31 October 2020

BEST ART SONG RECORDING of 2020: Benjamin Britten, Ivor Gurney, John Ireland, Roger Quilter, Ian Venables, & Peter Warlock — A LAD’S LOVE (Brian Giebler, tenor; Steven McGhee, piano; Bridge Records 9542)

BEST ART SONG RECORDING of 2020: A LAD'S LOVE (Bridge Records 9542)BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976), IVOR GURNEY (1890 – 1937), JOHN IRELAND (1879 – 1962), ROGER QUILTER (1877 – 1953), IAN VENABLES (born 1955), and PETER WARLOCK (1894 – 1930): a lad’s loveBrian Giebler, tenor; Steven McGhee, piano; Reginald Mobley, countertenor; Katie Hyun and Ben Russell, violin; Jessica Meyer, viola; Michael Katz, cello [Recorded in Drew University Concert Hall, Madison, New Jersey, USA, 27 – 29 June 2019; Bridge Records 9542; 1 CD, 70:43; Available from Bridge Records and major music retailers]

Artists’ philosophical and psychological connections with the music that they perform is an integral component of the creative process; perhaps more integral to Art Song than to any other genre of Classical Music. A singer can become immersed in the pageantry of opera and the tumult of the concert hall, but an Art Song recital offers few distractions from a singer’s relationships with the music being performed. A song does not wear a jersey displaying its name and number: the singer must communicate to the audience which position a song plays and how it functions within its team. It is suggested that the essence of a composer’s artistry is most clearly and meaningfully perceived in chamber music, in which the interactions among small ensembles of instruments sometimes reflect a composer’s perspectives on artists’ bonds with one another and humanity. Art Song is a singer’s chamber music, the domain in which the voice can find no shelter in lavish orchestrations and complex stage business. It is in a performance of Art Song that a perceptive listener can discern a singer from an artist.

The prevailing ethos of a lad’s love, tenor Brian Giebler’s and pianist Steven McGhee’s entrancing Bridge Records recording of British Art Songs composed since 1900, is the abandonment of platitudes and polite mannerisms in evaluating the passions, joys, and disappointments of youth. The first moments of a lad’s love demonstrate that Giebler possesses a beautiful, evenly-produced voice capable of communicating an expansive array of emotions, but each subsequent phrase further immerses the listener in the perceptibly personal narrative created by the young tenor’s singing. His vocalism enjoys in McGhee’s playing true musical synergy, the instruments’ sounds seeming to emerge from a single artistic personality. Neither singer nor pianist leads or follows: there is in the seventy minutes of a lad’s love a laudable unity of purpose, the artists’ serendipitous collaboration effecting performances guided not by musicians’ egos but by the temperaments of the music itself.

With the notable exception of Henry Purcell, whose work is as inclusively European as that of any of his domestic or foreign contemporaries, many composers whose lives and careers were centered in the British Isles have endured the allegation that their music is ‘too British’ to achieve lasting success and popularity beyond the United Kingdom’s borders. This charge is made even of a work as universal in scope as Sir Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, which, moreover, has sometimes been deemed too inherently Catholic to appeal to its creators’ own countrymen. Perhaps there are aspects of British cultures, histories, and landscapes that cannot be fully understood or appreciated by outsiders, but does ignorance of the county’s customs and geography lessen the beauty of a work like Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire Rhapsody?

Born in Gloucester in 1890 and laid to rest in a small borough of his native city only forty-seven years later, Ivor Gurney was, alongside Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, amongst England’s foremost poetic chroniclers of the Great War, during the course of which Gurney was twice wounded. Troubled throughout his too-brief life by recurrent mental illness, almost certainly exacerbated by his wartime experiences, Gurney often contended with pervasive melancholia that manifested in both his poetry and his music. The rare composer of Art Song who turned as frequently to his own texts as to words by other writers, Gurney brought to the creation of songs a singular sensibility for recognizing the musical potential of words.

In his singing of Gurney’s music, Giebler exhibits similar propensity, his vocalism distinguished by impeccable musicianship and reliably secure intonation. North American singers’ performances of British songs sometimes sound frustratingly pompous, as though there is a need to imitate a grandeur of utterance not found in the American personality, but Giebler approaches Gurney’s and all of the songs on a lad’s love with stylistic cogency, his interpretations kaleidoscopically expressive but never exaggerated.

Written in 1919, after the composer returned from the front, recovered from his battle injuries, and began studying with Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, Gurney’s song cycle Ludlow and Teme was inspired not by his own verses but by those of Alfred Edward Housman (1859 – 1936), whose collection of poems entitled A Shropshire Lad is as significant to British Art Song as the poetry of Goethe and Heine are to German Lieder. The texts used in Ludlow and Teme are quintessentially Housmanesque, juxtaposing conflicting human emotions with deceptively serene evocations of the English countryside. Scored for tenor, piano, and string quartet, the cycle’s seven songs disclose a fellow poet’s insightful handling of words’ intrinsic tunefulness.

In the performance of Ludlow and Teme on this disc, the string players—violinists Katie Hyun and Ben Russell, violist Jessica Meyer, and cellist Michael Katz—execute their parts with consistent technical acumen and a permeating sense of true participation in interpreting the songs, their sounds allying with the tenor’s voice and the pianist’s playing to establish in the opening song, ‘When smoke stood up from Ludlow,’ an environment of emotional sincerity. This sentimental directness persists in ‘Far in a western brookland,’ sung with expertly-managed breath control that facilitates artful phrasing. The pensiveness of Giebler’s reading of ‘’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town’ ably partners his realization of the beguiling potential of ‘Ludlow fair.’ The gossamer beauty of his voicing of ‘On the idle hill of summer’ lends the imagery of the text picturesque potency, creating for the listener a tableau of the idyllic Shropshire countryside. Into that Acadian setting comes a vulnerable youth via Giebler’s engaging, energetic ‘When I was one-and-twenty.’ The subtleties of Housman’s words and Gurney’s music in ‘The Lent Lily’ find in Giebler and his colleagues interpreters whose artistic camaraderie is uniquely suited to elucidating their shadows and smiles.

It was during his wartime service that Gurney composed ‘In Flanders,’ a setting of a haunting text by Frederick William Harvey. Here performed in an arrangement incorporating the string quartet, the song euphoniously presents a harrowing but harmonious assessment of the costs of war. The horrors of the Great War are now tempered by the passing of a century, but the emotional toll of Gurney’s experiences is felt in Giebler’s performance. His becomes the voice of lost innocence, intoning an elegy for the innumerable lives destroyed by conflict.

Giebler is joined in his performance of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 51 Canticle II by countertenor Reginald Mobley. Composed in 1952 for Britten’s partner, tenor Sir Peter Pears, and the eminent English contralto Kathleen Ferrier, the second of the composer’s five Canticles recounts Fifteenth-Century Chester mystery plays’ depiction of the Old Testament narrative of the patriarch Abraham’s willingness to obey a divine command to slay his son Isaac, a command now argued by rabbinical scholars to have been understood by Abraham as a test, Providential doctrine of the sanctity of life effectively prohibiting human sacrifice.

Giebler and Mobley prove to be worthy successors of Pears and Ferrier, the younger tenor’s timbre more ingratiating than Pears’s and both he and Mobley excelling as interpreters of Britten’s complex music. Aided by McGhee’s complete fluency in the composer’s musical language, the voices intertwine mesmerizingly when imparting God’s instructions to Abraham, the unaffected directness of their articulation of ‘That thou lovest the best of all’ lending the cruelty of the mandate profoundly personal poignancy. The youthfulness of Giebler’s tones emphasize Abraham’s humanity, lifting the biblical figure out of antiquity with a touching suggestion of a still-young father grappling with the momentousness of the task assigned to him. Nevertheless, there is an aptly Brittensian flicker of irony in Giebler’s delivery of ‘Make Thee ready, my dear darling, / For we must do a little thing.’

Mobley is but one of a number of gifted countertenors who have sung Isaac’s lines in the decades since Canticle II was first performed, but his singing in this performance demonstrates that he is one of the best. The naturalness of his singing is conspicuous: he resorts to none of the technical trickery that some of his fellow countertenors employ in their vocal production. There is little resemblance between Mobley’s and Ferrier’s voices, but the wrenching immediacy with which the countertenor sings ‘Would God that my mother were here with me!’ qualifies him as Ferrier’s peer as an intuitive musical storyteller. Throughout this account of Canticle II, paced by McGhee with unerring sensitivity to Britten’s markings and the emotional flow of the text, Mobley probes the words’ subtleties, expressing the son’s fear, disbelief, and sense of betrayal with unpretentious pathos. He, Giebler, and McGhee circumvent the pitfalls of Canticle II’s centuries-old parlance, effectuating a plaintive, superbly musical account that is never twee or didactic.

Composed during four turbulent years that witnessed the eruption of World War Two but not published as a collection until 1997, Britten’s Six Settings of W.H. Auden offer an intriguing glimpse of the artists’ working relationship. Britten’s collaboration with Auden produced works as seminal in the composer’s œuvre and in British music in general as Our Hunting Fathers and Hymn to St. Cecilia and markedly influenced other projects, notably the post-Albert Herring operas. In the performances of these Auden songs on a lad’s love, Giebler and McGhee fashion a cohesive narrative that capitalizes on the characteristic metaphysical complexities of the writer’s texts. The gentle anticipation that suffuses Giebler’s voicing of ‘To lie flat on the back’ gives way to stoic acquiescence in ‘Night covers up the rigid land.’ Nature surges through McGhee’s playing in ‘Fish in the unruffled lakes’ and ‘The sun shines down,’ complementing Giebler’s concentration on the specificity of Britten’s tone painting. Voice and piano parallel the discourse between the physical and emotional realms that enlivens ‘What’s in your mind’ and ‘Underneath the abject willow.’ The intricacies of Britten’s handling of Auden’s words are devotedly observed in their performances of this music, but Giebler and McGhee broaden the songs’ interpretive contexts by projecting rousing spontaneity.

The words of Peter Warlock’s 1922 song ‘In an Arbour Green’ were taken from a modernization of a Sixteenth-Century text by Robert (or Richard) Wever. The composer’s adaptation of the text lends the poet’s conceits contexts as relevant in 2020 as in 1922. Born Philip Arnold Heseltine, Warlock enjoyed little tranquility in the thirty-six years of his life. Like many of his songs, ‘In an Arbour Green’ was composed during the most productive period of Warlock’s career, when his creativity was spurred by time spent with Béla Bartók in Wales. The prevailing ambience of ‘In an Arbour Green’ is decidedly English, but Giebler and McGhee survey the Continental accents in Warlock’s musical idiom, especially those influenced by Gabriel Fauré. Giebler’s singing of Warlock’s compact song rivals the work of noted masters of chanson like Hugues Cuénod, the liaisons of words and music rendered with finesse.

The earliest piece on a lad’s love, Roger Quilter’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’ (Opus 3, No. 1), dates from 1905 and utilizes an oft-quoted text by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Like Gurney, Quilter possessed a gift for writing music that amplifies the meanings of words rather than merely accompanying their sounds. With this performance, Giebler and McGhee argue persuasively that Quilter achieved the summit of his artistry as a composer of songs with ‘Love’s Philosophy,’ the rhythmic pulse of the pianist’s playing echoing the cadences of the text. Singing in English sometimes elicits from vocalists open tones and over-enunciation more appropriate to musical theater than to Art Song, but the evenness of Giebler’s transitions through the passaggio facilitates wholly organic clarity of diction. His singing of ‘Love’s Philosophy’ is shaped not by artifice but by genuine affinity for Quilter’s writing.

Both John Ireland’s ‘Ladslove,’ excerpted from his 1920 – ’21 collection of songs pointedly entitled The Land of Lost Content, and his 1927 cycle We’ll to the Woods no More are also settings of verses from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Giebler and McGhee traverse ‘Ladslove’ with eloquence typical of their work on this disc, the artistic propinquity between voice and piano revealing fascinating details of Ireland’s thoughtful interpretations of words. ‘We’ll to the Woods no More’ is sung with palpable feeling, voice and piano creating a sense of solace. Tenor and pianist offer a strikingly intimate account of ‘In Boyhood,’ seeming to share memories of their own lives. Interestingly, Ireland treated the third of the texts comprising We’ll to the Woods no More, ‘Spring will not wait’ (the second and third stanzas of ‘We’ll to the Woods no More,’ the thirty-ninth poem in A Shropshire Lad), as a piece for piano that explores the moods of the text rather than as a conventional song with voice. Nonetheless, McGhee traces the melodic line with a singer’s attention to textual inflections: ‘the gold that I never see’ of which Housman wrote shimmers in McGhee’s playing.

The sole living composer whose music is sampled on a lad’s love, Ian Venables is represented by the affecting ‘Because I liked you better’ from his 2004 cycle Songs of Eternity and Sorrow (Opus 36a), performed here in its original form for voice, piano, and string quartet. Like so many of his musical ancestors, Venables found musical stimulus in Housman’s poetry. His setting of the lines ‘And say the lad that loved you / Was one that kept his word’ epitomizes Venables’s emotionally pragmatic style, advancing the legacy of Ivor Gurney, of whose estate the younger composer is a trustee, into the Twenty-First Century. His voice combining mellifluously with the pianist’s and quartet’s tones, Giebler sings ‘Because I liked you better’ with the candid warmth of a lad’s love.

Especially in an age in which funding for the Performing Arts is critically imperiled, it must never be forgotten that many proposed recording projects never come to fruition, burdening those that do with a heightened responsibility to justify their existence. The disheartening events of 2020 impose an even greater duty upon new recordings, that of providing listeners with elusive comfort, hope, and joy. Suffused with alluring, graceful singing, a lad’s love is a recital that earns the opportunity to be heard, but this is a disc that succeeds and satisfies in diverse ways. None of a lad’s love’s successes is more consequential than its declaration that song, when performed with love, can be a refuge from humanity’s horrors.

17 October 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Echoes from Carolina — Carlisle Floyd’s SLOW DUSK and Kenneth Frazelle’s FROM APPALACHIA (C. Mills, P. Pancella, A. Peele, L. Webber, J. Burns, J. Allbritten; Piedmont Opera, 16 October 2020)

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano CHARLI MILLS as Sadie (left) and tenor LOGAN WEBBER as Micah (right) in Carlisle Floyd's SLOW DUSK in Piedmont Opera's October 2020 production ECHOES FROM CAROLINA [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Echoes from CarolinaCARLISLE FLOYD (born 1926): Slow Dusk and KENNETH FRAZELLE (born 1955): From Appalachia [WORLD PREMIÈRE]Charli Mills (Sadie), Phyllis Pancella (Aunt Sue), Logan Webber (Micah), André Dewan Peele (Jess); Jodi Burns (soprano – From Appalachia), James Allbritten (tenor – From Appalachia); Winston-Salem Festival Ballet; Gary Taylor (choreographer – From Appalachia); Nancy Johnston, piano (Slow Dusk); PG Hazard, piano (From Appalachia) [Ann-Louise Wolf, stage director; Norman Coates, lighting director; Annie Bruskiewitz, costume designer; Piedmont Opera, live-streamed from the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 16 October 2020]

It is sometimes in humanity’s most difficult hours that ingenuity and innovation prosper, the need for hope engendering inspiration for it. As Performing Arts institutions and venues throughout the world face difficulties heretofore unprecedented during times of peace, the will to survive spurs creative initiatives that will continue to alter artists’ and audiences’ experiences long after COVID-19 is eradicated. Whether circumstances permit them to gather in physical proximity or necessitate the use of technology to close the gap of separation, Art thrives when audiences hungry for rejuvenation connect with artists striving to utilize their individual talents as catalysts for universal comfort and perseverance.

A spirit of indomitable tenacity permeated every moment of Echoes from Carolina, the virtual production that inaugurated Piedmont Opera’s reimagined 2020 – 2021 Season. Live-streamed from Winston-Salem’s Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Echoes from Carolina offered at-home audiences in and beyond the Triad a musical homage to the Carolinas, pairing a rare staging of South Carolina-born Carlisle Floyd’s early opera Slow Dusk with the world première of North Carolinian Kenneth Frazelle’s theatre piece From Appalachia. Guided by General and Artistic Director James Allbritten, Piedmont Opera assembled a company of North Carolina-based artists who brought global perspectives to their realizations of these works.

Evoking Walker Evans’s still-haunting photographs of the Great Depression-era South, Annie Bruskiewitz’s costumes and Norman Coates’s lighting anchored both Slow Dusk and From Appalachia in an idealized but recognizable representation of rural Appalachia, the tableaux created by their designs often prompting memories of familiar historical images and weathered pictures in family albums. Maintaining clean sight lines and natural but camera-friendly blocking, production and stage directors Bill Volz and Ann-Louise Wolf piloted a performance that capitalized on the advantages and marginalized the pitfalls of the streaming medium. The small-scaled but consistently effective production values suited the music and these performances of it.

Born in the small town of Latta in Dillon County, near South Carolina’s Atlantic Coast, Carlisle Floyd built upon the modest foundation of his upbringing as a Methodist preacher’s son a career as one of America’s most successful and widely-acclaimed composers of opera. In Echoes from Carolina, Allbritten’s propulsive pacing and Nancy Johnston’s poetic playing of a piano reduction of Floyd’s orchestrations of Slow Dusk accentuated the embryonic concepts of social conflict and ostracization, religious division, and cultural evolution that would gestate more fully in Floyd’s later operas Susannah, The Passion of Jonathan Wade, Of Mice and Men, Willie Stark, and Cold Sassy Tree.

IN PERFORMANCE: mezzo-soprano PHYLLIS PANCELLA as Aunt Sue in Carlisle Floyd's SLOW DUSK in Piedmont Opera's October 2020 production ECHOES FROM CAROLINA [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Voice of authority: mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella as Aunt Sue in Carlisle Floyd’s Slow Dusk in Piedmont Opera’s October 2020 production Echoes from Carolina
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

A compact tale of the love of two youths from different religious sects in the Sandhills region of North Carolina, Slow Dusk, Floyd’s first opera, was written during 1948 and 1949, whilst the composer was pursuing his Master’s Degree at Syracuse University. Premièred in Syracuse under the direction of Ruth Ives on 2 May 1949, Slow Dusk inaugurated Floyd’s quest to follow Richard Wagner’s example by writing both music and words. For Slow Dusk, he adapted his short story ‘A Lengthening Shadow’ into a fast-moving ‘musical play in one act’ in which there is no time for wallowing in the sentimentality that pervades much Southern drama. Rather, the male protagonist’s unseen death after only a few minutes on stage seems perfunctory but, in this performance, was all the more powerful for being unexpected. That Slow Dusk is the uneven but by no means amateurish first operatic effort of a composer in his early twenties is unmistakable, but Piedmont Opera’s staging rightly celebrated the piece as the touching first song of an original compositional voice.

Bass-baritone André Dewan Peele depicted Jess, the brother of Slow Dusk’s heroine Sadie, as an uncomplicated, good-natured young man whose affection and concern for his sister were apparent. Perhaps as a means of centralizing the drama’s focus on the significance of Sadie’s relationship with the man she loves, Floyd gave Jess no opportunities to meaningfully interact with his sister, but Peele demonstrated, first in the character’s discussion in the opera’s opening scene of Sadie’s personality and marriage prospects and later in his contemplation of how the news of her lover’s death will affect Sadie, that his relationship with his sibling is a cornerstone of Jess’s life. Peele’s intonation occasionally faltered in his first lines, but his musicality prevailed, lending emotional depth to a shallow part.

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano CHARLI MILLS as Sadie (left) and tenor LOGAN WEBBER as Micah (right) in Carlisle Floyd's SLOW DUSK in Piedmont Opera's October 2020 production ECHOES OF CAROLINA [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Ill-fated lovers: soprano Charli Mills as Sadie (left) and tenor Logan Webber as Micah (right) in Carlisle Floyd’s Slow Dusk in Piedmont Opera’s October 2020 production Echoes from Carolina
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

In the rôle of Micah Hatfield, the son of a Truelights family who has fallen in love with the Disciples-raised Sadie, tenor Logan Webber was musically and dramatically ideal. Said to have ‘never got beyond the eighth grade in school,’ Micah was here an unsophisticated but intuitive young man, humble but unafraid of communicating his emotions. Crucially, Webber never confused naïveté with immaturity. The innocent optimism of his singing of  ‘Well, I don’t know, it might be diff’rent this year’ and ‘Sadie, reckon we cain’t git married?’ disclosed the earnestness of Micah’s trust in love’s power to overcome hardships. Webber voiced ‘God knows I love you’ movingly and bade Sadie farewell with an ardent lover’s dueling reluctance and excitement at the prospect of their next rendezvous. As in his portrayal of the title rôle in Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2020 production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, Webber’s singing recalled that of Anthony Rolfe Johnson, the young tenor sharing his late counterpart’s faculty for projecting a warm, lyrical timbre with reserves of strength. Micah’s time on stage is brief, but Webber’s impact on this performance of Slow Dusk was lasting.

A recent—and most welcome—addition to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts voice faculty, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella characterized Sadie’s Aunt Sue not as an unfeeling authoritarian figure akin to the Zia principessa in Puccini’s Suor Angelica but as a hardworking woman whose cynicism is born of the cruelties of poverty. In the scenes with Jess and Sadie, Aunt Sue’s opposition to Sadie’s relationship with Micah was practical rather than personal: she was wary of his situation rather than of the boy himself. This distinction proved to be integral to Pancella’s performance, making her regret for her harshness credible. She spoke ‘Sadie, Micah’s dead’ with as much tenderness as the aunt’s guilt allowed, and her singing of ‘I guess we might as well turn in’ exuded weariness. The symbolic gesture of closing the curtains, a ritualistic banishment of the day’s troubles, was acted with apt dignity. Vocally, too, Pancella’s portrayal of Aunt Sue was shaped by musical integrity, the part wholly in the voice.

IN PERFORMANCE: sopraro CHARLI MILLS as Sadie in Carlisle Floyd's SLOW DUSK in Piedmont Opera's October 2020 production ECHOES FROM CAROLINA [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Pining amongst the pines: soprano Charli Mills as Sadie in Carlisle Floyd’s Slow Dusk in Piedmont Opera’s October 2020 production Echoes from Carolina
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

Described by her lovingly pragmatic aunt as ‘a mite peculiar,’ Sadie is an independent young woman whose defiance of convention consigns her to tragedy in the confines of her repressive community. Radiantly sung in Piedmont Opera’s production by soprano Charli Mills, Sadie was liberated by her love for Micah rather than being defined by it. The soprano’s singing of ‘Look at your hands, Micah’ imparted an affecting sense of awe, and the guilelessness of her utterance of ‘I ain’t used to much’ exhibited a burgeoning romanticism that heightened the expressivity of her vocalism. Mills voiced the aria in which Sadie rapturously muses on the ways in which Micah affects her life, ‘Ev’ry time you leave me somethin’ comes across my spirit,’ with effervescent tone and imaginative phrasing. Sadie’s lament for her fallen betrothed, ‘Micah, why have you left me,’ anticipates the ‘Leadville Liebestod’ in Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, and Mills’s incandescent singing brought to mind the work of one of the first portrayers of Baby Doe Tabor, Leyna Gabriele. To state that Sadie is the most multi-dimensional character in Slow Dusk is not to suggest that the singer who assays the rôle enjoys a wealth of substance with which to create her portrayal, but, quickly quelling initial reticence in approaching notes above the stave, Mills endowed her interpretation of Sadie with psychological immediacy and stirringly real grief.

The artistic path traversed by composer Kenneth Frazelle, a native of Jacksonville, North Carolina, led him from early studies at North Carolina’s School of the Arts to the avant-garde scene at the Juilliard School and ultimately back to the folk music traditions of Appalachia. As outlined in the composer’s conversation with Allbritten that aired during Echoes from Carolina’s interval, Frazelle’s journey into the backwoods of Carolina folk song has transformed him into a peer not only of his Juilliard teacher, noted American composer Roger Sessions, but also of pivotal advocates for the preservation of folk music like Maybelle Carter. Initially attracted by the harmonic possibilities of Appalachian roots music, Frazelle was motivated by his own increasingly encyclopedic knowledge and contact with fellow artists to devote more attention to the plaintive, playful melodies that emerged from the fields, forests, meadows, and swamps of Appalachia.

An invaluable product of this concentration on the melodic fecundity of Appalachian music is Frazelle’s Appalachian Songbook project, excerpts from which appealed to Allbritten as a partner for Slow Dusk in Piedmont Opera’s Echoes from Carolina. Structured in nine episodes, each drawing its subject matter from a folk song, From Appalachia allied Frazelle’s musical treatments of the songs with choreography by Winston-Salem Festival Ballet founder and artistic director Gary Taylor. Responding instinctively to the rhythms of the music, Taylor devised patterns of movement that gave each dance its own atmosphere, to which Festival Ballet’s dancers—Emily Apple, Alexandra Cooney, Elizabeth Fowle, Nicholas Franco, India Green, Ryan Taylor, and Rohima Ward—effortlessly adapted their motions. Taylor’s choreography elucidated the songs’ subtexts, limning the vestiges of melancholy perceptible in even the most whimsical songs.

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano JODI BURNS (left) and a member of WINSTON-SALEM FESTIVAL BALLET in rehearsal for Kenneth Frazelle's FROM APPALACHIA in Piedmont Opera's October 2020 production ECHOES FROM CAROLINA [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Carolina on their minds: soprano Jodi Burns (left) and dancer Ryan Taylor (right) in rehearsal for the world première of Kenneth Frazelle’s From Appalachia in Piedmont Opera’s October 2020 production Echoes from Carolina
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

Wielding his robust tenor voice in From Appalachia, Allbritten was joined by pianist PG Hazard and soprano Jodi Burns, beloved by Piedmont Opera audiences for her portrayals of Anna Sørensen in Kevin Puts’s Silent Night and Donizetti’s Adina in L’elisir d’amore and Maria Stuarda. Like Taylor’s choreography, Hazard’s pianism reverberated with the unique pulse of each song, beginning with an account of ‘In East Virginny’ in which she supplied singers and dancers with a tonal stage upon which to animate the vibrant musical portrait of life in Appalachia. The contrasting moods of ‘Charmin’ Birdy’ and ‘Fly Around, My Pretty Little Miss’ were subtly differentiated by the dancers, whose steps coincided with the cadences of the words.

The pensiveness of Allbritten’s singing of ‘Bonnie Blue Eyes’ was also manifested in the choreography, which conjured a mesmerizing aura of wounded desolation. Burns and the female dancers expelled the gloom with a frolicsome performance of ‘Single Again.’ A murder ballad of the type that was popular during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries in both Appalachia and the British Isles, ‘Naomi Wise’ was choreographed by Taylor as a volatile pas de deux, danced with passion that magnified the potency of Burns’s and Allbritten’s singing. The dialogue between tenor as drunkard husband and soprano as exasperated wife in ‘Our Good Man’ was hilariously duplicated in the choregraphy, executed with particular brilliance by Ryan Taylor.

Musically, the pinnacle of From Appalachia was Frazelle’s setting of ‘The Cuckoo,’ a worthy companion to the most artful folksong arrangements by Haydn, Beethoven, and Britten that was sublimely sung by Burns and eloquently danced by her terpsichorean colleague. The jubilant ‘Sally Ann’ provided a fittingly festive finale, singers, dancers, and pianist exuberantly raising the voice of Appalachia in praise of her unshakeable culture.

Opera staged for small screens is not new to North America. Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors was composed for television. Leontyne Price was first introduced to a nationwide audience by her 1955 portrayal of Puccini’s Tosca for NBC Television Opera Theatre. A 1973 CBC television production of Verdi’s Macbeth with Louis Quilico and Marisa Galvany remains one of the most exhilarating performances of that opera. Streamed to viewers throughout the United States and around the world, Piedmont Opera’s stagings of Carlisle Floyd’s Slow Dusk and Kenneth Frazelle’s From Appalachia rekindled the magic of enjoying world-class musical performances in the safety of patrons’ homes. In the midst of dismaying uncertainty and suffering, Piedmont Opera disseminated hope via poignant echoes from Carolina.

09 October 2020

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: La Stupenda, per sempre - remembering DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND, 1926 - 2010

LA STUPENDA, PER SEMPRE: Australian soprano DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND (1926 - 2010) in the title rôle of Gaetano Donizetti's LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR at The Metropolitan Opera, 1961 [Photograph by Louis Mélançon; © by The Metropolitan Opera]Alfin son tua: Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland (1926 – 2010) in the title rôle of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at The Metropolitan Opera, 1961
[Photograph by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Virtually every parent, educator, and caregiver would likely agree that, in certain situations, there is no more fearsome a word in the English language than Why. A child’s inquisitive ‘Why?’ can be as unnerving as the most intimidating interrogation, those three letters often conveying not only infinite curiosity but implicit challenges to conventional knowledge and perspectives. Scarcely less flustering in the context of interviews with artists are ubiquitous explorations of motivations: beyond the obvious impetus of natural ability, why was pursuing a career in the Arts deemed to be the correct path? Like a child’s deceptively simple query, however, such questions often impart a more consequential probe. Why do the Arts matter?

Prevalent in singers’ reflections on their formative experiences are mentions of fellow singers by whose work they were influenced and inspired. As a dedicated but little-talented student of piano, violin, and voice who for a brief time pondered seeking a career in opera, there are many musicians whose artistry contributed to my passion for the Performing Arts. An aspiring singer might be expected to cite as his foremost operatic idols exponents of his own Fach, but no singer spurred my budding enthusiasm for opera more than Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland.

By the time that I started my vocal studies, Sutherland’s final performance was six years in the past, but her 1962 studio recording of Verdi’s La traviata was one of the first opera recordings that I owned and the first to confirm to me that opera is not only an exhilarating, engaging entertainment but also an art form that matters so much that I contemplated dedicating my life to advancing it. I never had the privilege of hearing Sutherland’s voice ‘live,’ but, in the years that followed my first hearing of her recorded portrayal of Violetta Valéry, I have heard and studied recordings of dozens of her performances.

A stage persona is but one facet of an artist’s personality, but the immutable sincerity of her interpretations enables one to ‘meet’ both Dame Joan Sutherland the diva and Joan the affable colleague and humble servant of music. For some listeners, the simplicity of her portrayals demonstrates a frustrating lack of imagination: for this listener, the meticulous preparedness of her singing exhibits commitments to craft and audiences that more performers should emulate. Knowing her through the characters she portrayed and the manner in which she brought them to life, Sutherland’s passing a decade ago, on 10 October 2010, was for me the loss of a beloved friend.

Born in Sydney on 7 November 1926, Sutherland began her vocal studies under the tutelage of her mother, a fine mezzo-soprano. As she entered adulthood, a scholarship enabled her to further her studies with the renowned pedagogues Aida and John Dickens, who quickly deemed that their gifted pupil was not a mezzo-soprano but a dramatic soprano destined for success in Wagner repertoire. It was with a focus on training her voice to assume the mantle of Dame Eva Turner and Kirsten Flagstad that Sutherland arrived in London to study at the Royal College of Music. Her début at London’s Royal Opera was as the Erste Dame in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on 28 October 1952. Two months later, her Verdian credentials were established with her portrayal of Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, the first portrait in a gallery gradually enlarged by performances of Verdi’s heroines ranging from Amalia in I masnadieri to Desdemona in Otello.

It is rightly her extraordinary vocal virtuosity that is most celebrated, but versatility was also a remarkable component of Sutherland’s career—and of my appreciation for her. She introduced herself to the discerning Viennese as Donna Anna in Josef Witt’s Wiener Staatsoper production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni on 14 September 1959, returning two months later as Verdi’s Desdemona. It was her singing of the title rôle in Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina, not Violetta or Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, that prompted the Venetians to grant her the epithet La Stupenda, and it was also as Alcina that she made her USA début in Dallas.

Sutherland’s triumphant Metropolitan Opera début on 26 November 1961, was as Lucia, but, in addition to an array of bel canto parts, she also offered MET audiences depictions of the heroines in Offenbach Les contes d Hoffmann and Massenet’s Esclarmonde, the latter rôle, also performed in San Francisco and London, having been cited by Sutherland as the achievement of which she was most proud. Her Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots dazzled the Milanese and remained a credible characterization when the part was chosen for her farewell to the stage in Sydney in 1990.

Vancouver hosted Sutherland’s first  portrayals of Bellini’s Norma and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, and Seattle was charmed by her singing of Delibes’s Lakmé. Her Sitâ in Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore won praise in Vancouver and San Francisco. In London, her successes in Italian opera were supplemented by acclaimed portrayals of Lady Penelope Rich in Britten’s Gloriana, Jenifer in the world première of Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, and Madame Lidoine in the British première of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, a rôle that she movingly reprised in Sydney in 1984. Late in her career, the comedic timing evident in her spirited Marie in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment found a delightful new outlet in Rosalinde in Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus. Applauded in Barcelona, Boston, Buenos Aires, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, New Orleans, Palermo, Paris, Philadelphia, Tokyo, and Toronto, Sutherland traversed the globe, amassing a repertoire encompassing music from three centuries.

LA STUPENDA, PER SEMPRE: Australian soprano DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND (1926 - 2010) as Amina (right) and tenor NICOLAI GEDDA (1925 - 2017) as Elvino (left) in Vincenzo Bellini's LA SONNAMBULA at The Metropolitan Opera, 1963 [Photograph by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Sempre uniti in una speme: Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland (1926 – 2010) as Amina (right) and tenor Nicolai Gedda (1925 – 2017) as Elvino (left) in Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula at The Metropolitan Opera, 1963
[Photograph by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

In the company of both devotees and detractors, discussions of singers’ most memorable portrayals are as safe to navigate as active minefields. Though it is universally acknowledged that Sutherland met the musical demands of three of opera’s most daunting rôles—Norma, Lucia, and Violetta—with uncommon vocal faculty, her portrayals are frequently compared unfavorably with those of other singers, most notably Maria Callas and Renata Scotto. That Sutherland wielded neither Callas’s profound sense of character development nor Scotto’s poetic handling of text is undeniable, but hearing the Australian soprano’s colossal voice accurately execute difficult fiorature and confidently ascend above the stave provides visceral thrills unique to Sutherland.

However their dramatic merits contrast with other singers’ performances, Sutherland’s unfailing musicality lends her portrayals of Lucia, Norma, and Violetta compelling presence, her trust in the music allowing the listener to enjoy these rôles according to composers’ intentions. Moreover, it should be noted when assessing her musicality that, her formidable bravura capabilities and the ornamental excesses encouraged by her husband, conductor Richard Bonynge, in some of the studio recordings notwithstanding, Sutherland exercised a laudable degree of fidelity to composers’ scores. Recordings of her live performances of Händel’s Alcina, Cleopatra, and Rodelinda are especially revelatory: here, her embellishments are often far more tasteful than those ventured by some of today’s ostensibly more-historically-informed singers. In both her core repertoire and the rarities that she revived, Sutherland complemented fellow artists’ more theatrical characterizations with performances distinguished by uncompromising musical values.

For this listener, the best of Sutherland’s artistry can be found in her performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena, and Verdi’s Rigoletto. Her appearances as Elettra in Australian Opera’s July 1979 production of Idomeneo surprised even some of her most ardent admirers, not least because the rôle is not as prominent as many of the parts that she assayed, but the character’s wounded pride and vengeful exasperation, culminating in an electrifying account of ‘D’Oreste, d’Ajace,’ resolved with a gigantic interpolated top C, roused unexpected dramatic vitality. The majesty of her depictions of the wronged Mary Stuart and Anne Boleyn impresses, but she also brought great intimacy to her recreations of these historical figures’ plights, achieving movingly tragic grandeur in Maria Stuarda’s confession scene.

Sutherland’s voice was larger than that of almost any other Gilda heard in the past century, but even at the end of her career—she last sang the rôle in a complete Rigoletto in Sydney in 1986, at the age of fifty-nine—she possessed the requisite limpidity of tone for ‘Caro nome,’ ‘Tutte le feste al tempio,’ and the quartet. Discreet downward transpositions were employed in some of her rôles as the voice matured, a reality of aging that Sutherland never denied. Nevertheless, the voice’s greatest assets—the immediately-recognizable timbre, the reserves of power, and the sensational trill—were as apparent in her 1990 Sydney Marguerite de Valois as in her 1959 Covent Garden Lucia.

Ten years after her passing and thirty years after her final performance, voice lovers now must rely upon recordings to appraise Sutherland’s artistry. Despite her long and fruitful association with the label, it can be argued that Decca’s engineers never perfected the art of recording Sutherland with an acoustical perspective that permits full appreciation of the voice’s amplitude and technical consistency. Though mostly free from distortion and peaking, especially in remastered editions, early recordings often deprived Sutherland’s timbre of clarity and lessened the impact of notes above top A.

The close microphone placement of later recordings accentuated a loosening of vibrato and increased laboriousness of vocal production that in-house recordings confirm to have been markedly less apparent in theater acoustics. Amongst Sutherland’s many complete opera recordings for Decca, perhaps only the controversial Turandot and Il trovatore opposite Luciano Pavarotti, in both instances singing rôles in which he was capable but hardly ideal, offer today’s listeners a sonic representation of the voice that can be better experienced on non-commercial recordings.

Sutherland was understandably revered by many of her operatically-inclined Australian countrymen, and, even when her international career was largely centered in Europe and the Americas, her native Sydney remained her artistic home. Consequently, she sang much of her repertoire in Australia, including rôles like Mozart’s Elettra and Puccini’s Suor Angelica that she did not perform elsewhere. One of the finest sources for skillfully-remastered, attractively-packaged recordings of some of Sutherland’s most memorable performances, particularly those from Sydney, is Western Australia-based retailer Celestial Audio.

Of the Sutherland titles available from Celestial Audio, two that I find indispensable are in-house recordings of a May 1973 Covent Garden Lucia di Lammermoor (catalogue number CA1911) and a 1977 Australian Opera Suor Angelica (catalogue number CA1061). As in the second Decca studio recording, Sutherland’s Edgardo in the Covent Garden Lucia is Pavarotti, on superb form in one of his best rôles, but the other parts are taken by Royal Opera stalwarts who did not record these rôles commercially: Louis Quilico as Enrico, Gwynne Howell as Raimondo, Kenneth Collins as Arturo, and Dame Heather Begg as Alisa. Sutherland’s Zia principessa in the Decca Suor Angelica was Christa Ludwig, vocally stunning but unidiomatic. In Sydney, the pitiless aunt was sung by Australian mezzo-soprano Rosina Raisbeck, a fervent singing actress whose intensity heightened the pathos of Sutherland’s delicate but determined Angelica.

LA STUPENDA, PER SEMPRE: Australian soprano DAME JOAN SUTHERLAND (1926 - 2010) as Leonora (right) and tenor LUCIANO PAVAROTTI (1935 - 2007) as Manrico (left) in Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE at The Metropolitan Opera, 1987 [Photograph by Winnie Klotz, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Gioie di casto amor: Australian soprano Dame Joan Sutherland (1926 – 2010) as Leonora (right) and tenor Luciano Pavarotti (1935 – 2007) as Manrico (left) in Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore at The Metropolitan Opera, 1987
[Photograph by Winnie Klotz, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Sutherland was indisputably an important singer, but no less significant to her legacy is the warmth and cordiality of her interactions with colleagues. She first sang Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore in a staging by Wolfram Skalicki and Davis L. West at San Francisco Opera in September 1976. One of her colleagues in that production, celebrated American dramatic soprano Linda Roark-Strummer, vividly recalls the experience of partnering Sutherland in that still-discussed Trovatore. ‘Ah, dear Joan! Of course, I didn’t call her Joan,’ Roark-Strummer shared. ‘I was just starting out and didn’t feel like I had the right to address her by anything other than Ms. Sutherland. I had been with Western Opera Theater [for a year] when I was invited, by Kurt Herbert Adler, to sing Inez in Trovatore with Dame Joan, Pavarotti, [Elena] Obraztsova, [and Ingvar] Wixel, with Bonynge conducting. It was exciting to be working with such fabulous, not to mention famous, singers, just out of the starting gate.’

A young artist’s anxiety at sharing the stage with a singer of Sutherland’s renown is unfathomable. ‘Yeah, I was nervous,’ Roark-Strummer conceded, but her apprehension was short-lived. ‘It didn’t take me long to get comfortable,’ she continued. ‘Dame Joan may have been put on a pedestal by the world, but she was a real person; I mean, a mensch! When she wasn’t on stage, she would sit and do needlepoint. At one of the early stage rehearsals [for Il trovatore], we were sitting on the steps that went up the back of the set, waiting for our entrance; in the second act, I think. She was working on her needlepoint and explaining to me that she was making chair seat covers for Richard [Bonynge]’s “gaming room.” I remember wondering if I would ever have a gaming room, living, as I was at the time, in a two-room apartment!’ This unpretentious domesticity was an integral aspect of Sutherland’s temperament, but her calm demeanor concealed a ribald sense of humor.

‘The funniest moment [of the Trovatore production] came during one of the performances,’ Roark-Strummer confided. ‘The stage set was on a huge rake. The floor on the rake was made up to look like flagstones, and the fronts of the “stones” were made out of foam rubber—mostly, I think, to keep us from falling off the stage! They were interesting to walk on. One rather bounced across the stage. Joan had brought her own costume, which was beautiful, pale blue, with big puffy sleeves and miles of full skirts and a low-cut neckline. And she looked fabulous in it! Judging from the costume they gave me, I don’t think her dress was completely correct to period.’ The contrast with her own costume was glaring, Roark-Strummer recalled. ‘They put me in a forest-green dress that was your basic A-line number with a small train and, over that, a somewhat lighter-colored, open-tunic-type of thing with gold trim. At the time, I was 5’10” tall and weighed 120 pounds. Someone remarked at the time that, on stage, we looked like Mutt and Jeff. The light blue of her dress made her look bigger than life—she was the leading lady, after all! The darkness of mine and the gold trim made me look even thinner than I was. I have a cherished picture of us.’

Roark-Strummer discovered that, beyond the glamorous façade, not even the illustrious then-not-yet-Dame Joan Sutherland was infallible. ‘The aria was “Tacea la notte placida”—and those were the last words any of us understood. Anything after that was anybody’s guess,’ she laughed. ‘The prompter, Phillip Eisenberg, was trying to get [Joan] back on track, to the point [that] I thought he would crawl right out of the box. I was trying to remember what I was supposed to be reacting to but not having much luck. Note to self: Lesson number one—Learn everybody’s part! [I was] worried that Eisenberg was going to have a heart attack. We finished—finally!—and headed off stage, bouncing all the way, and [Joan] looked at me and said, “Oh! I fucked that up, didn’t I?” I thought I wasn’t going to make it off stage and back to my dressing room without loudly laughing myself to death!’

An indirect reunion thirteen years after the San Francisco Trovatore reinforced Roark-Strummer’s fond memories of Sutherland. ‘I never expected Dame Joan to remember me, and I never saw her again after that [Trovatore], but my husband worked with her in Dallas when she was doing her farewell performance in the United States. During a lull sometime in a rehearsal, he approached her and mentioned that she had worked with his wife during her first Trovatore in San Francisco. He told her that I was her Inez. Without hesitation, her face lit up, and she said in her wonderful Aussie accent, “Oh! Linda Long Legs!” They both had a good laugh.’

For Roark-Strummer’s husband, esteemed bass-baritone Peter Strummer, portraying Baron Zeta in the 1989 Dallas production of Franz Lehár’s Die Lustige Witwe with which Sutherland bade farewell to performing in the USA was an unforgettable joy. ‘[We had] a wonderful rehearsal period and performances in Dallas,’ Strummer intimated, ‘and it was fascinating to watch and hear [Sutherland] sing Hanna Glawari because I couldn’t follow Bonynge to save my soul. It was like stirring soup!’ Strummer eventually recognized that, during the course of the spouses’ long collaboration, Sutherland had cultivated unique ways of reacting to Bonynge’s conducting. ‘I wondered how she was able to do it. After a while, I realized she never looked at him!’ Strummer mused.

In the final year of her career, Sutherland remained a conscientious artist, still attentive to making each performance a momentous occasion for the audience, Strummer opined, but she never took herself too seriously. ‘We had a great time, and she was constantly cracking up at my faux Russian accent.’ Not even by the time of her final production in the USA had singing become tedious for Sutherland. ‘One day, we were doing a musical rehearsal, and Dame Joan was sitting behind us. Every once in a while, Ricky [Bonynge] would stop and mention to her that some phrase was one he wanted her to insert into the Fledermaus in her final performance at Covent Garden. He said it several times to her, and finally she leaned forward to me and, with a low, mocking voice, said, “That’s what he thinks! What he doesn’t know is that I am not going to do it at all!”’

When the new production of Il trovatore by Fabrizio Melano in which Sutherland sang her final opera performances at the Metropolitan Opera opened in November 1987, critic Martin Mayer wrote in his review for Opera, ‘Everyone I know who knows her likes Dame Joan; one of her friends must tell her that the time comes when an artist whose stock-in-trade has been voice rather than musicianship or expression or dramatic force must hang it up.’ The prevailing tone of his uniformly negative review is decidedly undiplomatic, but Mayer’s point was and will always be valid. Artists’ reputations are easily tarnished by careers that carry on beyond voices’ abilities to master the music they are charged with singing.

I did not hear the specific performance that spawned Mayer’s withering estimation, but I know and love the broadcast of 19 December 1987, the performance in which Sutherland made her penultimate appearance at the MET. The assured coloratura, the impeccable trills, the grand line, and the written top D in ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee,’ omitted by much younger singers, were astonishingly intact. In truth, such enduring technical prowess would be astonishing in most singers, but it was the hallmark of Dame Joan Sutherland’s career. Have not the years since La Stupenda’s retirement taught us that inviolable vocal reliability is itself a dramatic force?