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YEASS II. Triple-Shot Americano: Operalia 2021 Preview

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

Among the eight lyric ambassadors representing the US in the upcoming Operalia (October 18–24 at Moscow's historic Bolshoi), three have particularly sparked this reviewer's interest in opening a new chapter in the Young and Early-Career Artist Survey Series («YEASS», the inaugural chapter of which can be found here). All three artists reveal the strengths of our domestic operatic cultivation system: responsible preparation and delivery of material, conscientious observation of pitch / rhythm / language, vocal security unhindered by technical stratagems, and an undeniable physical impulse to generate theatrical engagement. As they progress along the maddening path of an operatic career, may they gain these two additional pregi:

• more intimate familiarity with the sound worlds of the languages they sing—absorbing a language grants one «confident and spontaneous irresponsibility» in their efforts at communication

• greater physical ownership—jettisoning all the superfluous movement which diminishes their presentation and instead trusting the need to take up space as they communicate via that peculiarly heartrending channel known as the operatic voice.

A few arias from each one, followed by reference recordings by artists of earlier generations.

I. Alexandra Razskazoff, soprano

A churlish platitude too often encountered in the opera industry was best expressed by the late great Evelyn Lear: «One more lyric soprano? God forbid.»

One hopes that the omniscient ears guiding the operatic marketplace can recognize Razskazoff's uncommon vocal ease in traversing her range, descending through the middle-&-low with unforced warmth and blossoming into greater tonal breadth as she breaches the passaggio (e.g. the Contessa's slow-burn ascending scale to high A-flat «o mi lascia almen morir!», and the treble top-line F in Desdemona's «Son mesta tanto» followed by her descent to D-flat below the staff «tanto!»)

These two arias are Anthems of Sostenuto: one must have mastered an easy-breathed long line in which each note has full importance otherwise one cannot approach them. Razskazoff does not disappoint, singing with poised passion and never roughing up the tone «for expression's sake». In the Contessa's fearsomely legato cavatina, historically a «holy grail» test piece for lyric sopranos, she resists the common temptation towards preciousness, and in Desdemona's great act IV scena Razskazoff fully comes into her element, her haunting interpretation recalling the composer's insistence that «Desdemona must sing, sing, always sing».

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro – Porgi, amor

Sena Jurinac: confident in her grief, the music-making devoid of self-consciousness, and crowning the aria with lambent top tones (e.g. the aforementioned ascent to A-flat «o mi lascia almen morir!»)

Angela Gheorghiu: the rare pleasure of hearing her in Mozart, a flowingly-paced interpretation devoid of sentimentality, Gheorghiu clearly communicating the text with no diminishment of her vocal appeal, her voice blooming towards and through the passaggio

Verdi: Otello, atto IV – Desdemona

Leonie Rysanek in her youthful international prime: the all-important word «Salce» uttered with a variety of tender inflections, both the «Salce» and «Ave Maria» begun as confidences to others (respectively Emilia and the Madonna) and expanding to reveal more of Desdemona's foreboding as each piece continues.

Eileen Farrell: easy handling of that voluminous yet supple voice, enviably even as she phrases across registers, and singing gently without any sacrifice of pitch, rhythmic responsiveness, or tonal integrity—all traits that suffer when singers try to sing piano by closing off their voices.

Shirley Verrett: a heartfelt interpretation—heartache in Verrett's very tone along with her trademark sense of further intensity in reserve.

II. Joshua Wheeker, tenor

Thanks to the complete footage of Tulsa Opera's 2020/10/09 abridged Rigoletto-in-a-ball-park, one can appreciate Wheeker's manner of inhabiting a primo uomo role. Physically comfortable in his theatrical presentation, Wheeker is vocally in charge of this onerous high-tessitura-at-full-voice role. (One hopes that further experience carrying major Italian roles will eradicate his habit of occasionally slipping in additional erroneous vowels.)

Even more about Wheeker's artistry is revealed in personal footage taken in a proper acoustic as opposed to the necessary evil of stadium amplification. His voice maintains an easy, collected ring up through B-flats and B-naturals; perhaps even more remarkable is the impression that his tone fills out the center of the pitch consistently. Interpretatively, Wheeker has a gift for cris du cœur, as witness his «Ella mi fu rapita! / Parmi veder le lagrime» (unfortunately eliminated in the Tulsa production) and «Je suis seul! / Ah! fuyez, douce image» (Massenet's des Grieux at St. Sulpice). Manfully generous of tone throughout his range and unswervingly focused in the moment of performance, Wheeker also phrases like a man in the throes of lovesickness: the combination is irresistible.

Verdi: Rigoletto – il Duca di Mantova

Joseph Schmidt, «Questa o quella»: a leisurely display of singularly Mitteleuropäische sprezzatura! No hesitation in his phonation: Schmidt's compactly vibrant tone «speaks» immediately, and he subtly graces the vocal line with stylish and stylistically apposite flourishes. En route to his splendid top register, Schmidt faces not the slightest obstacle, not even on the first A-flat «l'impero non cedo», and in the penultimate phrase he tosses off the traditional gruppetto to B-flat on the tricky /i/ vowel of «se mi punge» in a demonstration of tenorial prowess.

Giuseppe di Stefano, «Ella mi fu rapita!»: youthful prime Pippo, that grappa al miele timbre married to his zeal for verbal clarity. Following an emphatic attack on the A-flat «Ma ne avrò, ma ne varò vendetta!», he spends the cavatina comfortably swimming in, out, and through the passaggio on all the language's vowels—thus the piece is written—right from his intrepid onset on the tricky starting G-flat «Parmi veder le lagrime». The climactic (interpolated) B-flat is proudly attained and sustained; likewise the concluding G-flat, unmarred by the slightest hint of fatigue.

José Carreras, «Ella mi fu rapita!»: how seductive to hear early Carreras fill out the rangey writing with darkly lustrous tone all the way to the climactic B-flat and phrasing with his wonted ardor: a daredevil performance.

Massenet: Manon – Je suis seul!

Joseph Rogatchewsky: a uniquely heartsore des Grieux in French so clearly and expressively pronounced that the text becomes inextricable from his tone. With Rogatchewsky there is often the sense of tears actively kept in check, heightened by his affecting penchant for finishing notes with a quick sob-release (the B-flats «Ah! fuyez! fuyez!»). It's tempting to hear Pushkinian flavors in this vivid artist's interpretation.

César Vezzani: though this recording is acoustic Vezzani's voice is electric. The difficult phrase onsets in the post-passaggio (the Gs of «Ah, fuyez» and «respectez»; A-flat «que mon cœur»; the taxing pair of B-flats «Ah! fuyez! fuyez!») are small work for Vezzani, who unhesitatingly launches into his top register at a variety of dynamics and syllables.

Marcelo Álvarez: one can simultaneously admit Álvarez's Francofoibles (the opening phrase «Je souis seul!»; pronouncing the silent P of «trop chère»; pronouncing the first consonant of «obsède» as B instead of the correct P) and admire the enthusiasm with which he sings the language. One can't ignore his habit of gliding-from-below into the pitches that initiate phrases—«scooping»—without recognizing what he achieves once within a phrase. High-lying phrases that most tenors are glad to survive, Álvarez plays with, uttering the initial passaggio-hovering «Ah! fuyez» in veiled tone and at both climaxes shunning the usual breath («Ah! fuyez! fuyez! | loin de moi!») in favor of connecting mid-phrase. 'Tis in the grand gesture that this generous, imaginative artist shines.

III. Chelsea Lehnea, soprano

An arresting artist who commands a gamut of resonances—forte to piano, sostenuto and agilità, and passionate inflections ranging from thrust to tenderness. Lehnea's remarkable free play in the upper registers is a matter not just of extension (a striking variazione up to top D in «Or sai chi l'onore» and the refulgent top F finishing off «Robert, toi que j'aime») but also the freedom to explore dynamic nuances above the staff. The furthest thing from a cold technician, Lehnea already enunciates and phrases with great heart—one is keen to witness her gain greater linguistic authority so as to put her interpretations into even stronger focus.

Mozart: Don Giovanni – Or sai chi l'onore

Eleanor Steber: Eleanor the Urgent, every note truly felt and meant, sailing up to an unflagging top register (14 high As!) yet caressing the passaggio on her first statement of «che il padre, che il padre mi tolse». Never is Steber at the end of her tether, never does she force for greater or lesser volume, and in her variety of inflections never does she abandon her securely free-breathed tone.

Ina Souez: in tandem with conductor Fritz Busch, the Colorado-born primadonna of Glyndebourne's inaugural seasons interprets the aria as a spaciously paced threnody. No hesitation in her phonation, Souez is a remarkably composed artist, using the broad tempo to her advantage and leisurely unfurling each sustained high A to delightful effect.

Tiziana Fabbricini: a high-voltage, take-no-prisoners interpretation etched in the whole Italianate vocal arsenal including portamenti, sob inflections, occasional glottal thrust into the passaggio («vendetta ti chiedo» F-sharps & final iteration G), chest resonance taken up into the middle voice (F-natural «del misero seno», F-sharp «la chiede il tuo cor!»). La Fabbricini is propulsive in pacing and expressing, not throwing away even a syllable of recitativo, and flinging her voice through all the musical obstacles. An incendiary Donn'Anna with the tenacity of la Lady verdiana.

Meyerbeer: Robert le diable – Robert, toi que j'aime

Beverly Sills: Bubbles fit to burst – la Beverly nazionale at her febrile best, tears always in the tone from the opening fil di voce to the final peroration, caressing the ear with her very personal acuti filati. and reveling in such sovracuto excursions as her personal variant up to top C and B-flat in the climactic «et grâce, et grâce».

June Anderson's triumphant Parisian debut in her youthful splendor, easy amplitude, lustrous top tones and an air of majestic melancholy.

Patrizia Ciofi, the Isabelle of at least three recent productions of this rare title: an incredibly sensitive artist, most responsive to nuances in the music, the text, and body language, and motivated by the need to communicate. Unusual among stage performers of any discipline, Ciofi lays her vulnerability out onstage at every moment, leaving a haunting impression not easily forgotten.

Bonus: «Ma che fa!» (double entendre: «What is she doing?!» + «What a [top] F!»)

Beverly Sills, Lucia di Lammermoor:

Dilbèr, La sonnambula (Lisa):

Edita Gruberova, La sonnambula (Amina):

Acknowledging the US's other five lyric ambassadors:

Jonah Hoskins, tenor

Keymon Murrah, countertenor

Edward Nelson, baritone

Emily Pogorelc, soprano

Ricardo José Rivera, baritone

For all the courage necessary to enter the world operatic scene as lo Yankee vagabondo, one salutes these artists' youthful efforts and encourages them for the momentous task ahead. In bocca al lupo tutti quanti!

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