- Cyrille Dubois, Orchestre National de Lille, Pierre Dumoussaud: “So Romantique!” (Alpha)
- Benjamin Appl, James Baillieu: “Forbidden Fruit” (Alpha)
- Ashley Jackson, the Harlem Chamber Players: “Ennanga” (Bright Shiny Things)
There are tenors who fuck, and then there are tenors who fuck. Sure, hearing Jonas Kaufmann pump out “Winterstürme” is good for some heady thrills, and I wouldn’t not tuck Jussi Björling’s “Ch’ella mi creda” in my hope chest. But let’s talk for a moment about the ténor de grâce. At first blush, they may seem too lightweight to be seaworthy, carrying none of the Alpine heft of a Wagnerian or the velvet lining of a lyric—tenors who, if we were casting for a Hollywood film, would be played by one of the Chrises (Hemsworth, Pine, Evans… take your pick). The ténor de grâce would be a supporting character, played by Stanley Tucci. But let me tell you something about Stanley Tucci: That guy fucks.
Cyrille Dubois is a ténor de grâce, a fach exemplified in the role of Tonio in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment” (1840). He’s heroic, but it’s entirely in service to his love of the French soldier Marie. It’s telling that the nine high Cs in his showstopping aria, “Ah, mes amis, quel jour de fête!” hit when Tonio sings of “my soulmate” and winning “her love.” The beautiful Tyrolean home of his childhood, the friends he’s cherished his entire life, everything is easy to give up for her—he joins her army regiment. “Ah, mes amis” is the most familiar of the arias collected by Dubois on “So Romantique!,” a survey of the ténor de grâce’s heyday in the mid-to-late 19th century (one whose merit is undercut by the title).
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“Ah, mes amis” is a reliable delight, but the aria’s ubiquitous champions (from Lawrence Brownlee and Javier Camarena to Luciano Pavarotti and Alfredo Kraus), combined with the flash-bang nature of its allure, obscure the real sell of a tenor de grâce. They aren’t there for a quick thrill; they’re all about the slow burn. Dubois is therefore wise to place this familiar chestnut towards the center of his program, where it hits the listener’s attention at a crucial midway point, rather than rely on it to be the grand opening or finale. The aria of (I swear I’m not making this up) Fabio, “Asile où règne le silence,” from Daniel Auber’s obscure “La Barcarolle” (1845) is a much better microcosm of the specific, Tucci-esque allure of the vocal type.
The work begins with a soft cavatine with the rhythmic ripples of moonlight passing through a window, as Fabio sings of “refuge where silence reigns, a dark and mysterious recess.” In this space of wanton night, Dubois sings in a spun-sugar cantabile suffused with Gallic charm: “Trembling, I advance towards you and fear the sound of my own steps.” It’s like an erotic—actually erotic—nighttime prayer, designed to work its attendant into a froth. The familiar slow-fast pairing of cavatine and cabaletta is ideally suited for the tenor who fucks, pairing a familiar pace of seduction with a voice type that is agile, lithe, and eager to please. Here, Eugène Scribe’s libretto helps things along with a heat wave of language about the torment that alternates cruelty and sweetness when it comes to romantic expectation. Auber’s simple and elegant vocal lines increase at a fluttering tempo when Dubois sings of his beating heart, and the accents placed on the word “impatience” render it breathless. The refrain, “O alluring moment of anticipation,” escalates with each repetition, ending on a triumphant high note on the word “happiness” that feels almost too on the nose.
The repertoire of the ténor de grâce makes it easy to sell these moments as seductions rooted in a symmetry of desire between singer and listener, rather than moments in which the audience desires the tenor and the tenor desires himself. (Never will I forget the tenor singing Werther at the Met who gave himself a visible erection during his own aria.) There are plenty of such gems to be found on “So Romantique!,” with characters whose own motivations and desires don’t necessarily follow the same formula as Tonio or Fabio’s.
Take Gennaro, the lead in Amboise Thomas’s “Le Roman d’Elvire” (1860). He’s a dissolute libertine who calls to mind a cash-poor Don Giovanni (especially in his refusal to marry a character named Elvira). In a moment of financial desperation, he agrees to marry an apparently old, rich woman (Elvira in disguise), although the hymn he sings following this matrimonial decision is sung not to her love, but to her money. Fabio gets worked up over a late-night rendezvous; Gennaro does the same with gold, pulling out all of the vocal stops in the process. How apt (especially in a week that features more public interest in a group of millionaires on a seemingly-doomed submarine than in one of the deadliest migrant and refugee shipwrecks on record) that, of all the Thomas love arias included on this recording, this one is the horniest.
Desire isn’t always something to be extolled. “In a world that is generally becoming more and more liberal, in which traditional hierarchies are rejected and authorities are being rebelled against, in which one can seemingly try almost anything without constraints and limits, the question remains as to the relevance of concepts such as temptation, the Fall of Man, prohibition, disobedience, good and evil,” writes Benjamin Appl in his introduction to “Forbidden Fruit.” In terms of sentiment, this comes as a bucket of ice water dumped over “So Romantique!” Appl’s program of art songs, mostly rotating around the turn of the last century, is strung together with interspersed quotations from the Book of Genesis. His recitation of these lines brings to mind his teacher Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s unsung Christmas album. But Appl doesn’t pass judgment. He is, in the best sense of the phrase, just asking questions:
We can sometimes find ourselves in the same internal conflict as Adam and Eve: tempted by the possibility of gaining new life experiences—eating the ‘forbidden fruit’—that promise us something unknown and exciting. But after ‘tasting,’ we often find ourselves oddly dissatisfied, and with more desire than ever to keep breaking through newly emerging boundaries. Does this pattern make life better? Do we really find more freedom, more happiness?
This results in a lineup of works that reflect a range of relationships to desire. The narrator of Schoenberg’s “Arie aus dem Spiegel von Arkadien” sounds like a Faustian codger who would willingly sell his soul for any of the handfuls of women who make his heart beat “like a swarm of bees.” The image owes itself in part to Appl’s oom-pah-pah delivery of the heartbeat-like “Bum, bum, bum”s dotted throughout the song, which land with the bumbling heft of a Baron Ochs. Other songs are more explicitly Faustian, such as Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” which in this context highlights the dissatisfied aftermath of Goethe’s hapless maiden tasting the forbidden fruit proffered by the devil in disguise. Appl has a preternatural mastery over this repertoire, with a Fischer-Dieskau–esque level of introspection, colored by kaleidoscopic characterization and poetic enunciation. (Many of these same characteristics are wonderfully abundant in his 2022 “Winterreise” recording.)
It’s a gamble to take so many elements and string them together on a recording, but stylistically and dramaturgically, it works. Weill’s “Youkali”—the eponymous land of desire that doesn’t actually exist—comes shortly after God drops Adam into the Garden of Eden. When the author of Genesis adds that “Man was not meant to live alone,” that is followed by Poulenc’s “L’offrande,” in which the virginal god of love offers a candle in the hope of obtaining a lover—the composer’s “Le Serpent” makes an obvious cameo as well. Debussy’s sexy “La Chevelure” is a stand-in for the shameless nakedness of Adam when he’s paired with Eve, and the double-hitter of Schumann’s “Lorelei” and “Frühlingsfahrt” captures the temptation of the apple tree and the eventual exile that follows. A bit odder is the inclusion of Leonello Casucci and Irving Caesar’s “Just a Gigolo,” although if someone were to write an operatic adaptation of the 1978 film of the same name, Appl would be a perfect fit for the David Bowie role.
The trajectory from the blithely agnostic French opera of “So Romantique!” (did I mention Napoleon’s army is the one we root for in “La Fille du Régiment”?) to the slightly more self-aware works of Weill and Hanns Eisler (whose setting of Bertolt Brecht’s “Ballade vom Paragraphen 218” also factors into “Forbidden Fruit”) continues into the first quarter of the 21st century: We can see how musical arcs bend towards shifting hierarchies, traditions, and power structures. In a 2017 article for New Music Box, Ashley Jackson discusses some of that continuum, linking it in part to her academic research on Margaret Bonds (research that culminated in the 2019 release of “‘The Ballad of the Brown King’ and Selected Songs” on Avie). The interest in Bonds was based in part by the similarities Jackson perceived between the composer’s life and her own: Both were artistically supported by strong communities, but felt an equal lack of support in academia. For Jackson, the more she read on Bonds, the more she asked herself the question: “What are my responsibilities as an artist?”
That wasn’t a question to merely be asked, but rather the foundation of a moral and creative imperative. Now teaching at Hunter College, Jackson challenges her students to consider whether classical music provides “a safe place for authentic Black stories” as they listen to the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” against William Grant Still’s “Troubled Island.” If the answer is no (which, when you consider the fact that one of those two operas has become canon while the other has lapsed into obscurity, seems pretty likely), what would make the genre more inclusive and anti-racist in the future? As a musician, Jackson served as deputy director for the Dream Unfinished and is still a member of its executive council, and is also a member of the Harlem Chamber Players. Her colleagues from HCP join her on her new album, “Ennanga.”
With works by Still, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Alice Coltrane, and Brandee Younger, “Ennanga” sits at an intersection where the past informs the future. Still’s work lends the album its name, its title referring to a type of harp played in Uganda. This was a critical link for Still in writing for the harp, an instrument that, as a young composer, both fascinated and frightened him. In exploring the instrument’s capacities, with both American and European orchestral traditions as well as its global iterations, however, Still came to settle on this work for harp and piano quintet, written originally for Lois Adele Craft. Even without explicitly working with musical styles from east Africa, Still recalled meeting a Ugandan man after a performance who said the music “reminded him of home.”
That seems to be the central hook, and delightful paradox, of “Ennanga.” It sounds as much like home for the neoromantics as it did for Still’s audience member. In her liner notes, Jackson also points out the jazz motifs, among other styles of the Black Atlantic that make their way into the work’s final movement. She leans into these multiple influences and identities (even a melody in the second movement that resembles “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”), writing that her aim was to balance this recording of “Ennanga” with its two distinct predecessors (recorded, respectively, by Craft and Ann Hobson-Pilot), highlighting the work’s “rhythmic ambiguity and sense of improvisation.”
It’s a beautiful piece, played with style and care by Jackson and her fellow Harlem Chamber Players. I was even more taken by Alice Coltrane’s “Prema,” arranged for harp by Jackson. As the Sanskrit name suggests, there are elements of the divine and love (“heart-melting love,” if you want to get specific) in the work. Time is both substantial and standing still, like a summer night that can’t shake the day’s humidity. Jackson’s sensitivity as an ensemble player on this track creates a textured and luminous landscape. You could lose yourself in it entirely without hesitation. ¶
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