Thursday, March 22, 2007

We loves you, Porgy

New Porgy and Bess out on disc

True confessions: until the release of Decca's new Porgy and Bess, I haven't much cared about the two stupid questions that won't go away: Is the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess a real opera, and if so, is it a great one? If Berg's Lulu is an opera, and great (both articles of faith with me), why not Porgy?

But the real reason I haven't bothered about it is that, until now, I've never heard a performance of Porgy (live or recorded) that did much for me. Now having been knocked sideways by this Porgy and Bess, brilliantly led by John Mauceri, I'm on board. This is great stuff.

The ostensible selling point of this Porgy is, of all things, the version. The work of a posse of Gershwin scholars including Mauceri, it is the first recorded Porgy that reflects the show the Gershwins and DuBoses continuously refined for its 1935 Broadway premiere, the tour that followed, and, after Gershwin's death in 1937, a California tour in 1938.

Most performances since 1938 have been based on the original printed score, which was published before the Broadway premiere and really counts as the creators' first, not final, thoughts on it. The Gershwin scholars (fanatics all) behind this new version have scoured all of the available performing materials to arrive at an accurate version of the 1935 performing score, which, just for starters, shaves an hour (and a CD) off the three-and-a-half-hour running time of the "original." In their own words, it "restores the cuts." Take that, authenticists!

Still, musicology, however keen, has never sold audiences on anything. This Porgy
will snag you with its vitality — make that spunk. Mauceri makes good on his assertion that "Porgy and Bess is our great American opera." It's as true to life and involving as you could stand it to be.
The previous Porgys I know have fallen somewhere between overwrought musicals and awkward, self-conscious operas. But Mauceri's instincts for musical theater rival the masters'. This Porgy isn't just "right." It grabs you from its first gesture — a big, Rhapsody in Blue-like glissando — then, in the language of music theater, never lets you go.

With most new critical editions, only experts can hear all but a few of the changes. I can't say that I noticed all of the "literally thousands" of changes the Porgy sleuths have made, but scarcely a second passes without something sounding new, and better. The brighter, jazzier colors in the final instrumentation are only the most obvious improvements. More important, in their fleet new shapes, whole scenes sweep away the old and replace it with something infinitely more believable and striking.

Before spinning these discs, I watched the EMI DVD of the Glyndebourne Porgy, with Simon Rattle leading a highly conscientious reading of the "complete" opera. Its merits notwithstanding, it's a proper, British Porgy that tries so hard to get the idiom right and not offend that it's always walking on eggs. Gratifying as it is that Rattle gives the same attention to Porgy as he does to Fidelio, Mauceri (who's also conducted Fidelio at the Met, and Lulu in SF) drives a performance perhaps only an American could. He and his musicians, including the ace Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, are steeped in the idiom, nail it, and give us a Porgy that sizzles.
To a one, Mauceri's singers are fine vocalists, but not one of them would settle for that alone. Their performances are amply operatic, whatever that means, but artistically at least, these risk-takers exchange vital body fluids, some of which also get on you. You get all snaggled up in their beautiful, sad, messy lives, and when was the last time that happened to you at the opera?
Instead of making a meal of "Summertime," as every soprano I've heard sing it has, Nicole Cabell's Clara makes a picnic of it, beautifully foreshadowing the actual picnic a short act away. Bess' short revival of it as a lullaby, as she watches over Clara's child, is charged with undertones of the danger that infuses the daily lives of these pithy survivors.
Alvy Powell's Porgy is, despite being a paraplegic, no Goody Two-Shoes, yet he's never less than sympathetic. Marquita Lister gives us a Bess (who, despite Porgy's famous tune, is three different men's woman at some point) who actually sounds different when she's with each of them.
Shining like a klieg light over his brilliant colleagues is Robert Mack's vocally snazzy, dramatically savvy Sporting Life. You only think you know "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat Dat's Leaving Soon for New York."
In the irrefutable words of the chorus, "Oh, I can't sit down."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Nicole's début at Carnegie Hall

... Anyone who was at
Carnegie last night enjoyed an unforgettable experience. There is a difference between high school and adult choirs, and it's one that the Viennese and Anglicans have known for at least 600 years. Young voices have a more pure tone, a more silken texture than mature voices, and their sound filled the Isaac Stern Auditorium last night with an incandescent glow. Close your eyes, and you might have imagined you were sitting in a great Gothic cathedral.

The first half of the program featured each of the four choirs singing a capella or piano arrangements of various hymns and songs, conducted by their regular choral directors. The selections ranged from Jan Sweelink's 1626 setting of Psalm 96, to the Latin hymn Lux Aurumque, written in 2000 by 36 year old Eric Whitacre. I felt a bit uneasy when the Bentonville High School Chamber Choir - a public high school - chose to perform a rousing Gospel song called Worthy to Be Praised, but it got by far the biggest ovation of the night.
After the intermission, the combined choirs - nearly 200 singers in all - were joined by the Orchestra of St. Luke's for Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and Poulenc's Gloria. Dr. Jessop paused to say a few words beforehand, reminding us that these works were challenging for an adult choir to pull off, much less high school students. In the Gloria, the choir was joined by the talented American soprano Nicole Cabell, who made her Covent Garden debut this season and is engaged to sing at the Met in upcoming seasons. Her voice had a dark radiance, effectively penetrating the huge sound projecting from behind her.
After the music ended, Jessop brought out all the individual choral directors to share in the huge standing ovation, a moment they seemed to cherish even more than the kids, who will likely have to wait for their grandchildren to realize just how magical last night was.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Imelda de’ Lambertazzi

Reviews of Imelda de' Lambertazzi at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

It used to be assumed that because Donizetti had composed so many operas – his nickname was “Dozzinetti”, man of the dozen – only a handful could withstand serious consideration. That view is looking increasingly suspect, thanks to a recent surge of recordings, revivals and research. There is much more to him than Lucia di Lammermoor, Maria Stuarda and Don Pasquale – if only we would open our ears. Intelligently prepared concert performances such as this, promoted by Opera Rara and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, reveal a dramatist of consistency and daring.
It’s hardly surprising that Imelda de’Lambertazzi, first produced in Naples in 1830 and then virtually forgotten for 150 years, disconcerted its early listeners. There was no overture, remarkably little vocal decoration, scarcely a pause for reflection. The drama came first, second and third, making for a wonderfully compact score that Verdi must surely have learned from a decade later. Here is a composer not pandering to expectations but breaking new ground – and paying heavily for it.

The plot, drawn from medieval Bolognese chronicles, is a standard tale of tragic love snared by the feuding of two powerful families. What distinguishes Imelda from other such operatic fables is that it’s not the tenor who gets the woman but Bonifacio the baritone – a quirk of circumstance, dictated by Donizetti’s recognition of the outstanding gifts of Antonio Tamburini, destined to become one of the most famous baritones of his day.
James Westman took some time to get inside the part: his voice, well-produced but not specially interesting, summoned the necessary intensity only in the second half. Nicole Cabell’s Imelda was mistress of the beautifully spun line, albeit short of expressive vulnerability. The real fireworks came from two well- contrasted tenors – Massimo Giordano, wonderfully Italianate as the brutish young Lorenzo, and Frank Lopardo, singing as handsomely as he has ever done in the father-role of Orlando. The OAE relished Donizetti’s primary orchestral timbres, and Mark Elder’s conducting generated tremendous heat and stylistic assurance.

Andrew Clark, Financial Times, March 15, 2007

Do you like your Donizetti rare, or well done? Well, when Opera Rara joins forces with Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment you relish it both ways at once.
Composed just before Anna Bolena , Donizetti's Imelda de’ Lambertazzi was scarcely heard in 20th-century Europe until 1989 — and not a lot thereafter. It’s a promising Romeo and Juliet of a story, with the feuding between the Bolognese families of Ghibellines and Guelphs. But it was thought to lack certain essentials, such as an overture and a proper finale, and it has surprisingly little fancy vocal writing. In other words, it’s lean: it’s very much a drama of personal encounter and confrontation. What better candidate for a concert performance with period instruments?
From the tense drum roll of the opening to the lone trumpeter high in the stalls, Mark Elder and the OAE had a capacity audience on the edge of its seats. A sombre chorus of national mourning, sung by the fine Geoffrey Mitchell Choir, and well worthy of Verdi, seduced the ear. And within the first ten minutes two tenors, father and son in the tale, were belting out exhortations to glory, honour and victory.
What more could anyone want? Well, a starry as well as a star-crossed Imelda, of course. And there she was in the person of the soprano Nicole Cabell, mourning in mellifluous melody for all mothers; ardently and stylishly declaring her love for Bonifacio; and finally, with Richard Lester’s solo cello, sighing and sobbing her last as she expires. The two tenors were magnificently matched. Frank Lopardo was rhythmically incisive as Imelda’s father, Orlando; and the Pompeii-born Massimo Giordano unleashed pyroclastic flows of anger and vengeance as her brother Lamberto. The baritone James Westman as Bonifacio was a little backward in coming vocally forward; but Brindley Sherratt was a formidable bass Ubaldo.
Best of all, there was the orchestra: the OAE responded to Elder's superbly paced direction with alacrity and a true sense of adventure.

Hilary Finch, Times on Line, March 14, 2007

The more you hear Opera Rara's revivals of Donizetti's lesser known works, the more you have to confront the composer's fascination with the macabre. At the end, the heroine kills herself by sucking poisoned blood from her lover's corpse. It is a measure of Donizetti's genius that when this potentially ludicrous moment arrives, it strikes us as a logical denouement.
First performed in 1830, the opera is a study of sectarian violence. In 13th-century Bologna, two aristocratic families, the Lambertazzi and the Gieremei, are waging urban war. Imelda is carrying on a clandestine affair with Bonifacio, heir to the Gieremei estates. Discovery of their relationship escalates the slaughter. Imelda's father Orlando rejects her as she dies, while her brother Lamberto, unhealthily obsessed with her sexuality, looks vindictively on.

Donizetti drags us through this tale at breakneck speed, dismantling operatic convention as he goes. The doomed lovers, unusually, are soprano and baritone. The Lambertazzi patriarchy consists of preening tenors. Sustaining the relentless tension is hell for the performers and it is here that the problems with Opera Rara's revival set in.
Donizetti presents Imelda as tough, though Nicole Cabell makes her genteel. Similarly, James Westman's handsomely sung Bonifacio seems bland. The persistent fire in the performance came from Mark Elder's ferocious conducting, and from Frank Lopardo and Massimo Giordano, both on blazing form as the father and son. The nightmarish atmosphere was immeasurably heightened by the abrasive sound of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Tim Ashley,The Guardian,Wednesday March 14, 2007

Forgotten drama packs a mighty punch

It's a measure of Donizetti's extraordinarily prolific output that although Imelda de' Lambertazzi is listed as his 29th opera, it still ranks as an early work.

Nothing about it seems hesitant, however - it's a rough, tough melodrama on a Romeo and Juliet theme, in which the Bolognese clans the Guelphs and the Ghibellines take the place of the Veronese Capulets and Montagues.
Imelda has been largely forgotten since its first performances in 1830, and even the post-war revival of enthusiasm for Donizetti has to my knowledge given rise to only one modern performance, in Lugano in 1989.
Nobody thinks it a masterpiece: the musicologist William Ashbrook, writing before this exhumation, was positively sniffy about its fustian dramatic coarseness, deeming it of interest only for its unconventional choice of a baritone for its hero and the fact that it was composed a few months before Donizetti's first great work, Anna Bolena.
But Imelda certainly packs a punch.
Musically muscular and forceful, it contains only two full-scale arias and proceeds instead through violent confrontations, declamatory recitative, and noisy choruses and ensembles.
There is a marked lack of coloratura padding or incidental frippery, and the action is so relentlessly fast that one is left wishing for a little more light and shade or an extended episode of lyrical repose.
At Opera Rara's concert performance (which was being recorded), Mark Elder proved a superb advocate for the score's defence.
Like those other great conductors of early 19th-century Italian opera Riccardo Muti and Charles Mackerras, he allows no slacking or coasting, insisting that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gives full weight and attention to even the most trivial and clichéd of accompaniments and figurations.
The cast was fired by his blazing energy and cracking pace.
In the title role, Nicole Cabell sang with limpid tone and sensitivity: what a pity that her words were largely swallowed up by the hall's woolly acoustic.
James Westman's firm and elegant voice gave an admirable account of the baritone's big number, while Massimo Giordano and Frank Lopardo made the most of thankless secondary tenor roles.
It was an exhilarating performance, even though I doubt anyone was left particularly wanting to hear the opera again.
Next time he turns to Donizetti, Elder might like to address the more complex challenges offered by two still-underrated products of his maturity, Poliuto and Maria di Rohan.

Rupert Christiansen Daily Telegraph 12 March 2007