With so many recordings being issued or re-issued, we will always try to review as much as possible. Naturally we can’t cover everything, but over the coming months we will certainly try to cover every major CD and DVD release.
Sir Arthur Sullivan’s name will forever be inextricably linked with that of W.S Gilbert, but it’s easy enough to overlook the fact that the man responsible for all those delightfully jolly tunes in the Savoy operas was also a serious classical composer in his own right, having written a prolific amount of church music, orchestral compositions and oratorios in addition to twenty-three operas, including the fourteen he wrote in collaboration with Gilbert. While his famous comedy masterpieces such as The Mikado and HMS Pinafore are still widely performed today, much of Sullivan’s other work languishes in forgotten obscurity, including his serious opera Ivanhoe, which was once so popular with the British public that it originally ran for 155 consecutive performances at the newly-built Royal English Opera House (now the Palace Theatre) - the undisputed ‘hot ticket’ for London theatre-goers in 1891.
This disc represents an auspicious debut by the American male soprano, Michael Maniaci. In a world now positively crammed with counter tenors, Maniaci represents a stupendous contrast both in timbre and in range. Unlike falsettists (which practically covers all counter tenors and other male sopranos), Maniaci possesses a natural male soprano due to the lack of thickening of his vocal cords during puberty. Consequently this disc presents the listener with an opportunity to explore some of the ethereal characteristics that were associated with the timbre of the long dead castrato voice. Aside from some scratchy recordings of Alessandro Moreschi (generally recognised to be the last castrato, who sang in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel choir until 1913) from 1902 and 1904, we have little to go on in terms of re-imagining this most celebrated of voice types, aside from contemporary criticism.
There can be no doubt whatsoever that James MacMillan’s The Sacrifice is one of the most accessible contributions to the world of British opera since Benjamin Britten, with audiences responding even as warmly as they did to Thomas Adès’ The Tempest. Both these works were broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and each of these broadcasts has been cleaned up and recently issued on double CD (Adès on EMI, 2009; MacMillan on Chandos, 2010). Both operas also have composers who enjoy successful careers as conductors, but while Adès conducted The Royal Opera House forces at Covent Garden, it was unfortunate that on the night when The Sacrifice was broadcast from the Wales Millennium Theatre with Welsh National Opera, MacMillan was unwell and was therefore forced to hand over the reins to Anthony Negus.
When booklet notes try to do the critic’s job for you in lavishing praise on the recording you’re about to listen to, I’m immediately suspicious. Brian Dickie’s eulogy written for Danielle de Niese’ s second solo album gushes forth the most flowery prose about how she is so perfectly suited to the music and sings it so wonderfully. It represents all that is wrong with the state of the classical recording industry today, namely that young artists, catapulted into the limelight, are marketed at the expense of the actual music- making. It would be far preferable to let de Niese’s singing speak for itself than be told what to think beforehand.
Music has had some fabulously controversial performers in the past: Glenn Gould’s antics with Bach; Jacqueline Du Pré – over-aggressive or musically impassioned?; and I’d better not even start on Callas. Surely one of the top dividers of musical opinion today is the mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli. Bartoli is the very epitome of operatic marmite, causing some critics to fall over themselves the moment she utters a single note, while others find her performances utterly repulsive, especially her characteristic facial expressions.
Naxos has given us a virtually note- complete performance of Edward German’s (1862-1936) turn of the century operetta masterpiece, Tom Jones. German, whose name is almost unknown today despite a handful of recent commercial recordings of assorted operas, symphonies and chamber pieces, was one of the most important and popular composers of the period running through the first decade of the 20th century, and was active in teaching, performance, and musical research. Himself an Edwardian bachelor, German is or was, perhaps, best known for Merrie England, an archaizing musical comedy which turns the Virgin Queen from the vengeful and dread monarch of Donizetti into a frustrated but ultimately kind-hearted spinster - Jane Marple, but without the latter’s keen powers of observation. German was well-respected by such contemporaries as Gilbert, Sullivan and Sir Edward Elgar for his direct melodic appeal as well as for the sophisticated quality of his orchestrations, which in fact here can be fleetingly redolent of the Russian school.
La Rondine has always been the Cinderella of Puccini’s mature operas. His publisher, Ricordi, rejected it and even the composer himself wasn’t entirely satisfied, revising it on a couple of occasions. In recent times, interest in the opera has been revived largely through being championed by Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, both on disc and in opera houses around the world. It’s a slight piece, an hour and a half long, originally commissioned by the Vienna Carltheater as an operetta, and is lighter and frothier than La traviata, whose plot it most resembles. Naxos’ new recording comes from a performance staged at the 2007 Puccini Festival at the composer’s home, Torre del Lago. The story concerns Magda, a kept woman, who leaves Rambaldo, her protector, to be with Ruggero, the young man she falls in love with.
When the Ballet gets the longest applause of the night in a performance of Verdi’s Macbeth, you know you’re in trouble! So it proves on this release from Naxos of a live performance from the open-air Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata recorded in 2007. I’m sure if I had been there, it would have made for a pleasant summer evening’s entertainment, especially after a bowl of pasta and a few glasses of Montepulciano, but listening at home on an empty stomach proves an unpalatable experience. The recording was made by Dynamic, who specialise in live recordings, usually of rarer repertoire, so I initially wondered why they hadn’t released it on their own label. Then I gave the discs a spin.
This is not the first disc Dame Emma Kirkby, Daniel Taylor and the Theatre of Early Music have made. Their first joint-release also bore the Stabat Mater theme, that time in the context of Scarlatti’s music (ATMA, 2005). Although that disc received many accolades and the performances themselves were very secure, it was marred by some balance problems, with the instruments occasionally sounding much too prominent.
Having been bombarded by CD recitals of recycled Handel arias by every soprano under the sun, it is very refreshing to discover this adventurous recital of mostly unknown repertoire dedicated to the masters of the Neapolitan opera scene of the early part of the 18th century: Pergolesi, Porpora, Vinci, Leo and Hasse. The ensemble consists of a string quartet, augmented in a few arias by two oboes and two horns. Considering the undramatic sound of many of Alan Curtis’s recordings (Ferdinando in particular) which enjoy larger instrumental forces, it is astounding to hear the vibrancy, accuracy and pure joy such a small ensemble can achieve on this CD.
Gurney’s songs today may not be as well known as his war poetry, which is ironic when one considers that he viewed himself as being first and foremost a composer. However, a recording like this one by Naxos with mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley and pianist Iain Burnside, makes one yearn to hear many more of his compositions. It is a rare gift to be quite so adept in both fields, but then Gurney was an extraordinary man who led an extraordinary life. Famously inspired to become a composer after listening to a performance of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, Gurney wrote more than three hundred songs. Many of his poems and compositions were inspired by the landscape of the Gloucestershire countryside, a place which was of great personal importance to him. Sadly, Gurney was declared insane and committed to Barnwood Mental Hospital in 1922.
Henry Purcell’s tragic chamber opera about doomed love has been the subject of numerous recordings, with no less than Flagstad, Baker, Norman and Hunt Lieberson all offering up their interpretations of the noble Carthaginian Queen. It comes therefore as no surprise that today’s reigning Dido, Sarah Connolly, would wish to record her interpretation for posterity. In short, hers is a magnificent assumption, which in the opinion of this reviewer, sets a new benchmark for excellence in a field already hotly contested by some of the greatest singers of the past century.
Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi has built up quite a following amongst the opera cognoscenti for her beautiful, mellow and intensely moving voice. As at home in rare baroque opera as she is in the demanding heroines of Bellini, Donizetti or Verdi, Ciofi has garnered a considerable reputation for well-schooled musicianship allied to an affecting stage presence. The voice and the intelligence with which it is used is amongst the most compelling of today. Anyone who saw her Alaide in Bellini’s La Straniera with Opera Rara in 2007 at the Royal Festival Hall, were left in no doubt that here was a major international talent.
Christine Brewer possesses possibly the finest dramatic soprano in the world today, and this wonderful collection of arias sung in English is a stunning testament to this assertion. Having already recorded a memorable Fidelio for Chandos, this CD is a worthy follow-up recital from the same label, with powerhouse performances from Tannhäuser and Oberon sitting alongside rich and frothy arias from Countess Maritza and Giuditta. Her versatility is never in doubt and the results rarely less than exceptional.
Following a critically acclaimed recital disc with Chandos back in 2005, we now have another offering from Christine Brewer singing great operatic arias. Although the voice has lost none of its lustre and heroic volume, this selection is marginally less successful than last time. The programme itself is certainly varied and quite interesting, with surprising entries from Handel, Britten, Dvorak, Korngold and Menotti, whilst the “meat" comes in the form of Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart and Gluck, with light relief offered by Lehár and Richard Rodgers
Metastasio called Artaserse “the most fortunate of all my children.” The first of nearly one hundred eventual settings was by Metastasio’s favourite composer Leonardo Vinci. The English historian Charles Burney (1726 - 1814) wrote that Vinci was the first composer who “since the invention of recitative by Jacopo Peri, in 1600, seems to have occasioned any considerable revolution in the musical drama.” This is quite a statement considering that Burney personally knew Hasse and Handel and was acquainted with the music of Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach and Fux.
In recent years, Thaïs has become an increasingly popular opera with audiences, largely through the advocacy of Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson in the leading roles. That other divas wish to assay the title role is encouraging, and it’s good that opera houses, such as Turin, are prepared to mount new productions of one of Massenet’s Egyptian-based operas (oh that they would stage Cléopâtre as well!), in this case in a staging by Stefano Poda. This is a brave attempt at presenting the work in an expensive looking production on a grand scale; that it largely fails on all accounts is both frustrating and disappointing.
Evidently, productions of Der Rosenkavalier have a habit of outliving their directors. In a positive flurry of recent revival activity that has seen the work severally staged at Covent Garden, the Metropolitan and, as preserved on this DVD, the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, each of the original directors was no longer around to supervise his show's latest outing. This matters less, of course, in stagings that cleave close to the scenic and theatrical givens of the work as conceived by Hofmannsthal and Strauss in microscopic detail, than in ones like that under consideration here that avail themselves of varying degrees of liberty and licence. Herbert Wernicke’s show – for show it is, and indisputably all his since he both directed and designed the sets and costumes: auteur-opéra, in fact – was originally mounted at the 1995 Salzburg Festival as a co-production with the Opéra de Paris at the Bastille, where it subsequently fetched up.
Despite the very fine performances from its principals, it is Rome itself which is the real star in this performance of Tosca, for this is the film which was originally broadcast live around the globe in July 1992 in the exact settings and at the times specified in Puccini’s score. I remember well watching the first two acts, but missing Act III having overslept past the 6am start! Those live broadcasts were on BBC2 in the UK, whilst Channel 4 showed all three acts together on the following evening. On a trip to Rome last year, I saw each of the locations in the opera: Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese (now the French Embassy) and the Castel Sant’Angelo. I spent a good deal of time in Sant’Andrea which is a truly beautiful basilica church, although the Attavanti Chapel doesn’t really exist. There is a special thrill in seeing the opera performed in these locations and quite remarkable that it was all broadcast live.
Handel’s delightful comedy Partenope (1730) used to be something of a baroque rarity, but in the past year European audiences were treated to at least three different productions – at English National Opera, the Theater an der Wien in Vienna and this brilliant and very witty staging from The Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, directed by Francisco Negrin and recorded in October 2008. Having been fortunate enough to see all three productions live, it was undoubtedly the Danish offering (starring German countertenor Andreas Scholl) which came out the overall winner, despite some stiff competition from the brilliant David Daniels in Vienna and a very strong ensemble cast led by Christine Rice and Rosemary Joshua in ENO’s hilariously farcical 1920s setting.
Metastasio originally conceived L’ Olimpiade for Antonio Caldara in 1733 to celebrate the birthday of the Empress Elisabeth. Despite Metastasio’s uneasy relationship with Caldara, who premiered many of his operas, L’Olimpiade was a huge success. More than 60 composers used the libretto for their own renditions including Hasse, Vivaldi (in an attack on Metastasio), and even an unfinished version by Donizetti! The story takes place in Ancient Greece at the time of the Olympic games. It concerns the amorous exploits and rivalry of two best friends, Megacle and Licida. L’Olimpiade was only trumped in popularity by Artaserse and Alessandro nell’Indie. It must be noted that for a modern audience the drama in this opera may be considered somewhat weak, tenuous and melodramatic. (The idea of Megacle being a substitute for Licida as well as all the attempted suicides in Acts two and three all seem really incredible.) It is known that Metastasio modelled the role of Megacle to the strengths and weaknesses of the castrato Salimbeni. And this accounts for the more than unusual stiffness of Megacle’s character. Other successful Megacle’s included the castrati Monticelli and Marchesi – the dazzling version by Cimarosa for Marchesi attests to this.
Rossini’s Ermione was premièred in Naples in 1819, only receiving five complete performances before sinking without trace. It wasn’t even reviewed in the newspapers, so we can only speculate as to why it failed to capture the public’s imagination. Rossini was in a rich vein of form and had assembled singers who had helped with the success of previous operas, not least the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran who took the title role. Perhaps it was too experimental a work, ‘written for posterity’ as Rossini was supposed to have remarked. The opera had to wait until 1987 for a staging at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, which marked its resurrection. Glyndebourne took up the opera in 1995 and since then Ermione has appeared in several cities around the world, most recently in London earlier this year (in concert) but it’s back to Pesaro for this DVD release from Dynamic, filmed in August 2008. The director is Daniele Abbado, Claudio’s son, whilst cousin Roberto is in the pit.
Britten set himself a tall order when approaching Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. With outstanding musical settings by the likes of Purcell and Mendelssohn, Britten had to pull out all the stops for this opera. I have always felt that ‘quite a few’ rather than ‘all’ the stops were pulled out. It is by no means a disaster, and certainly ranks higher than the rather dismal offerings of Owen Wingrave and Gloriana. At the same time though, it certainly doesn’t reach the dizzy heights of Peter Grimes or The Turn of the Screw. Like Beethoven’s Fidelio, this is an opera which is good, but needs excellent performances from all concerned to really make it work.
The genre of the ‘children’s opera’ cannot boast a particularly wide repertoire. It is all the more welcome then, when a composer of Oliver Knussen’s talent comes along in the 1980s and produces not only one but two of some of the best children’s operas since Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. However it is not so much Humperdinck’s as Ravel’s influence that is very much evident in this Glyndebourne double bill of Higglety Pigglety Pop! and Where the Wild Things Are. While the former includes the Mother Goose World Theatre, which performs its own opera-within-an-opera at the end, Where the Wild Things Are has frequently been compared to L’enfant et les sortileges, due to the narrative similarity between the two works.
Anyone capable of putting up with the gargantuan ego of Richard Wagner deserves a certain degree of respect. Engelbert Humperdinck was an assistant to Wagner at Bayreuth, and although his contribution to the world of opera can scarcely be compared to that of his formidable contemporary, he produced one work that has endured the test of time very well, delighting adults and children for over a century. Taken from the Brothers Grimm tale, Hänsel und Gretel is a ‘Märchenspiel’ (Fairytale) opera, often described as a ‘children’s opera’. This Royal Opera production from December 2008 clearly takes a different approach, and is aimed much more at an adult audience.
The Staatskapelle Weimar’s exciting new Ring cycle comes to its inevitable conclusion with this rather bleak production of Götterdämmerung. Musically much of it was truly excellent, but unfortunately the directorial concepts of stage director Michael Schulz and dramaturgist Wolfgang Willaschek were about as clear as the muddy depths of the Rhine. If the viewer is obliged to read detailed programme notes in the DVD booklet in order to understand what the director is trying to say then surely something has gone wrong?
The third instalment of Weimar’s imaginative new Ring cycle is this spirited and splendidly sung production of Siegfried, recorded live from the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar and just released on DVD and Blu-ray disc by Arthaus Musik. I should start by confessing that Siegfried is my least favourite opera in Wagner’s great tetralogy, but the Staatskapelle Weimar’s dark and minimalist modern-dress staging (directed by Michael Schulz) offered plenty to maintain my interest.
Recently released on DVD and Blu-ray by Arthaus Musik, the second part of the Staatskapelle Weimar’s new Ring cycle continues with a bold and innovative production of Die Walküre, recorded live from the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar.
Recently released on DVD and Blu-ray disc by Arthaus Musik, this quirky production of Das Rheingold from the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar is a breath of fresh air and certainly makes very interesting viewing, despite some of the more unorthodox elements of the staging. An ambitious project for a smaller German company like the Staatskapelle Weimar but a highly successful one; the entire cycle was recorded live in 2008 and the individual operas will be released separately by
Debussy’s Mélisande: The Lives of Georgette Leblanc, Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte by Gillian Opstad (Boydell & Brewer)
“‘What a marvellous thing Pelléas is,’ cried the young Mme de Cambremer, ‘I’m mad about it.’” Her decidedly advanced musical tastes, shrilly on display in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, was intended as a riposte to all those who found Debussy’s revolutionary masterwork a step too far. Proust himself had become bewitched by the opera, often listening to it live at home (direct from the Opéra-Comique on the telephone) in pre- radio days: “I’m perpetually asking for Pelléas on the theatrophone,” he wrote to Reynaldo Hahn.
The Grove Book of Opera Singers published by Oxford University Press is an invaluable reference tool for all discerning opera-goers. It is in toto a remarkable achievement, with over 1500 mini-biographies of singers from all generations provided. The quality of the contributions is also largely excellent, but extra value is provided in the way of an index of roles with the names of their creator, an index of voice types which present the singers included in this book under their relevant heading, and an alphabetical list of operas with the names of their composers. From a reference perspective alone it provides the reader with an accessible and concise way of obtaining useful information.