Review 2022: We’ve Come to Claim the Throne

Felix Jarrar, Michelle Trovato, & JoAnna Pope in Concert

By Chris Ruel

Pianist/composer Felix Jarrar and soprano Michelle Trovato partnered to stage a themed recital centered on Mary Queen of Scots, titled “We’ve Come to Claim the Throne,” on July 29, 2022, at St. John’s in the Village, New York City.

The theme came to Jarrar via soprano Michelle Trovato, who had been thinking for some time about a program focusing on Queen Mary’s story. Jarrar and Trovato had already been kicking around a performance of bel canto opera scenes, and both composer and vocalist recognized the opportunity to collaborate on pieces from Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” and Schumann’s “Mary Stuart” lieder.

Mezzo-soprano Rebecca Sacks joined Jarrar and Trovato in developing a repertoire that centered on the royal cousins, once removed, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart (Mary I). In performance, the vocalists would generally alternate portrayals of the queens through different repertoires.

Wanting Mary sung by a mezzo, Trovato recommended Jarrar write a new piece, “Queen Mary’s Lament,” based on the poetry of Robert Burns. Unfortunately, about a week before the performance, Sacks, the original mezzo slated to perform, had to withdraw. Jumping in for her was JoAnna Pope, who, though with little time to prepare, crushed it nonetheless.

While preparing the soprano role of Elizabeth, Jarrar connected with writer Bea Goodwin, who provided an additional perspective on Elizabeth for the song cycle, adding a second, completely new, work: “Venetian Ceruse.” Jarrar and Goodwin are a dynamic duo in every sense of the word. To say the two collaborate often would be an understatement.

Part I

The recital opened with a Jarrar/Goodwin piece called “I, the Dead Sea,” sung by Trovato. This and the following work explored the loneliness that Mary experienced while held in the Tower of London.

Trovato sang over broken melodic chords with a full, round sound. Jarrar loves playing with dynamics and moods, and “I, the Dead Sea” was no exception. The piece began with an appropriately melancholy mood before segueing into the work’s more sedate second half, where Trovato’s legato lines were pure burnished silver.

Next up was “The world is a quiet and empty place,” a piece for which Jarrar served as both composer and lyricist. Here, Trovato was often highly exposed as she sang over a sparse piano line full of turns and trills or no sound at all.

The soprano sang with a strong middle register, making her climb up the staff even more dramatic. Viewed as a whole, the work was an amalgam of baroque and contemporary, an odd mixture, but one that worked surprising well.

Next up came Jarrar’s “Toccata and Fugue Based on Music from Mozart’s Requiem;” a wild storm of notes full of lightning-fast tempi, everything people love about the form. The section of the Requiem from which Jarrar pulled was “Offertory I. Domine Jesu Christe;” the second half, specifically, which is a fugue itself, full of dark dramaticism. It was unexpected and enjoyable to hear a less-often quoted section from deep within the work used to wonderful effect.

Trovato returned to the stage and spoke about the Schumann piece that followed.

“We always wanted this incredible Schumann cycle (“Gedicht der Königin Maria Stuart,” Op. 135. “The Prayer of Mary Queen of Scots”), [inspired directly by] Mary Stuart’s own writings, to be part of the program, but we also wanted to share the set, instead of one singer doing the complete cycle. We split the first three songs from the last two songs. The first three relate and refer to specific moments in Mary’s life, and the final two songs, though written by Mary, Queen of Scots, could’ve easily been the thoughts and emotions of either queen.”

Schumann’s “Gedicht der Königin Maria Stuart,” was the composer’s last cycle, after which he wrote only two more songs. Schumann used the German translations of the Queen’s writing by Gilbert Freihern Vincke from his collection “Rose und Distel. Poesien aus England und Schottland,” (“Rose and Thistle. Poems from England and Scotland”).

A series of melancholy songs mark the cycle, with no sort of break in the mood. At the time, critics of the work were not thrilled with what they considered the monochromatic nature of the cycle, since there are no contrasting songs or emotions. However, as a counterpoint, the poems represent Mary’s writing as she nears the end of her life, and keeping in mind that Schumann wrote the cycle toward the end of his own life, a cycle with a rather depressed mode does not seem so off balance.

Trovato sang the first of three of the five songs, and included  “Abschied von Frankreich,” a goodbye to her “happy France,” in which Mary is on a ship, taking her “far away from my joy.” This was followed by “Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes,” a song that speaks of the birth of her son. In this poem, Mary asks that her newborn baby boy be protected and rule the realm for years to come. Next, in “An die Königin Elisabeth,”(“To Queen Elizabeth”), Mary longs to see Elizabeth, and refers to her as a sister. “Then, dear sister, a new anguish seizes me, Because the letter lacks the power to prove it.”

Pope took the last two songs. “Abschied von der Welt” (“Farewell to the World”), as the title implies, concerns Mary readying herself for her death, singing, “What use is the time still allotted me? My heart is dead to earthly desires, My spirit is severed from all but sorrow. The joy of death alone remains.” The last song is the prayer referred to in the work’s title: “Gebet” (“Prayer”). Mary asks to be rescued by God. “O beloved Jesus! Rescue me! In my harsh prison…”

Trovato’s wall-of-sound voice hits you wonderfully face-on, exuding the pain and sadness of Mary’s last days. Schumann drove the soprano higher than in any other song in the program, and Trovato did more than an admirable job going above the staff. Her diction was clear and sounded natural.

Mezzo JoAnna Pope came ready to sing. Pope has an excellent vibrato that is present, yet not not all-consuming. Pope is an authoritative mezzo who impressed with each song she performed. Too delicate a voice would sound inauthentic, and a large voice, too overpowering. Selecting Pope for the jump-in was an excellent choice on Jarrar and Trovato’s part.

The Schumann was followed up by a second Jarrar/Goodwin piece, “Eclipse,” which Trovato introduced, saying, “Eclipse” is a triptych of female archetypes often viewed through the male gaze. It’s a song cycle that comprises three songs: “The Witch,” “The Saint,” and “The Dreamer.”

“The Witch” features marathon-length melismas, conjuring the imagery of a witch singing an invocation of the beyond. “My body is a trick on your eye,” is the line, with the vocalization sung on the word “eye.” The passages could spell death to many singers, but Pope handled it extremely well, never flagging. Jarrar kept the mezzo ‘in the basement,’ challenging her lower register. But, within the final song of the cycle, Jarrar’s composition sent Pope into the upper parts of her register. The composition is a study in musical contrasts. In a few places Jarrar played another mixture, this time writing pieces that had touches of Bach and bel canto.

Jarrar likes to stretch vocalists—he is delightfully cruel, but it is all done with an eye toward creating something different and beautiful rather than musical maliciousness. He challenges the singer with wild leaps, rollercoaster melisma, and messing with the whole idea of fachs, as mezzo and soprano intertwine at the edge of their ranges.

For the next song, Jarrar came out from behind the piano and introduced the first of two world premieres slated for the evening, both by Jarrar and Goodwin. The new collaboration was entitled “Venetian Ceruse,” a short cycle in which Trovato sang the role of Queen Elizabeth. ‘Venetian Ceruse,’ also known as the ‘Spirit of Saturn,’ was the name given to the makeup which Elizabeth I wore.

In the first song, “Apothecary,” a member of Queen Elizabeth’s court has been given a note by the Queen that states how her makeup is to be prepared, and it is very specific. Elizabeth has discovered her smallpox scars and feels vulnerable.

Jarrar’s music is dramatic and full while the text is sparse as the ingredients required for the makeup are outlined in Elizabeth’s note. “Your pallet, my Pigments… for my skin. I’m canvas Alas… a figment…” Trovato sang these closing words with quiet intention, showing the audience a delicacy not heard before this point, making the changes in dynamics all the more satisfying.

The cycle’s second song, the titular “Venetian Ceruse,” was adapted by Jarrar from a John Dowland galliard, lending the tune a royal court feel. Ornamentation in the piano line gave Trovato an entrance into what was Jarrar’s most esoteric piece in the program; which sounds odd, given the musical foundation, but Jarrar played with Downland’s ideas, juxtaposing the rather happy tenor of the piece filled with rolling chords to that of Goodwin’s text. The conclusion of the song is spoken text and contains a notable quote about Elizabeth’s skin: “We princes, I tell you, set on stages in the sight and view of all the world—the eyes of many behold our actions, a spot is soon spied in our garments; a blemish noted quickly in our doings.”

Part II

Opening the second half of the concert was Pope singing “Queen Mary’s Song,” by Edward Elgar. The composer used Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Lute Song” for its’ text. Not unlike Elizabeth’s sadness expressed as her beauty fades, Elgar’s piece speaks of its fleeting nature: “Beauty passes like a breath and love is lost in loathing.”

The vocal line carries the melody in this hymn-like tune that Jarrar ended fortissimo, creating a blast wave of sound from both the pianist and vocalist.

After “Queen Mary’s Song” came the second world premiere of the night, “Queen Mary’s Lament,” also sung by Pope. Jarrar was clever in his use of two styles, creating phrases that could easily be heard within a hymn. The tune was a crowd pleaser, with its easy serenity and melodic familiarity.

The program finished with two cuts from Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda,” with a Chopin nocturne in-between.

Though Trovato has a large voice, she showed there to be some bel canto dexterity as she sang “O nube che liege per l’aria,”(“O cloud that lies in the air”). In the cavatina, Mary sings of her beloved homeland, France, and wishes all her cares would fly away across the sea. During the song’s interlude, horns sound in the piano line, announcing Elizabeth’s arrival at Mary’s prison. Mary dreads the upcoming confrontation with her rival and hopes she will be left in peace to live out her days.

Trovato sang the waltz-like cavatina with a strong sense of rhythm and showed off her sparkling top notes. The cabaletta got a little muddy, not in vocal quality but in terms of the venue’s reverb. Jarrar’s playing and Trovato’s vocal line got trapped in a vortex of sound bouncing off the walls and ceiling. The church is a wonderful space, but not in this one case. Trovato closed out the piece with ringing top notes.

Jarrar tackled Chopin’s “Nocturne” in F-sharp minor, “Op. 48 no.2,” with as much care and intention as he would his own work. The choice to include this solo piece was to reflect Mary’s sadness. The nocturne fit well, with its melancholy spirit that would move into clouds of sadness and contemplation before switching into a more regal sound—aristocratic and proud.

Jarrar and Trovato’s homage to Queens Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots concluded with a bel canto boxing match between the two, singing the confrontation scene from Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda.” Jarrar seemed to have fun at the piano during this number and the preceding “Maria Stuarda” aria.

Donizetti inverts the soprano/mezzo-soprano dynamic by weaving the voices, sometimes the mezzo jumping over the soprano and vice versa. Pope once more shined in a lightning-fast cabaletta and Trovato stuck the high note at the end.

Jarrar and Trovato’s concert was a well-programmed evening of music that was created thoughtfully and stuck with the theme throughout. It was creative in its use of many styles and inclusion of original compositions by Jarrar and Goodwin, mixed in with those of earlier composers that not only gave the audience a sense of Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship, but of the scope of musical treatments, both overt and more subtle.


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