09 November 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala 2023 (B. Bliss, S. Costello, S. Howard, Q. Kelsey, F. Lombardi, A. Meade, A. Pérez, S. M. Plumb, L. Redpath, B. Wagorn, H. Watkins; Carnegie Hall, 29 October 2023)

IN REVIEW: bronze bust of American tenor RICHARD TUCKER by Milton Hebald, Richard Tucker Park at 66th Street and Columbus Avenue, New York City; 30 October 2023 [Photograph by Joseph Newsome, © by Joseph Newsome / Voix des Arts]GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), ABROISE THOMAS (1811 – 1896), GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901), GEORGES BIZET (1838 – 1875), ALFREDO CATALANI (1854 – 1893), GERÓNIMO GIMÉNEZ (1854 – 1923), GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924), MANUEL PONCE (1882 – 1948), FREDERICK LOEWE (1901 – 1988), and RAY CHARLES (1930 – 2004): Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala 2023Federica Lombardi, Angela Meade, Ailyn Pérez, and Liv Redpath, sopranos; Ben Bliss and Stephen Costello, tenors; Quinn Kelsey and Sean Michael Plumb, baritones; Soloman Howard, bass; Bryan Wagorn and Howard Watkins, piano [Richard Tucker Music Foundation, Carnegie Hall, New York City, USA; Sunday, 29 October 2023]

Nearly a half-century has passed since, on a solemn day in January 1975, the immense stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera House was occupied not by lavish costumes, scenery, and sets but by the simple coffin of one of that company’s best-loved singers, tenor Richard Tucker. Heard between his 1945 début as Enzo Grimaldo in Ponchielli’s La gioconda and his final MET performance, thirty-six days before his death, as Canio in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in an array of parts encompassing the Verdi and Puccini rôles for which he was most renowned, Mozart’s Ferrando (Così fan tutte) and Tamino (Die Zauberflöte), and French protagonists including Bizet’s Don José (Carmen), Offenbach’s Hoffmann, and Saint-Saëns’s Samson, Tucker thrilled audiences, first at the MET’s inaugural home at 39th and Broadway and later in the new house at Lincoln Center, with a voice that was truly worthy of those spaces. A native New Yorker who devoted three quarters of his operatic career to the MET, Tucker epitomized the American opera singer for generations of listeners, forging a legacy that continues to fascinate, inspire, and nurture new ranks of opera lovers and emerging singers.

Since its inception in 1975, the Richard Tucker Music Foundation has honored its namesake’s legacy by recognizing and supporting the work of American singers whose efforts advance the ideals advocated by Tucker, perhaps the most significant of which is indefatigable championing of opera in the United States. Like many Arts organizations, RTMF continues to battle the financial woes exacerbated but by no means solely begotten by the global COVID pandemic. Having sung at the MET for three decades, during some of the most turbulent economic and social periods of the Twentieth Century, Tucker was unquestionably adept in the art of adaptation. Especially in times of upheaval, uncertainty, and scarce resources, when Art can provide glimmers of hope that are otherwise elusive, Tucker would likely have been among the most fervent adherents to the adage that, by whatever means are necessary, the show must go on.

Aside from the fiscal inability to award the foundation’s customary prizes and grants in 2023, the most dispiriting manifestation of the financial hardship being endured by RTMF was the substitution of piano for the chorus and orchestra typically engaged for Tucker Galas, yet, as the sequence of performances progressed, the artistic benefit of this seeming deficiency became apparent. In years past, particularly when the Galas were televised, analyses of whose designs participating singers were wearing sometimes seemed to garner more attention than considerations of whose music was being performed. For the 2023 Gala, collaborative pianists Bryan Wagorn and Howard Watkins supplied musical settings for each selection that rendered the absense of larger forces inconsequential and focused attention on the music. Both gentlemen played superbly, their technical prowess meeting every challenge of the musical arrangements, and their collective artistry unified power with poetry. Gala performances are rarely events of profound emotional depth, but Wagorn and Watkins effected abundant moments of poignant engagement.

In Spring 2022, baritone Sean Michael Plumb had the exhilarating but daunting distinction of débuting at the MET as Harlekin in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos opposite Lise Davidsen. That he made a brilliant, lasting impression in such formidable company is a testament to his stagecraft. Honored with RTMF grants in 2015 and 2022, he opened the 2023 Gala with another unenviable task: taking the stage following the playing of a 1951 recording of Tucker singing the aria ‘Sound an alarm’ from Händel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. Following Tucker’s electrifying performance with ‘Largo al factotum’ from Act One of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia was slightly jarring, but Plumb sang the familiar music with charm and a laudable avoidance of comedic excess. Occasional lapses in accuracy notwithstanding, the patter was deftly handled. The lyricism of Zurga’s lines in the duet ‘Au fond du temple saint’ from Act One of Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles was better suited to the natural amplitude and timbre of Plumb’s voice, and he sang handsomely, extending the line with innate grasp of the style and centering his tones on the vowels of the text.

Fitting the Tucker Gala into her busy autumn schedule, a cornerstone of which is her portrayal of Amelia in the MET revival of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, 2011 Tucker Award winner Angela Meade drew from the time-tested soprano concert repertoire a well-known piece from a seldom-performed opera, the aria ‘Ebben? Ne andrò lontana’ from Act One of Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally. The Stern Auditorium acoustic was not congenial for the expansive dimensions of Meade’s spinto sound, obscuring pitch and articulation. There was perceptible connection with the text, however, and the impact of the singer’s tremendous top B could not be diminished.

Lending his talents to the Gala without benefit of extensive preparation, bass Soloman Howard exhibited his still-developing Verdian credentials with a stronly-sung account of Jacopo Fiesco’s scene from the Prologo of Simon Boccanegra. Elegantly phrasing the opening recitative ‘A te l’estremo addio,’ Howard invited the audience into the character’s troubled psyche. In the aria ‘Il lacerato spirito del mesto genitore,’ the vocalism was nearly upstaged by the heart-wrenching delicacy with which Wagorn played the music for the offstage chorus. The organic use of portamento that characterizes the work of the greatest Verdi singers was not yet evident in Howard’s performance, yet the vocal authority required to bring Fiesco to life compellingly was wielded with sonorous suavity.

Débuting at the MET as Oscar in the current season’s staging of Un ballo in maschera, soprano Liv Redpath paid tribute to the high voices that have garnered acclaim in past Tucker Galas with an engrossing, captivatingly-sung traversal of Ophélie’s extended mad scene from Act Four of Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet. From the first phrases of ‘A vos jeux, mes amis,’ the clarity of the soprano’s diction was invaluable, transforming the vocal display into charismatic storytelling. ‘Il m’a donné son cœur en échange du mien’ was voiced with grace and poise, though nervousness—not inappropriate in the scene’s dramatic context—seemed to affect excursions in alt. Still, the opalescent sheen of the voice in ‘Partagez-vous mes fleurs!’ was exquisite. Redpath was later partnered by Plumb in a delightfully unpretentious account of ‘Pronta io son,’ the duet for Norina and Malatesta that ends Act One of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Genuinely reacting to one another, soprano and baritone amused without compromising musical integrity, acting with youthful exuberance and singing with bel canto ebullience.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) baritone SEAN MICHAEL PLUMB, soprano LIV REDPATH, tenor STEPHEN COSTELLO, pianist HOWARD WATKINS, soprano FEDERICA LOMBARDI, tenor BEN BLISS, pianist BRYAN WAGORN, soprano ANGELA MEADE, baritone QUINN KELSEY, soprano AILYN PÉREZ, and bass SOLOMAN HOWARD in the Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala 2023, 29 October 2023 [Photograph by Dario Acosta, © Richard Tucker Music Foundation]Gone to a Gala: (from left to right) baritone Sean Michael Plumb, soprano Liv Redpath, tenor Stephen Costello, pianist Howard Watkins, soprano Federica Lombardi, tenor Ben Bliss, pianist Bryan Wagorn, soprano Angela Meade, baritone Quinn Kelsey, soprano Ailyn Pérez, and bass Soloman Howard, participants in the Richard Tucker Music Foundation Gala 2023, 29 October 2023[Photograph by Dario Acosta, © by Richard Tucker Music Foundation]

Heard in recent MET seasons as Mozart’s Don Ottavio and Tamino and as Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, 2014 and 2016 grants recipient Ben Bliss sang some of Verdi’s most emotionally chameleonic music for tenor, the Duca di Mantova’s scene that launches Act Two of Rigoletto. The irrepressible verve of his declamation of ‘Ella mi fu rapita’ yielded to sweet-toned refinement in ‘Parmi veder le lagrime,’ the interpolated top B♭ an exclamation of awe and yearning. The cabaletta ‘Possente amor mi chiama’ was voiced with rhythmic buoyancy and romantic ardor. Bliss’s encore demonstrated his skill at integrating Classical training with Jazz vibes—an art of which Bliss’s mastery is rare amongst opera singers. His singing of Ray Charles’s 1956 standard ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’ bewitched, the words enunciated with debonair magnetism and the inventive riffs executed dazzlingly.

Having appeared as Mimì in Franco Zeffirelli’s celebrated Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini’s La bohème on the day prior to the Tucker Gala, Italian soprano Federica Lombardi revealed an altogether different facet of her artistry at Carnegie Hall with a fascinating performance of the final scene of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. The sadness with which she sang ‘Piangete voi’ was palpable. The impeccable breath control demanded by ‘Al dolce guidami castel natio’ was supplied with intrinsic sensitivity, the tone even and alluring throughout the range. The bravura flourishes of the cabaletta ‘Coppia iniqua, l’estrema vendetta’ corruscated with anger and disillusionment, but stylistic integrity was fastidiously maintained. Lombardi’s encore, ‘Me llaman la primorosa’ Gerónimo Giménez’s zarzuela El barbero de Sevilla, was sung with gala-appropriate glamour, the upper register radiant, but even more beguiling was her depiction of Violetta in ‘Parigi, o cara’ from Act Three of La traviata. With Bliss singing Alfredo’s music affectionately, Lombardi surrendered to the solace of the words, and the voice glowed with beauty and tonal purity.

It is unlikely that any attendee of the 2023 Tucker Gala who was unaware of baritone Quinn Kelsey’s preeminence in the field of Verdi singing departed after hearing his performance of ‘Pietà, rispetto, amore’ from Act Four of Macbeth without feeling grateful for having been educated. The dignity of Kelsey’s singing was remarkable, each sentiment of the text communicated with immediacy, and the rugged attractiveness of the timbre glimmered in the aria’s melodic lines. Singing Conte di Luna to Meade’s Leonora in their confrontation from Act Four of Il trovatore, Kelsey reacted to Meade’s frenzied ‘Mira, d’acerbe lagrime’ with insouciant disdain, but sadistic satisfaction resounded in ‘Vivrà! Contende il giubilo,’ voiced with full-throated abandon. Kelsey’s encore, ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’ from Camelot, was an unexpected and sublime change of pace. Truly sung rather than crooned, his performance of the song was touchingly personal. The quiet pensiveness of his delivery of the wistful text was easily interpreted as a plaint for the devastation and suffering in his native Hawai’i.

Winner of the 2009 Tucker Award, tenor Stephen Costello sang Rodolfo opposite Lombardi’s Mimì in the 28 October matinée performance of La bohème, replacing an infirm colleague on very short notice. The vocal security and tonal beauty heard at Lincoln Center on Saturday also distinguished his singing at Carnegie Hall on Sunday. The title character’s romanza ‘Deserto in terra, che più m’avanza’ from Act Two of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Sebastiano, re di Portogallo was sung with the poetic eloquence—an integral tenet of bel canto that is now far too often approximated or altogether neglected—that both the music and the text demand, but there was also excitement befitting the piece’s dramatic context, the top Cs and D♭ all the more thrilling for being wholly in the voice and certain of pitch. The occasion encouraged a few instances of pushing the tone through and above the passaggio, but Costello is unmistakably a singer who is cognizant and respectful of his vocal capabilities. Again called upon to sing in a colleague’s stead, he joined Plumb in the beloved duet from Les pêcheurs de perles. Even in this brief excerpt, his Nadir proved to be as captivating as his Don José, first heard in Dallas in 2018. The top B♭s were voiced with ease, but it was the unassailable legato of Costello’s singing that was most memorable. For his encore, Costello gave a heartfelt, incisively-sung performance of Italian-American composer Salvatore Cardillo’s canzone napoletana ‘Core ’ngrato’ in which notes and words were merged into a stream of pure emotion of the type that Richard Tucker’s singing unabashedly embodied, the upper register projected with exultant freedom.

The evening’s most strikingly expressive singing was offered by soprano Ailyn Pérez, recipient of the 2012 Tucker Award and the first Latinx singer to be so honored. Recently acclaimed for her rôle début as the eponymous heroine of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli, she brought a glimpse of Nagasaki to the Perelman Stage with a momentous, grippingly emotive account of Cio-Cio San’s ‘Un bel dì, vedremo.’ Secure throughout the range, with sterling top ♭s, the voice was voluptuous but successful at imparting Cio-Cio San’s naïveté. Opening in the long-overdue MET première of Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas on 16 November, Pérez rejoiced in her Latin heritage with a magnificent performance of Manuel Ponce’s ‘Estrellita,’ words pronounced with obvious love and tones above the stave suspended sparklingly in air like dewdrops in early-morning sunlight.

The Gala ended with a recording of Tucker singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel, the inimitable voice cascading into the auditorium with a timely message of reassurance and inclusion. No matter how isolating life’s roads may seem, no one walks alone when there is music.

08 November 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gaspare Spontini — LA VESTALE (I. Thomas, T. Kinch, T. Aluwihare, K. Oliver, E. Lindsey, R. Agster, H. Kim; Teatro Grattacielo, 28 October 2023)

IN REVIEW: Teatro Grattacielo's performance of Gaspare Spontini's LA VESTALE, 28 October 2023 [Graphic design by Ricardo Monge, © by Teatro Grattacielo]GASPARE SPONTINI (1774 – 1851): La vestaleIndra Thomas (Giulia), Thomas Kinch (Licinio), Tahanee Aluwihare (La Gran Vestale), Kyle Oliver (Cinna), Eric Lindsey (Il sommo Sacerdote), Rick Agster (Un aruspice), HyunSoon Kim (Un console); Teatro Grattacielo Chorus and Orchestra; Christian Capocaccia, conductor [Stefanos Koroneos, director and concept curator; Lydia Venieri, multidisciplinary artwork designer; Matthew Deinhart, lighting designer; Vaibhavi Deo, visual effects designer; Angela Huff, costume designer; Tiger Lily Moreno, makeup designer; Teatro Grattacielo, Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, New York, USA; Saturday, 28 October 2023]

There is perhaps no rôle in opera more inextricably associated with a single singer than the heroine of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale is with Maria Callas. Though created in the opera’s 1807 Paris première by the Haitian-born soprano Caroline Branchu, remembered both for her musical prowess and for her short-lived but well-documented romantic liaison with Napoléon, and respectively interpreted to acclaim in the first and third quarters of the Twentieth Century by Rosa Ponselle and Leyla Gencer, the part of the Vestālis Julia might have been specially tailored to Callas’s singular musical capabilities and dramatic sensibilities. With many similarities to the title rôle in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, a part in discussions of which Callas is still mentioned with reverence, Julia—or, as Callas knew her, Giulia—provided Callas with the sort of interpretive challenges upon which she thrived. Commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the legendary soprano’s birth by presenting in Callas’s native city a rare performance of La vestale, Teatro Grattacielo honored Callas’s enduring influence on standards of operatic expression by resurrecting the shades of Callas’s unique histrionic prowess that still inhabit every page of Spontini’s score.

Unlike other rôles in which her legacy continues to influence—and intimidate—Twenty-First-Century interpreters, La Divina sang Giulia in La vestale in only five performances of a sole production, Luchino Visconti’s 1954 staging at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. Working with Visconti for the first time and partnered by Franco Corelli, Ebe Stignani, and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Callas unquestionably appreciated the parallels between Giulia and the bel canto rôle with which she arguably remains most identified, Bellini’s Norma. Regrettably, the surviving recording of the La Scala broadcast of the Vestale performance of 7 December 1954, widely circulated in commercial and clandestine releases, is of frustratingly poor audio quality, the sonic murk obscuring much of Spontini’s orchestral writing and crucial elements of the story. Nonetheless, the unerring musicality of Callas’s portrayal of Giulia is perceptible, the recording’s debilitating limitations fading into insignificance whenever she sings.

Utilizing the Italian translation of Étienne de Jouy’s libretto prepared for an 1811 production at Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli by Giovanni Schmidt, whose work in Naples included penning the texts for Paer’s Leonora and Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra, Armida, Adelaide di Borgogna, and Eduardo e Cristina, Teatro Grattacielo closely reproduced the edition of La vestale staged by Visconti in 1954, excisions primarily focused on the extensive sequences of dances in Acts One and Three and Cinna’s Act Three aria ‘Ascoltar i vani accenti.’

Evocatively accentuated by Matthew Deinhart’s lighting designs, aptly conflagratory imagery dominated Artistic Director Stefanos Koroneos’s and visual effects designer Vaibhavi Deo’s concept, alternately symbolizing romantic ardor, religious zeal, and divine absolution. With the choristers and male principals in modern dress, contrasting markedly with the sumptuous, flowing gowns in which Giulia and La Gran Vestale appeared, the costume designs by Angela Huff and multidisciplinary artist Lydia Venieri and Tiger Lily Moreno’s flatteringly natural makeup enhanced the performance’s sense of occasion without interfering with the physical act of singing. Movement recalled the understated gesturing favored by Callas in the surviving film footage of her 1964 Covent Garden Tosca, ideally suiting both the performance’s prevailing ethos and the gravitas of the music.

IN REVIEW: soprano INDRA THOMAS as Giulia (left) and mezz-soprano TAHANEE ALUWIHARE as la Gran Vestale (right) in Teatro Grattacielo's performance of Gaspare Spontini's LA VESTALE, 28 October 2023 [Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]Addio, la mia sorella: soprano Indra Thomas as Giulia (left) and mezzo-soprano Tahanee Aluwihare as la Gran Vestale (right) in Teatro Grattacielo’s performance of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale, 28 October 2023
[Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Conductor Christian Capocaccia and the orchestra assembled by Teatro Grattacielo created a musical foundation for this Vestale that compared favorably with the work of their Milanese counterparts both in 1954 and in the later, commercially-recorded production of the French version conducted by Riccardo Muti. Pacing the score with discernible cognizance of its historical context, Capocaccia sagaciously integrated reminiscences of Haydn, Salieri, Mozart, and Cimarosa with suggestions of later works by Bellini, Weber, and Wagner. Kinships with Cherubini’s Medea—in the title rôle of which Callas also excelled—and Beethoven’s Fidelio were especially apparent, not least in the immediacy with which Capocaccia shaped transitions from declamatory passages to currents of lyricism. From the start of the opera’s episodic Overture, which owes much to the models of Gluck’s operatic preludes, the orchestral musicians played with verve and virtuosity, aiding Capocaccia in achieving equilibrium between Classical poise and Romantic passion. The conductor’s tempi capitalized on the singers’—and the score’s—strengths, facilitating dramatic involvement by adhering to the theatrical confines of Spontini’s carefully-wrought musical structures.

Comprised of professional singers and students from Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, Teatro Grattacielo’s chorus sang with musical and verbal clarity that demonstrated the effectiveness of the training that they received from chorus master Jason Tramm. Joining La Gran Vestale in the Inno mattutino in Act One, the choristers intoned ‘Alma Vesta del cielo pura figlia’ reverently, their sound well balanced despite the comparative weakness of the lower voices. Both in its initial statement and its later reprise, ‘Di lauri il suol spargiamo’ was strongly sung, and the evolving sentiments of ‘Della Dea pura seguace’ and ‘La pace in questo giorno è il fruto del valore’ were enacted with subtle gradations of volume and intensity.

In Act Two, the Inno della sera was radiantly voiced, the chorus crafting diaphanous aural textures. In the act’s charged finale, the discovery of Giulia having allowed the sacred flame to be extinguished plunging the drama into crisis, the choristers’ forceful singing heightened the tension. The theatrical efficacy of Act Three was also bolstered by their work, the very different moods of ‘La Vestale infida mora’ and ‘Licinio! Oh Numi!’ vividly communicated. Rejoicing in catastrophe being averted by the miraculous restoration of the altar fire, the catharsis of the opera’s final scene surged in ‘Lieti concenti, dolci momenti,’ voiced with emotional engagement.

As un aruspice, bass Rick Agster uttered ‘Differir vi consiglio il sacrifizio’ in Act Three with urgency, the flinty timbre of his voice keenly imparting the significance of the stern haruspex’s auguring. The sole disappointment of baritone HyunSoon Kim’s performance as un console was the brevity of his part: so incisive and handsomely-voiced was his enunciation of ‘La pace in questo giorno è il frutto del valor’ in the Act One finale that more music for the character would have been most welcome.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano INDRA THOMAS as Giulia, bass ERIC LINDSEY as Il sommo Sacerdote, and mezzo-soprano TAHANEE ALUWIHARE as la Gran Vestale in Teatro Grattacielo's performance of Gaspare Spontini's LA VESTALE, 28 October 2023 [Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]Sul precipizio della giustizia: (from left to right) soprano Indra Thomas as Giulia, bass Eric Lindsey as Il sommo Sacerdote, and mezzo-soprano Tahanee Aluwihare as la Gran Vestale in TeatroGrattacielo’s performance of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale, 28 October 2023
[Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]

The extent to which the rôle of il sommo Sacerdote, the irascible guardian of the sanctity of the temple of Vesta, fell victim to the pruning to which Spontini’s score was subjected in Teatro Grattacielo’s performance of La vestale seemed especially injurious with a singer of the exceptional caliber exemplified by bass Eric Lindsey interpreting the part. The character’s commanding ‘Ormai cessi il tripudio’ in the Act One finale was unfortunately suppressed, reducing him to a figure who was seen but not heard in the opera’s first act. When Lindsey’s voice was unleashed in Act Two, the Sacerdote’s authority thundered thrillingly. He sang ‘Grida vendetta il cielo contro la coppia’ explosively and launched the Act Two finale with an anguished ‘Oh delitto!’ before voicing ‘O perfida ministra’ with sonorous solemnity. In the Act Three duetto with Licinio, Lindsey sang ‘Tal’è il voler de’ Numi’ fervently, revealing the psychological toll of inviolable duty. The voice shimmered with relief in an account of ‘Olà, tutti fermate spettacol di contento!’ that exhibited the insightfulness of his portrayal, Lindsey’s vocal assurance elucidating the subtleties of his use of words.

As Cinna, the captain of a Roman legion under Licinio’s command, baritone Kyle Oliver sang boldly and acted with conviction that credibly projected the character’s martial bravado. At his entrance in Act One, Oliver voiced ‘Presso il sublime tempio a Vesta sacro’ robustly, establishing Cinna as a consequential participant in the opera’s narrative, and the aria ‘Tu nascondi a un fido core’ was sung with panache, the baritone’s vocal security undermined only by a few effortful notes at the top of the range. In the duetto with Licinio, Oliver sang ‘Ah! sgombri il ciel si rio presentimento’ pointedly, the captain’s growing unease coloring the voice. The verbal acuity with which Cinna’s lines in the Act Two terzetto with Giulia and Licinio were articulated was equaled by the musicality of the baritone’s vocalism. The loss of his aria ‘Ascoltar i vani accenti’ left Cinna with little to do in Act Three, but, here and throughout the performance, Oliver made much of each note and word.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano TAHANEE ALUWIHARE as La Gran Vestale (left) and soprano INDRA THOMAS as Giulia in Teatro Grattacielo's performance of Gaspare Spontini's LA VESTALE, 28 October 2023 [Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]Le guardiane della fiamma: mezzo-soprano Tahanee Aluwihare as La Gran Vestale (left) and soprano Indra Thomas as Giulia (right) in Teatro Grattacielo’s performance of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale, 28 October 2023
[Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]:

Ebe Stignani was nearing the end of her storied career when she partnered Callas in La vestale at La Scala in 1954, but the broadcast recording confirms that she remained a worthy collaborator, her portrayal of la Gran Vestale vocally confident and emotionally affecting. Teatro Grattacielo’s Gran Vestale, mezzo-soprano Tahanee Aluwihare, was also a superbly-qualified companiom for her Giulia. In Act One, ‘Alma Vesta del ciel pura figlia’ in the Inno mattutino was phrased with true dignity, the text used as the source of musical momentum. Like Stignani, Aluwihare was tested by the top Gs and As in the largo con moto aria ‘È l’Amore un mostro,’ but this and the andante espressivo ‘Il tuo cor si perde’ were handled intrepidly. ‘Tu dell’immortal face vigil custode’ in the Act One finale was nobly voiced. La Gran Vestale’s music in Act Two was also sung majestically, ‘O Giulia, è questa l’ora solenne’ sculpted with effortless Classical line. Aluwihare’s singing in Act Three reached a new pinnacle of grandeur, the sincerity of the character’s affection for Giulia permeating her work in their duetto. The serenity of Aluwihare’s portrayal was consistently allied with musical eloquence, her vocal acting touchingly disclosing la Gran Vestale’s devotion to Giulia as both hierarchical superior and friend.

IN REVIEW: tenor THOMAS KINCH as Licinio in Teatro Grattacielo's performance of Gaspare Spontini's LA VESTALE, 28 October 2023 [Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]L’amante trionfante: tenor Thomas Kinch as Licinio in Teatro Grattacielo’s performance of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale, 28 October 2023
[Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]

It is justly Callas whose brief acquaintance with La vestale is celebrated, but Franco Corelli’s depiction of the Roman general Licinio in the 1954 Visconti production is no less important in the opera’s performance history. Rarely a paragon of style in any repertoire other than verismo, Corelli ably followed Callas’s lead, singing Spontini’s music with surprising restraint. Cladding Licinio in gallant vocal attire hewn from a bronze-hued, baritonal timbre, tenor Thomas Kinch rivaled Corelli as an enthralling paramour for his Giulia. His opening recitative in Act One was delivered with conversational response to the text. Concentration on limning the meaning of the words was a defining aspect of his singing of ‘Quando amistà seconda il mio ardimento’ in the maestoso marziale duetto with Cinna, and the Act One finale was begun with a galvanizing ‘Trionfan l’armi nostre,’ the voice dominating the ensemble without pushing.

Assiduously duetting with Giulia in Act Two, Kinch articulated ‘Avran pietà gli Dei’ energetically, rising with his soprano colleague to an electrifying top B♭. No less pulse-quickening was his vocalism in the terzetto with Giulia and Cinna, the general’s psyche made audible. Kinch’s traversal of Licinio’s aria in Act Three, ‘Ah! no, s’io vivo ancora,’ was arresting, the tenor’s interpolated top B♭ blossoming in the theater’s acoustic. ‘D’un sacrifizio orrendo’ in the riveting duetto with il sommo Sacerdote surged with expressive brawn, but it was with ‘Vieni colà’ in the opera’s final scene that Kinch fully affirmed his mastery of Licinio’s dramatic predicament and Spontini’s musical language. Corelli’s voice was as extraordinary an instrument as Callas’s, and Kinch resisted any temptation to mimic his predecessor, instead crafting a portrayal of Licinio from which, were it preserved for posterity as Corelli’s was, future exponents of the rôle might learn.

IN REVIEW: soprano INDRA THOMAS as Giulia in Teatro Grattacielo's performance of Gaspare Spontini's LA VESTALE, 28 October 2023 [Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]La donna del fuoco sacro: soprano Indra Thomas as Giulia in Teatro Grattacielo’s performance of Gaspare Spontini’s La vestale, 28 October 2023
[Photograph by Gustavo Mirabile, © by Teatro Grattacielo]

Soprano Indra Thomas was no novice in paying homage to Callas’s musical relationship with the New York metropolitan area, having sung Imogene in Bellini’s Il pirata—a rôle famously interpreted by Callas at Carnegie Hall in 1959—in a 2000 Bel Canto at Caramoor performance. Her portrayal of Giulia in Teatro Grattacielo’s La vestale intimated that, owing to her meticulously-honed technique, the intervening years have been uncommonly kind to Thomas’s voice. There were passages in which shifts among the lower, middle, and upper registers were toilsome, but intonation was largely unimpeded. The sound of the voice as she sang ‘Fremo al nome di Vesta’ and Giulia’s music in the animated scene with la Gran Vestale in Act One fleetingly brought Jessye Norman’s timbre to mind, but both the sonic impact and the dramatic accents of her reading of the aria ‘Ti vedrò, ti vedrò fra momenti’ and Giulia’s music in the Act One finale were entirely her own.

Joining la Gran Vestale and the chorus in the Inno della sera in Act Two, Thomas sang limpidly. The tranquility of Giulia’s cloistered life disrupted by her love for Licinio, Thomas started the andante sostenuto opening of the aria ‘Tu che invoco orrore’ with finesse, her repeated top A♭s and cadenza ascending to top B♭ evincing the young lady’s innate honor. ‘Su questo sacro altare’ was declaimed with burgeoning self-recrimination, Giulia’s dedication to her vows undermined by doubt, and her voicing of the de facto cabaletta ‘Sospendete qualche istante,’ resolved with a long-sustained top C, electrified the atmosphere for her scorching singing of ‘Di Saturno la figlia i nostri prieghi ascotla’ in the duetto with Licinio and Giulia’s agonized lines in the subsequent terzetto. The lovely andante sostenuto ‘O Nume tutelar degl’infelici’ in the act’s final scene received dulcet handling, the soprano reminding the listener of the bel canto delicacy with which Callas caressed this music.

The gentle sorrow of ‘Addio, addio, tenere suore’ in the Act Three duetto with la Gran Vestale simmered in Thomas’s voice, her vowels darkened by despair. The larghetto aria ‘Caro oggetto, il di cui nome’ was sung with grace and simplicity, Giulia’s acceptance of her fate communicated with hushed contrition. The sacred cauldron reignited by lightning, the earnestness with which Thomas conveyed Giulia’s awe at the show of divine favor was deeply moving. Her euphonious ‘Oh clemenza del ciel!’ gleamed, and she matched her Licinio’s exuberance in ‘Vieni colà.’ Shouldering much of the responsibility for the outcome of Teatro Grattacielo’s venture, Thomas wisely eschewed musical pontificating, attempting neither to replicate Callas’s portrayal of Giulia nor to proclaim La vestale a neglected masterwork. Along with her colleagues on stage, in the pit, and behind the scenes, she executed her part with understanding of the words and fidelity to the score, allowing Spontini’s music to advocate on its own behalf. That advocacy proved to be incredibly persuasive.