23 October 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — IL TROVATORE (B. Gulley, Y. Lysenko, T. Vaughn, M. Redding, B. Banion, C. Orr, T. Bradford, D. Arnold Paris, J. Ray; Piedmont Opera, 20 October 2023)

IN REVIEW: tenor BEN GULLEY as Manrico (left) and mezzo-soprano TICHINA VAUGHN as Azucena (right) in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): Il trovatoreBen Gulley (Manrico), Yulia Lysenko (Leonora), Tichina Vaughn (Azucena), Michael Redding (Il conte di Luna), Brian Banion (Ferrando), Carolyn Orr (Ines), Thomas Bradford (Ruiz), David Arnold Paris (Un vecchio zingaro), Jackson Ray (Un messo); Piedmont Opera Chorus, Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, director; Michael Schweikardt, scenery designer; Howard Tsvi Kaplan, costume designer; Norman Coates, lighting designer; Brittany Rappise, wig and makeup and designer; Piedmont Opera, Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Friday, October 2023]

By the time of the world-première performance of Il trovatore in Rome’s Teatro Apollo on 19 January 1853, the thirty-nine-year-old Giuseppe Verdi was widely acclaimed as the principal steward of the Italian operatic tradition fostered by Gioachino Rossini and advanced by Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti. Having experienced personal tragedies and an extended period of relentless composition that yielded early successes including Nabucco and Macbeth, Verdi launched the 1850s with a progression of three new works that continue to be performed frequently 122 years after his death: Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore, and La traviata (1853). The second of these, a setting of librettists Salvadore Cammarano’s and Leone Enanuele Bardare’s adaptation of Spanish writer Antonio García Gutiérrez’s 1836 play El trovador, was in some ways the most musically conservative of the three, but Verdi’s adherence to the conventions of Donizettian bel canto was integrated with innovations that prefigured later works like Don Carlos and La forza del destino. Il trovatore proved to be a turning point not only in Verdi’s career but equally in the development of Nineteenth-Century Italian opera, its romantic—and Romantic—angst as compelling in 2023 as it was in the tumultuous years of the Risorgimento.

As noteworthy an exponent of Verdi repertoire as Enrico Caruso having observed after his 1908 rôle début as the titular troubadour that performing Il trovatore requires nothing short of engaging the world’s four best singers, staging the piece poses formidable challenges to opera companies of all sizes. Seldom absent for more than a few seasons from the repertories of large houses, Il trovatore is mounted less frequently by smaller companies with more limited resources. Lavishly occupying the stage of Winston-Salem’s Stevens Center, Piedmont Opera’s production of Il trovatore exhibited no suggestion of this company being intimidated by the work’s musical and theatrical demands. Rather, guided by the unassailable theatrical intuitiveness of director Steven LaCosse, the performance elucidated the dramatic subtleties of the opera’s contrasting intimacy and grandeur.

Frequently disparaged for plot elements considered absurd by some observers even at the time of its première, Il trovatore has often been parodied, not least by Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan in their Pirates of Penzance. There was no satirical agenda in LaCosse’s concept for Piedmont Opera’s production, however. Particular care was devoted to deepening the production’s depiction of the duplicitous Conte di Luna, his inner conflict discernibly spurred by vengeful ferocity that only partly masked unnerving vulnerability. Like Barnaba in Ponchielli’s La gioconda, di Luna here wrought destruction when his quest for retribution and carnal gratification was thwarted by his quarry’s suicide. Learning as the axe fell on Manrico that the executed man was his brother, di Luna brutally slashed Azucena’s throat, ending the opera in stark isolation of his own making, yet LaCosse’s direction inspired empathy for the Count falling victim more to his own demons than to external forces. Throughout the performance, actions and gestures were faithful to both the libretto and the rhythms of the music, LaCosse’s respect for the score manifested in every detail of his staging.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano TICHINA VAUGHN as Azucena (center left), bass-baritone BRIAN BANION as Ferrando (center right), and the ensemble of Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]La zingara nel campo marziale: mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn as Azuena (center left), bass-baritone Brian Banion as Ferrando (center right), and the ensemble of Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

From first sight, Michael Schweikardt’s attractive, sensibly-proportioned scenic designs, created for Sarasota Opera, and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s opulent costumes evoked the opera’s Spanish setting. Cleverly imparting the passage of time via interplay between brightness and shadow, Norman Coates’s lighting heightened the drama’s moroseness and unpredictability, qualities that Brittany Rappise’s wig and makeup designs accentuated by giving an unmistakable visual dimension to the class differences among characters. Vitally, characters could always be identified by appearance, enabling the audience to concentrate on their musical exchanges and the ways in which Verdi used them to advance the story.

In Piedmont Opera’s most recent productions of Il trovatore’s middle-period brethren Rigoletto (2015) and La traviata (2022), conductor James Allbritten proved to be the ideal collaborator for LaCosse’s innately musical productions, the fidelity to the composer’s score in the pit matching that on the stage. Allbritten’s pacing of Il trovatore balanced the dramatic momentum characteristic of Verdi’s post-1850 works with observance of the tenets of bel canto that permeate the opera. Tempi provided requisite excitement, building thrillingly to climaxes, but cadences were never rushed. Their playing consistent in intonation and precision of ensemble, with only an occasional wiriness from the violins adversely affecting their sound, the Winston-Salem Symphony musicians engrossingly brought Allbritten’s approach to fruition. Verdi was indisputably acquitted of the accusations of banality that are often made of his orchestral writing, conductor and orchestra disclosing the ingenuity in the seeming conventionality. Conducting of the caliber attained by Allbritten in this performance is never conventional but is now exceedingly rare in Verdi repertoire.

IN REVIEW: soprano CAROLYN ORR as Ines in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]La confidente rispettosa: soprano Carolyn Orr as Ines in Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Portraying Conte di Luna’s troops, Azucena’s gypsy community, and denizens of sacred cloisters as the opera progresses, the choristers are entrusted with conjuring the shifting moods in which Trovatore’s drama transpires. In the martial scenes in Acts One and Three, Piedmont Opera’s chorus sang boldly, the gentlemen’s voices blending artfully but maintaining an apt aura of rough-edged bravado. The widely-known Coro di zingari that launches Act Two, ‘Vedi! Le fosche notturne spoglie,’ harkens back to the grand choruses in Verdi’s earlier operas, namely Nabucco’s ‘Va, pensiero’ and Macbeth’s ‘Patria oppressa,’ and was delivered in this performance with gusto. Entreating his fellow Romany to continue their work as the chorus faded, David Arnold Paris declaimed the Vecchio zingaro’s ‘Compagni, avanza il giorno’ commandingly. Singing ‘Ah! se l’error t’ingombra’ in the convent scene at the end of Act Two and the inventive, haunting ‘Miserere d’un’alma già vicina’ in Act Four captivatingly, the choristers lent each of their appearances dramatic significance and musical excellence.

Proximity to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts often yields felicitous casting of supporting rôles in Piedmont Opera productions, providing opportunities for fellows of UNCSA’s Fletcher Opera Institute to gain invaluable on-stage experience in high-quality professional stagings. In this Trovatore, tenor Jackson Ray delivered the Messo’s fateful news of Leonora’s impending taking of the veil in Act Two portentously, enunciating ‘Risponda il foglio che reco a te’ with urgency. Manrico’s comrade Ruiz received a performance of similar immediacy from tenor Thomas Bradford, who brought tidings of Azucena’s capture in Act Three with alarm and voiced ‘Siam giunti’ in the brief exchange with Leonora at the beginning of Act Four incisively. Soprano Carolyn Orr sang alluringly as Ines, communicating a friend’s concern for Leonora in Act One, first with ‘Che più t’arresti?’ and then ‘Quanto narrasti di turbamento,’ and in the final scene of Act Two.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone BRIAN BANION as Ferrando in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]Il capitano fedele: bass-baritone Brian Banion as Ferrando in Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

In the first published score of Il trovatore, Verdi and the publisher Ricordi designated the battle-hardened captain Ferrando as a rôle for basso profondo. Triumphantly resuming his career after endured life-threatening illness, bass-baritone Brian Banion was a riveting Ferrando whose storytelling and vocal presence were indeed profound. In Act One, his cries of ‘All’erta! all’erta!’ were eerily disquieting, and he recounted the harrowing tale of the fiery execution of Azucena’s mother spellbindingly, articulating each syllable of ‘Di due figli vivea padre beato’ with clarity and purpose. Ferrando’s words in the Act Two scene with di Luna were uttered with ominous shading, and each line of the terzetto in Act Three in which Ferrando recognizes Azucena as the daughter of the gypsy whose death he described in Act One was sung with vehemence and focused, flinty tone. Pretense is an integral component of opera, but this performance demonstrated that time away from the stage reinvigorated Banion’s passion for it.

IN REVIEW: baritone MICHAEL REDDING as Il conte di Luna in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]L’agente della vendetta: baritone Michael Redding as Il conte di Luna in Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

With his hushed but heated voicing of the line ‘Tacea la notte!’ at his entrance in Act One, baritone Michael Redding created a sinister characterization of Conte di Luna that grew more chilling in each subsequent scene. The rejected lover’s rage upon hearing the offstage voice of his rival was palpable, and his demeanor was little impacted by the pleas of the object of his desire. Redding sang ‘Di geloso amor sprezzato’ in the terzetto with Leonora and Manrico forcefully, but his upper register was compromised by intermittent hoarseness and faltering breath control. These difficulties persisted in the baritone’s account of the Act Two aria ‘Il balen del suo sorriso,’ the filigree inexact and the top G steady but pushed. Redding was more comfortable in the cabaletta ‘Per me, ora fatale,’ singing lustily, and his vocalism in the Act Two finale exuded incendiary fury.

Preparing to besiege the rebel stronghold that sheltered Manrico in Act Three, Redding’s di Luna reacted with sadistic elation to Azucena’s apprehension and the discovery that she is the woman his dying father instructed him to pursue. Firing ‘Dunque gli estinti lasciano’ in the terzetto into the auditorium, this di Luna embarked upon the final phase of his trek to annihilation. The implacable Count dismissing Leonora’s requests for mercy for Manrico in Act Four until she offered herself as ransom, Redding voiced ‘Ah! dell’indegno rendere’ viciously, and his singing of ‘Fra te che parli?’ seethed with contempt.

In the opera’s final scene, di Luna’s initial shock at perceiving that Leonora had poisoned herself after making her bargain with him giving way to all-consuming ire, the knell of his wrath resounded in ‘Ah! volle me deludere, e per costui morir!’ Having destroyed the woman he claimed to love and the brother he knew only as an adversary, Redding’s di Luna knew no recourse other than further slaughter, turning his blade on Azucena. Despite the character’s unwavering depravity, Redding’s portrayal offered flashes of humanity amidst the repulsing villainy.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano TICHINA VAUGHN as Azucena in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]La madre tormentata: mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn as Azucena in Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Verdi’s correspondence reflects that, when considering El trovador as a possible operatic subject, it was the character who became the gypsy woman Azucena who convinced the composer to set the story to music. Mezzo-soprano Tichina Vaughn, a resident of Winston-Salem during her childhood and one of UNCSA’s most distinguished alumni, interpreted the rôle with boundless fervor and musical potency that fully realized Azucena’s dramatic potential. Dominating the stage in Act Two, her vocal acting mesmerizing the audience. The trills in the canzone ‘Stride la vampa’ were more suggested than truly sung, but the histrionic acumen that enlivened this scene and the racconto ‘Condotta ell’era in ceppi al suo destin tremendo’ was galvanizing. In the duetto with Manrico, Vaughn intoned ‘Ma nell’alma dell’ingrato’ vehemently but with tenderness. She avoided the top C in ‘Perigliarti ancor languente’ but left no other demand of the music unmet.

Dragged into Conte di Luna’s camp at the start of Act Three, Vaughn’s Azucena was bound physically but irrepressibly free of spirit. Her singing of ‘Giorni poveri vivea’ beguiled, her handling of the music’s evolution from lyricism to the frenetic energy of ‘Deh! rallentate, o barbari’—shortened by half—and the terzetto spotlighting the presages of Verdi’s writing for Amneris in Aida. In the Act Four prison scene with Manrico, Vaughn’s voicing of ‘Un giorno turba feroce l’ava tua condusse’ shuddered with fear, making the serenity of her dulcet ‘Ai nostri monti, ritorneremo!’ all the more stirring.

The transformation of Azucena’s grief into exultant vindication as she revealed in the final scene that the slain Manrico was di Luna’s brother was depicted with startling realism, Vaughn exclaiming ‘Sei vendicata, o madre!’ with abandon and an explosive top B♭. Di Luna’s impulsive murder of Azucena was jolting, but the mysticism of Vaughn’s stunningly-sung portrayal made the character’s demise seem inevitable, as though she, like di Luna, was an instrument of unalterable destiny.

IN REVIEW: soprano YULIA LYSENKO as Leonora in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]La donna senza pace: soprano Yulia Lysenko as Leonora in Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

Returning to the stage on which she earned acclaim for her performances as Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Violetta in La traviata, soprano Yulia Lysenko traded Elizabethan Britain and consumption-ridden Paris for war-torn Spain with an exquisite, expressive portrayal of Leonora in Il trovatore. Phrasing the Act One cavatina ‘Tacea la notte placida’ with innate grasp of Verdi’s style, she seamlessly integrated the top B♭s and C into the line. Likewise, the trills and ascents above the stave in the cabaletta ‘Di tale amor che dirsi,’ denied its repeat, were executed with technical acumen that facilitated emotional engagement with the significance of each note and word. ‘Ah! dalle tenebre tratta in errore io fui!’ in the terzetto was rousingly sung, the soprano ending the act with a blazing interpolated top D♭.

Believing Manrico to have died in battle, Leonora resolves to seek refuge in a life of religious contemplation, committing herself to a convent in the final scene of Act Two. Her motions and her vocalism exhibiting poise befitting a noble lady, Lysenko sang the cantabile ‘Degg’io volgemi a quei’ delicately. Bliss blossomed in Lysenko’s voicing of ‘L’onda de’ suoni mistici’ in the Act Three duettino with Manrico, but the tranquility was short-lived, the lovers’ reunion interrupted by the news of Azucena’s detainment.

Leonora’s Act Four aria ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee’ is one of the most daunting pieces in the Verdi canon, its trills and arching lines necessitating unassailable bel canto technique. Lysenko’s traversal of the aria succeeded musically and dramatically. Like many celebrated Leonore, Lysenko omitted the aria’s treacherous written top D♭ but interpolated the note to tremendous effect in the cadenza. The traditional interpolation of a C in the ‘Miserere’ raised the scene’s emotional stakes. Cutting the cabaletta ‘Tu vedrai che amore in terra’ remains common practice but was regrettable in a performance with so capable a Leonora.

There were oddities in the soprano’s approaches to staccati and intervals in ‘Mira, di acerbe lagrime’ and ‘Vivrà! contende il giubilo,’ but the earnestness of her singing heightened the tension of the confrontation with di Luna. As the dying Leonora begged Manrico to flee from his captivity, Lysenko voiced ‘Oh, come l’ira ti rende cieco!’ with wrenching dejection. The eloquence of her singing was ideally suited to the deceptive simplicity of ‘Prima che d’altri vivere,’ Leonora’s death acted with restraint. The beauty of Lysenko’s timbre enchanted, but tonal luster was only one facet of her incandescent Leonora.

IN REVIEW: tenor BEN GULLEY as Manrico in Piedmont Opera's October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi's IL TROVATORE [Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]L’eroe della serenata: tenor Ben Gulley as Manrico in Piedmont Opera’s October 2023 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore
[Photograph © by Piedmont Opera]

115 years after the Metropolitan Opera audience welcomed Caruso’s inaugural portrayal of Manrico, tenor Ben Gulley unveiled a portrayal of Verdi’s heroic jongleur that disclosed the fruits of thorough preparation. Reminiscent of the work of one of Spain’s foremost exponents of the rôle, Pedro Lavirgén, Gulley’s performance allied vocal amplitude with stylistic finesse, reminding the Winston-Salem audience than Manrico shares as close a musical kinship with Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor as with Verdi’s Otello. Even from offstage, Gulley’s voice filled the theater in his opening scene, his voicing of the romanza ‘Deserto sulla terra’ seductive and his interpolated top B♭ gleaming. Protecting Leonora whilst sparring with di Luna in the terzetto, this Manrico battled as intrepidly with his voice as with his sword, defending his beloved with a brilliant top D♭.

Upset by the implication in Azucena’s Act Two narrative that he is not her son by birth, Manrico expressed his confusion and consternation in a statement of ‘Non son tuo figlio!’ suffused by Gulley with doubt. The sincerity with which devotion to Azucena and affection for Leonora were conveyed in ‘Mal reggendo alt’a sprossalto’ was uncanny, increasing the tenacity with which Manrico determined to reach Leonora before she took holy vows. ‘Né m’ebbe il ciel’ in the terzetto was sung with unflagging energy and unflappable security, traits that distinguished the tenor’s vocalism from start to finish.

Gulley phrased the Mozartian aria ‘Ah sì, ben mio, coll’essere’ in Act Three raptly, his deft control of the voice encompassing elegant tonal coloring and crisply-sung trills. Romantic attachment to Leonora corruscated in the brief duettino before being supplanted by iron-willed surrender to filial duty. Sung in Verdi’s original key and capped with effortless top Cs, the cabaletta ‘Di quella pira’ rightly provoked a frenzied ovation.

Manrico’s voice heard from his prison cell in the Act Four ‘Miserere,’ each word was sung with expressive weight. In the scene with Azucena, Gulley voiced ‘Riposa, o madre: io prono e muto’ lovingly, caressing the line. The disdain with which Manrico rebuked Leonora for securing his freedom by pledging herself to di Luna surged in Gulley’s singing, but the character’s scorn was soon redirected at himself as he understood the scope of Leonora’s sacrifice. Gulley sang ‘Insano! ed i quest’angelo osava maledir!’ assiduously, heartbreak flooding his tones. Capitulating to inexorable fate, Manrico went to the block with little resistance, only his despondent farewell to Azucena divulging ruefulness.

Too many productions of Il trovatore in recent years have been assembled around tenors who lack the technical skill and vocal resilience needed to bring Manrico to life as tenors like Aureliano Pertile and Giovanni Martinelli did in years past. Perhaps the most notable achievement of Piedmont Opera’s masterful Trovatore was the participation of a Manrico who, though singing the rôle for the first time, sang some of Verdi’s most corpuscular music as though the blood of Caruso, Björling, and del Monaco flowed in his veins.

07 October 2023

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: from Oz to Walhalla — Australian mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble goes over the rainbow with rôle début as Fricka in Opera Australia's December 2023 production of Der Ring des Nibelungen

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: mezzo-soprano DEBORAH HUMBLE as Erda in Melbourne Opera's 2023 production of Richard Wagner's SIEGFRIED [Photograph © by Robin Halls]De profundis: mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble as Erda in Melbourne Opera’s 2023 production of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried
[Photograph © by Robin Halls]

Not even the finest conservatory education and most thoughtful private tutelage can thoroughly prepare a conscientious singer to manage the evolution that a voice experiences over the course of a career. For singers whose artistry incorporates cognizance of vocal metamorphoses, this is a continuous process of self-discovery, a trek along which one can receive guidance but for which there are no failsafe directions or templates. To today’s singers’ navigation of this consequential journey was added the unexpected obstacle of a global pandemic, a prolonged hiatus in which the rôles of Art in society and individual lives were imperiled, yet this time of involuntary silence compelled insightful singers to ask difficult but necessary questions, querying both themselves and the art form to which their lives are devoted. How will the Arts recover from the devastation of this crisis? Is mine the right path? Can I survive as a singer when there is no singing? Who am I as an artist and an individual?

Before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic, answering these questions has been an integral component of mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble’s artistic development. Recipient of the 2004 Dame Joan Sutherland Prize, she has cultivated a career that, during the past two decades, has encompassed performances of an expansive array of operatic, concert, and Art Song repertoire. Destined to shelter in her native Australia as COVID relentlessly ravaged the planet, Humble allayed the fears that plagued virtually all artists by focusing not on the losses imposed by the cancellation of performances but on how the time away from the stage could facilitate personal and artistic growth. With coveted engagements and momentous rôle débuts on the horizon, she has emerged from COVID’s exile with heightened self-awareness, both her vocal technique and her vision for the trajectory of her career refined with intelligence and intuitiveness.

Ever a resourceful artist possessing a voice of superlative quality, Humble entered the pandemic in the midst of an artistic journey along the course of which she has been heard in many of the world’s most prestigious venues. Extolled in the Voix des Arts
of the Hong Kong Philharmonic recording of Wagner’s Das Rheingold (Naxos) as a peer of Lili Chookasian and Oralia Domímguez who achieved ‘one of the most compelling recorded accounts’ of Wagner’s music for Erda, a part in which she is also heard in the Hong Kong Siegfried and the Oehms Classics recording of a Staatsoper Hamburg Ring conducted by Simone Young, she is widely acknowledged as one of her generation’s best-qualified Wagnerians.

Her meticulously-honed technique complementing the natural beauty, range, and security of the voice, her affinity for not merely singing but wholly inhabiting Wagner rôles shone in Melbourne Opera’s 2023 staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Writing in his review of Siegfried for Australian Book Review, Peter Rose commented that she ‘moved with grace [as Erda] – a bravura, almost balletic performance – and she sang magnificently.’ Later in this Ring, Australian Arts Review critic Paul Selar declared her ‘a luxury addition to Götterdämmerung in the role of Brünnhilde’s imploring sister Waltraute,’ commending her for ‘creating one of the great highlights of the cycle.’

Whether she is singing Schubert Lieder, Mahler symphonies, dramatic Italian rôles like Amneris in Verdi’s Aida, or Wagner characters, creating highlights of performances is a hallmark of Humble’s artistry. She achieves this distinction not by employing overwrought histrionics but by surrendering her vocal and interpretive gifts to serving composers and librettists and to interacting with colleagues in a manner that intensifies the theatrical impact of their performances. Humble cites this camaraderie with fellow artists as one of the fundamental motivations of her career. Reflecting on the solitude imposed by the pandemic, she said, ‘It’s really nice to be back with colleagues. It’s sociable, musically gratifying, and challenging.’

A particular challenge amongst recent assignments was finding the right niche within the cast of Victorian Opera’s semi-staged performance of Richard Strauss’s Elektra for her portrayal of Klytämnestra, a characterization shaped, in part, by understudying the rôle in a Stastsoper Hamburg production in which the formidable queen—‘the architect of vengeance,’ Humble calls her—was sung by Agnes Baltsa. ‘When I was studying the rôle,’ she recalled, ‘I was told it must not be “beautiful” as it’s not a beautiful rôle. The challenge for me is to make it as characterful as possible without losing all the tonal beauty.’ She explained that she executes this strategy ‘by using the text and the consonants and running the storyline in my mind.’

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: mezzo-soprano DEBORAH HUMBLE as Waltraute (left) and soprano ANTOINETTE HALLORAN as Brünnhilde (right) in Melbourne Opera's 2023 production of Richard Wagner's GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG [Photograph © by Robin Halls]Die flehende Schwester: mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble as Erda (left) and soprano Antoinette Halloran as Brünnhilde (right) in Melbourne Opera’s 2023 production of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung
[Photograph © by Robin Halls]

It is her emphasis on breathing life into music and words that fuels Humble’s performances of Wagner repertoire. Whereas some singers audibly approach the composer’s work with dangerous vocal abandon, Humble concentrates on the serenity that exists within even the most tumultuous pages of Wagner’s scores. ‘He composes the music with such stillness,’ she shared. Contemplating the ‘stillness’ in Wagner’s writing proved to be a critical element of her study during the pandemic—and a source of hope for the future. ‘I spent most of my adult life in Europe, studying and performing, so I feel very comfortable in the Northern Hemisphere,’ Humble stated. ‘Spending the pandemic years in Australia has been a true privilege, and working in Australia with colleagues and friends I have known for a lifetime has been rejuvenating and rewarding.’ These joys notwithstanding, an inexorable quest to probe the nuances of new characters—Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlos, Venus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Saint-Saëns’s Dalila, Strauss’s Herodias in Salome and Die Amme in Die Frau ohne Schatten—leads her back to Europe. ‘I miss the opportunities that operatic and musical life in Europe can provide, especially for my dramatic voice type,’ she noted. ‘I look forward to returning—and to utilizing the languages I spent so many years learning!’

Few rôles in the mezzo-soprano repertoire are more daunting than Fricka in Der Ring des Nibelungen. Over the course of Das Rheingold and a brief appearance in Die Walküre, the wronged consort of Wotan undergoes one of the most fascinating transformations in opera, from regal sensuality to ruthless pursuit of retribution. Preparing her inaugural portrayal of Fricka for Opera Australia’s December 2023 production of Der Ring, in which she will also appear as Waltraute in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung, Humble has immersed herself in the musical depiction of the character’s complex emotional constitution. ‘There are moments in Das Rheingold [in which] I think she can still be perceived as a loving wife,’ Humble intimated. ‘Softer elements of her nature can be seen and heard in the music. By the end of the opera, however, she has reached her turning point, and, as soon as Act Two of Die Walküre begins, we know she is suffering and struggling.’ The anguish that afflicts the goddess is a product of the personal betrayal and societal irresponsibility of Wotan’s infidelity, she asserts. ‘Fricka is a very strong symbol of marriage in the Ring story and makes it clear from the beginning that she does not approve of Wotan’s desire for love and lust outside of their union. She makes her opinions on the institution clear in Das Rheingold, reminding Wotan to stay on the right path, and continues to advocate for marriage and its sanctity in Die Walküre.’

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: mezzo-soprano DEBORAH HUMBLE as Amneris in Opera Australia's 2013 production of Giuseppe Verdi's AIDA [Photograph © by Jeff Busby]La principessa della gelosia: mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble as Amneris in Opera Australia’s 2013 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida
[Photograph © by Jeff Busby]

The mezzo-soprano’s holistic examination of Wagner’s music and text continues to reveal mesmerizing subtleties of Fricka’s psyche. ‘I’m still exploring the finer points of her character arc,’ Humble confided, ‘but I think she believes her actions are honorable. She works away at Wotan until he becomes torn between love and power. She firmly believes that, in order for the gods to survive and rule forever, they must follow the rules and regulations already laid out.’ The ways in which Fricka advances these ideals can be ferocious, Humble conceded. ‘As a character, she is somewhat rigid and unchanging, even unappealing at certain moments. She is severe, unbending, adamant, and blatantly honest. Unlike Wotan, who has already begun to imagine a new order, a new world where he might not be all-powerful, it seems that Fricka is still consumed with the old world and restoring family honor.

Acutely responsive to productions’ aesthetics and mindful of stagings’ effects on details of her characterizations, Humble is excited to introduce her Fricka in the context of Opera Australia’s Ring. ‘[This] Ring is directed by Chen Shi-Zheng and conducted by Philippe Augin. Shi-Zheng has been inspired by the five elements from Chinese philosophy—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water—and has imagined a futuristic, timeless  space featuring numerous kinetic LED panels,’ she said. ‘These create an open space resembling a Greek amphitheater. Costumes for the gods, including Fricka, are white trench coats which interact with the set according to each character’s emotions and activity.’ She feels that these physical stimuli, augmented by Auguin’s handling of the music, will provide a setting in which her Fricka will embody timeless but engrossingly relevant sensibilities.

Three years ago, the prospect of singing Fricka seemed remote to Humble. ‘By the end of 2020, I realized, in a way I had never really had to confront before, just how much my personal self-worth and identity are tied up in my singing career,’ she admitted. ‘I really missed the adrenaline rush and excitement that performing always gives me, as well as the actual physical and mental benefits and challenges of singing itself; to say nothing of interacting with audiences and colleagues.’ As the imaginative vividness of her performances demonstrates, idleness is not part of Humble’s personality. ‘I found the unusual amount of free time I had on my hands [during the pandemic] the perfect space [in which] to think creatively and start other projects,’ she mused. ‘I opened Brycefield Estate, a bed and breakfast at my home in the Hunter Valley [in New South Wales’s trendy wine region], and initiated a local music festival. Both ventures were very well received, and, most importantly, gave me and many other local artists a forum for small-scale performance in those difficult times.’

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: mezzo-soprano DEBORAH HUMBLE. singing her first Fricka in Opera Australia's December 2023 production of Richard Wagner's DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN [Photograph © by Rachel Calvo]Heil, neue Fricka: mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble, whose inaugural portrayal of Fricka will be featured in Opera Australia’s December 2023 production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen
[Photograph © by Rachel Calvo]

As is so often the case, Art parallels life. In Humble’s life, Art after COVID has reawakened thrillingly. ‘2022 and 2023 have turned out to be the busiest time I’ve had as a singer since returning to Australia,’ she enthused. ‘I was surprised [by] how quickly music and opera returned to the stage—and, luckily for me, there was plenty of dramatic repertoire in local programming!’ Indeed, 2023 is a year of rôle débuts for Humble: in addition to Klytämnestra and Fricka, she sang her first La Cieca in Opera Australia’s production of Ponchielli’s La gioconda, opppsite Saioa Hernández, Jonas Kaufmann, and Ludovic Tézier, and Clairon in Victorian Opera’s concert performance of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, conducted by Simone Young.

Her description of a defining aspect of Fricka’s character is likewise an apt assessment of Deborah Humble’s artistry. Blatantly honest with collaborators, audiences, and, above all, herself, she is a beacon of truth in an art form that thrives on artifice.

To learn more about Deborah Humble, and for updates on her upcoming engagements, please visit her website and follow her on Facebook.

Click here to purchase tickets for Opera Australia’s December 2023 production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, running 1 - 21 December at Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane.

Sincerest thanks to Ms. Humble for her time and perceptive responses.

01 October 2023

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: broadcast blacklisting — WCPE to exclude six contemporary operas from 2023 – 2024 Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinée broadcasts

PERSONAL PERSPECTIVES: The Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York City; March 2022 [Photograph © by Joseph Newsome & Voix des Arts]House of vice or temple of Art: the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York City; March 2022
[Photograph © by Joseph Newsome and Voix des Arts]

As has been widely reported in the press and heatedly discussed in musical circles, North Carolina-based Classical Music broadcaster WCPE, operating online as The Classical Station and on the local FM frequency 89.7, informed ‘friends and listeners’ via a letter dated 31 August and signed by General Manager Deborah Proctor of the intention to exclude six operas featured in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2023 – 2024 Season of Saturday matinée broadcasts from WCPE’s schedule owing to concerns regarding the suitability of these works for airing to the station’s audience. Citing objections to strong language and adult content, the suppression of this sextet of works is presented as a defense of morality, aimed particularly at protecting the youth among WCPE’s listeners from material deemed to be too vile for their level of maturity.

No one could contend with any degree of credibility that children in Twenty-First-Century America are not subjected to situations that exceed the limits of their still-developing comprehension. With active shooters and deadly fentanyl invading their schools, how could American children fully understand the perils to which their society exposes them? However, one aspect of humanity that should never be underestimated is a child’s capacity to learn from and adapt to even the most difficult circumstances and surroundings. Those parties who justify their actions with allusions to Scripture should be reminded that Deuteronomy 4:9 records that Moses instructed that an adherent to a righteous path should ‘keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons' sons.’ Children learn by experiencing and communicating, not by being sheltered and lectured. Rather than safeguarding innocence, silencing artistic expression in any form teaches children to reject what they do not know or understand.

WCPE’s business model, whereby the station’s operations are funded wholly by financial contributions from listeners and community supporters, necessitates involving or at least considering the interests of those benefactors in deliberations about programming. Still, managing an entity like WCPE entails a responsibility to serve—the distinction of service here being extraordinarily important—as a conduit for conversation. Imposing one’s own biases and/or those of a group of listeners upon the total population is contrary to the most basic tenets of artistic leadership. With dedication to service to community comes a critical responsibility to represent that community in decisions and deeds. Willfully endeavoring to sanitize the creative products of some sectors of the community asserts that others within the community lack the intelligence and intuition to make their own choices.

There is a fundamental difference between a supporter-funded, free-access broadcaster and a subscription-based service. The exasperating prevalence of the same names and same pieces in WCPE’s listener-request programs on Fridays and Saturday evenings suggests that the station permits some contributing listeners to use the station as a personal playlist. Problematic though this is, it is not an unreasonable display of gratitude when confined to those specific broadcast slots. When allowed to affect a cornerstone of WCPE’s programming like the MET’s Saturday matinée broadcasts, this subjugation of universal free will to personal opinion betrays the trust of all listeners, whether or not they are contributors to the station.

The inclusion of the operas targeted by WCPE—and, make no mistake, the station’s action is tantamount to a focused assault on freedom of expression as egregious and reprehensible as the censorship that occurs with regularity in cultures considered inimical to American ideals—in the MET’s Season has spurred discourse on which musical styles and dramatic elements should be granted places in the MET repertory. Such discourse is invaluable, but depriving listeners of opportunities to hear and assess controversial works yields uninformed disputes and wholesale dismissals that damage and ultimately destroy Art and undermine the unity that Art fosters. Each listener exercises the authority to embrace or renounce these operas. By seeking to usurp that authority, WCPE’s General Manager demonstrates appallingly poor judgment, signaling to the station’s listeners that their competence ends at tuning in to WCPE.

WCPE Letter (31 August 2023), page (1)Page (1) of WCPE’s 31 August letter to ‘friends and listeners’
[click on image to enlarge]

WCPE Letter (31 August 2023), page (2)Page (2) of WCPE’s 31 August letter to ‘friends and listeners’
[click on image to enlarge]

Among the many absurdities included in WCPE’s communication to ‘friends and listeners,’ none is more indefensible than the argument that Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s 1996 opera Florencia en el Amazonas—a title that the letter’s author mangled whilst purporting to have become acquainted with the piece for the purpose of rejecting it—violates the station’s undefined ‘musical format guidelines.’ Is Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme in Moses und Aron more palatable? Did the innovative sounds heard in Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice, and Brett Dean’s Hamlet—operas aired by WCPE—conform to the station’s standards?

The violent rape and murder central to the storyline of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking are undeniably abhorrent, but is the opening scene of Mozart’s Don Giovanni less revolting for being set to music of typical Eighteenth-Century refinement? Mozart’s unrepentant Giovanni is dragged to hell in the opera’s penultimate scene. De Rocher, the monstrous killer in Dead Man Walking, is executed for his crimes. The WCPE letter complains of the screams of a young girl enduring sexual assault being heard in Dead Man Walking. What, then, are the repeated top As in Donna Anna’s ‘Or sai chi l’onore,’ in which she recounts her own trauma, and the top B with which Puccini’s Turandot relives her ancestor Lou-Ling’s ‘quel grido e quella morte’?

John Adams’s El Niño is condemned because its libretto makes use of ‘non-biblical sources.’ Should Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi be similarly denied airtime because its libretto is not derived from Shakespeare? Should the many Nineteenth-Century scores with plots taken from the writings of Schiller be shelved in protest of their librettists’ neglect of ‘correct’ original source material?

It is stated that objection to the subject matter in Kevin Puts’s The Hours relates to the opera’s depictions of contemplations and acts of suicide, yet Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Turandot, in which Cio-Cio San and Liù respectively end their own lives, are deemed to adhere to the station’s standards of decency. Is it better, then, to slaughter oneself in Italian than to perish in English?

At issue in Anthony Davis’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X and Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones is vulgar language which the composers and their linguistic collaborators failed to render tolerable to WCPE by translating it into French, German, or Italian. What might WCPE management have thought of some of Beverly Sills’s colorful interjections into Marie’s dialogue in her English-language performances of La fille du régiment? Natalie Dessay was not banned from the station for exclaiming ‘Merde!’ in the broadcast of the MET’s Laurent Pelly production of Fille, but she had the good manners to swear en français.

With a grammatical misstep, the author of WCPE’s haphazardly-written letter unintentionally got one thing right: indeed, ‘not airing modern, discordant, and difficult music is [a] concern.’ It is true that the majority of people who purchase tickets for Rolling Stones concerts do so with the expectation of hearing ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ ‘Ruby Tuesday,’ and ‘Satisfaction,’ but few of them boo when new material is performed alongside the classic hits. WCPE’s weekly, one-hour Wavelengths program—dropped by the station earlier in 2023—featured contemporary music, but advancing this as genuine open-mindedness and advocacy for new works was akin to an opera company occasionally staging Porgy and Bess as evidence of its diversity rather than regularly auditioning and engaging artists of color. WCPE’s stated emphasis on Baroque, Classical, and Early Romantic works could perhaps be respected as a valid reflection of listeners’ preferences were it not so obviously belied by frequent airings of music by Mahler and Debussy and excerpts from film scores.

What is all too apparent in WCPE’s letter is a regrettable prejudice against contemporary modes of operatic expression, particularly those that tell the stories of marginalized peoples who have been traditionally victimized or ignored by the Arts. Art is inherently political, but the enjoyment and celebration of Art and the artists who create it should never be politicized in the pursuit of a personal agenda. Should those who are disturbed by the graphic violence in Dead Man Walking, which is no more distressing than reporting on the evening news, also be denied the chance to contemplate the redemption engendered by the ‘face of love’ and forgiveness? WCPE’s action is censorship not of offensive material but of glimpses of situations too honest and human to be depicted with pretty tunes.

Had Abraham Lincoln—an opera lover who wrote of a special fondness for Gounod’s Faust—been the director of an opera company, he might have said that one can please some operaphiles some of the time and all of them some of the time but never all of them all of the time. Would he have liked the operas composed since his assassination? That cannot be known, but it is unlikely that he would have supported the repression of music that he did not like. Surely it is better to honor the right of all work to be heard, ‘with malice toward none, with charity for all.’