Bartoli's Norma scrapes away the barnacles
The first thing to say about this recording is that one needs to put out of one’s mind most of the famous recordings that have preceded it since what one is accustomed to hear from the Callas, Sutherland, Caballé recordings or even further back excerpts from Cigna or Ponselle is a radically different work of art. Giovanni Antonini, Riccardo Minasi and Maurizio Biondi have spent years scraping away the barnacles of dubious performance tradition and updated instrumentation and restoring hundreds of small cuts that have become part of the standard performing edition. As with a restored oil painting the removal of years of accumulation has revealed a very different work of art. Indeed I would say that it redefines the work both in terms of sound and in appropriate casting.
If I had been commissioned to design the booklet cover for this disc of Verdi arias and duets featuring Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, it would feature an image of a Brazil nut, emblazoned with the face of dear old Giuseppe, quivering beneath a sledgehammer. This would give the prospective purchaser an idea as to what to expect from the tenor’s approach and it would, indeed, be as unexpected as it is disappointing. I rate Beczala extremely highly and he would be in my top four tenors performing this sort of repertoire today (Jonas Kaufmann, Joseph Calleja and the underrated Marcelo Álvarez being the others), but this recital disc will do his reputation few favours.
Let’s play fantasy opera casting! You’re commissioning a recording of Die Walküre, the first release in a projected Ring cycle to mark Wagner’s bicentenary. Money is no object. Assemble the finest cast you can. Pencils poised? Go!
Soon after his triumph in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, Dmitri Hvorostovsky launched his recording career with a tremendous disc of Verdi and Tchaikovsky arias which, like a fox marking his territory, set out his stall of repertoire that would soon have opera houses around the world competing to engage him. Soon afterwards, however, a recital disc emerged which showed us another facet of his art – Russian song.
When the Bolshoi brought its controversial production of Yevgeny Onegin to London in 2010 with a Polish baritone in the title role, it seemed rather perverse, a bit like The Royal Opera touring Peter Grimes starring a French tenor. However, the Polish baritone in question was Mariusz Kwiecien, who has the requisite looks and vocal characteristics for the role and seems ready to claim the mantle of ideal interpreter from the shoulders of Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The smouldering Siberian included arias from Onegin on his debut disc, as does Kwiecien, but where Hvorostovsky paired Tchaikovsky with his trademark Verdi, Kwiecien has stayed closer to home with an inventive programme entitled Slavic Heroes.
The latest clutch of Decca opera releases includes four Verdi operas, three of which are being reissued for the first time, alongside a much underrated recording of Otello from 1978. In these times where studio recordings of complete operas are rarer than hen’s teeth, reissues of classic sets remain a tempting way of bolstering the library, stocking its shelves with issues missed first time round, but also makes for an inexpensive introduction to the art-form for newcomers. Libretti and translations are available online. Reviewed here are: Zubin Mehta's Il trovatore, in Luciano Pavarotti's second recording; Macbeth conducted by Riccardo Chailly with Leo Nucci and Shirley Verrett; the original 1862 St Petersburg version of La forza del destino, conducted by Valery Gergiev; and Georg Solti's studio recording of Otello, featuring Carlo Cossutta and Margaret Price.
It was pure coincidence that this debut operatic recital disc from Aleksandra Kurzak dropped through the letter box the very same day I saw the Polish soprano perform the role of Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It was the perfect assumption of the role – her light soprano silvery glinted, but without being hard-edged, allied to a truly enchanting stage presence to melt the stoniest of hearts – so that it was easy to be smitten by Kurzak’s singing on this disc, where ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ is a suitable memento of a role she’s also taking to La Scala and Vienna this year. I thought I’d wait a few days to audition the disc again, to listen critically at greater distance. Yes, one or two minor niggles surface, but it’s still an adorable disc.
Warner is busily reissuing many of the opera recordings made by Teldec and Erato in the 1990s. Available at bargain price, there is the occasional rarity to explore and some excellent performances to be discovered. Booklet information, however, is minimal, limited to a cued synopsis in English, French and German, with no libretti or translations provided. These reissues from the vaults of Teldec and Erato, including Les contes d'Hoffmann with Roberto Alagna, Sumi Jo, Natalie Dessay and José van Dam; Tristan und Isolde with Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier; La cenerentola with Jennifer Larmore; Thomas Hampson as Billy Budd and a Così fan tutte from Daniel Barenboim.
It has been just over a year since Dame Joan Sutherland died, but Decca’s re-issue of her seminal recording The Art of the Prima Donna is a fitting way to remember the artistry of the soprano known to many as La Stupenda, the stunning one. Recorded in 1960, the year after her celebrated triumph in Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden catapulted her to international fame, this recording captures the young Sutherland in blistering form. It is arguably the greatest recital disc ever produced by a soprano, and consequently there can't be many admirers of the distinctive Sutherland sound or the opera going public in general, who do not already own a copy. However, for those of you who do not have it, then it is time you dusted off your wallets and purses and stopped dallying around with the likes of Netrebko and Gheorghiu and listen to the real deal!
Despite some wonderful vocal performances, this is very much Claudio Abbado’s Fidelio. Following his re-evaluation of performance practice in his Beethoven symphony cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic, which followed Jonathan del Mar’s (then) new critical edition of the scores, he turns his attention to the composer’s single opera. Recorded during two semi-staged concert performances in the 2010 Lucerne Festival, this is a lean, chamber-sized account, every note precisely placed, but with enough punch for the drama to hit home. Abbado opts for the 1814 Fidelio overture, rather than any of the Leonoreovertures. The playing is glorious throughout, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, largely made up of players from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, is incredibly fine, responding to Abbado’s alert pacing and scrupulously observing dynamic shadings. The chamber-sized orchestra allows woodwinds to clearly register, the textual transparency allowing one to marvel afresh at Beethoven’s orchestration.
Rossini was 37 when Guillaume Tell was premiered, in 1829, at the Paris Opéra. It was his thirty-ninth and last opera, and he lived another 39 years without composing another. Did he know that Tell was his operatic swansong when he was writing it? Had the incredible productivity of the previous nineteen years finally caught up with him? Was he ill, written out and exhausted? Had he simply lost the stomach for the grinding itineracy and intrigue of the European opera circuit?
In her book Bravo, Helena Matheopoulos reports director Frano Enriquez citing Ruggero Raimondi’s voice as ‘spermatozoic’, a quality perfect for the rapacious, seductive Don Giovanni. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s bass-baritone is very different in colour, depth and tone from Raimondi’s, yet has a rich, velvety quality which is tremendously attractive and similarly deserving of the ‘spermatozoic’ tag. This disc of Mozart concert and operatic arias is rather an old-fashioned recital, though none the worse for being so; without a single ‘star guest’ in sight from the company’s stable to participate in a duet or two and featuring a modern-instrument orchestra whose only concession to ‘historically informed performance practice’ appears to be hard timpani sticks.
Does the shift in emphasis from Faust to Mephistopheles in Arrigo Boito’s treatment of Goethe’s drama result in the devil having all the best tunes? Not entirely, but it is surprising that more basses haven’t taken up the title role in Boito’s most significant contribution to opera as a composer (he will always be remembered first and foremost as the librettist of Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff). It places the devil at the centre of events, wagering with the Almighty in the Prologue that he can lure Faust into his power, only to be beaten into retreat, (forked) tail between his legs, in the Epilogue. In recent times, only Samuel Ramey has championed the role, so a Naxos release featuring the pre-eminent Italian bass of our day, Ferruccio Furlanetto, is especially welcome.
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