24 October 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — LA TRAVIATA (Y. Lysenko, O. Van Gay II, R. Overman, K. Schwecke, D. Romano, D. Maize, S. MacLeod, K. Spooner, D. Hartmann; Piedmont Opera, 21 October 2022)

IN REVIEW: soprano YULIA LYSENKO as Violetta in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): La traviataYulia Lysenko (Violetta Valéry), Orson Van Gay II (Alfredo Germont), Robert Overman (Giorgio Germont). Kristin Schwecke (Flora Bervoix), Danielle Romano (Annina), David Maize (Gastone, Visconte di Letorières), Scott MacLeod (Il barone Douphol), Kevin Spooner (Il marchese d’Obigny), Donald Hartmann (Il dottor Grenvil), Jackson Ray (Giuseppe), Lawrence Hall (Un commissionario); Piedmont Opera Chorus, Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, stage director; Howard Jones, set designer; Gary Taylor, choreographer; Norman Coates, lighting designer; Martha Ruskai, wig and makeup designer; Piedmont Opera, Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 21 October 2022]

The world première of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on 6 March 1853, failed to equal the success of the house’s inaugural presentation of Rigoletto two years earlier. The rapturous reception given to Rigoletto by the Venetian public prompted La Fenice’s management to commission Verdi to write an additional opera for the house, but derision of what the first-night audience regarded as infelicitous casting deprived La traviata of a triumphant introduction befitting the opera’s popularity with subsequent generations of opera lovers. Like other operas that survived inauspicious premières to later garner acclaim and affection, La traviata demonstrated its considerable musical and theatrical virtues to observers willing to ignore visual distractions and listen without prejudices, its memorable melodies and poignant tragedy soon applauded in virtually every opera house in the world.

Correspondence between Verdi and the librettist for his new opera for La Fenice, Francesco Maria Piave, with whom he had already collaborated on scores including Ernani, Macbeth, and Rigoletto, documents the composer’s quest to choose a subject that defied the prevailing conventions of the day. Though wary of the manner of censorial meddling that marred his adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Le roi s’amuse, Verdi was determined to find a contemporary subject rather than the typical operatic fare of mythological figures, tales of Antiquity, and Medieval pageantry. Scholars debate whether Verdi’s first exposure to Alexandre Dumas fils’s La Dame aux camélias was seeing a performance of its stage incarnation in Paris in February 1852 or reading the novel after its publication in 1848, but the story of a denizen of Parisian demimonde society sacrificing her happiness in order to preserve the honor of her paramour’s family indisputably captivated him. Misgivings about potential censorship did not deter Verdi and Piave from transforming Dumas’s dame aux camélias, Marguerite Gautier, into Violetta Valéry, the heroine of their La traviata. The contemporary setting of Verdi’s opera fell victim to official objection, but countless productions in the years since its première in 1853 have exhibited that the effectiveness of the opera’s tragedy does not depend upon visual stimuli. Whether she wears a hoop skirt, a bustle, or jeans, a Violetta who trusts Verdi’s music to guide her performance will earn tears and cheers.

IN REVIEW: baritone ROBERT OVERMAN as Giorgio Germont (left) and soprano YULIA LYSENKO as Violetta (right) in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Sull’orlo della morte: baritone Robert Overman as Giorgio Germont (left) and soprano Yulia Lysenko as Violetta (right) in Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

That Verdi and Piave achieved their goal of making the tragedy of their setting of the Dumas drama universally affecting was apparent in every moment of Piedmont Opera’s staging of La traviata. Perpetuating an association with the company that proved splendidly fruitful in Piedmont Opera’s 2019 and 2021 productions of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, Steven LaCosse directed this staging of La traviata with imagination fueled by unmistakable affection for the score. Unlike some of his directorial counterparts, whose work controverts even the most generalized animas of composers’ and librettists’ intentions, LaCosse tasks himself with telling operas’ stories in his own ways rather than telling his own stories using the operas with which he is entrusted.

Aided in this production by elegant set designs by Howard Jones, the effectiveness of which was diminished only by the too-obvious symbolism of an oversized frame that held painted tableaux in the first and second act being empty in Act Three, Norman Coates’s atmospheric but often excessively dark lighting, opulent costumes borrowed from Sarasota Opera and coordinated in Winston-Salem by Ann M. Bruskkiewitz, and typically attractive but unobtrusive wigs and makeup by Martha Ruskai, LaCosse returned La traviata to the Nineteenth-Century setting that Verdi wanted but was denied by the Venetian censor. Gary Taylor’s choreography raucously brought the frenetic energy of Spanish fiestas to Flora’s party in Act Two. Fondly traditional but never stodgy, this Traviata was both familiar and fresh.

Alongside LaCosse’s insightful direction, the conducting of Music Director James Allbritten reliably integrates the constituent elements of Piedmont Opers productions into cohesive theatrical experiences. In recent seasons, Allbritten has demonstrated his mastery of a broad array of repertoire, and his conducting of this performance of La traviata was distinguished by particularly eloquent handling of a beloved score. Espousing neither the view that La traviata is too popular to require study and reevaluation nor the assertion that a conductor must approach Verdi’s music radically and idiosyncratically in order to manifest individuality, Allbritten paced the score with keen focus on permitting the opera’s crucial relationships to develop and evolve organically via the music. Unafraid of grand dramatic gestures and dulcet lyricism, he expertly accentuated the contrasts between outward appearances and inner feelings, a vital component of La traviata and of Verdi’s operas in general.

The wisdom of Allbritten’s management of this Traviata’s musical forces was abundantly apparent in the singing of the Piedmont Opera Chorus and the playing of the Winston-Salem Symphony. As partygoers, jubilant in Act One and at first exultant and then shocked in Act Two, and offstage revelers in Act Three, the choristers sang excitingly, providing a sonorous musical backdrop before which the opera’s tragedy transpired. The Symphony musicians rendered their parts with gusto that amplified the aural impact of Allbritten’s reading of the score. Instances of intonational insecurity were few, and Allbritten’s leadership facilitated a high level of musical excellence that was rapidly restored when precision of ensemble between stage and pit disintegrated. Without sacrificing intricate details of Verdi’s late bel canto language, the opera’s drama was recounted not in a series of interconnected sentences but in broadly-conceived paragraphs, the conductor imparting from the first bars of the work’s plaintive Preludio—sadly marred by a glaring wrong entry—an abiding sense of the frsgility of love and life.

IN REVIEW: the ensemble of Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Donne al ballo: the ensemble of Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

La traviata is unique in the Verdi canon in placing the drama solely upon the backs of the opera’s three central characters. The figures who inhabit the periphery of the story serve clearly-defined functions within the plot but have few opportunities for characterization. Piedmont Opera nonetheless assembled a team of talented singing actors for supporting rôles in this Traviata. Appearing only in Act Two, Violetta’s servant Giuseppe and the Commissionario who delivers Violetta’s fateful letter to Alfredo were handsomely sung by tenor Jackson Ray and baritone Lawrence Hall. Similarly, baritone Kevin Spooner was an uncommonly noteworthy Marchese d’Obigny, and tenor David Maize, lustrously singing Verdi’s lines for Gastone, the Visconte di Letorières, introduced Alfredo to Violetta in Act One with an earnest ‘In Alfredo Germont, o signora.’ Baritone Scott MacLeod was aptly haughty as Barone Douphol, delivering the libidinous aristocrat’s admonitions to Violetta and threatening Alfredo with firm-toned vehemence.

Aside from the soprano and tenor protagonists, only Dottore Grenvil appears in each of La traviata’s three acts. A participant in Act One’s festivities who witnesses Alfredo’s cruel denunciation of Violetta in Act Two and attends to her as she nears death in Act Three, he received genuine vocal and theatrical presence in this production from bass-baritone Donald Hartmann. Singing vividly in Acts One and Two, in which his imposing tones lent the ensembles a firm foundation, he voiced ’La tisi non le accorda che poche ore’ in Act Three with sonorous gravitas, shattering the illusion of Violetta’s desperate optimism.

Serving Violetta in her rural retreat with Alfredo in Act Two and steadfastly remaining at her mistress’s side in Act Three, Annina was depicted as a concerned, compassionate woman by mezzo-soprano Danielle Romano, her urgent singing often conveying the character’s concern and anguish. Soprano Kristin Schwecke’s Flora exuded glamour, both in Violetta’s salon in Act One and at her own rollicking soirée in Act Two, during which she voiced ‘Avrem lieta di maschere la notte’ compellingly, heightening the air of foreboding that detonates in Violetta’s confrontation with Alfredo. Romano and Schwecke sang appealingly, Annina’s humility contrasting tellingly with Flora’s worldliness.

IN REVIEW: baritone ROBERT OVERMAN as Giorgio Germont in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Il padre severo: baritone Robert Overman as Giorgio Germont in Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograp by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

Arturo Toscanini famously counseled the young Robert Merrill that his understanding of Act Two of La traviata would be transformed by fatherhood, intimating that, in a wholly successful portrayal of the elder Germont, vocalism of even the finest caliber must be allied with paternal warmth. The consistent brilliance of baritone Robert Overman’s 2015 depiction of Rigoletto for Piedmont Opera was only fitfully replicated in his interpretation of Giorgio Germont. At his first entrance in Act Two, it was immediately discernible that Overman’s timbre remains well suited to Verdi repertoire, but the wide compass of Germont’s music exposed the voice’s lack of steadiness. In the extended duet with Violetta, he sang ‘Pura siccome un angelo’ nobly, touchingly invoking the father’s love for his daughter, and he phrased ‘Un dì, quando le veneri il tempo avrà fugate’ with true dignity. Overman voiced ‘Piangi, piangi, piangi, o misera’ gracefully, comforting rather than hectoring as Germont demanded that Violetta abandon Alfredo.

‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol’ is one of Verdi’s finest arias for baritone, and Overman’s account of it was admirable in skilled management of the line and even projection throughout the range, but the tremulous tone disappointed. As in many productions, Germont’s cabaletta was suppressed, leaving him to end Act Two by reacting with exasperation to Alfredo’s hasty pursuit of Violetta. Overhearing his son’s merciless outburst at Flora’s fête, this Germont declaimed ‘Di sprezzo degno sè stesso rende’ fervently, his shame as great as Violetta’s. In Overman’s performance, Germont’s arrival at the dying Violetta’s flat in Act Three was understated, his ‘Di più non lacerarmi’ enunciated subtly as he withdrew into the shadows, making way for Alfredo to share Violetta’s final moments. The many virtues of Overman’s portrayal of Germont ultimately overcame the voice’s diminished security, his limning of the father’s journey from cold severity to remorse and reconciliation intensifying the opera’s pathos.

IN REVIEW: tenor ORSON VAN GAY II as Alfredo in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Solo, con il suo rimorso: tenor Orson Van Gay II as Alfredo in Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

Bringing to his performance of Verdi’s music for the lovelorn Alfredo a flickering vibrato reminiscent of Miguel Fleta, tenor Orson Van Gay II sang and acted ardently, his body language in the opening scene of Act One communicating the character’s devotion to Violetta before his first word was sung. Launhcing the celebrated Brindisi, Van Gay voiced ‘Libiamo, libiamo ne’ lieti calici’ ebulliently. His traversal of ‘Un dì, felice, eterea’ was properly amorous, but the ascent to ‘croce e delizia’ disclosed a tendency to forsake the correct vowels in the interest of engendering more congenial placement of tones above the passaggio. This was less apparent in Van Gay’s singing from offstage during Violetta’s cabaletta and in his impassioned articulation of ‘Lunge da lei per me non v’ha diletto!’ at the start of Act Two.

In Van Gay’s performance, Alfredo’s aria ‘De’ miei bollenti spiriti’ was a potent statement of personal conviction, the zealous lover proclaiming his total immersion in life with Violetta. Like his father, Germont fils lost his cabaletta, and the absence of ‘O mio rimorso! o infamia!’ made the shortened scene seem disconcertingly perfunctory. The scenes with Violetta and Germont that followed inspired the tenor to his best singing of the evening, the voice sounding focused and free. Bursting into Flora’s party, this Alfredo sparred insouciantly with Barone Douphol and heartlessly dismissed Violetta’s warnings. Van Gay uttered ‘Ogni suo aver tal femmina’ ruthlessly but convincingly evinced Alfredo’s horror and heartbreak when Germont castigated his behavior. Alfredo’s belated return to Violetta in Act Three was strangely pedestrian, Van Gay’s voicing of ‘Parigi, o cara’ sensitive but phlegmatic, as though Alfredo was aware that he had no more time with Violetta. He sang ‘O mio sospiro e palpito’ affectingly, but his demeanor betrayed cognizance of the inevitability of Violetta’s death. Van Gay was a romantic Alfredo whose heart-on-the-sleeve emoting in the opera’s first two acts intermittently robbed the voice of evenness, but the vitality of his work was gratifyingly unflappable.

IN REVIEW: soprano YULIA LYSENKO as Violetta in Piedmont Opera's October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA [Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]Una lettera d’un padre: soprano Yulia Lysenko as Violetta in Piedmont Opera’s October 2022 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata
[Photograph by Mariedith Appanaitis, © by Piedmont Opera]

When asked in an interview some years ago to share his thoughts on the dramatic structure of La traviata, a prominent tenor who frequently sang Alfredo replied, ‘It’s about Violetta.’ Whether on stage alone or in the company of the full ensemble, soprano Yulia Lysenko was indisputably the soul of Piedmont Opera’s Traviata. Her opening ‘Flora, amici, la notte che resta’ in Act One disclosed vocal allure and technical poise, recalling Victoria de los Ángeles’s Violetta despite diction that faltered in some passages. Joining Van Gay in the Brindisi, she voiced ‘Tra voi, tra voi saprò dividere’ effervescently, and her enunciation of ‘Ah, se ciò è ver, fuggitemi’ allied playfulness with yearning. Lysenko infused ‘È strano!’ with curiosity, but her mesmerizing traversal of ‘Ah, fors’è lui che l’anima,’ compromised only by a slight crack on the second top A, radiated burgeoning desire. The reverie was abruptly ended by her sparkling ‘Follie! follie! delirio vano è questo,’ bemused elation lightening the voice. ‘Sempre libera’ was splendidly sung, the top Cs and D♭s comfortably in the voice and the fiorature dispatched intrepidly.

Lysenko was a rare Violetta whose singing in all three of the opera’s acts was accomplished, but she rose to exalted heights of expressivity and musicality in Act Two. Having lovingly hidden the true source of her finances from Alfredo, Lysenko’s Violetta matured further in the momentous discourse with Germont. The avidity of her ‘Non sapete quale affetto vivo’ was as galvanizing as the simplicity of her ‘Dite alla giovine sì bella e pura’ was moving, and the resolve with which she voiced ‘Morrò! morrò! la mia memoria non fia ch’ei maledica’ was wrenching. Keeping her promise to leave Alfredo, she entreated ‘Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’io t’amo’ with overwhelming emotional power.

The depth of Violetta’s pain was audible in Lysenko’s statement of ‘Che fia? morir mi sento!’ at Flora’s ball, and fear trembled in her ‘Invitato a qui seguirmi’ when she encountered Alfredo. Silently enduring the humiliation of his public recriminations, her sorrow cascaded in a devastatingly beautiful ‘Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core non puoi comprendere tutto l’amore.’ Lysenko eschewed overwrought histrionics in the spoken recitation of Germont’s letter in Act Three, and her cry of ‘È tardi!’ was chilling. The sublime resignation and soaring top As of Lysenko’s singing of ‘Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti’ rendered the excision of its second half lamentable. Her hope rekindled by Alfredo’s return, ‘Parigi, o caro’ offered a crushing glimpse of renewed happiness, but the finality of ‘Ah! gran Dio! morir sì giovine’ codified the impending tragedy. Lysenko’s crisp trills as Violetta sang of feeling her will to live returning were a final, fleeting vocal manifestation of physical health. Exhausted by the effort, Lysenko’s Violetta expired as she lived, collapsing unsupported, seen by those around her but left to fight her own battle. Lysenko did not fight without aid in Piedmont Opera’s La traviata, for which the company enlisted a battalion of gifted artists, but hers was the victory that ensured this Traviata’s conquest.

16 October 2022

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Riccardo Broschi — IDASPE (J. Holiday, V. Genaux, P. Beaudin, Z. Reams, S. Delijani, K. Sulayman, W.E. Chan; Quantum Theatre, 13 October 2022)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano PASCALE BEAUDIN as Berenice, tenor KARIM SULAYMAN as Artaserse, and mezzo-soprano ZOIE REAMS as Mandane, and dancers in Quantum Theatre's October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi's IDASPE [Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder & Quantum Theatre]RICCARDO BROSCHI (circa 1698 – 1756): Idaspe [MODERN WORLD PREMIÈRE]– John Holiday (Idaspe), Vivica Genaux (Dario), Pascale Beaudin (Berenice), Zoie Reams (Mandane), Shannon Delijani (Arbace), Karim Sulayman (Artaserse), Wei En Chan (Ircano); Chatham Baroque; Daniel Nesta Curtis, conductor [Claire van Kampen, director; Antonia Franceschi, choreographer; Narelle Sissons, scenic designer; Mary Ellen Stebbins, lighting designer; Ilona Somogyi, costume designer; Quantum Theatre, Byham Theater, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Thursday, 13 October 2022]

Few fates are more dreaded by ambitious artists in the Twenty-First Century than being first ignored and then forgotten. What could be more cruel than sacrificing so much of one’s life to the creation of art that battles to be heard and seen in the present and slumbers in neglect in future? Despite now being an indelible element of the artistic personality, the notion of a body of musical work enduring beyond the lifetime of its creator is relatively new, a product of the Nineteenth Century, during which composers like Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner cultivated continuing interest in their work by molding and promulgating their own mystique. Had he foreseen the company’s founding, might Luigi Cherubini have anticipated his Medea opening a Metropolitan Opera season in 2022? Could Händel have dreamed of his operas, tailored to the abilities of individual singers, being performed a quater-millennium after his death?

Riccardo Broschi would perhaps be one of the composers of his time who would be most surprised by hearing his music performed in 2022. Likely born in Naples in 1698, Broschi was the eldest son of musical parents. Surviving documentation of his musical education indicates that his talent manifested early in his life, but much of his music for the stage owes its preservation to the fame of his brother Carlo, the castrato Farinelli. Regarded by some musicologists as the first true musical celebrity, it is theorized that only Benjamin Franklin was as widely known as Farinelli in Europe during the Eighteenth Century. His surviving music demonstrates that the elder Broschi brother possessed considerable musical gifts in his own right, and he wisely capitalized on the boon of such a fortuitous familial association by composing music that flaunted his younger sibling’s extraordinary talent. During Broschi’s lifetime, writing operas for Farinelli was an act of business savvy. In the Twenty-First Century, their connection with Farinelli ensures the survival of scores that, like so many pieces, might otherwise now be lost.

Fully-staged productions of Baroque operas remain uncommon in the United States. Productions featuring period instruments are even rarer. First performed at Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo during the 1730 Venetian Carnevale, Broschi’s Idaspe is a surprising candidate for revival in the USA in 2022. Despite its first cast including three of the Eighteenth Century’s most celebrated singers (the castrato Nicolini—Händel’s first Rinaldo in 1711—in the title rôle, Francesca Cuzzoni as Berenice, and Farinelli as Dario), there is little evidence of Idaspe having endured beyond its inaugural production except as a source of arie di baule inserted into other scores, notably Vivaldi’s 1735 pasticcio Bajazet. Giovanni Pietro Candi’s libretto for Idaspe contains amorous and political convolutions of the sort that are typical of Baroque opera, but Broschi’s musical setting often transcends the conventionality of the words, not least in the writing for Farinelli and Cuzzoni. Broschi was not a peer of Händel, Telemann, and Rameau as a musical dramatist, yet Idaspe’s musical ingenuity merits modern reassessment.

Transitioning the opera’s drama from Antiquity to the middle of the Twentieth Century, Claire van Kampen applied her considerable experience in both music and theater to curating an incarnation of Idaspe in which elements of the opera’s drama proved to be astonishingly timely, its archetypal characters mired in conflicts that are all too relevant for today’s audiences. Not unexpectedly, some repeats of da capo arias and the libretto’s expanses of secco recitative were pruned, adhering to time constraints and mostly circumventing potential longueurs. The title character was arguably most adversely affected by modifications to the score, losing the fine spiritoso aria ‘Così mi piace’ in Act One, the aria ‘Bianca man tu sei di neve ma riceve’ in Act Two, and the affecting accompagnato ‘Infelice prigionero’ in Act Three. Reshaping works to maximize singers’ technical and histrionic faculties or meet audience expectations was common in the Eighteenth Century, fidelity to composers’ manuscripts becoming sacrosanct much later. Van Kampen’s concept was in many ways true to Baroque opera’s ethos of adaptability, her Idaspe recognizably Broschi’s but also unmistakably her own.

Bringing van Kampen’s vision to the stage of Pittsburgh’s historic Byham Theatre with palpable energy and focus, the production team assembled by Quantum Theatre Idaspe’s increased the linear progression of the opera’s intricate narrative. Ilona Somogyi’s elegant but provocative costumes amplified the piece’s social and gender divisions, a vital aspect of the plot that was also accentuated by van Kampen’s clear-sighted direction. Both Narelle Sisson’s scenic designs, dominated by stylized geometric figures and neon outlines of palm trees that artfully evoked thd glitzy, somewhat seedy Naples of Pasquale Sitieri films, and Mary Ellen Stebbins’s lighting emphasized interplay of light and shadow, paralleling the story’s examination of clashes of public façades and private feelings.

Often a prominent component of Baroque opera, dance assumed a central rôle in Quantum Theatre’s Idaspe. Though Antonia Franceschi’s inventive choreography, recalling Martha Graham, Jerome Kern, and Bob Fosse, was brilliantly executed by the production’s eight dancers, the visual profile of their work was reminiscent more of the Weimar Republic than of 1960s Naples and introduced an uncomfortable undercurrent of vaudeville into a tale of Machiavellian political machinations. Nevertheless, the audience reaction betrayed no objection to the stylistic incongruity, the production unquestionably delighting Pittsburghers despite often rendering the opera’s plot unintelligible.

Musical impetus for Quantum Theatre’s staging of Idaspe originated with Chatham Baroque, the period-instrument ensemble founded by violinist Andrew Fouts, gambist Patricia Halverson, and theorbist Scott Pauley. Their ranks expanded for this production by gifted musicians adept at integrating historically-informed performance practices with timeless musical integrity, Chatham Baroque allied with conductor Daniel Nesta Curtis to provide a musical foundation with few weaknesses. Pauley and harpsichordist Justin Wallace maintained rhythmic fluidity in the continuo, fomenting momentum in recitatives and following Curtis’s lead in shaping ritornelli poetically. Fleeting errant pitches from the winds detracted little from enjoyment of their work.

Curtis’s tempi brought welcome variety, avoiding tedium in a setting in which markings of Allegro proliferate the composer’s manuscript. Broschi’s music is not distinguished by the kind of psychological depth found in the operas of Händel and Hasse, but Idaspe displays musical characterization of a high order, bolstered by instrumental writing that discloses its composer’s careful study of his most accomplished contemporaries’ operas. Chatham Baroque’s playing silenced questions about the quality of Idaspe’s music by enabling the listener to perceive the care with which Broschi crafted the score.

Typifying the laudable consistency of Quantum Theatre’s casting of this production, countertenor Wei En Chan sang the part of Idaspe’s staunchly loyal lieutenant Ircano with vocal panache and youthful exuberance. Reliably vivid in recitatives, he voiced his aria in Act One, ‘Nel periglio dell’amico,’ engagingly, articulating fiorature cleanly and covering the full range of the music with minimal forcing at the extremities. His singing of the Largo aria ‘Trà l’affanno, e trà il periglio’ in Act Two communicated the character’s state of mind without dramatic excess, Chan allowing the music to speak directly to the listener. Making much of each of Ircano’s moments on stage, Chan lent the character distinctive musical and dramatic identities.

As the captain of the guard Arbace, depicted in this production as a sort of androgynous mafia enforcer with as much in common with the Aufseherin in Strauss’s Elektra as with similar characters in Baroque operas, mezzo-soprano Shannon Delijani sang strongly, the voice sounding most solid in the upper fifth of the part’s compass. Optimism resounded in her voicing of ‘Questo sia quel dì felice’ in Act One, descents below the stave managed with aplomb, but Delijani was most compelling in Arbace’s aria at the beginning of Act Two, ‘Sù gl’affetti del vassallo,’ the fiorature intuitively integrated into the line. Arbace’s conflict between the duty of his position and his innate sense of justice was evident in every note, word, and gesture of Delijani’s performance, the sincerity of her acting making the reversal of fortunes that begets the opera’s lieto fine surprisingly believable.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-sopranos ZOIE REAMS as Mandane (left) and VIVICA GENAUX as Dario (right) in Quantum Theatre's October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi's IDASPE [Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder & Quantum Theatre]Gli amanti provati: mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams as Mandane (left) and mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Dario (right) in Quantum Theatre’s October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi’s Idaspe
[Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder and Quantum Theatre]

Amongst Idaspe’s characters, Mandane—a princess of the house of Media who pines for Dario—was most maligned by the production. Neither her involvement in the drama nor her motivations were fully discernible. Nonetheless, mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams claimed for Mandane a place at the core of the drama, her opulent-toned, deeply-felt vocalism imparting the profundity of the princess’s passion for Dario. In Act One, Reams sang ‘Ch’io non sia felice un giorno?’ entrancingly, her sultry timbre illuminating textual subtleties. Her account of ‘Che bell’ardire’ in Act Three was similarly hypnotic, her phrasing again influenced as much by the meaning of the words as by musical cadences. The allure of the voice and the vigor of Reams’s utterance of recitative made the paucity of Mandane’s music especially regrettable, but her artistry prevailed by making every line of the part momentous.

The Persian king Artaxerxes I was a frequent visitor to operatic stages in the first half of the Eighteenth Century. The magnanimous change of heart in the opera’s final minutes notwithstanding, Broschi’s portrait of the Achaemenid monarch in Idaspe is decidedly unflattering, as is that in Artaserse, a 1734 London pasticcio to which Broschi contributed at least one aria. In Quantum Theatre’s production, tenor Karim Sulayman’s Artaserse was unquestionably a despot, but his tyranny was enacted with undeniable suavity and charisma. Throughout the evening, the fervor of his delivery of recitatives was complemented by the refinement of his singing of arias. ‘Pugnai per amore’ in Act One was declaimed with stinging intensity, the text enunciated with libidinous bravado.

Artaserse’s aria in Act Two, ‘Prestami i dardi, nume bendato,’ was approached with indefatigable confidence. the divisions boldly and accurately voiced. When Sulayman started to sing ‘Deh, ti piega’ in Act Three, an Artaserse capable of kindness and mercy was heard for the first time. Centered in the best part of his voice, the aria was phrased with delicacy and ornamented with great restraint, the trills crisp and the sotto voce at the top of the stave ideally projected. The touching beauty of Sulayman’s vocalism in this scene offered glimpses of the noble spirit that would later engender a metamorphosis from vengeance to reconciliation.

IN REVIEW: tenor KARIM SULAYMAN as Artaserse (left) and soprano PASCALE BEAUDIN as Berenice (right) in Quantum Theatre's October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi's IDASPE [Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder & Quantum Theatre]Il rè e la principessa: tenor Karim Sulayman as Artaserse (left) and soprano Pascale Beaudin as Berenice (right) in Quantum Theatre’s October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi’s Idaspe
[Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder and Quantum Theatre]

Händel composed some of the most iconic rôles in his London operas for soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, who won praise in the Eighteenth Century for the emotional immediacy of her portrayals. In his music for the princess Berenice in Idaspe, Broschi endeavored to exploit the qualities for which Cuzzoni was renowned, assigning her arias in slower tempi in which she could use the voice to enkindle pathos. In Quantum Theatre’s production, soprano Pascale Beaudin proved to be a superb Twenty-First-Century exponent of parts written for Cuzzoni, her performance of Berenice’s music reaching great heights of expressivity. The opening bars of ‘Un certo non sò’ in Act One disclosed the singer’s affinity for the rôle, the vocal line traversed with unaffected eloquence.

In Act Two, Beaudin sang ‘Vieni, o sonno, e le mie pene’ ravishingly, pronouncing each syllable of the text with purpose, and she joined with her Idaspe and Dario in an exhilarating voicing of their terzetto. The aria for Berenice in Act Three of this Idaspe, ‘Sì, traditor tu sei,’ was interpolated from Broschi’s La Merope, supplying Beaudin with a showcase for her gleaming navigation of triplets and exciting staccati. The music’s difficulties, confronted intrepidly, contributed to the indignant aloofness of her portrayal. If contemporary accounts can be trusted, Cuzzoni could not have rivaled Beaudin’s physical glamour, but Beaudin’s singing of Berenice’s music earned approbation similar to that inspired by Cuzzoni’s vocal virtues.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano VIVICA GENAUX as Dario in Quantum Theatre's October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi's IDASPE [Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder & Quantum Theatre]Guerriero di bravura: mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Dario in Quantum Theatre’s October 2022 production of Riccardo Broschi’s Idaspe
[Photograph by Jason Snyder, © by Jason Snyder and Quantum Theatre]

A sibling’s comprehensive knowledge of his brother’s vocal constitution yielded writing for the rôle of Artaserse’s brother Dario that surely tested even Farinelli’s technical prowess. Casting today’s singers in parts written for Farinelli is difficult, but Quantum Theatre triumphed by entrusting Dario to a singer whose performances of music composed for the great castrato—including two of Dario’s arias—are widely acclaimed, mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux. The spectacular bravura singing expected of Genaux was astounding, but her depiction of Dario did not rely upon coloratura to captivate the audience. With Italian diction better than that of some native speakers, she ignited recitatives with theatricality and limned the pensiveness of the Largo aria in Act One, ‘Tutto amore al caro bene.’ Genaux has perhaps sung the daunting aria ‘Qual guerriero in campo armato’ more often than any other active singer, but her familiarity with the music effected no contempt in this performance, in which the dizzying fiorature were dispatched with awing mastery.

The contrast between Dario’s heroic resolve and his inner uncertainty was particularly apparent in Genaux’s portrayal. The Largo aria in Act Two, ‘Ombra fedele anch’io,’ was touchingly sung, the triplet figurations evincing the palpitations of Dario’s suffering heart, and she, too, enunciated her lines in the terzetto at the act’s end with poignancy. Even without the da capo of ‘Pastorel che trova alfine’ in Act Three, Genaux conveyed the full spectrum of Dario’s emotions, ultimately taming Artaserse’s fury by humbly divulging the character’s true identity. Listeners who anticipated pulse-quickening singing of divisions from Genaux were not disappointed, but the greater success of her performance was her deployment of virtuosity as a dramatic device.

The castrato’s collaborations with Händel and Nicola Porpora in the first decades of the Eighteenth Century having garnered acclaim in Europe’s musical circles, it is possible that Broschi was nearly as cognizant of Nicolini’s vocal faculties as he was of Farinelli’s. As sung in Pittsburgh by countertenor John Holiday, Idaspe’s music matched Dario’s in theatrical effectiveness. The eponymous protagonist seemed remote in Act One until Holiday started to sing ‘All’ardir di questo brando,’ in which the disguised king’s pride and resilience coursed through the vocal line. The beauty of Holiday’s voice shone in Idaspe’s Largo aria in Act Two, ‘O bella mano sei come la seta,’ the mood of which impelled singing of beguiling lyricism, and in the dire exchanges with Berenice and Dario in the terzetto.

Facing execution in Act Three, Holiday’s Idaspe grew more determined as his tormentor, Artaserse, became desperate. The accompagnato ‘Artaserse, che pensi?’ was recited with Shakespearean gravity, Idaspe’s disdain for his captor’s oppression glinting in the singer’s voice. The indomitable hero denouncing Artaserse’s treachery, his singing of ‘Mostro crudel, che fai?’ was electrifying. In the opera’s penultimate and final scenes, Holiday’s vocalism, inviolably musical throughout the performance, burned with dramatic fire, his upper register gleaming. Like the opera itself, this Idaspe refused to accept oblivion, fighting unrelentingly to recover the status of which he was mercilessly deprived. Restored to his rightful rank and united with his true love, Idaspe’s joy radiated from Holiday’s singing.

Staging Baroque operas in the USA is a gamble—thankfully, one that more companies are willing to take. Even so, deviating from the small number of Händel works with which American operagoers are relatively acquainted is a still-greater risk. That Quantum Theatre’s Artistic Director Karla Boos selected not only a Baroque opera but one by a neglected composer as the company’s first foray into producing opera on a large scale is indicative of both artistic daring and trust in the adventurousness of the Pittsburgh community. Naysayers invariably argue that operas like Broschi’s Idaspe have been dormant for centuries because they are undeserving of revival. Quantum Theatre’s production affirmed that Idaspe was merely awaiting the gathering of a cast suited to its demands.

04 October 2022

RECORDING REVIEW: Ruggero Leoncavallo — ZINGARI (K. Stoyanova, A. Soghomonyan, S. Gaertner, Ł. Goliński; Opera Rara ORC61)

IN REVIEW: Ruggero Leoncavallo - ZINGARI (Opera Rara ORC61)RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919): ZingariKrassimira Stoyanova (Fleana), Arsen Soghomonyan (Radu), Stephen Gaertner (Tamar), Łukasz Goliński (Il vecchio); Opera Rara Chorus, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Carlo Rizzi, conductor [Recorded in Fairfield Concert Gall, Croydon, UK, 28 November – 1 December 2021; Opera Rara ORC61; 1 CD, 64:23; Available from Opera Rara, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Music (UK), and major music retailers and streaming services]

On stage and on records, opera’s history encompasses hosts of missed opportunities and fortuitous occurrences. Among particularly serendipitous instances of the latter phenomenon is the avid public reception for a 1911 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci prompting London’s Hippodrome Theatre to commission the composer to write a new opera for the venue. Two decades after the work’s première, the English capital remained enthralled by the dramatic intensity of Pagliacci—the quality, many contemporary critics argued, that Leoncavallo had not managed to replicate in his subsequent operas. Keen to create a new piece with theatrical impact that would rival that of Pagliacci, Leoncavallo chose as his source for the London opera’s plot Alexander Pushkin’s 1827 poem «Цыга́ны» (‘Gypsies’), a seminal work that—in the same year in which Pagliacci was first performed, incidentally—inspired the young Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Aleko («Алеко»).

Elements of Pushkin’s stark narrative of colliding cultures and amorous transience adapted for the stage by Enrico Cavacchioli and Guglielmo Emanuel, Leoncavallo’s opera for the Hippodrome became Zingari, a seventy-minute work in two episodes that could be easily mounted alongside the sorts of popular entertainment for which the theatre was renowned in middle-class society during the reign of George V. Zingari having been conceived with the goal of giving Londoners a suitably similar successor to the composer’s best-known opera, reminiscences of Pagliacci are expected, but Leoncavallo brought to the composition of Zingari an array of musical and dramatic influences.

Parallels of Verdi’s charged juxtapositions of private distress and public celebration in Don Carlos and La forza del destino and the exoticism of Aida abound in Zingari, and there are passages in which shadows of Boito’s Mefistofele, Ponchielli’s La gioconda, and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly lurk in Zingari’s Romani camp. Enriched by instruments more often heard in the operas of Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold than in Italian verismo, Leoncavallo’s orchestral writing in Zingari demonstrates mastery of instrumental timbres and combinations that unexpectedly distinguish the composer, too often dismissed as a purveyor of banality, as a peer of Ravel and Respighi.

The vocal demands of Zingari’s four rôles—the free-spirited Roma youth Fleana; her father, il vecchio (the Old Man); the Roma poet, Tamar; and the aristocratic Radu—have much in common with those of Pagliacci’s principal players. Utilizing Martin Fitzpatrick’s reconstruction of the score’s original form, the revitalization necessitated by portions of the opera that may have been revised or removed before the opera’s first performance on 16 September 1912, falling victim to the Second World War’s destruction, Opera Rara’s exhilarating recording of Zingari, recorded in conjunction with an acclaimed concert performance, includes music missing from the score that was published by Sonzogno in 1912. In years past, José Carreras, Roberto Alagna, and Angela Gheorghiu recorded music from Zingari, but widely-known singers whose espousal might have improved the opera’s fortune overlooked it, the music’s difficulties even in truncated form exiling Zingari to the realm of missed opportunities. How differently its trajectory in the century since its creation might have been had Zingari benefited from the attention of singers like Maria Callas, Franco Corelli, and Tito Gobbi.

From the first bars of the opera’s spirited Overture to the harrowing final scene, in which the heroine and her Roma lover perish in a fire set by her husband, conductor Carlo Rizzi paces a performance that neither inflates Zingari’s melodrama nor makes apologies for it. As in his conducting of Verdi repertoire, Rizzi fuses elegance with energy, the prudence of his tempi accentuating the ingenuity of Leoncavallo’s escalations of musical tension. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra musicians and Opera Rara Chorus singers respond to Rizzi’s leadership with irreproachable musicality, the choristers’ singing compellingly conveying the Roma community’s insularity and vitality. The verismo orchestra augmented by celesta and harmonium, Zingari’s unique aural profile is nurtured by Rizzi’s intuitive handling of rhythmic transitions. Subtleties of Leoncavallo’s part writing are reliably audible, but Rizzi’s conducting, redolent of the tradition of Vittorio Gui and Victor de Sabata, engenders a true performance of Zingari in which soloists, chorus, and orchestra transport the listener from a Briish recording studio to the bank of the Danube.

Bringing an uncommonly youthful voice to a stereotypical operatic patriarch, Polish bass-baritone Łukasz Goliński sings Leoncavallo’s music for Il vecchio, Fleana’s father and the Roma camp’s de facto leader, with assurance and rousing authority. In Episode One, he sings ‘Doman risplenderà nel sole ancor!’ and ‘E sia! Rimani all’ombra della tenda’ commandingly, first confronting Fleana and her unknown lover with alarm and then welcoming Radu into the Roma society with paternal warmth. Less involved in the latter half of the opera, Il vecchio witnesses the horrific death of his daughter but enigmatically decrees that her killer, the spurned Radu, be allowed to escape, his action having been prompted by madness. Goliński imparts the father’s terror and helplessness as the flames engulf Fleana and Tamar, but an eery calmness permeates his absolution of Radu, suggesting that he assumes culpability for Fleana’s demise owing to his acceptance of an outsider into the Roma order. Goliński’s firm, focused vocalism lends each of Il vecchio’s utterances dramatic impact, characterizing him as a severe but thoughtful figure.

Wonderfully vivid of voice and personality as Cascart in Opera Rara’s 2015 recording of Zazà [reviewed here], baritone Stephen Gaertner ignites this Zingari with his charismatic portrayal of the Roma poet Tamar. The pragmatic bard confiding to Il vecchio in Episode One that Fleana has been observed lurking about the camp by night in the company of a stranger, Gaertner voices ‘C’è uno straniero che s’aggira a notte’ mysteriously, passion for Fleana already saturating his tones. The composer’s Lamento angoscioso sostenuto instruction is meticulously heeded in ‘Ah! taci! non lo diri,’ in which the baritone’s repeated top E♭s evoke the desperation of Tamar’s desire. Intruding on Fleana and Radu, Gaertner hurls Tamar’s Fs and G♭ at the lovers with extraordinary force and vocal confidence. The delicate ‘Ah! Canto notturno nel firmamento,’ heard from afar as Fleana and Radu celebrate their union, is bewitchingly sung, the song’s disquieting effect on Fleana wholly credible.

Guiding his Roma brethren to safety at the beginning of Episode Two, Tamar is no longer the idealist scorned by Fleana earlier in the opera. Proving himself to be a man of decisive action, he has kindled Fleana’s love, and Gaertner sings Tamar’s lines in their scene with bracing bravado. The fateful reprise of ‘Canto notturo nel firmamento’ is sung as mesmerizingly as its first incarnation, and ‘Bella! Bella! Sei qui tutta fremente!’ bristles with infatuation. Throughout the duet with Fleana, Gaertner’s vocalism smolders with sensuality, his singing of ‘Sono il rogo che s’accende’ suffused with longing. To Leoncavallo’s credit, the conflagration ignited by Radu consumes Fleana and Tamar without overwrought operatic histrionics, but the doomed pair’s terror is palpable in this performance. The dramatic immediacy of Gaertner’s unflappably secure, bronzed singing is consistently galvanizing, but the opera’s verismo intensity never goads him into shouting and snarling.

Musically, Radu is Zingari’s most conventional character, the romantic fervor of his vocal lines differentiating him from the Roma community. Singing the rôle with strength and sensitivity, tenor Arsen Soghomonyan gives the volatile man a noble bearing that heightens the shock of his ultimate act of vengeance. In the first part of the opera, Soghomonyan voices ‘Principe! Radu io son’ proudly, the top As ringing brightly, and the exultant top B in the duet with Fleana, its eroticism blossoming in his artfully-phrased ‘Eccolo finalmente il sogno,’ communicates the depth of Radu’s zeal. The totality of his surrender to Roma life permeates ‘Tutta la vita mia ti donerò,’ but sinister aspects of Radu’s devotion manifest in the latter part of the opera.

The despair of Soghomonyan’s voicing of ‘M’attendevi? Fleana, io t’ho pensato nella mia strada’ is tinged with mania, and his singing in the final row with Fleana discloses deteriorating emotional stability. Soghomonyan delivers ‘Perduto! Tutto! Ho perduto la pace vagabonda’ powerfully, Radu’s anguish bursting from the vocal line. The tessitura of Radu’s music is punishing, but Soghomonyan’s voice copes heroically, lacking Italianate squillo but steady and supported from the bottom of the compass to top C. The tenor’s depiction of Radu’s spiral into madness and murderous rage is all the more believable for being fashioned without lachrymose excess, his trust in the music’s capacity for storytelling yielding a performance of riveting sincerity.

Soprano Krassimira Stoyanova is one of the Twenty-First Century’s most versatile singers, and Leoncavallo’s writing for Fleana in Zingari makes use of virtually the full spectrum of her technical abilities. Stoyanova ideally partners her Radu, her voice also possessing little true morbidezza but deployed with absolute fidelity to the score. Coming from the periphery of the Roma encampment with Radu in Episode One, this Fleana voices ‘Discioglietelo prima dalle corde’ hypnotically, limning her fascination with the bold stranger, and Stoyanova projects ‘Tutte le rame scattano e si piegano!’ radiantly, the top As and B in the duet with Radu evincing a sense of elation. Darker accents color the timbre when her Fleana contemptuously dismisses Tamar, her account of ‘Addormentarmi, accarezzarmi nella pietà’ throbbing with disgust. The Roma song with which Fleana entertains her people is the least-persuasive portion of Stoyanova’s performance, the vocal filigree articulated cleanly but laboriously. She returns to form in the duet with Radu, the text and the vocal line enunciated with expressivity.

When her voice is first heard after the Intermezzo, Stoyanova’s Fleana has unmistakably undergone a crucial transformation, the softness of the amorous exchanges with Radu in the first episode replaced by a glinting vein of vocal steel that conveys exasperation and irrepressible impetuosity. In the scene with Tamar, the disdain of Episode One gives way to fascination, his rugged mysticism enthralling her. Disenfranchisement animates Stoyanova’s singing in the scene with Radu, the top Bs in her defiant ‘Tagliami! Abbraciami!’ striking at the hapless man like daggers. Fleana embracing her yearning for Tamar, ‘Incantesimo dell’ora che ci fa rabbrividir!’ in their final duet is voiced with abandon. Stylistically, her part in Zingari could hardly be more different from her previous undertaking for Opera Rara, the title rôle in Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan, but there are undeniable temperamental kinships between Stoyanova’s Maria and Fleana. Surrounded in both instances by worthy colleagues, she embodies Opera Rara’s core mission, performing unjustly-neglected music with advocacy bolstered by musical and scholarly integrity. With this performance, Leoncavallo’s Zingari reclaims the appeal that it wielded 110 years ago.