04 April 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Mark Lanz Weiser & Amy S. Punt — GALAXIES IN HER EYES (D. Thompson-Brewer, L. Kesselman, A. L. Bottoms, S. Nordin; High Point University, 3 April 2022)

IN REVIEW: the cast of High Point University's world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser's and Amy S. Punt's GALAXIES IN HER EYES, April 2022 [Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]MARK LANZ WEISER (born 1968) and AMY S. PUNT (born 1987): Galaxies in Her Eyes [WORLD PREMIÈRE] – Diana Thompson-Brewer (Eden), Lindsay Kesselman (Ada Lovelace), Amanda Lynn Bottoms (Katherine Johnson), Sarah Nordin (Annie Jump Cannon); Fabrice Dharamraj (violin 1), Emilia Sharpe (violin 2), Simon Ertz (viola), Laura Shirley (cello), PG Hazard (piano); Karen Ní Bhroin, conductor [Scott MacLeod, producer; Kristine McIntyre, director; Kathy Maxwell, graphics and lighting designer; Jason Estrada, costume and makeup designer; High Point University Department of Music, Culp Planetarium, High Point, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 3 April 2022]

Many of the earliest human endeavors known to history were attempts to understand or connect with the cosmos. From the inception of cognition, man has sought inspiration and solace in the stars, marveling at the unfathomable expanse of space and contemplating the possibility that, somewhere among distant realms, other beings exist and turn their eyes towards Earth. Ancient mythologies gave constellations terrestrial identities. Mesoamerican cultures found in the motions of the heavens harbingers of the future. The lives of aboriginal peoples were guided by celestial signs. Having harnessed the navigational power of the stars to explore all corners of this planet, humanity looked upward, daring to dream of ascending into the entrancing void.

Just as the call of the sea resounds in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, the spellbinding voice of space sings in every moment of composer Mark Lanz Weiser’s and librettist Amy S. Punt’s opera Galaxies in Her Eyes. Frequent collaborators, composer and librettist melded their melodies and poetry into a single, indivisible entity that made of an enterprising girl’s fascination with space an engrossing theatrical experience. Punt’s libretto communicated the heroine’s youthful zeal with welcome concision and straightforwardness, curiosity emerging from the character’s thoughts rather than from poetic conceits. Crucially, the words were credible as those of a witty young lady and the historical figures with whom she engages, and Weiser’s musical treatment of them effectuated textual clarity.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano AMANDA LYNN BOTTOMS as Katherine Johnson, soprano DIANA THOMPSON-BREWER as Eden, and soprano LINDSAY KESSELMAN as Ada Lovelace in High Point University's world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser's and Amy S. Punt's GALAXIES IN HER EYES, April 2022 [Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]Code talkers: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms as Katherine Johnson, soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer as Eden, and soprano Lindsay Kesselman as Ada Lovelace in High Point University’s world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser’s and Amy S. Punt’s Galaxies in Her Eyes, April 2022
[Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]

Weiser’s score takes the listener on a riveting, intensely moving journey through the galaxies that the opera’s heroine longs to visit. In both musical structure and subject matter, there are parallels between Galaxies in Her Eyes and Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei. Momentum is provided by an elastic use of ostinati, over which vocal lines take flight as harmonies intertwine with tonal ambiguity that harkens back to Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Weiser’s writing for string quartet follows the model of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht in integrating bewitching lyricism with bracing dissonances. Influences past and present are absorbed into Weiser’s unique musical language, which in Galaxies in Her Eyes metamorphoses complex code and equations into sounds of simple beauty.

Presenting the professional world première of Galaxies in Her Eyes in High Point University's 125-seat Culp Planetarium was a fortuitous union of work and venue with few equals in operatic history, one made possible by the espousal of the planetarium’s director, astrophysicist Dr. Brad Barlow. Produced with a singer’s instincts and insightfulness by HPU Associate Professor of Music Dr. Scott MacLeod, the staging lifted Punt’s words and Weiser’s music from the page with a level of immediacy rare in any art form. Bringing her concept for the opera to fruition, director Kristine McIntyre resourcefully transformed every spatial limitation into a strength, capitalizing on the visual splendors of Kathy Maxwell’s stunning projections and lighting designs, Dr. Barlow’s inventive graphic and programming schematics, and Jason Estrada’s elegant costume and makeup creations to fashion an atmosphere that was both seemingly infinite and palpably intimate. The ingenuity with which the setting was incorporated into the opera’s narrative was incredible, the visual stimuli of celestial bodies and pioneering titans of mathematics, physics, and astronomy assimilating the audience’s collective dreams of space into the opera’s context.

IN REVIEW: soprano LINDSAY KESSELMAN as Ada Lovelace in High Point University's world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser's and Amy S. Punt's GALAXIES IN HER EYES, April 2022 [Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]Out of this world: soprano Lindsay Kesselman as Ada Lovelace in High Point University’s world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser’s and Amy S. Punt’s Galaxies in Her Eyes, April 2022
[Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]

Concealed behind the planetarium’s dome, the string quartet drawn from the ranks of the Winston-Salem Symphony—violinists Fabrice Dharamraj and Emilia Sharpe, violist Simon Ertz, and cellist Laura Shirley—and pianist PG Hazard played superbly under the direction of conductor Karen Ní Bhroin. Even with technological assistance and modest musical forces, piloting a performance in such a non-traditional venue generated uncommon challenges. Ní Bhroin’s experience as Assistant Conductor of the Winston-Salem Symphony was invaluable, her knowledge of diverse repertoire begetting a reading of Galaxies in Her Eyes in which the facets of Weiser’s music coruscated. Serving as the nucleus around which the string players’ sounds whizzed and whispered, Hazard managed the keyboard’s transitions from piano to celesta virtuosically, her technical expertise supporting interpretive sagacity. Conductor and instrumentalists ensured that very wonder of the opera’s visual staging was matched by a musical detail of equal brilliance.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano SARAH NORDIN as Annie Jump Cannon, soprano DIANA THOMPSON-BREWER as Eden, and soprano LINDSAY KESSELMAN as Ada Lovelace in High Point University's world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser's and Amy S. Punt's GALAXIES IN HER EYES, April 2022 [Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]Across the spectrum: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano Sarah Nordin as Annie Jump Cannon, soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer as Eden, and soprano Lindsay Kesselman as Ada Lovelace in High Point University’s world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser’s and Amy S. Punt’s Galaxies in Her Eyes, April 2022
[Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]

Separated from her mother during a stargazing excursion, the adolescent Eden awakens in the company of Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess Lovelace, the significance of whose contributions to Charles Babbage’s long-celebrated mathematical work has only been fully recognized in the past half-century. Vibrantly portrayed in this production of Galaxies in Her Eyes by soprano Lindsay Kesselman, Weiser’s and Punt’s Lady Lovelace rejoices in her eccentricity, taking no notice of the differences between them as she affectionately befriends the dazed Eden. Kesselman sang intrepidly, mastering the part’s angular writing and wide intervals with unflinching commitment and finessing melodic lines as though she were interpreting a Schubert Lied. Paralleling Eden’s odyssey, Kesselman limned the pathos of Lady Lovelace’s desire to find her own mother, but there was also humor in moments like her rejoinder when accused by Eden of being bossy that ‘it is pronounced busy.’ The soprano’s vocalism reveled in the pure joy of singing, heightening a characterization that exuded the gratifying fulfillment of mathematical computation.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano DIANA THOMPSON-BREWER as Eden, mezzo-soprano SARAH NORDIN as Annie Jump Cannon, and mezzo-soprano AMANDA LYNN BOTTOMS as Katherine Johnson in High Point University's world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser's and Amy S. Punt's GALAXIES IN HER EYES, April 2022 [Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]Sisters in science: (from left to right) soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer as Eden, mezzo-soprano Sarah Nordin as Annie Jump Cannon, and mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms as Katherine Johnson in High Point University’s world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser’s and Amy S. Punt’s Galaxies in Her Eyes, April 2022
[Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]

Vocally and dramatically, mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms’s depiction of Katherine Coleman Johnson, one of the first women of color employed in scientific work by NASA and a central focus of the book and feature film Hidden Figures, was captivating, the character’s sisterly protectiveness towards Eden allied with irrepressible pride in her work. The sequence in which Johnson describes the development of NASA’s earliest computer coding was the performance’s most thrilling scene, Bottoms’s singing and acting bringing the too-long-unheralded genius to life with extraordinary specificity, as though archival footage of Johnson herself were set to music. Her understated utterance of ‘One day, it hit me’ imparted the innate humility of her portrayal. Suffused with benevolent warmth when interacting with Eden, Bottoms’s voice blazed excitingly when Johnson recounted her work with fifty thousand equations. Bottoms’s garnet-hued timbre was easily distinguished in ensembles, in which she delivered Johnson’s lines fervently, and, even when she was obscured by darkness, her presence was unmistakable.

The third of the trailblazing ladies who aid the adolescent Eden in finding her own path to the stars, Annie Jump Cannon, collaborated with colleagues at Harvard University on a system of categorizing stars that enabled all future space exploration by expanding scientists’ understanding of intergalactic evolution. The importance of Cannon’s accomplishments was honored by the powerful singing of mezzo-soprano Sarah Nordin. The historical Cannon was surely a formidable woman, a noted suffragist in addition to her scientific work, and Nordin brought her to the operatic stage with cyclonic intensity, the columnar firmness of the voice effortlessly projecting the lady’s indomitable spirit into the planetarium. On some levels, Eden’s three historical forebears represent aspects of a single personality, Ada Lovelace personifying playful precocity and Katherine Johnson embodying studious sobriety. As sung by Nordin, Cannon was the voice of advocacy and self-reliance. A voice such as hers cannot be ignored, and the singer’s performance cogently communicated the gravitas of both the character and the opera’s message of progress through self-improvement and esteem for innovators of the past.

IN REVIEW: soprano DIANA THOMPSON-BREWER as Eden in High Point University's world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser's and Amy S. Punt's GALAXIES IN HER EyES, April 2022 [Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]At the controls: soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer as Eden in High Point University’s world-première production of Mark Lanz Weiser’s and Amy S. Punt’s Galaxies in Her Eyes, April 2022
[Photograph by Lee Adams, © by High Point University]

Eden, the youngster whose misadventure precipitates the time-defying events of Galaxies in Her Eyes, is a cousin of the eponymous protagonists of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince, but soprano Diana Thompson-Brewer made Eden a unique character, a girl recognizably like and absolutely unlike any other. From the start of Eden’s expedition, Thompson-Brewer sang Weiser’s music and Punt’s words with disarming sincerity. Eden’s reactions to each of her exchanges with her mathematical ancestors were astutely differentiated, but her yearning for her mother was omnipresent in the soprano’s performance.

Eden is no ordinary operatic heroine, but Thompson-Brewer approached her music with the same concentration that she devotes to rôles like Mozart’s Königin der Nacht, Donizetti’s Lucia, and Strauss’s Zerbinetta. Eden’s vocal lines make relatively modest demands by comparison, but Thompson-Brewer left nothing to chance, her singing demonstrating the confidence of preparedness. She managed in the opera’s brief duration to forge a richly-detailed depiction of Eden, culminating in an uplifting realization of the girl’s dream to land on the surface of Mars. The revelation in the opera’s final scene that Eden’s mother had died, the loving daughter singing that her father had done his best but could not fill her mother’s absence, was all the more devastating for being fleeting. Eden’s trek began as a girl’s physical quest and ended as a gloriously independent woman’s mission to reconnect to the mother who nurtured her dreams. Along the way, Thompson-Brewer’s singing shone as radiantly as the constellations Eden revered.

There is no chorus in Galaxies in Her Eyes, but some of the most stirring music in Sunday’s performance was the chorus of expressions of amazement from the many children in the capacity audienc​e. Their adult companions responded to the opera no less exultantly, succumbing to music’s faculty for marginalizing the differences that separate people. In only fifty minutes, the galaxies that glimmered in Eden’s eyes colonized the audience’s hearts.

02 April 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Bedřich Smetana — PRODANÁ NEVĚSTA (C. Griffin, W. Edwards, R. Powell, Z. Taylor, R. A. Garcia, D. L. Dorsett, D. Grimm, P. Wheeler, M. Adams, C. McCrea, K. Whitton; UNCG Opera Theatre, 31 March 2022)

IN REVIEW: the cast of UNCG Opera Theatre's 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana's PRODANÁ NEVĚSTA [Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]BEDŘRICH SMETANA (1824 – 1884): Prodaná nevěsta – Claire Griffin (Mařenka), William Edwards (Jeník), Reginald Powell (Kecal), Zachary Taylor (Vašek), Rafael Alejandro Garcia (Krušina), Danielle Lee Dorsett (Ludmila), Douglas Grimm (Mícha), Peyton Wheeler (Háta), Michael Adams (Esmeralda), Collin McCrea (Principal), Kyle Whitton (Indian); UNCG Opera Theatre Chorus and Orchestra; Peter Perret, conductor [David Holley, Producer and Stage Director; Michael Job, Choreographer; Jeff Neubauer, Lighting Designer and Technical Director; Feyden Jones, Wig and Makeup Designer; UNCG Opera Theatre, UNCG Auditorium, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 31 March 2022]

Born near the boundary between Bohemia and Moravia during an era in which his native land was ruled by Habsburg Austria, Bedřich Smetana was an early champion of Czech nationalism in music, a figure whose endeavors to liberate his people from foreign domination paralleled those of the titular hero of his 1868 opera Dalibor. Fascinatingly, the circumstances of his time dictated that Smetana was seldom exposed to Czech language and traditions in his youth, the necessity of coexisting with Bohemia’s Austrian lords yielding a prevalence of Teutonic culture throughout the Habsburg realms. This early suppression of the cultural heritage of his homeland perhaps intensified Smetana’s commitment to developing a singular Czech identity in his music.

Grateful as any artist is for a work to receive widespread acclaim, Smetana would likely have been disappointed to observe that, in the quarter-century following his death in 1884, it was in German translation as Die verkaufte Braut that his second opera, Prodaná nevěsta, captivated audiences throughout Europe and North America. [More than a century after Prodaná nevěsta’s 1909 Metropolitan Opera première, in which Emmy Destinn portrayed Mařenka auf Deutsch, the opera has never been performed by the company in librettist Karel Sabina’s original Czech.] Nuances of Czech linguistics and culture are integral components of Prodaná nevěsta’s structure and ethos, but the opera’s success in other languages is indicative of the quality of Smetana’s music.

Sung in Marian Farquhar’s English translation, UNCG Opera Theatre’s staging of Prodaná nevěsta convincingly transformed the Gate City into a vibrant Czech village. Taking advantage of every visual stimulus of the Grosh Backdrops and Tobias Lake Studio scenic designs, as redolent of the Cotswolds as of Bohemia, and Eastern Costume Company’s costumes, producer and stage director David Holley extracted the plentiful charm from Smetana’s score without perpetuating the uncomfortable, unnecessary, and unwarranted stereotypes that have afflicted some productions of the opera. His own career as a singer always guiding his direction, Holley achieved a commendable balance between the opera’s humor and humanity, the comedy realized rousingly but sensitively.

Jeff Neubauer’s finely-judged lighting designs and technical direction ensured that the observer was always mindful, even in moments of greatest hilarity, that the future happiness of simple, good-natured people was imperiled. Rustic sophistication suffused Michael Job’s rejuvenation of choreography first devised for UNCG’s 2009 production of Prodaná nevěsta, depicting common folk at leisure whose lack of formal training is reflected in clever handling of the opera’s celebrated dances. Too many of today’s opera productions are undermined by staging elements that are contradictory rather than complementary, but this Bartered Bride was distinguished by a discernible unity of vision that focused on drawing the audience into the heart of Smetana’s lovingly-crafted paean to Bohemian life.

IN REVIEW: the cast of UNCG Opera Theatre's 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana's PRODANÁ NEVĚSTA [Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Village at play: the cast of UNCG Opera Theatre’s 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta
[Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

Music Director of the Winston-Salem Symphony from 1978 until 2004, renowned conductor Peter Perret returned to UNCG Auditorium three years after pacing UNCG Opera Theatre’s enchanting production of Verdi’s Falstaff to preside over this staging of Prodaná nevěsta. The artful command of orchestral detail, no less impressive in the orchestral reduction employed for this production than in Smetana’s full orchestrations, and coordination of comedic timing between podium and stage that served Verdi so well were also engendered an energetic, effervescent reading of Smetana’s score.

Under Perret’s leadership, the opera’s sparkling Overture, virtually a symphonic scherzo with much in common with Mozart’s Overture to Le nozze di Figaro, was brilliantly played by the production’s orchestra, and each subsequent instrumental number—the Act One Polka and the comedians’ March (a piece that must have been in Leoncavallo’s mind as he composed his music for the theatrical troupe’s entrance in Pagliacci) and Skočná in Act Three [the popular Furiant in Act Two was omitted]—benefited from the musicians’ dedication and increasing mastery of Smetana’s musical language. Surely responding both to Perret’s guidance and to the beauty of the composer’s music, each instrument was played with eloquence and virtuosity. Perret shaped the opera’s lyrical passages with suavity, engrossingly contrasting bucolic naïvety with dramatic tension.

Smetana entrusted much of the pageantry and authentic Bohemian spirit of Prodaná nevěsta to the chorus. Under the direction of conductor Garrett Saake, UNCG Opera Theatre’s choristers sang both their set pieces and the villagers’ lines in crowd scenes with irrepressible exuberance and musicality. Despite being outnumbered by the ladies, the gentlemen of the chorus provided a sturdy foundation in ensembles. Impeccably trained by Saake, all of the young singers immersed themselves in the story, persuasively portraying the villagers’ joy, distress, and curiosity. The considerable demands of Smetana’s writing for the chorus were blithesomely met, each voice credibly embodying an individual within the community.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor COLLIN MCCREA as Principál, tenor ZACHARY TAYLOR as Vašek, and soprano MICHAEL ADAMS as Esmeralda in UNCG Opera Theatre's 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana's PRODANÁ NEVĚSTA [Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Bearing with rejection: (from left to right) tenor Collin McCrea as Principál, tenor Zachary Taylor as Vašek, and soprano Michael Adams as Esmeralda in UNCG Opera Theatre’s 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta
[Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

Some of the evening’s finest singing was heard in Act Three, when, accompanying a traveling circus, soprano Michael Adams’s ebullient Esmeralda arrived in the village square. Adams’s voice was as radiant as her smile, her tones beautiful and effortlessly projected throughout the range. She was joined in the brief duet ‘Milostné zvířátko’ by the Principál, the ringmaster of the circus, sung by tenor Collin McCrea. Not wholly comfortable with his music’s tessitura, McCrea nonetheless delivered the part with brio. Baritone Kyle Witton depicted the third of the circus performers, sensibly identified in this production as a daredevil instead of Smetana’s and Sabina’s potentially offensive Indian, with physical and vocal athleticism.

As Micha, the father of the brothers who unwittingly become rivals for Mařenka’s hand in marriage, and his domineering second wife Háta, baritone Douglas Grimm and mezzo-soprano Peyton Wheeler sang and acted capably. Wheeler’s Háta was shrewish but not truly malevolent, her actions and strongly-voiced blandishments motivated by concern for her son Vašek—until his behavior prompted embarrassment, at any rate. Grimm’s handsome voice lent Micha’s utterances welcome immediacy. In his performance, the father’s blessing of both of his sons and their chosen partners was unexpectedly moving.

Mezzo-soprano Danielle Lee Dorsett and bass Rafael Alejando Garcia enlivened the performance in their every appearance on stage as Mařenka’s doting but crafty parents, Ludmila and Krušina. Both singers surrendered themselves to their rôles, imparting the shifting emotions of their subsequent scenes with Kecal and Mařenka.with subtlety and sincerity. Dorsett’s appealing vocalism alternated forceful tones at the top of the stave with soft-grained navigations of Ludmila’s lines in ensembles. His cane virtually a participant in the drama in its own right, Garcia’s Krušina was undeniably opportunistic but endearingly paternal, his words declaimed with an aura of a long-toiling father’s weariness.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) bass RAFAEL ALEJANDRO GARCIA as Krušina, soprano CLAIRE GRIFFIN as Mařenka, bass-baritone REGINALD POWELL as Kecal, and mezzo-soprano DANIELLE LEE DORSETT as Ludmila in UNCG Opera Theatre's 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana's PRODANÁ NEVĚSTA [Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Family matter: (from left to right) bass Rafael Alejando Garcia as Krušuna, soprano Claire Griffin as Mařenka, bass-baritone Reginald Powell as Kecal, and mezzo-soprano Danielle Lee Dorsett as Ludmila in UNCG Opera Theatre’s 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta
[Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

In tenor Zachary Taylor’s portrayal, Micha’s stuttering younger son Vašek was uncommonly sympathetic, the timid youth’s fears of rejection and alienation made all the more affecting by the focused, firm tones by which they were communicated. Taylor voiced Vašek’s Act Two aria ‘Má ma-ma Matička’ with boyish innocence, the stutter neatly articulated without being over-exaggerated. Encountering Mařenka without recognizing her as his contracted betrothed, this Vašek conversed with her sweetly in their animated duet, her warnings about his future bride’s inconstancy unnerving and exhilarating him in equal measures. The dulcet aria ‘To-to mi v hlavě le-leži’ in Act Three received from Taylor a reading of imagination and emotional directness. For this Vašek, meeting the exotic Esmeralda was like a thunderbolt: even when disguised as the circus bear, Taylor conveyed the lad’s infatuation uproariously. Taylor’s fantastic singing propelled Vašek to the center of the drama. Mařenka and Jeník are destined to be together, but this Vašek inspired the hope that he will enjoy a true love of his own.

His uniquely Bohemian musical identity notwithstanding, the marriage broker Kecal is a relation of operatic personages ranging from comic figures in the operas of Monteverdi and Cavalli to the meddlesome Goro in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Performing Kecal’s music in English can bring him disconcertingly near to seeming like an escapee from the Savoy operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, but bass-baritone Reginald Powell accentuated the echoes of Mozart that reverberate in Kecal’s music. In the trio with Ludmila and Krušina in Act One, Powell voiced ‘Jak vám pravím, pane kmotře’ commandingly, deftly disclosing the character’s smug self-satisfaction. Both ‘Mladík slušný’ and Kecal’s lines in the quartet were dispatched with sure intonation and fleet patter.

Kecal’s vocal line frequently plunges below the stave as his stratagems begin to unravel in Act Two. Powell’s voice was markedly more steady in the upper octave than in the music’s lower reaches, but he courageously confronted every descent into the depths. In his traversal of ‘Nuže, milý chasníku, znám jednu dívku’ in the duet with Jeník, the kinship between Smetana’s scene and the duets for Nemorino and Dulcamara in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore was especially apparent. Kecal’s music in the bustling ensembles of Act Three teems with vocal obstacles, each of which Powell approached intrepidly. His singing in the final act’s wonderful quartet, sextet, and trio, numbers in which Smetana rivaled Verdi’s ability to simultaneously characterize multiple people by interweaving their vocal lines, elucidated Kecal’s growing awareness of having been outwitted by Jeník. Each of Powell’s Greensboro performances demonstrates heightened vocal confidence. His Kecal was emboldened by new musical and theatrical maturity.

IN REVIEW: tenor WILLIAM EDWARDS as Jeník (left) and soprano CLAIRE GRIFFIN as Mařenka in UNCG Opera Theatre's 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana's PRODANÁ NEVĚSTA [Photogtaph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]Young and in love: tenor William Edwards as Jeník (left) and soprano Claire Griffin as Mařenka (right) in UNCG Opera Theatre’s 2022 production of Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta
[Photograph © by UNCG Opera Theatre]

Recently transitioned from baritone to tenor, William Edwards conquered Jeník’s difficult tessitura with galvanizing élan. The Romantic ardor of the young singer’s portrayal was manifested in his first phrases in the duet with Mařenka in Act One, his placement of the upper register gaining assurance as the performance progressed. Rarely for a tenor of his age, Edwards possesses an exquisite mezza voce, which he used to mesmerizingly express the depth of Jeník’s love for Mařenka. His voicing of the aria ‘Jak možna věřit’ in Act Two boiled with passion enunciated with gossamer tones. In the large ensembles of Acts Two and Three, Edwards ensured that Jeník’s words were audible without pushing the voice.

The scene in Act Three in which Jeník attempts to explain to Mařenka that his betrayal of her is subterfuge aimed at undermining Kecal’s scheming to bind her to Vašek was the apex of Edwards’s performance, the character’s love and determination arrestingly coloring the voice. Declaring his triumph over the plan to unite his beloved with his half-brother by revealing his own true identity, Edwards’s Jeník not only blissfully reunited with Mařenka but also initiated a tender reconciliation with his estranged father. Occasional stress as he ascended through the passaggio divulged Edwards’s ongoing adaptation of his technique to tenor repertoire, but the panache with which he sang Jeník’s strenuous music intimated that his voice’s technical foundation is admirably resilient.

The rôle of Mařenka was created in Prodaná nevěsta’s 1866 première by soprano Eleonore Ehrenbergů, a versatile singer whose three-decade career was inaugurated with portrayals of bel canto heroines and eventually encompassed performances of slightly heavier parts, including Jitka in Smetana’s nationalistic epic Dalibor. Ehrenbergů retired from the stage before the advent of recording technology, but Smetana’s music for Mařenka and Jitka suggests that, in range and flexibility, her voice may have been much like that of UNCG Opera Theatre’s Mařenka, soprano Claire Griffin. The poise with which Griffin sang Mařenka’s Act One aria, ‘Kdybych se co takového,’ established a high standard from she did not deviate. Her top A♭s in the aria and B♭s in the duet with Jeník were fully in the voice and integrated into the line, and her singing in the quartet shimmered with youthful fervor.

The capriciousness of Mařenka’s deception of Vašek in their scene in Act Two was playful rather than injurious, Griffin singing ‘Známť já jednu dívčinu’ with unmistakable purpose but no ill intent towards her bewildered suitor. Like her colleagues, she devoted welcome attention to voicing Mařenka’s lines in ensembles, not least those in which she learns of Jeník’s seeming perfidy, intelligibly. Her vocalism in the Act Three sextet affectingly limned the character’s disbelief, and the doubt and pain that permeated her suavely-phrased account of the aria ‘Ten lásky sen’ were genuinely touching. Equally effective was the anger that exploded in the duet with Jeník, the voice slapping him countless times before her hand completed the task. Prodaná nevěsta has the sort of lieto fine that modern audiences find ridiculous, but Griffin’s performance avoided contrivance, the allure of her singing silencing any qualms about Mařenka’s happily-ever-after reunion with Jeník.

Though the opera is now rightly hailed as the cornerstone upon which Antonín Dvořák and Leoš Janáček later built the Cxech operatic tradition, performances of Prodaná nevěsta are rare beyond the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Could the world’s opera houses not barter tired stagings of Carmen and La bohème for a good Prodaná nevěsta? As UNCG Opera Theatre’s production affirmed, Mařenka can beguile as memorably as Micaëla and Mimì, and a polka is as diverting as a seguidilla or a waltz.

08 March 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Paul Moravec & Mark Campbell — SANCTUARY ROAD (B. Taylor, L. Lain, T. Raven, N. Shankle, M. Merriweather; North Carolina Opera, 4 March 2022)

IN REVIEW: the cast of North Carolina Opera's March 2022 world stage première production of Paul Moravec's SANCTUARY ROAD [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]PAUL MORAVEC (born 1957) and MARK CAMPBELL (born 1953): Sanctuary Road [WORLD STAGE PREMIÈRE] – Benjamin Taylor (William Still), LaToya Lain (Clarissa Davis, Harriet Eglan), Taylor Raven (Ellen Craft, Charlotte Giles), Norman Shankle (Wesley Harris), Malcolm J. Merriweather (Henry “Box” Brown, Peter Still); North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; William Henry Curry, conductor [Dennis Whitehead Darling, Director; Brian Ruggaber, Set Designer; Driscoll Otto, Lighting and Projections Designer; Denise Schumaker, Costume Designer; Martha Ruskai, Wig and Makeup Designer; North Carolina Opera, A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 4 Match 2022]

From the Roman emperor Nero’s ruthless repudiation of his lawful wife in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea to the brutal murder of Leon Klinghoffer in John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, opera abounds with accounts of the cruelties perpetrated by humanity upon man and nature. The horrors of man’s indefatigable quest for dominion over his fellow man are manifested in opera’s many enslaved characters, the barbarity of their servitude sometimes assuaged by comedy that frequently engenders the poetic justice of slaves outwitting their masters. Laughter is a potent therapy, but, n opera as in history, the pain inflicted upon the victims of societies’ prejudices must never be ignored.

The impulse to use only past tense when referring to the enslavement of people of color in the United States of America is understandable, but racial, political, and economic divisions continue to subject some Americans to conditions that are little better than the physical slavery of previous centuries. This disturbing reality makes preserving and retelling stories from the past a critical component of safeguarding freedom in America’s present and future. Similarly, it seems impossible that stories as integral to the nation’s heritage as those of the Underground Railroad, the network of clandestine travel routes and safe havens via which Americans fled from enslavement, could ever cease to be told, but uncomfortable conversations are too often silenced.

Published in 1872, William Still’s The Underground Railroad Records, documented first-hand recollections of its author’s momentous endeavors in advancing abolitionism and aiding enslaved people in their quests for freedom. Still was born in 1821, the youngest son of former slaves. His father purchased emancipation, but his mother escaped, was captured and returned to bondage after giving birth to four of Still’s siblings. Upon her second escape, Still’s mother was able to take only two of her children with her. The sons that she was compelled to leave behind remained enslaved despite having been born in New Jersey, where slavery was forbidden by law, and the elder brother died at the hand of an abusive slave owner in Alabama. Still’s battle to end slavery in the United States merits a lauded place in history—and in opera—alongside the courageous actions of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, Joan of Arc, and Sophie and Hans Scholl.

Cultural depictions of people and themes like those found in The Underground Railroad Records are tasked with the formidable responsibility of telling their stories accurately but engagingly. Even after 150 years, the emotions that pervade Still’s writing remain disquietingly visceral. Premièred in concert at Carnegie Hall in May 2018, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec’s and librettist Mark Campbell’s musical adaptation of Still’s records, Sanctuary Road, brings figures from the Underground Railroad to the stage compellingly but without sensationalizing their circumstances.

First conceived as an installment in its creators’ series of oratorios on American subjects, Sanctuary Road assumed a new rôle in North Carolina Opera’s fully-staged production. Like the biblical narrative of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, the solemnity of Sanctuary Road’s subject is well suited to oratorio, in which the relative absence of visual distractions can heighten the audience’s ability to connect with music and words, but this performance, presented in Raleigh’s 600-seat A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, affirmed that Moravec’s and Campbell’s Sanctuary Road leads to the opera house.

Intuitively discerning and amplifying Moravec’s and Campbell’s focus on the prevailing spirit of William Still’s writing, director Dennis Whitehead Darling intensified the gravitas of the characters’ situations by accentuating the uniqueness of each individual’s struggles. Framed by Brian Ruggaber’s clean-lined set designs and Driscoll Otto’s and Jessica Drayton’s finely-judged projections and lighting, the opera’s characters were differentiated effectively, with Still himself as a patriarchal central figure. Visually, the costumes and wig and makeup designs, respectively devised by Denise Schumaker and Martha Ruskai, facilitated the creation of both proper historical context and specific characterizations. Complemented by every element of the staging, the nuances of Darling’s direction mirrored the opera’s psychological progression, Still’s vision of an America in which slavery no longer existed motivating every gesture and image.

IN REVIEW: the Chorus in North Carolina Opera's March 2022 world stage première production of Paul Moravec's SANCTUARY ROAD [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Voices of resilience: the Chorus in North Carolina Opera’s March 2022 world-stage-première production of Paul Moravec’s Sanctuary Road
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Music Director of the Durham Symphony Orchestra since 2009, conductor and composer William Henry Curry led North Carolina Opera’s orchestra in an account of Moravec’s score that balanced rhythmic firmness with overwhelming emotional immediacy. Every instrument was played as though it had its own story of oppression to share, the musicians executing their parts with unassailable musicality and expressivity. The unerring coordination between stage and pit was bolstered by Curry’s mastery of the art of providing cues. Sanctuary Road is an episodic piece, and Curry demonstrated complete understanding of its basic structure, propelling each scene to its climax whilst also concentrating on the music’s cumulative impact. Curry never allowed the weight of the opera’s subject to adversely affect moments of humor and dance-like lightness, his conducting emphasizing the truth, elucidated by the uplifting tonalities and harmonic transitions in Moravec’s music, that hope brings joy even in times of despair.

From plantations’ sun-scorched fields to today’s churches and Historically Black Colleges and Universities, singing has been a cornerstone of the African-American experience since the first slave ships landed on North America’s shores. Moravec’s writing for chorus in Sanctuary Road honors this tradition powerfully and always with the composer’s own musical language. A particular glory of North Carolina Opera’s staging of Sanctuary Road was its celebration of the diversity of its chorus, the singers, wearing modern dress, representing both the many ethnicities that have endured subjugation throughout America’s history and the diaspora of today’s descendants of enslaved peoples.

Under Scott MacLeod’s expert direction, the choristers sang ‘Our testimony, our stories cannot be forgotten’ forcefully, the words enunciated with stunning clarity. Their declamation of ‘Reward will be paid’ wielded galvanizing energy that revealed the music’s kinship with the ‘turbæ’ in Bach’s Passions. In this performance, Moravec’s setting of lines from Psalm 40, ‘I waited patiently for the Lord,’ offered a sense of transfigurjng catharsis, the voices soaring, but the wordless choral interlude that acts as a sort of prelude to the opera’s final scene was no less stirring. Taken from Deuteronomy 23, the lines ‘Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant who has escaped his master unto thee’ succintly epitomize the ethos of the Underground Railroad and Sanctuary Road, and North Carolina Opera’s chorus sang the passage fervently. As sung by these choristers, the closing pages of Sanctuary Road achieved a level of exultation reminiscent of the final scene of Beethoven’s Fidelio, the ensemble bringing down the curtain with a majestic paean to liberty.

IN REVIEW: baritone MALCOLM J. MERRIWEATHER as Henry "Box" Brown in North Carolina Opera's March 2022 world-stage-première production of Paul Moravec's SANCTUARY ROAD [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Contained: baritone Malcolm J. Merriweather as Henry “Box” Brown in North Carolina Opera’s March 2022 world-stage-première production of Paul Moravec’s Sanctuary Road
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Using only a pair of chairs and the vigor of his voice, baritone and conductor Malcolm J. Merriweather cunningly evinced the exhaustion of Henry “Box” Brown’s journey to Philadelphia in a shipping crate. The exasperation with which he voiced ‘They can’t seem to read,’ detailing his rough handling during twenty-six hours on train and at sea, transported the audience into the claustrophobic space in which this daring man escaped from slavery. Merriweather subsequently portrayed William Still’s older brother Peter, one of the siblings from whom the author was separated by his mother’s plight, with touching simplicity, the sentiments of his unexpected encounter with his brother after four decades understated but unmistakably transformation. The tenderness of Merriweather’s voicing of Peter’s inquiries about his mother’s wellbeing movingly imparted the agony of slaves being denied knowledge of their families’ health and locations. The joy and relief of Peter’s learning that his mother, though walking with a cane and heating with a horn, was alive softened the steel in Merriweather’s tones into shimmering satin.

IN REVIEW: tenor NORMAN SHANKLE as Wesley Harris in North Carolina Opera's March 2022 world-stage-première production of Paul Moravec's SANCTUARY ROAD [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Flight to freedom: tenor Norman Shankle as Wesley Harris in North Carolina Opera’s March 2022 world-stage-première production of Paul Moravec’s Sanctuary Road
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

As Wesley Harris, whose harrowing exodus from bondage was plagued by real and perceived perils, tenor Norman Shankle sang Moravec’s demanding music unflinchingly, effortlessly traversing the rôle’s range and ascending above the stave with assurance born of his experience with bel canto repertoire. Charging onto the stage as though his character were pursued by Satan himself, Shankle sang ‘Run, run, run through the woods’ excitingly, breathlessly conveying Wesley’s desperation but maintaining superlative breath control. His voicings of ‘Run, go, run, quicker than the wind’ and a reprise of ‘Run, run, run through the woods’ palpably recreated the unsettling fear of discovery felt by the Underground Railroad’s travelers. The brilliant patina of Shankle’s timbre shone in ensembles, in which his voice resounded with crystalline presence, and the tenor’s acting was as vibrant and affecting as his singing.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano TAYLOR RAVEN as Ellen Craft in North Carolina Opera's March 2022 world-stage-première production of Paul Moravec's SANCTUARY ROAD [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Bound for Philadelphia: mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven as Ellen Craft in North Carolina Opera’s March 2022 world-stage-première production of Paul Moravec’s Sanctuary Road
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Disconcerted by finding  herself on the same train as the brother of the master from whom she is fleeing, Ellen Craft sings one of Sanctuary Road’s most enthralling scenes. Vocally and dramatically, mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven’s performance of ‘He doesn’t know’ was riveting, the words delivered with spontaneity that communicated Ellen’s consternation and fierce determination. A superb instrument with imperturbable security in the lower register and an alluring gleam at the top, Raven’s voice also gave Charlotte Giles a well-defined musical identity, the mercurial wit of the mezzo-soprano’s vocal acting in ‘Oh, oh, oh, poor, poor Aunt Abigail’ elucidating the slyness of the ruse that Charlotte and her companion employed along their road to freedom. Like her colleagues, Raven sang with poise ans eloquence in ensembles, her immersion in the opera’s drama always visible and audible.

IN REVIEW: soprano LATOYA LAIN as Clarissa Davis in North Carolina Opera's March 2022 world-stage-première production of Paul Moravec's SANCTUARY ROAD [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Singing in the rain: soprano LaToya Lain as Clarissa Davis in North Carolina Opera’s March 2022 world-stage-première production of Paul Moravec’s Sanctuary Road
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Harriet Eglan, Ellen’s fellow traveler and partner in mourning the untimely demise of the fictitious ‘poor, poor Aunt Abigail,’ was portrayed by soprano LaToya Lain, whose feigned grief brought welcome levity to a scene of latent anxiety. By contrast, Clarissa Davis’s ‘Come down, rain, come down hard’ is a scene of euphoric beauty, and Lain sang it with mesmerizing serenity. Her vocalism was marvelous throughout the evening but was especially, unforgettably sublime in this scene. The soprano’s voice was the ideal conduit for the electricity of Moravec’s music, her singing igniting the performance with dramatic fire that not even the deluge evoked by the staging’s beguiling projections could have extinguished.

IN REVIEW: baritone BENJAMIN TAYLOR as William Still in North Carolina Opera's March 2022 world-stage-première production of Paul Moravec's SANCTUARY ROAD [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Writing it down: baritone Benjamin Taylor as William Still in North Carolina Opera’s March 2022 world-stage-première production of Paul Moravec’s Sanctuary Road
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Baritone Benjamin Taylor’s portrayal intimated that, though William Still is unquestionably the work’s focal point and receives some of Moravec’s finest vocal writing, freedom itself is the protagonist of Sanctuary Road. Nobly intoning ‘Write it down’ in the opera’s opening scene, Taylor established Still as a heroic but humble man who was cognizant of the prominence of Providence in his work. In each of the opera’s successive interviews, Taylor’s Still initiated benevolent rapport with the people benefiting from his assistance, culminating in the meeting with the brother he had known only by name. Still’s vocal line occasionally descended beyond the lower extremity of Taylor’s vocal comfort zone, but every note was sung with appreciation of its importance in telling the stories of The Underground Railroad Records.

Taylor’s voicing of ‘Five years since I hid these records’ projected a sense of fulfillment, the objective of not only saving the lives of enslaved people but also of preserving their stories realized. As Taylor’s depiction suggested, the rigors of his work required that sternness and stoicism be aspects of Still’s character, but compassion was the core of his constitution. Both Taylor’s rousing, charismatic singing and this poignant staging of Sanctuary Road proclaimed that the work of protecting freedom cannot be done by only one man or one generation. The work continues, differently but diligently, intangible roads still guiding marginalized souls to sanctuary.

12 February 2022

RECORDING REVIEW: G.F. Händel, W.A. Mozart, G. Rossini, F. Mendelssohn, J. Massenet, & I. Stravinsky — LYRIC ARIAS (Eric Ferring, tenor; Madeline Slettedahl, piano)

IN REVIEW: G.F. Händel, W.A. Mozart, G. Rossini, F. Mendelssohn, J. Massenet, & I. Stravinsky - LYRIC ARIAS (Eric Ferring, tenor; Madeline Slettedahl, piano)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759), WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791), GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868), FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809 – 1847), JULES MASSENET (1842 – 1912), and IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882 – 1971): Lyric AriasEric Ferring, tenor; Madeline Slettedahl, piano [Recorded in WFMT Studio, Chicago, Illinois, USA, February 2019; 31:33; Available for streaming via Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal, and YouTube Music]

Christopher Marlowe wrote that Helen of Troy possessed the ‘face that launched a thousand ships,’ her beauty having been the catalyst in the collision of egos and empires that precipitated the Trojan War. Had she been a singer, as she became in Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, how much more contentious quarrels about her virtues might have been! Disputes among today’s Classical singing enthusiasts are sometimes fueled by lessening comprehension of basic vocal attributes and historical precedents. As in many aspects of modern life, a quest for absolutes frequently results in mischaracterizations. A soprano who sings fiorature correctly is not necessarily a coloratura soprano, for instance, and categorizing the voice based upon a single ability rather than its many qualities, no matter how admiringly, disserves the singer.

Recorded in the Chicago studios of WFMT under the supervision of acclaimed audio engineer Chris Willis, whose expertise yielded sonic ambience that, whether heard through headphones or speakers, replicates the acoustic of an intimate performance space, tenor Eric Ferring’s Lyric Arias is a mellifluous recital of selections from three centuries, performed by the sort of voice for which they were written. Captured without multitudes of takes and the goal of release to the public as a collection, these performances are splendid exhibitions of an artist at work, his concentration on stylistic correctness engendering musical and textual accuracy. Lyric arias can be successfully sung by many different voices, but Ferring demonstrates that, just as singers should be judged primarily by how rather than by what they sing, music is defined by how it was written, not by who sings it.

Ferring sagaciously begins his survey of the development of writing for the tenor voice with performances of two numbers popularized in the Eighteenth Century by John Beard, the singer for whom Georg Friedrich Händel composed some of his finest music for tenor. Comparing Händel’s writing for Beard with tenor parts in operas, madrigals, and sacred works by Monteverdi, Cavalli, and other Seventeenth-Century composers suggests that Beard was among the earliest lyric tenors of the type still heard today. Beard was not the tenor soloist in the first performance of Händel’s Messiah (HWV 56) in Dublin in 1742, but the oratorio’s first performances in London in the following year benefited from Beard’s participation.

It is difficult to imagine even Händel’s preferred tenor singing the recitative ‘Comfort ye, my people’ and air ‘Ev’ry valley shall be exalted’ more affectingly than Ferring sings them on this release. With true bel canto technique harkening back to the teachings of Manuel García, Ferring supports tones with breath control that facilitates consistent evenness throughout the upper and lower registers, the passaggio navigated with laryngeal placement that is ideal for the voice. Unlike many native speakers of English, Ferring enunciates the language clearly, the words crisp but avoiding overwrought elocution. His voicing of ‘Comfort ye’ imparts an apt sense of anticipation, and his account of ‘Ev’ry valley,’ its divisions articulated with attention to their relationship with the text, accentuates the ingenuity with which Händel used music as a vital element of his storytelling.

Eight years before singing Messiah in London, Beard portrayed the title character’s brother Lurcanio in the 1735 Covent Garden première of Händel’s opera Ariodante (HWV 33). Ferring furthers his tribute to Beard with his galant but elegant account of the aria ‘Il tuo sangue, ed il tuo zelo.’ The caliber of the tenor’s Italian diction rivals that of his English. The greater difficulty of Lurcanio’s fiorature and the Italian vowels challenge Ferring’s vocal dexterity, but he intuitively uses the rhythmic precision of pianist Madeline Slettedahl’s playing as the foundation upon which he creates an exhilarating account of the piece. Moreover, he sings with unfailing musicality and restraint in ornamentation.

Commissioned in 1845 by the Birmingham Festival to pay homage to the legacies of Händel and Haydn with a work of his own, Felix Mendelssohn gifted the oratorio-loving British public with his Opus 70, Elijah, a score with much in common, structurally, with Händel’s Saul. In addition to being greatly respected by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the tenor engaged for the first performance of Elijah in Birmingham Town Hall on 26 August 1846, Berkshire native Charles Lockey, so moved Mendelssohn with his singing of the aria ‘Then shall the righteous shine forth’ that the composer wrote of struggling to contain his emotions. Ferring’s voicing of the aria elicits a similar response, Mendelssohn’s ascending vocal line molded with grace and extraordinary tonal beauty. Ferrig’s incandescent top A♭s are the expressive summits of the performance, the reverence of the text resounding in the voice.

In the operas composed during the first half of his career, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote tenor rôles that embodied the style of bravura singing synthesized from Händel’s models by composers like Niccolò Jommelli, Giovanni Sarti, and Tommaso Traetta, a tradition to which Mozart returned in large part in his final Italian opera, La clemenza di Tito. In his progressive Singspiele Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte, as well as in Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, however, Mozart advanced the art of devising music for tenor protagonists along the path that led to bel canto.

Fascinatingly, Mozart’s first Tito Vespasiano in La clemenza di Tito, a closer relative of the name parts in Idomeneo, rè di Creta and Mitridate, rè di Ponto than of Entführung’s Belmonte and Zauberflöte’s Tamino, was Antonio Baglioni, who had earlier originated the rôle of Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. The aria written for him in Don Giovanni, ‘Il mio tesoro intanto,’ indicates that Baglioni wielded both vocal nimbleness and exceptional management of breath. With his traversal of ‘Il mio tesoro,’ Ferring affirms that he is a worthy successor of Baglioni, delivering the coloratura passages with an appealing lightness of approach mirrored by Slettedahl’s fleet handling of the aria’s musical progression.

Vincenzo Calvesi, the singer for whom Mozart tailored his music for Ferrando in Così fan tutte, was renowned in Habsburg Vienna as an interpreter of tenor rôles in the operas of Antonio Salieri, whose compositional style encompassed late-Baroque excesses and Gluckian sparsity. Ferrando’s arias in Così fan tutte can be said to manifest similar ambiguity. ‘Ah! lo veggio quell’anima bella’—until recent years often omitted from performances and recordings of the opera—is dazzlingly virtuosic, but ‘Un’aura amorosa,’ while making its own daunting technical demands, enthralls with its expansive, plaintive lines and serenity. Ferring sings ‘Un’aura amorosa’ hypnotically, the voice as firm and focused at the bottom of the range as it is glistening at the top. Here, too, the effectiveness of the tenor’s efforts is heightened by his close collaboration with the pianist, whose phrasing provides poetry and propulsion.

Before leaving the stage and focusing on pedagogy, Manuel García enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Gioachino Rossini, one of the best-known products of which was his creation of the rôle of Conte d’Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia in 1816. Almaviva’s cavatina in Act One, ‘Ecco ridente in cielo.’ was unquestionably fashioned to capitalize on García’s unique gifts, but the music is also a fine vehicle for Ferring’s vocal and theatrical magnetism. His fiorature, intonation, and top A, B, and C are all stellar, but it is the youthful exuberance of his performance that gives this ‘Ecco ridente in cielo’ its bewitching charm. This is the song of a wily aristocrat whose pursuit of amorous adventure does not impel him to take himself too seriously.

Ferring’s performance of the much-loved ‘Rêve’ from Act Two remindsTwenty-First-Century listeners that Chevalier des Grieux in Jules Massenet’s Manon was also memorably sung, albeit in German, by Slovene tenor Anton Dermota, one of the Twentieth Century’s most accomplished Mozart singers. Ferring shares Dermota’s innate and commendably adaptive command of style, transitioning from the poise of his singing of Mozart’s music to Massenet’s more effusive, emotive musical idiom. Ferring also refines his linguistic skills to encompass shaping of French text that lends his utterance of ‘C’est vrai! ma tête est folle’ stirring sincerity. The wonderment audible in his singing of ‘Instant charmant où la crainte fait trève’ touchingly evinces the mood conjured by the words. The Francophone authenticity of this performance of ‘En fermant les yeux je vois’ is validated by Ferring’s ravishing voix mixte top A, the aural embodiment of des Grieux’s humble but euphoric vision of his life with Manon.

In the 1951 world première of Igor Stravinsky’s operatic treatment of situations taken from the eight images of William Hogarth’s iconic The Rake’s Progress, the eponymous rake was sung by American tenor Robert Rounseville, a singer now remembered more for his work in cinema and musical theater than for his operatic portrayals. Eighteen months after the opera’s first performance in Venice, the Metropolitan Opera staged the work with Eugene Conley as Tom Rakewell. In this recorded performance of Tom’s Act One aria ‘Here I stand,’ it is another MET Rakewell, Paul Groves, whose Ferring’s singing recalls. The character’s trademark self-assurance is palpable in this ardent, utterly secure traversal of the music. Even in the context of a studio recording, Ferring vividly acts through the voice. In the opera, Tom’s exclamation of ‘I wish I had money!’ has the fateful consequence of summoning the malevolent Nick Shadow: here, it delights without peril.

There is no greater pleasure for voice aficionados than hearing a voice of high quality, bolstered by proper technique, singing music to which it is suited. This is the abidng pleasure of Eric Ferring’s performances of these lyric arias, in which a young artist invites the listener to experience the music from a singer’s perspective with immediacy that can rarely be achieved in recital halls.

07 February 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX (M. A. Zentner, K. Alston, D. Romano, S. Lee, M. Redding, L. Hall, K. Ledbetter, D. Maize; UNCSA A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute, 4 February 2022)

IN REVIEW: soprano MARGARET ANN ZENTNER in the title rôle of A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti's LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX [Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Linda di ChamounixMargaret Ann Zentner (Linda), Kameron Alston (Carlo, visconte di Sirval), Danielle Romano (Pierotto), Scott Lee (Antonio), Michael Redding (Il prefetto), Lawrence Hall (Il marchese di Boisfleury), Katherine Ledbetter (Maddalena), David Maize (L’intendente del feudo); A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute Chorus; UNCSA Symphony Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, Stage Director; Sarah A. Webster, Scenic Designer; Maggie Turoff, Lighting Designer; Diana Ridge, Costume Designer; Natosha Martin, Wig and Makeup Designer; Lindsey Cope, Stage Manager; University of North Carolina School of the Arts A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute, Stevens Center, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 4 February 2022]

In a career spanning three decades, Gaetano Donizetti composed more than five dozen operas, a few of which continue to be performed with relative frequency 174 years after the composer’s death. Despite musical and theatrical felicities, agreater number of Donizetti’s scores are seldom heard by Twenty-First-Century audiences. Between these extremes is a small group of pieces that battle with other lesser-known bel canto works for places on the periphery of the international repertory. Among these pieces is Linda di Chamounix, the  earliest of three Donizetti operas that were first performed not in his native Italy but at Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater. [The third of these Viennese works was a German edition of Dom Sèbastien, roi de Portugal rather than a wholly new piece.] Habsburg Austria hosted the inaugural production of Linda di Chamounix, but the melodramma semiserio’s first heroine was Italian, the soprano Eugenia Tadolini, to whom Donizetti also entrusted creation of the title ròle in his second opera for Vienna, Maria di Rohan. The first performance of Linda di Chamounix on 19 May 1842, was sufficiently successful to launch a journey that took the opera to three continents within a decade.

Following its tour of Europe and the Americas in the 1840s and 1850s, Linda di Chamounix gradually disappeared from theaters’ repertories, supplanted in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century by the middle- and late-period operas of Giuseppe Verdi, whose bel canto-influenced early works shared Linda’s fate. Nevertheless, Donizetti’s musical setting of librettist Gaetano Rossi’s tale of thwarted love and psychological instability, drawn from Adolphe d’Ennery’s 1841 novel La grâce de Dieu; ou La nouvelle fachon, has won notable admirers. Conducted by Tullio Serafin, the cast of the opera’s Metropolitan Opera première, the first of the eight performances in 1934 and 1935 that constitute the work’s entire MET performance history, included Lily Pons, Gladys Swarthout, Giuseppe de Luca, and Ezio Pinza. Edita Gruberová’s espousal of the title rôle brought the opera greater attention in the final quarter of the Twentieth Century, but, like many of its bel canto brethren, Linda di Chamounix continues to await the renewal of interest that the quality of its music merits.

A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s residency at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem—and the Institute’s commitment to staging lesser-known bel canto works—began in 2001 with a production of Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda. As Friday evening’s performance demonstrated, choosing Linda di Chamounix to continue the tradition inaugurated with Beatrice di Tenda was both logical and inspired. Echoes of Bellini resound in Linda, the bucolic atmosphere of La sonnambula permeating Donizetti’s score. Linda’s oft-recorded cavatina in Act One, ‘O luce di quest’anima,’ has much in common with Elvira’s polacca, ‘Son vergin vezzosa,’ in I puritani. The continuing popularity of Rossini’s operas in Vienna more than a decade after the completion of his final opera is evident in Donizetti’s writing for the Marchese di Boisfleury, a relation of Rossini’s wiliest buffo characters. There are obvious parallels with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in Linda’s mad scene, but there are also abundant reminiscences of L’elisir d’amore and Don Pasquale.

Directed with keen perceptiveness and musicality by Steven LaCosse, Fletcher Institute’s production of Linda di Chamounix was a triumph over adverse conditions. A pandemic, winter weather, and an industrial fire that necessitated evacuation of part of Winston-Salem could not stop Linda from reaching the stage, LaCosse’s direction glorying in the circumstances rather than apologizing for them. Blessed with stunningly beautiful scenic designs by Sarah A. Webster, their vista of Mont Blanc astonishingly realistic, and Diana Ridge’s luxurious costumes, the production had an inviting visual setting in which, under LaCosse’s guidance, Donizetti’s villagers went about their lives with engaging naturalness. Complemented by Maggie Turoff’s warm, well-focused lighting designs, Natosha Martin’s wigs and makeup transformed the young cast into a credible Nineteenth-Century community. Fusing these elements with his work with the singers, LaCosse was attentive to both the lightness and the wistfulness that lend Linda di Chamounix its singular appeal. In this production, the opera was truly a melodramma semiserio, Donizetti’s finely-wrought balance between Rossinian comedy and Verdian tragedy fully and compellingly realized.

IN REVIEW: tenor DAVID MAIZE as L'intendente del feudo in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti's LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX [Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]Il servo vigile: tenor David Maize as L’intendente del feudo in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix
[Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]

In recent seasons, conductor James Allbritten has exhibited expert handling of Donizetti’s music in Piedmont Opera productions of L’elisir d’amore and Maria Stuarda. His conducting of Linda di Chamounix embodied the essence of bel canto, his management of tempi, dynamics, and orchestral balances supporting the singers’ navigations of the melodic lines. Fiorature were paced excitingly, challenging but never rushing the principals, and cantilena passages were allowed time to expand organically in tandem with the words and emotions that they communicated. The UNCSA Symphony Orchestra’s playing was not without mistakes, but the musicians followed Allbritten’s beat with absolute and warranted trust in his leadership. The conductor unfailingly elucidated the dramatic significance of details like the transitions from larghetto to allegro vivace and vivace in the opera’s Sinfonia, accentuating the ingenuity of Donizetti’s musical storytelling. Juxtaposed with the opera’s darker pages, the score’s comedic moments possessed irrepressible verve, reflecting Allbritten’s comprehension of Linda’s distinctive musical and theatrical anatomies.

One of this production’s greatest strengths was the singing of the UNSCA Chorus. In the opera’s opening scene, the choristers intoned ‘Presti! al tempio!’ reverently, their delivery imparting piety and rustic charm. The men of the village leaving their Haute-Savoie home in the Act One finale in order to earn their living in Paris, the voices combined sublimely, voicing Donizetti’s music with immediacy that would not have been out of place in a performance of a Bach Passion. Owing to time constraints and the unavoidable disruptions in the rehearsal schedule, cutting the choral introduction and Brindisi in Act Three was understandable. The jubilation of the opera’s final scene was heightened by the choristers’ exuberant singing and acting, their celebration of the restoration of Linda’s sanity manifesting the sense of community that they projected throughout the performance.

The sole regret roused by tenor David Maize’s singing was that Donizetti did not allot more music to L’intendente del feudo. Though his time on stage was brief, Maize established a lasting presence with his assured vocalism. Wielding a gleaming timbre, he was easily heard above the orchestra, each word of his part enunciated with accurate intonation and admirable diction.

IN REVIEW: baritone SCOTT LEE as Antonio (left) and soprano KATHERINE LEDBETTER as Maddalena (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti's LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX [Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]I genitori sconsolati: baritone Scott Lee as Antonio (left) and soprano Katherine Ledbetter as Maddalena (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix
[Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]

Linda’s doting mother Maddalena was portrayed by soprano Katherine Ledbetter, whose vocalism glowed with maternal affection. University productions often offer propitious casting of rôles assigned in other companies’ performances to singers whose vocal resources are no longer ideal for the music. Particularly in the period in which Fletcher Institute’s production was set, a young lady of Linda’s age would likely have been the daughter of young parents. The freshness of Ledbetter’s tones was especially valuable in passages in which Maddalena sings the top line in ensembles. The mother’s love and fear for her daughter were omnipresen​t in the soprano​’s performance, as was accomplished musicality.

IN REVIEW: baritone LAWRENCE HALL as Il marchese di Boisfleury (left) and soprano MARGARET ANN ZENTNER as Linda (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti's LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX [Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]Attenzione indesiderate: baritone Lawrence Hall as Il marchese di Boisfleury (left) and soprano Margaret Ann Zentner as Linda in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix
[Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]

A close relation of Dottore Dulcamara in L’elisir d’amore, the Marchese di Boisfleury provides much of Linda di Chamounix’s comedy despite the character’s libidinous pursuit of the virtuous Linda. In baritone Lawrence Hall’s portrayal, the Marchese’s iniquitous machinations were unquestionably vexing, but he never seemed like the sort of smarmy aristocrat who might attempt to exercise his droit du seigneur. Hall sang the Marchese’s Act One cavatina, ‘Buono gente, noi siamo chi siamo’ confidently, the nobleman’s arrogance evinced by the singer’s insouciant top F. In the scene with Linda in Act Two, this Marchese accosted the object of his desire with determination, her rejections making the game all the more enjoyable for him.

Hall was at his best in the aria buffa in Act Three, ‘Ella è un giglio di puro candore.’ His lyric instrument was tested by the rôle’s Rossinian patter and tessitura, but his technique prevailed in every vocal contest. Recalling Angelina’s forgiveness of the ill treatment that she receives from Clorinda, Tisbe, and Don Magnifico in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, the moment in the opera’s final scene in which, as the Marchele starts to announce himself as the cause of Linda’s troubles, Linda embraces him as her future uncle-in-law was unusually touching in this performance, Hall having made the Marchese atypically forgivable.

IN REVIEW: baritones SCOTT LEE as Antonio (left) and MICHAEL REDDING as Il prefetto (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti's LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX [Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]Il padre ed il prefetto: baritones Scott Lee as Antonio (left) and Michael Redding as Il prefetto (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix
[Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]

UNCSA alumnus Michael Redding returned to Winston-Salem to serve as Linda di Chamounix’s moral foundation, and his depiction of the Prefetto, an Alpine cousin of Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor, exuded vicarial probity. Having revealed that the Marchese’s interest in Antonio’s family is motivated by lecherous designs on Linda, Redding’s vigilant Prefetto voiced ‘Quella pietà sì provvida​’ in the Act One due​t with the humble farmer nobly, the voice’s evenness throughout the music’s range heightening the effect of his singing here and in the burghers’ farewell to their departing kinsmen.

In the Act Three scene in which the despondent Carlo returns to Chamounix in search of Linda, Redding sang the Prefetto’s lines plaintively, evey tone disclosing the character’s regard for the forlorn girl and her parents. Redding initiated the unaccompanied Preghiera in the opera’s finale powerfully. Two months before the Vienna première of Linda di Chamounix, Donizetti’s first Prefetto, Prosper Derivis, created the rôle of the high priest Zaccaria in Verdi’s Nabucco. Redding’s thoughtful, orotund singing of the Prefetto’s music honored the legacy of the part’s first interpreter.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano DANIELLE ROMANO as Pierotto in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti's LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX [Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]L’uomo ghironda: mezzo-soprano Danielle Romano as Pierotto in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix
[Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]

The timbre of UNCSA’s Pierotto, Danielle Romano, often brought the voice of Québécoise mezzo-soprano Huguette Tourangeau to mind. First heard in Act One from off stage, Romano sang ‘Cari luoghi ov’io passai’ evocatively, the boy’s song introducing a sense of foreboding into the scene’s Arcadian tranquility. [Pierotto’s appearances were often accompanied by keyboardist Neil Mitchell’s beguiling representation of the lad’s hurdy-gurdy.] Romano’s account of the melancholy ballatta ‘Per sua madre andò una figlia’ was unaffected but compelling. Her voice strongest at the upper and lower extremities of the range, the mezzo-soprano’s singing was sometimes covered by the orchestra, but she sagaciously avoided forcing the voice.

The suffering that Pierotto endured on the streets of Paris was palpable in the softness of Romano’s singing in the duet with Linda in Act Two, the feeling with which she phrased ‘Al bel destin che attendevi’ redolent of relief. Pierotto’s defense of Linda’s honor in the trio, ‘In un palazzo poco discosto,’ was as vehement as his horror and alarm in the mad scene were believable. Entering with the still-distubed Linda in Act Three, Romano’s Pierotto’s frustration was tempered by tenderness. ‘Ed ecco in qual maniera abbiamo fatto’ was captivatingly sung. Convincingly masculine without overdoing the puckishness, Romano enlivened every scene in which Pierotto graced the stage.

IN REVIEW: baritones SCOTT LEE as Antonio (left) and MICHAEL REDDING as Il prefetto (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti's LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX [Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]Sull’orlo della tragedia: baritones Scott Lee as Antonio (left) and Michael Redding as Il prefetto (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix
[Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]

Baritone Scott Lee’s portrayal of ​​Linda’s father Antonio was one of the production’s foremost joys. The paternal prudence and weariness that his performance imparted were astonishing for so young a singer. Antonio’s first interactions with his wife at the start of Act One divulged well-honed artistry, and the stylistic acumen of Lee’s traversal of the romanza ‘Ambo nati in quest​a valle,’ the top Es dispatched robustly, affirmed the thoroughness of his training. Antonio’s music in the duet with the Prefetto was voiced with emotional intensity, the father’s trepidation for his daughter movingly relayed.

Wandering through Paris, unable to find his daughter, Antonio’s entry into Linda’s opulent residence in Act Two was the dramatic apogee of the performance. Prefiguring Verdi’s scenes for Violetta and Giorgio Germont in La traviata and for Aida and Amonasro, Antonio’s duet with Linda contains some of the opera’s most impassioned music. Lee voiced ‘Un buon servo del visconte’ simply, emphasizing the gentle man’s humility. The pain of Linda’s seeming dishonor burst from Lee’s singing in the trio with Linda and Pierotto frighteningly, but the father’s love for his daughter remained obvious in Lee’s depiction of the moment of fury in which Pierotto prevented Antonio from striking his daughter. In Lee’s performance, Antonio’s vivid reactions to Linda’s return and psychological recovery in Act Three were no less gratifying than the young lovers’ reunion. The opportunity to experience a staging of Linda di Chamounix was a rare gift to UNCSA’s audience, but singing such as Lee’s is still rarer, not only in student production but upon all of the world’s stages.

IN REVIEW: soprano MARGARET ANN ZENTNER as Linda (left) and tenor KAMERON ALSTON as Carlo (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti's LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX [Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]Gli amanti ardenti: soprano Margaret Ann Zentner as Linda (left) and tenor Kameron Alston as Carlo (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix
[Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]

It can be argued that, when Alfredo Kraus sang the rôle of Carlo, visconte di Sirval, at Teatro alla Scala in 1972, the opera might justifiably have been rechristened as Il sire di Sirval. Donizetti’s music for Carlo is often ravishingly melodious, but its tunefulness is also perilous. The melodic fecundity is bolstered by daunting technical requirements, not the least of which is unfailing breath control. Harkening back more to another noteworthy Carlo, Ugo Benelli, than to Kraus, tenor Kameron Alston approached the rôle with tonal and technical suavity. In the Act One duet with Linda, he sculpted the line in ‘Da quel dì che t’incontrai’ delicately, maintaining poise without applying pressure to the voice. Carlo’s romanza in Act Two, ‘Se tanto in ira agli uomini,’ was also sung pensively, the top A♭s caressed, but the upper register’s security faltered in the coda. Alston regained vocal solidity in the subsequent scene with Linda, voicing ‘Ah! dimmi...dimmi, io t’amo’ stirringly.

The grief that plagues Carlo as he fruitlessly seeks Linda at the start of Act Three burgeoned in Alston’s voicing of ‘Ciel, che dite? Linda è morta!’ in the duet with the Prefetto. The Act Two romanza is Carlo’s most familiar music, but, in this performance, the aria ‘È la voce che primiera’ was his most memorably appealing selection, the tenor’s timbre shimmeringly youthful across the compass. Aside from a few phrases in the stretta in which the top of the voice sounded fatigued, Alston’s voicing of ‘Di tuo pene sparve il sogno’ in Carlo’s final duet with Linda brilliantly proclaimed the viscount’s exultation. In Alston’s performance, Carlo was a nuanced Romantic figure whose singing was balm to both Linda’s psyche and the audience’s ears.

IN REVIEW: soprano MARGARET ANN ZENTNER in the title rôle of A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti's LINDA DI CHAMOUNIX [Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]La bella pazza: soprano Margaret Ann Zentner in the title rôle of A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2022 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix
[Photograph © by André Peele; used with permission]

Soprano Margaret Ann Zentner was a Linda who reminded the audience that, although the part was sung in the opera’s sole Metropolitan Opera production by Lily Pons and was associated later in the Twentieth Century with the light voices of Margherita Carosio and Margherita Rinaldi, the eponymous heroine was sung on the opera’s first widely-available studio recording by Antonietta Stella, a singer more renowned for performances of Verdi and Puccini rôles than for her forays into bel canto. A particular pleasure of Zentner’s performance was hearing Linda’s music sung by a voluptuous voice.

Brightening the stage with her first entrance in Act One, Zentner sang ‘Ah! tardai troppo, e al nostro favorito convegno io non trovai’ strikingly, the character’s amiable disposition cascading beyond the footlights. Her performance of Linda’s best-known number, the cavatina ‘O luce di quest’anima,’ was the effervescent expression of a young girl’s excitement rather than a singer’s display of vocal prowess. Similarly, Zentner sang ‘Son più misera di te’ in the duet with Carlo bewitchingly but straightforwardly. The voice soared in the Gran Preghiera, the words felt rather than merely sung.

The lushness of Zentner’s vocalism suited the luxury in which Linda finds herself in Act Two, the viscount-in-disguise having confessed his true identity and installed his intended bride in his Paris villa. Looking and sounding like Ruth Ann Swenson at the outset of her career, Zentner joined Romano in a subtle account of Linda’s duet with Pierotto. There was little subtlety in the Marchese’s goading of Linda in their scene, and the soprano slapped her baritone colleague with stinging top Bs in ‘Io vi dico che partiate’ before resorting to a physical blow. The duet with Carlo that followed could hardly have been more different, and Zentner’s singing took on more subdued colors.

Dismayed by her father’s unexpected appearance in her Paris lodgings, where he first fails to recognize her and then erroneously surmises that she has been living not as a chaste bride-to-be but as a kept woman, Linda is reluctant to acknowledge her identity. In Zentner’s portrayal, Linda’s hesitation was the first indication of her mental distress. Her singing in the potent trio with Pierotto and Antonio throbbed with agitation, but her musicianship was never sacrificed to dramatic involvement. As with the popular cavatina in Act One, the impression made by Zentner’s vocalism in the Gran scena del delirio was primarily one of empathy for Linda’s vulnerable state rather than admiration for virtuosity. Ascents above the stave were not effortless, but the fiorature dazzled. Nonetheless, it was the expressivity of her reading of ‘A consolarmi, affrettati’ that awed.

Zentner’s vocal acting in Act Three was the work of an artist who knows and trusts the potential of understatement. Led back to Chamounix by the exhausted Pierotto, Zentner’s Linda was lost in a realm of silence and isolation, but her thoughts resounded with music, fragments of tunes that, when reassembled, were memories of her life before the calamities of Act Two. Returned to her parents’ house, reconciled with the Marchese, and assured of Carlo’s fidelity, this Linda reconstructed her life one beautifully-sung note at a time.

The modern concept of music therapy had not yet been devised in the era in which Linda di Chamounix was written, but, even if only empirically, Donizetti clearly intuited music’s capacity for healing. After two years of pandemic, Fletcher Institute’s engrossing Linda di Chamounix was wonderfully therapeutic.


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This review is dedicated with love and gratitude to the memory of James Forrest, a cherished friend of Voix des Arts and the Performing Arts whose contributions to music criticism are incalculable.