From Courts on High
St. Michael’s Choir School
Independent 6671 (www.smcs.on.ca )


A Toronto treasure for 70 years, the venerable “St. Mike’s” youngsters are back in the recording scene with a new CD, their first major release since “Christmas Garland” of 1999.

The choir does not disappoint. On display is as pure a treble sound as can be achieved. Twenty-five tracks are presented in diverse styles, all the way from Gregorian Chant to a brand-new work by Thomas Dusatko. One chant clocks in at just 33 seconds, and the major work, Thou Royal Knight from Courts on High is nearly six-and-a-half minutes long. This hymn pays tribute to the school’s patron saint, St. Michael the Archangel. It was originally composed in the 1940s by the choir school’s founder, Monsignor Ronan, and appears here in an arrangement by alumnus Kola Owolabi in a performance which features every student of the school.

A large percentage of the sung works are a capella, but interspersed among these are five liturigical inventions for organ, played on the big Casavant at Grace Church-on-the-Hill. Larger works, with all stops out, and accompanied choirs, are saved for the end of the disc. The collection as a whole was recorded either at Grace, or at the slightly smaller Loretto Abbey Chapel in North York. The legendary team of Ed Marshall and Gary Ratcliffe have worked their magic, and it is not easy to tell what work was recorded where, although the notes do tell, in tiny print. We aren’t told which of the 3 choirs sings on which track, but all members are named. The sound is beautiful, and even the non-religious can enjoy this CD.

John S. Gray

Ravel - Shéhérazade; Debussy - Proses Lyriques
Marianne Fiset; Marie-Eve Scarfone
Analekta AN 2 6761


Plastered all over Marianne Fiset’s debut album is a reminder that she is not just another young Canadian singer: she is the First Grand Prize winner of the Montreal International Music Competition of 2007. Fiset, who is from Québec, is a lyric soprano in the French tradition, with a clean, tender sound, perfect diction, and a wonderfully smooth, seamless sense of line. Singing Ravel’s Shéhérazade and Debussy’s Proses Lyriques, Fiset shapes phrases beautifully and places each note with delicate precision, modulating her dynamics with sensitivity. But attention to detail comes at a price: Fiset sounds like she is carefully reading from the score rather than truly engaging with the music. Variations in colour and attack are rare, and for all the care she puts into individual phrases, there are almost no climaxes, no moments that sweep you away into the atmospheric world the music creates. The bonus track of the Song of the Moon from Dvorak’s opera Rusalka could have changed the pace, but here too Fiset takes a languid approach that highlights the loveliness of her voice and the music, but dramatic potential of neither. She might have borrowed the orchestra that accompanies her here for a more colourful Shéhérazade, though Marieve-Eve Scarfone does an adequate job with the piano version. With just over 45 minutes of music, there is room for Fiset to show herself to be a more versatile artist. As it is, there is enough to enjoy, and Fiset is an undeniably charming soprano.

Seth Estrin

Royal Mezzo
Jennifer Larmore; Grant Park Orchestra; Carlos Kalmar
Cedille CDR 90000 104


While the privileges are wealth and power in ancient times may have been splendid, fortunes could easily and suddenly take a turn for the worse, resulting in tragedy and humiliation. Maintaining a royal countenance through such extreme times could be near impossible, especially for women who could suddenly find themselves completely at the mercy of their captor. Such was the case for the women portrayed in these settings by Barber, Berlioz, and Britten. And it surely takes a singer with a rich and royal tone with depths of maturity and inner fire equal to the task of the extreme emotional states required for the delivery of soliloquies by figures such as Andromache, Cleopatra and Phaedra at such pivotal and deadly junctures in their lives. Add to this the dreamy but extremely clever sensuality of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, and the stage requires the most sensitive and seasoned performance, which Jennifer Larmore delivers with a mixture of grace, eloquence and unrestrained passion. The orchestrations are phenomenal in their delivery as well, with some truly harrowing passages depicting anger, fear, pride, lust, remorse, revenge, and finally either suicide or resignation to one’s fate. A thrilling portrayal of epic grandeur, this CD will make your heart race and temperature rise.

Dianne Wells

Rossini - La Cambiale di Matrimonio
Desiree Rancatore; Saimir Pigru; F.M. Capitanucci; Pesaro Festival; Umberto Benedetti Michelangeli
NAXOS 2.110228

Rossini - L’inganno felice
Tarver; Mologni; Regazzo; Vinco; Bailey; Czech Chamber Soloists, Brno; Alberto Zedda
Naxos 8.660233-34


It was in 1810 when the Rossini, still a teenager, fed up with his studies in Bologna came to Venice to try his luck. Ambitious, energetic, talented, full of new ideas the boy secured a commission for a one act opera from a small, almost defunct theatre company. Rossini fearlessly delved into the challenge and so, La Cambiale di Matrimonio (The Marriage Contract) was born. Success was so immediate and resounding that this former nonentity soon became the talk of the town and within the next year and a quarter he produced six operas, two of which became immortal masterpieces (Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri).

La Cambiale is called ‘farsa comica’, the comic farce or opera buffa that Rossini became an undisputed master of. Although called a farce and full of hilarious situations it also has much character humour that makes it considerably superior to an ordinary farce. For us Canadians this piece particularly strikes home in a certain Canadian businessman Slook, who comes to Europe to buy himself a wife. ‘Canada’ crops up a lot in the text, not the least when the incumbent lovers urge Slook ‘to go home to Canada!’

The performance from the Pesaro Festival, Pesaro being a Rossini Mecca today, is fabulously entertaining, a delight from beginning to end. Umberto Benedetti Michelangeli is thoroughly at home in the Rossini idiom and conducts with charm, grace, upbeat tempi and sense of humour. The outstanding cast of nearly all young Italians sings and acts to perfection. Soprano Desiree Rancatore, as Fanny, is already an accomplished coloratura and Fabio Maria Capitanucci, a powerful basso, as the Canadian Slook is a perfect caricature of himself and perhaps steals the show.

Today nearly all of Rossini’s 39 operas have been recorded, many several times. We are indebted to NAXOS for filling in the gaps, the unknowns, like L’Inganno felice (The Happy Deception) of 1812 which also comes from those early six works in Venice. Initially a huge success, it was all but forgotten for some hundred years until its revival in 1952. This is an opera seria, of serious subject matter but with a happy ending. This finely crafted work with lovely music secures a very satisfying reading, expertly conducted and sung, again by young, talented singers. An excellent recording.

Rossini didn’t stay long in Venice. By 1815, at age 23, in the turmoil of Napoleon’s defeat he took off first to Milan and then to Naples with Rome soon beckoning. So watch out world… Rossini is coming!

Janos Gardonyi

Wolf-Ferrari - La vedova scaltra
Sollied; Muraro; D’Aguanno; Mihofer; Rossi; Teatro la Fenice; Karl Martin
Naxos 2.110234-35

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari was a man of divided loyalties. Born in Venice he felt at home both in Italy, the land of his mother, and in Germany, his father’s country. Like his older contemporary, Ferruccio Busoni, Wolf-Ferrari received his musical training and spent most of his career in Germany. No wonder then that his musical influences were divided as well – it’s Wagner and Rossini who get that credit. Best remembered for his Il Segreto di Susanna, Wolf-Ferrari had considerable success with his Italian operas, though they tended to be better received in Munich and Bremen than in Milan or his native Venice. La vedova scaltra, one of his later operas, is based on a play by Carlo Goldoni, a fellow Venetian whose 18th century plots frequently inspired Wolf-Ferrari. This is where another paradox of the composer becomes apparent. He endowed the comedic libretti of an era gone by with music deeply rooted in the verismo tradition. As most Goldoni tales, La Vedova is a morality play telling of a cunning Venetian widow, who through clever disguise tests the intentions of her four suitors. Not surprisingly, she chooses an Italian Count over a Spaniard, an Englishman and a Frenchman. The music is unfamiliar, but lovely and performed beautifully. The sets are sumptuous and the DVD is worth watching for a glimpse inside the beautiful Teatro La Fenice alone. Among the principals, Anna-Lise Sollied stands out, while Alex Esposito, the servant Arlecchino, is not only an accomplished singer but also possesses great comedic timing. This is yet another example of the high quality recordings produced by Naxos.

Robert Tomas

Lorin Maazel - 1984 (Big Brother The Opera)
Simon Keenlyside; Nancy Gustafson; Richard Margison; Diana Damrau; Lawrence Brownlee; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Lorin Maazel
Decca 074 3289

In transforming George Orwell’s seminal novel Nineteen Eighty-Four into an opera, composer/conductor Lorin Maazel and his librettists changed the title to 1984. Likewise, the story of totalitarian dystopia has been condensed to its most dramatic moments, leaving out any trace of the novel’s satiric wit. Where Orwell terrifies the reader through understated irony, Maazel, now nearing the end of a celebrated conducting career, stuffs terror down your throat. The music is impulsive and jarring, vehement at times, and the singers are often stretched to the top of their ranges. While Maazel employs a wide range of musical styles, most often the music conveys a volatile, swerving tone that swells and pops in unexpected places and from unexpected instruments. At times, however, he indulges in more traditional genres – there’s even a syrupy love duet. No expense has been spared on this new commission from the Royal Opera at Covent Garden. Canadian stage director Robert Lepage has created a dark, menacing production that works well with Maazel’s conception of the work. Best of all is the casting – the inhabitants of Orwell’s world might not be encouraged to possess creative thought, but they sure can sing. Simon Keenlyside is remarkable as Winston Smith, presenting a real, fleshed-out character, and Nancy Gustafson is impassioned as his lover Julia. Canadian Richard Margison creates a powerful impact as the ambiguous O’Brien, while Diana Damrau has two striking cameos. If the music does not convince at all moments, the singers, staging, and gripping story make up for it. An extended interview with Maazel makes a valuable bonus.

Seth Estrin

David Alagna - Le Dernier Jour d’un Condamné
Roberto Alagna; Indra Thomas; Jean-Philippe Lafont; Richard Rittelmann; Orchestre National d’Ile-de-France; Michel Plasson
Deutsche Grammophon 480 095-8


The abolition of the death penalty was the most important social issue for Victor Hugo. “Revenge belongs to humans, the punishment – to God.” These words of the great writer resonate through all of his works, none stronger than The Last Day of the Condemned. The concept postulated by the novel was so controversial at the time, that Hugo initially published it under a pseudonym, only acknowledging it years later. With the death penalty still a reality in most of the world, this powerful condemnation of killing a human being in the name of the law is as resonant as ever. The opera, created by the Alagna brothers (David is the composer, Frederico the librettist and Roberto the principal performer) is a stirring work that owes much to the music of Poulenc, especially his Dialogues of the Carmelites. David and Frederico are also accomplished visual artists and created the design for the opera, one of their many such collaborations. The death-row prisoners, sung by the exquisite Roberto Alagna and Indra Thomas, illustrate the depth of despair in the face of inevitable demise, although from two different viewpoints. Presenting the anguish of the female prisoner is particularly effective when juxtaposed and overlaid against the suffering of the male protagonist. Despite it being a highly political piece of art, it is art nonetheless, skilfully exploiting the best tonal traditions of operatic music. The end result is an opera that feels classical and yet thoroughly contemporary, where both the music and the libretto force the listener to ponder issues of life and death.

Robert Tomas
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