30 September 2023

RECORDING REVIEW: J. S. Bach, G. Donizetti, G. F. Händel, J. Heggie, R. Leoncavallo, J. Massenet, F. Mendelssohn, W. A. Mozart, C. Orff, G. Rossini, R. Strauss, & G. Verdi — ARCHETYPE - Arias for Baritone (Stephen Powell, baritone; Lexicon Classics LC2307)

IN REVIEW: ARCHETYPE - Arias for Baritone (Stephen Powell, baritone; Lexicon Classics LC2307)JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759), JAKE HEGGIE (born 1961), RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919), JULES MASSENET (1842 – 1912), FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809 – 1847), WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791), CARL ORFF (1895 – 1982), GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868), RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949), and GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Archetype – Arias for BaritoneStephen Powell, baritone; Nashville Sinfonia; Steven White, conductor [Recorded in Ocean Way Nashville Recording Studios, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, on 9, 11, and 12 January 2023; Lexicon Classics LC2307; 1 CD, 63:07; Available from Lexicon Classics, Amazon, Apple Music, and Spotify]

In opera, concert, and recital, one of America’s most storied musical legacies is the native-born baritone. A century after his house début as Lavitsky in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Lawrence Tibbett’s tenure at the Metropolitan Opera continues to inspire reverence rivaled in zeal by lamentation for the loss to music inflicted by the onstage death of Leonard Warren during a 1960 performance of Verdi’s La forza del destino. Since the passing of the era in which the world’s theaters resounded with the voices of Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil, and Sherrill Milnes, the American baritone of their caliber has been dispiritingly elusive, more often rumored than encountered. There is no shortage of fine baritones, but to whom does the aficionado turn in 2023—particularly in Verdi repertoire—for reminders of the visceral thrills of Tibbett, Warren, and MacNeil, the consistency of Merrill, and the elegance of Milnes?

Especially in this age of technological wizardry and digital manipulation, recordings cannot always be trusted to offer listeners aural representations that are faithful to voices’ sonic profiles and singers’ artistic nuances. A voice’s impact in a congenial performance venue is often very different from its sound on recordings. In previous releases featuring the very different voices of spinto soprano Tamara Wilson and lyric tenor Eric Ferring, Lexicon Classics recordings disclosed a rare affinity for capturing these voices with uncanny fidelity. This proves to also be true of Archetype, Lexicon’s recital of arias featuring baritone Stephen Powell. Supported with avidity and unfailing musicality by Nashville Sinfonia and renowned conductor Steven White, with whom he collaborated in Opera Roanoke’s superb 2020 streamed performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde [reviewed here], Powell introduces himself to listeners who are not acquainted with his artistry as a peer of singers like Tibbett, Merrill, and Milnes. Exploring diverse repertoire, honoring the disc’s title by sampling an array of archetypical rôles written for the baritone voice, Powell rejuvenates the storied legacy of the American baritone.

Musically and conceptually, the Prologo from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is a logical point of departure for Powell’s musical expedition. Sung by Tonio, one of opera’s iconic antagonists, the Prologo extols opera as ‘uno squarcio di vita,’ a phrase sung by Powell with particular fervor that emphasizes its symbolic significance. The opening utterances of ‘Si può? Si può?’ are delivered with apt dramatic concentration that evolves as the Prologo progresses, each subsequent detail of Tonio’s description of the narrative to come imparted with ever-shifting vocal colors. The traditional interpolated top A♭ and G thrill, but still more fascinating is the contrast of Powell’s conversational banter with his legato lyricism, controlled but never crooned. Even isolated from its context, the Prologo here traverses Pagliacci’s full theatrical panoply whilst exhibiting the range, power, and sensitivity of Powell’s vocalism.

Harlekin’s brief aria ‘Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen’ from the Oper of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is typically sung by voices of amplitudes leaner than that of Powell’s instrument, Hermann Prey having been a paragon amongst interpreters of the rôle on stage and on recordings. In his performance, Powell makes no effort to artificially lighten his voice: rather, he employs a conversational approach to the text and effortless ascent to top F to realize the ebullience of the music. Strauss’s writing sometimes seems to baffle singers who do not recognize that the vocal lines are often dialogues with the orchestra, the music for which imparts the emotional essence of scenes. Powell grasps this intuitively and, despite the studio setting, converses with the orchestra instead of merely singing over accompaniment. Harlekin’s attempt at lifting the despondent Ariadne’s spirits fails, but Powell succeeds splendidly in evincing the character’s resilient humanity.

The Cenobite friar Athanaël in Jules Massenet’s Thaïs is an ambiguous figure whose seemingly evangelical interest in the opera’s heroine is actually motivated not by faith but by carnal desire. Massenet’s gift for setting the words of duplicitous characters to music of exquisite beauty is apparent in Athanaël’s Act One aria ‘Voilà donc la terrible cité,’ here sung by Powell with finesse and gratifyingly full-throated tone. The nasalized vowels of French do not suit his vocal production as ideally as the more open sounds of Italian, but Powell’s phrasing is elegant in both dulcet and spirited passages. The libidinous subtext of Athanaël’s persona lurks in this performance of the aria, the baritone’s timbre darkly licentious.

Prior to the advent of bel canto in the first decades of the Nineteenth Century, distinctions among respective baritone, bass-baritone, and bass Fächer were rare, not least in sacred music. As Powell cogently demonstrates with three selections on Archetype, much of composers’ writing for low voices in cantatas, masses, oratorios, and other liturgical works is congenial for today’s baritones and constitutes a substantial portion of their collective concert repertoire.

Presumably sung in the oratorio’s 1742 Dublin première by a chorister, there being no record of male soloists having been engaged, and assigned in the first London performance a year later to the esteemed Dresden-born bass Thomas Reinhold, the air ‘The trumpet shall sound’ from Part Three of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah (HWV 56) is brilliantly sung by Powell, White aiding his clear execution of the divisions with a sensible realization of the Pomposo, ma non allegro tempo. The excellent playing of Strauss’s writing for the piano in Harlekin’s aria is matched by the rendering of the harpsichord continuo in Händel’s music, the propulsive rhythmic figurations and cadences complementing the verbal immediacy of Powell’s singing.

The pious nobility of his voicing of Händel’s music transforms into devout contemplation in ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Matthäus-Passion (BWV 244), his voicing of the entreaty ‘Welt, geh aus’ communicating the meaning of the text with tremendous emotional power. In this selection and in his performance of the air ‘It is enough’ from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah (MWV A 25), tonal beauty is employed as an expressive tool, Powell using the timbre of his voice to underscore subtleties of the texts. Mendelssohn exercised in Elijah a Schubert-like gift for setting words with melodic lines of touching eloquence, and Powell’s breath control facilitates phrasing that elucidates the composer’s ingenious tone painting. The baritone’s singing of these Händel, Bach, and Mendelssohn arias gloriously harkens back to the Victorian choral tradition, in which no apologies were made for refulgent, open-hearted vocalism of music now too often approached with persnickety aloofness masquerading as scholarship.

Powell confirmed in his recent Costa Mesa performances with Pacific Symphony Orchestra that he is one of the Twenty-First-Century’s best-qualified interpreters of the title rôle in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. Here singing ‘Pari siamo,’ the Act One monologue in which, after being offered the service of the murderer Sparafucile’s dagger, Rigoletto reflects upon the weaponization of his own wit, Powell brings to his portrayal of the conflicted jester a singular balance of unique sensibilities and comprehensive knowledge of the rôle’s history, adding his own portrait to the gallery populated by his most illustrious predecessors. In the performance of ‘Pari siamo’ on Archetype, molded by the febrile intensity of White’s conducting, Powell’s musical and dramatic delivery recall the work of Richard Bonelli and Robert Weede, fellow Americans whose characterizations of Rigoletto are now perhaps less remembered than those of Tibbett, Warren, Merrill, MacNeil, and Milnes but were uncommonly successful in blending vocal force with histrionic savvy. Powell’s voicing of declamatory passages bristles with vehemence and self-loathing, contrasting tellingly with the elegance of his singing of lyrical phrases. Even in the context of this single episode from the opera, numerous facets of Rigoletto’s constitution are manifested in Powell’s vocal colorations, revealing the vulnerability and fear that precipitate the opera’s tragic conclusion.

Further validating his Verdian credentials, the baritone’s account of Conte di Luna’s late-bel-canto aria from Act Two of Il trovatore, ‘Il balen del suo sorriso,’ affirms the inviolable solidity of his technique. The undercurrent of paternal tenderness that permeates Powell’s performance of Rigoletto’s monologue is supplanted in Conte di Luna’s aria by salacious seduction. Neither the piece’s vocal filigree nor its wide range troubles this singer, whose upper register is placed with the ease that Verdi’s music demands. Wholly credible as an unscrupulous womanizer, Powell’s Conte is also audibly an aristocrat, the character’s noble pedigree evident in the singer’s sophisticated articulation.

The scope of Powell’s stylistic adaptability is widened by his riveting voicing of ‘Estuans interius’ from Part Two (‘In Taberna’) of Carl Orff’s genre-defying cantata Carmina Burana. First performed in 1937, this music integrates reminiscences of Renaissance monophony with modernist writing for orchestral influenced by Ravel and Stravinsky. The punishing tessitura is navigated with skill and intonational accuracy, and the Latin text is enunciated with clarity and imagination. When Powell sings ‘Feror ego veluti sine nauta navis,’ the stark realism of Orff’s musical tableau emerges with arresting impact. Not even in the most tempestuous moments is poise abandoned: every dramatic accent is imparted with uncompromising musical integrity.

Commissioned to inaugurate Dallas Opera’s Winspear Opera House, where it premièred in 2010, Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick artfully distills the universal themes of a novel of behemoth proportions into musical language that is surprisingly personal. The first mate Starbuck’s soliloquy from Moby-Dick’s musket scene here receives a performance in which the character’s angst darkens the baritone’s timbre. In the passage beginning with ‘He would have killed me,’ Powell’s approach spotlights in Heggie’s writing an emotional kinship with Orff’s ‘Estuans interius,’ the disquieting inscrutability of the sea flooding the vocal lines. Like his Verdi portrayals, Powell’s brief survey of Starbuck achieves surprising depth, his vocalism as committed to serving character and librettist as to breathing life into the composer’s music.

Figaro’s ‘Largo al factorum’ from Act One of Gioachino Rossini’s ever-popular comic masterwork Il barbiere di Siviglia is arguably the most familiar aria in the baritone repertoire, its frequent appearances in media ranging from cinema to cartoons introducing generations of listeners with no other exposure to opera to Rossini’s uproarious bravura showpiece. In his performance of the aria, Powell gives each syllable of the text its due, his singing unmistakably well-prepared yet seemingly spontaneous. Figaro’s delight in his own cunning—and his gleaming too G—emanates from the voice. The emotional potency of Archetype’s serious selections gives way to pure joy, the tongue-twisting patter dispatched with exhilarating panache.

A sprawling grand opéra in the manner of Auber, Halévy, and Meyerbeer, Gaetano Donizetti’s Dom Sébastien, roi de Portugal remains overshadowed by its creator’s better-known works. The arias for the tenor protagonist are the opera’s most familiar excerpts, but it can be justly argued that the poet Le Camoëns’s Act Three aria ‘Ô Lisbonne, ô ma patrie’ is the score’s most inspired number. Powell’s singing professes the quality of the music, his innately patrician phrasing movingly sculpting arching lines rather than merely sounding individual notes and words. Nevertheless, the importance of each word is meaningfully conveyed, the voice’s tonal beauty heightening the earnestness of Powell’s elocution.

The eponymous libertine’s serenade from Act Two of Wolfgang Anadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni (K. 527), ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra,’ is deceptively simple, its lilting melody disguising the music’s tests of a singer’s breath control. Sung in the modern era by voices spanning the spectrum from the dark-hued basses of Ezio Pinza and Cesare Siepi to the lyric baritones of Renato Capecchi and Sir Thomas Allen, Don Giovanni is a point of intersection for the baritone archetypes represented on this recording. Singing with refinement and sensuality, Powell serenades the listener—gratefully standing in for Donna Elvira’s maid—beguilingly, his management of breath fulfilling Mozart’s goal of seamless enchantment. As in all of the performances in this recital, a natural equilibrium between words and music is achieved without artifice. Finding in White and the Nashville musicians like-minded companions for his journey through these archetypes of the baritone repertoire, Powell sings with intelligence, understanding, and imperturbable security. He is a persuasive exponent of these archetypes of his Fach, but singing such as his is anything but typical.