01_Cavilieri_Rappresentatione.jpgEmilio de Cavalieri – Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo
Soloists; Staatsopernchor Berlin; Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin; René Jacobs
harmonia mundi 902200.01

Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo (1600) dramatizes how the Body and the Soul both reject the blandishments of Pleasure and of Worldly Life and choose Eternal Life over Damnation. Such a summary makes the work seem very dreary but it can hold the attention of a modern audience, as was demonstrated by the Canadian Opera Company in its 1983/84 season. Although the Rappresentatione is not, in my view, an opera, it undoubtedly influenced that newly emerging genre through its staging and through its use of solo singing with chordal accompaniment.

Both the singing and the instrumental playing on this CD are very fine. The performance is based on that of a production at the Schiller Theater in Berlin in 2012. Although the work’s first publication provided the melody and the bass line, a performance can only be realized by enriching the chords needed and by adding further melodic and contrapuntal lines. There is a great deal of instrumental variety on this recording. Of particular interest is the arch-cittern or ceterone (which bears a similar relationship to the cittern as the theorbo does to the lute). The instrument used here was built for the Musée de la Musique in Paris on the basis of an original preserved in Florence.

 

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02_Purcell_Dido.jpgPurcell – Dido & Aeneas
Le Poème Harmonique; Vincent Dumestre; Choeur Accentus; Opera de Rouen Haute-Normandie;
Alpha 706

An opera by a composer described as the English Orpheus and selected by a French music company? And one which has never paid homage to an English composer before? Musical director Vincent Dumestre gives his reasons. First, there is Purcell’s pure genius – he could not have been more than 25 when he composed Dido and Aeneas. What is more, he combined the melancholy of composers such as Dowland with the vitality of earlier English masques and the genius of contemporary composer Lully.

Purcell’s operas did not stint on the elaborate nature of their stage productions, although this production differs in terms of its ingenuity in stage construction, its lack of complexity and certain demands on the performers. Marc Mauillon’s sorceress/sailor roles exploit his gymnastic and trapeze skills, and the first witch and other sorceresses perform with agility on ropes – when they are not scaring the audience!

Vivica Genaux is a magnificent Dido, fully conveying the anguish of her isolation. Her rendition of When I am laid in earth, always a test for singers of all ranges and backgrounds, is accomplished with a haunting quality of which Purcell would no doubt be proud. In addition, Caroline Meng’s first witch leaves no doubt as to the character’s evil intent.

All in all, a highly original performance but one that still brings home Purcell’s compassionate treatment of a tragic love story.

 


03_Gluck_Alceste.jpgGluck – Alceste
Angela Denoke; Paul Groves; Willard White; Teatro Real; Ivor Bolton
EuroArts 3074978

Gluck’s Alceste was first performed, in Italian, in 1767; a French version followed in 1776. It is the French version that we see and hear on this DVD. The source for the opera is a play by Euripides, in which it has been decreed that Admetus, King of Pherae, must die unless another is willing to take his place. Euripides makes a great deal of the cowardice of the king’s subjects, especially that of his aging parents, who do not have that long to live anyway. Admetus’ wife, Alcestis, then offers herself up and the most interesting issue in the play is why the King is willing to accept her sacrifice.

The Admète in the opera is made of sterner stuff. When he is told that someone has been found who is willing to take his place, it takes him a long time to realize that the someone is his own wife. Once he has realized it, he refuses to accept the offer. Alceste did not think life was worth living without her husband; he does not think life is worth living without his wife. It is Hercule, who resolves the impasse by descending into the Underworld and rescuing Alceste.

This DVD gives us a production of the opera from the Teatro Real in Madrid, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, who has chosen to superimpose the story of Princess Diana. Here Alceste chooses death not because she loves her husband so much but because it offers her a way out of a loveless marriage. When Hercule snatches her from the Underworld, she is deprived of what she most wishes.

One of the dangers with Gluck is that his music may sound marmoreal. That is certainly not the case with this production, which is full-blooded and passionate. There is fine singing from Angela Denoke (Alceste), Paul Groves (Admète) and Willard White (in the twin roles of the High Priest of Apollon and Thanatos). It is clear, however, that the whole point of the opera has been subverted.

 


04_Rossini_Guillaume_Tell.jpgRossini in Wildbad – Guillaume Tell
Festival Wildbad: Various Vocalists; Camerata Bach Choir; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani
Bongiovani AB 20029

Still not yet 40 and full of his creative powers, Rossini certainly went out with a bang, creating something original and big for the wealthy Paris audiences of the Second Empire. With a cast of thousands William Tell easily became very long, even overblown, so Rossini’s biggest problem was how to cut back and tighten the reins. For posterity the opera was very successful even in its excised form, but for the Wildbad Festival in Germany, 2013, it was decided, wisely (or unwisely) to perform the entire score for the first time in its history. If authenticity is a guiding principle it will certainly please musicologists and completists and assorted people with good intentions, but we all know where good intentions tend to lead… Much could be written on the updated staging that carries an inevitable political message, rather explicitly of oppressors vs. the oppressed, unfortunately neglecting the gorgeous Swiss scenery that’s omnipresent in Rossini’s score.

In purely musical terms the festival did gather optimum forces. First and foremost, conductor Antonino Fogliani (who is beginning to look like Rossini himself) has this music in his blood and moves it with a sparkling upbeat tempo, finesse and humour, having a great old time doing it. The soloists are all of high quality. Six topnotch singers are required to cope with the enormous demands of the work. American heroic tenor Michael Spyres as Arnold carries the Olympic torch in one of the most gruelling tenor roles and he is undoubtedly best in show. Highest credit must also go to the chorus, the Camerata Bach Choir that sings and even dances the many ensembles this opera is famous for. And a resounding yes to the fully complete ballet no French opera would do without (even if it’s written by an Italian). My fondest memory however will always be the “sublime second act” (Berlioz) that even another bel canto genius, Donizetti, admitted was “written by the Gods.”

 


05_Berg_Lulu.jpgBerg – Lulu
Mojca Erdmann; Deborah Polaski; Michael Volle; Thomas Piffka; Stephan Rugamer; Staatskapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon 0440073 4934

After Alban Berg’s death in 1935, his great opera Lulu remained incomplete – until Friedrich Cerha orchestrated the final act in 1979. For this production from the Berlin Staatsoper in 2012, a new version of all three acts has been created. Berg’s sardonic Prologue has been replaced by an actor lying on the floor reciting Kierkegaard. Instead of Berg’s precisely described silent movie, we now see Lulu’s blinking eyes projected on the windshield of one of the cars that litter the stage. The first scene of Act III has been cut altogether.

What remains of the third act has been newly orchestrated by David Robert Coleman, using noticeably leaner textures than Berg and Cerha and some non-Bergian instruments like steel drums and marimba. His completion doesn’t fit in, but it brings out Berg’s expressionist lines.

Director Andrea Breth’s staging fails to reveal how exciting the plot of Lulu is. The single set – with wrecked cars piled up on one side, and what appear to be cages or prison bars erected on the other – is relentlessly grim, especially when watched through camerawork so close that we rarely see the whole stage.

Breth’s Lulu is a victim, as affectless as a puppet. But the Lulu created by Berg and playwright Frank Wedekind is an amoral, willful seductress. Mojca Erdmann makes a lovely, alluring Lulu, but can’t convey the spine-tingling danger that the great Lulus, from Evelyn Lear and Teresa Stratas to Christine Schäfer and Barbara Hannigan, present. Michael Volle makes a powerful Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper and Deborah Polaski is moving as the doomed Countess. But the most enthralling moments come from Daniel Barenboim’s amazing Staatskapelle orchestra.

 

06_Reimann_Lear.jpgAribert Reimann – Lear
Bo Skovhus; Staatsoper Hamburg;
Simone Young
ArtHaus Musik 109063

Shakespeare’s King Lear was an obsession with Berlioz and even more so with Verdi who, as the legend goes, threw his half-written score into the fire in a fit of self-disgust. It took 100 years and two world war disasters before German composer Aribert Reimann actually succeeded in turning it into an opera at the suggestion of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who sang the title role in Munich in 1978. Since then it has enjoyed a moderate success around the world, but in 2012 the Hamburg Opera, now under the leadership of Simone Young, very much devoted to the avant-garde, revived it with this inspired, completely original staging by Karoline Gruber.

Apart from being brutal and gruesome, Lear is the hardest hitting tragedy of the Bard because it hits so close to home. Everyone will sooner or later become old and will sympathize with Lear’s predicament. The tragic fault that causes his downfall is self-deception and an over-inflated ego that make him subject to flattery and an easy victim to his avaricious daughters. Reimann uses the entire play as his libretto, a play that moves on many different levels – personal, familial, political, psychological and philosophical (one of the most often quoted of all Shakespeare) – and must have been horrendously difficult to come to grips with. Reimann’s expressionist, atonal music is, however, so well suited to his subject and so well integrated with it that the power of the play reverberates even stronger than in the prose version.

At the head of the young, energetic and dedicated cast Danish baritone Bo Skovhus is one of today’s most exciting and original artists who simply towers over this production, but Andrew Watts’ heartrending portrayal of “poor boy Tom” Edgar cannot easily be forgotten. With conductor Simone Young’s supreme command over the score (especially in the haunting Intermezzo with its bass flute solo) this awesome set is much recommended.

 


07_Sallinen_King_Lear.jpgAulis Sallinen – King Lear
Matti Salminen; Finnish National Opera; Okko Kamu
Ondine ODV 4010

King Lear is, for me, the most tragic of Shakespeare’s tragedies – which obviously, makes it a perfect opera libretto. Erroneous judgement, betrayal, devious plots, poison, enucleation… all the raw elements of an opera are here. Yet Verdi struggled for most of his composing career with Il Re Lear and finally gave up without completing the opera. It was up to the contemporary Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen to give us a full musical account of the cursed king’s story. Just as the dramatic King Lear comes to us in many versions, Sallinen, who also wrote the libretto, chose to blind the Earl of Gloucester, leaving King Lear with his eyesight intact, yet emotionally blinded to the true nature of each of his three daughters.

Sallinen, who himself eschewed opera as not a “pure” musical form (until 1973), changed his mind when he created his first opera The Horseman, which is still performed. Despite his highly modern compositional idiom, he reached for a much more melodic approach for Lear. Indeed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a long-forgotten verismo opera sung in Finnish, not a composition created in the year 2000. Says Sallinen: “An opera must be a servant to its libretto.” That is how this postmodern composer arrived at an almost conventional opera, with arias and duets and leitmotifs lyrically representing the characters. Somewhere up there, Giuseppe Verdi is smiling.

 


01_Poulenc_Mass.jpg

Poulenc – Mass in G Major; Sept Chansons; Motets
Elora Festival Singers; Noel Edison
Naxos 8.572978

This disc features a cappella choral works of Poulenc, both sacred and secular. Exquisite as they are, these works pose a considerable challenge to a choir, with soprano lines that soar high into the ether, daring chromaticism and shifting, often-ambiguous harmonies with no instrumental accompaniment to grasp on to.

Though serious in nature, the Mass in G Major, written in 1937 after the death of Poulenc’s father and the composer’s return to Catholicism, retains some of the playfulness inherent in the Cocteau-esque Sept Chansons from his more youthful years with Les Six. Each of the chansons references a body part: arms, face, breasts, eyes, hair and hands and textually and musically are as steeped in hedonism as in wit. The most dramatic contrast with these, perhaps, is provided in the Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938-39), a sombre meditation on Holy Week while the Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (1952) convey all the mystery and joy of the season.

Noel Edison leads the Elora Festival Singers adeptly through these varied and difficult ranges of character and emotion with enviable accuracy of pitch and perfectly nuanced expression.

 


02_Brokeback_Mountain.jpgCharles Wuorinen – Brokeback Mountain
Daniel Okulitch; Tom Randle; Heather Buck; Hannah Esther Minutillo; Teatro Real de Madrid; Titus Engel
BelAir Classics BAC111

In 2005, when acclaimed Taiwanese director Ang Lee adapted a 1997 short story by Annie Proulx, the film set off a firestorm – not just because it showcased a homosexual relationship and exposed the ugly face of rural homophobia, which it did admirably. The riveting performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and especially the late Heath Ledger, as masculine, restrained “Marlboro men” cowboys were miles away from any stereotype. The manner of one character’s death invoked uncomfortably the tragic real-life story of Matthew Shepard.

More so than anything else, Brokeback Mountain is a story of a life unfulfilled out of fear of judgement. Proulx has frequently commented that she wishes she had never written the story, as disappointed fans continue to pester her for a happy ending rewrite or at least a sequel. All this only confirms the power of the story here set to music by Charles Wuorinen. And so Brokeback Mountain became an opera.

Wuorinen gets the foreboding nature of the story, as his music is austere, dry and powerful, just like the mountain ridge that is the backdrop to a human tragedy. He illustrates the tragic tale with music filled with longing and regret. What is missing perhaps, are the fleeting and rare, but still real moments of pure pleasure and love that stubbornly persist between the two men, despite all the efforts to eradicate them.

In the final scene of the opera, the mood lifts, though not enough to allow the gravity-defying ascension. The music remains oppressive to the very end, smothering any budding inner peace. A powerful production.

 


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