04 July 2021

RECORDING REVIEW: M. Lanquetuit, L.-C. Daquin, C. Franck, N. Hakim, N. Boulanger, & C.-M. Widor — FRENCH FLOURISHES FROM FIRST-PLYMOUTH (David von Behren, organ)

IN REVIEW: FRENCH FLOURISHES FROM FIRST-PLYMOUTH (David von Behren Music, © 2021)MARCEL LANQUETUIT (1894 – 1985), LOUIS-CLAUDE DAQUIN (1694 – 1772), CÉSAR FRANCK (1822 – 1890), NAJI HAKIM (born 1955), NADIA BOULANGER (1887 – 1979), and CHARLES-MARIE WIDOR (1844 – 1937): French Flourishes from First-PlymouthDavid von Behren, organ [Recorded in First-Plymouth Congregational Church, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA; David von Behren Music; 1 CD / Digital download, 43:15; Available from Amazon, Apple Music, Deezer, and major music retailers and streaming services]

In the history of Western music since the dawn of the Renaissance, extraordinary artistic genius has often manifested in composers whose prowess as organists paralleled their creative gifts. Dieterich Buxtehude’s, Johann Pachelbel’s, Johann Sebastian Bach’s, Georg Friedrich Händel’s, and Anton Bruckner’s reputations as organists are widely known and abundantly evident in their writing for the instrument, but the artistic journeys of composers as diverse as Francesco Cavalli, Camille Saint-Saëns, Olivier Messiaen, and Sir Michael Tippett were also influenced by their work as organists. An instrument capable of both monumental grandeur and entrancing intimacy, and one with intrinsic associations with spirituality for many listeners, the organ is a microcosm in which all of the colors of the orchestra and all of the nuances of human expression coexist. The rare convergences of great composers, great music, great organs, and great organists reveal the power of music in its purest form: an instrument, complex in its construction but gloriously simple in its impact, and the individual entrusted with administering its sounds become storytellers whose tales require no words.

Recorded in the inspiring space of First-Plymouth Congregational Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, French Flourishes from First-Plymouth employs one of America’s finest instruments, California-based Schoenstein and Company’s Lied Chancel organ, the more than 6,000 pipes of which encompass nine divisions and are enriched by 110 ranks and eighty-five stops, producing a panoply of voices ranging from dulcet lyricism to roaring splendor that rivals the most celebrated European organs. The instrument finds in David von Behren, a graduate of Cleveland Institute of Music and Yale University, doctoral candidate at Boston University, and Assistant Organist and Choirmaster at Memorial Church of Harvard University, an artist whose sensibilities are ideally suited to the instrument’s capacity for alternating brilliance with introspection.

Also an accomplished violinist, von Behren plays the ‘French flourishes’ on this expertly-produced recording with technical acumen that dazzles only in retrospect: as he plays, it is the profundity of his interpretive instincts rather than his meticulously-honed technique that awes. The unique sonic profile of a consequential organ within the aural environment that it was designed to inhabit is impossible to capture on a recording with absolute fidelity, but this young organist’s performance transforms the listener’s headphones or speakers into a pew in First-Plymouth’s sanctuary, from which one can contemplate the relationship between a gifted musician and a notable instrument much as Leipzigers must have done when Bach was at the console.

Opening his sagaciously-programmed and thoughtfully-ordered recital with Marcel Lanquetuit‘s engaging Toccata in D major, a piece with much in common with the organ music of the composer’s countrymen Édouard Batiste and Déodat de Séverac, von Behren establishes a celebratory atmosphere, integrating the work’s difficulties into a joyous realization of the music’s oft-neglected humor. The skill with which navigations of manuals and pedals are handled throughout the performances on French Flourishes is immediately apparent, but it is the emotional dexterity with which the Toccata’s challenges are met that distinguishes von Behren’s playing. This performance of the Toccata intensifies the futile longing for more of Lanquetuit’s music to have survived unto the Twenty-First Century.

During an illustrious career in the French capital, Louis-Claude Daquin was organist at Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, the Chapelle Royale, and Notre-Dame de Paris, for the first of which posts he successfully competed with Jean-Philippe Rameau. Though considerably more of his music is preserved, Daquin shares with Lanquetuit the dubious distinction of being assessed primarily on the merits of a single work. The tenth of the Noëls, ‘Noël, Grand Jeu et duo,’ from that work, his Opus 2 Nouveau livre de Noëls, receives from von Behren a traversal that respects the parameters of period-appropriate playing without being restricted by them. The galant style prevalent in French organ music during the first half of the Eighteenth Century permeates Daquin’s writing, but von Behren’s aptly jubilant account of the Noël also discloses unanticipated modernity in deftly-managed harmonic progressions.

At the age of thirty-five, César Franck was named principal organist at the twin-spired Basilique Sainte-Clotilde in Paris’s seventh arrondissement, a post that he held and from which he guided the development of French Romantic writing for the organ for the remaining thirty-two years of his life. Widely acclaimed in the Nineteenth Century, many of Franck’s works for organ remain staples of organists’ repertoires. For French Flourishes, von Behren chose one of the compositions that, though written in Franck’s early years in Paris, were first published in a posthumous collection fifteen years after his death. Representative of Franck’s most beguilingly inventive creations for organ, the Sortie «Laissez paître vos bêtes» (’Venez, divin Messie’) is characterized by melodic succinctness typical of its composer. Attentive to Franck’s tonal textures, von Behren phrases his performance with a Lieder singer’s sensitivity to the psychological significance of dynamics and rhythms. In the Sortie’s final bars, he engenders true resolution, meaningfully contrasting the element of catharsis in the piece’s coda with the aura of harmonic ambiguity found in many works dating from the first decade of Franck’s tenure at Basilique Sainte-Clotilde.

Like the Belgian-born Franck, Naji Hakim brings aspects of another nation’s cultural perspectives to French organ music, his work fusing Western traditions with echoes of the vibrant musical milieux of his native Lebanon. Crafted so that they can be assimilated into the Roman Rite of the Mass (in the Introitus, Offertorio, Elevation of the Host, Communion, and Sortie, respectively), Hakim’s Esquisses grégoriennes rhapsodize themes drawn from plainsong, metamorphosing the monophonic sequences into discourses between old and new. The first of Hakim’s plainchant paraphrases, the ‘Nos autem,’ is played with focus on the composer’s ingenious musical response to the liturgical text that it limns. The surging momentum of the ‘Ave maris stella,’ maintained by von Behren with unfaltering rhythmic accuracy, yields to heartfelt solemnity in the ‘Pater noster,’ approached in this performance as a discernibly personal, sincere devotion. Hakim’s adaptation of the ‘Ave verum’ allies eloquence with innovation, and von Behren utilizes the First-Plymouth organ’s intonational clarity to accentuate the cleverness of the composer’s treatment of the chant. The beauties of ‘O filii et filiæ’ are heightened by the unaffected expressivity of von Behren’s playing, his commitment to precision never obscuring the feeling with which he interprets the music.

Few musical personalities of any epoch have exerted greater influence as concertizing musician, theorist, and pedagogue than Nadia Boulanger, whose own compositions exhibit the same adventurousness evident in her indefatigable championing of the work of her contemporaries. Boulanger’s Trois pièces pour orgue were written in 1911, not long after the young composer, still in her mid-twenties, attended the première of The Firebird and befriended Igor Stravinsky. The early date of its composition notwithstanding, a mature artistic idiom emerges in Boulanger’s Prélude, particularly when it is performed with the delicacy that von Behren brings to it. His gossamer negotiations of the contrapuntal meanderings of the Petit Canon wholly avoid academic lugubriousness, paying homage to Boulanger’s daring substitution of a fugue for instrumental ensemble for the requisite vocal fugue when vying for the Grand Prix de Rome in 1908. Von Behren’s gift for musical portraiture fashions an Improvisation in which Boulanger’s inimitable persona wields timeless charisma.

Since the completion of Charles-Marie Widor’s Symphony No. 5 in F minor (Opus 42, No. 1) in 1879, the work’s dizzyingly virtuosic Toccata has served as a vehicle for showmanship for virtually every organist capable of playing it. This is music in which adequacy is admirable, but von Behren again displays affinity for eschewing convention and devising his own solutions for musical conundra. Instead of the breakneck speeds at which some organists attempt to play the Toccata, von Behren adopts—and, crucially, sustains—a tempo that facilitates crisp articulation of the profusion of semiquavers and arpeggios that decorate the piece’s underlying subject. The mercurial modulations that are sometimes a sonic muddle are here uncommonly clean. The piece’s undulating journey to the boundaries of Romantic tonality is therefore prophetic rather than frenetic, anticipating the progressive tonalities of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies. The Toccata is daunting at any pace, however, and von Behren plays it rousingly.

Legend attributes the invention of the organ to the Third-Century Roman martyr Saint Cecilia, still revered as the patroness of music and organists. This detail of the saint’s hagiography likely resulted from a mistranslation that proved too beloved to correct, but performances by important organists can convince listeners that, whatever the provenance of its origins may be, the organ is a divine gift. Allowing listeners far from Nebraska to experience the might of an instrument with few rivals in North America, French Flourishes from First-Plymouth is also a gift. However wondrous its design, the grandest organ is merely a lifeless body until a conscientious musician revives its pulse, the player’s heart becoming that of the instrument. His musicianship is formidable, but it is the heart with which he plays that marks David von Behren as a poet of the pipes.

10 June 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Ruggero Leoncavallo — PAGLIACCI (M. Vickers, C. Cuervo, S. Koroneos, S. Kim, P. Suliandziga; Opera in Williamsburg, 6 June 2021)

IN REVIEW: tenor MATTHEW VICKERS as Canio (left) and soprano CATALINA CUERVO as Nedda (left) in Opera in Williamsburg's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, 6 June 2021 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1945): PagliacciMatthew Vickers (Canio), Catalina Cuervo (Nedda), Stefanos Koroneos (Tonio), Suchan Kim (Silvio), Pavel Suliandziga (Beppe); Opera in Williamsburg Orchestra; Jorge Parodi, conductor [Naama Zahavi-Ely, producer; Marco Nisticò, stage director; Eric Lamp, costume designer; Opera in Williamsburg, Williamsburg Community Building, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA; Sunday, 6 June 2021]

The world première of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme on 21 May 1892, was unquestionably an auspicious occasion. On the podium was the twenty-five-year-old Arturo Toscanini, already a seasoned operatic veteran. Portraying Canio, the doting but tragically insecure husband at the heart of Leoncavallo’s opera, was a son of Parma, tenor Fiorello Giraud, whose post-Pagliacci career included celebrated portrayals of Wagner rôles. Canio’s spirited wife Nedda was voiced by Austrian soprano Adelina Stehle, who was subsequently heard as Nannetta and Maria in the premières of Verdi’s Falstaff and Mascagni’s Guglielmo Ratcliff. The first Tonio, Victor Maurel, had created Iago in Verdi’s Otello five years earlier and would serve the composer again a year later, interpreting the title rôle in Falstaff. Mario Ancona, Milan’s Silvio, sang Tonio in Pagliacci’s Metropolitan Opera première on 11 December 1893, in which performance he was obliged to encore the opera’s Prologo.

Few performances enjoy the serendipitous circumstances of Pagliacci’s première, but every performance has the potential to be an event that will be long remembered by its audience. Under the leadership of the company’s founder and Artistic and General Director Naama Zahavi-Ely, Opera in Williamsburg’s all’aperto production of Pagliacci was a genuine occasion, both as a much-needed harbinger of the return of the Performing Arts after the long hiatus imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and as an exhilarating realization of Leoncavallo’s score that enabled the Williamsburg audience to experience the piece much as the spectators in the opera witness the performance by Canio and his traveling troupe. Produced by Zahavi-Ely with infallible understanding of the work’s musical and histrionic challenges, the staging, presented on the grounds of the Williamsburg Community Building, involved the observer in the drama with rare immediacy, imaginatively capitalizing on the physical setting by fostering an impromptu performance’s atmosphere of spontaneity.

IN REVIEW: the porch of Williamsburg Community Building, setting for Opera in Williamsburg's June 2021 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]La scena del crimine: the porch of Williamsburg Community Building, the setting for Opera in Williamsburg’s June 2021 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]

Allied with Eric Lamp’s vibrant, whimsical costume designs, virtually a character in the drama in their own right, Marco Nisticò’s direction provided the narrative clarity and consistent momentum upon which the success of a performance of Pagliacci depends. The performance space necessitated a small-scaled approach, but Nisticò’s staging intuitively utilized the intimacy of the venue to intensify the opera’s emotional impact. Performances of verismo repertoire too often lack the realism that defines the genre. By contrast, this Pagliacci was shaped not by exaggerated melodrama but by attention to details of the libretto and score. The troupe’s traditional donkey cart was replaced to splendid effect in Williamsburg by a Chrysler, their arrival heralded by enthusiastic sounding of the vehicle’s horn. After being discovered during her rendezvous with Silvio, Nedda’s reaction to Canio threatening her with a knife was not overwrought as it is in some performances: rather, Nisticò and his cast conveyed that the depth of Nedda’s concern for Silvio’s safety suggests that Canio’s violent rage was hardly unknown to her. Throughout the performance, Nisticò’s work yielded moments in which Leoncavallo’s theatrical adroitness was more apparent than it often is in more elaborate productions.

Opera in Williamsburg’s Music Director Jorge Parodi conducted the performance with emphasis on the lyricism in Leoncavallo’s music, freeing singers and instrumentalists to focus on subtleties of phrasing without decreasing the impact of the opera’s familiar dramatic tumult. Each scene was paced with tempi that exhibited thorough acquaintance with the score and the singers’ individual voices and interpretations of their rôles. The choral contributions to the opera’s opening scene were sung by the soloists, and the Chorus of the Bells was understandably omitted. Parodi’s conducting rendered the absence of this integral part of the score surprisingly inconsequential, maintaining the vitality of the public scenes by accentuating the orchestral pulse that propels the music. Parodi’s verismo instincts were astute, but there was also bel canto in his sculpting of melodic lines, particularly in the Intermezzo. With this performance, Parodi affirmed that corpuscular Italianate passion does not preclude elegance.

Like the efficacy of the modest staging, the reduced orchestration necessitated by the performing conditions facilitated uncommon appreciation of the ingenuity of the composer’s scoring. The fleet playing of assistant conductor and pianist Evgenia Truksa made the lack of a harp unnoticeable, and her colleagues in the pit—Simon Lapointe (violin), Peter Greydanus (cello), Christina Hughes (flute), Shawn Buck (clarinet), and Cody Halquist (French horn)—proved equal to Leoncavallo’s most daunting challenges and the stifling heat (94° F at the start of the performance). The eloquent, energizing sounds that emerged from the orchestra validated the legitimacy of Parodi’s measured handling of the score, each player’s performance spotlighting aspects of the music that are obscured in lavish productions.

IN REVIEW: tenor PAVEL SULIANDZIGA as Beppe in Opera in Williamsburg's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, 6 June 2021 [Photograph © 2021 by Joseph Newsome]La canzonetta d’Arlecchino: tenor Pavel Suliandziga as Beppe in Opera in Williamsburg’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, 6 June 2021
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]

Whether depicting the character’s attempts at preserving calm amongst his fellow thespians or playing his part in the ill-fated comedy, tenor Pavel Suliandziga was a Beppe whose bright sounds shone in the opera’s dark psychological context. Demonstrating his own work ethic as an example intended to quell Tonio’s bitterness and calm Canio’s rage, this Beppe was the opera’s dulcet-toned voice of reason, unnerved but never wholly overpowered by the devolving situation in which he found himself. Suliandziga sang Arlecchino’s serenata, ‘O Colombina, il tenero fido Arlecchin,’ with boyish charm and glistening top As, gleefully projecting the humor of the ironic pantomime. His earnest efforts at averting violence thwarted, Suliandziga’s Beppe was discernibly shattered by the horror of the opera’s grisly final scene, the young tenor touchingly imparting that, for all their failings, Canio and Nedda were dearer to him than mere colleagues.

IN REVIEW: baritone SUCHAN KIM as Silvio (left) and soprano CATALINA CUERVO as Nedda (right) in Opera in Williamsburg's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, 6 June 2021 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]Gl’ amanti ferventi: baritone Suchan Kim as Silvio (left) and soprano Catalina Cuervo as Nedda (right) in Opera in Williamsburg’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, 6 June 2021
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]

The embodiment of amorous youth in a smart searsucker suit, baritone Suchan Kim’s Silvio was the dapper romantic figure that the drama requires him to be. Pausing to gaze upon his lover before sweeping in for his assignation with Nedda, this Silvio seemed enthralled anew by her. The erotic tension in their duet radiated from the stage, electrifying Kim’s ardent singing of the andantino ‘Sapea ch’io non rischiavo nulla.’ He subsequently sang the andantino amoroso ‘Decidi il mio destin’ with tonal beauty and superb line. Kim was little troubled by Silvio’s many top Fs and pair of top Gs, the voice full and free throughout the range except in a handful of passages in which slight constriction affected the upper register. The terror that seized Silvio as he saw Nedda slain by Canio unsheathed the steel in Kim’s voice, but his defiance could not overcome Canio’s mania. Kim fully conquered the demands of Silvio’s music, however, his vocalism as apt for the rôle as his intrepid acting.

IN REVIEW: baritone STEFANOS KORONEOS as Tonio in Opera in Williamsburg's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, 6 June 2021 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]Ecco il prologo: baritone Stefanos Koroneos as Tonio in Opera in Williamsburg’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, 6 June 2021
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]

The rugged, sinewy voice of baritone Stefanos Koroneos glistened and growled in Leoncavallo’s music for the volatile Tonio, both the perpetrator and a victim of his own treachery. There was much poetry in the baritone’s delivery of the Prologo, his delicate voicing of ‘Un nido di memorie in fondo all’anima cantava un giorno’ and the andante cantabile ‘E voi, piuttosto che le nostre povere gabbane d’istrioni’ partnered with powerful readings of more extroverted passages. The traditional interpolated top G was not reached without effort, but the note was undeniably thrilling. The ambiguous joviality with which Koroneos voiced Tonio’s lines in the opera’s first scene gave way to bitterness when he snarled ‘La pagherai! brigante!’ at his tormentor.

In the scene with Nedda, Koroneos sang ‘È colpa del tuo canto’ affectionately, conveying the scope of his surrender to Nedda’s alluring song, and the pathos of his voicing of the cantabile sostenuto ‘So ben che difforme’ was affecting. Nedda’s derision reignited the simmering malevolence, producing a caustic statement of ‘Per la Vergin pia di mezz’agosto.’ As Taddeo in the comedy, Koroneos ensured that Tonio’s sinister intentions were apparent, no matter how jocund the mood. His articulation of the famed ‘La commedia è finita’ unmistakably disclosed gloating self-satisfaction, but, like Suliandziga’s Beppe, the weight of the tragedy that he instigated also shown in Tonio’s demeanor. Koroneos portrayed Tonio as a man whose physical maladies had warped but not weakened his mind, his vocalism, forceful but occasionally wanting strength at the bottom of the range, revealing the crippling insecurity at the heart of the character’s iniquity.

IN REVIEW: soprano CATALINA CUERVO as Nedda in Opera in Williamsburg's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, 6 June 2021 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]La donna oppressa: soprano Catalina Cuervo as Nedda in Opera in Williamsburg’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, 6 June 2021
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]

Equally vivacious and vulnerable, soprano Catalina Cuervo’s Nedda was credible as Canio’s unhappy wife, the quarry of Tonio’s libidinous pursuit, and the object of Silvio’s infatuation. Emotionlessly enunciating ‘Confusa io son!’ after Canio’s menacing outburst about his wife’s infidelity, Cuervo’s Nedda insinuated from the start that any love that she once felt for Canio was supplanted by pity. The unfulfilled wife’s imagination rekindled by the marvels of nature, her singing of ‘Qual fiamma avea nel guardo!’ coruscated with wonderment. Deploying a truly ‘dolce’ top A and laudable attempts at the trills, her account of the ballatella, ‘Stridono lassù,’ was a rousing declaration of independence that seemed all the more brilliant when the atmosphere of reawakening was shattered by Tonio’s intrusion. Cuervo drained all color from her voice to sing ‘Sei là? credea che te ne fossi andato!’ as Tonio approached and then hurled ‘Hai tempo a ridirmelo stassera, se brami!’ at him with disgust.

The edge on the voice with which Cuervo’s Nedda lashed at Tonio softened into a seductive caress upon Silvio’s entrance, though even the bliss of her reverie was tinged with apprehension. In their piquant duet, Cuervo and Kim created sparks with an economy of motion, acting with their voices and faces. The soprano’s smoldering voicing of ‘Non mi tentar!’ divulged the profundity of Nedda’s misery, her ecstatic top B♭s expressing her longing for escape from her life with Canio, but the wrenching desperation of her cry of ‘Aiutalo, Signor!’ as Canio trailed Silvio intimated that the price of freedom would be high.

An unusually sultry, provocative Colombina, Cuervo sang the gavotta, ‘Guarda, amor mio, che splendida cenetta preparai,’ teasingly at first. Each repetition of the jaunty melody grew more frenzied as the sincerity of Canio’s threats became obvious. Refusing to identify Silvio as Nedda’s paramour, Cuervo struck the unhinged Canio with stunning top Bs. There was in this Nedda’s death an aura of inevitability, as though she knew from the opera’s first scene that the only possible source of her deliverance was the blade of Canio’s knife. In this performance, Nedda’s death was a conscious act of reclaiming liberty, acted by Cuervo with poignant simplicity.

IN REVIEW: tenor MATTHEW VICKERS as Canio in Opera in Williamsburg's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, 6 June 2021 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]Il marito sofferente: tenor Matthew Vickers as Canio in Opera in Williamsburg’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, 6 June 2021
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome]

Tenor Matthew Vickers reminded the Williamsburg audience that, though correct in a literal sense, ‘clown’ is too one-dimensional a translation for ‘pagliaccio.’ From his first entrance, this Canio conveyed that, as the ancient Greeks surmised, comedy and tragedy are inseparably intertwined. Canio’s pride in his craft emanated from Vickers’s broadly-phrased singing of ‘Un grande spettacolo a ventitrè ore.’ This was followed by a reading of ‘Un tal gioco, credetemi’ that was at once tender and portentous. With the brief reprise of ‘A ventitrè ore,’ capped with an arresting interpolated top B, Canio’s good humor momentarily exorcised the demons of jealousy and suspicion. Finding Nedda in Silvio’s arms, the gnawing doubts returned, prompting Vickers to voice ‘Derisione e scherno!’ with startling vehemence.

The scene in which Canio laments an actor’s responsibility to the audience, requiring him to maintain a frivolous façade, is one of opera’s most hackneyed episodes, but, declaiming ‘Recitar! Mentre presso dal delirio non so più quel che dico e quel che faccio!’ with mesmerizing gravitas, Vickers communicated the psychological power that has garnered the esteem of generations of singers and listeners. His singing of ‘Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina’ displayed an ideal combination of vocal metal and expressive sensitivity, limning Canio’s despair without resorting to excessive tears.

Casting pretense aside, the tenor’s ‘No! Pagliaccio non son’ was frighteningly explosive, but Vickers adhered to Leoncavallo’s cantabile espressivo marking in his traversal of the stirring ‘Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva,’ the character’s dismay and hopelessness surging through the singer’s top B♭. With a glance at the exultant Tonio as Nedda lay dead at his feet, Canio movingly acknowledged having played his part in a twisted contest of wills. Canio is an iconic rôle that has been interpreted by a progression renowned tenors, of whose company Vickers declared himself to be worthy.

The panache with which all of the artists involved with this production coped with the sweltering heat was nothing short of heroic, but the most searing thing in Virginia’s Historic Triangle on this Sunday afternoon was Opera in Williamsburg’s Pagliacci.

11 May 2021

RECORDING REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven & Robert Schumann — TO MY DISTANT BELOVED (Kindra Scharich, mezzo-soprano; Jeffrey LaDeur, piano; MSR Classics MS 1762)

IN REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven & Robert Schumann - TO MY DISTANT BELOVED (MSR Classics MS 1762)LUGWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1826) and ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856): To My Distant Beloved – Love and Life Cycles for Mezzo-Soprano and PianoKindra Scharich, mezzo-soprano; Jeffrey LaDeur, piano [Recorded at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, Tiburon, California, USA, 18 – 20 February 2019; MSR Classics MS 1762; 1 CD, 74:10; Available from MSR Classics, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

For those who love song, the act of singing, whether with one’s own voice or with one’s heart, is as natural—and as necessary—as breathing. To sing well, which is to sing in a manner via which melding music with text facilitates an avenue of communication that transcends notes and words, is an achievement that can be cultivated but never manufactured. To sing Art Songs well, to elevate the relationships linking music and words to their highest potential, natural gifts must be nurtured and refined, not for a season in practice rooms and lecture halls but throughout an artist’s performing life. For a conscientious champion of singing, an Art Song recital, no matter how accomplished, is always a momentary oasis, not a destination. Whether in new repertoire or new perceptions of much-travelled songs, the journey goes on, complete satisfaction always beyond the singer’s grasp.

Presented by MSR Classics in a warm, bright acoustic in which tones bloom as in a meticulously-engineered recital hall, mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich’s and pianist Jeffrey LaDeur’s recording of music by Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann, To My Distant Beloved, is unmistakably a beginning. This is not to suggest that this is in any way a beginners’ disc. The artistry heard in these performances exhibits individual and collaborative maturity, but there are never pretensions of interpretive finality. Scharich and LaDeur approach the works on this disc with the cooperative spirit of chamber musicians, paradigms of leading and following discarded in a common pursuit of shared psychological engagement. The extraordinary talents of both performers are evident in every note of this music, but the fusion of their skills transforms this disc from a well-sung, well-played recital into a release of enduring significance in the history of recorded Art Song. These emphatically are well-sung, well-played performances. More remarkably, these are traversals of well-known music in which notes and words sound wholly new and conspicuously personal.

Beethoven was not as prolific in the genre as some of his contemporaries and successors, most notably Franz Schubert, yet he exerted indelible influence on the evolution of German Lieder, perhaps most notably by devising the through-composed ‘Liederkreis,’ a cycle of closely-related songs focused on various incarnations of a common psychological theme. Less celebrated by the broader musical community than his symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets, Beethoven’s songs are rightly prized by singers. His trailblazing Liederkreis An die ferne Geliebte was conceived during one of the most trying periods in Beethoven’s life. Unmarried, his career as a virtuoso pianist unraveling due to growing deafness, and battling his widowed sister-in-law for guardianship of her son, the composer coped with his struggles via music, his creative output diminished but never wholly disrupted by strife. A tormented quest for lasting love occupied Beethoven throughout much of his adult life and found in An die ferne Geliebte a sublime outlet that, as performed by Scharich and LaDeur, continues to powerfully promulgate the wrenching emotions of unfulfilled longing.

Partnered by LaDeur as though they were singing a duet, Scharich phrases the opening song of An die ferne Geliebte, ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz ich spähend,’ with the sort of eloquent simplicity expected of a violinist playing the slow movement of Beethoven’s Opus 61 Violin Concerto. In all of the songs on this disc, voice and piano articulate the music with sensitivity to the ways in which patterns of notes convey subtleties of the words. This is never more apparent than in ‘Wo die Berge so blau,’ which Scharich sings with disarming simplicity. Similarly, she and LaDeur delve deeply into the nuances of ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’ without inflating the song’s modest means of expression. The abiding sincerity of Scharich’s connection with Beethoven’s music and Alois Jeitteles’s words is keenly felt in her account of ‘Diese Wolken in den Höhen,’ her ideally-focused intonation paralleling her concentration on lucidly enunciating and interpreting the words. Their realization of the lines ‘Wenn alles, was liebet, der Frühling vereint, / Nur unserer Liebe kein Frühling erscheint’ in ‘Es kehret der Maien, es blühet die Au’ imparts an incredibly moving but understated sense of resignation, the narrator’s feelings of loneliness and sadness heightened by an awareness of inevitability. The directness with which Scharich sings ‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder’ illustrates a vital aspect of an insightful Lieder singer’s art, her own experiences unquestionably shaping her interpretation but imposing nothing on Beethoven’s music.

Whereas Beethoven was plagued during the composition of An die ferne Geliebte by the effects of deafness and worsening physical maladies, Schumann was less troubled in 1840, whilst writing his Opus 42 Frauenliebe und Leben, by the mental illness that so direly affected the final decade of his life. Utilizing texts by Adelbert von Chamisso that would elicit responses from a number of Nineteenth-Century composers, Schumann centered his Frauenliebe und Leben upon an omnipresent inexorability that is at once reminiscent of and quite different from that at the core of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte. Embroiled in 1840 in litigation intended to free his beloved Clara Wieck from the obligation of receiving paternal blessing for marriage, Schumann surely found refuge from this stress in giving musical expression to von Chamisso’s depiction of a woman’s bond with her lover from its inception at their first meeting to its culmination with his death. Rather than the continuous musical progression of An die ferne Geliebte, Schumann’s cycle is comprised of eight self-contained Lieder, each intimating a leave-taking that ushers in the subsequent period in the relationship.

As in their performances of the Beethoven songs, their realization of the opening bars of Schumann’s ‘Seit ich ihn gesehen‘ distinguish Scharich and LaDeur as august interpreters of this music. The technical acumen of the pianist’s playing of An die ferne Geliebte is equaled by the mastery with which he plays Schumann, but the synergy of his rendering of the former gives way in the latter to an aloofness that limns the significance of the piano’s rôle as the voice of the narrator’s swain. In this vein, ‘Er, der Herrlichste von allen’ is an active dialogue between the woman and her wordless lover, the piano representing not her thoughts, as in An die ferne Geliebte, but the object of them. Scharich sustains conversational lightness in ‘Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben’ and ‘Du Ring an meinem Finger,’ the voice utterly secure and stunningly beautiful throughout the range.

In this performance, the somberness that slowly permeates the latter half of Frauenliebe und Leben darkens the colors of Scharich’s vocalism without instigating interpretive heaviness. The earnestness of her voicing of ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’ is augmented by the appealing freshness of the voice. Singer and pianist suffuse their performance of ‘Süßer Freund, du blickest’ with urgency, LaDeur exhibiting the emotive efficacy of fastidiously observing Schumann’s dynamic notations. Autumnal hues emerge in ‘An meinem Herzen, an meiner Brust,’ which Scharich and LaDeur present as a touching reminiscence of fleeting joys. There must have been pangs of irony for Schumann in ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan,’ the obstacles to his union with Clara having caused him such pain. Cynics might be tempted to accentuate that irony, ending the cycle with bitterness and self-pity. Scharich and LaDeur choose reflection over regret, evoking Lord Tennyson’s postulation that it is better to endure the loss of one’s love than to never love.

To My Distant Beloved closes with an aptly atmospheric epilogue in the form of an engrossingly poetic performance of Schumann’s Opus 17 Fantasie in C major. Primarily composed in 1836 in homage to Beethoven and prefaced by a quote from Friedrich Schlegel that memorializes the music’s genesis, the Fantasie epitomizes the tumultuous Romanticism found in much of Schumann’s music, not least his Lieder. Marked ‘Durchaus fantastisch und leidenschaftlich vorzutragen; Im Legenden-Ton,’ the piece’s introduction requires particular rhythmic concentration if it is to seem rhapsodic without becoming chaotic. LaDeur maintains both flexibility and control, preferring subtlety to showmanship and managing the exposition in a manner that highlights the ingenuity of Schumann’s singular musical architecture. The arching lines of the central ‘Mäßig, Durchaus energisch’ section is sculpted with the finesse of a master’s handling of marble, each striation in the music’s textures elucidated but also hypnotically integrated into the cumulative sonority of the piece. LaDeur plays the ‘Langsam getragen; Durchweg leise zu halten’ segment with undeviating fidelity to Schumann’s instructions. The pianist’s technique meets each of the Fantasie’s many challenges with absolute assurance. His performance provides the disc not with a summation but with a musical ellipsis, a kind of entr’acte for the transition into the next phase of this wondrous odyssey.

07 May 2021

RECORDING REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel — RODELINDA, REGINA DE’ LONGOBARDI (L. Crowe, I. Davies, J. Ellicott, B. Cedel, J. Dandy, T. Mead; Linn Records CKD 658)

IN REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - RODELINDA, REGINA DE' LONGOBARDI (LINN Records CKD 658)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi, HWV 19Lucy Crowe (Rodelinda), Iestyn Davies (Bertarido), Joshua Ellicott (Grimoaldo), Brandon Cedel (Garibaldo), Jess Dandy (Eduige), Tim Mead (Unulfo); The English Concert; Harry Bicket, harpsichord and conductor [Recorded in St. John’s Smith Square, London, UK, 16 – 21 September 2020; Linn Records CKD 658; 3 CDs, 200:10; Available from Linn Records, Amazon (USA), Presto Music (UK), and major music retailers]

Few periods in human history are as universally associated with the work of a single artist as the first half-century of the United Kingdom’s Hanoverian dynasty is with the music of Georg Friedrich Händel. Just as the 1714 death of Queen Anne left the British throne without a direct-line occupant, the untimely demise of Henry Purcell in 1695 deprived English music of its foremost talent, initiating a time of transition during which there was no native-born composer whose gifts earned universal acceptance as those of Purcell’s rightful successor. The 1701 Act of Settlement that denied Catholic claimants a path to Britain’s crown by recognizing scions of the German-speaking Haus Hannover as Anne’s heirs presumptive was not concerned with culture, but its implications could not have affected music in England more profoundly.

When the Hanoverian Elector Georg Ludwig was crowned as Britain’s King George I on 20 October 1714, Georg Friedrich Händel—Georg Ludwig’s Kapellmeister in Hannover since 1710—was already familiar in the refined musical circles of the English capital, where his opera Rinaldo, the earliest known opera in Italian that was composed for performance in Britain, received a rapturous welcome in 1711. This good fortune and a favorable reception from England’s nobility persuaded Händel to relocate to London, where he quickly courted aristocratic and royal patronage, the latter initiated by a generous stipend awarded by Queen Anne. Five years after his former Hannoverian employer’s ascent to the British throne, the financial backing of a consortium of titled gentlemen and the issuance of letters patent by the crown enabled Händel to establish his first Royal Academy of Music, the institution via which the composer, who became a naturalized Englishman in 1727, dominated opera in the United Kingdom for a decade.

Händel was unquestionably an opportunist who realized that the most important rôle in any opera production is that of the guardian of the purse strings. Händel’s operas often contained scenes and characterizations that Eighteenth-Century Londoners could not have failed to identify as flattery designed to appeal to influential figures’ vanity. Fêted egos reliably yielding fiscal support, the Royal Academy’s stagings were frequently populated by crowned heads, martial heroes, and long-suffering spouses whose virtues mirrored those attributed to deep-pocketed pillars of English society.

For the Royal Academy’s first new offering of 1725, Händel selected a tale of a faithful wife and mother who, erroneously believing her husband to have perished in exile, is relentlessly pursued by a libidinous usurper whose villainy encompasses leveraging a child’s life. Adapting a libretto by Antonio Salvi that was set by Giacomo Antonio Perti in 1710, Nicola Francesco Haym provided Händel with a scenario rich in possibilities for celebrating the much-prized virtues of valor and uncompromising connubial fidelity. The quality of his music for Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi illustrates that, its potential for increasing the Royal Academy’s stature notwithstanding, this story of misadventures and perceived betrayals appealed deeply to the famously cantankerous Händel.

First performed at London’s King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on 13 February 1725, Rodelinda reached the stage only three-and-a-half months after the première of Tamerlano and slightly less than a year after the inaugural production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto. The success of Tamerlano in October 1724 was sufficient to convince Händel of the commercial viability and artistic perspicacity of entrusting the rôles in Rodelinda to the singers who created parts in Tamerlano. The titular queen of the Lombards and her absent consort were therefore first interpreted by two of Eighteenth-Century London’s most popular singers, soprano Francesca Cuzzoni and castrato Senesino, whose portrayals of Asteria and Andronico were vital components of Tamerlano’s triumph. The parts of the scheming Grimoaldo and Garibaldo were taken by Tamerlano’s Bajazet and Leone, Francesco Borosini and Giuseppe Maria Boschi, with Anna Vicenza Dotti and Andrea Pacini, the first Irene and Tamerlano, as Eduige and Unulfo. Händel’s strategy proved to be prescient: introduced by this ideally-qualified cast, Rodelinda became one of the Royal Academy’s longest-running and most-revived works.

Regrettably, Rodelinda has not been as fortunate on recordings as it was on the London stage in the years between its 1725 première and Händel’s death in 1759. A pioneering production of the opera in 1920 occasioned German radio performances of truncated versions of the score that now offer glimpses of how Baroque opera fared prior to the renewal of interest in historically-appropriate performance practices. Handel Opera Society’s 1959 performances at Sadler’s Wells featured singers of the proper registers in all rôles, the young Joan Sutherland and Janet Baker among them, but neither this nor the first complete studio recording in Italian—a lovely performance with particularly fine singing by Maureen Forrester and Helen Watts that has never been formally available on CD—takes full advantage of advances in scholarship. Despite the participation of an ensemble of renowned singers and the use of Haym’s Italian text, Sutherland’s egregiously-cut late-career studio effort is markedly less effective than the 1959 production, and subsequent audio and video recordings of varying provenance achieved greater authenticity without producing a Rodelinda of indisputable superiority.

Under the direction of Harry Bicket, whose rendering of the continuo is reliably propulsive but gratifyingly modest in when it could be distracting, Linn Records’ Rodelinda proves to be a rare recording without weaknesses in casting, conducting, or orchestral playing. Recording a complete opera whilst adhering to pandemic-imposed distancing protocols is a fearsome prospect, but the intimacy of many of the characters’ exchanges in Rodelinda make recording this opera in studio intimidating in the best of times. Aided by assistant engineer Rodrigo Leal del Ojo and the post-production work of Julia Thomas, Linn’s producer and engineer Philip Hobbs effectuated a recorded ambience in which Händel’s music drama plays out as in a staged performance but with clarity that is rarely possible in an opera house, details of text and instrumentation always audible but never unduly accentuated.

To a markedly greater degree than in many studio recordings of Baroque operas, rhythms in this Rodelinda unerringly follow the course of the drama, stirringly taut in scenes of confrontation and defiance and affectingly expansive when sorrow and regret inundate the music. Physical distance separated the English Concert musicians during recording sessions, but the precision of their ensemble playing discloses unvarying unity of purpose. Obbligati are reliably virtuosic but also congruous with the singers’ phrasing of corresponding vocal lines. The art of fruitful collaboration is an element of professional musicians’ training, yet the continuity of this Rodelinda indicates that the spirit of community demonstrated by these musicians in the making of this recording was not merely an act of professionalism.

Responding to Bicket’s intuitive handling of the score, a noteworthy accomplishment of which is the selection of tempi that are faithful to the composer and his characterizations, the instruments and their players become participants in the drama, their sounds interacting with the voices with a rapport expected in performances of music by Wagner and Richard Strauss but heard all too rarely in Händel’s operas. Months of isolation and cancelled performances perhaps fostered inwardness that nurtured the English Concert’s connections both with one another and with the music. Amidst its devastating losses, the pandemic was the catalyst for a superb Rodelinda.

In performances that heed his instructions and utilize uncut editions of his scores, there are virtually no inconsequential or thankless rôles in Händel’s operas. There are of course numerous instances in which music was written or rewritten to suit particular singers, but even these acts of musical necessity serve legitimate dramatic purposes within their proper contexts. In the context of this recording, the performance of the rôle of Bertarido’s loyal courtier Unulfo by countertenor Tim Mead contributes invaluably to the musical integrity of the English Concert’s Rodelinda.

Setting a standard that is matched by his colleagues, Mead’s declamation of secco recitatives is appropriately conversational, unwaveringly musical, and driven by clear, unexaggerated diction. His singing of Unulfo’s aria in Act One, ‘Sono i colpi della sorte per un’alma,’ reveals great affinity for capitalizing on the emotional undercurrents that flow through Händel’s vocal writing. The voice attractive and evenly-projected throughout the range, Mead’s technical assurance facilitates performances of the arias in Acts Two and Three, ‘Frà tempeste funeste a quest’alma’ and ‘Un zeffiro spirò, che serenò quest’alma,’ that credibly depict contrasting facets of the level-headed Unulfo’s personality, lending him greater depth and involvement in the drama than he sometimes wields. Stating that a minor rôle benefits from a performance by a major singer is clichéd, but Mead’s portrayal of Unulfo legitimizes the platitude’s veracity.

The duplicitous Garibaldo, whose lust for power robs him of the most basic tenets of decency and decorum, is enlivened with adroit vocal acting and unabashedly flamboyant singing by bass-baritone Brandon Cedel. Garibaldo is a rôle in which Samuel Ramey excelled, and, though their voices are very different instruments, Cedel shares his predecessor’s dedication to heightening the character’s menace by making him luridly seductive. The flinty edge and scornful inflections of Cedel’s singing of recitatives banish any questions concerning this Garibaldo’s intentions. His account of the aria ‘Di Cupido impiego i vanni’ in Act One pulses with the sinister glee of a man who rejoices in his machinations.

Cedel also evinces the cowardice that cowers behind Garibaldo’s machismo façade, emphasizing the irony of the schemer’s bravado giving way to alarm at Rodelinda’s vow to pave her road to the throne with his severed head. In Act Two, he voices ‘Tirannia gli diede il regno’ impactfully, the voice’s steely glint reflecting the meaning of the words. Despite his depravity, Cedel’s Garibaldo is not devoid of suavity, his fiorature executed smoothly and descents below the stave focused without being forced. In Cedel’s performance, wickedness sounds irresistibly sensual.

True contraltos are no more common in opera than to-the-manner-born Brünnhildes and Isoldes. There is hardly an overabundance of rôles for contraltos in the works that populate the international repertory, but Händel’s operas and oratorios contain wonderful parts for low-voiced ladies. In this Rodelinda, the contralto rôle of Bertarido’s sister Eduige, the target of Garibaldo’s treachery, is sung by Jess Dandy, whose refined vocalism recalls that of the esteemed Alfreda Hodgson. Dandy’s singing of Eduige’s Act One aria ‘Lo farò, dirò spietato’ suggests that her bravura technique, though impressive, remains a work in progress. Dramatically, she is wholly on point, convincingly imparting concern and contempt. Her account of ‘De’ miei scherni per far le vendette’ in Act Two bristles with indignation, her vocal colorations shifting with the passions of the text. The aria in Act Three, ‘Quanto più fiera tempesta freme,’ is sung with irrepressible tenacity, this Eduige proclaiming that she is a pawn in no one’s game. The theatricality, integration of registers, and tastefulness of Dandy’s singing are delightful and promise still greater things.

Whereas almost no virtues mitigate Garibaldo’s iniquity, the actions of the crown-stealing Grimoaldo are extenuated to some extent by an earnest if somewhat masochistic infatuation with Rodelinda. Vestiges of unfeigned affection are audible in tenor Joshua Ellicott’s complex, conflicted portrayal of Grimoaldo. Without neglecting the ferocity at the core of Grimoaldo’s subterfuges, his singing conveys unexpected fragility. The first of his arias in Act One, ‘Io già t’amai, ritrosa,’ is voiced with bemused vehemence. Ellicott’s Grimoaldo is an ancestor of Richard Strauss’s Herodes and Aegisth who deploys ‘Se per te giungo a godere’ like a conniver’s credo, the tenor’s penetrating timbre sharpening the words’ subversive edge

In Act Two, Ellicott’s assertive manner of singing divisions complements the forthrightness with which he makes dramatic points, the most challenging passages of Grimoaldo’s music thereby tellingly differentiated from the part’s gentler pages. He sings first ‘Prigioniera hò l’alma in pena’ and, later in the act, ‘Tuo drudo è mio rivale, tu sposo’ with close attention to the ways in which Händel’s vocal writing advances the character’s psychological development. Vividly intelligible in every scene in which he appears, Ellicott’s diction galvanizes this Rodelinda’s dramatic electricity in Act Three, baring Grimoaldo’s competing emotions in ‘Trà sospetti, affetti, e timori.’ Moreover, the tenor’s enunciation of the accompagnato ‘Fatto inferno è il mio petto’ blends a Lieder singer’s textual acuity with a stage actor’s deft management of the interweaving of public and private sentiments. Ellicott’s contemplative voicing of Grimoaldo’s final aria, ‘Pastorello d’un povero armento pur dorme contento,’ resolves a probing musical character study of a man whose ambition is undermined by love. Ellicott affirms that, in order to be effective operatic antagonists, harsh characters need not be sung with harsh tones.

Like many of the rôles composed by Händel for Senesino, the deposed king Bertarido vents his strikingly timeless feelings of love, disappointment, and anger in music that pits outbursts of vengeful coloratura against passages of heartrending lyricism. It is with an exquisite example of the latter that Bertarido is first introduced in Act One, and in this performance countertenor Iestyn Davies seems not so much to sing the accompagnato ‘Pompe vane di morte’ as to live the king’s horror and sorrow at seeing his own funerary monument. The sustained B with which he begins ‘Dove sei, amato bene’—justifiably one of Händel’s best-known and most-loved arias, now and in the Eighteenth Century—pierces the hearts of both the character and the listener, the allure of the sound intensifying the pain and yearning that it expresses. Contemporary accounts unreservedly praised Senesino’s singing of Händel’s introspective arias, but, sung in this performance with beauty and expressivity matched on recordings only by Dame Janet Baker, ‘Dove sei, amato bene’ might have been composed for Davies. He brings equal authority to ‘Confusa si miri l’infida consorte,’ however, acting with the voice to limn the despair and desperation that seize Bertarido when he believes that Rodelinda has chosen a crown over fidelity to her husband’s memory.

As Bertarido’s fortunes unfold in the opera’s subsequent two acts, Davies continually adapts his vocal shading to fit the quicksilver progress of the drama. Both of Bertarido’s arias in the second act, ‘Con rauco mormorio piangono’ and ‘Scacciata dal suo nido sen vola,’ are splendidly sung, and Bertarido’s lines in the duetto with Rodelinda, ‘Io t’abbraccio, e più che morte aspro,’ receive from the countertenor readings of tremendous eloquence. In this performance, the Act Three scene in which Bertarido voices ‘Chi di voi fù più infedele, cieco Amor’ is gripping, and the aria ‘Se fiera belva ha cinto frà le catene’ is ardently but stylishly sung. Davies’s voice is a soft-grained instrument that woos more compellingly than it wages war, but he sings the turbulent aria ‘Vivi, tiranno’ commandingly, the roulades executed rousingly. After this display of vocal prowess, the duetto with Rodelinda ‘D’ogni crudel martir’ could seem anticlimactic, but every note that Davies sings in this performance is momentous. Davies’s preeminence as an interpreter of Händel’s music has been widely acknowledged for longer than a decade, but his portrayal of Bertarido in this Rodelinda is a marvel of Händel singing with few recorded peers.

With the rôles that he composed for Francesca Cuzzoni [in addition to Rodelinda, Teofane in Ottone, re di Germania, Emilia in Flavio, re de’ Longobardi, Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Asteria in Tamerlano, Berenice in Scipione, Lisaura in Alessandro, Antigona in Admeto, Costanza in Riccardo primo, re d’Inghilterra, Laodice in Siroe, re di Persia, and Seleuce in Tolomeo, re d’Egitto, as well as Polissena in the 1728 revision of Radamisto], Händel inaugurated a tradition later expanded by bel canto composers’ parts for Giulia Grisi, Maria Malibran, and Giuditta Pasta and by Verdi’s, Puccini’s, and Richard Strauss’s writing for the soprano voice. Unlike their later counterparts, Händel’s Cuzzoni heroines have only recently enjoyed the attention of specialist interpreters, but performances by singers of the caliber of Lucy Crowe are rapidly making amends.

Like Bertarido, Rodelinda is first heard in Act One in a moment of introspection, and Crowe immediately manifests the character’s pervasive melancholy in her poignant singing of ‘Hò perduto il caro sposo.’ Her innate poise tested, this Rodelinda hurls out ‘L’empio rigor del fato vile non potrà’ on a stream of blazing sound. The trills in ‘Ombre, piante, urne funeste’ are tentative, but neither that aria’s dejection nor the determined ire of ‘Morrai, sì, l’empie tua testa’ is uncertain, the musical lines unfurled with the grace and agility of a musical gymnast. In a handful of instances, Crowe ornaments arias with interpolated notes above the stave that are marginally beyond the voice’s realm of comfort, but these brief pangs of astringency potently punctuate Rodelinda’s emotive utterances.

Singing the pair of arias in Act Two, ‘Spietati, io vi giurai’ and ‘Ritorna, o caro e dolce mio tesoro,’ with a wealth of feeling that illuminates the humanity of Händel’s musical portraiture, Crowe emphasizes the unflappable self-reliance in Rodelinda’s constitution. She partners Davies mellifluously in the duetto with Bertarido, summoning a new resolve that surges into Act Three via her traversal of the aria ‘Se ’l mio duol non è sì forte.’ Crowe’s singing is of an uncommonly exalted quality throughout the performance, but, the perils that have oppressed the character from the opera’s start lifting, she voices ‘Mio caro, caro bene! non ho più affanni a pene’ with radiance that also resounds in her singing of the duetto ‘D’ogni crudel martir.’ The success of a performance of Rodelinda relies upon the presence of a capable singer in the title rôle, but Crowe’s performance demonstrates that, when assigned to a singing actress with total fluency in Händel’s musical language, Rodelinda is a worthy sister of Norma, Élizabeth de Valois, Sieglinde, and the Marschallin.

Händel would perhaps be surprised to learn that, nearly three centuries after its first performance in London, Rodelinda is scheduled to return to the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera in March 2022, with Harry Bicket leading a top-rank cast that includes Iestyn Davies’s Bertarido. Ever cognizant of changing fashions, few composers in the Eighteenth Century wrote with broad aspirations or expectations of their music continuing to be performed after their careers ended. Why, then, are Händel’s operas still performed in the Twenty-First Century, when their stories of dynastic clashes and squabbles among mythological figures are so peripheral to collective cultural awareness? The characters whose tribulations are the foundations of Händel’s operas are archetypes without relevance in modern society, but their emotions remain relevant and surprisingly modern. Who in 2021 knows a queen whose consort has been forced into exile by a murderous rival, but who does not know people whose relationships have fallen victim to others’ meddling? Musically, the English Concert’s Rodelinda is a near-flawless performance of one of Händel’s most inspired scores. It is also a vindication of the enduring pertinence of Händel’s genius.

02 May 2021

RECORDING REVIEW: Jeffrey Holmes — RIDER OF DARKNESS, PATH OF LIGHT (K. A. Wiest, N. Isherwood, J. Hardink, M. Robson, Talea Ensemble; MicroFest Records M•F 15)

IN REVIEW: Jeffrey Holmes - RIDER OF DARKNESS, PATH OF LIGHT (MicroFest Records M•F 15)JEFFREY HOLMES (born 1971): Rider of Darkness, Path of LightKirsten Ashley Wiest, soprano; Nicholas Isherwood, bass-baritone; Jason Hardink and Mark Robson, piano; Talea Ensemble; David Fulmer and Jeffrey Holmes, conductors [MicroFest Records M•F 15; 1 CD, 69:29; Available from MicroFest Records, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers]

Nearly seventy years after the death of trailblazing American composer Charles Ives, fear and suspicion of microtonality in Classical Music persist, particularly among artists and institutions of his native country. The earnest efforts of musicians active in many genres to promote appreciation of the uses of microintervals and alternate tonalities in diverse cultures have increased awareness but fostered sadly little progress towards widespread acceptance of modes of sonic expression that deviate from Western praxes. There is no shame in loving a Schubert melody or a Puccini phrase above all else, but innumerable beauties exist outside of the boundaries of traditional harmonies, yearning for discovery. There is also no shame in acknowledging the limits of one’s knowledge and experience by seeking new opportunities for musical exploration. Admittedly, venturing into the uncharted territory of new music can be daunting. As when visiting an unknown place for the first time, informed guidance immeasurably enriches the initial exposure.

New music offers few guided excursions into intriguing sonic environments as viscerally exciting and thought-provoking as Rider of Darkness, Path of Light, MicroFest Records’ artfully-engineered recording of works by American composer Jeffrey Holmes. The compositional voice that emerges in the pieces on this disc is one of astonishing originality. Eschewing the neo-Romantic and post-Modernist trends in Twenty-First-Century music, Holmes crafts aural tableaux in which juxtapositions of rhythmic and tonal intervals replace conventional interplay of melody and harmony. Holmes’s work is intrinsically interactive, spurring the listener to seek distinctive melodies in the undulating progressions of sound rather than presenting finite, unchanging tunes that require no engagement.

Holmes shares with Monteverdi, Händel, and Brahms an acute faculty for capitalizing on suspensions of time in his music. Wells of emotion fill as tones clash and cajole until they overflow, the deluges of feeling appearing like rays of sunlight penetrating oppressive skies, eternal but often gone in an instant. In all of the performances on this disc, Holmes’s music challenges artists and listeners alike, demanding not just to be performed and heard but to be felt. These works reveal that it is not solely in the biological sense that Holmes is a living composer. His artistry exhibits uncommon cognizance of the fact that, when performed and heard anew, all music, whether centuries or seconds old, is a living, evolving organism.

The instrumental pieces on Rider of Darkness, Path of Light disclose a Ravelian affinity for casting instruments’ timbres as characters in musical dramas, the interactions of each instrument with its brethren and its own varied tones shaping convoluted, sometimes almost contrapuntal dialogues. Conducted by David Fulmer with discernible comprehension of the music’s complementary complexities and simplicities, the musicians of Talea EnsembleBarry Crawford (flute and piccolo), Stuart Breczinski (oboe and English horn), Marianne Gythfeldt (contrabass and piccolo clarinets), John Gattis (horn), Matthew Gold (percussion), Alex Lipowski (percussion), Lauren Cauley (violin), Elizabeth Weisser (viola), Chris Gross (’cello), and Greg Chudzik (double bass)—achieve a performance of Hagall [HaglazHail] that seems to reduce its twenty minutes to mere moments.

Nature’s irrepressible fury rattles and rages in the music, but it is here the bringer of vital rejuvenation, not of indiscriminate destruction. Holmes’s writing for percussion is aptly raucous, but the skill with which he interweaves instrumental textures, especially those of the woodwinds, is captivating; even delicate. The Western canon includes many musical depictions of natural phenomena, but, performed on this disc with bracing immediacy, Hagall is an expressive phenomenon in its own right rather than an Impressionistic representation of external forces.

With Thund [Thundering Waters], Holmes proves that, like Liszt and Brahms, his imagination is as stimulated by the capabilities of the piano as by those of an instrumental ensemble. Pianist Jason Hardink offers a forceful rendering of the piece, his technique equal to the music’s formidable requirements. The virtuosity of his playing dazzles, but the sensitivity of his performance manifests the work’s prevailing ethos, limning the intangible sensations of chaos. The defining characteristic of Holmes’s compositional idiom in Thund is a perceptive use of jagged intervals that spur and then defy the listener’s expectations. Hardink’s shrewd phrasing energizes the music’s air of spontaneity, reflecting the reliable unpredictability of nature that is so integral an inspiration of the composer’s cunning.

As paired on this disc, the striking contrasts between a bass-baritone’s sepulchral tones in Urðarmána and a soprano’s brilliant upper register in Myrkriða, Ljósleiðà conjure images of the eerily symbiotic fire and frost of Icelandic landscapes. Utilizing evocative texts in Old Norse, largely of his own composition, Holmes forges—and the use of present tense is in this instance not a matter of semantics, as these are pieces that regenerate their sonic atmospheres anew and differently in each hearing—linguistic and metaphysical contexts that, befitting consequential works of art, are simultaneously unique and universal. The composer’s writing for voices is undeniably punishing for the singers, not least in its unrelenting traversals of their full ranges, yet this is never music that exploits vocal prowess for garish effects. The music’s poignant potency arises from Holmes’s unmistakably personal response to the narrative trajectories of the words.

Fittingly, the cornerstone of bass-baritone Nicholas Isherwood’s performance of Urðarmána [Moon of Fate] is incendiary singing that draws its heat from the text. As psychologically exacting as Philippe’s ‘Elle ne m’aime pas’ in Verdi’s Don Carlos and Wotans Abschied in Act Three of Wagner’s Die Walküre, Holmes’s music takes the voice to the brink of duress, but Isherwood sounds most confident when the writing is least comfortable. Collaborative pianist Mark Robson’s intrepid playing supplies the fuel with which Isherwood ignites his interpretation. The partnership of singer and pianist conveys admirable sophistication, the brashness of their exchanges developing in certain passages into a shared quest for equilibrium similar in ethos to the scene in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges in which, moved to pity, the wronged forest creatures aid the injured child who has tormented them. In the most tumultuous moments of this performance, Isherwood and Robson accentuate the compassion at the heart of Urðarmána.

As the intensity of its emotional journey suggests, Urðarmána is not a piece that can be politely or casually sung. The primordial vigor of Isherwood’s singing belies its innate elegance, but the cogency of his interpretation of Holmes’s music relies upon technical refinement. Cognizance and respect of the voice’s limitations permit Isherwood to take artistic risks. Similar boldness, facilitated by assured mastery of the music, permeates Robson’s pianism, the unflappable musicality of his playing ideally partnering with Isherwood’s singing. Neither the intricacies nor the extravagances of Urðarmána disrupt the poetic urgency of this performance, in which singer and pianist immerse themselves—and, via the sounds they engender, the listener—in the mesmerizing modulations of Holmes’s music.

Structured in fifteen brief episodes, Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá [Rider of Darkness, Path of Light] unites elements of the Lieder cycles of Schubert and Schumann with Twenty-First Century cinema’s non-linear storytelling. Framed by series of metamorphosing reprises of the ‘Myrkriða’(‘Rider of Darkness’) and ‘Ljósleiðá’ (‘Path of Light’) segments, the piece shares with Arnold Schönberg’s Erwartung an abiding aura of spiritual analysis. Here, Holmes’s music becomes the setting for an enthralling sonic peregrination through expressive expanses that at once seem unknown and familiar. From the first pulses of ‘Nátta’ (‘Night Falling’), the performances of Tara Schwab (flute and alto flute), Yuri Inoo (percussion), Michael Kudirka (guitar and additional percussion, and the composer, who conducts and contributes percussion, enkindle an ethereal tonal world in which rhythms echo the changing moods of the words.

The kinetic energy of ‘Dagan’ (‘Daybreak’) crackles through the instruments, and the vastly different sonorities of ‘Myðr Nótt’ (‘Middle of the Night’) and the entrancing ‘Haugaeldr’ (‘Grave Fire’) are projected with wrenching conviction. Dissipating the tension that builds in ‘Ótta’ (‘Last Part of the Night’) and ‘Myrkr’ (‘Darkness’), the progression of ‘Sjóborg’ (‘Sunset’), ‘Hljoðr’ (‘Silence’), and ‘Lykð/Upphaf’ (‘End/Beginning’) proposes an uncertain resolution that, like every aspect of this music’s exegesis, perpetuates the ambiguous synergy of sound and silence.

Throughout the mercurial transitions of Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá, soprano Kisten Ashley Wiest unflinchingly overcomes the hazards of Holmes’s vocal lines whilst also demonstrating her abilities as a percussionist. As a test of the security and stamina of a soprano’s voice, Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá has few rivals in music of any era, its tessitura recalling the treacherous compasses of the Controller in Jonathan Dove’s Flight and Ariel in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest. Holmes’s writing for the voice routinely incorporates craigy ascents above the stave that necessitate extraordinary control. Wiest sagaciously safeguards her vocal resources, unleashing columns of focused sound at climaxes but reserving her most pointed tones for gentler passages.

Myrkriða, Ljósleiðá is a work that cannot be approached without thorough preparation, but Wiest’s performance exhibits understanding that reaches far beyond knowledge of notes and words. There are moments in which harshness and stridency are audible in the soprano’s vocalism, but these invariably originate with the words: when the voice is pushed, it is in pursuit of fleeting expressive details of the text that are too important to be sung sweetly. Singing this piece proficiently is a notable feat. Insightfully and movingly evincing the profundity of its drama, as Wiest does in this performance, is a hallmark of preeminent artistry.

Too often, the barriers that prevent listeners from connecting with new music are their own prejudices. Kirsten Flagstad night have sung the Königin der Nacht’s arias more easily than a contemporary composer can vanquish a reluctant listener’s preconceptions, but the highest aim of Art is to elucidate humanity’s failings in ways that elicit contemplation. In music, this is achieved, in part, by successive generations of artists devising new methods of expression, not because existing traditions are inadequate but because perspectives and relationships alter with the passage of time. As represented by the pieces on this disc, all performed with passion and precision, imparting the inescapable transience of existence is a fundamental component of Jeffrey Holmes’s music. Biases condemn humanity to riding in darkness, but, this disc intimates, embracing Art that seeks new means of deciphering the universe’s enigmas offers a path to light.

25 April 2021

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: remembering CHRISTA LUDWIG, 16 March 1928 – 24 April 2021

IN MEMORIAM: mezzo-soprano CHRISTA LUDWIG (1928 - 2021) as Fricka in Richard Wagner's DIE WALKÜRE at The Metropolitan Opera in 1967 [Photograph by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Heil, göttliche Weib: mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig (1928 – 2021) as Fricka in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre at The Metropolitan Opera in 1967
[Photograph by Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

Perhaps the most fascinating quality of the human voice is its variety. The basic timbres of all voices are inherently different, but the timbre of a single voice is also perceived differently by every listener. The mechanics of a voice’s journey from singer to hearer are governed by physics, but it is in the differences of hearers’ reactions to the sounds that Art dwells. Arguably, the greatest artists are rarely those whose voices please the most listeners: rather, it is often a voice that unites audiences in division that demonstrates artistry of the highest order.

Only amongst those who envied her gifts was Christa Ludwig a divisive artist. Unlike the voices of Maria Callas and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, alongside whom she participated in much-discussed recordings, Ludwig’s voice was universally acknowledged as an extraordinary instrument, one with which the singer could compellingly portray the seductive allure of Carmen and Venus, the blackguard viciousness of Ortrud, and the gleeful malevolence of Humperdinck’s Knusperhexe. The hallmark of Ludwig’s artistry was an uncanny affinity for discerning and communicating the meanings of text within music. In her performances, a Brahms Lied received the same depths of concentration and commitment to verbal incisiveness that she lavished on a Bach Passion, a Wagner opera, or a Mahler symphony. The intrinsic caliber of her vocalism was seldom questioned, even by listeners to whom her timbre did not appeal, but it is still possible long after her retirement from the stage to discover—and debate—new virtues and nuances in her performances. Was her Fricka more an offended goddess, condemning those who defied her dictates, or a wronged wife whose actions disclosed gnawing vulnerability? Was her Waltraute a loving but terrified sister or a stalwart defender of the status quo?

Ludwig’s career is documented too extensively to require further commentary, but her talents merit celebration. Fusing a meticulously-honed technique that enabled her to master the intricacies of Händel’s music for Cornelia in Giulio Cesare and the very different demands of Mozart’s Cherubino, Donna Elvira, and Dorabella with vocal compass, power, and security that brought Richard Strauss’s Marschallin, Ariadne, and Färberin within her grasp, she embodied the stylistic versatility expected of singers since World War Two. Crucially, however, wisdom arising from self-cognizance prevailed throughout Ludwig’s career. Though she sang Beethoven’s Leonore, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, and Strauss rôles with tremendous success and included music for Brünnhilde and Isolde in concerts, she withdrew from an engagement to sing Brünnhilde in a Salzburg production of Siegfried and declined invitations to sing Isolde and other soprano rôles deemed likely to damage her voice. Words shaped her interpretations, and her technique was built upon a foundation of breath support that placed words in the voice, not merely as syllables conveyed by notes but also as thoughts borne by subtleties of phrasing.

IN MEMORIAM: mezzo-soprano CHRISTA LUDWIG (1928 - 2021) as Charlotte (right) and tenor FRANCO CORELLI as the title character (left) in Jules Massenet's WERTHER at The Metropolitan Opera in 1971 [Photograph attributed to Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]Les amants réticents: mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig (1928 – 2021) as Charlotte (right) and tenor Franco Corelli as the title character (left) in Jules Massenet’s Werther at The Metropolitan Opera in 1971
[Photograph attributed to Louis Mélançon, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

For this admirer, Ludwig’s achievements as a singer and an artist are epitomized by her 1965 recording of Franz Schubert’s Lied ‘Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’ (D. 965) with clarinetist Gervase de Peyer and pianist Geoffrey Parsons. Ludwig’s voice almost certainly bore little resemblance to that of Anna Milder-Hauptmann, the soprano for whom Schubert composed the song, the range of which extends across two octaves to B5, and the sentiments of Wilhelm Müller’s and Helmina von Chézy’s texts, though vivid, are simplistic when compared to the complex emotions found in Ludwig’s operatic portrayals. The mezzo-soprano’s formidable legato casts an irresistible spell in the song’s opening Andantino section, but the characteristic voluptuousness of the voice does not inhibit her dexterous delivery of the Allegretto’s bravura passages. The emphasis on textual refinement is that of a great Lieder singer. The expansive cantabile singing is that of an accomplished mistress of bel canto. The top B is that of a vocalist with absolute control over her instrument. It is indisputably, inimitably, and indellibly the work of Christa Ludwig.

31 March 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Umberto Giordano — FEDORA (M. Johnson, J. Brauner, M. Guzzo, M. Brea, S. White, E. Forteza, R. Casas, M. Gracco, B. Montgomery, J. Weatherston Pitts, R. Agster; Teatro Grattaciello, 16 December 2020)

IN REVIEW: soprano MICHELLE JOHNSON as Fedora (left) and tenor JEREMY BRAUNER as Loris in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]UMBERTO GIORDANO (1867 – 1948): FedoraMichelle Johnson (Principessa Fedora Romazoff), Jeremy Brauner (Conte Loris Ipanoff), Marcelo Guzzo (De Siriex), Maria Brea (Contessa Olga Sukarev), Samuel White (Desiré), Eugenia Forteza (Dimitri), Rubin Casas (Grech), Michael Gracco (Lorek), Brian Montgomery (Cirillo), Jordan Weatherston Pitts (Barone Rouvel), Rick Agster (Boroff), Kinneret Ely (Un piccolo savoiardo), Pavel Suliandziga (Sergio), William Desbiens (Nicola); Ezio Pelliteri, accordion; Israel Gursky, piano and conductor [Malena Dayen, director; Jon DeGaetano, lighting designer; Matthew Deinhart, assistant lighting designer; Sangmin Chae, projections; Enrico Venrice, editing; Nicole Russell, assistant conductor; Streamed performance by Teatro Grattacielo, filmed at Tagret Margin Theater, Brooklyn, New York, USA, in October 2020]

Use of only ingredients of the highest quality does not transform an indifferent cook into a Michelin-starred chef. Similarly, utilizing superlative components in the making of an opera guarantees neither the resulting score’s merit nor its success. Opera’s history abounds with accounts of the failures of many pieces with plots drawn from the revered pages of Virgil, William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and other literary illuminati, but works like Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Verdi’s Macbeth and Otello, and Massenet’s Werther reveal what delicacies can emerge from musical minds when they are enticed by words worthy of their melodies.

From the first printings of his early poetry and his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris, still one of the most familiar novels of the Nineteenth Century, Victor Hugo influenced French culture and global perceptions thereof to an extent that few of his fellow writers have approached. Three years before Hugo’s death in 1885, the vibrant Parisian theatrical community was enchanted by the much-discussed actress Sarah Bernhardt’s first performance of the title rôle in a new play by Victorien Sardou, whose work had already been before the public with varying degrees of acceptance for three decades. Their 1882 collaboration, Fédora, solidified an alliance that produced a progression of new plays including La Tosca and Madame Sans-Gêne via which Sardou and Bernhardt would challenge Hugo’s dominance—and, in the inspiration of operatic adaptations of their creations, surpass it.

The appeal of Sardou’s gritty realism extended beyond France’s borders, spilling over the Alps and into Italy’s operatic centers. In Milan, the allure of Bernhardt’s passionate Fédora fascinated the thirty-year-old Umberto Giordano, who sought a subject for a new work to match the success of his 1896 opera Andrea Chénier. Employing a libretto by Arturo Colautti that preserved the vivid melodrama of Sardou’s play, Giordano’s Fedora premièred on 17 November 1898, in Milan’s Teatro Lirico, a prestigious theater that also hosted the début performances of operas by Antonio Salieri, Gaetano Donizetti, and Ruggero Leoncavallo. The reception that Fedora garnered in Italy rivaled that received by Fédora in Paris, the widespread but short-lived popularity of Giordano’s opera, alongside the brief notoriety of the composer’s later setting of Madame Sans-Gêne and the enduring prominence of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca in the international repertory, securing Sardou’s place amongst literature’s most fecund sources of operatic fodder.

Pining to reclaim some incarnation of normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred extraordinary ingenuity in the Performing Arts community. With countless performances having been cancelled in accordance with efforts to protect vulnerable populations from the virus, opera companies have adapted their initiatives to the same technologies that allowed businesses and schools to function remotely, uniting artists with audiences via innovative media. Never content to bow to convention even during the best of times, New York’s Teatro Grattacielo collaborated with Camerata Bardi Vocal Academy to mold a streamed production of Giordano’s Fedora into a momentous experience that both transcended the inherent detachment of the medium and recreated the visceral melodrama of Sardou’s play and Giordano’s still-under-appreciated score with greater immediacy than many lavish stagings with full orchestras and on-site audiences manage to engender.

IN REVIEW: the company of Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]Gli ospiti al ballo: (from left to right) baritone Marcelo Guzzo as De Siriex, soprano Maria Brea as Olga, bass Rick Agster as Boroff, tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts as Barone Rouvel, tenor Jeremy Brauner as Loris, and soprano Michelle Johnson as Fedora in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Performing Fedora with minimalistic scenic designs and singers donning formal attire proved wholly effective in rendering the three disparate settings for the action, the slain Vladimiro’s St. Petersburg palace in Act One, Fedora’s Paris salon in Act Two, and the princess’s Swiss villa in Act Three. Allied with the evocative work of lighting designer Jon DeGaetano and assistant lighting designer Matthew Deinhart, media artist Sangmin Chae’s projections unobtrusively created apt visual atmospheres in which interactions among characters were always the central focus. Capitalizing on the intimacy of the production’s filmed format, Malena Dayen’s direction lent the opera’s action uncommon clarity: regardless of the number of singers on screen and the sameness of their dress, the individual identities of the characters singing and the significance of their utterances were consistently apparent.

Particularly in opulent stagings, the profoundly personal nature of Fedora’s exchanges with Loris amidst the hubbub of Act Two is sometimes obscured, but Teatro Grattacielo’s Fedora elucidated every conflicted emotion and convoluted detail of the opera’s political backstory. A good Fedora brings the implausible plot to life: this Fedora intelligently and engagingly brought the realities of life during a pandemic to a century-old opera, the psychological implications of isolation, suspicion, and loss suffered in lockdown manifested in an eloquent realization of Giordano’s score.

Rather than adapting Giordano’s score for performance by a number of musicians that would have complied with restrictions on mass gatherings, Teatro Grattacielo’s Fedora partnered the singers with the dexterous pianism of conductor Israel Gursky—a sensible decision, as a substantial portion of Act Two is accompanied according to the composer’s instructions by a pianist portraying Boleslao Lazinski, a fictitious ‘nephew of Chopin.’ Hearing the full score played on the piano highlighted the influence of Chopin on Giordano’s music, particularly the Polacca and Notturno in Act Two. Gursky played the opera’s Andante mosso opening bars with elegance that evolved first into playfulness and later into desperation and grief as Act One progressed. The performance of the Act Two intermezzo was radiant, its reprise of the theme of Ipanoff’s ‘Amor ti vieta’ phrased with fervor. Complemented in Act Three by the marvelous performance of accordionist Ezio Pelliteri and aided throughout the opera by assistant conductor Nicole Russell, Gursky shaped a fittingly fervent but sensitive traversal of Giordano’s score.

Under the leadership of Artistic Director Stefanos Koroneos, Teatro Grattacielo assembled a sterling company of artists for this Fedora, both perpetuating the company’s legacy of savvy casting and demonstrating that present hardships have only galvanized musicians’ dedication to their craft. The brief song of the piccolo savoiardo in Act Three exemplified this spirit of reawakening, the lines voiced with an apt aura of bright-toned innocence by soprano Kinneret Ely that contrasted tellingly with mezzo-soprano Eugenia Forteza’s urgent singing of the traumatized Dimitri’s responses to Fedora’s interrogation in Act One. Tenors Samuel White and Pavel Suliandziga and baritone William Desbiens projected surprising individuality in their strongly-sung portrayals of Desiré, Sergio, and Nicola, and the Lorek and Grech of baritone Michael Gracco and bass-baritone Rubin Casas were similarly enlivened by insightful vocal acting. Baritone Brian Montgomery delivered Cirillo’s lament for his slain patron wrenchingly but with welcome—and rare—restraint, and tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts and bass Rick Agster made much of Rouvel’s and Boroff’s few words, drawing impetus for their vocal colorations from the text.

IN REVIEW: soprano MARIA BREA as Olga in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]La contessa capricciosa: soprano Maria Brea as Olga in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Giordano’s music for the spirited Contessa Olga Sukarev was sung with elegance, tonal beauty, and an apt air of hauteur by soprano Maria Brea. From her first lines at Fedora’s soirée in Act Two, this was indisputably a countess who travelled in the most exclusive social circles and was accustomed to ensuring that she remains the belle of every ball. Brea sang ‘Io sono il capriccio leggero, veloce’ delightfully, contrasting with the gravitas of Fedora’s exchanges with Loris precisely as Giordano intended and producing her top As with youthful ebullience. Reacting to De Siriex’s commentary on Russian womanhood, her account of ‘Il parigino è come il vino’ was a good-natured but barbed rejoinder. Brea also lent fleeting moments of levity to Act Three, punctuating her impassioned voicing of ‘Sempre io stesso verde!’ with a shimmering top B and continuing Olga’s contest of wits with De Siriex with flippant conviction. Despite the limits on opportunities to act the rôle imposed by the pandemic, Brea’s characterization of the vivacious countess lacked nothing, the voice and the singer’s innate theatricality rendering stage antics and glittering costumes unnecessary.

IN REVIEW: baritone MARCELO GUZZO as De Siriex in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]La voce della legge: baritone Marcelo Guzzo as De Siriex in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Baritone Marcelo Guzzo was a De Siriex whose burnished, imposing vocalism matched his debonair diplomacy. Subtly commandeering the questioning of the wounded Vladimiro’s servants whilst also comforting and reassuring the devastated Fedora in Act One, Guzzo’s De Siriex sang and acted forcefully. Though it is seldom included in baritones’ recital and recording repertoires, De Siriex’s aria in Act Two, ‘La donna russa è femmina due volte,’ is one of Fedora’s few easily-excerpted numbers, and Guzzo’s undaunted mastery of its quicksilver rhythms and troublesome tessitura exuding irrepressible vitality. This De Siriex neither gloated nor goaded in his conversations with Fedora, relaying rather than sensationalizing the news of the deaths of Ipanoff’s mother and brother, for which Fedora’s accusation of her lover as her fiancé’s murderer was the catalyst. His vivid sparring with Olga in Act Three revealed impishness, jovially rendering the flirtatious rapport between the decorous diplomat and the coy countess. Guzzo voiced ‘Fatevi cor contessa!’ and ‘Lui! Cadde per l’empia sua crudeltà’ with obvious cognizance of the literal and suggestive meanings of the words. Throughout the performance, the baritone’s intelligible diction heightened the refinement of his depiction of De Siriex, but the character benefited most from Guzzo’s superb singing.

IN REVIEW: tenor JEREMY BRAUNER as Loris in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]L’amante e l’assassino: tenor Jeremy Brauner as Loris in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Like Wagner’s Isolde, the titular heroine of Fedora ultimately falls in love with the object of her pursuit of vengeance, the man responsible for the death of her betrothed, though no sorcery facilitates Fedora’s romantic attraction to the brooding Loris Ipanoff. The rôle of Loris was entrusted in the first production of Fedora to Enrico Caruso, who recorded the character’s famous aria with the composer at the piano four years after the opera’s première. This established a benchmark to which tenors’ performances continue to be compared. Following the examples of singers including Ramón Vinay, Carlo Bergonzi, and Plácido Domingo, Teatro Grattacielo’s Loris, Jeremy Brauner, started his vocal studies as a baritone and later transitioned to singing tenor rôles. There were subtle reverberations of his baritonal origins in his performance of Ipanoff’s music, as well as propitious reminders not only of Caruso but of other noted interpreters of Loris, namely Bruno Prevedi and Giuseppe Giacomini.

Brauner’s first appearance in Act Two made Ipanoff’s absence from the opera’s first act regrettable, his robust vocalism immediately raising the temperature of the performance’s simmering verismo. Wooing his Fedora with the Andante cantabile aria ‘Amor ti vieta di non amar,’ sung in recitals and concerts by virtually every tenor active since Fedora’s première, Brauner advanced Loris’s suit with ardor and a fine top A. The plangency of his singing of ‘Mia madre, la mia vecchia madre’ and ‘Vedi, io piango’ garnered the listener’s empathy as ably as it captivated Fedora’s heart.

The metamorphosis of Ipanoff from grieving son and brother to betrayed and ultimately despairing lover in Act Three sometimes elicits over-emphatic vocalism that obfuscates the wronged count’s vulnerability. Brauner’s singing never lacked power, but his characterization also limned the part’s poignant nuances. There was no artifice in his articulation of ‘O bianca madre, o buon fratello,’ Ipanoff’s anguish conveyed with affecting sincerity, and his brilliant top B♭ escalated the expressive urgency of his delivery of ‘Son qui, vicino a te.’ Brauner’s tone occasionally hardened in moments of duress, but his intonation was admirably secure throughout the range. In some performances, Loris is little more than a cipher with a famous aria: Brauner’s Ipanoff was a worthy quarry for his Fedora and a fully-formed character in his own right.

IN REVIEW: soprano MICHELLE JOHNSON as Fedora in Teatro Grattacielo's streamed production of Umberto Giordano's FEDORA, December 2020 [Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]La bella principessa: soprano Michelle Johnson as Fedora in Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Umberto Giordano’s Fedora, December 2020
[Image © by Teatro Grattacielo]

In addition to creating the title rôle in Fedora, soprano Gemma Bellincioni was the first interpreter of Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and sang the eponymous spitfire in the Italian première of Richard Strauss’s Salome. First recorded in studio by Gilda dalla Rizza, considered by Puccini to be the ideal Minnie in his La fanciulla del West, Fedora has attracted sopranos—and a few brave mezzo-sopranos—with vastly different vocal endowments. No Fedora is more renowned than Maria Callas, whose 1956 portrayal at La Scala is rumored to have been documented on recordings that have never materialized, but no one is more closely associated with the rôle than Magda Olivero. There has been no other voice like Olivero’s, and her histrionic gifts were equally unique. Nevertheless, her Fedora is a model for fellow interpreters of the part, her shadow over the opera extending even longer than Caruso’s.

A successful Fedora might seek to emulate certain aspects of Olivero’s interpretation but must recognize that Olivero was inimitable. The foremost success of this production’s Fedora, soprano Michelle Johnson, was her intuitive formation of a portrayal of the dangerous but delicate princess that, like Olivero’s, honored Sardou and Giordano. It was especially gratifying to hear a singer at the height of her abilities as Fedora, the rôle so often being assigned to singers in the latter days of their careers, when the music’s demands, marginally narrower in compass and arguably less strenuous than those of Puccini’s heroines, mitigate reduced vocal resources. Johnson’s singing was commendably and often exuberantly free of compromise: the rôle was in the voice and performed with unflappable confidence.

Arriving at Vladimiro’s estate to assume her place as his intended bride in Act One, Johnson’s Fedora was discernibly a woman of a certain age, unquestionably in love with her betrothed but also enchanted by the prospect of being loved. Her statements to Vladimiro’s servants were genially imperious, but Fedora’s inner fragility was revealed in Johnson’s dulcet voicing of the beautiful Andantino espressivo ‘O grandi occhi lucenti di fede,’ her top A imparting the depth of Fedora’s affection. The simplicity of her singing of ‘Mio dolce Vladimiro! Sogno d’amor, di pace, di poesia!’ realized the full expressive potential of the music. As the gravity of Vladimiro’s condition became apparent, the change in Johnson’s demeanor was unmistakable, her Fedora’s amorous femininity acquiescing to primal ferocity as she probed Vladimiro’s household for information about his attack. Vowing to have justice, this Fedora’s ‘Su questa santa croce, ricordo di mia madre’ was genuinely moving, the soprano’s performance disclosing the shattered bond between Fedora’s happiness and her love for Vladimiro.

Johnson’s acting skills shone in Act Two, in which Fedora sets a trap for Ipanoff but ensnares herself when she falls in love with him. The magnitude of Fedora’s true objectives was apparent despite her feigned insouciance in the revelers’ company, her pursuit of Loris driven by verbal acuity and vocal potency. Reticence was audible in ‘Lascia che pianga io sola,’ the fractures in Fedora’s steely resolve widening into charms as she succumbed to her burgeoning love. Johnson thrillingly accepted Giordano’s challenge of an optional top C in the expansive duet with Loris, her voice soaring in ecstasy.

The caliber of Johnson’s artistry was confirmed in Fedora’s scene with De Siriex in Act Three. Learning that her implication of Loris in Vladimiro's assassination led to the deaths of Ipanoff’s brother and mother, Johnson’s Fedora was overwhelmed by the consequences of her actions. The soprano’s command of line yielded a stirring account of ‘Dio di giustizia, che col santo ciglio,’ but Johnson achieved still greater heights of operatic expression with her ruminative singing of ‘Se quella sciagurata perdutamente avesse amato Vladimiro?’ and ‘Se quell’infelice qui stesse ai tuoi piedi.’ The voluptuous voice reduced to a thread of emotion in the authentic Olivero fashion, Johnson enunciated ‘Tutto tramonta...tutto dilegua’ with harrowing earnestness. Dramatically, Johnson offered a fascinatingly complete portrait of Fedora. Vocally, she sang the rôle with an assurance that is now seldom heard in performances of verismo repertoire.

Combatting COVID-19 has altered perspectives on art and artists’ practices, the necessity of avoiding gathering for performances accentuating the desire for shared artistic experiences. There is no adequate substitute for sitting shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers in a theater, not merely hearing but feeling voices rise above an orchestra, but Teatro Grattacielo’s streamed production of Fedora was an act of sustenance, not one of surrogacy. Its musical integrity and dramatic values overcoming the limitations of its genesis, this Fedora reaffirmed that opera thrives on—and in—strife.