Paul Groves, Joseph Illick at Santa Fe Festival of Song: Duparc, Britten, Liszt, Rachmaninoff

On August 8th, we were treated to singing of transcendent beauty from tenor Paul Groves, with superb accompaniment by pianist Joseph Illick, in deeply felt and well-conceived interpretations of  songs by Henri Duparc, Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Benjamin Britten's wonderful and imaginative arrangements of British Isles folksongs.  The recital was part of the Santa Fe Festival of Song, a project of Performance Santa Fe (the organization formerly known as the Santa Fe Concert Association) in which singers who are in town to perform at the Opera give art song recitals.  Groves is Florestan in Santa Fe's Fidelio this year, and after hearing him in this recital, I'm eagerly anticipating his performance in that role.

Groves' voice is sweet and clear, but very powerful when he wants it to be, without losing any clarity or getting ragged at volume.  His control over breath, and dynamic range are amazing and deployed to great interpretive effect.  I don't believe that there is a single ideal way of interpreting most songs (though of course some songs may support a more limited range of workable approaches than others)...but I will say that Groves' performances of almost all of these songs were sheer perfection---while one could imagine a different approach being equally successful if equally well-executed, I mostly couldn't imagine anyone singing these songs better than Groves did here. He used the full range of vocal expression available to one with a top-of-the-line trained operatic voice. While a more subdued approach, with climaxes not quite as operatic in their intensity, could work equally well in many of these songs, and indeed provide a perfect opportunity for superb artistry by those who don't quite have the unbelievable volume and projection required for major-stage opera, I am not one who takes the view that operatic intensity should be banished from art-song interpretation. Groves' performance here was an illustration of how perfect and appropriate an approach informed by operatic experience, and empowered by an operatic technique and voice, can be in the art song.

The concert began with Duparc.  I thought the first song, Le manoir de Rosemonde, came off as perhaps a tad too intense and vocally operatic an interpretation, though flawlessly sung.  This might have been in part a matter of gauging the room sound; the Santa Fe United Methodist Church sanctuary is of modest size, with a relatively live and reflective acoustic.  What followed ranged from superb to sublime.  Extase was languorous and hypnotic, Soupir serene and heartfelt, Phidylé an entrancing mélange of rapture and whatever the right word is to express a slightly wistful, mildly sensual, very french kind of elegant wallowing in wistful nostalgia.

Following this, a definite change of pace with five Benjamin Britten settings of British folksongs. A substantial musical contribution from Britten here, with sometimes humorous, often very pretty and always very original settings that enhance, rather than working at cross-purposes to, the feeling and folk flavor of these songs. The Brisk Young Widow had verve and humour. In Sally in Our Alley, Groves did a superb job of putting across a broadly humorous, multi-verse narrative, with an unexpectedly poignant turn in the end. As pointed and effective an artistic meditation on class division as you will find anywhere, while avoiding dourness and simultaneously celebrating the joy of life.  Early One Morning was quiet and poignant, beautifully shaped by Groves, while in The Lincolnshire Poacher and Ca' the Yowes Groves used the more robust side of his voice to great effect in an earthier vein. At the reception following the concert, Groves remarked these Britten folksong settings are actually the most difficult to sing of the works on the program, because of their choppier, less legato line if I understood correctly. (Speculating, this may in part be a peculiarity of singing in English, at least compared to the more vowel-centered nature of French and even Russian (and of course Italian and even German, although neither of these two languages were used in this program)). Of course, that comparison may be more likely to apply once one has put in the hours and years of work necessary to do long lines with the rock-solid breath support and control, and imperturbable legato where necessary, required by the French and Russian-language works on the program.

Next up was a group of four Victor Hugo poems set by Franz Liszt, ranging through a wide range of moods and emotions, from the flirtatious humor of Comment, disaient-ils, to the over-the-top protestations of love in Enfant, si j'etais roi, to the long-lined, sensual love poetry of Oh! quand je dors  (another case where the adjective "sublime" applies to Groves' rendering).  Very colorful, sometimes dramatic, settings of these poems.  Excellent music that I did not know before this recital, and that I was very glad to be made aware of, especially in interpretations of this caliber.

The recital concluded with three songs of Sergei Rachmaninoff.  In the Silence of the Night (Fet), How Fair this Spot (Galin), and Oh Never Sing to Me Again (Pushkin). Again perfectly sung, with focused and specific portrayal of emotion, startling in their beauty and impact.

For the encore, Groves brought out baritone Kostas Smoriginas for an unexpected treat---the duet "Au Fond du Temple Saint" from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. They took it perhaps a tad faster than I think optimal, but did a fabulous job---Groves' vocal control, and ability to do high, soft, and sweet as well as powerful and passionate was a key here, as was Smoriginas' incredibly deep, full, and powerful baritone, depth and darkness balanced by plenty of high-in-the-mask, projecting resonance that did not shade at all into brittleness.  Smoriginas is Escamillo in Santa Fe's Carmen this season; I will not hear Carmen until its last performance, but based on this duet, Smoriginas has just the voice this role needs, and should be amazing in it.  In many recordings I have of this aria, the baritone recedes a bit into the mix compared with the tenor (who is a bit more the star of this aria)---so it was great to hear the baritone part so clearly in this classic romance-meets-bromance potboiler. When the tenor and baritone united in singing the melody in sync partway through, the effect was thrilling.

At the reception I overheard Mr. Groves thanking the organizers for the opportunity to give a recital while in Santa Fe, and lamenting that while opera singers love to do recitals, there are not as many opportunities for them as there were even as recently as the 1990s, when he could do lengthy recital tours in Europe and elsewhere. Listen up, agents, impresarios, and program committees because some of us are on the lookout for the kind of intense and transporting experience of aesthetic perfection one gets from hearing a singer of the caliber of Paul Groves up close in recital.



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.

Lucevan le stelle: Tosca at Santa Fe

The stars, seen at intermission from the exterior loggia at the Santa Fe Opera two nights ago, were shining over the Sangre de Cristo mountains, through the gaps between the clouds remaining after a typical New Mexico late summer evening shower.  And they were definitely shining onstage in a performance of Puccini's Tosca.

Tosca is one of the great operas.  (If, like Benjamin Britten and Berkeley musicologist Joseph Kerman, you're one of the doubters on this score, I may address your doubts in another post, but now is not the time.)  And the Santa Fe Opera put on a great performance of it two nights ago.  Not a perfect one, but a genuinely great one.  The sets were a bit unorthodox, with the church setting of act I portrayed with the dome suspended globe-like, its coffered, gilt-highlighted interior toward the audience, at the rear of the stage, which was open to the pinon-covered hills and more distant mesas and mountains of New Mexico.  Stage right and left, chapel gates lined the church aisles, scaled down toward the back for artifical perspective.  And rising ramp-like from front center, the huge painting on which Mario Cavaradossi is working---while standing on it---for most of the first act.  Unorthodox, but very effective.

Brian Jagde (who replaced Andrew Richard, who had been scheduled for this season) sang Cavaradossi with elegant but unfussy phrasing, and a voice that was not huge, nor over-the-top dramatic, but handsome and focused, with a good core and excellent intonation, well suited to the part overall if a bit restrained at times.  Below, I say more about why he is a really superb artist.  Amanda Echalaz, from Durban, South Africa, has been getting some rave reviews for her Toscas at Covent Garden, the English National Opera, and elsewhere.  Her voice is perhaps a bit far over on the dramatic side, rather than lyrical, to be perfectly ideal for the part which seems to me to require equal measure of both.  It is produced with a lot of vibrato, and at least in the first act's scene of love, jealousy, and flirtation, some measure of distortion or strain in high, loud notes---which somewhat paradoxically, seemed to mostly disappear in the dramatic, no-holds-barred extended confrontation with Scarpia that is the second act.  Her acting was superb, and the less-sweet side of her voice does emphasize the possibly more worldly side of Floria Tosca, who is after all a woman in show business (an opera singer, in fact!) at the turn of the 19th century, so the first act did have plenty of humor, tension, and drama.  But she really came into her own in the second act.  With Thomas Hampson playing a relatively suave and controlled but thoroughly despicable Scarpia, singing with effortless control and refined phrasing in a deep, honeyed baritone---no hammy villain he---this was unquestionably a highlight of the season at Santa Fe---as it would have been anywhere.  Echalaz responded to each new piece of calm but implacably studied coercion, each newly revealed depth of evil, with more and more frenzied alternation of despair and rage, masterfully paced and not overdone, at the end almost like a lioness in the cage of Scarpia's office.  And as Scarpia finds out, you don't want to be in a cage with an enraged lioness, especially if you are threatening one of her loved ones. The choral scene at the end of the first act should be singled out's essentially a dark credo sung by Scarpia, with a hugely effective minor modal melody slithering up and down behind him, the orchestra providing a dirgelike, menacing 2/4 groove, and sacristans, priests, church officials piling on in a Te Deum along with a superb boy choir.

There was plenty more excellent singing, and of course fabulous music, in some of the love arias in acts I and III.  Tosca's aria Vissi d'arte (I lived for art, I lived for love") also stood out.    But the high point of this performance, and it was very high, was an aria that may well be the crux of the opera --- Cavaradossi's solo "E lucevan le stelle" ("And the stars were shining", or more literally, "and the stars shone"), in act III.  Waiting to be executed, he recalls how the stars were shining the night he met Tosca, the creaking of the garden gate as she comes to him, her sweet kisses and languid caresses, and so forth... ratcheting up to "That time is gone, I die in desperation.  I have never loved life as much as I do now!"  There have been some great versions of this aria.  Often the emotionalism, the remembered passion and the despair at oncoming death, are heavily underlined by the vocal interpretation, with massive rubato in places, changes in dynamics, a sensation that notes are being tossed or wrenched out into the air.  Under control, this can make for a very effective interpretation.  Roberto Alagna is among the farthest to this end of the continuum among successful interpretations; Giuseppe di Stefano much less so, depending on the performance.  In the superb 1956 La Scala performance with Victor de Sabato conducting and Maria Callas as Tosca (available on CDs from EMI) di Stefano is impassioned but relatively controlled except for some (in my view unfortunate) minor sob/breakdown vocal effects at the very end.  At Santa Fe, Jagde was at the opposite end of the spectrum---with vocal histrionics to a minimum, full, legato phrasing and musical beauty prioritized.  Emotionally, the beauty of remembered times with Tosca predominated, and the final "I have never loved life so much" ("Non ho amato mai tanto la vita!") resonated more than the immediately preceding "I die desperate!" ("muoio disperato").  The music does more than enough to convey the pathos of the situation; Jagde's smooth, focused, firm and centered but not at all harsh or hard, and very slightly dark, voice, and supremely musical phrasing was perfect for this interpretation, and the effect was devastating, perhaps even more effective than a more highly wrought rendition.  It is hard to know---and doesn't much matter---whether this judgement would hold up on listening to a recording, but subjectively, in its effect in context in this live performance, this was one of the greatest pieces of opera singing I've ever been privileged to hear.  It brought down the house.  Crucial to this aria's impact, of course, was the foundation provided by the singing and acting of the leads earlier in the opera, especially the Tosca-Scarpia confrontation by Echalaz and Hampson in Act II.    (If you're curious what Richards might have sounded like had he been able to make it to Santa Fe this season, you can hear Richards sing Stelle in an August 2008 performance at the Bregenzer Festspiele; try to ignore the sobbing in the minute of lovely music that precedes the aria, and following it (although it's indicated in the score, it's overdone here), and you'll get an idea of how Richards sings this. Except for the histrionics, calmer and more centered than most of what you'll find for this aria, and quite beautifully sung...not that far from Jagde's interpretation, actually, though Richard's voice is a bit larger and deeper and his singing just a little less legato.)

Lucevan le stelle is preceded by a long orchestral interlude with Cavaradossi alone on stage, rather Debussyan in some of its harmony and moodiness, although with a bit more standard harmonic motion underneath.  This is probably the place to mention that the orchestra, conducted by music director Frederic Chaslin, played superbly throughout.  Very clear, almost transparent textures much of the time, supple phrasing, excellent timbres from the individual instruments, delicacy when needed but also a tasty bite and crunch from the brass and percussion when appropriate, and plenty of lushness, menace or power as required (which in Tosca, is often).  I've been to the opera at Santa Fe quite a bit over the years and overall this season the orchestra is probably playing the best I've ever heard them play.

When Tosca arrives on the scene just before the execution, which she believes will be faked as Scarpia had promised, the interaction between her and Cavaradossi is not the transcendent love duet that publisher Ricordi had apparently tried to talk Puccini into; Puccini defended this choice on dramatic grounds, and I'm inclined to agree.  There was no letdown musically, vocally, or dramatically, though, as the opera swiftly moved to its [SPOILER ALERT ;-)] dire conclusion.

Santa Fe made a great move here in engaging three major stars---one, Echalaz, relatively newly minted as a star through her replacement of Angela Gheorgiu as Tosca at Covent Garden in 2009, another, Hampson, relatively far along in his illustrious career but portraying Scarpia for the first time and the third, Richards, relatively unknown to be before this but to judge from credits in major roles at places like the Met and La Scala, somewhere near the peak of an important career.  And even though only two of them could make it to Santa Fe in the end, the less well-known Jagde really came through, in this performance, as Richards' replacement.  With excellent support from the orchestra, chorus, and supporting singers, and by engaging fully with each other vocally and dramatically, Jagde, Echalaz and Hampson put over Tosca not just as the highly emotional and musically lush potboiler it is easy to see it as, but as the---to be sure, highly emotional and musically lush---masterpiece it really is.