12 September 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — LA BOHÈME (R.M. Lamp, K. Yamamoto, S. Kim, K. Piper Brown, K. Godinez, D. Sedov, Y. Kissin, P. Suiandziga, E.J. Ramos Fuentes; Opera in Williamsburg, 7 September 2022)

IN REVIEW: the cast of Opera in Williamsburg's September 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography & Opera in Williamsburg]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La bohèmeRobyn Marie Lamp (Mimì), Kohei Yamamoto(Rodolfo), Suchan Kim (Marcello), Kearstin Piper Brown (Musetta), Kevin Godinez (Schaunard), Denis Sedov (Colline), Yuri Kissin (Benoît, Alcindoro), Pavel Suliandziga (Parpignol), Eliam J. Ramos Fuentes (Un sergente dei doganieri); Opera in Williamsburg Vocal Ensemble and Orchestra; Jorge Parodi, conductor [Eve Summer, stage director; Naama Zahavi-Ely, producer; Troy Martin-O’shia, lighting designer; Eric Lamp, costume designer; Opera in Williamsburg, Kimball Theatre, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA; Wednesday, 7 September 2022]

When the stories eventually collected and issued in a single volume as Scènes de la vie de bohème were first published in the literary periodical Le Corsaire in the latter half of the 1840s, their creator, Henri Murger, was not yet thirty years old but already more than halfway through a life that would span only thirty-nine years. Like the struggling artists and figures on the margins of society of whom he wrote, Murger was a citoyen of the oft-romanticized Parisian Quartier latin, where his observations of the hardships endured by his community inspired his poetry and prose. Despite the critical success of his work and his receipt of the Légion d’Honneur in 1859, financial security eluded Murger, whose early death in 1861 prefigured that of the heroine of the best-known operatic adaptation of his Scènes de la vie de bohème, Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème. Like Puccini’s consumptive Mimì, Murger fell victim to the cruel realities of life in Paris, her famous lights extinguished by poverty and disillusionment.

Premièred at Teatro Regio di Torino on 1 February 1896, Puccini’s setting of Giuseppe Giacosa’s and Luigi Illica’s treatment of Murger’s stories reached the stage fifteen months before Ruggero Leoncavallo’s La bohème—more faithful in some aspects to Scènes de la vie de bohème—was first performed in Venice. Puccini’s score quickly circumnavigated the operatic world, reaching the Metropolitan Opera in a 1900 performance in Los Angeles in which, in a bizarre coupling, the house’s first Mimì, Dame Nellie Melba, also sang the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. From those beginnings, La bohème has become one of the most frequently-performed operas in the international repertory.

In the latter half of the Twentieth Century, public awareness of La bohème was increasingly shaped by large-scale productions like John Copley’s and Richard Jones’s stagings for London’s Royal Opera House and the world-famous 1981 Franco Zeffirelli MET production, still in the company’s repertory after four decades. Alongside such behemoth shows, Opera in Williamsburg’s production of La bohème in the 410-seat Kimball Theatre was framed by very different theatrical precepts, facilitating an uncommon degree of intimacy in a drama in which subtle sentiments are often obscured. Their artistic and intellectual pursuits notwithstanding, Puccini’s bohemians are simple people whose story captivates audiences because the emotions are abundantly familiar. In this Bohème, the interactions among the characters and the singers portraying them observed so closely, the opera’s tragedy was transfixingly personal.

As in all of Opera in Williamsburg’s recent productions (Pagliacci in June 2021, L’elisir d’amore in September 2021, and Così fan tutte in May 2022), the company’s founder and Artistic and General Director Naama Zahavi-Ely supervised a staging in which wonderfully imaginative use was made of the limited resources at the company’s disposal. Crucially, she staffs Opera in Williamsburg productions with personnel who share her great passion for opera—a quality that molded her work in La bohème. Director Eve Summer devised a staging that supplied the humor and tears expected in La bohème, ingenuously and movingly adapted to the venue’s spatial limitations.

Aided by Philip Lupo’s beautiful scenic projections and Troy Martin-O’shia’s intelligent lighting designs, Summer and Zahavi-Ely drew the audience into the opera’s most personal dimensions. Also appearing as the much-abused serveur at Café Momus in Act Two, costume designer Eric Lamp dressed the bohemians in modern attire that brought Joe Orton’s London to mind. Especially gratifying was the manner in which the production’s visual elements paralleled the performance’s musical progression. Every member of the cast seemed wholly at ease in this staging, moving and singing with comfort, and the opera’s journey from light-hearted playfulness to wrenching tragedy was therefore unusually natural.

Opera in Williamsburg’s productions routinely achieve with modesty what larger companies’ performances manufacture with opulence. This was particularly true of the orchestral component of this La bohème. Employing Jonathan Lyness’s reduction of Puccini’s orchestrations, Music Director Jorge Parodi conducted a performance in which myriad details that are often lost were fully audible. The fifteen musicians in the pit played splendidly throughout the evening, the ability to hear flautist Shannon Vandzura, clarinetist Shawn Buck, and bassoonist Matt Lano so clearly enabling appreciation of the current of bel canto that flows through Puccini’s score. Parodi shaped ensembles energetically, almost too much so in some scenes, but he also relaxed tempi in lyrical passages, encouraging the cast to sing phrases rather than individual notes. His baton technique laudably free of histrionics, Parodi conducted with discernible  comprehension of La bohème’s narrative structure, successfully conveying the depth and affection of Puccini’s musical portraiture to his colleagues and the audience.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone ELIAM J. RAMOS FUENTES as Il sergente dei doganieri in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography & Opera in Williamsburg]Alle porte di Parigi: bass-baritone Eliam J. Ramos Fuentes as Il sergente dei doganieri in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography and
Opera in Williamsburg]

One of the most welcome of this Bohème’s many virtues was the remarkable consistency of the casting, the voices heard in smaller rôles of quality equal to those of the principals. The stage’s dimensions not accommodating a chorus of the numbers customarily heard in performances of La bohème, the denizens of Paris were portrayed by a small ensemble of singers including sopranos Kinneret Ely, Stephanie Lupo, Heather Sreves, and Catherine Thorpe, whose vocalism in Act Two’s crowd scene was excitingly robust. As a vendor of treats in Act Two and the Sergente dei doganieri in Act Three, bass-baritone Eliam J. Ramos Fuentes sang strongly and charismatically, exuding first the jovial spirit of the Parisian Christmas Eve and then the weary guard’s ennui as his duties distracted him from reading his newspaper. Ever a source of enjoyment in Opera in Williamsburg productions, tenor Pavel Suliandziga voiced Parpignol’s music with security and charm that it too often lacks, the character here heightening rather than disrupting the scene’s sense of jubilation.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) bass DENIS SEDOV as Colline, tenor KOHEI YAMAMOTO as Rodolfo, bass-baritone YURI KISSIN as Benoît, baritone KEVIN GODINEZ as Schaunard, and baritone SUCHAN KIM as Marcello in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography & Opera in Williamsburg]L’affitto è arretrato: (from left to right) bass Denis Sedov as Colline, tenor Kohei Yamamoto as Rodolfo, bass-baritone Yuri Kissin as Benoît, baritone Kevin Godinez as Schaunard, and baritone Suchan Kim as Marcello in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography and
Opera in Williamsburg]

Whether depicted by one singer or divided between two singers, the rôles of the bohemians’ landlord Benoít and Alcindoro, the consigliere di stato besotted with Musetta, are too often woefully sung—or hardly sung at all. Williamsburg’s Benoît and Alcindoro, bass-baritone Yuri Kissin, was feeble of neither voice nor physique. In Act One, there was real danger in his perturbed utterance of the padrone’s ‘A lei ne vengo perchè il trimestre scorso mi promise,’ and the libidinous virility mocked by his tenants was weirdly credible. As Alcindoro, Kissin channelled Dominique Pinon in Diva mode, sparring indignantly with Musetta and glaring menacingly at a member of the audience who dared to laugh at his plight. Creating potent figures rather than the usual caricatures, Kissin voiced both rôles splendidly.

04_Kevin-Godinez-Schaunard_Denis-Sedov-CollineIl musicista ed il filosofo: baritone Kevin Godinez as Schaunard (left) and bass Denis Sedov as Colline (right) in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography and
Opera in Williamsburg]

Few performances of La bohème are distinguished by a quartet of bohemian friends as uniformly excellent, vocally and dramatically, as Opera in Williamsburg’s casting yielded. Baritone Kevin Godinez characterized the musician Schaunard as a man of good humor and deep feelings, his singing of ‘La banca di Francia per voi si sbilancia’ in Act One exemplifying the jocundity of his portrayal. Perturbation rushed to the surface as it became apparent that the tale of the Englishman and the noisy parrot was being ignored, but this Schaunard was too kind to be truly angry. Godinez sang each of the character’s lines in Act Two with dramatic purpose, ensuring that Schaunard was always an individual and not merely a voice in the ensemble, but it was in Act Four that the baritone’s performance reached its pinnacle. Frolicking with the other bohemians before Mimì’s fateful entrance, this Schaunard was unprepared for tragedy. Godinez’s vocal acting in the opera’s final minutes was genuinely affecting: clearly not expecting Mimì to die, Schaunard was overwhelmed by palpable grief. Unfailingly engaging whenever he was on stage, he lent one of opera’s most familiar final scenes heartrending sincerity.

Bass Denis Sedov expanded his association with Opera in Williamsburg with a ruminative depiction of Colline. Contrasting the philosopher’s imposing intelligence with childlike innocence and suggestions of obsessive-compulsive inclinations. Colline’s music in Act One was voiced with irrepressible authority and animation, this man of learning gleefully taking part in his friends’ merrymaking. Sedov’s ‘Una fiammata!’ was aptly incendiary, and his low G on ‘Andiam!’ reverberated exhilaratingly. He, too, made much of his music in Act Two, Colline joining Schaunard in bemusedly observing their friends’ amorous adventures. The impish elation of Sedov’s singing in Act Four turned to remorse when the dying Mimì returned to the garret, his Colline seeming embarrassed by having sported whilst Mimì suffered alone. Regret and hopelessness resounded in his dulcet, subdued traversal of ‘Vecchia zimara.’ For a man of such physical and vocal might, his unassuming bashfulness as Colline withdrew into contemplation and self-recrimination was striking.

IN REVIEW: soprano KEARSTIN PIPER BROWN as Musetta in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography & Opera in Williamsburg]Una preghiera umile: soprano Kearstin Piper Brown as Musetta in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography and
Opera in Williamsburg]

Even without the furs and jewels with which interpreters of the rôle are often adorned, soprano Kearstin Piper Brown’s Musetta illuminated the stage with elegance and vocal magneticism. Rightly commandeering the spotlight from her first appearance, she toyed with Alcindoro bewitchingly, as much for the benefit of her on-stage audience as for her own amusement. The top Bs evincing Musetta’s desire for total liberation from patriarchal mores, the soprano sang ‘Quando me’n vo’ soletta’ with indomitable éclat. The row with the jealous Marcello in Act Three drew sounds of brash insouciance from this Musetta, but these gave way in Act Four to tones of sublime delicacy.

First declaiming ‘C’è Mimì che mi segue a che sta male’ dolefully, the compassionate lie to Mimì about the muff being a gift from Rodolfo was delivered with gentle tenderness. Piper Brown’s voicing of Musetta’s prayer, ‘Madonna benedetta,’ punctuated by an unusually urgent and unmistakably symbolic request for a screen to shield the flickering candle at Mimì’s bedside, was gorgeously plaintive. Casting her pride aside, Piper Brown’s Musetta silently receded into the background to mourn Mimì, shattered despite having realized that her friend was dying. The relative brevity of the part notwithstanding, Musetta is one of Italian opera’s most iconic rôles, one sometimes diminished by clichés, but, singing sparklingly and acting unaffectedly, Piper Brown made Musetta far more nuanced than a typical operatic seconda donna.

IN REVIEW: baritone SUCHAN KIM as Marcello in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography & Opera in Williamsburg]Sul lido del Mar Rosso: baritone Suchan Kim as Marcello in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography and
Opera in Williamsburg]

Heard to advantage in all of Opera in Williamsburg’s recent productions, baritone Suchan Kim again earned the audience’s adulation with a thoughtful, marvelously-sung portrayal of Marcello. Hilariously clad in a Snuggie® at the start of Act One, he sang ‘Questo Mar Rosso mi ammollisce’ with a voice that conveyed the frigidity of the unheated garret but simmered with youthful vigor. All of Marcello’s exchanges with his fellow bohemians were voiced with crisp tone and clear diction, Kim demonstrating the innate goodness of the artist’s constitution. In Act Two, ‘Io pur mi sento in vena di gridar’ was pointedly enunciated, and ‘Gioventù mia, to non sei morta’ in the celebrated ensemble brimmed with renewed gusto, Marcello accepting his inability to suppress his attraction to Musetta.

Marcello’s discovery of Mimì outside of the tavern at the beginning of Act Three was the turning point in Kim’s performance. The hearty cheerfulness of the first two acts was replaced by burgeoning concern, the baritone’s singing of ‘È ver, siam qui da un mese’ darkened by doubt, and a sharper edge of exasperation was apparent in the quarreling with Musetta. The pensiveness of Kim’s voicing of ‘Io non so come sia che il mio pennello lavori’ in the Act Four duet with Rodolfo disclosed the young man’s desolation, and an all-too-human guilt shrouded his realization that his reunion with Musetta came at the cost of Mimì’s decline. Apart from a single effortful top F♯ in the duet with Rodolfo, Kim sang Marcello’s music with ease and panache, freeing him to give the earnest painter a soul as captivating as his voice.

IN REVIEW: tenor KOHEI YAMAMOTO as Rodolfo (left) and baritone SUCHAN KIM as Marcello (right) in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography & Opera in Williamsburg]Amici nel dolore: tenor Kohei Yamamoto as Rodolfo (left) and baritone Suchan Kim as Marcello in Opera in Williamsburg’s September 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography and
Opera in Williamsburg]

Making his USA début in this performance, Japanese tenor Kohei Yamamoto sang Rodolfo with unwavering commitment to the drama, his voice assuming countless colors as the opera progressed. ‘Nei cieli bigi guardo fumar dai mille comignoli Parigi’ in Act One was sung with bravado, the top As assured, and, following the cavorting with the bohemians and Benoît, an air of seriousness arose in ‘Io resto per terminar l’articolo.’ Yamamoto’s exclamation of ‘Una donna!’ upon hearing Mimì’s voice was filled with wonder, and he imbued the lovers’ first meeting with shy flirtatiousness. Singing ‘Che gelida manina’ in Puccini’s preferred key, D♭ major, he valiantly attempted the interpolated top C expected by audiences but focused not on this one tone but on producing phrasing worthy of a poet. His voicing of ‘O soave fanciulla,’ resolved in accordance with the composer’s wishes with a major triad on E instead of another unwritten top C, radiated new love. This sentiment also suffused the tenor’s singing in Act Two, but the rapture was tarnished by Rodolfo’s domineering admonishments. Nevertheless, Yamamoto sang ‘Questa è Mimì’ and ‘Sappi per tuo governo’ attractively, the voice gleaming with romantic zeal.

Rodolfo faces daunting challenges in Act Three, and Yamamoto conquered them unflinchingly. His ‘Marcello, finalmente!’ glistened with the ebullience heard in Act One, but ‘Già un’ altra volta credetti morte il mio cor’ initiated a metamorphosis to despair. The feigned bitterness of ‘Mimì è una civetta’ evolved into the desperation and shame that emerged in ‘Mimì è tanto malata!’ and the subsequent scene with Mumì, in which the words were articulated with heightened immediacy. Tenor and baritone allying their voices beguilingly, Rodolfo’s duet with Marcello in Act Four was a zenith of the performance. Yamamoto voiced ‘O Mimì, tu più non torni’ despondently but hopefully, fashioning an illusion of happiness that was destroyed by Mimì’s death. Yamamoto’s singing in the final scene was unapologetically harrowing, but he avoided morose distortions. Occasional forcing in the singer’s upper register reminded the listener of how demanding a rôle Rodolfo is, but Yamamoto’s performance also affirmed how memorable a good Rodolfo can be.

IN REVIEW: soprano ROBYN MARIE LAMP as Mimì in Opera in Williamsburg's September 2022 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography & Opera in Williamsburg]Sì, mi chiamano Mimì: soprano Robyn Marie Lamp as Mimì in Opera in Williamsburg’s September production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Andrew Keefe, © by Gentle Grace Photography and
Opera in Williamsburg]

The heart of Opera in Williamsburg’s Bohème was the sensitive but strong-willed Mimì of soprano Robyn Marie Lamp. The opera’s sound world changes when Mimì’s voice is first heard from outside of the bohemians’ quarters in Act One, but Lamp also altered the psychological trajectory of the drama, her Mimì garnering affection and empathy without overtly seeking them. Encountering Rodolfo for the first time, the demure awkwardness of ‘Scusi...Di grazia, mi s’è spento il lume’ and her timid but capricious search for the missing—actually hidden—key defined her as a sweet but spirited young woman. Lamp sang the aria ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ radiantly, the beauty of her performance compromised only by pushed top As. Ecstatically joining Rodolfo in duet, she voiced ‘Ah! tu sol comandi, amor!’ artfully, departing for the Momus with a slightly rebellious top C.

As Mimì’s confidence and comfort in the company of the bohemians increased in Act Two, Lamp’s vocalism manifested new facets of her characterization. It was the reticent Mumì of Act One who sang ‘Una cuffietta a pizzi tutta rosa,’ but a new woman materialized in her admiration of Musetta and the ethos she espoused. That woman, still meek but asserting her independence, returned in Act Three, her breathless ‘Sa dirmi, scusi’ divulging the precariousness of her physical state. ‘O! buon Marcello, aiuto!’ surged from Lamp’s lungs and Mimì’s heart, the pair of top B♭s expressing her agony. Mimì overhearing Rodolfo’s assessment of his love’s deteriorating health, she sang ‘Donde lieta uscì al tuo grido d’amore’ with poignant simplicity, her phrasing of ‘Addio, senza rancor’ recalling the exalted tradition of Lucrezia Bori and Licia Albanese.

From the moment of her arrival in the humble garret in Act Four, the brevity of Mimì’s survival was obvious, but Lamp recaptured the optimism and vocal lightness of Act One even as Mimì took her last breath. The love that swelled in her serene voicing of ‘Buon giorno, Marcello, Schaunard, Colline’ and the defiant anticipation in her tranquil ‘Sono andati?’ were immensely moving. Doing big things in small ways is the hallmark of Opera in Williamsburg’s endeavors, and Lamp’s Mimì personified this Bohème’s aesthetics. The effectiveness of a staging of any opera depends not upon grand spaces but upon grand voices, and Opera in Williamsburg’s La bohème had them.

05 September 2022

RECORDING REVIEW: Gabriela Lena Frank & Dmitri Shostakovich — EL REBELDE (Andrew Garland, baritone; Javier Abreu, tenor; Jeremy Reger, piano; Art Song Colorado DASP 005)

IN REVIEW: Gabriela Lena Frank & Dmitri Shostakovich - EL REBELDE (Art Song Colorado DASP 005)GABRIELA LENA FRANK (born 1972) and DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906 – 1975): El rebeldeAndrew Garland, baritone; Javier Abreu, tenor; Jeremy Reger, piano [Recorded in Grusin Recital Hall, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA, 23 – 26 May 2022; Art Song Colorado DASP 005; 1 CD, 68:31; Available from Kunaki, Amazon (USA), Bandcamp, Spotify, and major music retailers and streaming services]

Technologies like streaming audio and online archives make exploring and absorbing musical traditions of diverse cultures easier now than ever before, yet many listeners’ musical acquaintances with Spanish-speaking communities are still engendered by works like Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Bizet’s Carmen, Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole, and Ravel’s Bolero—music, that is, written by composers with no or tenuous ties to the Hispanic diaspora. Art Song aficionados know cornerstones of the Spanish song repertoire such as Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas and Granados’s Canciones españolas, but what are the ratios of new recordings of songs in Spanish of any level of familiarity to further accounts of Schubert’s Winterreise and Schumann’s Dichterliebe?

A rare trek into the expansive realm of songs by an authentic Spanish-speaking composer and one of other origins who surrendered to the allures of Latin forms, baritone Andrew Garland’s Art Song Colorado recording El Rebelde is precisely what its title proclaims it to be: a rebel. Rejecting the confines of the conventional Spanish-language repertoire that an enterprising vocal artist should sing, Garland and his colleagues rebelliously both extend the boundaries of that body of work by introducing listeners to a collection of songs by a contemporary Latinx composer and rejuvenate too-seldom-performed arrangements of Spanish themes by one of the Twentieth Century’s most celebrated composers. The baritone’s partner in this ambitious voyage, pianist Jeremy Reger, articulates the quixotic transitions of mood and rhythm not with the halting step of a traveler in little-visited territory but with a native’s unflappable confidence, lighting the fuses of the dynamic performances with which Garland obliterates dated notions of what constitutes ‘serious’ Spanish song.

A native Californian whose global ethnic heritage includes Peruvian ancestry, composer Gabriela Lena Frank demonstrates in the pieces included on El Rebelde that she is an innovator whose songwriting encompasses creative uses of interplay between voice and piano and comprehensive knowledge of an array of vocal styles. The eight of her Cantos de Cifar y el Mar Dulce presented on this recording reflect progress in her initiative to provide music for all thirty of Pablo Antonio Cuadra’s Cantos. In these eight songs, Frank creates a remarkable spectrum of aural textures, ranging from serene lyricism to biting dissonance. Propelled by the sharply-defined rhythmic profile of Reger’s pianism, Garland sings the opening Canto, ‘El nacimiento de Cifar,’ engagingly, immediately creating an aura of exotic tension that lures the listener into the intricacies of music and text. A sense of savagery permeates the performance, singer and pianist shrinking from none of the irony and ferocity in the music. Nevertheless, there is tenderness amidst the vehemence of Garland’s voicing of ‘Me diste (¡oh Dios!) una hija,’ his jagged phrasing imparting the psychological intensity of the text.

The song from which the recording takes its title, ‘El rebelde,’ is sung with unapologetic bravado, the baritone relishing every non-Classical vocal effect and assault on the upper register. Frank’s writing often asks the singer to integrate a populist sound recalling Ibrahim Ferrer with a Verdi baritone’s top notes, and Garland rises to the task unflinchingly. His accounts of ‘Tomasito, el cuque’ and ‘El niño’ create a palpable narrative, heightened by Reger’s virtuosic deployment of the piano’s arsenal of piquant sounds, and they achieve a striking contrast with a profoundly expressive traversal of ‘Eufemia.’ Likewise, the conflicting but uncannily complementary subtlety and abrasiveness of ‘En la vela del Angelito’ and ‘Pescador’ are affectingly limned, each word projected with cognizance of its significance in the songs’ cumulative contexts.

Frank’s Peruvian roots blossom resplendently in Cuatro Canciones Andinas, a group of songs utilizing José María Arguedas’s Spanish translations of texts by the Quechua people, from whose ranks the Inca civilization arose. The music pulses with sonic evocations of the rugged landscapes of the Cordillera Oriental, evincing the imposing peaks’ ambiguities as both hardship and safe harbor for Peru’s indigenous peoples. As performed by Garland and Reger, ‘Despedida’ is all the more touching for their unerring avoidance of saccharine affectation. They also approach ‘Yo crio una mosca’ with sobriety rather than sentimentality, allowing the song’s text to make its own impressions. The ebullience of ‘Carnaval de Tambobamba’ crackles in both the voice and the piano, the music’s innate energy made palpable to the listener. Unmistakable, too, are the enchanting beauties of ‘Yunca,’ uplifted by the abiding luster of Garland’s tones.

A setting of verses by Nilo Cruz that address the 1936 murder of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, ‘Las cinco lunas de Lorca’ is an extended duet for tenor and baritone. Reminiscent in structure to Verdi’s scenes for the eponymous prince and Rodrigue in Don Carlos, Frank’s writing for the voices grippingly manifests the brutality and pathos of Lorca’s demise. Garland and Reger are joined in this performance by tenor Javier Abreu, whose polished-silver voice blends well with the garnet hues of Garland’s singing. Together, they recount Lorca’s harrowing assassination with discernibly personal depth, singing as though they lament the cruel silencing not of a distant historical figure but of a lifelong friend.

Written at the request of Armenian mezzo-soprano Zara Dolukhanova, who shared a selection of traditional Spanish tunes with the composer with the hope of inspiring a complex recital piece for her own repertoire, and first published in 1956, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 100 Spanish Songs adhere to the rhythms and cadences of the folk tunes from which they were derived. Dolukhanova was disappointed by the songs, but Garland’s performance of them validates the wisdom of Shostakovich’s decision to arrange the songs without adornments. Enunciating the Russian text with clarity, Garland voices ‘Прощай, Гренада!’ powerfully, his vocal strength allied with interpretive intuition.

As the songs progress, Shostakovich is proved to have preserved the Spanish flavor of the songs so masterfully that the language in which they are sung is irrelevant. Still, reacting to the voice’s discourse with the piano, Garland’s singing of ‘Звёздочки’ is driven by the words. He and Reger communicate the vastly different feelings of ‘Первая встреча’ and ‘Ронда’ with meticulous specificity. Their attention to the details of each phrase yields performances of ‘Черноокая’ and ‘Сон’ in which the Spanish soul of the songs and the essence of Shostakovich exuded by his late symphonies and chamber music are equally prominent.

Music has a wondrous legacy of rebellion. Works like Auber’s La muette de Portici and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring have sparked philosophical conflagrations that incinerated tired institutions and systems of thought. In innumerable smaller ways, music alters perspectives and fords seemingly unnavigable rivers of division. The choices of repertoire alone make El Rebelde worthy of its title, but the necessary revolution here is the refusal to accept simplistic conceptions of Hispanic identity. The Latinx spirit dwells wherever it is invited in, and few invitations are as irresistible as Andrew Garland’s singing of this music.

02 September 2022

RECORDING REVIEW: Evan L. Snyder & Tamara Wilson — TIFFANY’S SPELLBOOK (Tamara Wilson, soprano; Justina Lee, piano; Lexicon Classics LC2202)

IN REVIEW: Evan L. Snyder &Tamara Wilson - TIFFANY'S SPELLBOOK (Tamara Wilson, soprano; Justina Lee, piano; Lexicon Classics LC2202)EVAN L. SNYDER (born 1991): Tiffandra’s Grimoire of Spells, Potions, and Other Such Magicks: A Practice Guide to Witchcraft for the 21st Century Practitioner; or Tiffany’s SpellbookTamara Wilson, soprano; Justina Lee, piano [Recorded at GCR Audio, Buffalo, New York USA, 23 February 2022; Lexicon Classics LC2202; 1 CD, 27:56; Available from Lexicon Classics and major music streaming services]

Whether a performance offers Fauré mélodies in an intimate recital hall, an Elgar oratorio in an ancient cathedral, Strauss Lieder with orchestra in a magnificent concert venue, or bawdy songs accompanied by a badly-tuned lounge piano, there is magic in every manifestation of the gift of song. The power of song’s singular sorcery has rarely been more apparent and necessary than in the past two years, during which walls of separation and silence were imposed by the necessity of protecting communities from the ravages of an indiscriminate menace. With dispensaries of art in all forms shuttered, endurance mandated retreating into art itself—into creating, reimagining, rediscovering, and reawakening. No longer merely an escape from everyday doldrums, song was again what it must have been when humans first used their voices to express themselves in music: a new, common language in which emotions and experiences too intimate and intense for fallible words are shared without fear of misunderstanding.

Concert halls, theaters, and opera houses can be closed, but song cannot be suppressed. Like a river finding or forging paths to the sea, songsters must discern or define outlets for their art. During a global pandemic, this process of self-expression inevitably turned inward, the inability to interpret existing music in the company of audiences precipitating a drive to connect with the moment and the innumerable others surviving it via instigating original vehicles of musical camaraderie and collaboration. Of this need to close the divides of forced artistic atrophy arose partnerships among composers, poets, and singers that yielded projects embodying the ethos of this calamitous time in history, song emerging as a powerful vaccine against infectious isolation.

Uniting one of today’s preeminent spinto sopranos with a deservedly-acclaimed composer, Tiffandra’s Grimoire of Spells, Potions, and other such Magicks: A Practical Guide to Witchcraft for the 21st Century Practitioner; or Tiffany’s Spellbook—a title worthy of J.K. Rowling—explores themes of devastating gravity with acuity and whimsy, the alchemy of song employed to translate wearying realities of living during a pandemic into melodious metaphysical conceits. So cleverly are composer Evan L. Snyder’s and soprano Tamara Wilson’s words integrated into the musical tableaux that texts and tones seem inseparable, the music achieving conversational concision reminiscent of the work of Leoš Janáček. Snyder sagaciously avoids sensationalizing and sentimentalizing the themes confronted in Tiffany’s Spellbook, his tuneful, expertly-crafted vocal lines providing Wilson a setting in which her voice can laugh and lament with equal immediacy.

One of a minuscule number of sopranos before the public today who both consistently sing the written top D♭ in Leonora’s Act Four aria in Il trovatore and often pay homage to Leyla Gencer and Marisa Galvany by interpolating a rousing top D in the trio in Act Two of Un ballo in maschers, Wilson is a Verdi soprano with few peers. [Click here to read the Voix des Arts review of her unforgettable portrayal of Gulnara in Washington Concert Opera’s 2014 performance of Il corsaro.] The range, textual vividness, and interpretive versatility that shape her performances of Verdi rôles foster a traversal of Tiffany’s Spellbook in which Lady Macbeth’s manipulative charisma, Lucrezia Contarini’s fierce determination, Aida’s inner conflict, and Desdemona’s vulnerability intermingle enchantingly. Pianist Justina Lee plays Snyder’s music as though she were extemporaneously composing it herself, her phrasing generating its own sorcery as each of the piece’s spells is intoned. Music, words, piano, and voice mold a narrative in which seduction, sarcasm, and solemnity intertwine compellingly.

Truly providing a ‘first glimpse of magick,’ Tiffany’s Spellbook’s Foreword is a sort of prelude in the manners of both the opening songs of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise and the spoken prologue to Bartók’s A kékszakállú herceg vára. Wilson’s incantation establishes an atmosphere of eerie good humor, the smile in the voice audible even when words are hurled out with cyclonic force. Throughout the cycle, Snyder’s music evolves with the shifting moods of the texts, sounds of disquieting dissonance metamorphosing into beguiling harmonies that glisten as Wilson and Lee reveal them.

Like all of the journeys in this Spellbook, the transition into Spell No. 1, ‘The Elixir of Exactly Eight Hours of Sleep,’ is navigated with wit, the composer intuitively bridging the pauses in the words with music that guides the listener into the unique soundscapes of each episode. Glimmers of Alice Ford’s cunning scintillate in Wilson’s singing, reflecting the streams of light that cascade from the piano. Similarly, music and performance converge mesmerizingly in Spell No. 2, ‘A Do-Little Potion for Conversing with Animals,’ the words handled with clarity that accentuates their cleverness. Lee’s vibrant realizations of the coruscating piano figurations bring the marvels of human interactions with nature to the foreground, intensifying the sincerity of Wilson’s delivery of the text. There is no sermonizing in the performance, but the power of the soprano’s voice sounds a warning that cannot be ignored, intimating that no environmental necromancy can restore natural order when man destroys it.

The third of the spells, ‘Practical Practices for When Plagued by a Plague,’ is especially poignant, but Wilson avoids allowing the momentous pathos of the subject to overwhelm the vocal and interpretive buoyancy of her performance. Here and in the fourth spell, ‘A Spell for Sudden Sobriety,’ the mercurial joviality of Wilson’s declamation of Snyder’s melodies discloses no artifice, the ambiguities of comedy and cataclysm addressed with unaffected directness. The ambivalent frustration at the unceasing necessity of safety protocols, both that conditions warrant them and that resistance demands that they be repeatedly restated, explodes in the soprano’s anguished exclamation of ‘Stay six feet apart and wear a damn mask!’ Far more than dismay over a few drinks too many simmers in Wilson’s singing of ‘There comes a time, in most mortal’s [sic] lives, when they regret what they’ve imbibed,’ a longing for absolution gnawing at the flippant surface of the text. It is difficult to characterize Snyder’s music except by saying that every note belongs in Tiffany’s Spellbook. Influences as diverse as Schumann, Brahms, Finzi, and Britten appear and fade, but the tonal language—advanced but mellifluous—remains that of this composer and this work.

Tiffany’s Spellbook’s Dedication, a reminder that ‘A Drop of Good Magick is unique to each individual who invokes it,’ is an apt resolution for the piece, Wilson and Lee approaching Snyder’s thematic summation not with finality but with a palpable sense of individual and collective renewal. It is sometimes easy to forget that, even when preserved for posterity via the art of sound recording, every performance is a singular experience that can never be wholly replicated. As an aural document, this performance of Tiffany’s Spellbook is of course unchanged on the first and the hundredth hearings, yet the work itself engages the senses differently each time that it is played. Always alluring, Tamara Wilson’s voice bewitches each pair of ears as the heart to which they are attached dictates. This is the real magic of Tiffany’s Spellbook.