Maria Stuarda, with Joyce DiDonato and Carmen Gianattasio at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden

July 18th: my first time at Covent Garden, for the Royal Opera production (joint with Barcelona, the Theâtre des Champs-Elysées, and the Polish National Opera) of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda.  The fashion for reviving some of the lesser-known bel canto operas seems as strong as ever these days, especially with singers like Joyce DiDonato available to star in them.  This one was very much worth doing.  The opera is not perfect dramatically, but neither is it devoid of drama.  Of course we know how it's going to end, but the first act generates suspense over whether Elizabeth will meet with Mary, how they will interact, and especially what will happen to Roberto, Mary's lover and apparently one of Elizabeth's favorites too.  (I'm no expert on the history, but the libretto was adapted from a Walter Scott novel or play and is, I think, none too accurate historically.)  The final scene goes on perhaps a bit too long, Mary's final forgiveness of Elizabeth and lengthy exhortations, following her final confession to Talbot, to the assembled crowd and to Roberto to forgive her and enable peace and prosperity in the British dominions strains credulity a bit, seeming a bit corny and overpious.  The music is often strong here, but not uniformly so, Mary's prayer with crowd response seemed weak in comparison with similar scenes in other works of the era, e.g. the transcendent prayer scene in Rossini's Maometto Secundo.

A long first scene features Elizabeth, then others, especially Roberto, in colloquy with her.  Mary doesn't appear until well into the act, after a mini-intermission (lights up for a five-minute scene change) in the first act.  Carmen Gianattasio carried this portion strongly---her coloratura technique seemed quite secure to me, her voice pure and unstrained even at  high volume or high pitch.  Pretty good characterization too---her Elizabeth did seem a bit petulant at times, frayed by the stress of her position, but I guess it's tough to be Queen.  Sometimes she seemed slightly detached from the role, possibly because the attention to superb execution of demanding singing kept her from losing herself in the part.  Ismael Jordi as Roberto also came off well vocally, although to my ears, a bit "sung", sometimes phrasing with ever-so-slightly exaggerated flourishes.  But no vocal roughness, a  tone with good body and clarity, good projection, and pretty good characterization and intensity although again perhaps not inhabiting the role as completely as he could have.  But a singer I hope to hear again, whose presence in a cast I'd consider a definite attraction.

The production made some questionable choices, possibly in trying to keep to a budget... full Elizabethan costume for the women, especially Elizabeth, was a good choice, but it seemed weird to combine it with dark waistcoats and suits on the men, possibly of Edwardian vintage like the massive leather-upholstered couches and wood panelling that furnished the supposed Royal palace.  Elizabeth was portrayed as a bit on the vulgar side, especially when she rips off Roberto's shirt and runs her hands all over him in a jealous fit.  This lead to a long bout of shirtless singing by Roberto, well sung but the tableau unfortunately reminiscent of a Chippendales billboard.  A bit tacky, but perhaps effective in putting over a certain take on Elizabeth and inducing queasiness at her harassment of Roberto.

While the first part of the first act was an example of extremely well-sung, if somewhat oddly staged, opera, the appearance of DiDonato as Maria at the midpoint of the first act was the operatic equivalent of engaging warp drive.  Her first aria was a lament at being imprisoned, but suffused---at least in my recollection of it--- more by a mood of reverie and remembrance of lost pleasures and beauty than a mood of grief.  Stunningly beautiful singing, the more so because not especially showy technically and not exploiting the hotter emotions.  There may well have been technically very difficult things here, too---I don't really recall, but certainly soft high passages may have been in play---but if so they were executed so effortlessly that the focus was on the character and the music.

DiDonata was excellent in Rossini's La Donna del Lago (another bel-canto-era Walter Scott-based opera) last summer in Santa Fe, but she sounded even better here, perhaps in part due to the superb acoustics of Covent Garden, which may well be the best of any major opera house I've been in  this regard.  The open sides at Santa Fe may make it hard for the sound to penetrate with full vibrancy to the cheap seats I usually occupy at the back of the main floor, whereas even in the very moderately-priced Upper Amphiteatre center section (next stop is the roof, but having a straight-ahead view of the stage instead of looking sideways out of a box was a blessing) the orchestral and vocal sound was clear and detailed, with perfectly adequate volume, sweet but with no loss of clarity.

Complete technical control and vocal security enabled her to be totally absorbed in the role...the effect was that she had become the character, rather than consciously acting it---whether or not this effect was achieved in part by conscious real-time effort or whether she was "in the zone" by dint of intense past effort mastering the role being immaterial.  This level of performance continued for the rest of the opera, making it for the most part extremely compelling theatrically and musically, despite the usual uneven level of musical inspiration expected from a less-performed bel canto opera, and some dramatic weakness in the second act.  Occasional stretches of stereotyped and routine bel canto writing were often lent interest by the drama involved, and there were plenty of passages with much more musical interest, inextricably entwined, as is so important in opera, with the drama.

To mention just a few such highlights, beyond Mary's first scene in the prison: the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth is of course classic, both Mary's controlled, but intense, pleading for mercy and then her startlingly intense outburst of anger when she has decided that Elizabeth cannot be moved, and reacts to Elizabeth's insult.  I found out later that censors required these words be cut from the original production, though soprano Maria Malibran sang them anyway in the first performance (leading, after a few more performances, to the production being shut down).    One didn't need to know this history for it to be a visceral thrill and shock when Mary let loose with "Figlia impura di Bolena, parli tu di disonore?  Meretrice indegna e oscena, in te cada il mio rossore. Profanato è il soglio inglese, vil bastarda, dal tuo piè!"  (Impure daughter of Boleyn, you speak of dishonor?  Worthless, obscene whore, I blush for you.  The English throne is profaned, vile bastard, by your foot!).

The scene in which Mary confesses to Talbot (extremely well sung and characterized by Matthew Rose) was another highlight, especially the swift darkening of mood when Mary gives in to Talbot's insistence that she confront her past crimes (alluding, possibly, to collusion in the murder of her first husband).  It's the darker highlights that seem to have stuck in my memory, but there were plenty of moments of more positive passion that were outstanding as well.

All the singers were at least excellent---I didn't feel like the opera was losing out from weakness in any aspect of the musical presentation.  In the scenes with the counselor---probably Guglielmo Cecil---urging Elizabeth against clemency, both Elizabeth and Guglielmo really made palpable and plausible a feeling of being trapped into denying Mary mercy---these ex-monarchs, granted clemency, are all too likely to come back and menace you.

The contemporary, white-tiled hospital-like setting of the execution chamber, while continuing the theme of random anachronism, was effective in one respect---reminding us that the current practice of capital punishment is not all that different from the stump-and-ax execution block of Elizabethan times.  DiDonato's stamina and superb singing carried the long, long final scene well, although not completely compensating for the length of the scene, which somewhat undermined the drama.  Still, it prompted plenty of meditations on politics, religion, personality, history, and the meaning of this drama in the milieu of early 19th century Italy, in which Catholicism and tradition was presumably  confronting Romanticism and republicanism.

If this show comes to your town---as it I believe it will to Barcelona, beginning in December ---it's not to be missed.  Strong singing all around, a fairly dramatically effective and psychologically interesting work, with attractive and often striking music throughout, and an unbelievably charismatic and inspired dramatic and vocal performance by Joyce DiDonato---a chance to see and hear a true operatic superstar, and to understand why she's in that category, for how profoundly she deepens the dramatic, psychological, and musical impact of the work.





La Donna del Lago, Santa Fe Opera 2013

This year's Santa Fe Opera production of Rossini's La Donna del Lago (based on Sir Walter Scott's 1810 novel The Lady of the Lake) was a treat.  Musically, quite a nice piece.  I don't feel like giving a very definite appraisal of the opera itself without hearing it more, but it has plenty of excellent arias along with some that were less striking, some really nice orchestral parts (the opening scene, for instance), and good choral sections, along with what feels, at times, like more pedestrian sections (hardly unheard-of in Rossini).  Unquestionably worth seeing in a good production like this one.

Joyce DiDonato is a fascinating singer and convincingly characterized the main female role of Elena.  She has a very flexible mezzo with an extended high end, perhaps somewhere between a soprano and mezzo in tone, and great agility in coloratura.  Ornamentation and fancy passagework is all there, not approximated, although very occasionally I felt like this was getting in the way of natural phrasing.  Moreover she can usually do this while remaining relaxed, which probably contributes to her effectiveness as a vocal actress.  There was a lot for her to do in this opera, besides the last-act showstopper Tanti affetti, and she did it all (including Tanti affetti) masterfully.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, as King James of Scotland (disguised as one "Uberto" during the first act), gave a solid performance but his voice, while clear and reliable, seemed a bit overmatched, in volume and projection, by Ms. DiDonato's at times; indeed, I occasionally  wondered if she was holding back a bit so as not to overpower him.  (On the other hand, she had a lot of singing to do over the course of the evening, so could have been pacing herself.)  His singing came across as slightly reserved, perhaps a little stiff, although this was perhaps not completely out of character for a king.  His voice seemed smooth, refined, his tone a bit burnished.  I will definitely be interested in checking out his work in other settings.  I thought he came into his own a bit more in the final scene, where he is king in his court, rather than disguised to investigate the situation in his realm (and court Elena).

Tenor René Barbera was superb as Rodrigo di Dhu, the leader of another clan, whom Elena's father Duglas (Douglas) intends for Elena to marry.  His voice had a lot of color and texture to it, and projected well into the house.  And he sang with plenty of power and passion.  His voice showed no stress in climactic moments, and he did a good job of musically shaping phrases and whole arias, and of portraying Rodrigo as a vigorous, passionate young leader, not used to being thwarted.  I'd keep on the lookout for opera's he's in---his participation is a reason to go.

Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges was also superb as Elena's father Duglas.  He managed to convey real fatherly affection along with dictatorial control over his daughter's life, including the attempt to impose a marriage on her for reasons in part political and military.  Both his appearance (tall, with tousled dirty-blond hair) and his singing, in a clear, flexible but not soft, somewhat commanding but not bellowing voice, contributed to the picture of a fairly rough-hewn Scottish clan-leader, whose character mixes some nobility with some crudeness and violence.

As Malcolm Groeme, Elena's own choice for a main squeeze, mezzo Marianna Pizzolato sang beautifully, and her somewhat darker mezzo worked well with DiDonato.  She too was very solid in complex passagework.  Their duet cavatina Vivere io non potro was a highlight of the evening, and one of the high points of Rossini's opera.  She perhaps did not match DiDonato in acting skill; her long Act 2, scene 2 aria came off as a bit static.  But she is an excellent singer.

Seeing Maometto II last year, and now La Donna, makes me think that Rossini had a particular interest in the theme of romantic love reaching across the divide of military conflict.  In this opera, it ultimately succeeds in bringing peace.  The quick peacemaking in the court scene at the end is perhaps a little bit unconvincing, but maybe further experience with the opera will clarify that aspect of the plot.

Last season, I began to wonder if Santa Fe plans each season to have a theme running through several operas.  Last season, it would have been the damage caused to people seeking to live lives of love, art, peaceful spirituality, by the alliance of religion with state power.  This year, I'd say it was romantic love and powerful women against patriarchy.  This was the obvious theme of Rossini's opera, and I think the director underlined it by having some of the men behave extra-badly: some pretty aggressive come-ons by King James to Elena in the first act, violent treatment of women by clansmen in some of the choral scenes.

Some of the staging was perhaps a bit static, but the production did well to keep the original setting, and the sets were excellent, emphasizing rusticity and desolation over romantic lochs.  (In fact, the lake seemed to have gone missing.)  The chorus and orchestra were both very strong.

Overall, a good opera with moments of magic, extremely well produced and cast, and with a thought-provoking theme.  Lots of excellent music, though sometimes padded out with lesser music, and with a story providing food for thought, and mostly effective drama, though probably not up with the best operas in the dramatic department.  An opera I'd definitely see again, and hope to see done this well.




The Marriage of Figaro, Santa Fe 2013

The 2013 opera season at Santa Fe ended last night (well, two nights ago as this is posted) with a performance of Offenbach's comic operetta The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein.  I went to all five operas, and thought this one of the strongest seasons I've been to at Santa Fe.  As the first installment of a report on the season, I'll cover the August 20th performance of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.

This was the first time I've seen this opera, though I have a video of it I used to enjoy.  Figaro is well known to be one of the greatest and most enjoyable operas so I won't cover the basics; if you think you might be interested in opera, it is one of the first ones you should get to know, particularly if you are looking for something combining melodic beauty, at times soaring, at times restrained, with elegance and lightness of spirit. (If you're looking for more consistently over-the-top emotion and big tunes, like perhaps if you're into metal or arena rock and looking to explore opera, the "big three" operas of Verdi's middle period (La Traviata, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore), or even more over-the-top, the big Puccinis (especially Tosca or Madama Butterfly, also Turandot) are probably the ticket for an introduction to opera.)   All elements of this production were top-notch.  In Phillips, Fons, Oropesa, and Nelson, and probably several others, it featured some of the best singers I've heard at Santa Fe.  Susanna Phillips as the Countess and Emily Fons as Susanna were in beautiful form, both with strong, sweet voices, Phillips a soprano, Fons a very lyric mezzo.  The opera moves from the first act's exposition, silly business and plotting into more serious emotional territory with the Countess' first appearance, in the opening scene of Act II, in the beautiful lament Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro (Give me, love, some solace). Phillips portrayed the Countess' emotion superbly, with great dynamic control and plenty of power and projection when necessary without forcing the voice or losing sweetness of tone. Another in our party disliked the somewhat broad vibrato she unleashed at times, but I thought it was just right, part of a classic powerful operatic soprano presentation that still remained controlled and appropriate for Mozart. She was also superb in ensembles, and in her other major aria, the third act's Dove sono i bei momenti (Where are those beautiful moments?), especially the allegro section (Ah! se almen la mia costanza... (Oh! If only my constancy...)) that ends it. (I'm not sure if the notion of a fast cabaletta to cap off a broad aria had developed by this time, or if Mozart was helping to invent it here.) If I have any minor complaint about Phillips' singing, it might be that although her pianissimo singing can be incredibly sweet, it occasionally was so soft, the dynamic contrast so great, that it seemed a bit mannered, especially when used to end a phrase on a high note (more difficult, to be sure, than a loud high note, and achieved here with perfect control). But this is a very minor cavil and could be completely baseless, not even apparent from a different seat with different acoustics. (The member of our party who objected to Phillips' vibrato singled out her piano singing for special praise.) Overall, I thought this was opera singing of the highest caliber, in which the musicality of Phillips' phrasing and the beauty of her voice were inseparable from the communication of emotion and through it, her part in the the development of the drama.

The Santa Fe New Mexican, in a glowing review of the June 29th performance, wrote that

Phillips took a while to settle in, as Countesses often do, but she arrived at a firm, full-throated performance. Her voice has been evolving impressively in recent years, and one senses that she may be on the verge of the vocal luxuriance that has marked the most memorable Countesses over the years.

Her relationship with the role must have continued evolving in the month and a half since that early performance, because vocal luxuriance was abundantly, though not overbearingly, present, she needed no time to settle in, but had me by the heartstrings from the first notes of "Porgi, amor", and her performance will certainly live in my memory.

In the "trouser role" of Cherubino, soprano Emily Fons was equally superb. She did a good job with the comic elements of the character (a young boy discovering the delights of love with various local girls, and infatuated with the Countess as well---"Narciseto, Adoncino de amor", as Figaro characterizes him in the famous aria "Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso, notte e giorno d'intorno girando, delle belle turbando il riposo" (No longer will you go, amorous butterfly, running around night and day disturbing the peace of pretty girls" ) with which he bids him goodbye as the Count attempts (unsuccessfully, it turns out) to send him away to join the army). The comedy was perhaps a bit muggy and telegraphed, the makeup a bit heavy viewed with binoculars, but that's probably part of such a role, and Fons kept it light and flitty, like an amorous butterfly indeed. Her voice is as good as Phillips', just slightly smoother and lighter in tone, and with a bit less prominent vibrato, but still quite full and sweet, definitely a sweetly lyric rather than a throaty mezzo, hence perfect, in my judgement, for this role. Her Voi che sapete, che cosa e l'amore ("You who know what love is"), yet another of the many classic arias you probably know even if you've never attended the opera or listened to it on your stereo (or phone, pad, pod, or computer), was as good as I can imagine. I will count either of these artists, Fons or Phillips, as among the best women singing today and reason enough to attend any opera they're in; keep a lookout for them if you follow opera. As Susanna, Lisette Oropesa's performance was of similar caliber; I don't remember specific moments as moving as the abovementioned arias of the Contessa and of Cherubino, but find myself wishing I could attend another performance to focus more on Susanna; her acting and singing were, as far as I can recall, flawless and her voice, like the other women's, clear, unstrained and musical, and carried well in what may be a slightly difficult (because open at the sides) theater.

Zachary Nelson did a superb job as Figaro. He is clearly---and with reason---rising very fast in the world of opera, as he was in the apprentice singer program last summer (2012) at Santa Fe. His performance was completely assured, his acting and musicality top-notch, with nothing to indicate anything but a seasoned and confident singer. Strangely, before looking in the program and finding out how recently he'd been an apprentice, I got the impression, just from his very pleasing tone, of a relatively young voice, perhaps in transition to a fuller, darker voice. That's arguably quite appropriate for Figaro, who is already quite competent and arguably making a similar transition from youthful adulthood to maturity, with marriage in view. He had plenty of power, never oversung or forced and achieved good projection, with perhaps occasional slight loss of power on the very lowest notes, or just slightly falling in the shadow of one of the sopranos (always a bit difficult for a baritone to balance with a powerful soprano, I suspect). But again, I could be off-base with such minor cavils, and overall this was a consistently excellent performance, probably the best by a baritone that I heard this season at Santa Fe, with excellent musicality and control in both solo and ensemble situations, a very interesting voice with some color and texture to it (making me think of walnut with a natural oil finish, maybe very fine tweed) but also a kind of clarion, though not cutting or harsh, quality that helps it stand out and project.  Wonderful, balanced characterization of Figaro, carried through ensemble, recitative and conversational duets and also solo arias,  lighthearted and witty, yet competent and with seriousness of purpose.  Se vuol ballare, signor contino ("If you want to dance, little Mr. Count") was a perfect example, with an overall affect of restrained glee at the prospect of teaching the Count a lesson, but not completely without menace and genuine outrage, either.  Non piu andrai was similarly deftly done.  Nelson is definitely another singer to go out of your way to hear.

Daniel Okulitch's Count was also extremely well sung and acted.  Though it still has some depth, his voice is perhaps is a little harder-edged and more brilliant than Nelson's, which seemed to suit his more authoritarian and rigid character.  The part doesn't offer as many star turns as does Figaro, but Okulitch played it perfectly.

I would have had to attend multiple times (I know a guy who goes to multiple performances of each opera, getting standing room to make it affordable) in order to evaluate the supporting singers with any accuracy; such evaluation is not really what I want to focus when I'm going once to enjoy an opera. What I can say is that overall the supporting singers were very solid, with no weaknesses that I noticed.  Keith Jameson, as the music master Basilio, stood out not only because he was a tenor (the heroic or lead-lover tenor was perhaps less established in Mozart's day, especially, I guess, in comic opera), but for the excellence and clarity of his voice and pacing, and Rachel Hall as Barbarina had a noticeably pleasing voice and sang well also.  A really excellent ensemble cast and chorus.

The production was excellent too, true to the original setting of the play and beautifully detailed, doing a wonderful job of creating a believable setting in an eighteenth-century aristocratic estate without needing to go over the top, fitting seamlessly with the particular requirements of Santa Fe's stage. The (presumably artificial) bunches of flowers planted all over the stage, and removed by topcoated and bewigged aristocrats from the front portion of the stage during the latter part of the overture, leaving the ones in back to serve as the garden exterior to the house when appropriate, were a spectacular and creative touch. Costumes were period-appropriate, with luxurious detail where appropriate but still lively and fresh rather than stodgy.

I didn't focus too hard on the orchestra's performance, conducted by John Nelson, but can say that it was light, lively, elegant, and integrated well with the vocal work. Obviously, no flaws drew unwanted attention to it. An instance of particularly memorable and perfectly-executed orchestral playing was the eighteen bars before the Count's famous plea for forgiveness "Contessa, perdono" , accompanying the Count's realization of the last of many deceptions that have been played on him ("O cielo, che veggio...", Oh heavens, what do I see...", sung by the Count, Dr. Bartolo the music teacher, Basilio, and Antonio the gardener.  (This passage begins with the second system on page 343 in the BMG/Ricordi piano/vocal score, or on page 48 of the pdf (390 of the original) of the full score from Peters, other sections downloadable here.)  The orchestra takes off in with running eight notes, scalar passages with frequent direction changes and turn-like flourishes, rapidly modulating through major and minor keys, including some fairly remote ones like Eb major (the ambient key signature is G major although the section starts in G minor), with a cascade down the cycle of fifths from G to Bb in the middle of the section, for a somewhat unearthly, magical, flying feeling creating an atmosphere like that in parts of the Magic Flute.  There is some baroque influence evident especially when the line does something ornamental, but it is not pastiche, definitely something new and probably uniquely Mozartean.  The passage is also reminiscent of a recurrent motif in Mozart's next opera on a Da Ponte libretto, Don Giovanni, which however features somewhat more regular ascending and then descending scales in minor, the whole ascending descending figure repeating in higher and higher keys, for a similar effect of suddenly becoming unmoored from ordinary reality and gliding through an eerily magical realm, but in a more tension-building, and definitely ominous, way. These eighteen bars are one of the many pinnacles of Mozartean magic reached in this opera. I recently read (it would have been in a collection "Other Entertainment" of Ned Rorem's essays, or in Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's memoirs or Gerald Moore's book The Schubert Song Cycles) an approvingly quoted aphorism along the lines of "The only thing that matters in music is that which cannot be explained", and it is tempting to think of this passage as an example of such inexplicable magic, except that I think that while it's absolutely magical, it's mostly quite explicable---some of the discussion above is a start, and the passage would clearly repay more careful analysis, which I may do and post separately. Such analysis is probably more important to one who wants to understand how to achieve similar effects, rather than one who just wants to enjoy the magic... Mozart and a good opera orchestra like Santa Fe's are enough to ensure the latter. With a superb vocal cast and excellence in all aspects of production, this added up to a production that --- although I've not seen another live Figaro --- would be hard to top, an evening filled with all manner of Mozartean magic.

Readings: Titta Ruffo, "My Parabola" / Video "Credo in un Dio crudel"

I recently read the autobiography of Titta Ruffo, an operatic baritone who was one of the greatest singers of all time.  Fascinating reading, very evocative of the atmosphere of Italy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  A tough childhood, deeply in conflict with his father, in whose metalworking shop he was apprenticed.  Apparently quite forthcoming about some aspects of his life, such as this conflict, an early affair with a married woman (he claims to have resisted on moral grounds until she assures him it is a loveless marriage that she never wanted), and very reticent on other matters, such as his own marriage, the identity of the female singer who was his muse and professional advisor for many years, and the nature of the news that required his abrupt return from a triumphal tour in South America, with which the book abruptly ends.  This news was the murder of his brother in-law, the antifascist Italian politician Giacomo Matteotti, by fascists.  The book seems a bit self-absorbed at times, but I don't find it as self-aggrandizing as some have:  the wonderful voice and worldwide triumphs are, after all, just the facts.  Besides a fascinating portrait of Italian life at the time, interesting insight into the life of a world-traveling musician at the time, and into worldwide musical culture.

As just one sample of why Ruffo is so important, I'll embed his performance of Iago's aria, "Credo in un Dio crudel" ("I believe in a cruel God") from Verdi's Otello.  I will admit to not being very familiar with this opera (I know, I know, how can I claim to love music and Verdi, etc...), and this aria.  I had listened to a few versions of this on Youtube, as it's considered one of the major baritone arias,  but although I could imagine it could be powerful, it had never quite gelled.  With Ruffo it does.   Interpretive power and vocal beauty...some of the long-held notes are amazing in their sustained, consistent sound that perfectly combines darkness, brilliance, and richness.  But even more significant is his characterization of Iago, whose implacable hatred of the world and determination to sow evil are audible.

Gerald Finley sings Donne set by Adams

My attention was drawn to Canadian-born baritone Gerald Finley by hearing (on CBC radio while visiting Kitchener-Waterloo for the Quantum Landscape conference at PI) his rendition of the aria "Batter my heart...", a setting of the John Donne poem, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," as J. Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams' opera Doctor Atomic, about the creation of the atomic bomb.  A few years back I found the opera, on DVD, to be pretty good, though with some weak points.  Hearing Finley sing it reminds me that this aria was one of the strong points. He has a wonderful voice, clear, ringing at times, flexible but still with plenty of power when needed, and he gives meaning and drama to the words he sings.

Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles: at Santa Fe 2012 and on record (Alain Vanzo's Nadir should not be missed)

This summer's Santa Fe Opera performance was the first time I've really listened to Bizet's first opera, Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers).  It was a good performance, and perhaps I'll review it more fully sometime; the male leads, singing Nadir and Zurga, were good but not extraordinary, the female lead, Nicole Cabell singing Leila, had a more distinctive and powerful voice, with some clear ringing tone but also at times a bit too much vibrato and/or distortion, and possibly an overall sound more suited, to my ears, for bel canto Italian opera than a more legato french style.  The opera has some beautiful choral sections, and in the Santa Fe performance I especially liked some of the duet work between Nadir and Leila in the middle and later sections.  I also enjoyed the act I interaction between Nadir and Zurga, but I didn't quite realize, from the Santa Fe performance, that this is probably the high point of the opera and probably, in terms of just beautiful melody and singing, one of the high points of opera.

Listening to the first act, on Angel LPs (Angel 3603, stereo) with Pierre Dervaux conducting the chorus and orchestra of the Opéra Comique (Paris) and Janine Micheau as love-interest and priestess Leila, Nicolai Gedda as Nadir, Ernest Blanc as Zurga (rivals for Leila's love) and Jacques Mars as the bad-guy priest Nourabad, was a thoroughly satisfying musical experience.  Some of the music might be thought a bit simple in its appeal, but none of it is boring, and there are plenty of superb high points.  Gedda, who was a go-to tenor for recordings for several decades in the middle of the last century because of his reliability, willingness to deal with studio requirements such as multiple takes and such, and ability to project a role even in the studio, does an excellent job, with a relatively clear and neutral vocal quality.  Baritone Ernest Blanc is a wonderful foil for Gedda, especially in the outstanding duet "Au fond du temple saint", with a very characterful voice that has a mellow, almost walnut-brown tone.  The voices contrast nicely, but also work beautifully together in the unison passages. The Angel LP sound is good except toward the end of a side, where there is either a lot of inner-groove distortion, or perhaps my copy is just worn.  I'm looking forward to a careful listen to the rest of this performance. Here's the Nadir-Zurga duet "Au fond du Temple Saint" from this recording:

However, what really turned me on to quality of the first-act music for Nadir and Zurga was the performances of French tenor Alain Vanzo.  He has an amazing, very clear voice, sounding higher than most tenors when singing the same notes, but not quite like a countertenor.  No one can touch him in this role.  So here is a selection of his performances of the two great highlights of the first act: the duet "Au fond du temple saint", and Nadir's solo aria "Je crois entendre encore".  This is some of the most beautiful singing ever.

 Au Fond du Temple Saint:

Live in Amsterdam, 1963, with Belgian baritone Juri Jorlis as Zurga. Probably my favorite. Joris also has an exceptionally clear-toned voice that goes well with Vanzo's, and sings well; it's not just Vanzo's solo work that is outstanding here, Joris is too, and the two together are stunning, for instance beginning at 1'30 in the video.

The above performance is available on a 2 CD set on the Verona label. Jean Fornet conducts the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra at the Concertgebouw, Erna Spoorenberg is Leila.

It's also interesting to hear a younger Vanzo, in 1959 with Robert Massard as Zurga. His voice sounds slightly tauter, the overall tone a bit more brilliantly operatic but perhaps less supple, and the tempo may be a bit faster.

Also from 1959, a very different performance with Gabriel Bacquier as Zurga. A much slower tempo, a softer-edged tone from Vanzo, a more relaxed interpretation overall. At least as presented on Youtube, the sound quality is better than in the two preceding clips, but I think there is a genuine difference in Vanzo's tone here, probably influenced by the slow tempo. Bacquier is a more standard, dark-toned baritone, and his delivery is more emphatically "operatic" at times. Still very much worth hearing. This clip also contains a lot of excellent music leading up to the aria; a highlight is the melodic passage for Nadir as he starts to be carried away by memories of Leila ("Son regard...") from 1'20 through 1'40. The musical and melodic quality here is as high as in any great aria. The passage begins with an old (but perhaps not so old in Bizet's time) trick, the singer singing the words of the phrase while repeating the same musical note, with the harmony changing underneath. (Puccini's "E lucevan le stelle" for Cavaradossi in Tosca starts the same way.) Here we just get one harmonic change with the same note kept in the melody; at the next harmonic change the singer rises by a minor third, and we are into an unmistakably nineteenth-century French melody, probably in some minor mode, reminiscent of antique times and exotic lands seen through a golden haze of memory. (You know the vein; it runs through art (Delacroix) and literature (Baudelaire), and certainly through French music all the way up to Debussy and Ravel, Reynaldo Hahn, etc...) This is magic, Bizet's genius at work; the transitions into and out of it are also superbly fact, the whole passage in this clip, before what is considered the duet proper begins with "Au fond..." at 2'20, shows Bizet's genius in handling dialogue in music, seamlessly mixing declamatory, recitative-like parts with melodic passages. At 1'50, Zurga is drawn into the reverie...the foreboding in his chromatic descending line (echoed at times in his lines in the duet proper, and presaged in some way by some chromatic ascending lines earlier) is not exactly the most subtle or original thing, but works perfectly as part of Bizet's mix.

Je crois entendre encore

This solo aria "Je crois entendre encore" is another contender for the musical high point of the opera. I'm unsure of the source of this clip, but it's a good one.

I'm also not sure where and when this next clip is from. In the preceding version, and in most or all of the other performances I've heard, the aria ends with Nadir's final "Charmant souvenir" echoed by the oboe. Where the singer rises a fourth (to the A above middle C) on "Charmant", the oboe rises a minor sixth, and also rises at the end to the cadence. In this version Vanzo sings the oboe's line, the minor sixth on "Charmant" taking him (incidentally) to what is called a "high C" for tenor, and it is breathaking:

The oboe line is probably what Bizet wrote, and perhaps sets up the transition to what follows better than singing the cadence, but it's also possible that it was set for the oboe because it was too high for the tenor in the relevant performance. Possibly the above clip is from a concert performance of the aria, where there is no need for a transition; the sung cadence is certainly effective.

Finally, from the 1963 Amsterdam performance again: