kathryn Walat’s Paul’s Case a refuge from an artless world of tattered textbooks, accounting ledgers, and dead-end jobs. With this marvelous National Sawdust Tracks recording, Paul’s Case finds a home amongst the finest recorded opera performances of the Twenty-First Century.

19 October 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — MARIA STUARDA (J. Burns, Y. Lysenko, K. Dougherty, J. Hays, D. Boye, B. Martinez; Piedmont Opera, 18 October 2019)

IN REVIEW: sopranos JODI BURNS as Maria Stuarda (left) and YULIA LYSENKO as Elisabetta I (right) in Piedmont Opera's October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA [Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Maria StuardaJodi Burns (Maria Stuarda), Yulia Lysenko (Elisabetta I), Kirk Dougherty (Roberto, Conte di Leicester), Jonathan Hays (Sir Giorgio Talbot), Dan Boye (Lord Guglielmo Cecil), Brennan Martinez (Anna Kennedy); Piedmont Opera Chorus, Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, Stage Director; Howard C. Jones, Designer; Piedmont Opera, The Stevens Center of the UNCSA, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 18 October 2019]

Insensitive as it may seem, tales of prominent people meeting tragic ends make for great opera. From Dafne’s arboreal metamorphosis and Euridice’s fatal encounter with a serpent to Seneca’s mandated suicide and Sant’Alessio’s martyrdom, opera’s early development relied upon tragic subjects both to inspire composers and to engage audiences. Its emphasis on stories involving deities and royal personages is sometimes cited as evidence of opera’s inherent snobbishness, but the reality is far more practical. Before the modern age ushered in instantaneous global communication, celebrity was an extraordinarily rare commodity. A miller in Tudor England and a blacksmith in Stuart Scotland are unlikely to have possessed any awareness of one another, but both of them may have known of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Its nobler aspirations notwithstanding, opera is entertainment, and is a miller in England more likely to purchase a ticket to be entertained by the story of a Scottish blacksmith who is no more real to him than a mythological beast or the pageantry and passions of queens whose visages grace the coins in his pockets?

When Friedrich von Schiller’s play Maria Stuart was first performed in 1800, 213 years after its subject was beheaded at the behest of Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart retained the admiration and sympathy of much of Catholic Europe, where she was remembered as a proud woman who suffered the indignities of being deprived of her rightful throne, accused of conspiring to usurp the throne occupied by the illegitimate progeny of a heretical king, and executed by a rival with no jurisdiction over her. Like his dramatizations of the lives of Jeanne d’Arc and the Spanish Infante Carlos, both of which received operatic settings from Giuseppe Verdi, Schiller’s account of Mary Stuart’s conflict with Elizabeth I was markedly romanticized, supplementing history with scenes that heighten the story’s theatricality.

IN REVIEW: tenor KIRK DOUGHERTY as Leicester (left) and soprano JODI BURNS as Maria Stuarda (right) in Piedmont Opera's October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA [Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]Compagni in periglio: tenor Kirk Dougherty as Leicester (left) and soprano Jodi Burns as Maria Stuarda (right) in Piedmont Opera’s October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
[Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]

When rehearsals for the first production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda began in Naples in 1834, the visceral sentiments of Donizetti’s and his seventeen-year-old librettist Giuseppe Bardari’s setting of Schiller’s imagined meeting between Mary and Elizabeth proved to be too personal for the production’s leading ladies. The queens’ vitriol infected the singers, who abandoned musical skirmishing in favor of physical pugilism. Scandal ensued, the queen of Naples, herself a descendant of the Stuarts, objected to the depiction of an ancestor who uttered words like ‘vil bastarda,’ and the censors banished Mary from her own opera. With a new scenario drawn from Dante’s Divina Commedia, the piece was disguised as Buondelmonte, given seven poorly-received performances, and quickly forgotten. On 30 December 1835, Mary regained her crown when Maria Stuarda was first performed in its proper form at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. Still admired on the Continent as a paragon of Catholic virtue, Mary thereafter rapidly expanded her domain to include many of Italy’s opera houses.

Maria Stuarda’s performance history in the past century suggests that the New World does not share Europe’s fascination with the eponymous Queen of Scots. [Exacerbated by too-literal supertitle translations, the frequent laughter in Winston-Salem suggested that Twenty-First-Century audiences also have little sympathy for Mary’s plight.] In the decades since the acclaimed 1967 American Opera Society concert performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall with Montserrat Caballé as Maria and Shirley Verrett as Elisabetta, the work has been performed with varying degrees of success in Chicago, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and elsewhere, but the widespread popularity of L’elisir d’amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, and, in recent years, Don Pasquale and La fille du régiment has eluded Maria Stuarda, which was not heard at the Metropolitan Opera until 2012. Arguably, the most memorable post-World War Two production of Maria Stuarda in the United States was New York City Opera’s 1972 staging, in which Beverly Sills’s Maria sparred with the formidable Elisabette of Pauline Tinsley and Marisa Galvany. Despite a lauded reprise with Sills in 1974, a 2001 Opera Orchestra of New York concert performance with Ruth Ann Swenson and Lauren Flanigan, and a revival in the MET’s current season, Maria Stuarda continues to be an infrequent visitor to America’s opera houses.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano BRENNAN MARTINEZ as Anna Kennedy in Piedmont Opera's October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA [Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]Una vera amica: mezzo-soprano Brennan Martinez as Anna Kennedy in Piedmont Opera’s October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
[Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]

Staging Maria Stuarda is an ambitious endeavor, the work’s musical and scenic complexities making considerable—and costly—demands on an opera company’s resources. The superb quality of Piedmont Opera’s production was therefore both a triumph for regional opera and a vindication of the company’s decision to present this daunting work. Fashionable film and television depictions of Sixteenth-Century England have given many modern observers generalized notions of how life in that era looked and sounded, some of which are of dubious historicity. A high degree of historical accuracy was neither Schiller’s nor Donizetti’s aim, but the collective efforts of costume designer Kathy Grillo, wig and makeup designer Martha Ruskai, scenic designer Howard C. Jones, lighting designer Liz Stewart, and accomplished director Steven LaCosse brought a credible recreation of Elizabeth’s England to the Stevens Center. Costumes were suitably opulent without being so fantastical as to unduly impede movement or vocal production. Likewise, the scenic designs provided visually pleasing environs in which the drama transpired without the distractions of unnecessary scenic minutiae. LaCosse’s direction largely relied upon conventional operatic prancing and posing, but physical motion was an extension of the drama’s emotional currents, forceful but never forced.

It was apparent in his pacing of the company’s March 2019 production of L’elisir d’amore [reviewed here] that Piedmont Opera’s General and Artistic Director James Allbritten is a peer of the world’s finest conductors of bel canto repertoire. Stylistic versatility is a critical component of an opera conductor’s artistry, but the work of few of Allbritten’s colleagues exhibits similar fluency in an array of musical languages. Despite moments of untidy ensemble, the playing of the Winston-Salem Symphony demonstrated clarity and immediacy, the delivery of melodic lines by the woodwinds exemplifying the art of bel canto. Piedmont Opera’s chorus also augmented the aesthetic cultivated by the conductor. Opening Act One with a performance of ‘Qui si attenda, ell’è vicina’ that established an aptly anticipatory atmosphere and singing the Inno della morte in Act Three plaintively, the choristers persuasively imparted all of the points of view assigned to them by Donizetti. Indeed, persuasiveness was the foremost hallmark of this Maria Stuarda: complementing the production team’s achievements, Allbritten paced a performance of compelling bel canto authenticity.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone DAN BOYE as Guglielmo Cecil in Piedmont Opera's October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA [Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]Ministro della morte: bass-baritone Dan Boye as Guglielmo Cecil in Piedmont Opera’s October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
[Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]

As Maria’s companion and confidante Anna Kennedy, mezzo-soprano Brennan Martinez sang incisively, her musicality, dramatic sincerity, and youthful tone making a strong impression despite the brevity of her part. Compared with Anna, the implacable Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Guglielmo Cecil, offers his interpreter more opportunities to display his prowess as a singing actor. Especially in the Act Three duet in which Cecil entreats Elisabetta to sign Maria’s death warrant and the scene in which he callously informs Maria of her condemnation and imminent execution, bass-baritone Dan Boye sang boldly, hurling out Cecil’s hateful words with histrionic power that was only marginally lessened by unmistakably non-native Italian diction. Nonetheless, the maleficence of his characterization overcame occasional weaknesses in his vocalism, revealing Cecil as the true author of Maria’s fate.

IN REVIEW: baritone JONATHAN HAYS as Giorgio Talbot in Piedmont Opera's October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA [Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]Conte fedele: baritone Jonathan Hays as Giorgio Talbot in Piedmont Opera’s October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
[Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]

Baritone Jonathan Hays’s portrayal of Giorgio Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, evinced pervasive empathy for Maria. He voiced ‘Questa imago, questo foglio’ in the Act One duet with Leicester with suavity, his virile, flinty timbre lending his utterances a paternal sincerity. Even finer was his command of legato in the Act Three confession scene with Maria, contrasting meaningfully with his emphatic singing of conversational passages. Humbled by his recognition of Maria’s innocence and the dignity with which she accepts her impending death, Hays’s Talbot touchingly prefaced the doomed queen’s prayer with a heartfelt blessing of her final hours on earth. Throughout the performance, Hays conveyed the frustration of a benevolent man who finds himself on the edge of a precipice and unable to prevent those for whom he cares from plunging into the abyss.

IN REVIEW: tenor KIRK DOUGHERTY as Leicester in Piedmont Opera's October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA [Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]Difensore della virtù: tenor Kirk Dougherty as Leicester in Piedmont Opera’s October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
[Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]

Adaptability to a broad assortment of musical styles is as important to a modern singer’s success as to that of a conductor, and tenor Kirk Dougherty excels in repertoire ranging from bel canto to Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Nikolaus Sprink in Kevin Puts’s Silent Night, the last of which he sang to acclaim in Piedmont Opera’s 2017 production. Returning to Winston-Salem as Roberto Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, in Maria Stuarda, Dougherty infused the performance with febrile romantic ardor. Attempting to assuage Elisabetta’s antipathy towards Maria in his first scene in Act One, this Leicester pleaded without whining, Dougherty’s vocalism firm and focused. His impassioned account of ‘Ah! rimiro il bel sembiante’ disclosed the depth of Leicester’s affection for Maria, and his fervent singing in the subsequent duet with Talbot, ended with a splendid top C, reiterated the Earl’s commitment to shielding Maria from Elisabetta’s ire. Dougherty mellifluously caressed the melodic line of ‘Era d’amor l’immagine’ in the duet with Elisabetta, but his resonant top B was a reminder of his dogged determination.

The tenor’s singing in Act Two was no less galvanizing, not least in the duet with Maria and the superb sextet, nearly the equal of its better-known counterpart in Lucia di Lammermoor, but it was in the Act Three terzetto with Elisabetta and Cecil that Dougherty was at his best, articulating ‘Ah, deh! per pietà sospendi’ with irrepressible despair. There and in the opera’s final scene, as Leicester grappled with his inability to alter the course of Maria’s destiny, Dougherty’s singing was shaded by moving morbidezza. Unfortunately, his voice did not project into the auditorium with ideal freedom and was sometimes covered by the orchestra, but he consistently sang well and believably portrayed a man who loves one queen and is loved by another.

IN REVIEW: soprano YULIA LYSENKO as Elisabetta I in Piedmont Opera's October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA [Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]Regina della crudeltà: soprano Yulia Lysenko as Elisabetta I in Piedmont Opera’s October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
[Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]

With the casting of soprano Yulia Lysenko, previously heard in Winston-Salem as Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème, as Elisabetta, Piedmont Opera strengthened Maria Stuarda’s dramatic thrust with a fierce antagonist who was more dangerous because her ferocity masked vulnerability. At her entrance in Act One, this Elisabetta’s demeanor betrayed none of the uncertainty that plagued the monarch throughout her reign. Lysenko’s performances of the cavatina ‘Ah! quando all’ara scorgemi’ and cabaletta ‘Ah! dal cielo discenda un raggio’ radiated regal—and vocal—confidence, epitomized by the soprano’s resplendent top B. Her singing in the duet with Leicester divulged Elisabetta’s jealousy and pettiness but also declared the breadth of her unrequited love for the Earl.

In Act Two, Lysenko launched the sextet electrifyingly and unleashed a cyclone of fury in the confrontation scene. Her enunciation of ‘Quella vita me funesta io troncar’ in the Act Three duet with Cecil asserted that this Elisabetta was keenly aware of the Chancellor’s unyielding manipulation. Lysenko’s voice soared in the terzetto with Leicester and Cecil. The soprano’s unaffected execution of Elisabetta’s hesitant, pained exit after signing Maria’s death warrant was unexpectedly gripping and received an ovation from the audience. Lysenko avoided employing chest resonance in virtually all of her music, depriving the lowest notes of the part of requisite muscle, but the brilliance of her upper register, the vigor of her singing of bravura passages, and the acuity of her acting offered ample compensation.

IN REVIEW: soprano JODI BURNS in the title rôle in Piedmont Opera's October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA [Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]Bontà incoronata: soprano Jodi Burns in the title rôle in Piedmont Opera’s October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
[Photograph © by André Peele & Piedmont Opera]

First heard in Act Two [the latter half of Act One in Piedmont Opera’s production], Maria makes her entrance with a scene in which, in the only period of relative tranquility that she enjoys in the opera, she muses on her far-from-idyllic but happy youth in France. From the first bars of her traversal of the cavatina ‘O nube! che lieve per l’aria ti aggiri,’ Jodi Burns was a Maria in the class of the most gifted interpreters of the rôle, her performance recalling Leyla Gencer’s fearlessness, Montserrat Caballé’s glorious pianissimi, Beverly Sills’s purity of line, and Sondra Radvanovsky’s absolute immersion in the drama. The ebullience of Burns’s singing of the cabaletta ‘Nella pace del mesto riposo’ fostered a mood of guarded optimism.

Maria’s elation at Leicester’s arrival was destroyed by his news that Elisabetta was close at hand, having come at his urging to meet Mary in the flesh. In the duet with Leicester, Burns first sang ‘Da tutti abbandonata’ with wrenching simplicity, her Maria genuinely lamenting her situation rather than indulging in self-pity, and then declaimed ‘Ah! Se il mio cor tremò giammai’ with renewed resolve. Her lines in the sextet were always audible and engendered a righteous aloofness that set Maria apart from the vengeful Elisabetta. The celebrated ‘dialogo delle due regine’ spurred Burns to singing of incredible energy and dramatic potency. She exclaimed the stinging ‘figlia impura di Bolena’ and ’vil bastarda’ with startling spontaneity, warranting the look of shocked vexation that flashed across Elisabetta’s face. As the English queen haughtily left the stage, Burns brought the curtain down with a magnificently defiant and cathartic top D.

Whether designated as Act Two, as in Piedmont Opera’s production, or as Act Three, the concluding scenes of Maria Stuarda constitute one of the most remarkable sequences in Italian opera. Burns’s Maria received Cecil‘s proclamation of her sentence with stoicism, but a spark of umbrage ignited her response to his spiteful suggestion that she meet with a Protestant minister in order to be reconciled with God. Exercising her faith on her own terms in the eloquent ‘duetto della confessione’ with Talbot, this Maria voiced ‘Quando di luce rosea’ ravishingly. In Burns’s performance, wonderfully supported by the chorus, the preghiera ‘Deh! tu di un umile preghiera il suono’ was exquisite. Her voicing of the ‘aria del supplizio,’ ‘D’un cor che muore reca il perdono,’ was phrased with innate understanding of bel canto.

After performing the repeats of the foregoing cabalette, omitting the repeat of ‘Ah! se un giorno da queste ritorte’ was regrettable, especially as Burns’s ornamentation of her music was unfailingly tasteful, but excising the repeat undeniably produced a more abrupt conclusion that significantly increased the emotional tension of the final scene. Apart from a pair of very brief instances in which high pianissimi threatened to crack, Burns’s vocal control was impeccable, and the tonal beauty that she brought to Maria’s music was profoundly satisfying. The essence of bel canto is beauty of expression, however, and Burns brought one of the most difficult rôles in the soprano repertoire to life with the kind of unfeigned expressivity and pathos of which only true artists are capable.

There is a pertinent scene in Miloš Forman’s cinematic adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in which Mozart, at work on an opera about a servant and his fiancée, and representatives of the imperial musical establishment debate the importance of operatic subject matter. Does an audience’s ability to relate on some psychological level with the characters on stage determine an opera’s theatrical viability or intrinsic artistic value? More than four centuries after the death of its heroine, can an Italian composer’s operatic setting of a German playwright’s dramatization of the enmity between an English queen and her Scottish contemporary possibly hold any significance for American audiences in the Twenty-First Century? Piedmont Opera’s Maria Stuarda avowed that opera’s vitality is defined not by the characters who populate it but by the feelings that they portray and inspire. It is unlikely that anyone who experiences Piedmont Opera’s Maria Stuarda can relate to a queen’s tribulations, but, whether wearing priceless diamonds or dime-store pearls, who cannot relate to feelings of love, loss, fear, and freedom?


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Additional performances of Piedmont Opera’s production of Maria Stuarda are at 2:00 PM on Sunday, 20 October 2019, and at 7:30 PM on Tuesday, 22 October.

16 October 2019

SINGER SPOTLIGHT: Soprano Jodi Burns continues her reign as the Triad’s bel canto queen in the title rôle of Piedmont Opera’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda

Soprano JODI BURNS, the eponymous Queen in Piedmont Opera's October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's MARIA STUARDA [Photograph © by Jodi Burns]Ecco la regina: Soprano Jodi Burns, interpreter of the title rôle in Piedmont Opera’s October 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda
[Photograph © by Jodi Burns]

From biblical heroines to Ancient Egypt’s God’s Wives of Amun, Boudicca to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, history has been shaped by powerful women. As mothers, they have nurtured all of mankind, but the notion of woman’s rôles in humanity’s collective story being confined to serving as mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of influential men is as risible as it is insulting. Since its beginnings in Sixteenth-Century Italy, opera has also been populated with remarkable women whose stories have mirrored and in some instances transcended gender politics. Monteverdi‘s Penelope, Poppea, and Ottavia, Händel’s Alcina, Cleopatra, and Rodelinda, and Mozart’s Elettra, Donna Elvira, and Fiordiligi advanced woman’s operatic presence from its start with the victimized Dafne and Euridice to the take-no-prisoners bel canto protagonists of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini.

So momentous are the depictions of a pair of history-making women in Gaetano Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda that the singers portraying them in rehearsals for the opera’s inaugural production became so immersed in the drama that their rendering of the fateful meeting of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor in Act Two—an encounter that originated in Friedrich von Schiller’s 1800 play Maria Stuart, upon which the seventeen-year-old Giuseppe Barbari’s libretto for Maria Stuarda was based, rather than in history—resulted in a physical altercation. The scandal fomented by this incident and objection to Donizetti’s portrayals of the Scottish and English queens by the King of Naples, whose consort had ancestral ties to the Stuart dynasty, subjected Maria Stuarda to censorial meddling. It was therefore the story of a hastily-substituted character borrowed from Dante, not that of Mary Stuart, that was told in the unsuccessful Neapolitan première of the piece on 18 October 1834, for which occasion the opera was rechristened as Buondelmonte. It was not until the opera reached the stage of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala fourteen months later that the maligned Queen of Scots regained her crown.

Born at Linlithgow Palace on 8 December 1542, Mary Stuart was the literal and figurative nexus of empires. The death of her father, James V, when she was only five days old elevated her to the Scottish throne and subjected Scotland to the regency of her mother, Marie de Guise, a scion of a powerful French aristocratic family who, after being widowed at the age of twenty-one, received a proposal of marriage from Henry VIII. Betrothed at the age of five and married before her sixteenth birthday, Mary became queen consort of France in 1559, supplanting her mother-in-law, the domineering Catherine de’ Medici. In the twenty-eight years between her ascension to the French throne and her execution at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire on 8 February 1587, Mary was subjected to intrigue and imprisonment, grave affronts to the honor of a woman of her station. Vilified by the Protestant English but revered on the Continent as a paragon of Catholic resistance to heretical barbarism, Mary remains a divisive figure. In other words, she is a near-perfect operatic subject, a condition treated by Donizetti with generous doses of exhilaratingly affecting music.

The singer who approaches a rôle in which Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills, Dame Joan Sutherland, and Mariella Devia excelled without a sense of awe is unlikely to prove worthy of the legacy of her esteemed predecessors. Her poised but playful Adina in Piedmont Opera’s March 2019 production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore [reviewed here] established soprano Jodi Burns as an insightful interpreter of Donizetti’s music whose singing exudes engaging imagination and commendable cognizance of tradition. Returning to Winston-Salem’s Stevens Center to portray the doomed Queen of Scots in Piedmont Opera’s staging of Maria Stuarda, this gifted singer adds to her repertoire a portrait of a proud woman whose vitality increases her vulnerability. More than four hundred years separate today’s listeners from the life of the historical Mary Stuart, but Burns is confident that Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda will be stirringly familiar to Piedmont Opera’s audience.

Musically and dramatically, Adina and Maria are very different ladies, but they are both intelligent, intuitive women who wield authority in male-dominated societies—and they of course share the bounties of Donizetti’s theatrical savvy. A shrewd artist whose approach to rôles is guided by study of the characters’ musical and historical contexts, Burns exhibits refreshing candor when describing her transition from L’elisir d’amore to Maria Stuarda. ‘Many [singers] portray Adina as a flippant, capricious little thing, but that’s never seemed right to me. She’s a land-owning businesswoman, for God’s sake!’ Burns shared. ‘She’s quite smart and conscientious. And a noblewoman. So I can see some similarities [with Maria].’

Further contemplating the similarities between Adina and Maria, Burns added, ‘They also share a certain joie de vivre.’ Burns quickly conceded that Adina’s and Maria’s life experiences yield very different characters, however. ‘Mary’s life has a great deal of heaviness upon it,’ she said. ‘When we meet her in this opera, she has been imprisoned for about eighteen years. But she did enjoy the idyllic upbringing of a queen. She enjoys nature and beauty and laughter but has also ruled and seen a tumult of heart-shattering losses.’ This heaviness permeates Donizetti’s score, Burns asserted. ‘Mary feels a great deal weightier than Adina, but I’m quite sure that, if they met at a party, they’d have a great time together!’

Nevertheless, acquaintance with Mary’s Donizettian incarnation has not distorted Burns’s perception of the woman who emerges from the pages of history. ‘I don’t think Donizetti’s view changes my interpretation of who the real historical Mary was,’ the soprano confided, ‘but he certainly has given me the opportunity to study her in depth.’ Understanding of attitudes towards Mary in Schiller’s and Donizetti’s cultural milieux is critical, Burns believes. ‘Donizetti depicts quite a sympathetic view of Mary. This is likely due to the political leanings of the Roman Catholic Church and the fact that Schiller’s play may have been the only historical interpretation available to him,’ she offered.

Burns perceives Donizetti’s empathy for Mary in the rôle’s musical evolution. ‘In her first entrance, she bursts onto the stage with youthful energy as the vibrant and beautiful Mary, singing her lilting aria with a wistful but burdened spirit. [Donizetti] allows her here to be a young beautiful woman rather than a rueful, betrayed, dark-eyed queen, winding down her days in the dreary, cool rooms of house arrest.’ Gradually, as Maria becomes ever more mired in political maneuvering, Donizetti’s musical portraiture takes on darker hues. ‘We see some fire from her in the cabaletta, when she hears hunters announce that “La Regina,” the queen, is near,’ Burns observed, ‘but this is no more fire than any passionate queen would exhibit upon finding that her rival has planned a surprise visit.’

Like many opera lovers, Burns identifies the pivotal scene in which England’s Virgin Queen visits her confined counterpart at Fotheringhay as the point of no return in Mary’s journey from misfortune to tragedy. ‘When she is coerced into meeting with Queen Elizabeth I in the famous confrontation scene, it is Elizabeth’s taunting that pushes her to the mad words of rage that seem at first to escape her lips,’ Piedmont Opera’s Maria mused. ‘Here, she is a tortured victim as Elizabeth slings brutal insults and burns her with images of her most desperate moments until she can no longer hold her tongue.’ Had the two queens met in life as in opera, the outcome of their exchange might have been very different, Burns theorizes. ‘As we know, this confrontation never happened: had it, the conversation would have been a great deal more complex, with no clear heroes or villains.’

Though an invention adapted from Schiller, the confrontation scene in Maria Stuarda is, in Burns’s estimation, a pinnacle not only of Donizetti’s work but of operatic writing in general. ‘This scene is pure opera magic,’ she said. ‘Deafening silences, mad screams: it’s an incredible moment.’ Asked whether there are other battles of ego that might prove equally suitable for the operatic stage, she paused for a moment before exclaiming, ‘The stage of a political debate would make a great opera! Or a town hall meeting! Interruptions, rise and fall of pitches in voice, hand gestures, commercial breaks...It writes itself!’

The interview between Maria and Elisabetta is not the sole historical inaccuracy to markedly alter the dramatic narrative of Maria Stuarda. Burns intimated that ‘the addition of the fictional love triangle among Elizabeth, Mary, and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, adds fuel to the confrontation scene fire.’ The conflagration, while precipitating Maria’s grisly demise, also enables the beleaguered monarch to defy protocol and express her truest feelings. ‘Life for Mary has always been out of her own control,’ Burns noted. ‘Here, in our story, as she stands tall against Elizabeth, she takes hold of her own fate, perhaps for the first time. In the [Act Two] finale, she sings, “now guide me to death,” for she has finally spoken freely. Her next scene offers her the opportunity for confession and atonement, and she ultimately ascends the stairs to be beheaded with a clear conscience; and, in her mind, on the path to sainthood.’ The opera’s tragedy is made all the more poignant by the fact that Maria owes these glimpses of self-reliance, freedom, and divine reward to Donizetti. ‘Donizetti gives her this path the victory,’ Burns opined. ‘The grace and goodness and peace she could never have in life, she will achieve in death.’

Chauvinism and misogyny are unfortunate but undeniable aspects of opera’s social constitution, regrettably prevalent both on and off stage, and reconciling the sometimes antiquated attitudes towards gender rôles encountered in opera with current sensibilities can be a difficult task for singers of any gender identity. ‘As a Twenty-First-Century woman, it is always challenging to look upon women’s rôles in Western History without a heavy smudge of disbelief weighing upon one’s brow,’ Burns mused, ‘but I have to say, in this opera, the two queens are presented as being self-possessed and also as bearing quite different demeanors and temperaments. They are not entirely one-dimensional female characters, and most of this information about them is to be found in the music.’

This process of developing a character through mastery of the nuances of her music is an integral component of Burns’s artistry. ‘One of the great joys and challenges of bel canto repertoire is just this,’ she declared. ‘Mary’s music is long lines, often with seemingly stream-of-thought storytelling. She is impulsive and emotional, proud and loyal. Elizabeth’s music is often more angular, and her thought processes occur with a different musical and emotional language.’ Still, as a modern woman, Burns is sensitive to the dated viewpoints on femininity in Maria Stuarda. Examining the opera’s depictions of Mary and Elizabeth, she reflected, ‘Is either of them a “woke” representation of a powerful woman? No—largely due to the added love story.’

The failures of the past engender opportunities for today’s artists, not to make amends but to create new, better-informed trends, and Burns sees in the characterizations of the title rôle in Maria Stuarda and other bel canto heroines unique possibilities for reevaluating these ladies without patriarchal prejudices. ‘We do our best to wade through their depths and bring forth the most human representations we can find through the music written on the page,’ the soprano imparted. ‘Bel canto is cool like that. There are a myriad of interpretations one could choose to engage, based on whether the notes rise or fall, the rhythms are jaunty or smooth. A large chord played by the full orchestra could be surprise or anger or a large physical gesture. We just have to hope to use the right paintbrushes at the right times to make these women multi-dimensional.’

From the point of view of a modern singer devising her own interpretations of well-known rôles, Burns feels a particular responsibility to portray Donizetti’s Maria as a woman whom the historical Queen of Scots would recognize. ‘I have to work hard to analyze each choice she makes from what would have been her perspective,’ she said, but a conscientious artist like Burns never neglects the joy of singing music as gratifying as Donizetti’s. ‘This is Italian opera, baby! It’s larger than life, even at its most quiet moments. To discover the rôle of Maria, all of its intricacies, and still make it read all the way to the back row, that’s a big challenge. But I accept it with gratitude and honor and hope to paint her with as many colors as I can.’


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To learn more about Jodi Burns, please visit her official website.

Piedmont Opera’s production of Maria Stuarda opens at the UNCSA Stevens Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, at 8:00 PM EDT on Friday, 18 October 2019. Additional performances are at 2:00 PM on Sunday, 20 October, and 7:30 PM on Tuesday, 22 October. To obtain more information or to purchase tickets, please visit Piedmont Opera’s website or phone 336.725.7101.

Jodi Burns will be joined in the Maria Stuarda cast by Yulia Lysenko as Elisabetta, Kirk Dougherty as Leicester, Jonathan Hays as Talbot, Dan Boye as Cecil, and Brennan Martinez as Anna. Steven LaCosse directs, and James Allbritten conducts.

Sincerest thanks to Ms. Burns for taking time from her grueling rehearsal schedule for this interview.