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.

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.’