Bel Raggio – Rossini Arias

01 vocal 01 aleksandra kurzakBel Raggio – Rossini Arias
Aleksandra Kurzak; Sinfonia Varsovia; Pier Giorgio Morandi
Decca 478 3553

Now here is a disc that once and for all will put a stop to people moaning that the “golden age of singing is over.” Those lucky enough to have attended L’Elisir d’Amore in December 2012 at London’s Covent Garden with Aleksandra Kurzak (and Roberto Alagna) or even before, in 2008, at Kurzak’s sensational debut there in Rossini’s Matilda di Shabran will certainly protest vehemently. The young Polish coloratura non-plus-ultra is following the footsteps of the great Joan Sutherland with her opening number Bel Raggio lusinghier here, the phenomenal aria from Semiramide – and to put it mildly if she (Dame Joan) were still alive, she’d better watch out for her job. Without a doubt “her voice is stupendous, firm, crystal clear in coloratura, beautifully rich in legato” – as The Times of London raves.

This is indeed a stunning recording, one that you’d want never to end and to listen to over and over again. There are nine arias of immense difficulty, emotional scope and a vocal range extending from strong deep notes into the stratosphere of shattering high notes, which unfortunately I cannot identify (not having perfect pitch). The hair-raising Rossini fioraturas she sails through lightly as a feather and she refers to these “as the easy part.” Kurzak comes from a musical family; her mother was an opera singer and her father a horn player and she is also ravishingly beautiful with a lovely stage presence. Splendid accompaniment too by Sinfonia Varsovia conducted with great flair by Pier Giorgio Morandi. This is her second release for Decca and it’s a winner.


Wagner – Wesendonck Lieder; (excerpts from) Tannhäuser; Tristan und Isolde

01 vocal 02 wagner wessendonkWagner – Wesendonck Lieder; (excerpts from) Tannhäuser; Tristan und Isolde
Anne Schwanewilms; ORF Vienna RSO; Cornelius Meister
Capriccio C5174

Named Singer of the Year by Opernwelt magazine, highly acclaimed German dramatic soprano Anne Schwanewilms steps proudly into the league of such legends as Lotte Lehmann, Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson, and is equally at home on the opera stage and as a lieder recitalist. Her discography is already impressive, but this new release will serve as a good introduction to her as a true “sound painter.”

As befits the composer’s bicentennial, this issue is more dedicated to Wagner than to the singer, so the orchestra plays a big part. To begin, a rousing performance in sonic splendour of Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg Music, the Paris version that was his post-Tristan effort and therefore harmonically far more adventurous than the original. Tristan Prelude follows later where the famous Tristan chord’s break-up into two is manifest, eloquently performed.

The soprano enters with the Hallenaria from Tannhäuser full of the joyful anticipation (and some shattering high notes) of Elizabeth expecting her long-awaited lover’s return. In the Wesendonck Lieder Schwanewilms’ interpretive skills and her tones as a sound painter are well tested. This is more difficult territory and there is a lot of beautiful shading and innigkeit in this most Schopenhauerian poetry, written by Wagner’s beloved, Mathilde Wesendonck. Tristan is foreshadowed already in these songs, especially in No.3 (Im Treibhaus) and No.5 (Träume). The final offering is suitably the Liebestod, sung ecstatically as it should be, as we reluctantly bid farewell to this exquisite recording.


Britten: The Rape of Lucretia, Op.37

01 vocal 03 britten lucretiaBritten: The Rape of Lucretia, Op.37
Cast of the 2001 Aldeburgh Production; English National Opera Orchestra; Paul Daniel
Opus Arte OA 1123 D

The Rape of Lucretia is one of Britten’s most difficult subjects. It is almost a graphic description of a rape and although it should be a fit subject for opera, it is almost unmanageable both to observe and to stage.

This production is a gripping and successful mounting of this harrowingly painful illumination of the dark side of human nature. Lucretia was the first of his chamber operas, which were succeeded by his Church Parables Trilogy, all valued for their modest demands.

Britten’s ritual structuring of this unusual piece makes it possible to negotiate the more lurid aspects of this tragedy, and the production strips away the operatic stage, make-up, ritualizing and costuming devices that would have served to objectify the depiction of the rape. The opera makes it clear that this violation destroys Lucretia’s soul. Her relationship with her husband will be demolished and, in her subjective context, the only solution is suicide. Yannis Thavoris’ set and costumes, appropriate for the time and David McVicar’s direction bring Ronald Duncan’s libretto to explicit realisation. The Greek Chorus, whose classic role is only to comment on the proceedings, is brought as much as possible into the dramatic space, frequently approaching the protagonists but never engaging with them. Persuasively sung and acted with ardour by John Mark Ainsley and Orla Boylan.

Contralto Sarah Connolly is a perfect Lucretia, patrician in bearing and maternal in spirit, and baritone Christopher Maltman is the Etruscan Tarquinius, supercilious in his soldier’s tunic and cuirass, with legs bare, making a formidable sexual aggressor. Clive Bayley is Collatinus, her husband and Leigh Melrose sings Junius. Catherine Wyn-Rogers is Bianca and Mary Nelson is Lucia.

Performed in the ambience of The Maltings in Aldeburgh, Britten’s own theatre, by a superlative cast on a starkly true set, this production will probably never be equalled, let alone surpassed. The 2001 BBC documentation is faultless and the finished DVD puts us in the audience. A unique treasure.


Dear Theo – 3 Song Cycles by Ben Moore

01 vocal 04 dear theoDear Theo – 3 Song Cycles by Ben Moore
Paul Appleby; Susanna Phillips; Brett Polegato; Brian Zeger
Delos DE 3437

Ben Moore is an American composer of song cycles, chamber music and of late, opera, well-regarded in the Metropolitan Opera circles. That regard comes from his previous collaborations with Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Isabel Leonard, Frederica von Stade, Robert White, Lawrence Brownlee, Nathan Gunn and the darling of Broadway, Audra McDonald. His choice of texts is equally careful and accomplished – John Keats, W.B. Yeats, Anna Wickham, Muriel Rukeyser, Vincent van Gogh and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Lyrically set and accompanied by the great Brian Zeger, the songs will seem instantly familiar, because of Ben Moore’s homage to Benjamin Britten’s writing style. Paul Appleby renders the dark letters of the increasingly sick painter with the right balance of anguish and raw energy, while Brett Polegato lends his velvet-smooth voice to Keats’ lyricism to create an instant classic. The only voice that did not convince me in this recording is that of Susanna Phillips. This young artist with a rapidly growing popular appeal may be better suited to a different repertoire, but here her soprano sounds glassy-fragile and slightly pushed. Regardless of that reservation, modern song lovers will find it a fine disc.


The Rosenblatt Recitals – An Overview

Nowadays amidst tightening budgets, cutbacks and a growing sense among the public that the golden age of singing is over, it must be very difficult and frustrating to pursue a career as a singer. For precisely this reason a British philanthropist, Ian Rosenblatt, under the aegis of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden set up a foundation in 2000 to support young singers by giving recitals, enabling them to be discovered by the public and furthering their career. Among the number of recordings received I’ve selected three artists who impressed me the most with their imagination and artistry, but I encourage the reader to investigate the complete series at for their particular interest:

01 vocal 05a francesco meliBritten – Michelangelo Sonnets; Liszt – Petrarch Sonnets; Francesco Meli (Opus Arte OA CD9019 D). Young Italian tenor Francesco Meli is celebrated for a voice of lyricism, purity of tone and wonderful bel canto that has made him an ideal Verdi tenor and he sang a number of roles in the Tutto Verdi series to world acclaim. In this recording he tackles the two above-noted song-cycles, complemented with an exciting selection of French and Italian repertoire, accompanied by Matteo Pais.

01 vocal 05b ekaterina siurinaAmore e Morte (Opus Arte OA CD9017D). Spectacular Russian spinto soprano Ekaterina Siurina,who has already made her debut at La Scala and the Met and is in great demand today all over the world, is featured in a most entertaining disc of songs by Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi in a series of alternately flirtatious and grief-stricken ballads, with Iain Burnside at the piano.

01 vocal 05c susan chilcottShining River (OA CD9016D) features Susan Chilcott,the great English lyric soprano whose young life tragically ended in 2003 and who created many memorable heroines (e.g. Verdi, Janáček, Britten) on the opera stage. The Shining River is of course the Ohio, starting off a program of American traditional and poetic songs by Aaron Copland and others, where her supreme artistry, youthful vitality and imagination is really a “shining river” surging through this very heartwarming disc. A great gift for young and old alike. Once again Iain Burnside is the accompanist.


Mozart – Opera & Concert Arias - Karina Gauvin; Les Violons du Roy; Bernard Labadie

02 vocal 01 karina gauvinMozart – Opera & Concert Arias
Karina Gauvin; Les Violons du Roy; Bernard Labadie
ATMA ACD2 2636

While Mozart’s concert arias were normally composed as additions to an opera score or as substitutions for other arias, the two represented on this recording were composed specifically for concert performance: Misera, dove son, composed for Countess Baumgarten and Ch’io mi scordi di te?…Non temere, amato bene which was originally intended for insertion for performance in Idomineo. However, the version Gauvin performs was adapted for the farewell concert of Nancy Storace, a singer much adored by Mozart. Gauvin’s superb purity of tone and dramatic interpretation shine in this aria. The orchestration calls for piano obbligato, deftly handled by Benedetto Lupo. One can imagine Storace and Mozart thoroughly enjoying the breakaway passage where the orchestra withdraws to feature the two.

Another wonderful exchange between instrumentalist and singer occurs in Non più di fiori from the opera La Clemenza di Tito with André Moisan’s gorgeously expressive basset horn obbligato. The opera arias featured are also marked by a superb sensitivity to the deeply emotive undertones in Mozart, especially Susanna’s deeply moving Act IV aria Deh vieni non tardar from The Marriage of Figaro. This recording demonstrates that Karina Gauvin shares a trait with Mozart: the ease and grace with which it falls on the ear of the listener belies the true complexity and supreme artistry inherent in the crafting of a truly exquisite performance.


Schubert – Wanderers Nachtlied - Matthias Goerne; Helmut Deutsch; Eric Schneider

02 vocal 02 schubert goerneSchubert – Wanderers Nachtlied
Matthias Goerne; Helmut Deutsch; Eric Schneider
Harmonia Mundi HMC902109.10

This is the eighth volume in Matthias Goerne’s epic project to record Schubert’s songs and cycles. Goerne meets every expectation of delivering the drama and emotion of the texts by Rückert, Goethe and other poets, especially as he masters so well the musical vehicle in which Schubert has set them.

But these performances transcend preoccupation with technical and stylistic correctness. At this stage in the singer’s relationship with his composer one begins to ask just how deeply one artist has ventured into the soul of the other? There is, in Goerne’s singing, a sense of ownership of Schubert’s ideas, and with that, an exercise of interpretive license quite unlike anything other Schubert singers have ever done.

The single item that will stop listeners in their tracks is the title lied, Wanderers Nachtlied, oddly buried partway through the second disc. The speed and dynamics of this interpretation are not just unconventional, they are wildly unorthodox. First impressions are shock and incredulity. How Goerne sustains the pianissimo and daringly slow tempo is technically stunning. Even more so is the realization that this is not a self-indulgence but a bold re-invention of Schubert’s original impulse. It’s unlikely that the composer ever intended this lied to be sung this way, but Goerne does it and makes it work, credibly and movingly. Simply masterful. Goerne has a unique artistic conviction that informs all his singing. It’s what will make his Schubert recordings an interpretive benchmark.


Verdi – Arias - Krassimira Stoyanova; Munchner Rundfunkorchester; Pavel Baleff

02 vocal 03 verdi ariasVerdi – Arias
Krassimira Stoyanova; Munchner Rundfunkorchester; Pavel Baleff
Orfeo C 885 141 A

In my journey last year through all of Verdi’s 26 operas I found one thing in common. The most interesting character, in conflict between her love and other, higher moral issues is nearly always the woman: Traviata, Aida, Luisa Miller, Amelia, Elisabetta…, the list is endless. Verdi was very partial to the lead sopranos, even his wife was one. It was true “he murdered sopranos,” he was so demanding and non-compromising: ”Pay attention to the quality of the voice” he so ordered Boito while selecting the right soprano … “to the intonation and above all to the intelligence and feeling.”

Intelligence and feeling could be the trademark of Krassimira Stoyanova, Bulgarian-born, who quickly rose to fame as leading soprano of the Vienna State Opera and is nowadays one of the most sought-after soloists worldwide. This new album is her third solo release, the previous two having won some prestigious awards.

The ambitious program takes us to the very core, the heart of Verdi, to roles of high vocal demands and intense emotional complexity. All of them are a rare treat for a Verdi-phile such as me. Stoyanova’s range is amazing: from the young and innocent Giovanna d’Arco through the tortured and victimized heroine Luisa Miller to the pinnacle of vocal grandeur of Don Carlo, in the supremely difficult and challenging aria Tu che le vanità. Certainly no stranger to these pages, I reviewed her Desdemona back in April 2007, in a DVD of Verdi’s Otello.


Gershwin – Porgy and Bess

02 vocal 04 porgy bess blu-rayGershwin – Porgy and Bess
Eric Owens; Laquita Mitchell; San Francisco Opera; John de Main
EuroArts Blu-ray 2059634 (also on DVD)

Porgy and Bess was conceived by Gershwin to be an American folk opera. After a preliminary run in Boston, Porgy and Bess premiered in New York City on October 10, 1935 at the Guild Theater, playing only 124 performances. Productions of varying versions were mounted over the years but it was not until 1976 when the acclaimed Houston Grand Opera production, featuring the complete score with an all- black cast, that Porgy and Bess was widely recognized as an opera. That production came to Toronto in 1976 and those of us who attended it well remember that special and unique evening. A driving force behind that Houston production, David Gockley is the executive producer of the very impressive 2009 live production from San Francisco seen here.

The two leads are sung by bass-baritone Eric Owens and soprano Laquita Mitchell. Owens appears at the Met and was seen and heard around the world as Alberich in the Met’s 2010-11 Ring cycle transmissions. Locally, he’s in the current COC production of Handel’s Hercules. Mitchell, whose repertoire also includes Verdi, Puccini and Mozart, is sought after by important opera houses including Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Washington and the Opéra Comique in Paris. Included in a perfectly cast production are Karen Slack as Serena, Chauncey Packer as Sportin’ Life and Lester Lynch as Crown.

I was initially concerned about the operatically trained voices enunciating the patois of the text while singing at a speaking tempo. Either they got better at it or I became accustomed to it. The many well-known songs (hard to think of them as arias) are framed by the action and sound spontaneous. The set, choreography and stage direction create a mise-en-scène that immediately draws us into Catfish Row.

All in all, this is a performance of genuine stature and an important release.


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