27 September 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: W. Byrd, J. Bull, J. S. Bach, D. Scarlatti, L. Couperin, J.-P. Rameau, P. Royer — LA JOIE DE VIVRE (Jory Vinikour, harpsichord; Capriccio Baroque, Washington, DC, USA; 18 September 2021)

IN REVIEW: harpsichordist JORY VINIKOUR in recital with Capriccio Baroque, 18 September 2021 [Photograph © by Capriccio Baroque; used with permission]WILLIAM BYRD (circa 1540 – 1623), JOHN BULL (circa 1562 – 1628), JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750), DOMENICO SCARLATTI (1685 – 1757), LOUIS COUPERIN (1626 – 1661), JEAN-PHILIPPE RAMEAU (1683 – 1764), JOSEPH-NICOLAS-PANCRACE ROYER (1703 – 1755): La joie de vivreJory Vinikour, harpsichord [Capriccio Baroque, Live! at 10th and G Street, Washington, DC, USA; Saturday, 18 September 2021]

When musical and theatrical performances in all of their incarnations were first sacrificed in the pursuit of safeguarding public health in March 2020, it is unlikely that even the starkest pessimists could have envisioned that more than eighteen months of shuttered theaters and stifled voices would ensue. Like the well-heeled Washingtonians who quit the District in July 1861 for an afternoon in the country, intending to casually observe the annihilation of the Armies of the Potomac and the Shenandoah and the quashing of secession at Bull Run, many Arts lovers logically expected the world’s war against COVID-19 to be brief and decisive, clearing the path for a rapid return to normalcy.

Eighteen long, trying months after the first closures and cancellations, glimmers of hope are brightening on the horizon despite the continued oppression of ominous clouds that refuse to dissipate. It is hardly surprising that art and artists are part of the vanguard fighting diligently to reclaim senses of healing and hopefulness. The harpsichord is perhaps not an instrument to which most listeners would ascribe a capacity for precipitating social change, but world-renowned harpsichordist Jory Vinikour’s recital for Capriccio Baroque, La joie de vivre, was a performance that incited a revolution of optimism. Exulting in the eponymous joy of living, the recital was both a splendidly fulfilling musical event and a symbolic victory over strife that has sometimes seemed unconquerable.

An alumnus of Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, Vinikour has performed often in the Capital region, recent seasons having included lauded recitals at the Library of Congress and the National Gallery of Art, the latter featuring violinist Rachel Barton Pine, with whom he frequently collaborates in performances—and an acclaimed Cedille recording—of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sonatas for violin and harpsichord. Under the leadership of founder Carolyn Winter, whose rich-timbred 1972 William Dowd harpsichord, expertly tuned for the event by Barbara Wolf, was employed for La joie de vivre, Capriccio Baroque events have deepened Vinikour’s association with the District of Columbia. Surveying a century-and-a-half of music for harpsichord with particular focus on the development of distinct national styles of writing for the keyboard, Le joie de vivre provided both a thoughtfully-conceived artistic experience and an evening of inestimably precious musical fellowship via which a present master of an instrument of the past affirmed that, come what may, music propels the future.

The English school of composition for the keyboard flourished at the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, both of whom were accomplished musicians. With the advent of the viol consort and the increasing prevalence during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries of England’s gentry owning virginals, the name by which almost all stringed keyboard instruments were called in Tudor England, English composers of the era, amongst whom William Byrd was perhaps the most renowned, adapted the complex polyphonic language of their continental counterparts to their countrymen’s tastes. One of the best-known and most dazzlingly virtuosic of Byrd’s pieces composed for the virginal, ‘The bells’ (BK38) derives initial momentum from a two-note ground bass that may represent the tolling of the eponymous bells. Essentially a series of variations of progressive difficulty, the piece served as an apt introduction to Vinikour’s capabilities. The clarity with which he sounded the ground bass throughout the work maintained a firm rhythmic foundation, upon which he built billowing cascades of sound, and accentuated the pealing of bells that ostensibly inspired the piece. The passagework was played with the dexterity expected of an acclaimed harpsichordist, but Vinikour found depths of emotion in even the most demanding bars of Byrd’s music.

Like his near-contemporary Byrd, John Bull is extensively represented in the seminal collection of Sixteenth- and early-Seventeenth-Century manuscripts now celebrated as the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Among the most familiar pieces in the book, Bull’s ‘The Kynges Hunt’ is a​n early example of vivid tone painting. As with Byrd’s music, the paucity of verifiable documentation reduces analysis of the gestation of ‘The Kynges Hunt’ to conjecture. Whether the music represents a specific event or type of royal chase cannot now be definitively ascertained, but Vinikour’s performance of the piece was unquestionably an event worthy of regal occasions. The call-and-response effects characteristic of many musical depictions of hunts were limned with interpretive cunning, suggesting that the quarry of this finger-testing pursuit was amorous rather than bestial. The nimbleness of Vinikour’s playing ignited the music’s inner fire, illuminating the inventiveness with which Bull utilized the musical language of his time to create sonic tableaux of surprising modernity.

Almost certainly dating from the first decade of the Eighteenth Century, before the composer reached the age of twenty-five, Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 912 Toccata in D major is an imaginative piece in hexapartite form, virtually a miniature prototype for his later suites and partita for harpsichord. It is difficult to make a successful career as a harpsichordist without attaining proficiency in performing music by Bach, but Vinikour’s performance of the BWV 912 Toccata confirmed that his affinity for breathing new life into Bach’s widely-performed works for harpsichord is extraordinary. The galvanizing Presto that launches the Toccata received from Vinikour a reading that awed not merely with technical deftness but also with unerring precision in articulating ornaments.

The contrast with the subsequent Toccata’s Allegro was unusually apparent, Vinikour emphasizing this section’s more relaxed atmosphere without sacrificing momentum or brilliance. Lackluster in too many harpsichordists’ performances, slow movements are often pinnacles of Vinikour’s recitals, and Bach’s Adagio was here played with yearning lyricism, the handling of the melodic line expansive but unaffected. The composer indicated no tempo marking for the Toccata’s fourth part, allowing the performer a measure of exegetic freedom. Honoring the tradition of dance suites from which the Toccata emerged, Vinikour chose a pace that combined elegance with energy, transitioning hypnotically into the penultimate segment, which Bach instructed should be played ‘con discrezione,’ a somewhat cryptic dictate that in this performance was followed with expressive panache. The Toccata’s closing Fuga was played rousingly, the harpsichordist’s elucidation of the fugue’s principal subject paralleling his rendering of the ground bass in Byrd’s ‘The bells.’

Born in the same year in which both Händel and Bach were welcomed to the world, Domenico Scarlatti also shared with Bach the distinction of being a scion of a renowned musical family. Whereas his father Alessandro’s career was largely centered in the opera house, Domenico dedicated his creative endeavors to supplying the Spanish and Portuguese royal courts with instrumental music and sacred works in the Italian style learned from his father and his contemporaries. Of his 555 extant keyboard sonatas, Vinikour offered two of the most popular, both of them in the binary form that Scarlatti espoused throughout his creative journey. In this performance, the sonatas fashioned a pairing that was not unlike an operatic aria and cabaletta. The poetic B-minor Sonata (K 87) was played with mesmerizing concentration on the melodic line, Vinikour’s phrasing accentuating the latent Classicism in the music. The dizzingly decorative figurations of the D-major Sonata (K 535) were delivered with electrifying fervor, but here, too, pointed attention to thematic evolution yielded a performance in which the Italianate tunefulness of Scarlatti’s music was as evident as its technical ingenuity.

Having traversed music from England, Germany, and Italy before the interval, the latter half of the programme explored the wealth of music for harpsichord from Vinikour’s adopted homeland, France. The sonorities of the Dowd instrument were ideally suited to this repertoire, the differentiations among registers enabling Vinikour to exhibit the innovation with which French composers treated exchanges of subjects and countersubjects. Vinikour’s powerful performance of the twenty-seventh entry in the Pièces de clavecin catalogued by Bruce Gustafson in the Twentieth Century, Louis Couperin’s Passacaille in C major, sometimes called the ‘Versailles’ Passacaille, luxuriated in the grandeur of the piece, the richness of the writing drawing from instrument and musician an unexpected breadth of sounds. Too often, the harpsichord is perceived to have limited expressive capacity owing to its singular method of tonal production. Vinikour’s playing of Couperin’s Passacaille wholly dispelled this misconception.

Whereas Bach and Händel were creating masterful works for harpsichord that continue to be performed in the Twenty-First Century whilst they were still teenagers, Jean-Philippe Rameau began writing much of his most acclaimed keyboard music in the mid-1720s, when he was in his early forties. The five pieces that Vinikour included in La joie de vivre were drawn from the D-minor Suite (RCT 3) published in Rameau’s 1724 Pièces de clavecin. Like Byrd and Bull a century earlier, Rameau brought to music for the harpsichord an uncommonly refined gift for portraying vibrant scenes in sound. His ‘L’entretien des Muses’ was played with intensity that irradiated subtleties of Rameau’s harmonic daring. Vinikour made both ‘Les tourbillons’ and ‘Le lardon’ tours de force, their very different characters individualized not by idiosyncratic effects but by close adherence to the composer’s specifications. This performance of ‘La boiteuse’ was distinguished by kaleidoscopic tone colors, achieved by sensitive management of dynamics. Requiring great dexterity and emotional engagement, ‘Les cyclopes’ is a perfect vehicle for Vinikour’s artistry, and his performance thrilled and touched in equal measures.

Like one of his most illustrious predecessors on the French musical scene, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer was born in Italy. Arriving in Paris at the age of twenty-two, Royer served the Bourbon court of Louis XV as tutor to the royal household and shared directorship of the famed Concerts Spirituels with Jean-Joseph de Mondonville. Sadly, very little of Royer’s output has survived, but the works that are available to Twenty-First-Century musicians are of superb quality. Vinikour performed the Allemande (‘Marche avant le sacrifice’) with boldness, the chords played forcefully but gracefully. Eloquence was the cornerstone of his intelligent, understated interpretation of ‘La sensible,’ but ‘La marche des Scythes’ gave Vinikour an opportunity to demonstrate unadulterated technical prowess. Having furnished an exposition of the beauty of which the instrument was capable throughout the evening, he concluded the announced programme with an explosion of bravado.

Rather than selecting a virtuosic display piece from his considerable repertoire, Vinikour chose for his encore the well-known fifth piece from François Couperin’s 1717 Ordre sixième de clavecin, ‘Les Barricades mystérieuses.’ His performance was unfailingly agile, of course, but his reading of the piece exuded a spirit of celebration that manifested the recital’s theme. This was an evening in which the joy of living, expressed through music, eclipsed the sorrows of a prolonged season of silence.

13 September 2021

RECORDING REVIEW: Anton Rubinstein — PIANO SONATAS NOS. 1 & 3 (Ludovico Troncanetti, piano; Movimento Classical MVC 001/43)

IN REVIEW: Anton Rubinstein - PIANO SONATAS NOS. 1 & 3 (Ludovico Troncanetti, piano; Movimento Classical)ANTON GRIGORYEVICH RUBINSTEIN (1829 – 1894): Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 3, Opp. 12 and 41Ludovico Troncanetti, piano [Recorded in BartokStudio, Bernareggio, Monza e Brianza, Lombardy, Italy, September 2018; Movimento Classical MVC 001/43; 1 CD, 66:12; Available from Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify, and major music retailers and streaming services]

Eight years before the bicentennial of his birth will be observed, Anton Rubinstein’s importance to music both in and beyond Russia thrives, not least in the halls of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, the venerable institution of musical instruction—and alma mater of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich—founded under Rubinstein’s guidance in 1862. Unlike his younger brother Nikolai’s fifteen-year stint as leader of the Moscow Conservatory, the elder Rubinstein’s tenure at the helm of the organization he inaugurated was brief, but his work as an acclaimed conductor, a respected pedagogue whose pupils included Tchaikovsky, and, above all, one of the Nineteenth Century’s most celebrated piano virtuosi secured a legacy that continues to shape the creation of music and the education of musicians.

127 years after his death, Rubinstein is esteemed as a composer principally on the merits of his six symphonies and his 1871 operatic setting of Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov’s seminal poem ‘The Demon,’ none of which are now widely performed outside of Russia despite the advocacy of artists of the caliber of conductor Igor Golovchin and the late baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who excelled in the title rôle of The Demon. Sadly, Rubinstein’s reputation as a peer of Franz Liszt has enticed few of today’s pianists to explore the Russian composer’s œuvre for solo piano, a substantial body of work that encompasses pieces in a variety of styles and genres. The cornerstones of Rubinstein’s output for piano are his four sonatas, their collective genesis spanning more than three decades of his career, works of expert craftsmanship and imagination that merit but still struggle to occupy places in the repertoires of enterprising pianists.

This recording of two of Rubinstein’s sonatas by Siena-born pianist Ludovico Troncanetti is extraordinarily welcome. A resolute proponent of Rubinstein’s music for piano, Troncanetti studied with fellow pianists Leslie Howard and Pier Narciso Masi, both of whom share their pupil’s interest in rediscovering significant works that have been neglected by other pianists. In the performances of Rubinstein’s first and third sonatas on this disc, Troncanetti continues an industrious survey of the composer’s music that has already yielded an acclaimed interpretation of Rubinstein’s Opus 45 Piano Concerto in G major. The pianist had an instrument with a clear, resonant timbre at his disposal for this recording, but neither his vividly-articulated playing nor the piano’s tone is ideally served by the recorded ambiance. Lacking depth and aural perspective, the engineered sound deprives the piano’s voice of space in which to bloom. [Due to the difficulty of obtaining physical copies of Movimento Classical releases in the USA, this review is based upon hearing the recording in digital audio format.] Nevertheless, Troncanetti’s playing triumphs, transcending sonic limitations with performances distinguished by intuitive tone painting and unimpeachable musicality.

The first of Rubinstein’s four piano sonatas, his Opus 12 Sonata in E minor, is a youthful piece, too accomplished to be regarded as juvenilia but nonetheless the work of a precious teenager. The unsullied brio of the young permeates the sonata, likely written in 1847 and 1848, but the technical demands of the music irrefutably affirm that, even before reaching the age of twenty, Rubinstein was a pianist of singular ability. The sonata’s opening Allegro appassionato movement is a tour de force of tremoli, arpeggi, and triplets in octaves. Troncanetti effectuates these feats intrepidly but also sculpts the meandering, unmistakably Russian melodic line with poetic lyricism. Similarly, he phrases the expansive melody that introduces the Andante largamente movement with compelling tenderness. In this performance, the central transition from C major to A minor is revealed to be no mere stylistic formality. Troncanetti probes the emotional gravity of Rubinstein’s management of modulations, finding nuances in the music that belie the composer’s youth and relative inexperience.

Reminiscences of Mendelssohn and Schumann echo in the third movement, a playful Moderato scherzo in which Rubinstein honed his contrapuntal skills. Troncanetti brings the sort of lucid realizations of subjects and countersubjects more often heard in performances of music by Johann Sebastian Bach to his reading of Rubinstein’s scherzo. His playing exudes sensuality, harmonic progressions given the immediacy of lovers’ exchanges. The thundering octaves that propel the closing Moderato con fuoco movement, prefiguring Rachmaninoff, are rendered with staggering power, the young pianist conspicuously inspired by the young composer’s musical portrayal of the prototypical Russian soul. The majesty of Troncanetti’s performance never overextends the scale of the music, but he is also never content to simply play notes, no matter how exacting, without contemplating their consequence.

The prominence with which it appears in extant documentation of his own recital programmes suggests that it was the Opus 41 Sonata in F major, theorized to date from 1853 – ’54, that Rubinstein loved best amongst his piano sonatas. Whether this indicates some autobiographical association between composer and music can be debated, but there is no question that the third sonata is an intensely personal work in which Rubinstein fully assimilated the influences of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann into a foundational entity that fomented his mature compositional idiom. The sonata’s Allegro risoluto e con fuoco movement receives from Troncanetti a demonstration of an extensive panoply of his talent, the insightfulness of his cognizance of each phrase’s function within the broader architecture of the music allied with total psychological engagement. His percussive executions of the staccati that animate the Allegretto con moto are supported by unerring rhythmic precision that also heightens the drama of Rubinstein’s savvy changes of tempo.

The third sonata’s Andante movement is one of Rubinstein’s most hauntingly beautiful interludes for piano, almost a tone poem in its own right that anticipates the early work of Richard Strauss whilst remaining perceptibly Russian in character. The unconventional harmonies that impart the sense of yearning at the heart of the music are shaped by Troncanetti with refinement, nothing shortchanged and nothing overdone. He internalizes the passion in this music, building climaxes that are like sudden, audible outbursts in a secret discourse. The finale movement, marked Allegro vivace, assumes the guise of a frenetic tarantella, its thematic development and recapitulation defying prescribed formulæ. Troncanetti exposes the vein of savagery in the music, narrowing the divide between order and chaos that lends the movement its exhilarating aura of danger. As Rubinstein retreated from the precipice in the music, Troncanetti restores tranquility and equilibrium by playing the sonata’s final bars with particular finesse.

There are numerous passages in these performances of Rubinstein’s sonatas in which the intimacy and individuality of the pianism conjure the impression that the music is being extemporized, yet, following the scores whilst hearing the traversals of the sonatas, the fidelity with which each of the composer’s instructions is followed astonishes. This recording highlights the absurdity of pianists’ and listeners’ persistent ignorance of Anton Rubinstein’s piano sonatas. The aficionado of music for piano who questions the legitimacy of the sonatas’ quest for acceptance in standard recital repertory have not yet heard Ludovico Troncanetti play them.

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — L’ELISIR D’AMORE (C. Taylor Price, P. Suliandziga, J. Costa, L. Radosavljevic, S. Kim, Y. Kissin, O. Poveda-Zavala, K. Scott, M. Trovato; Opera in Williamsburg, 10 September 2021)

IN REVIEW: the Sapphire Cast of Opera in Williamsburg's September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Kimball Theatre & Opera in Williamsburg]GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): L’elisir d’amoreChristine Taylor Price / Laura Martínez León (Adina), Pavel Suliandziga / Jordan Costa (Nemorino), Leo Radosavljevic / Suchan Kim (Belcore), Yuri Kissin / Oliver Poveda-Zavala (Dottore Dulcamara), Kirsten Scott / Michelle Trovato (Giannetta); Opera in Williamsburg Ensemble and Orchestra; Jorge Parodi, conductor [Naama Zahavi-Ely, producer and projections designer; Benjamin Spierman, stage director; Eric Lamp, costume designer; Joshua Rose, lighting designer; Opera in Williamsburg, Kimball Theatre, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA; Friday, 10 September 2021]

When whichever forces of destiny govern theatrical realms smile on the many elements that contribute to success on the lyric stage, whether in fleeting moments of inspiration or throughout the course of a performance, opera can be mesmerizing. There is magic in the making of opera, but it is not conjured solely by musical sorcery. Though the toil is often disguised in the finest performance by the appearance of spontaneity, countless hours of grueling work are required to provide audiences with enriching, thought-provoking experiences.

Meaningful operatic experiences like those provided by Opera in Williamsburg’s staging of Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto comedy L’elisir d'amore were uncommon even before a global pandemic forced the Performing Arts community into a desperate struggle for survival and relevance, necessitating innovative adaptations of artistic genres to new technologies and physical spaces. [Opera in Willuamsburg’s virtual production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurdice and outdoor staging of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci were models of their kind, confirming that a company’s endurance depends as much upon the creativity of its stewards as upon financial support.] Returning to the intimate setting of the Kimball Thestre on historic Duke of Gloucester Street, Opera in Williamsburg mounted a production of L’elisir d’amore that indelibly demonstrated why opera has emerged changed but undeterred from five centuries of natural and human atrocities, economic depressions, and political unrest. It is not necessary for opera to incite controversy or spark revolutions: when produced and performed with the dedication and determination evident in this L’elisir d’amore, it can alter the world, one smile and tear at a time.

IN REVIEW: tenor PAVEL SULIANDZIGA as Nemorino in the Emerald Cast of Opera in Williamsburg's September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]Il giovane amante: tenor Pavel Suliandziga as Nemorino in the Emerald Cast of Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]

The deceptive simplicity of their plots makes staging bucolic opere buffe like L’elisir d’amore challenging in the best of times. Produced by the company’s founder and Artistic Director Naama Zahavi-Ely, Opera in Williamsburg’s L’elisir demonstrated rare cognizance of the necessity of sincerity in comic opera. The dramatic situations in L’elisir d’amore, deftly adapted by Felice Romani from a libretto written for Daniel-François-Esprit Auber by the celebrated Eugène Scribe, are unquestionably amusing, but the success of a performance of the opera relies upon an audience’s ability to empathize with the characters, not merely to laugh at their foibles. Zahavi-Ely’s projection designs and Benjamin Spierman’s direction yielded scenic and dramatic environments in which the singers were able to create wily, winsome characterizations. The avoidance of excessive slapstick and coy mannerisms allowed the comedy to progress organically.

Unmistakably guided by familiarity with both Donizetti’s score and the physical demands of singing, Eric Lamp’s costumes and Joshua Rose’s lighting designs complemented the unaffectedly charming staging, the former unobtrusively aiding the singers in establishing their characters’ individual and social identities and the latter enhancing the observers’ perceptions of the artists’ physical and emotional interactions. The professionalism of all of the production’s crew shone in details large and small, the subtle differences between stage action in the matinée and evening performances reflecting unusual breadth of focus on each artist’s strengths. Scenically, this was not an elaborate L’elisir, but, as the audiences’ reactions indicated, it was a beguilingly effective production.

IN REVIEW: tenor JORDAN COSTA as Nemorino in the Sapphire Cast of Opera in Williamsburg's September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]Inebriato d’amore: tenor Jordan Costa as Nemorino in the Sapphire Cast of Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]

It is difficult to imagine that the composer’s supervision of the opera’s 1832 première in Milan’s Teatro della Canobbiana could have engendered a more innately bel canto account of L’elisir d’amore than Opera in Williamsburg’s Music Director, Argentine conductor Jorge Parodi, achieved in the Kimball Theatre. Under Parodi’s direction, the Opera in Williamsburg Orchestra brought Donizetti’s score to life with energy and affection. Intonation, balances, and precision of ensemble were virtually flawless throughout both performances. Splendid as the string playing was, the wind players—Shannon Vandzura (flute), David Garcia (oboe and English horn), Shawn Buck (clarinet), Matt Lano (bassoon), Benjamin Lostocco (trumpet), and Cody Halquist (French horn)—earned special praise for their virtuosic handling of seamless transitions, Lano playing the obbligato in Nemorino’s celebrated romanza with great beauty. He was partnered by Alexandra Naumenko, whose mastery of the diverse sounds of an electronic keyboard offered unexpectedly authentic harp accompaniment for ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ and unflagging momentum in the opera’s secco recitatives.

Singers and instrumentalists alike benefited from Parodi’s cueing, and the music was ideally served by his sensible but exciting tempi. A few moments, especially in the evening performance, in which coordination between stage and pit faltered were admirably brief. Parodi’s conducting style is understated, with none of the mannered gesticulation of conductors who want to be a show unto themselves. In this production of L’elisir d’amore, it was his inviolable and discernibly inspiring collaborative musicianship that commanded attention.

IN REVIEW: sopranos KIRSTEN SCOTT (center left) and MICHELLE TROVATO (center right), who alternated as Giannetta in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]Due Giannette al prezzo di una: sopranos Kirsten Scott (center left) and Michelle Trovato (center right), who alternated as Giannetta in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]

Assembling one fully-qualified cast for any of Donizetti’s operas is a daunting task, but, responding to challenges of timing and location imposed by COVID-19 and other factors, Opera in Williamsburg succeeded in bringing two superb casts to this staging of L’elisir d’amore. Designating the alternating personnel for the matinée and evening performances as the Emerald and Sapphire casts proved to be wonderfully apt, the vocal standards achieved by the young artists, many of them making rôle débuts in this production, matching the exemplary work of their colleagues in the pit, on the podium, and behind the scenes. Voices heard solely in ensembles, those of sopranos Angela De Venuto and Stephanie Lupo and tenor Diego Valdez, were uniformly attractive and sustained by well-schooled techniques that encompassed the often-elusive skill of functioning as parts of a team. As both actors and singers, their performances intensified the production’s consistent musicality.

Equally delightful without singing a note was teenager Samuel Foraker, whose vivid portrayal of Dulcamara’s assistant disclosed pantomime trumpeting worthy of Dizzy Gillespie and a scene-stealing smile. In every scene in which they appeared, not least the craftily-written quartet and the Rossinian episode in Act Two in which news of Nemorino’s inheritance is relayed to the village ladies, the sopranos who shared the rôle of Adina’s meddlesome confidante Giannetta, Kirsten Scott and Michelle Trovato, sang vibrantly, the former giving the rôle a suggestion of bemused irony, while the latter’s Giannetta was a mischievous Mistress Quickly in the making.

IN REVIEW: soprano CHRISTINE TAYLOR PRICE as Adina (left) and bass-baritone LEO RADOSAVLJEVIC as Belcore (right) in the Emerald Cast of Opera in Williamsburg's September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]La sposa riluttante ed il suo fidanzato: soprano Christine Taylor Price as Adina (left) and baritone Leo Radosavljevic as Belcore (right) in the Emerald Cast of Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]

The epaulettes of Belcore, the preening, pompous regimental sergeant who marches unceremoniously into L’elisir’s Arcadian status quo, were donned in the Emerald cast by bass-baritone Leo Radosavljevic and in the Sapphire cast by baritone Suchan Kim. Their respective entrances epitomized overwrought bravado, the antics of the officer and his small band of soldiers, consisting of off-duty Nemorino and costume designer, often redolent of Monty Python skits. Each gentleman delivered Belcore’s Act One cavatina ‘Come Paride vezzoso porse il pomo alla più bella,’ an arduous piece with no opportunity for warmup, with appropriate swagger, Radosavljevic maintaining steely power in the mid-range and Kim ascending above the stave with assurance. Belcore’s bravura lines in the trio with Adina and Nemorino and the subsequent quartet, sometimes lost in these bustling ensembles, were reliably audible and always sung with an air of testosterone-fueled superiority.

Belcore’s ‘Venti scudi’ duet with Nemorino in Act Two is one of the opera’s best-loved numbers, and the accounts of it in this production were raucously exhilarating. From his irritated utterance of ‘La donna è un animale stravagante davvero,’ Radosavljevic depicted Belcore’s annoyance and eventual glee at having lured the naïve Nemorino into military service with cunning that stopped short of true cruelty. Kim also limned the sergeant’s battle with a decidedly non-threatening foe with pointed vocal acting, each note in the rapid-fire triplets fully and accurately sung. Both singers enacted Belcore’s acceptance of his ultimate rejection by Adina with smarmy ennui, keen to dive back into a sea in which many eligible fishes were certain to come nibbling. With voices of differing timbres, textures, and ranges, Radosavljevic and Kim sang Belcore’s music dashingly.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone YURI KISSIN as Dulcamara (left) and tenor PAVEL SULIANDZIGA as Nemorino (right) in the Emerald Cast of Opera in Williamsburg's September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]Il dottore ed il suo paziente: bass-baritone Yuri Kissin as Dulcamara (left) and tenor Pavel Suliandziga as Nemorino (right) in the Emerald Cast of Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]

One of Italian opera’s most appealing purveyors of ineffective cures for maladies physical and psychological, Dottore Dulcamara is indisputably L’elisir’s most modern character, an archetype of the species of relentless pitchmen who populate cable television, peddling every conceivable life-altering gadget and concoction. Donizetti heightened the allure of the figure who bursts from Romani’s libretto by giving Dulcamara music of irresistible magnetism. Opera in Williamsburg’s Dulcamare, bass-baritone Yuri Kissin in the Emerald Cast and bass Oliver Poveda-Zavala in the Sapphire Cast, brought debonair charisma and vocal sophistication to their depictions of the affable schemer. The cavatina with which Dulcamara introduces himself to the eager villagers in Act One, ‘Udite, udite, o rustici,’ was sung with technical aplomb and masterful comedic timing by both artists, Kissin evincing the character’s cunning and Poveda-Zavala accentuating his suavity. The incredulity and amusement with which Dulcamara ascertains in their duet that Nemorino’s desperation impels him to wholly believe in the power of Isotta’s legendary elixir surged across the footlights.

In the matinée performance, Kissin impersonated Senatore Tredenti in the ‘barcaruola a due voci’ hilariously, delivering ‘Io son ricco, e tu sei bella’ with a feigned toothless lisp that rarely impeded his clear diction. More of the words were obscured in Poveda-Zavala’s singing of the barcaruola, but his Dulcamara’s good-natured lechery shown through the farcical façade. Bass-baritone and bass projected Dulcamara’s lines in the quartet robustly, and their singing in the duet with Adina was fantastic, Dulcamara’s recognition of the feebleness of his ‘art’ in competition with Adina’s feminine wiles projected with amazement and a touching flicker of vulnerability. Both Kissin and Poveda-Zavala executed the rôle’s trademark patter commendably, the former’s strength above the stave complemented by the latter’s resonance at the bottom of the range. Launching the opera’s finale with ‘Ei corregge ogni difetto,’ these Dulcamare blissfully crowned themselves kings of the moment, singing with irrepressible self-satisfaction. Donizetti’s expert writing for the part notwithstanding, Dulcamara can be a boorish bore whose appearances are dreaded. In Opera in Williamsburg’s L’elisir d’amore, Kissin and Poveda-Zavala earned the audiences’ mirth, claiming Dulcamara’s rightful place at the core of the comedy.

IN REVIEW: tenor JORDAN COSTA as Nemorino (left) and bass OLIVER POVEDA-ZAVALA as Dulcamara (right) in the Sapphire Cast of Opera in Williamsburg's September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Diego Valdez]Il dosaggio corretto: tenor Jordan Costa as Nemorino (left) and bass Oliver Poveda-Zavala as Dulcamara (right) in the Sapphire Cast of Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]

Few are the tenors who have never sung any of Donizetti’s music for Nemorino, opera’s quintessential hapless lover, though there are more than a few among them who should have left the rôle to better-suited candidates. On the surface, Nemorino does not seem a strenuous part, especially by Donizetti’s standards: even his closest cousin, Ernesto in Don Pasquale, faces greater technical obstacles. Still, Nemorino is a punishing sing, much of his vocal line hovering in the passaggio, in which range tenors must carefully manage their resources. Perhaps the greatest feat of Opera in Williamsburg’s staging of L’elisir d’amore was casting two superlative Nemorini, Pavel Suliandziga and Jordan Costa.

Springing into the opera’s opening scene, Suliandziga and Costa sang the melodious cavatina ‘Quanto è bella, quanto è cara’ with boyish wonder, their very different timbres gleaming. In the matinée, Suliandziga’s soft-grained, silvery voice glistened in the first duet with Adina, in which the brighter patina of Costa’s tones sparkled in the evening show. The bravura writing in the duet with Dulcamara overcame neither singer, their readings of ‘Voglio dire lo stupendo elisir’ palpitating with hope. Costa capped ‘Obbligato, ah! sì obbligato!’ with a rousing top B, revealing an easy upper register that impressed throughout the evening. In the second duet with Adina, ‘Esulti pur la barbara’ drew impassioned vocalism from Nemorini emerald and sapphire. Both tenors excelled in the trio with Adina and Belcore and the frenetic quartet, always making their words heard. Suliandziga voiced the larghetto ‘Adina, credimi’ in the afternoon performance with heartbreaking sincerity, the depth of Nemorino’s despair suffusing the music, and the anguish felt by Costa’s Nemorino was palpable.

IN REVIEW: tenor JORDAN COSTA as Nemorino (left) and baritone SUCHAN KIM as Belcore (right) in the Sapphire Cast of Opera in Williamsburg's September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]Soldato e sergente: tenor Jordan Costa as Nemorino (left) and baritone Suchan Kim as Belcore (right) in the Sapphire Cast of Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]

In Act Two, Suliandziga and Costa sparred captivatingly in Nemorino’s scene with Belcore, both of them repeating ‘Venti scudi!’ with awed relief. In the afternoon and evening performances, ‘Ai perigli della guerra’ was sung with emotional honesty, contrasting with the comical exchanges reminiscent of Rossini’s scene for Conte Almaviva and Figaro in Act One of Il barbiere di Siviglia. The boundless enthusiasm of Suliandziga’s singing in the duet was matched by the cathartic joy of Costa’s top C, and their performances in the bustling quartet exemplified bewildered elation. The beloved romanza ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ was sung gorgeously in both performances, Suliandziga’s gossamer legato emphasizing the music’s pathos and Costa’s ably-supported mezza voce evoking Nemorino’s burgeoning optimism. The disperato ‘Poichè non sono amato’ rang out wrenchingly in afternoon and evening. There was not so much as a modicum of affectation in the devotion with which these Nemorini embraced their Adina when she at last expressed her love: a moment that is often greeted with laughter was profoundly moving in this production. Amongst notable Nemorini of the past, Suliandziga recalled Luigi Alva, whilst Costa brought Ugo Benelli to mind. Each of Williamsburg’s interpreters brought his own unique gifts to the rôle, creating an endearingly memorable Nemorino.

IN REVIEW: soprano CHRISTINE TAYLOR PRICE as Adina in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]Quanto è bella: soprano Christine Taylor Price as Adina in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2021 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Diego Valdez; used with permission]

The soprano scheduled to portray Adina in the evening performance, Laura Martínez León (the lovely Amore in Opera in Williamsburg’s 2020 virtual production of Orfeo ed Euridice), was unwell and unable to sing, leaving the Emerald cast Adina, Christine Taylor Price, to sing the heroine’s music in both of Friday’s performances. By the end of the evening, Price might well have cursed Donizetti and Romani for positioning Adina’s most demanding music in the last fifteen minutes of the opera. That she sounded remarkably secure of voice after singing the rôle twice in nine hours, however, with nary a hint of fatigue audible in her vocalism, was a testament to her training and vocal conditioning.

In both performances, Price depicted Adina as a determined, independent woman whose capriciousness finally causes her to become a victim of her own strategizing. Beginning Act One, she recounted the tale of the fateful elixir of love in a delicately-phrased traversal of the cavatina ‘Della crudele Isotta il bel Tristano ardea,’ radiantly punctuated by firm top Bs. Untroubled by the plethora of top As in the scene with Belcore, she voiced ‘Vedete di quest’uomini vedere po’ la boria!’ with élan. Fervently as she professed her disinterest to her earnest swain, her dulcet singing of the cantabile ‘Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera’ did not convince the listener that this Adina’s heart did not already belong to Nemorino. The soprano lent Adina’s surprise at observing Nemorino’s seeming indifference in their second duet atypical credibility, disclosing wounded pride rather than spitefulness as the catalyst for her quest for vengeance. Price’s poised handling of the most onerous pages of the trio with Nemorino and Belcore and the quartet that precipitates the Act One finale, perhaps even finer in the second performance than in the first, enhanced her portrayal of Adina as a woman whose vivacity is bolstered by virtue.

Exasperated by Nemorino’s absence from the wedding festivities at the start of Act Two, Price uttered Adina’s aside ‘Ci fosse Nemorino! Me lo vorrei goder’ with genuine dismay. She played the reluctant coquette to the life in the barcaruola, authoritatively rebuffing the decrepit senator’s advances. The voice soaring above the ensemble, her top B and C in the quartet divulged Adina’s increasing disenfranchisement. It was apparent from the start of their duet that Dulcamara was destined to lose a contest of wits with this Adina. Price’s voicing of the aria ‘Prendi, per me sei libero’ shimmered with Adina’s love for Nemorino, her top C again used as an expressive device, and the ebullience with which she dispatched the triplets in the brief cabaletta ‘Il mio rigor dimentica’ seemed to come as much from the heart as from the vocal cords. Conquering the unenviable assignment of singing the rôle twice in a single day, Price was a rare Adina who both possessed the requisite prowess in range and fiorature and used it to communicate affectingly honest emotions.

Dulcamara’s elixir of love regrettably proves to be merely cheap wine and exalted assertions, but Opera in Williamsburg’s production of L’elisir d’amore was the remedy that it promised to be. When jollity is dispensed with the enchantment of Donizetti’s music and the unfailing exuberance of Opera in Williamsburg’s performances, the veracity of the familiar adage is affirmed: in love, in life, in sorrow, and in strife, laughter is truly the best medicine.

11 September 2021

RECORDING REVIEW: Robert Schumann — MUSIC FOR SOLO PIANO (Reed Tetzloff, piano; Master Performers MP 21 001)

IN REVIEW: Robert Schumann - MUSIC FOR SOLO PIANO (Master Performers MP 21 001)ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856): Carnaval (Opus 9), Grand Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor (Opus 11), Arabeske (Opus 18), and Romanze (Opus 28, No. 2)Reed Tetzloff, piano [Recorded in Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, Massachusetts, USA, 29 – 31 January 2021; Master Performers MP 21 001; 1 CD, 77:30; Available from Master Performers, Amazon (USA), and major music retailers and streaming services]

It is perhaps inevitable that observers armed with the products of decades of musicological research and critical analysis scrutinize works of art for indications of the maladies both physiological and psychological that plagued their creators. Are the occasional repetitions and unresolved subplots in Dame Iris Murdoch’s novels harbingers of Alzheimer’s? Do the manipulations of gender paradigms in The Garden of Eden parallel the neuroses that undermined Ernest Hemingway’s relationships and ultimately precipitated his suicide? Are there auguries in Vincent van Gogh’s early canvasses of the insecurities that tormented him?

Music provides myriad opportunities for well-intentioned sleuthing. Why did a composer choose one key over another? Why is an expected cadence denied? Why were conventions respected or discarded? It is not surprising that listeners who are acquainted with details of the life of Robert Schumann, not least the psychosis that effected suicide attempts and necessitated institutionalization during the final two years of his life, examine performances of his music in search of aural manifestations of the composer’s mental deterioration. In this context, ignorance may well be bliss: intriguing as probing Schumann’s music for symptoms of waning sanity can be, it is far more satisfying to merely enjoy it. What abounds most plentifully in Schumann’s work is genius, and no special investigative skills are needed to perceive it.

It is also natural for attentive listeners to survey young artists’ recordings with ears attuned to suggestions of artistic evolution, career trajectories, and interpretive proclivities. Just as Schumann’s music is arguably best enjoyed without pretexts, the listener without knowledge of a musician’s training, accomplishments, and aspirations may be best able to hear and appreciate a performance on its own terms. The dedication, preparation, and study that gave rise to this inspiriting Master Performers recording of some of Schumann’s most demanding music for solo piano deserve diligent appraisal, but it is the originality of the perspectives with which Reed Tetzloff approaches the music, especially the much-recorded Carnaval, that offers the most tantalizing glimpse of this young pianist’s artistic path.

Composed during 1834 and 1835 and dedicated to Polish violinist and composer Karol Lipiński, a rival of Niccolò Paganini whose performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata with Franz Liszt at the piano remains one of the most legendary events in music history, Schumann’s Opus 9 Carnaval rose from the ruins of an abandoned series of variations on a melody by Schubert. In this excitingly innovative work, the young Schumann’s fascination with tonal cryptography, encoded subtexts, musical portraiture, and self-quotations yields intriguing surveys of the piano’s technical capabilities and capacity for tonal diversity. Schumann’s depictions of literary and musical influences, artistic rivalries, and facets of his own psyche test a pianist’s interpretive resources, the music’s difficulties demanding concentration that limits some performers’ explorations of Carnaval’s psychological nuances.

It was not without reason that Schumann and his beloved wife Clara, one of the most accomplished concert pianists of the Nineteenth Century, surmised that his piano music was too demanding to be viable for any but the most virtuosic pianists. In the performance on this disc, Tetzloff confronts Schumann’s challenges without hesitation, his technique winning every battle, but the interpretive prowess that his playing wields is no less remarkable. Unmistakably invigorated rather than intimidated by Schumann’s music, this young pianist immerses himself in Carnaval, elucidating the imagination with which the composer portrayed his conflicting musical personalities.

From the first bars of the Quasi maestoso Préambule, it is apparent that Tetzloff’s approach to Carnaval is informed but in no way inhibited by tradition. The music’s origins in an aborted homage to Schubert are especially evident in this performance, Tetzloff emphasizing this influence as a way of focusing the listener’s attention on the ingenuity of Schumann’s subsequent invention. The commedia dell’arte episodes that follow, ‘Pierrot’ and ‘Arlequin,’ are subtly but strongly characterized, the contrasting moods of the music projected with rhythmic articulation rather than interpretive exaggeration. Phrased by Tetzloff with eloquence befitting its title, the Valse noble here serves as a sort of processional introducing the Adagio ‘Eusebius’ and Passionato ‘Florestan,’ the manifestations of Schumann’s metaphysical dual personas. In this performance, which treats the music as a spirited discourse between the two voices, the ambiguities of both segments are meticulously explored, seriousness and frivolity given uniform prominence.

Pseudo-Baroque sensibilities transform Tetzloff’s playing of ‘Coquette’ and ‘Replique’ into a coy, courtly exchange that only partially masks libidinous undertones. The ‘Papillons’—of no relation to Schumann’s more famous creation with the same title—flutter seductively in the atmosphere conjured by the pianist’s quicksilver sounding of the notes. The ‘Lettres dansantes’ of ‘A.S.C.H.  S.C.H.A.’ are delivered with diligent adherence to Schumann’s markings, Tetzloff’s playing again suggesting an introduction to the deeply personal movements that follow. ‘Chiarina,’ the composer’s Passionato depiction of Clara, benefits from an unaffected reading, the depth of feeling permitted to emanate from the music instead of being imposed upon it.

Acquaintance with the Polish master’s musical language permeates Tetzloff’s account of Schumann’s Agitato nod to Fryderyk Chopin. ‘Estrella’ is likely a portrayal of the Austrian pianist Ernestine von Fricken, with whom Schumann fell in love soon after their first meeting in 1834, and ‘Reconnaissance’ is often regarded as a recounting of a meeting between Schumann and von Fricken, from whom the composer seemingly broke precipitously. Tetzloff effectuates the music’s youthful impetuosity compellingly but without a limiting sentimental agenda. Rather, the listener is tasked with identifying and reacting to the emotions in the music and, thereby, with becoming an active participant in the performance.

Commedia dell’arte figures return in ‘Pantalon et Colombine,’ their stylized joviality animated by the restless energy of Tetzloff’s playing of the coruscating rhythmic figurations. The ‘Valse allemande’ and its Intermezzo, vestiges of Paganini’s dazzling virtuosity igniting the latter, constitute an organic whole that is not unlike a da capo aria, and this performance illustrates this kinship with particular clarity, the melodic line rendered with the finesse of a master of bel canto. This is also true of Tetzloff’s playing of the unabashedly romantic ‘Aveu,’ in which the pianist’s fingers are transformed into the voice of an ardent lover. Both the stately ‘Promenade’ and the recapitulatory ‘Pause’ are phrased with comprehension of the music’s textural patterns that does not preclude strikingly individual handling of rhythms and harmonic progressions.

Schumann perpetrated an act of musical subterfuge in Carnaval’s final episode, the ‘Marche des “Davidsbündler” contre les Philistins,’ referencing a Seventeenth-Century subject representing the outmoded Philistines that was in fact drawn from his own Opus 2 Papillons. With his propulsive performance of the Marche, Tetzloff resolves Carnaval with a thought-provoking fusion of spontaneity and inexorability. This amalgamation is present in much of Schumann’s work but is heard in too few traversals of Carnaval. The brilliance with which Tetzloff plays Carnaval distinguishes him as a pianist with extraordinary talent. The novelty of his interpretation, wholly faithful to both the music and his own insights, exhibits artistry that equals his technical acumen.

Schumann’s Opus 11, the Grand Sonata in F♯ minor, was completed in 1835 and published with a semi-pseudonymous dedication to Clara. Now often overshadowed by his two later sonatas, Schumann’s first effort in the genre is in its structural flexibility and emotional intensity his most adventurous. The intelligently-gauged boldness and buoyancy of Tetzloff’s playing are ideally suited to Opus 11’s zeal, but, as in his performance of Carnaval, it is the expressive vitality of his reading of the sonata that reveals the depth of his respect for the music. The opening movement, evolving from ​Un poco adagio to Allegro vivace, is played with absolute commitment to observing the composer’​s dynamic markings. Tetzloff exults in the lyricism of the ​Aria​, its melodic line derived from Schumann’s Lied ‘Nicht im Tale der süßen Heimat,’ the delicacy of his phrasing adroitly creating the mandated ‘Senza passione, ma espressivo’ aura.

Tetzloff launches the Scherzo with a finely-judged realization of the requested Allegrissimo, his fiery playing of passagework thrillingly creating tension that he counteracts with a nimbly-managed transition to the D-major Intermezzo. The reprise of the Allegrissimo startles: though dictated by form, the immediacy of Tetzloff’s pianism makes the reversion to agitation unexpected. The sonata’s finale is an Allegro un poco maestoso journey from the base key of F♯ minor to F♯ major, achieved via dynamic contrasts and harmonic shifts that Tetzloff plays with unfaltering mastery. The critical sforzandi in the movement’s final pages receive unstinting power, the richness of the instrument’s timbre utilized to end the sonata with symphonic grandeur. Tetzloff’s playing of the sonata is a testament to his superlative training, but, no less significantly, it is also an irrefutable vindication of the merits of Schumann’s first sonata.

Following his superb performances of Carnaval and the F♯-minor Sonata, Tetzloff’s playing of the Opus 18 Arabeske and the Romanze (Opus 28, No. 2) provides the disc with a pair of echt-Romantic encore numbers that reveal sparkling aspects of the young pianist’s artistic temperament—his own Eusebius and Florestan, perhaps. Like those of their larger-scaled brethren, his performances of both pieces are shaped by study of the scores but are entirely his own interpretations. Rather than excessively cerebral, studio-bound accounts that, in the manner of museum exhibits encased in impenetrable glass, separate the listener from the music, the performances on this disc invite the listener to interact with Schumann’s music as though it were being heard for the first time. Communicating gracefully and intelligibly through music is a gift that Reed Tetzloff shares with the composer whose music he here plays with uncommon perceptiveness.