Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Evening Stars: Siepi & Rolfe Johnson

Last week I paid tribute to the pioneering conductor (and teacher) Sir Charles Mackerras. One week after Sir Charles died, the English tenor, Anthony Rolfe Johnson died, aged 69, after a protracted struggle with Alzheimer's disease. At the beginning of the month the dashing Italian bass, Cesare Siepi died, aged 87.

Siepi was a classic basso cantate (literally "singing" bass, as opposed to a "talking" bass. Actually, it's a category to distinguish one from a comic or "character" bass). Born in Milan, Siepi helped usher in the golden age of opera at the Met under impresario Rudolf Bing in 1950. He sang over 500 performances of 17 roles in his 23-year career at the Met, but was particularly noted for two of the Primo Basso roles in the repertory: the title character in Mozart's Don Giovanni, and King Philip in Verdi's grand masterpiece, Don Carlo.

In addition to finding an apartment in Roanoke and dividing our belongings into two residences, my new position with Opera Roanoke required new transportation (I had been driving a 10-year old fixer-upper with 250K miles--not a good candidate for cross-Commonwealth commuting). We found one of the last new Saturn's in Virginia, an Aura Hybrid whose perks include XM Radio. My dial has been tuned to Sirius XM 79, which is the Met's digital radio station. If you are an opera lover and spend copious amounts of time listening to the radio, I heartily recommend it (Opera Roanoke fans should take note that our own Steven White's Met debut conducting Angela Gheorghiu and Thomas Hampson in La Traviata will be encored Friday night, August 27, at 8 pm. You can sign up for a free online trial at

Both the 1950 Met Don Carlo (with Jussi Bjorling, Jerome Hines & Robert Merrill) and a 1973 Don Giovanni paid tribute to Siepi's artistry during the two weeks following his death in Atlanta (where he'd lived for two decades).

His Don Giovanni is available in a recent Decca "Heritage Masters" re-release (the complete 3-CD set for the price of 1). His elegant, beautifully sung interpretation is perfectly balanced by Josef Krips and the Vienna Philharmonic in this remastered classic from 1955 that features Lisa Della Casa, Fernando Corena and a young Walter Berry.

Siepi made his met debut at age 27. Anthony Rolfe Johnson began his career as a farmer in Sussex and did not begin pursuing musical studies until he was 30. A contemporary of the late Philip Langridge (see my "Musings" blog for a tribute to Langridge, who died in March), Rolfe Johnson was one of a handful of tenors who inherited the mantle of the classic "English Tenor" from Benjamin Britten's partner, Peter Pears.

Pears defined a style of singing in English noted for its refinement and purity, expressiveness & nuance. Detractors of this English style criticize a perceived "preciousness" of interpretation and unevenness of technique. The Italianate style of homogenizing the voice throughout the range--so that breaks and shifts of register are imperceivable to the listener--is cited as the ideal. I happen to like both "schools" of singing, and find they both have their place.

Ironically, Rolfe Johnson's Met debut came when he replaced none other than Luciano Pavarotti in the title role of (Sir Charles Mackerras' favorite) Mozart Opera, Idomeneo.

The classic English tenors--from Pears to Rolfe Johnson to those in their prime today (John Mark Ainsley, Ian Bostridge, and Mark Padmore)--typically specialize in the music of the Baroque & Classical periods, skip over the Bel Canto 19th century and attend to Britten and the company of the 20th century.

Rolfe Johnson's legacy is preserved in a number of recordings from all of these corners of the repertory. I first became acquainted with his colorful voice and highly expressive interpretations in the operas of Monteverdi and Passions of Bach in great recordings by the period instrument specialist John Eliot Gardiner. With Eliot Gardiner, he also recorded some of Mozart's great characters, like Idomeneo and the title role of La Clemenza di Tito. Rolfe Johnson was also a noted lieder singer, and recorded landmark recital disks with Graham Johnson. His interpretations of Britten's leading tenor roles rank alongside Philip Langridge's as benchmarks that rival (and in some cases, surpass) the creator of those roles, Peter Pears.

I wrote briefly of my experience in 2002 at the Britten-Pears school in my tribute to Sir Charles Mackerras. My first visit to Aldeburgh was scheduled for the late summer of 1996, where I was to study English song with Anthony Rolfe Johnson. My first teaching position, as Associate Director of Choral & Vocal Activities at Washington & Lee University, came after I'd been accepted into the Britten-Pears course. As the start of my first semester in Lexington conflicted with the workshop in Aldeburgh, I withdrew from it to take up my teaching post. While I regret having missed the chance to work with Rolfe Johnson, my brief tenure at W & L led to my association with Opera Roanoke, from which post I'm now writing this tribute.

Rolfe Johnson's recording of Schubert's underperformed Mayrhofer setting, Abendstern, makes his recital disc on the Hyperion Schubert Song Edition a must-have. The poem is beautiful on it's own, and an eloquent metaphor for the frequently solitary, "road less traveled" path taken by the artist:

Abendstern (Evening Star)

Why do you linger alone in the sky,
O beautiful star? You are so mild;
why does the sparkling crowd
of your brothers shun your sight?
"I am the star of true love,
and they keep far away from Love."

So you should go to them,
if you are love; do not delay!
Who could then withstand you,
you sweet but stubborn light?
"I sow, but see no shoot,
and so I remain here, mournful and still."

Artists like Cesare Siepi and Anthony Rolfe Johnson have sown beautiful shoots of music through their singing. The "sparkling crowd" of their interpretations live on in the memory and the recorded legacies of two distinct & distinguished singers.

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