29 March 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Christoph Willibald Gluck — ORFEO ED EURIDICE (M. Moore, S. Stewart, M. Quinn; The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, 25 March 2023)

IN REVIEW: The Carolina Theatre of Durham, venue for The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle's performance of Christoph Willibald Gluck's ORFEO ED EURIDICE, 25 March 2023 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome / Voix des Arts]CHRISTOPH WILLIBALD VON GLUCK (1714 – 1787): Orfeo ed Euridice [1762 Vienna version]Megan Moore (Orfeo), Susannah Stewart (Euridice), Molly Quinn (Amore); Carolina Choir, The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle; Lorenzo Muti, conductor [Niccoló Muti, Stage Director; Lauren Carmen, Costume Designer; The Carolina Theatre, Durham, North Carolina, USA; Saturday, 25 March 2023]

Opera is a celebration of excesses, one of which is a tendency among the art form’s most fervent admirers to assess works, performers, and performances with absolutes, proclaiming superlatives when discussing virtues and vices would be more productive. Justified though recognition of his genius emphatically is, citing Mozart as the defining musical innovator of the second half of the Eighteenth Century both belittles the work of other noteworthy composers and denies Mozart’s achievements the context required in order to properly appreciate them. In evaluations of the evolution of opera between Händel’s final contributions to the genre and the sublime scores of Mozart’s maturity, several of Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s operas are rightly esteemed as catalysts in the transition from Baroque to Classicism and early Romanticism. To suggest that Gluck’s ‘reform operas’ are without contemporary peers as groundbreaking works is an affront to Gluck and composers like Tommaso Traetta and Antonio Sacchini, but, even to Twenty-First-Century ears acquainted with operatic styles and innovations spanning six centuries, the operas that inspired Gluck’s reputation as a trailblazer still inhabit unique soundworlds more than two centuries after their composer’s death, shaped by music in which the tragédies en musique of Lully, Charpentier, and Rameau collide with the Romantic operas of Beethoven, Weber, and Berlioz.

Despite the persisting temptation to exaggerate the event’s significance at the expense of undervaluing the importance of similar works including Carl Heinrich Graun’s 1752 Orfeo and Ferdinando Bertoni’s 1776 setting of the same libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi utilized by Gluck, the première of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at Vienna’s Burgtheater on 5 October 1762, was unquestionably a momentous occasion, the Habsburg dynasty having bern represented on that first night by as illustrious an opera lover as the Empress herself, Maria Theresa. Casting renowned castrato Gaetano Guadagni, whose notoriety in London in the 1740s and ’50s encompassed both work with Händel and salacious libidinous escapades, as Orfeo, Gluck retained a vital component of the Baroque tradition, perhaps making his efforts at returning opera seria to the kinship with Greek drama envisioned by early exponents of the genre more palatable to the Viennese audience. Gluck’s later revisions to the score, the most drastic being the 1774 version for Paris in which the hero’s music was reassigned from alto castrato to high tenor, reflect both that his quest to liberate opera from Baroque excesses metamorphosed as it progressed and that even a committed reformer bowed to the necessity of conforming to prevailing tastes, at least in part.

From Jacopo Peri’s and Giulio Caccini’s Euridice (1600) [in addition to collaborating with Peri, Caccini penned his own Euridice, first performed in 1602] and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (1607) to Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice, staged to considerable acclaim in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2021 – 2022 Season, Orphic subjects have been popular with composers and audiences, mythology’s tale of a musician using his lyre to open paths that were previously closed to him transformed into an ode to music’s capacities to heal individuals and communities. [Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice returns to the Metropolitan Opera in the 2023 – 2024 Season, with Durham-born countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Orfeo.] In both subject and the score’s musical dimensions, the 1762 version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was an ideal work for The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle’s inaugural foray into performing opera. Staging the performance in Durham’s historic Carolina Theatre was largely successful but also fitfully exasperating. The theatre’s warm, natural acoustic was fortuitous, especially with the orchestra on stage and the principals either on the floor or directly in front of the instrumentalists, but the building’s multi-purpose functionality presented challenges, the most disheartening of which was the first half-hour of the performance being marred by persistent lobby noise. Moreover, whilst concessions sales are undoubtedly an important source of revenue and are appropriate for the attached cinema, the constant crunching of patrons enjoying popcorn was distracting and an unfortunate disservice to the performers. These caveats notwithstanding, the performance was an impressive first effort that inspired the hope that opera will be included in future COT seasons.

COT’s performance of Orfeo ed Euridice was a near-miraculous celebration of all that can be achieved by teams of musicians dedicating the best of their artistry to a common goal. Brought to the stage in only five days, without benefit of an in-depth Sitzprobe and extensive technical rehearsals, the performance was directed with imaginative use of space and the auditorium’s architecture, the latter employed by COT’s Executive Director and Principal Conductor Niccoló Muti to position a contingent of the chorus in the tier of boxes near the stage. Lauren Carmen’s simple but evocative costume designs would likely have been more effective had the lighting been brighter, but the flowing lines and contrasting colors and textures lent modernity and Classical poise to Muti’s storytelling. Reconfiguring Gluck’s three acts into two, the production made Orfeo’s descent into Hades a tempestuous voyage. Muti’s direction imposed nothing upon the drama that was not supported by score and libretto, fashioning a staging that exuded sincerity that is sometimes not found in more intricate productions.

COT’s Artistic Director Lorenzo Muti conducted Gluck’s score with discernible understanding of the style, avoiding the mistakes of approaching Orfeo ed Euridice as though it were late Händel or early Mozart. Aptly, the style of Mondonville was recalled far more frequently than that of Mozart in Muti’s pacing, which relied upon moderate tempi and unexaggerated cadences. COT’s musicians played Gluck’s music superbly, their intonation laudably accurate throughout the performance. Their aural balance benefited the strings more than the winds, the flutes intermittently practically inaudible, but the ensemble’s sound bloomed in the auditorium. The absence of harpsichord continuo was regrettable in passages of recitative, the lack of linking music among the plodding chords causing the extended scene for Orfeo and Euridice at the beginning of Act Three to seem interminable. Nonetheless, Muti ensured that the performance’s pace maintained momentum but afforded passages of repose like Orfeo’s exquisite ‘Che puro ciel’ time in which to reveal their allures. The opera’s vivid Sinfonia and the familiar Dance of the Blessed Spirits, played as a de facto entr’acte, were beautifully done, and the music for the furies brayed with infernal intensity. Interpretive subtleties are born of long acquaintance, but weeks of rehearsals could not have yielded a more musical account of Orfeo ed Euridice than Muti and the COT accomplished in this performance.

Comprised of students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Carolina Choir sang Gluck’s music for chorus with impeccable musicality, professionalism, and preparedness. Whether depicting Thracian peasants mourning Euridice’s death, menacing Furies, or disembodied souls, their sounds demonstrated the excellence of Susan Klebanow’s training. ‘Ah! se intorno a quest’urna funesta’ in Act One movingly imparted the despair felt by Euridice’s companions, and the choral responses to Orfeo’s outpourings of grief were voiced with feeling and finesse. Compelling throughout the opera, Gluck’s writing for the chorus is uniquely powerful in Act Two, and Carolina Choir’s elocution elucidated every syllable and sentiment of the progression of choruses from ‘Chi mai dell’Erebo’ to ‘Vieni a’ regni del riposo.’ Their singing of ‘Torna, o bella, al tuo consorte’ was enthralling, and the choir’s work in Act Three was as dramatically impactful as it was musically entrancing. The sopranos and contraltos outnumbering their lower-voiced counterparts in the choir’s ranks occasionally caused the ensemble to be slightly top-heavy, but the tenors met the challenges of their music in Act Three intrepidly.

Amore, the opera’s deus ex machina and this performance’s beacon in the darkness, was depicted not as the male Cupid of mythology but as an unmistakably feminine figure, animated with delightful brio by soprano Molly Quinn. In her first appearance in Act One, this was an Amore whose cheeky vivacity was little affected by Euridice’s tragic demise and Orfeo’s mourning. Her opening pronouncements to the despondent Orfeo were comforting and cheering, and Quinn sang the aria ‘Gli sguardi trattieni’ effervescently, her timbre and vibrato reminiscent of Toti dal Monte. She returned in Act Three to reward Orfeo’s persistence by reuniting him with the errant Euridice, voicing each line of recitative with clarity of diction and purpose. Quinn sang Amore’s part in the final trio with boundless joy and a sly suggestion of self-satisfaction, the voice shimmering in the musical glow of the opera’s lieto fine.

Surviving the unenviable task of motionlessly portraying Euridice’s corpse in Act One, soprano Susannah Stewart subsequently emerged unscathed as a disenchanted denizen of the underworld. Finally heard in Act Three, Stewart articulated Euridice’s discourse with Orfeo insightfully, the character’s growing confusion, frustration, and fear credibly evinced. Her performance of the impassioned aria ‘Che fiero momento’ was one of the evening’s musical pinnacles, the soprano’s technique and temperament viscerally communicating the piece’s volatile emotions. Affection permeated Stewart’s phrasing of ‘Grande, o Numi è il dono vostro!’ in the duet with Orfeo, the tone gleaming, and each word in the final trio was sung with palpable exultation.

There are pages in Orfeo ed Euridice in which the opera is virtually a solo cantata for Orfeo. To an even greater extent than in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the protagonist’s sorrow and determination to defy fate are participants in the drama as consequential as Orfeo and Euridice themselves. Depicting Orfeo not as an archetypal artist battling adversity but as a deeply sensitive youth devastated by the loss of his beloved, mezzo-soprano Megan Moore sang Gluck’s music with stylistic authority and tonal beauty. The recitatives at the beginning of Act One were uttered with emotional specificity, ‘Amici, qual lamento aggrava il mio dolor’ dejected and ‘Lasciatemi!’ anguished. The sequence of brief arias—’Chiamo il mio ben così,’ ‘Cerco il mio ben così,’ and ‘Piango il mio ben così’—persuasively manifested the stages of Orfeo’s grieving and anger, only one false entry betraying the performance’s hurried preparation. ‘Deh! placatevi con me’ with chorus and the arias ‘Mille pene, ombre moleste’and ‘Men tiranne, ah! voi sareste’ in Act Two further projected Orfeo’s resilience and reliance upon music as a source of solace.

Moore’s dulcet singing of the arioso ‘Che puro ciel! che chiaro sol!’ limned the sense of wonder that gripped Orfeo, visually stimulated in this performance by whimsical, Julie Taymor-esque puppetry. In Act Three, the recitative ‘Vieni, segui i miei passi’ benefited from the unaffected directness of Moore’s delivery, a quality that also permeated the singer’s voicing of Orfeo’s charged words in the duet with Euridice. The famed aria ‘Che farò senza Euridice?’ was sung with beguiling simplicity, Moore preferring purity of line to ornamentation. Hesitant to trust in the permanence of Amore’s intervention, this Orfeo at last experienced—and expressed—happiness in the final trio. Like her colleagues in this performance, Moore brought an aura of catharsis to the opera’s final scene, Orfeo’s devotion to the power of music rewarded. The Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle’s faith in the viability of opera was rewarded, too, this performance of Orfeo ed Euridice affirming that the success of a performance is measured by its soul, not its scale.

22 March 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — DON PASQUALE (B. Smoak, M. Redding, C. Carrico, K. Alston, J. Ray; Piedmont Opera, 19 March 2023)

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone BRAD SMOAK in the title rôle of Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Don PasqualeBrad Smoak (Don Pasquale), Michael Redding (Dottore Malatesta), Cree Carrico (Norina), Kameron Alston (Ernesto), Jackson Ray (Carlino); Piedmont Opera Chorus, Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra, John McKeever, conductor [James Allbritten, Stage Director; John Pascoe, Scenic Designer; Norman Coates, Lighting Designer; Ann M. Bruskiewitz, Costume Designer; Destinee Steele, Wig and Makeup Designer; Elizabeth Fowle, Choreographer Piedmont Opera, Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 19 March 2023]

The composer’s surviving correspondence intimates that the final decade of Gaetano Donizetti’s life were troubled by artistic frustration, progressing illness, and mental decline. Censorial impediments to staging new works in the forms in which they were conceived and other bureaucratic interference having soured his long-standing partnership with Naples’s Teatro di San Carlo, the house that witnessed the first performances of Lucia di Lammermoor, Roberto Devereux, and a number of his less-remembered operas, Donizetti turned his attention to Paris. Following the examples of both Rossini and Bellini, who created new works for the French capital, Donizetti sought to replicate the successful Paris première of his opera Parisina d’Este at the Théâtre-Italien by devising a wholly-new piece for the company. Working with librettist Giovanni Ruffini, he adapted Angelo Anelli’s text for Stefano Pavesi’s 1810 opera Ser Marcantonio into a delectable comedic confection that abounds with the finest ingredients of his artistry.

Contemporary accounts of the world première of Don Pasquale at the Théâtre-Italien on 3 January 1843, document the Parisian public’s immediate recognition of the extraordinary quality of Donizetti’s score. The opera’s farcical story of a pompous man of a certain age disinheriting his lovelorn nephew in order to take a young wife for himself stoked the composer’s imagination, yielding music that, despite its Rossinian elements, simmers with originality. Previous Piedmont Opera productions of L’elisir d’amore and Maria Stuarda masterfully realized the theatrical potency of both comic and serious Donizetti, meticulous handling of the scores’ musical demands engendering performances in which the aspects of his craft that differentiated Donizetti from Rossini, Bellini, the young Verdi, and other contemporaries were uncommonly discernible. Sharing its predecessors’ emphasis on maintaining high musical standards, the company’s Don Pasquale recaptured the wit and bel canto grace that captivated Parisians 180 years ago, making both the opera’s long-loved comedy and Donizetti’s oft-performed score seem wholly new.

Trading the podium for the director’s chair for this production, Piedmont Opera Artistic Director James Allbritten achieved in his staging of Don Pasquale the irreproachable musicality that distinguishes his work in the orchestra pit. Allied with Elizabeth Fowle’s suave choreography, delightfully executed by the singers, Allbritten’s direction avoided the pitfalls of comic opera, eschewing manic slapstick and physical comedy that distracts singers and audiences from the music in favor of stage action that was genuinely funny but also conducive to proper singing.

Recalling the recreations of Edwardian England in Merchant-Ivory films, Ann M. Bruskiewitz’s costume designs and Destinee Steele’s wigs and makeup complemented the aesthetics of Allbritten’s concept, enhancing the visual comedy without hindering movement or vocal production. With bel canto credentials encompassing many noteworthy productions, among the most significant of which is the 1989 Detroit Norma in which Dame Joan Sutherland sang her final performances of Bellini’s titular druidess, scenic designer John Pascoe devised a physical setting for Don Pasquale that manifested the eponymous curmudgeon’s past-his-prime pomposity. Artfully illuminated by lighting designer Norman Coates, Piedmont Opera’s staging provided vibrant tableaux in which the kaleidoscopic colors of Donizetti’s music danced alongside the cast.

IN REVIEW: tenor JACKSON RAY as Carlino in Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]Un notaio in famiglia: tenor Jackson Ray as Carlino in Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Returning to the company he ably served as Assistant Conductor for several seasons, John McKeever led this performance of Don Pasquale idiomatically, shaping scenes with confident handling of tempi and dynamics. Ensembles crackled with propulsive energy under McKeever’s baton, the comedy moving at a rapid pace without leaving any of the principals gasping for breath, and the score’s lyrical passages were allowed ample time in which to cast their spells. The Winston-Salem Symphony musicians responded to the conductor’s effervescent leadership with a rollicking performance of the opera’s spirited Sinfonia and fine playing throughout the afternoon.

Ken Wilmot’s splendid realization of the hauntingly beautiful trumpet obbligato in Ernesto’s scene in Act Two was undermined by only a very brief intonational falter, and the unerring rhythmic precision of percussionist Isaac Pyatt’s work excitingly reinforced the momentum of McKeever’s pacing. Piedmont Opera’s choristers sang rousingly, their performance of the servants’ chorus—an episode that is sometimes more to be endured than enjoyed—exhilarating and amusing. Only the opera’s final scene, shortened by cutting the repeat of Norina’s rondò and the characters’ reactions to the end of their game in the finale’s stretta, lacked continuity, the resolution of the comical entanglements feeling forced rather than organic. Nevertheless, the integrity of McKeever’s reading of the score was inviolable.

Appearing only in the final scene of Act Two, in which he plays the part of the notary engaged to prepare the marriage contract for Pasquale and the feigned Sofronia, Dottor Malatesta’s cousin Carlino was portrayed with faultless intonation, well-honed comedic timing, and an expert ‘et cetera’ by tenor Jackson Ray. Carlino’s few words were sung with brio, giving the momentary participant in the nuptial charade a distinct personality.

IN REVIEW: tenor KAMERON ALSTON as Ernesto in Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]Ecco il nipote: tenor Kameron Alston as Ernesto in Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

In the rôle of Pasquale’s nephew Ernesto, whose love for the beguiling widow Norina is thwarted by his uncle’s grumbling disapproval, tenor Kameron Alston sang with theatrical conviction, convincing as both an ardent lover and a player in Malatesta’s stratagem to open Pasquale’s eyes to his own absurdity. Musically, the pliancy of his vocalism and his satin-textured timbre were reminiscent of the Ernesto of Cesare Valletti. His voicing of ‘Ci volea questa mania’ in the Act One duetto with Pasquale persuasively imparted the young man’s vexation at the ridiculousness of his uncle’s actions and arguments.

In the scene at the start of Act Two, Alston declaimed ‘Povero Ernesto!’ with heartfelt sincerity and lustrous tone, the young man’s despair touchingly conveyed. [The audience’s laughter reaffirmed that projected translations are sometimes the enemy of the intended sentiments of music and text.] The larghetto aria ‘Cercherò lontana terra’ was deftly sung, the tenor’s phrasing eloquently sculpting the line and effortlessly conquering the daunting tessitura, and his performance of the cabaletta, ‘E se fia che ad altro oggetto,’ ended with a courageous interpolated top D♭, was electrifying.

Each of Ernesto’s lines in the quartetto was enunciated with clarity and directness, and his singing in the brief scene with Malatesta in Act Three, in which Ernesto was apprised of his part in the final ruse, was unaffectedly ebullient. Quickly righting an early entry, Alston voiced the tuneful serenata ‘Com’è gentil a notte a mezzo april’ mesmerizingly and joined with Norina in a rapturous performance of the notturno, ‘Tornami a dir che m’ami.’ Ernesto finally obtaining Pasquale’s blessing of his relationship with Norina, the ecstatic lover’s joy emanated from Alston’s charismatic singing and acting.

IN REVIEW: soprano CREE CARRICO as Norina in Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]La suora laica: soprano Cree Carrico as Norina in Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Piedmont Opera equaled an exceptionally strong ensemble of male principals by casting scene-stealing soprano Cree Carrico as Norina, the clever widow who masquerades as the fresh-from-the-convent ingenue Sofronia in order to dupe Don Pasquale. From the start of her cavatina in Act One, ‘So anch’io la virtù magica,’ this Norina was a dynamo, each of her words articulated with dramatic intention that required no translations her trill and top C deployed with technical acumen and bewitching insouciance. The cabaletta ‘Ho testa bizzarra’ was charmingly sung, bringing the playful lady’s character into focus before she sparred dazzlingly with Malatesta in their duetto.

Largely avoiding soubrettish shrillness, Carrico was a Norina who weaponized her upper register, especially in Acts Two and Three: notes above the stave were fired like rockets, never missing their targets. Her utterance of ‘Come? Un uomo! Oh, me meschina’ in the terzetto with Malatesta and Pasquale was marvelously coy, and each phrase in the quartetto was delivered with panache. The voice scintillated in ‘A star cheto e non far scene’ in the Act Three duetto with Pasquale, and Carrico elucidated the wave of regret and empathy that swept over Norina after she slapped Pasquale. Her vocalism in the notturno with Ernesto was arrestingly lovely, and ‘La morale in tutto questo,’ the opera’s rondò finale, was sung with valedictory brilliance. Carrico’s Sofronia was aptly shrewish, but her Norina’s sunny nature always shone in voice and gesture.

IN REVIEW: baritone MICHAEL REDDING as Dottor Malatesta in Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]Il medico scaltro: baritone Michael Redding as Dottor Malatesta in Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Michael Redding’s vivacious portrayal of the cunning Dottor Malatesta splendidly validated the baritone’s popularity with Piedmont Opera audiences. In the Dottor’s opening scene with Pasquale in Act One, Redding sang boldly, communicating Malatesta’s pleasure in his own shrewdness, and his ardent performance of the larghetto cantabile paean to Sofronia’s virtues, ‘Bella sicome un angelo,’ convinced Pasquale and the audience of the girl’s exquisite qualities. Briefing Norina on her rôle in his plan to deflate Pasquale’s ego, this Malatesta relished every word, machinating with irrepressible glee. Putting his plan into action in Act Two, Redding voiced ‘Fresca uscita di convento’ in the terzetto with Norina and Pasquale with perfect comedic suggestiveness, and his galvanizing singing of ‘Non oseris, son certo’ and Malatesta’s part in the quartetto exuded conspiratorial exuberance.

After apprising Ernesto of the final phase of Pasquale’s disgracing in their scene in Act Three, Redding’s Malatesta united with Pasquale in an uproarious traversal of their celebrated duetto, the baritone voicing ‘Noi due soli andiam sul loco’ forcefully and adroitly dispatching the daunting patter, meriting the traditional encore of the piece’s unison conclusion. In the final scene, too, Malatesta’s lines were sung with unmistakable and infectious joy. A couple of Redding’s highest notes sounded raspy (it was a windy afternoon in the hyper-pollenated South, after all), but the voice was as striking as the characterization, making his Malatesta an endearing prankster and an obvious ancestor of Ford in Verdi’s Falstaff.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone BRAD SMOAK in the title rôle of Piedmont Opera's March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE [Photograph © Piedmont Opera]Lo scapolo idoneo: bass-baritone Brad Smoak in the title rôle of Piedmont Opera’s March 2023 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

The scornful snobbery towards ‘regional companies’ by some opera aficionados was incontrovertibly defied by Piedmont Opera’s engagement of a Don Pasquale who possessed every quality demanded by the part, from a two-octave range without weakness to a bonafide trill. Luigi Lablache, the bass who created the title rôle, marked his forty-eighth birthday a month before the first performance of Don Pasquale—more dotardly by Nineteenth-Century standards than by today’s but hardly a musical Methuselah. Bass-baritone Brad Smoak was wholly credible as a man of advancing years, but hearing a voice on peak form in Pasquale’s music was incredibly gratifying. From his first appearance in Act One, Smoak’s Pasquale was unquestionably a crotchety codger but also proved to be one who sang ‘Son nov’ore’ and ‘Non, c’è ma, correte’ with absolute security and unflagging imagination. The duetto with Ernesto asked nothing of Smoak that he could not supply in spades, his voicing of ‘Scherzo un corno’ earning the audience’s mirth.

Smoak sang ‘Quando avrete introdotto’ in the Act Two terzetto with Norina and Malatesta incisively, Pasquale’s disbelief at the good fortune of finding a wife as attractive and accommodating as Sofronia zealously evinced. His singing in the quartetto was no less diverting, each word sounded with intelligence. ‘Per poco che la duri in questo modo’ at the beginning of Act Three was delivered with exasperation, and ‘È finita, Don Pasquale, hai bel romperti la testa!’ in the duetto with Norina was at once droll and affecting. In the famous duetto with Malatesta, ‘Cheti, cheti, immantinente,’ Smoak’s vocalism dazzled, the patter sung with bravado and unflappable accuracy. Palpably relieved to be parted from Sofronia, this Pasquale accepted defeat graciously. The character may have undergone a well-deserved humbling, but Smoak’s performance awed. Even a lackluster production of Don Pasquale with a protagonist like Smoak’s too-debonair-to-be-decrepit Don at its core would have moments of success, but there was no moment in Piedmont Opera’s Don Pasquale that failed to enchant.

16 March 2023

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: raising my Voix des Arts — an origin story

A room with a view: the set of Sir Jonathan Miller's production of Igor Stravinsky's THE RAKE'S PROGRESS, reviewed at The Metropolitan Opera in June 2022 [Photograph by the author; stage décor © by The Metropolitan Opera]A room with a view: the set of Sir Jonathan Miller’s production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, reviewed at The Metropolitan Opera in June 2022
[Photograph by the author; stage décor © by The Metropolitan Opera]

In Autumn 2007, New York’s Lincoln Center hosted a much-lauded Les Arts Florissants touring production of Stefano Landi’s pioneering opera Il sant’Alessio. Featuring an ensemble of acclaimed countertenors including Philippe Jaroussky, Max Emanuel Cenčić, Xavier Sabata, and José Lemos, the production offered an extraordinary opportunity to hear a neglected work, performed by singers who were then rarely heard in North America.

I had the good fortune to attend the performance of Il sant’Alessio in Frederick P. Rose Hall on 29 October 2007. In the days thereafter, as I perused reviews of the production, I grew increasingly frustrated by what I read. Despite the existence of a studio recording by the same forces by whom Il sant’Alessio was performed in New York—Les Arts Florissants and William Christie—and the wide circulation of a Salzburger Festspiele broadcast with as noteworthy a singer as Edita Gruberová among the cast, a lack of familiarity with Landi’s music was expected, but the prevailing indifference to details of historically-informed performance practices evident in many critical assessments was maddening. His career has been primarily centered in Europe, but Christie is American, after all. Could his countrymen not spare the time required to assess his work with depth? Did so thoroughly prepared a production merit only generalities?

Contemplating these questions, I recalled the advice of an esteemed professor, academic advisor, and mentor, Dr. Charles Tisdale. ‘Joey,’ he once told me, ‘when you do not find scholarship of the quality that you expect, it is your responsibility to provide it.’ Dr. Tisdale was speaking of literary analysis of thematic links among Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, which would become the subject of my thesis, but the logic seemed no less applicable to music criticism. If my own musical training and sensibilities impelled the belief that performers deserve more informed analysis than they often receive in the mainstream press and from writers with wide followings but limited musical credentials, is it not my duty to add my voice to the critiquing chorus?

From this experience Voix des Arts was born. At the inception of my journey in writing criticism, I established as my foremost goal maintaining inviolable respect for artists and their endeavors. Artists make sacrifices of which audiences never know, often missing family occasions and milestones. Even in their weakest moments on stage, artists give of themselves in ways that those who have never performed before the public can only partially understand but which must always be valued and extolled.

As a writer, I perceive my most profound responsibility to be serving as an unwavering advocate for composers and librettists. Expressing whether I like or dislike a staging, a tempo, or a timbre is secondary to explicating performances’ fidelity to scores. Productions’ sights and sounds are subjective: tableaux and voices that enchant my eyes and ears repulses other observers. The principal questions that my reviews should answer therefore concern not the aesthetics of a performance, vital as they are, but the caliber of execution of music and words.

In my view, praising the positive aspects of a performance rather than reveling in condemning its deficiencies is not bias, as has sometimes been alleged, but celebration of music’s capacity to transcend adversity. Negativity pervades modern society but should not be welcomed in the Arts as a conduit for fleeting notoriety. There are absolutes, of course: a singer either emits the composer’s specified pitches or substitutes other tones, either by design or by mistake. This is relevant. All the same, singers are feeling, evolving beings. Perfection is an imperfect goal for even the most gifted singers. My goal is to evaluate the intentions behind the blemishes, encouraging artistic initiative whilst honestly documenting missteps.

I want singers to come to Voix des Arts with the expectation of reading earnest considerations of their work, knowing that every review is a safe haven in which their integrity is preserved. I want readers of all levels of musical knowledge to come to Voix des Arts with the expectation of reading reviews that recreate the visual, aural, and emotional experiences of performances without burdens of personal opinions, prejudices, and gossip. I unquestionably fail to achieve these aims more frequently than I would care to admit, but every error is committed with admiration.

the interior of The Metropolitan Opera, June 2022 [Photograph by the author]

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