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.

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.