01 Scalfi MarcelloRosanna Scalfi Marcello – Complete Solo Cantatas
Darryl Taylor; Jory Vinikour; Ann Marie Morgan; Deborah Fox
Naxos 9.70246-47

Rosanna Scalfi was an initially self-taught singer with a strong voice and an exceptionally wide range. Her social background was quite humble. Benedetto Marcello, the Venetian nobleman and composer, heard her and she became first his pupil, then his (secret) wife. These cantatas used to be attributed to Benedetto Marcello and have only recently been assigned to Rosanna Scalfi Marcello. They are her only known compositions.

The cantatas are very much in the style of Alessandro Scarlatti and the young George Frideric Handel earlier in the 18th century. Each cantata has two arias, separated by a recitative; in many cases a recitative also comes before the first aria. Each aria is structured as a da capo: the initial section establishes the key of the piece, a middle section gives us a contrasting key or keys, while the conclusion goes back to the key originally established. John Glenn Paton, in an informative essay that comes with these discs, points out that there is considerable experimentation within the conventional framework. The second recitative in the cantata Ecco il momento, for instance, begins in F-sharp minor, then works its way towards the remote key of F Minor before moving back to the original key.

It is a pity texts are not available, not even on the Internet. There is, however, a recent edition of the score by Paton and Deborah Hayes, published by ClarNan Editions (clarnan.com).

Texts and translations are available on the Naxos website (naxos.com/sungtext/pdf/9.70246-47_sungtext.pdf#) and there is, a recent edition of the score by Paton and Deborah Hayes, published by ClarNan Editions (clarnan.com).

The cantatas are beautifully sung by the countertenor Darryl Taylor with able assistance by Jory Vinikour, harpsichord, Anne Marie Morgan, baroque cello, and Deborah Fox, theorbo.


02 Ricci CrispinoLuigi and Federico Ricci – Crispino e la Comare
Colaianni; Bonfadelli; Boscolo; Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia; Chorus of Teatro Petruzzelli; Jader Bignamini
Dynamic 37675

The operas by the brothers Luigi and Federico Ricci were popular in their day which was the middle of the 19th century. Now they are rarely performed, although there was a recent staging of Federico’s La prigione d’Edimburgo in Edinburgh, an apt choice since that opera is based on Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian. There have been a few modern revivals of Crispino e la Comare, beginning with that in Wexford in 1974. The production on this DVD was filmed at the Valle d’Itria Festival in Marina Franca, in Puglia, in 2013.

Although the librettist is Francesco Maria Piave, now largely known for his work with Verdi, and although the Riccis called the work Melodramma fantastico giocoso, this is really old-fashioned opera buffa, with little of the seriousness which Goldoni and Galuppi had introduced in the late 1740s, let alone the way da Ponte and Mozart transformed the genre in the 1780s. Conductor and director are good at keeping the action moving. Some of the acting, however, is diabolical. The best performance comes from the baritone Domenico Colaianni as the much-put-upon cobbler Crispino, while the soprano Stefania Bonfadelli as Crispino’s wife Annetta copes well with her technically demanding part. A cute little dog comes close to stealing the show. I suppose that is inevitable once you introduce animals!


03 Don GiovanniMozart – Don Giovanni
D’Arcangelo; Pisaroni; Damrau; DiDonato; Villazón; Erdmann; Mahler Chamber Orchestra; Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Deutsche Grammophon 477 9878

Deutsche Grammophon has always been at the cutting edge of recording technology and marketing strategy. Today, when we are inundated with DVDs of live performances, they decided to go back to basics and re-record all seven of Mozart’s greatest operas in state-of-the-art digital sound, superb acoustics and with the best modern casts available. To launch the series at the Baden-Baden festival, summer home of the Berlin Philharmonic, Don Giovanni was performed in concert form with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Claudio Abbado’s orchestra), taken over by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the young firebrand Canadian maestro who has risen to astronomical heights in recent years. His intuition into Mozart is uncanny, tempi on the brisk side, and his control, concentration and intensity never flag. The demonic drive of the first act finale has a Furtwänglerian mastery and moves like a steamroller.

The cast is headed by Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, an incarnation of the Don Juan legend whose performance I’ve seen, admired and reviewed (The WholeNote, November 2014), a magnificent presence. (He sings the Champagne Aria in 70 seconds!) Exciting new basso Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello is a fascinating character with Italian charm and elegance. The two noble ladies are highly accomplished spectacular voices – Diana Damrau’s Donna Anna has superb musicianship and perfect vocal accuracy, Joyce DiDonato as Donna Elvira is an indignant and anguished powerhouse – but for me the most impressive was Mojca Erdmann’s (Zerlina) voice of heavenly beauty, soft and demure, with an edge of steel when necessary. Rolando Villazón, who rediscovers himself as a Mozart tenor, adds a new refreshing dimension, an erotic, Latin sentimentality to Don Ottavio. Vitalij Kowaljow’s Commendatore’s thunderbolts will chill your blood as he drags poor Don Juan into the fires of hell.


04 Giovanna DArcoVerdi – Giovanna d’Arco
Jessica Pratt; Jean-François Borras; Julian Kim; Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia; Riccardo Frizza
Dynamic 37676

Jeanne d’Arc, a.k.a. St. Joan, was a martyr, sold out by her own people after saving them and France from sure defeat by the British in 1430, but the young Verdi’s richly melodic, over-romanticized opera has little to do with historical truth.

At the summer festival of Valle d’Itria, a mountainous region of Puglia, southern Italy, the opera comes to us live from the open air, a rather windy courtyard of the Ducal Palace, undoubtedly a thrilling experience for the lucky festival crowd. Nevertheless this is a low-budget, minimalist production with a small chorus, small orchestra, young, talented singers and an excellent conductor. While it is musically certainly satisfactory, the overall grandeur of this opera demands a more substantial scale.

Its main strength is English-born star soprano Jessica Pratt in the spectacular title role having all the vocal requisites, especially in her ringing high registers. She has become famous in Rossini repertoire and this is probably her first Verdi role, so she is severely tested in the physical and emotional intensity a Verdi heroine demands. An exciting, radiant young tenor, Jean-François Borras is energetic and passionate, ideal for Charles VII. The third principal, the Korean Julian Kim, tries very hard to be a Verdi baritone, a fine voice, but unfortunately he is far too young for the role of the old father Giacomo, a real challenge for even a seasoned mature baritone. The young Italian conductor, Riccardo Frizza, has Verdi in his veins.

It must have been difficult to convey the event in a video, being in almost total darkness, in a video and the sound is less than ideal. Still…an interesting new issue, but no rival to the 2008 Tutto Verdi set with Svetla Vassileva (who simply is Giovanna) plus the immortal Renato Bruson as Giacomo, which I would consider as a benchmark.


05 LAiglonHonegger & Ibert – L’Aiglon
Gillet; Barrard; Dupuis; Sly; Guilmette; Lemiuex; Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal; Kent Nagano
Decca 478 9502

Review

Years ago, when Toronto’s CJRT-FM still broadcast classical music, I had the distinct pleasure of producing a show, Opera Obscura, dedicated to forgotten or neglected parts of the repertoire. Even then, L’Aiglon escaped my attention. I wish I had known there existed a 1957, incomplete recording of this opera by Arthur Honegger and Jacques Ibert. Worry no more, L’Aiglon is back on disc and it is here to stay! The oddity of two composers working together on one opera is quickly overcome by the wonder of Ibert’s waltzes (recalling some of the best of Richard Strauss’ scores) and by the rhythmicity and uncanny sense of the dramatic, Honegger’s own calling card.

The story of L’Aiglon (The Eaglet), the erstwhile Napoleon II, quickly rebranded the Duke of Reichstadt and spirited away to Vienna after his father’s final defeat, is potent opera fodder. When presented in 1936, the work was permeated with French patriotism and Gallic pride. This was a no-go just four years later, under the Vichy regime and the Nazi occupation of France. What started as wartime suppression has become a sort of long exile. The story of a consumptive boy, dreaming of restoring his father’s empire and then crushed by the gears of the geopolitical machine may seem naïve in our cynical times, but nevertheless resonates at some level even in the hardest of hearts. This is the effect of the music, modern yet nostalgic, grandiose yet somehow restrained. The exciting performances that Kent Nagano gently coaxes out of Anne-Catherine Gillet, Marc Barrard, Etienne Dupuis and Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal make certain that this eagle has landed to uniform applause.


06 Schafer LovingR. Murray Schafer – Loving
Fallis; Gudgeon; MacPhail; Terrell; MacLeod; Savard; New Music Concerts; Robert Aitken
Centrediscs CMCCD 22516

R. Murray Schafer’s 70-minute bilingual “synaesthetic” chamber work Loving (Toi) was written between 1963 and 1965 (the same year he wrote the pivotal book, The Composer in the Classroom) and was first performed on the Radio Canada television program L’Heure du Concert in 1966. A few months later it was rebroadcast on the CBC English network. Over 13 years, L’Heure du Concert (produced by Pierre Mercure) brought a spectacular 133 operas and 133 ballets to CBC national television audiences. Mercure’s production of Loving (Toi) was his last, leaving several elements unfinished at the time of his sudden death at age 39. Fortunately, the Canadian Music Centre’s Centrediscs label recently reissued the excellent 1978 New Music Concerts recording of the first complete production that was originally released on the Melbourne Records label. It was conducted by Robert Aitken and features strong performances by the entire group, including singers Mary Lou Fallis, Susan Gudgeon, Jean MacPhail, Katherine Terrell and Trulie MacLeod, actor Gilles Savard, members of the Purcell String Quartet and Nexus, among others.

Loving (Toi) is Schafer’s first work for the stage (the 1978 NMC performance which toured four cities was semi-staged), predating the Patria series, his string quartets, and other works he is most known for. Clues that point to Schafer’s subsequent eclectic blending of multicultural mythological characters are abundant here, with Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of fertility, love, war and sex, cohabiting the work with the Greek god of love, Eros, in what Schafer calls a “confrontation between the male and female psyches.” Interspersed are the qualities and attitudes of Modesty, Vanity, The Poet, The Man and The Woman, each given supporting colouration within the ensemble (Modesty as strings plus accordion, Vanity as plucked instruments, Ishtar with percussion and Eros using bells).

Schafer’s writing is broadly expressive, a free-flowing synthesis of the avant-garde mannerisms of the epoch, warmly recorded spoken text, simple yet effective electroacoustic episodes, florid harp writing and long vocal lines that sometimes foreshadow the neo-Romanticism that dominates his later work. While Schafer describes Loving (Toi)as ambiguous and exploring the depths of the unconscious, his consideration of human sexuality now seems dated in its binary focus on masculine and feminine. Fifty years later, however, the piece retains the sense of sonic inventiveness and integrated plurality that is synonymous with his best work.

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07 Schafer ApocalypsisR. Murray Schafer – Apocalypsis
Various Artists
Analekta AN 2 8784-5

Review

Canada’s R. Murray Schafer, widely recognized for composing large-scale music theatre works often set in unorthodox venues, completed his oratorio-community pageant Apocalypsis in 1980. Its elaborate, visually striking full score was hand-drawn in ink, a masterpiece of the genre.

Apocalypsis’ premiere at Centennial Hall, London, Ontario, was at the time dubbed “one of the most spectacular events in the history of Canadian music” by Toronto Star music critic William Littler. “Sounds about right,” commented London Free Press columnist and reporter James Reaney who was there, in his 2010 London Free Press article.

Then last June I attended the spectacular restaging of Apocalypsis, the centrepiece of Toronto’s 2015 Luminato Festival. Reportedly costing over a million dollars, the two concerts enacted a ritual “theatre as a civic action” for nearly 1,000 performers. They were crisply captured by CBC audio engineer Doug Doctor for radio broadcast and are presented on these two Analekta CDs.

David Fallis, the music director of the production, points out in his liner notes that apocalypsis is “the Greek word for ‘disclosure.’” This deeply mystical work certainly reveals a few of the many concerns Schafer has nurtured over a long career. His chosen texts, drawn from the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Joel and the New Testament book of Revelation, serve to anchor the turbulent, dramatic narrative of Part One: John’s Vision. It echoes with the power of dark forces and the cataclysmic end of times, brilliantly articulated by the 12 choirs, the real heart and musical stars of the performance. The large percussion and wind forces add needed texture, timbral diversity and dramatic emphasis.

The various actors and singers for the most part play supporting roles to the choirs, with the shining exception of Tanya Tagaq. Her searing vocal-stretching performance as the Old Woman serves as a reminder of the 1980 score specification that “sound (concrete) poets rather than actors” be cast in the three speaking roles, embedding sound poetry deeply in the work. It’s a stipulation elsewhere not followed in this production.

By way of contrast, Part Two: Credo, conventionally a statement of religious belief, is text-spare, adapted from the writings of the cleric, philosopher, mathematician, poet and astronomer Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). Credo is a kind of glorious exaltation of the unity of all creation, each of the 12 sections beginning with the “Lord God is universe” sung by the 12 choirs supported by 12 string quartets.

The composer writes in his notes that Credo is also his affirmation of the potential transformative power of art. It’s an affirmation many of us can also believe in.


08 Ghosts of VersaillesJohn Corigliano – The Ghosts of Versailles
LA Opera; James Conlon
Pentatone PTC 5186 538

The Ghosts of Versailles in retrospect makes for an impossible opera: a play within a play, with numerous principals. No wonder it graces the stage so rarely – it’s prohibitively expensive to produce, a fate shared with another grand opera, Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Initially commissioned for the Metropolitan Opera’s 100th season, it arrived…eight years late. This long gestation period is partially explained by its ambition: to combine a tribute to Mozart and Rossini with the pivotal episode of the French Revolution, the so-called Affair of the Necklace, which turned the French populace against Marie Antoinette.

The way to do all this is by the means of the Culpable Mother, Beaumarchais’ sequel to the Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. Corigliano references Mozart and Rossini cleverly during the staging of an opera for The Ghosts of Versailles, Marie Antoinette, her king and court. Though ostensibly an opera buffa, the score turns darker in Act II, reflecting the horrors of the Revolution. It is hard to believe that 25 years since its premiere, this is the first full recording of the opera. The credit goes to James Conlon, the artistic director of the Los Angeles Opera, who has also committed to record rarely heard operatic pieces by Schreker and Zemlinsky. Full marks go to the extensive team of this live recording, who manage, according to the composer himself, to recapture the greatness of the Met premiere. An additional bonus is the SACD recording, delivering on compatible players, incomparable resolution and dynamic range.


01 Way of the PilgrimThe Way of the Pilgrim
Toronto Consort
Marquis Classics MAR 81465 (marquisclassics.com)

The Toronto Consort was founded in 1972. Since then it has been recognized as one of the finest ensembles in the world specializing in medieval, renaissance and early baroque music. This disc is a reissue, first released by Dorian in 2000. The ensemble is essentially the same as that performing now, with one exception: the recording was made before the soprano Michele DeBoer joined the group.

Although the title of the CD emphasizes pilgrimage, the subtitle, “Medieval Songs of Travel,” shows that “travel” is taken in a wider sense: we have here songs about the Crusades, about the miracles performed by the Virgin Mary (linked to the Spanish pilgrimage Salas), about spring and love written by wandering monks (the Carmina Burana) and about the vicissitudes in one’s own life (the autobiographical poem by Oswald von Wolkenstein, one of the last minnesingers). Making these works ready for performance would have involved a considerable amount of work. While good modern editions are available, it must be remembered that the music has come down to us in the shape of monophonic songs. Everything added to the tune would have to be added by the performer.

The performances on the CD are always enjoyable. I was particularly taken with the soprano Katherine Hill’s performances in the Cantiga Ben pode Santa Maria, mezzo Laura Pudwell’s rendering of Bonum est confidere from the Carmina Burana and with Pudwell’s unaccompanied performance Jerusalem se plaint, a lament written in response to the retreat of the Crusader army from Egypt in 1221. A lively and informative essay by David Fallis, the artistic director of the Toronto Consort, is a valuable supplement.

Concert Note: The Toronto Consort’s season concludes with performances of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 with special guest British tenor Charles Daniels, joined by tenor Kevin Skelton and Montreal’s premier cornetto and sackbut ensemble La Rose des Vents on May 6, 7 and 8 at Trinity-St.Paul’s Centre.


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