19 December 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, & Copland — SYMPHONY NO. 9, 1812 OVERTURE, & FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN (Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, 16 December 2021)

IN REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven's SYMPHONY NO. 9, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 1812 OVERTURE, & Aaron Copland's FANFARE FOR THE COMMON MAN - Greensboro Symphony, 16 December 2021 [Image © by Greensboro Symphony Orchestra]LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827), PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893), and AARON COPLAND (1900 – 1990): Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125 (‘Choral’), 1812 Overture, Opus 49, and Fanfare for the Common ManLyubov Petrova (soprano), Nancy Maultsby (mezzo-soprano), Rodrick Dixon (tenor), Marcus DeLoach (baritone); Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale, Greensboro Symphony Orchestra; Dmitry Sitkovetsky, conductor [Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 16 December 2021]

Of the many cancellations and postponements perpetrated by COVID-19, few can have been more disappointing to music lovers than those of celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. It seems sadly appropriate for this anniversary to have fallen during a time of global crisis. No stranger to physical maladies and social upheaval. Beethoven lived in a world in which one century’s enlightenment was supplanted by a new era’s incongruous tenets of Romanticized idealism and pragmatic conservatism. His was the time of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Franz Grillparzer, Friedrich von Schiller, and Sir Walter Scott—and also of Klemens von Metternich, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, and the first Duke of Wellington.

In recent years, it has become fashionable to regard Beethoven’s enduring importance and influence as inflated. As communities throughout the world have grappled with vital questions about racial discrimination, economic privilege, sexuality, and gender paradigms, the continued relevance of Beethoven’s music and the legitimacy of its prominence in the international repertoire have been challenged and in some instances declared to be products of systemic prejudice and cultural narrowmindedness. It cannot be denied that, in Art as in all aspects of human existence, deprivation is an inevitable casualty of choice. Works by lesser-known composers of all ethnicities are collateral damage of decisions to perform, publish, or record music by Beethoven. Though he worked in an epoch in which the making of art still largely relied upon aristocratic patronage, Beethoven would surely denounce the elitism that uses his music to obscure other composers’ music.

The abiding atmosphere of Greensboro Symphony Orchestra’s concert honoring the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, rescheduled to the 251st anniversary in response to COVID-19, was one of revitalization, not rehabilitation. The orchestra’s inaugural performance in Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, the concert intensified appreciation of the resilience that, having been so integral a component of Beethoven’s life, resounds in his music. The irrepressible joy of performing filled the auditorium and assumed even greater significance by contrasting with the grim milestone of the loss of 800,000 American lives to COVID-19. His life plagued by catastrophic wars and personal tragedies, Beethoven repeatedly faced loss, the effects of which suffuse his music. Conducted by the orchestra’s Music Director, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Greensboro Symphony’s concert extolled the progressive essence of his work, presenting both his music and works that bear hallmarks of Beethoven’s influence without agendas or idiosyncrasies.

Beginning GSO’s observance of the Beethoven sestercentennial with Aaron Copland’s 1942 Fanfare for the Common Man was a logical nod to the inspiration that Beethoven’s artistic ingenuity has been throughout the two centuries since his death in 1827. Copland’s writing for brass demonstrates unmistakable kinship with Beethoven’s music for winds in works like the Leonore and Egmont Overtures and Seventh and Ninth Symphonies. The nerves of the grand occasion intermittently undermined the GSO brass players’ intonation, jeopardizing the impact of Copland’s portentous flourishes. Nevertheless, Sitkovetsky and the musicians movingly imparted the Fanfare’s simple majesty​, paying homage to the common man with uncommon eloquence.

So widespread was the popularity of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 49 The Year 1812 Solemn Overture within a few years of the piece’s 1882 première in Moscow that its famously sensitive, self-critical composer expressed regret for having written it. First performed to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of tsarist Russia’s defeat of Napoleon, the Overture overcame its creator’s disapprobation to claim a central place in many orchestras’ repertoires for festive events. As GSO’s performance affirmed, the Overture’s continued currency is attributable in no small part to its memorable melodies, cleverly interwoven by Tchaikovsky to fashion one of Western culture’s most identifiably programmatic pieces. Sitkovetsky devoted obvious care to cleanly articulating the contrapuntal intricacies of Tchaikovsky’s writing without making the performance an academic exercise. Brass statements of the Overture’s familiar battle subject and the ‘Marseillaise’ lacked consistent security but generated requisite excitement. The scurrying string figurations depicting the French retreat from Moscow were brilliantly rendered. The grandeur of the music was well served, but Sitkovetsky did not allow the reading to stall in august passages. The tubular chimes’ portrayal of Moscow’s church bells was wonderfully vibrant in Tanger Center’s acoustic, resolving Tchaikovsky’s paean to his ancestors’ valor with rousing splendor.

Composition of his Ninth Symphony dominated Beethoven’s creative endeavors for nearly eighteen months, spanning all of 1823, the year in which he also completed his monumental Missa solemnis. At the time of its first performance on 7 May 1824, secured for Vienna’s Theater am Kärntnertor only after prominent Viennese musicians and patrons of the Arts lobbied the disenfranchised composer to abandon a plan to stage the Symphony’s première in Berlin, the Ninth Symphony employed the largest musical forces heard in the genre to that time. In the pages of Beethoven’s score, past and future intersect, the symphonic styles of Mozart and Mahler directly linked. The setting of Schiller’s ‘An die Freude’ with which the Symphony ends is propelled by a melody, now often deemed banal, that captivates listeners as readily in the Twenty-First Century as in 1824. GSO’s performance of the Ninth Symphony was truly an ode to joy, recovery, and optimism.

Sitkovetsky is an undemonstrative but undeniably effective conductor whose pacing of Beethoven’s music in this performance at times recalled the very different qualities that Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Yevgeny Mravinsky brought to their conducting of Beethoven symphonies. In the opening Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso movement, Sitkovetsky accentuated the novelty of the part writing by encouraging the orchestra to play with crispness that lent the Symphony’s first bars Stravinsky-like harmonic ambiguity. Furtwängler’s legacy was evident in Sitkovetsky’s concentration on the ways in which subtle transitions of tempo drive the music. Contrapuntal expositions wielded seeming spontaneity, but each thematic journey progressed towards a finite destination. Fleeting insecurities in the orchestra’s playing of the Copland and Tchaikovsky pieces were largely absent from their performance of the Ninth Symphony, the musicians perceptibly engaged by the conductor’s goal of allowing Beethoven’s score to reveal its innovation and modernity on its own terms.

The timpani strokes that punctuate the Molto vivace movement were all the more exhilarating for being meticulously cued and sounded with unerring precision. The tumultuous energy of the music was limned by the intensity of the orchestra’s playing rather than exaggerated tempi and dynamics. As in the first movement, the music’s fugal elements were rendered with gravity, the heritage of Bach and Händel omnipresent but never oppressive. Moderation was the distinguishing characteristic of Sitkovetsky’s conducting, the orchestra’s full force reserved for those passages in which Beethoven instructed that it should be deployed. The conductor’s navigations of the abrupt shifts of momentum showed interpretive individuality that stopped short of sacrificing fidelity to the composer’s markings to creating a distinctly personal account of the Symphony.. Each musician on the Tanger Center stage approached the piece with unique perspectives, but, in even the most frenetic moments of the Molto vivace, this indisputably remained a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony.

Like Toscanini, Sitkovetsky savored the lyricism of the Adagio molto e cantabile whilst sustaining rhythmic exactness. Approaching this music as a tranquil respite from the turmoil of the Symphony’s outer movements, the conductor sculpted melodic arcs with subtlety, the interplay among instruments emerging organically from the writing. The string playing was at once rich and diaphanous, the bright patina of the violins’ high register floated above the churning lower winds. Beethoven’s tone painting evokes images of the natural world into which he often retreated, the music undulating like the Danube as it meanders through Vienna and rustling as the breezes caress the Wienerwald. In this performance, Sitkovetsky guided the listener on a trek through these scenes, so beloved by Beethoven, heightening the expressive potency of the music. Woodwind playing was superb throughout the performance but was truly magical in the Adagio molto e cantabile, in which wind textures are reminiscent of those in the slow movements of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and Antonín Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony. Still, the triumph of Sitkovetsky’s conducting was finding rather than forcing the music’s emotions.

Conductors’ reputations cannot bring them safely through the gauntlet of the Ninth Symphony’s Finale. In some performances, the recapitulations of subjects heard in the first three movements are wrongheadedly metamorphosed into a sort of miniature Wagnerian music drama, and the Symphpny’s final minutes are blared like political propaganda. Sitkovetsky avoided these missteps by perpetuating his dedication to following the music’s narrative without imposing his own subtexts on it. Above all, Sitkovetsky shared Mravinsky’s realization of the fact that, when conducting music as iconic as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, tradition is not the enemy of originality.

Aided by the conductor’s intelligent handling of the score and the orchestra’s best playing of the evening, GSO’s vocal soloists further increased the success of the performance, mastering music that fuses bel canto with the Romantic idiom of Carl Maria von Weber and Heinrich Marschner. Baritone Marcus DeLoach declaimed the recitative ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!’ stirringly and phrased ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium’ with exuberance. Achieving an ideal balance between vocal power and poetic sensitivity, tenor Rodrick Dixon sang ‘Froh, froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen’ boldly, rising fearlessly to the top B♭s. Mezzo-soprano (and Burlington native) Nancy Maultsby sang strongly and, more rarely in performances of the Ninth Symphony, always audibly, enunciating text with clear diction and cognizance of the meaning of the words. No announcement was made, but soprano Lyubov Petrova was audibly indisposed, cautiously avoiding many of the highest tones, most notably the pair of climactic top Bs in the soloists’ concertato on ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder.’ She bravely attempted the plethora of top As, however, only slight shrillness betraying her vocal estate. She, too, projected the text vividly, earning admiration for a valiant performance.

The twenty-five minutes of the Ninth Symphony’s Finale contain choral writing of unrelenting difficulty, encompassing reverent recollections of Händel’s oratorios and anticipations of the Masses and motets of Anton Bruckner. It is no coincidence that, in the Ninth Symphony’s discography, the finest performances are frequently those with the best choirs. This Greensboro performance introduced the Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale, an ensemble under the direction of Jonathan Emmons and James Keith that on this evening proved to be an immense gift to this performance and to the Triad community. There is something strangely touching about observing choristers singing as affectingly as GSO’s Master Chorale sang whilst masked, this small victory of will symbolizing the tenacity of the Performing Arts. Balances among the voices were nearly ideal. The differentiations of piano and pianissimo in the Adagio ma non troppo, ma divoto ‘Ihr stürtz nieder’ could have been more pronounced, but the voices filled the hall with sounds of compelling beauty and consequence, prompting hope that a future Greensboro Symphony season will include performances of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis.

Beethoven wrote in January 1804, twenty years before the first performance of his Ninth Symphony, that ‘Musik ist wie ein Traum. Einer, den ich nicht hören’—‘Music is like a dream. One that I cannot hear.’ The cruelty of a man whose life was devoted to music being deprived of the ability to hear it is devastating, but Beethoven persevered, listening with his heart when his ears failed him. Bettering an hour in which today’s world faces uncertainty similar to what Beethoven must have felt two centuries ago, Greensboro Sumphony’s performance of the Ninth Symphony was a dream of​ rejoicing in a night of despair.

08 December 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Marshall Deerfield — TRAVEL BY HAIKU: VOLUMES 6 – 10, FAR OUT ON THE ROAD WITH FRIENDS (A Freedom Books, ISBN 978-0998425832)

IN REVIEW: Marshall Deerfield - TRAVEL BY HAIKU: VOLUMES 6 - 10, FAR OUT ON THE ROAD WITH FRIENDS (A Freedom Books, ISBN 978-0998425832)MARSHALL DEERFIELD (born 1987): Travel by Haiku: Volumes 6 – 10, Far Out on the Road with Friends [A Freedom Books, 31 March 2021; 149 pages; ISBN 978-0998425832; Available from the author and Amazon]

Since the continent’s indigenous peoples first relayed their lores orally, America’s poets have continually confronted two questions: what is poetry, and what is its rôle in the American way of life? For Phyllis Wheatley, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Gwendolyn Brooks, poetry was an instrument of social equality. For Zitkála-Šá, Miguel Algarín, and Toshio Mori, it was the cry of the marginalized. For Emily Dickinson, it was an act of defiance. For Walt Whitman, poetry was the spirit of America; sometimes rough, sometimes refined, always indomitably original. America’s poetry has also been shaped by the endeavors of populists, poets like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Robert Frost, whose verses perpetuate the genre by appealing to readers who might otherwise reject poetry.

Poetry in Twenty-First-Century America has expanded into new dimensions that not even Edgar Allan Poe at his most inventive could have envisioned, rendering the question of what constitutes poetry irrelevant and debilitating. If the heart of poetry is rhythm, what is not inherently poetic? Song lyrics, social media posts, the sounds of rain upon windows, and the coursing of blood through veins are their own kinds of poetry; actions, reactions, and interactions that can be replicated in words.

Celebration of poetry as the art of verbalizing life’s triumphs and trivialities is a cornerstone of Volumes Six through Ten of Marshall Deerfield’s Travel by Haiku, a collaborative collection of poetry and prose musings that, as the book’s subtitle intimates, commemorates adventures ‘far out on the road with friends.’ Encompassing the work of writers as dissimilar as Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac, the travelogue is a pillar of the American literary canon, but Travel by Haiku reshapes the models of Roughing It and On the Road into a composition of individuality that advances revered traditions into a new era of heightened awareness of the significance of words.

It is fitting that Deerfield—the nom de plume of Marshall James Kavanaugh—​is based in Philadelphia. That city’s long embodiment of American ideals of liberty and innovation permeates every word of Deerfield’s writing, which in this edition of Travel by Haiku manifests a stream-of-consciousness style that is at once reminiscent of the William Faulkner of ‘Barn Burning’ and ‘Mountain Victory’ and strikingly original. An integral element of Deerfield’s poetic aesthetic is a focus on the psychological nuances of words and the subjects that they portray. There are numerous passages in which, in terms of both language and the book’s visual presentation, the words are tasked not with creating poetry but with translating natural and human landscapes into language. Deerfield shares with Ernest Hemingway a gift for producing writing that is accessible but impregnated with emotional intricacies.

Written in collaboration with Augustus Depenbrock, Travel by Haiku’s sixth volume, Desert Jesters Swim In Ancient Seas, begins with an evocation of the vastness of the American continent, ‘A wide open space / empty except for two guys.’ Inspired by a journey through the desolate Big Bend of southwestern Texas, the volume is characterized by use of imagery that fills the reader with an unsettling perception of the remoteness of the Trans-Pecos region. Each of these five volumes of Travel by Haiku is imbued with sobering cognizance of man’s cruel intrusions into nature’s order, metaphorically expressed in Desert Jesters Swim In Ancient Seas with lines like ‘Hungry cops trying to catch you with your pants down / prowling the whole two blocks of town.’ [Emphases and italicizations in quoted passages appear here as they are in the book, but total fidelity to the poet’s spatial arrangements of texts regrettably is not possible.] The specter of man’s inhumanity haunts the texts with phantasmagoric specificity, each haiku aimed like a weapon at readers’ misconceptions about progress and Romanticized notions of the American frontier.

Further developing a theme introduced in the previous volume, Volume Seven, Scavenger Poets Tell Their Tales, continues the book’s unsparing explication of the dichotomy of rural and urban settings. Treated as a microcosmic representation of the class warfare that splinters modern society, the disorienting ambiguities of modern Texas suffuse lines including ‘Mellow vibes / A little retreat into an Austin oasis / reggae ghetto / blaster is full throttle’ with stark expressive impact. Occasionally, over-reliance upon colloquialisms, perhaps resulting from the involvement and integration of multiple poetic sensibilities, compromises the universality of the book’s narrative, but Deerfield invariably capitalizes on the vivid tableaux conjured by familiar phrases.

Here I am, take me to your leader and bring me to your artsy dive bars in a basket of old laundry and cowboy hats.

Words like these engender an atmosphere of ruggedness that contrasts markedly with humorous episodes like that of a fugitive penny seeming to have been dislodged from a rectal sanctuary. No other line epitomizes the prevailing ethos of Travel by Haiku as succinctly as that in which Deerfield writes that his goal is to ‘play a show to the passing flow.’ There is Shakespearean gravitas in this jingoistic suggestion of one man’s life being mere entertainment for a world that scarcely notices.

The scenic marvels of a voyage from Los Angeles to Seattle are mirrored in the language of Travel by Haiku’s eighth volume, Tree Clowns Climb High, Onwards & Outwards. Joined on his physical and poetical traversals of America’s Pacific coast by Shane Donnelly and Tara Lynn Faith Williamson, Deerfield intensifies his scrutiny of the conflicts between the natural and unnatural worlds, employing diction to illustrate the widening chasm between man and his surroundings. ‘Nothing is absent / eyes open to simple truths / welcome to the frontier,’ the poets opine, proposing that, for too many observers, a plane of existence without artifice is unfamiliar territory. The bond between man and earth resounds in the lines ‘Ancient melodies from trees, / haunted night spirits / amongst us and within us,’ redolent of the cacophonous sylvan sound world of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Men are both the heroes and the villains of their own epics, Deerfield’s writing imparts, the destructive consequences of their choices demonstrating perverse Transcendentalism, Thoreau’s Walden now polluted and defiled.

In the ninth volume, The Plot Thickens, Connection Deepens, poetry becomes the precipice to which humanity clings, contemplating the abyss of failure but also appreciating the beauty of survival. ‘The earth offers gifts / abundance at rainbow’s end / revealed by the storm,’ the poet confides, but the bounty can be disconcertingly deceptive. Mining the ambivalence of words with ingenuity common in French poetry but rarely ventured in verse in English, Deerfield and his colleagues survey the fallacies under which corrupt societies have buried truths that are more easily ignored than confronted. ‘If intelligence were to grow to its full potential, wouldn’t it want to go some place it couldn’t be found?’ they write, evincing the futility of logic in a time in which the devastating effects of climate change, startlingly depicted in Travel by Haiku, are willfully denied. The poets’ descriptions of Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks harken back to the pioneering work of John Muir and John Wesley Powell. Deerfield distills the wisdom of these stewards of America’s wild places into a single line that elucidates the message that bursts from every page of Travel by Haiku: ‘Earth writes its own poetry.’

The change of perspective that gives Volume Ten, Crow Speak For The Moon To The Glaciers, its singular philosophical magnitude is apparent from its first page, Deerfield’s partnership with Stephanie Beattie and Cameron Christopher Stuart yielding an amplified voice that glorifies the wonders of friendships among people and nature’s life forces whilst warning of the cataclysm towards which the planet is hurtling. Poe wrote of the ‘poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.’ There is no such poetry in these five volumes of Travel by Haiku, yet these pages are not laden with dogmatic proselytizing. Deerfield grasps that, just as Melville comprehended that the reader must empathize with Captain Ahab in order to circumnavigate hundreds of pages of his obsessive odyssey, his poetry must please if it is to effectively advocate for environmental responsibility and individual integrity. To its compiler’s credit, Travel by Haiku is an easy read that provokes rumination by engaging the imagination. Traveling by haiku to join Deerfield and his companions by a campfire in a wilderness equally comforting and threatening, could a reader spurn the necessity of acting to conserve the sacred intersections of earth, man, and art?

Fundamental to the genesis of the venerated Sequoyah’s syllabary of the Cherokee language was the concept of ᏗᎦᏬᏂᏍᎩ ᏧᎦᎶᎦ, the assertion that written language, disseminated by literature and correspondence, constitutes a procession of ‘talking leaves’ whereby the wisdom of past generations progresses via the present to the future. In these five volumes of Travel by Haiku, poetry is a conduit for the rediscovery of neglected voices, primeval leaves that here talk in new refrains.

28 November 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Ludwig van Beethoven — FIDELIO (A. LoBianco, C. Tanner, K. Kellogg, J. Barron, E. Baikoff, J. Karn, T. Onishi; North Carolina Opera, 12 November 2021)

IN REVIEW: Nineteenth-Century depiction of the penultimate scene of Act Two of Ludwig van Beethoven's FIDELIO [Image © by Bridgeman Images Collection]LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): Fidelio, Opus 72Alexandra LoBianco (Leonore), Carl Tanner (Florestan), Kenneth Kellogg (Rocco), Joseph Barron (Don Pizarro), Erika Baikoff (Marzelline), Jason Karn (Jaquino), Takaoki Onishi (Don Fernando), Wade Henderson (Erster Gefangener), Adam Dengler (Zweiter Gefangener); North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Arthur Fagen, conductor [North Carolina Opera, Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 12 November 2021 (dress rehearsal)]

No matter how nobly they strive to esteem all of their progeny equally, artists, like parents, invariably feel greater affection for some of their creations than for others. The most logical impetus for such preferences is success, but, particularly in opera, works that troubled their creators most are often those that composers love best. Nearly two centuries after his death, it is folly to conjecture that his sole opera, Fidelio, was valued more highly than its brethren by their progenitor, but the effort expended in bringing the opera to the stage, initially as Leonore and, after painstaking revisions, as Fidelio, might well have garnered a place of honor in Beethoven’s heart for this wonderful, worrisome score.

First performed in the version most familiar to Twenty-First-Century audiences at Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater on 23 May 1814, Fidelio occupied Beethoven for more than a decade, its genesis initiated by an 1803 commission from the noted singer, thespian, and impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, who commissioned, wrote the libretto, and created the rôle of Papageno in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Beethoven’s setting of a forgotten libretto by Schikaneder was set aside when Joseph Sonnleithner’s libretto for Leonore, an adaptation of a play that was popular with Parisian audiences in the final months of France’s four-year Directoire, came to Beethoven’s attention. The indifference that greeted Leonore’s 1805 première, resulting from influences more martial than musical, prompted substantial retooling, yielding a shortened edition of the piece that, when staged in 1806, was appreciated but ultimately sidelined by circumstances that again had little to do with music.

The final incarnation of Fidelio, its libretto having been modified by Stephan von Breuning and Georg Friedrich Treitschke, was quickly recognized as a work of unique power, surpassing other contemporaneous settings of the same source material and similar pieces in the ‘rescue’ opera genre that was fashionable during the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century. It is easy to theorize that Beethoven’s own longing for conjugal devotion deepened his connection with the story of a wife’s determination to free her wrongly-imprisoned husband at any cost to herself, but the poignancy of North Carolina Opera’s performance of Fidelio, planned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth but postponed due to COVID-19, was anything but theoretical. A scheduling conflict, the stuff of opera lovers’ nightmares, necessitated attending the final dress rehearsal rather than the concert performance. Rehearsals must always be safe, sacrosanct environments in which artists can take risks and sort out mistakes without fear of critical censure. In this instance, however, the integrity and professionalism of the cast assembled for North Carolina Opera’s Fidelio produced a dress rehearsal that was a stellar performance in its own right; one in assessment of which no allowances for the performing conditions need to be made.

Under the baton of renowned conductor Arthur Fagen, whose respect for Beethoven’s score was apparent in every bar of his reading of it, the musicians of the North Carolina Opera Orchestra played with precision of pitch, rhythm, and ensemble that would have been remarkable in any performance. In a rehearsal, musicianship of such an exalted caliber attested to North Carolina Opera’s tremendous achievements during the past decade. From the opening bars of the Overture, the musicians’ preparedness and enthusiasm both for this music and for returning to live performance in general were evident. Fagen exhibited innate understanding of Beethoven’s musical language, emphasizing accents learned from Haydn, Salieri, and Mozart while also spotlighting the score’s originality.

Conductor and orchestra made the March that introduces Don Pizarro jauntily bombastic and strangely sinister, and the horns conquered the oft-mangled writing for their instruments in Leonore’s celebrated aria. Tempi and dynamics were faithful to Beethoven’s instructions, maintaining the elusive equilibrium between momentum and refinement. Fagen elucidated the presages of Wagner, Mahler, and Richard Strauss in the prelude to Florestan’s scene at the start of Act Two without approaching the music like a rediscovered episode from Der Ring des Nibelungen. The inevitable flaws of live performance were few and fleeting. If ever there were a perfect performance of any piece, that perfection would be a damning imperfection, for a crucial component of music’s capacity to excite is its flirtation with catastrophe. Beethoven’s music embodies a singular fusion of Classicism and chaos, and Fagen’s conducting was the catalyst for an incendiary musical reaction.

As in many of North Carolina Opera’s performances in recent seasons, chorus master Scott MacLeod’s work yielded choral singing of an exceptionally high standard. Beethoven’s writing for the chorus in Fidelio is not extensive but is both very demanding and vitally important to the drama. First as the troops who accompany Don Pizarro to the prison and, later in Act One, as the prisoners who extol a rare opportunity to enjoy a few moments of freedom from their cells with one of opera’s great choruses, ‘O welche Lust,’ the gentlemen of the North Carolina Opera Chorus demonstrated well-trained versatility, roaring with martial bravado in Don Pizarro’s scene and movingly imparting the reverent awe of inmates grateful for even a few minutes in which to uninhibitedly feel the sun upon their faces. Joined by the ladies in the opera’s final scene, the choristers celebrated the triumphs of conjugal love and decency over pride and oppression with singing that tested the structural integrity of the concert hall’s roof. The roof thankfully proved to be capable of withstanding the tide of sound, but few listeners’ emotions are likely to have remained unstirred by the chorus’s performance.

Two of the Triangle’s most gifted singers lent their voices to the lines for the pair of prisoners who emerge from the chorus in Act One. Tenor Wade Henderson voiced ‘Wir wollen mit Vertrauen auf Gottes Hilfe bauen’ with the clarity of intonation and diction and clarion tone from which many North Carolina Opera performances have benefited. Baritone Adam Dengler sang ‘Sprecht leise, haltet euch zurück!’ strongly but subtly, compellingly conveying the aura of apprehension that prolonged captivity had instilled in the prisoners.

His portrayal of Silvio in North Carolina Opera’s 2020 production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci introduced Triangle audiences to the fantastic voice of baritone Takaoki Onishi, and his return to Raleigh to portray Fidelio’s deus ex machina, the benevolent government minister Don Fernando, was most welcome, especially as it is uncommon to hear a voice of such excellent mettle in the rôle. Onishi performed the official’s conciliatory duties affectingly, singing ‘Des besten Königs Wink und Wille’ and Don Fernando’s words of admiration for Leonore’s resilience with the vocal solidity and attractiveness that the music deserves but too seldom receives.

Another member of NC Opera’s Pagliacci cast, tenor Jason Karn is also a familiar presence in Raleigh. He excelled as Leoncavallo’s Beppe, but Beethoven’s music for Jaquino afforded greater opportunities for him to demonstrate the quality of his voice. Opening Act One with a spirited exchange with Marzelline, this Jaquino sang ‘Jetzt, Schätzchen, jetzt sind wir allein’ with the irrepressible impatience of a young man in love. Karn’s lyricism in the sublime quartet was complemented by excitingly frenetic singing in the quintet in the act’s final scene. In Act Two, Jaquino appears only in the opera’s final moments, rejoicing in Florestan’s release and celebrating the discovery of Fidelio’s true identity rejuvenating his hope for winning Marzelline’s affection. Cognizant of the difference between projection and volume, Karn was audible in even the densest ensemble, his lustrous timbre discernible but never over-prominent.

Soprano Erika Baikoff’s Marzelline was a winsome young lady, sharp-witted but dreamily romantic enough to fall victim to Leonore’s disguise. In her duet with Jaquino in the first scene of Act One, this Marzelline’s disgust at the notion of settling for her familiar suitor rather than pursuing the enigmatic Fidelio was palpable, the soprano’s singing of ‘Es wird ja nichts Wichtiges sein’ laden with good-natured but intensifying annoyance. Its music poised between Mozart and Weber, Marzelline’s aria ‘O wär’ ich schon mit dir vereint,’ though appealingly scored, can be tedious when it is sung unimaginatively. Baikoff’s performance was delightful, her top A delivered with the ebullience of a young girl’s first declaration of love. She voiced ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ in the quartet with an apt sense of amazement, a sentiment also relayed by her gleaming top C in the trio and her zestful singing of the triplets in the quintet. The consternation with which this Marzelline learned of Leonore’s true identity in the opera’s final scene was both amusing and touching. Too good-natured to be angry, she accepted the revelation of her folly with humility, relayed with beguiling vocalism.

In too many performances of Fidelio, the musical atrocities committed by interpreters of Don Pizarro, the tyrannical prison governor, are nearly as unpardonable as the character’s torture and detention of Florestan. The sagacity of North Carolina Opera’s casting of this Fidelio filled Meymandi Concert Hall with every note sung by bass-baritone Joseph Barron, a Don Pizarro with few peers in the years since Friedrich Schorr, Josef Metternich, and Hans Hotter last sang the rôle. Rather than the travesty of off-pitch caterwauling that it is in some productions, Pizarro’s tempestuous entrance aria ‘Ha! welch’ ein Augenblick!’ was genuinely sung in Barron’s performance, the full range of the music in the voice and the words hurled into the auditorium like grenades. Though appropriately savage, ‘Jetzt, Alter, jetzt hat es Eile!’ in the duet with Rocco was also uninfringably musical, and his voicing of ‘Verweg’ner Alter, welche Rechte’ in the quintet was vicious without being discordant. In the quartet in Act Two, Barron detonated a volatile ‘Er sterbe!’ that, like all of the bass-baritone’s singing on this evening, made its point without resorting to shouting and snarling.

When sung with the proper blend of humor and humanity, the gaoler Rocco can be Fidelio’s most endearing character, a relation of Mozart’s Sarastro and Wagner’s Hans Sachs. North Carolina Opera’s Rocco, bass Kenneth Kellogg, interpreted the part with paternal kindliness and hearty joviality, maintaining an element of lightness in his delivery even at the bottom of the range. He anchored the Act One quartet firmly, his tone consistently solid, and his handsomely-sung account of the aria ‘Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben’ exuded the doting father’s delight in his own cunning. His ‘Gut, Söhnchen, gut,’ delivered to Fidelio with a potential father-in-law’s pride, was as charming as it was sonorous.

In the duet with Don Pizarro, more somber facets of Rocco’s personality shone in Kellogg’s voicing of ‘So sagt doch nur in Eile,’ horror darkening his tone as the amiable guard recoiled at his superior’s murderous instructions. The bass’s singing in the final scene of Act One, first in the duet with Leonore and subsequently in the quintet, disclosed growing anxiety, the gravity of the voice’s lower reaches suggesting that Rocco was tormented by the seeming inevitability of tragedy. Funereal severity remained in the duet with Leonore in Act Two, but Kellogg’s singing of ‘Nur hurtig fort, nur frisch gegraben’ demonstrated the character’s innate compassion. The shock of learning that the trusted Fidelio was actually Leonore was quickly supplanted by recognition of the magnitude of the events transpiring before him, the voice suffused with astonishment in the trio and quartet. Though Kellogg’s vocalism exhibited sophistication throughout the performance, his Rocco was an ordinary man who found himself in an extraordinary situation.

Beethoven’s vocal writing for the husband who inspires Leonore’s unbending fidelity is so demanding that, though he appears only in Act Two, Florestan is one of opera’s most daunting—and, frankly, frequently poorly-sung—rôles. The tenors who sang Florestan in the respective premières of the opera’s three versions were acclaimed for their performances of music by Haydn and Mozart, a fact that may seem remarkable to listeners whose exposure to Fidelio was shaped by Heldentenor Florestans like Wolfgang Windgassen and Jon Vickers. Raleigh’s Florestan, Carl Tanner, the superb Canio in NC Opera‘s 2020 Pagliacci, might be best categorized as a spinto tenor, a singer like fellow American James King whose voice possesses heft and flexibility, traits upon which he capitalized in his portrayal of Florestan.

There was no lack of raw power in Tanner’s singing of ‘Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier,’ but he also preserved clarity of line that often eludes heavier voices. His reading of the Adagio cantabile ‘In des Lebens Frühlingstagen ist das Glück von mir gefloh’n’ was hypnotic, the legato smooth and the top B♭s solid. The dramatic whirlwind of the trio with Leonore and Rocco spurred Tanner to voice ‘Euch werde Lohn in bessern Welten’ expansively, resignation giving way to hope, and his lines in the quartet were enunciated with inherent nobility. The ecstatic frenzy of ‘O namenlose Freude!’ overtaxes some Florestans’ vocal resources, but Tanner sang incandescently. Here and in the opera’s final scene, sure of his command of the music, he infused his vocalism with elation. Heroic but never hectoring, Tanner was a Florestan who merited Leonore’s selfless daring, singing the part with a level of assurance rarely heard in this music.

It is a testament to Beethoven’s approval of Anna Milder-Hauptmann’s interpretation of Leonore that she was entrusted with singing the rôle in the first performances of each of the opera’s three versions. A noted champion of Gluck’s operas, Milder-Hauptmann’s repertoire also encompassed music by Haydn, Cherubini, Spontini, and Mendelssohn. It is difficult to speculate about the amplitude of her sound based solely upon the music that she sang and contemporary descriptions of her singing, but it is likely that Milder-Hauptmann brought a leaner, nimbler voice to Leonore than has become common in the rôle in the years since Wagnerians including Amalie Materna, Lotte Lehmann, Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, and Dame Gwyneth Jones assumed the part. Heard in Raleigh in recent seasons as Tosca and the Siegfried Brünnhilde, North Carolina Opera’s Leonore, soprano Alexandra LoBianco, sang Beethoven’s music with a voice that was at once both dexterous and opulent in a manner reminiscent of Gertrude Grob-Prandl.

Leonore’s lines in the canon quartet in which she is first heard in Act One are placed low in the voice, reminding the listener that Leonore is in male disguise, and LoBianco sang athletically without over-reliance on chest resonance. In the trio with Rocco and Marzelline, she enunciated ‘Ich habe Mut!’ with dramatic involvement and a majestic top A♭. Overhearing Pizarro’s plot to murder Florestan, this Leonore declaimed ‘Abscheulicher! wo eilst du hin?’ bitingly, the wife’s abhorrence of Pizarro’s treachery transfiguring the singer’s voice into a column of fire. LoBianco then channeled Leonore’s love for Florestan into a reading of ‘Komm, Hoffnung, laß den letzten Stern’ that united an accomplished bel canto singer’s cantilena with a valkyrie’s valiant top Bs. A new air of tenacity permeated her voicing of ‘Nun sprecht, wie ging’s?’ in the duet with Rocco, and she closed Act One with striking ascents to top A and B♭.

Though singing the rôle in a dress rehearsal for a concert performance of the opera, LoBianco’s work in Act Two evinced total comprehension of the dramatic trajectory of Leonore’s actions. The onerous triplets in the duet with Rocco were dispatched with ease, and the soprano sang ‘Ihr sollt ja nicht zu klagen haben’ with unaffected emotional directness. Her vocalism in the trio with Florestan and Rocco promulgated the catharsis of Leonore’s reunion with her husband. In LoBianco’s performance, Leonore’s ‘Tödt’ erst sein Weib!’ in the quartet was the climax that it should be, her euphoric top B♭ declaring her triumph over Pizarro’s depravity. ‘O namenlose Freude!’ has rarely sounded more like a precursor of the celebrated love duet in Act Two of Tristan und Isolde than when sung by LoBianco and Tanner, her top B still refulgent after an evening of arduous singing. Alongside her colleagues’ affecting performances, the beauty and expressivity of LoBianco’s vocalism heightened the immense emotional impact of the opera’s final scene, crowning a portrayal of grace and grit.

On 5 November 1955, the storied Wiener Staatsoper again resounded with music after a decade of silence. Its stage destroyed by a fiery bombardment as the Second World War waned, the company celebrated the reconstruction of the house on the Ringstraße with a production of Fidelio. It was fitting that North Carolina Opera perpetuated this tradition by commemorating perseverance in the battle against COVID-19 by performing Fidelio, yet the joys of this Fidelio were not solely ceremonial. Uplifted by a team of artists giving of their best, North Carolina Opera’s Fidelio signaled that those who cherish it will liberate opera from any calamity.

26 November 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini — MAOMETTO SECONDO (A. Sewailam, L. Crocetto, E. DeShong, B. Sledge, M. Hill; Washington Concert Opera, 21 November 2021)

IN REVIEW: (front left to right) bass-baritone ASHRAF SEWAILAM as Maometto II, soprano LEAH CROCETTO as Anna, tenor BRUCE SLEDGE as Erisso, and mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG as Calbo in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO, 21 November 2021 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): Maometto secondo [1820 Naples version] – Ashraf Sewailam (Maometto II), Leah Crocetto (Anna Erisso), Elizabeth DeShong (Calbo), Bruce Sledge (Paolo Erisso), Matthew Hill (Condulmiero); Washington Concert Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Antony Walker, conductor [Washington Concert Opera, Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA; Sunday, 21 November 2021]

Some of opera’s most beloved scores are products of protracted, sometimes painful processes of revision and reworking; processes that in some instances failed to produce a single authoritative edition of a piece. Twenty-First-Century audiences are less likely than their counterparts in previous generations to encounter bowdlerized versions that subjected works to atrocities like transposing rôles for vocal registers different from those for which they were composed, reordering music, and simplifying passages of particular difficulty for modern singers, but anomalies remain. Considerable sleuthing may be required to determine which incarnation of Verdi’s Don Carlos a listener is hearing, for instance, and audiences familiar only with the opera’s Paris version may be puzzled when Venus fails to appear in the final scene of performances of the earlier Dresden version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

In the course of a career spanning two decades, Gioachino Rossini’s creative impulses were sometimes upended by a panoply of forces ranging from singers’ whims and managerial meddling to censorial objections and legal entanglements. Changes of casting frequently necessitated musical modifications, and changes of venue could alter the basic structure of a piece. The composer’s surviving correspondence indicates that, when commissioned in May 1820 by Teatro di San Carlo to write his seventh opera for the Naples theater, Rossini dedicated himself to devising an unconventional work that would rival the boldest innovations wrought in earlier generations by Lully, Händel, Rameau, Gluck, and Mozart.

Allied with a grippingly theatrical libretto by Cesare della Valle, the ingenuity that made the Naples version of Maometto secondo one of Rossini’s most compelling scores failed to captivate the Neapolitan audience. Its powerful ensembles prefiguring Bellini’s Norma, Ponchielli’s La gioconda, and several of Verdi’s finest operas, Maometto secondo in its original form offered the discerning Neapolitans few of the dazzling arias of the sort heard in Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, Otello, Armida, La donna del lago, Ricciardo e Zoraide, and Ermione. Disappointed by the reception that Maometto secondo received at the San Carlo, Rossini substantially revised the piece for a December 1822 production at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, reworking Act Two to replace the opera’s tragic dénouement with the lieto fine, adapted from music borrowed from the final scene of La donna del lago, expected by the Venetians. Faring better in Venice than in Naples, Maometto secondo later traveled northward, arriving in Paris in October 1826 as Le siège de Corinthe.

North America’​s acquaintance with Maometto secondo was dominated in the Twentieth Century by Beverly Sills, who débuted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1975 in the United States première of Thomas Schippers’s edition of L’assedio di Corinto, a retooling of an Italian translation of Le siège de Corinthe prepared for a 1969 La Scala production headlined by Sills and Marilyn Horne. Fortuitously, Washington Concert Opera chose to eschew Rossini’s and others’ modifications, presenting Maometto secondo largely as it was heard in Naples in 1820. To bel canto aficionados in the Capital region, the wait for WCO’s performance of Maometto secondo may have seemed as prolonged as the Fifteenth-Century conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice that serves as the opera’s dramatic backdrop, but the audience’s patience was rewarded with an evening in which Rossini’s genius, too often dismissed as proficient but vapid craftsmanship, electrified the atmosphere in Lisner Auditorium.

IN REVIEW: soprano LEAH CROCETTO as Anna (left) and bass-baritone ASHRAF SEWAILAM as Maometto II (right) in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO, 21 November 2021 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Amanti sfortunati: soprano Leah Crocetto as Anna (left) and bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam as Maometto II (right) in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo, 21 November 2021
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Artistic Director Antony Walker’s conducting of Semiramide and Zelmira in recent WCO seasons demonstrated an affinity for shaping performances of the composer’s music that marked Walker as a peer of Alberto Zedda as a Rossini interpreter. The best qualities of Walker’s pacing of Semiramide and Zelmira, namely rousing but rarely rushed tempi and deft handling of Rossini’s characteristic crescendi, were elevated to new heights of expressivity in Maometto secondo, the plot’s emotional transitions guided with immersive comprehension of the part writing.

Meeting the composer’s and the conductor’s demands, the first of which are amongst Rossini’s most formidable, the playing of the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra was reliably polished throughout the performance, a few instances of imprecise string balances and intonation in the opera’s Maestoso Introduzione resolving quickly. There were moments in the ensembles that engender Maometto secondo’s singular theatrical potency in which the drive of Walker’s conducting undermined the singers’ concentration, but these incidents, too, were brief. Walker’s WCO performances invariably exhibit respect for the music at hand: on this evening, his esteem for Maometto secondo yielded a performance in which the full emotive potential of Rossini’s music was realized.

Few musical endeavors have been as adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as choral singing. Despite the difficulties posed by rehearsing and performing safely, assistant conductor and chorus master David Hanlon and the Washington Concert Opera Chorus achieved a laudable standard of preparedness. In the opening scene of Act One, the chorus voiced ‘Al tuo cenno, Erisso, accolti’ vibrantly, evoking an aura of alarm, and the ladies sang ‘Misera! or dove... ahimè!’ with palpable anxiety. The choristers’ traversal of the dramatic arc of Act One culminated in an account of the act’s final scene in which the massed voices formed an engaging aural tableau from which the principals’ voices emerged with startling immediacy.

Like the first act, Act Two begins with an elaborate choral Introduzione, in which WCO’s chorus sang ‘È follia sul fior degli anni’ with dulcet grace, fostering an atmosphere of tranquility in which the opera’s subsequent events seemed all the more harrowing. Punctuating Maometto’s aria, the choristers’ interjection of ‘A che più tardi ancor?’ bolstered the Ottoman ruler’s faltering resolve, and their rapturous singing of the beautiful preghiera, ‘Nume, cui ’l sole è trono,’ gorgeously accompanied by harpist Eric Sabatino, provided an interlude of serenity before the final scene’s horrors. The ladies voiced desperate fear starkly in Anna’s rondò, and the full chorus heightened the tragic grandeur of the opera’s finale with explosive but eloquent singing. Never inhibited by the masks necessitated by safety protocols, WCO’s choristers vanquished doubts about performing during a pandemic by achieving uncompromised musicality in some of Rossini’s most ambitious choral writing.

Washington Concert Opera performances often provide District audiences with opportunities to hear young singers whose work identifies them as emerging artists of tremendous promise. Appearing only in the opera’s first quarter of an hour, the rôle of the Venetian nobleman Condulmiero was entrusted in WCO’s Maometto secondo to tenor Matthew Hill, who uttered each of the character’s few lines with a bright, focused timbre and certain intonation. Regrettably, the music for the Ottoman official Selimo, which Hill might also have sung, was omitted. Nevertheless, the impact of Hill’s singing was markedly greater than the duration of his time on stage.

IN REVIEW: tenor BRUCE SLEDGE as Paolo Erisso in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO, 21 November 2021 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Padre in conflitto: tenor Bruce Sledge as Paolo Erisso in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo, 21 November 2021
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

One of Maometto secondo’s novelties is its principal tenor rôle, written for Andrea Nozzari, whose career encompassed the creation of parts in works by composers including Rossini, Mayr, Mercadante, and Donizetti, being the father of the opera’s heroine rather than a romantic lead. Washington Concert Opera’s Erissi, padre e figlia, returned to rôles that they sang in the 2012 Santa Fe Opera production of Maometto secondo, the first staging of Hans Schellevis’s critical edition of the opera’s 1820 San Carlo version. Experience in the rôle of Paolo Erisso, the Venetian general charged with repulsing the Ottoman invasion who is appalled to discover that his daughter Anna, whose hand he intends for the young hero Calbo, has been secretly seduced by the enemy Maometto, was apparent in tenor Bruce Sledge’s performance, even in the concert setting. Making his entrance in Act One, he voiced ‘Basta, non più! V’intesi, o prodi, o veri cittadini e guerrieri’ excitingly, rising effortlessly to top C♭. The building tension in the magnificent Terzettone with Anna and Calbo spurred the singer to declaim Erisso’s lines with engrossing theatricality, his reading of ‘Dal cor l’iniquo affetto’ movingly imparting the shocked father’s ire and heartbreak.

Sledge sang Erisso’s trills and top Bs confidently, his upper register integrated with the voice’s lower reaches throughout the performance. The sole top note that threatened to crack was recovered adroitly. Hatred and indignation coursed through Sledge’s vocalism in the terzetto with Calbo and Maometto, and the tenor enunciated ‘Ah perchè fra le spade nemiche’ in the Act One finale with unstinting fortitude. In the terzetto with Calbo and Maometto in Act Two, Sledge’s singing sizzled with contempt, his tone penetrating the orchestrations from the top to the bottom of the range. Addressing the tomb of Erisso’s wife in the terzettino with Anna and Calbo, Sledge tendered a master class in the art of bel canto, his dulcet phrasing escalating the emotion of the scene. Lacking an extended solo scene, Erisso might at first glance seem an unlikely part for a singer of Nozzari’s reputation. Sledge affirmed that, when sung with the fire with which Rossini imbued it, it is one of the composer’s most riveting tenor rôles.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano ELIZABETH DESHONG as Calbo in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO, 21 November 2021 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Amico, ‘fratello,’ e sposo: mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Calbo in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo, 21 November 2021
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

WCO’s Maometto secondo was an evening of uniformly superb singing, but, even in such distinguished company, the Calbo of mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong was extraordinary. Created by French contralto Adèle Chaumel, who sang in Naples under the Italianized name Adelaide Comelli and married the famous tenor Giovanni Battista Rubini a year after Maometto secondo’s première, Calbo is a rôle upon which Rossini lavished particular creativity. In Act One’s Terzettone, the character is developed via pained articulations of disappointment and disbelief, voiced by DeShong with a shining top B and incredible command of the bravura writing. In DeShong’s performance, in which passages of unison fiorature in thirds were rendered with tremendous accuracy, presages of Rossini’s later music for Arsace and Semiramide and of Bellini’s duets for Adalgisa and Norma were unmistakable. This Calbo was a galvanizing presence in the terzetto with Erisso and Maometto and the final scene of Act One, every astounding feat of technique serving the character’s uncertain predicament.

It is in another enthralling trio, alongside Erisso and Maometto, that Calbo is first heard in Act Two, and DeShong braved each of Rossini’s vocal assaults with complete comfort, manifested in her unerring navigations of wide intervals and chromatic scales. DeShong’s performance of the Andante cavatina ‘Non temer d’un basso affetto’ rivaled Marilyn Horne’s singing of the piece in the 1969 La Scala production of L’assedio di Corinto, the younger singer equaling or surpassing her illustrious predecessor in all but executing the trills in ‘Del periglio al fiero aspetto.’ Her singing in the fateful terzettino with Anna and Erisso might have been anticlimactic after such exhilarating vocalism, but DeShong immersed herself in communicating Calbo’s fleeting joy at winning Anna’s affection. Calbo’s happiness is brief, but memories of DeShong’s singing will long endure.

IN REVIEW: soprano LEAH CROCETTO as Anna in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO, 21 November 2021 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Eroina ingannata: soprano Leah Crocetto as Anna in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo, 21 November 2021
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

The rôle of Erisso’s courageous daughter Anna, torn between filial loyalty and illicit love for the inimical Maometto, who won her heart in the guise of a Venetian emissary, was written for Isabella Colbran, who became Rossini’s wife fourteen months after Maometto secondo’s première. Contemporary accounts of her performances in this period of her career suggest that Colbran’s voice was in decline, a supposition supported in some musicologists’ analyses by Rossini largely writing contemplative rather than fiendishly demonstrative music for Colbran in Maometto secondo. On this evening, soprano Leah Crocetto’s singing dispelled any notion of Anna being a lesser sister of Rossini’s renowned rôles for Colbran.

Crocetto introduced her complex, evolving Anna with an arresting voicing of the Andante cavatina ‘Ah! che invan sul mesto ciglio’ in which the voice was used not as a disembodied instrument but as a conduit for the text. Having negotiated the Terzettone’s trills, grupetti, and top Bs with stylistic fluency, Crocetto voiced the Andantino preghiera ‘Guisto ciel, in tal periglio’ enchantingly, her legato as mesmerizing as her coloratura. In the final scene of Act One, she sang first ‘Ritrovo l’amante nel crudo nemico’ and then ‘Rendimi il padre, o barbaro’ with abandon, ending the act with a mammoth top C.

Anna’s duet with Maometto in Act Two prefigures Verdi’s music for Odabella and Attila, and Crocetto’s Verdian credentials were evident in her sensational but sensitive singing of ‘Sì: non t’inganni...Ah, tanto la pena mi s’addoppia,’ her top C again employed to accentuate the profundity of the character’s emotions. Grief tinged the soprano’s voice with gathering shadows in the terzettino with Calbo and Erisso, memories of Anna’s mother melding with love for her father and burgeoning warmth for Calbo.

The sincerity of expression of Crocetto’s account of the preghiera ‘Ferve dunque la pugna’ was deeply touching, the delicate cantilena sustained on the breath in a manner reminiscent of Montserrat Caballé. In Crocetto’s performance, the rondò ‘Quella morte che s’avanza’ was a decisive act of defiance. Preferring taking her own life to surrendering to a dishonorable passion in the opera’s final scene, Crocetto underscored the kinship between Rossini’s Anna and Berlioz’s Cassandre. Perhaps Isabella Colbran was no longer at her best at the time of Maometto secondo’s première, but Rossini’s trust in her musical and histrionic abilities was abundantly validated by Crocetto’s magnificent singing of the rôle.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone ASHRAF SEWAILAM as Maometto II in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's MAOMETTO SECONDO, 21 November 2021 [Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]Tuono ottomano: bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam as Maometto II in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo, 21 November 2021
[Photograph by Caitlin Oldham, © by Washington Concert Opera]

At the age of twenty-one, the historical Mehmed II conquered Constantinople, hastening the demise of the Byzantine empire of Constantine and Justinian and inaugurating dominion in the Muslim realms that would ultimately encompass two reigns as sultan of the Ottoman empire. Contrary to the Euro-centric perception of Ottomans as plundering barbarians, Mehmed II was an avowed patron of the Arts whose actions as sultan were irrefutably shaped by an ardent social conscience. The aristocratic musicianship and stage deportment of Rossini’s first Maometto II, Filippo Galli, were sufficient to earn him the distinction of creating another notable operatic portrait of an iconic monarch, Enrico VIII in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. In WCO’s Maometto secondo, Egyptian bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam honored the legacies of both Galli and Mehmed II by portraying the legendary conqueror as a man whose severity was tempered by a lover’s vulnerability.

Maometto makes as dashing an entrance as any character in opera, his aria ‘Sorgete: in sì bel giorno, o prodi miei guerrieri’ requiring ironclad bravura technique and indomitable security in the upper register. Sewailam dispatched the fiorature stirringly and effortlessly projected the top Es and Fs. Dominating Maometto’s scene with the chorus, the bass-baritone matched his colleagues’ urgent vocalism in the terzetto with Calbo and Erisso. Launching the Act One finale, Sewailam voiced ‘Guardie, olà’ robustly, invoking the might of the Ottoman empire. His singing often recalled that of the preeminent recent exponent of Maometto’s music, Samuel Ramey, the two singers sharing a prowess for evincing the dramatic impetus in Rossini’s intricate music.

Sewailam partnered Crocetto brilliantly in Maometto’s duet with Anna in Act Two, voicing ‘Anna, tu piangi? Il pianto pur non è d’odio un segno’ with benevolence and concern. As Anna’s disdain for the false pretenses under which Maometto paid court to her became obvious, Sewailam’s vocalism grew more flinty, the velvet of his wooing transforming into the steel of vengeance. Sung with fury, the repeated top E♭s in the aria with chorus, ‘All’invito generoso riconosco i miei guerrieri,’ limned the sultan’s increasing exasperation.

The blustering brawn of Sewailam’s voice reverberated in the terzetto with Calbo and Erisso, Maometto having reached the limit of his magnanimity. His love thwarted by Anna’s suicide, Maometto’s humanity reached its zenith in the opera’s final scene, which in Sewailam’s performance was an affecting lament for his beloved. Singing music as demanding as Maometto’s rarely comes naturally to lower voices, but Sewailam sang Maometto unflappably, finding in Rossini’s musical obstacles aspects of a fascinating character who is too often portrayed as an insipid villain.

Mere hours after the last chord of this performance sounded in Lisner Auditorium, news of the passing of Washington Concert Opera’s founder, Stephen Crout, was announced. In the thirty-four years since the company’s first performance, the artists, staff, and supporters who bring WCO’s adventurous seasons to fruition persist in furthering Crout’s aspiration to perform lesser-known works with voices appropriate for the music. Overcoming a pandemic’s best efforts at blocking its path to the stage, WCO’s performance of Maometto secondo epitomized the spirit of Crout’s vision, presenting an exquisite score in a performance worthy of it.

09 November 2021

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — SUOR ANGELICA and GIANNI SCHICCHI (M. Thompson, J. Hawley, M. MacKenzie, J. Burns, A. Richardson, M. A. Zentner, D. Hartmann, S. MacLeod; Piedmont Opera, 15 October 2021)

IN REVIEW: soprano MARSHA THOMPSON (center) and the cast of Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's SUOR ANGELICA [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Suor Angelica and Gianni SchicchiMarsha Thompson (Suor Angelica), Janine Hawley (La zia principessa, Zita), Margaret Ann Zentner (Suor Genovieffa), Amanda Moody Schumpert (La suora zelatrice), Alden Pridgen (La maestra della novizie), (Suor Osmina), Bonnie Blackwell (Suor Dolcina), Erica Helmle (La suora infermiera), Laura Hutchins (Una cercatrice), Katherine Ledbetter (Una cercatrice), Charli Mills (Una novizia), Sara Roberts (Una novizia), Malcolm MacKenzie (Gianni Schicchi), Jodi Burns (Lauretta), Alex Richardson (Rinuccio), Kameron Alston (Gherardo), Kristin Schwecke (La badessa, Nella), André Peele (Betto di Signa), Donald Hartmann (Simone), Scott MacLeod (Marco), Regan Bisch (La Ciesca), Connor May Kelly (Gherardino), Lawrence Hall (Maestro Spinelloccio), Scott Lee (Messer Amantio di Nicolao), Hal Garrison (Pinellino), Jonathan Burdette (Guccio), Bill Phillips (Buoso Donati); Piedmont Opera Chorus, Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, director; Piedmont Opera, Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 15 October 2021]

The world première of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on 10 December 1910, inaugurated a partnership between Italian opera’s most celebrated composer of the day and one of North America’s leading opera houses that, barely a month after Germany’s signing of the Armistice of Compiègne effectively ended the First World War, yielded another première, that of the trio of one-act operas christened as Il trittico. First performed on 14 December 1918, Il trittico was the realization of a project conceived by Puccini following the tremendous success of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, the quintessential verismo melodrama in one act. Originally planned as a three-part setting of episodes from Dante Alighieri’s Divina commedia, the work gradually evolved during its prolonged gestation into a trilogy of pieces subtly linked by examinations of violent, tragic, and farcical aspects of death. Ultimately, only Il trittico’s closer, the comic Gianni Schicchi, retained an association with Dante. Divisive since its première, Il trittico is reminiscent more of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes galantes than of Puccini’s other mature operas. As in Rameau’s innovative work, humanity itself is the central character in Il trittico.

Puccini explicitly instructed that the three operas of Il trittico should always be performed together. He was persuaded to authorize the substitution of a ballet interlude for Suor Angelica in a London production but succinctly expressed his disapprobation upon learning that Il tabarro was also excised. Critics assessing the Metropolitan Opera première and subsequent stagings in Rome and Chicago disagreed with the composer, many of them praising Gianni Schicchi as the strongest of the three operas, musically and theatrically, and advocating for separation of each Trittico opera from its siblings. Launching the company’s 2021 – 2022 Season, Piedmont Opera’s production of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi—the company’s first stagings of these pieces—restored two of the operas to their proper places, validating the composer’s theatrical sagacity by emphasizing the stylistic links between the two disparate stories and their musical treatments. Under the direction of Steven LaCosse, a familiar presence in opera in and beyond central North Carolina owing to his work with Piedmont Opera and UNC School of the Arts, this production relocated the operas from the Renaissance to times more familiar to the audience. Contrary to modern trends of updating operas’ settings, LaCosse’s endeavors engendered meaningful connections among the audience, Puccini’s characters, and the singers portraying them.

Placing the action in the Twentieth Century, LaCosse’s direction was rich with details that heightened the sense of community that pervaded these stagings of both operas. Suor Angelica tending to her beloved plants with palpable tenderness, the convent’s mistress of novices scribbling notes about her charges’ spiritual missteps, Betto clandestinely taming his nerves with the contents of a flask, and Simone spitefully extinguishing the votives that he lit before the discovery of Buoso’s will exemplified the scope of LaCosse’s efforts to create credible environments in which the operas’ events transpired. With an opulent suit for the Zia principessa, designed by Howard Tsvi Kaplan, that contrasted tellingly with the nuns’ austere habits and whimsically colorful attire that gave each character in Gianni Schicchi individual style, the costumes ideally complemented LaCosse’s direction, Norman Coates’s logical lighting, and Kevin McBee’s attractive but undistracting scenic designs. LaCosse, stage manager Ann Louise Wolf, and their production team ensured that a focal point was always discernible, even in moments of manic activity, centering the plots with specificity that some productions lack.

Performances of all or portions of Il trittico often impart little of each opera’s kinship with its brethren. In this performance, Piedmont Opera’s General Director James Allbritten conducted Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi with attention to the thematic and dramatic nuances that link the scores. There were passages during the first ten minutes of Suor Angelica in which the Winston-Salem Symphony’s playing was surprisingly untidy, pitch and ensemble faltering, but these proved to be momentary defects. As the evening progressed, the musicians increasingly rivaled the best work of their counterparts in renowned opera companies’ orchestras. Particularly in Suor Angelica, Allbritten’s tempi were often daringly slow, his choices unmistakably guided as much by words as by music. In both operas, ensembles were handled with the conductor’s trademark skill for elucidating each character’s unique emotions. So insightful was Allbritten’s handling of the transitions of mood that propel Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi that not only were the operas wholly credible as companions in a single evening but also the famiglia Donati of Gianni Schicchi convinced as the sort of people who might have exiled a vulnerable young woman to a convent. Typical of his work with Piedmont Opera, Allbritten’s conducting of this performance accentuated the ways in which the composer used melody to bring characters and their stories to life.

IN REVIEW: sopranos MARSHA THOMPSON in the title rôle (left) and MARGARET ANN ZENTNER as Suor Genovieffa (right) in Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's SUOR ANGELICA [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]Suore ed amiche: sopranos Marsha Thompson in the title rôle (left) and Margaret Ann Zentner as Suor Genovieffa (right) in Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

Joining with the principals in portraying the denizens of the convent in which Suor Angelica has done penance without word from her family for seven years, the ladies of the Piedmont Opera Chorus sang splendidly, whether praising providential mercies, enduring hardships, or teasing one another lightheartedly. Their voicing of the liturgical texts, in his settings of which Puccini reminded his contemporaries that he was the descendant of accomplished composers of sacred music, was serene, vividly contrasting with their depictions of the jocular banter amongst the sisters. A particular example of the sagacity of Allbritten’s pacing of the performance was the broad tempo that he chose for ‘E una sorella la manca,’ the nuns’ brief lament for a deceased member of the community. Rarely given any true emotional weight in staged productions, Allbritten’s conducting and the beautiful singing in this performance lent this fleeting moment unexpected gravitas.

The success of a performance of Suor Angelica arguably relies upon the effectiveness of the singer portraying the title rôle more than any other Puccini opera, but Suor Angelica is also an ensemble piece. Perhaps inspired by the personalities he encountered when visiting his cloistered sister, Puccini populated Suor Angelica with dynamic characterizations in miniature. Piedmont Opera’s Suor Angelica was distinguished by the participation of an ensemble of gifted singing actresses, each of whom projected her character’s unique identity.

Sopranos Laura Hutchins and Katherine Ledbetter and mezzo-soprano Sarah Roberts and soprano Charli Mills respectively portrayed the Cercatrici and Novizie with girlish excitement. Soprano Bonnie Blackwell’s merrily glutinous Suor Dolcina was an utter delight, and both the Suora zelatrice of soprano Amanda Moody Schumpert and the Suora infermiera of mezzo-soprano Erica Helmle impressed, musically and dramatically. Mezzo-soprano Alden Pidgen conveyed the Maestra della novizie’s meticulous watchfulness, and soprano Kristin Schwecke sang the Badessa’s lines with benevolent sternness. Credit for the clever musical portraiture in Suor Angelica goes to Puccini, but the insightful variety of his character studies is as apparent in few productions as in this one.

A participant in UNCSA’s Fletcher Fellows program, soprano Margaret Ann Zentner portrayed Suor Genovieffa with glistening, focused tone and unaffectedly youthful acting, conveying the sister’s naïvété and kind disposition without saccharine exaggeration. She sang ‘O sorelle, sorelle, io voglio rivelarvi che una spera di sole’ with warmth and wonder, her top A aptly radiant. Zentner voiced ‘O sorelle in pio lavoro’ and ‘Soave Signor mio, tu sai che prima d ora nel mondo ero pastora’ with graceful zeal and a timbre that recalled the voice of the young Mirella Freni, exhibiting complete mastery of the art of imaginatively inhabiting a rôle, musically and dramatically.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano JANINE HAWLEY as La zia principessa in Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's SUOR ANGELICA [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]La voce della convenzione: mezzo-soprano Janine Hawley as La zia principessa in Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

Though the duration of her appearance in Suor Angelica amounts to only twelve or so minutes, the title character’s fierce, unfeeling aunt, the Zia principessa, is justifiably regarded as one of Italian opera’s most ferocious villainesses. As such, she is sometimes portrayed as a vicious, one-dimensional figure whose vitriol is tempered by neither empathy nor psychological depth. Both Puccini and his librettist for Il trittico, Giovacchino Forzano, supplied thoughtful singers with opportunities for multi-faceted interpretation, however, and Piedmont Opera’s Zia principessa, mezzo-soprano Janine Hawley, capitalized on oft-neglected gentler dimensions of the part. The granitic bleakness of her articulation of ‘Il Principe Gualtiero vostro padre’ established an atmosphere of disquieting formality that pervaded her interpretation.

The unyielding abrasiveness of Hawley’s deportment was chilling, yet there were fleeting glimpses of vulnerability beyond the steely façade. The mezzo-soprano delivered ‘Or son due anni, venne colpito da fiero morbo’ with emotion that transcended mere indignation, suggesting that the princess was no less acquainted with suffering than her niece. Having informed Angelica of the death of the son whose conception led her to the convent, Hawley was for a moment more zia than principessa, instinctively reaching for Angelica to offer comfort before shrinking from the touch. This glimmer of compassion made the character seem all the more terrible, her frigidity unmistakably a choice. Hawley’s center of vocal gravity was slightly higher than the music requires, but she conquered the low writing without forcing the voice. Singing powerfully, Hawley depicted the Zia principessa as a glamorous but damaged woman rather than a snarling shrew.

IN REVIEW: soprano MARSHA THOMPSON in the title rôle in Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's SUOR ANGELICA [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]La madre in lutto: soprano Marsha Thompson in the title rôle in Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

Witnessing a singer’s first performance of a challenging rôle can be akin to viewing an artist’s canvas before the paint dries. The shapes and colors are present, but the subtleties and shadows that contribute much to the piece’s value and integrity develop over time. Soprano Marsha Thompson’s rôle début as Angelica demonstrated commendable comprehension of the part, communicated through singing that disclosed assiduous study of the score and immersion in the character’s devastating emotions. Joining her sisters in prayer, this Angelica’s voicing of ‘Prega per noi peccatori’ was wrenchingly personal, her quest for benediction vaulting to heaven in passionate but poised tones. There was an aura of Renata Scotto’s metaphysical acuity in Thompson’s singing of ‘I desideri sono i fiori dei vivi,’ the significance of flowers to both her survival in the convent and her eventual escape from it disclosed without being unduly accentuated. Like Scotto, Thompson exhibited cognizance of the intended trajectory of her characterization from the start.

Seven years of repressed hope erupted in Thompson’s voicing of ‘Ah! ditermi, sorella, com’ era la berlina,’ the expansiveness of her reading limning Angelica’s sense of the gravity of the moment. The anger, fear, and helplessness that gripped her Angelica in the dreadful meeting with the Zia principessa resounded in the soprano’s voice, her delivery of ‘Sorella di mia madre, voi siete inesorabile!’ suffused with timbral shadings. The voice took on a biting edge as Angelica pleaded for news of her child. Learning of the boy’s death incited a transformation in this Angelica: the raw, blaring tones of a wounded woman were replaced by the resolute sounds of a mother already following her son into the freedom of death.

In Thompson’s performance, the searing aria ‘Senza mamma, o bimbo, tu sei morto!’ was lived as much as it was sung, the stirring top As directed to the child the despondent mother could not comfort. Rather than being broken as Cio-Cio San is when her child is taken from her, this Angelica found in the knowledge of her child’s death impetus to flee from the oppression of her remorse and isolation. In both ‘La Vergine ha fatto la grazia’ and ‘Ah! lodiam,’ Thompson’s glistening top Cs expressed Angelica’s new commitment to reuniting with her son. Her affection for the flowers she so painstakingly cultivated assumed fatal implications in ‘Amici fiori, voi mi compensate,’ and her ‘Addio, buone sorelle,’ crowned by a stunning top B, was the farewell of a woman certain of the inevitability of her choice.

Thompson exercised exceptional control in Angelica’s final scene, genuinely singing rather than screaming the repeated top As with which the dying mother recognizes and seeks forgiveness for her action against the divine gift of life. Her pleas to the Blessed Virgin were not platitudes addressed to an archetype. The intensity of Thompson’s singing lent Angelica’s final utterances the pathos of one grieving mother appealing to another woman who could not save her son from a cruel death. Tearing off her veil as death overtook her, she was no longer a servant of an earthly church. She was merely a mother, transfigured by returning to the presence of her child. With future opportunities to revisit the rôle, Thompson’s acquaintance with Angelica will undoubtedly develop even greater individuality, but her initial interpretation, distinguished by confident, often exhilarating vocalism that, especially in the lower octave, recalled the singing of Leontyne Price, was memorably moving.

IN REVIEW: the cast of Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's GIANNI SCHICCHI [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]La famiglia scontenta: the cast of Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

As the Catechism regards suicide as a violation of God’s dominion over human life, it is not surprising that the Catholic Church found the implicit absolution that ends Suor Angelica vexing. Its plot centering on a greedy family fraudulently depriving a monastery of a generous bequest, Gianni Schicchi might reasonably have proved to be no less objectionable to the Church—it was in hell that Dante encountered the historical Gianni Schicchi de’ Cavalcanti, after all. Musically, however, Gianni Schicchi’s sins are few and, in a performance as captivating as Piedmont Opera’s, wholly pardonable.

The fortuitous casting from which Piedmont Opera’s performance of Suor Angelica benefited was rivaled by the consistent excellence of the portraits of the embittered scions of the Donati clan. Without singing a note, Piedmont Opera Board of Directors member Bill Phillips was uproariously effective as the not-so-dearly-departed Buoso. The notary and his attending witnesses, Pinellino and Guccio, received spirited characterizations from baritone Scott Lee and basses Hal Garrison (a member of the Piedmont Opera company since 1978) and Jonathan Burdette. Baritone Lawrence Hall sang Puccini’s lines for the none-too-observant physician Maestro Spinelloccio amusingly, maintaining an uncommonly high level of musical accuracy.

Darting across the stage with the litheness of a ballerina, Connor May Kelly was a Gherardino, the seven-year-old son of Gherardo and Nella, worthy of his parents. Equaling her Badessa in Suor Angelica, Kristin Schwecke dispatched Nella’s aggrieved interjections and top C rousingly, and tenor Kameron Alston voiced Gherardo’s music with exuberance and glistening tone. Like Schwecke, Janine Hawley supplemented her riveting Zia principessa with a droll depiction of the implacable Zita. Soprano Regan Bisch and baritone Scott MacLeod sang and acted ably as the formidable La Ciesca and her wan husband Marco. Bass-baritone André Peele’s Betto di Signa handled both his music and his liquor with aplomb.

His cane and uncertain gait notwithstanding, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann’s Simone, the eldest of Buoso’s disgruntled heirs, was no bumbling dotard. Many interpreters of the part rely upon trickery to promulgate the authority that Hartmann wields solely through the voice. Allied with stagecraft redolent of the golden age of vaudeville, this Simone’s voice orated ‘Se il testamento è in mano d’un notaio’ and ‘Dunque era vero!’ potently, the words articulated with caustic wit. Fulminating against Schicchi’s duplicity, Hartmann literally stole the scene, his Simone exasperatedly pilfering the curtains from Buoso’s bedchamber as he was chased from the house he expected to inherit.

IN REVIEW: tenor ALEX RICHARDSON as Rinuccio (left) and mezzo-soprano JANINE HAWLEY as Zita in Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's GIANNI SCHICCHI [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]L’amore e l’avidità: tenor Alex Richardson as Rinuccio (left) and mezzo-soprano Janine Hawley as Zita (right) in Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

The most wily of the relations gathered in anticipation of the windfall promised by old Buoso’s demise, Rinuccio is asked to sing much of the opera’s most demanding music, including one of Puccini’s iconic tenor arias, but sometimes fails to truly emerge from the ensemble as a fully-realized character. Unabashedly emotive, athletic, and boyishly handsome, Alex Richardson’s Rinuccio was unmistakably his own man, devoted to his family but ready to defy them in order to secure his future with his beloved Lauretta. His febrile defense of Schicchi, condemned by the Donati kinsmen as a blackguard, was galvanizing, his blazing top B making ‘Avete torto!’ an argument that could not be refuted. Richardson voiced the celebrated aria ‘Firenze è come un alberto fiorito’ rousingly, untroubled by its top B♭s. Upon Schicchi’s arrival, this Rinuccio took charge, his ‘Signor Giovanni, rimanete un momento!’ prohibiting refusal. The repetitions of ‘Addio, speranza bella’ as all seemed lost were comically exaggerated but impeccably sung. Having lost the Donati fortune but won Lauretta’s hand, he voiced ‘Lauretta mia, staremo sempre qui’ exultantly, ecstatically joining Lauretta on her optional top D♭. Richardson’s Rinuccio was a man of action, not merely a lovesick boy, and his vocalism rose intrepidly to every challenge of the music.

IN REVIEW: soprano JODI BURNS as Lauretta in Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's GIANNI SCHICCI [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]La melodia suadente: soprano Jodi Burns as Lauretta in Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

Bringing coquettish enchantment reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe to her portrayal of Schicchi’s fiesty daughter Lauretta soprano Jodi Burns sang Puccini’s soaring melodic lines with unfailing musicality and lustrous tone. Romancing with Rinuccio, Burns sang sweetly but with unstinting determination to accomplish her own goals in the wake of the Donati family drama. Her account of the familiar ‘O mio babbino caro’ was rightly cheered, her tone inviolably secure and fetchingly beautiful throughout the range. Too frequently, singers try to make the aria a grand ‘moment’ like Mimì’s ‘Addio, senza rancor’ or Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore.’ Burns presented the aria as precisely what it is: one of opera’s most melodious acts of manipulation. Lauretta prevailing in her cunning venture to convince her father of the intrinsic rectitude of coming to Rinuccio’s aid, Burns phrased ‘La mi giurasti amore!’ with an air of triumph, ascending effortlessly to top D♭. Schicchi is the architect of the plan that ultimately unites his daughter with her ardent lover, but Burns’s Lauretta had both her caro babbino and the audience in the palm of her hand from her first note.

IN REVIEW: soprano JODI BURNS as Lauretta (left) and baritone MALCOLM MACKENZIE in the title rôle in Piedmont Opera's October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini's GIANNI SCHICCHI [Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]Il padre e la sua figlia: soprano Jodi Burns as Lauretta (left) and baritone Malcolm MacKenzie in the title rôle of Piedmont Opera’s October 2021 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi
[Photograph by André Dewan Peele, © by Piedmont Opera]

Like his colleague in the title rôle of Suor Angelica, baritone Malcolm MacKenzie expanded his repertoire in this Piedmont Opera production with his first performance of the eponymous protagonist of Gianni Schicchi. When hearing performances of this opera, it is easy to forget that its name part was created in the 1918 première by the great baritone Giuseppe de Luca, then only forty-one years old and already the first Sharpless in Madama Butterfly. Casting Schicchi with singers possessing more personality than voice clearly was not Puccini’s intention, but tradition now assigns the rôle in many productions to superannuated singers whose vocal prowess no longer encompasses the technical wherewithal needed to master the composer’s writing. Piedmont Opera followed Puccini’s example by casting MacKenzie, whose vocal presence was at its pinnacle in this performance.

Entering Casa Donati with cyclonic force, MacKenzie’s Schicchi commandeered the performance with easy charisma and vocal strength. The irony of his voicing of ‘Ah! Andato? Perchè stanno a lacrimare?’ manifested Schicchi’s renowned perceptiveness. None too impressed by the haughty Zita’s snobbish denunciation of his offer of assistance, he hurled ‘Brava, la vecchia! Brava!’ at her furiously. Succumbing to Lauretta’s cajoling, this Schicchi growled ‘Datemi il testamento!’ with annoyance, begrudgingly accepting that not even his legendary savvy was a match for a daughter’s persuasiveness. Some of his fellow portrayers of Schicchi struggle with the rôle’s daunting tessitura, not least in ‘In testa la cappellina,’ but MacKenzie approached the music with unflappable assurance, producing an electrifying top G.

Allocating his devious resources to circumventing the conditions of Buoso’s will, Piedmont Opera’s Schicchi battled a parade of schemers with an array of agendas. MacKenzie responded with adaptability of which a veteran politician would have been proud, tailoring his replies to each disenfranchised Donati’s solicitation in turn. The baritone sang ‘Prima un avvertimento!’ boldly. Schicchi’s aria ‘Addio, Firenze; addio, cielo divino’ spotlights the weaknesses of some exponents of the part, but MacKenzie’s traversal of the piece exuded absolute comfort with the music. Similarly, Schicchi’s impersonation of the expired Buoso can be embarrassingly over the top. This Schicchi eschewed excessive crooning and wheezing, always attentive to musical values. MacKenzie excelled in Schicchi’s comedy, but the foremost pleasure of his performance was hearing a voice of such high caliber in the rôle. Epitomized by the work of a cast of rare distinction, uncompromising musicality was the touchstone of Piedmont Opera’s production of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi.