01 Eccles SemeleJohn Eccles – Semele
Academy of Ancient Music; Cambridge Handel Opera
AAM Records AAM012 (aam.co.uk)

What looks like Handel, sounds like Purcell and is a world premiere recording? If you guessed the answer to be the latest release from the Academy of Ancient Music, you win! Any mention of the words “opera” and “Semele” together immediately turns minds to Handel’s frequently performed 1744 masterwork, but there is another older, lesser-known Semele living in the operatic world, written in 1707 by the English composer John Eccles.

Eccles’ Semele provides fascinating insight into how opera in England might have developed after Henry Purcell’s death had Handel not moved to London in 1712, for this Semele’s musical vocabulary is indeed a slightly more advanced and refined adaptation of Purcell’s own lexicon; if one were to select a pinnacle of the English Baroque, they would be hard-pressed to find a more representative example than this. Despite his indebtedness to Purcell, Eccles achieves even greater depths of expression and extremes of emotion than his predecessor, utilizing similar forms and expanding their structure, so that Semele ends up being more than double the length of Dido and Aeneas, for example, but without once feeling overspun.

What is most remarkable about Semele is the way in which music and text receive equal attention. The delivery of William Congreve’s libretto and forward motion of the drama is never interrupted, suspended or usurped by over-composition. Director Julian Perkins and the Academy of Ancient Music in turn keep the opera moving forward, selecting tempi that lend the necessary affect to these dance-based arias and overtures while keeping the text constantly intelligible.

With world premiere recordings being issued with ever-greater frequency, it can be challenging to find those works that contribute something worthwhile to the canon, much less provide an eye-opening exploration of something revelatory, but Semele does just that. The saying “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” is correct more often than not, but in this case, we are grateful that those behind this recording could, and did.

02 Lhomme armeL’homme armé – La Cour de Bourgogne et la musique
Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal; Andrew McAnerney
ATMA ACD2 2807 (atmaclassique.com/en)

The Court of Burgundy’s powers extended well beyond the borders of the modern French region. Its musical brilliance obviously affected the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal: with eight composers on one CD, it is difficult to think of a major Burgundian composer not included here.

At the heart of the CD is the Missa L’homme armé, itself set 40 times from roughly 1460 to 1560. Track one is the Anonymous/Morton interpretation, featuring not only the original words to L’homme armé but also a contemporary twist willing on a crushing defeat (in three passionate and imploring voices) for those fearsome Ottoman Turks on their way to destroy Christendom.

Not everything, though, is so belligerent. Listen to the ethereal Kyrie Eleison from Antoine Busnois’ own Missa L’homme armé, uplifted by the sackbut playing of the Studio. Then be inspired by the delicate performance of Gilles Binchois’ Motet Asperges me. It may have been Binchois who taught and inspired Johannes Ockeghem, who in turn did teach Josquin des PrésThis comes out in this CD: in addition to the pieces by Binchois, the Studio performs Ockeghem’s Sanctus, a full-blooded performance combining sometimes stark singing with the Studio’s sackbuts.

As for Josquin, he is remembered by two compositions. First, Agnus Dei is performed admirably, notably in its soprano part. Then there are the five parts of Ave verum corpus. Josquin relished the more complex structure: the Studio rises to the challenge with its appropriately celestial singing. 

Josquin was a contemporary of the revolution in music printing. His sheer musical genius and the printing press ensured his influence on composers for at least a century.

Listen to 'L’homme armé – La Cour de Bourgogne et la musique' Now in the Listening Room

03 and the sun darkenedAnd the sun darkened
New York Polyphony
Bis BIS-2277 (bis.se)

For as long as music has been written down, the Catholic Church has played an essential role in the development of the art form. Whether directly, as in early monodic plainchant and Palestrina’s polyphony, or tangentially, for example in post-Reformation works by Tallis in England and Bach in Germany, the influence of the Catholic Church has provided inspiration to composers for centuries.

New York Polyphony’s And the sun darkened surveys a range of Catholic-centric works, ranging from the 15th century to the 20th. With such an enormous body of material to work with and choose from, this release focuses its attention on music for Passiontide, the last two weeks of the Lenten season, using this specific and narrow segment of the liturgical year as its theme.

The focal point of this disc is the world premiere recording of Loyset Compère’s Officium de Cruce, a multi-movement motet cycle based upon a set of devotional texts focused on the Cross. A contemporary of Josquin who followed a similar career path, Compère was a Franco-Flemish composer who worked in Italy for the Duke of Milan (where Josquin would arrive a decade later). Officium de Cruce is expressive in its simplicity, exploring the text’s facets through spacious and effective settings, and New York Polyphony’s poised performance is a fine introduction to Compère and his works.

In addition to music by Compère’s contemporaries Josquin, Willaert and de la Rue, And the sun darkened contains two striking works by much more recent composers. Cyrillus Kreek’s Psalm 22 (1914) is a striking and evocative setting by one of Estonia’s greatest musical figures, while Andrew Smith’s Psalm 55, written in 2011, synthesizes old and new harmonic languages to produce a remarkably organic blending of medieval, Renaissance and modernist lexicons.

Far more than just a seasonal listen, And the sun darkened is a worthwhile exploration of fascinating composers and musical works expertly and sensitively performed by New York Polyphony, well worth listening to regardless of the time of year.

04 La DoriPietro Antonio Cesti – La Dori
Ascioti; Enticknap; Mazzulli; Baráth; Accademia Bizantina; Ottavio Dantone
Naxos 2.110676 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110676)

Making peace, the Nicaean and Persian kings pledge the marriage of their infants, Dori and Oronte. In Egypt, Ardete’s wife accidentally kills the king’s baby daughter, also named Dori. Ardete ransoms Nicaean Dori from her pirate kidnappers, bringing her to Egypt where the king, unaware of his daughter’s death, believes this Dori to be his. Years pass. Oronte, now betrothed to Dori’s sister Arsinoe, visits Egypt. Inevitably, he and Dori fall in love. Fleeing Egypt to follow him, Dori is captured and, disguised as a man, becomes Arsinoe’s slave “Ali,” while Egyptian prince Tolomeo, in love with Arsinoe, disguises himself as Arsinoe’s female slave “Celinda.” All this happens before the curtain rises! The ensuing comedy-drama of concealed identities is no less convoluted until all ends joyfully.

La Dori was a 17th-century hit, with over 30 productions throughout Italy. This 2019 production in Innsbruck, site of its premiere in 1657, is as unrealistic as the libretto, with timelessly indeterminate sets and costumes, stage director Stefano Vizioli contributing innumerable comedic touches. 

Cesti’s richly melodic, often beautiful score mixes frivolity with pathos, vigorously performed by Accademia Bizantina conducted by Ottavio Dantone. Mezzo-soprano Francesca Ascioti (Dori), countertenor Rupert Enticknap (Oronte) and sopranos Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli (Arsinoe) and Emőke Baráth (Tolomeo) head the excellent cast of eight soloists.

With its fine music and singing, La Dori is a pleasure to listen to and its silly goings-on make it great fun to watch as well.

05 Gounod FaustGounod – Faust
Michael Fabiano; Erwin Schrott; Irina Lungu; Royal Opera House; Dan Ettinger
Opus Arte OA1330D (naxosdirect.com/search/oa1330D)

The Faust legend and the idea of man bargaining with the devil has always fascinated artists, writers and composers. Goethe’s metaphysical play inspired Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner and Busoni towards various musical forms, but Gounod’s opera became so beloved and successful that for 150 years it never left the stage in France and even in England where it became Queen Victoria’s favourite opera. So it’s no surprise the ROH would create a lavish, over-the-top and “theatrically exuberant” new production in the hands of their star director, David McVicar. The original German medieval tale is catapulted into the French Second Empire, in fact into Gounod’s lifetime with opulent sets and costumes. A real extravaganza. 

The adaptation had some interesting, albeit questionable, features such as the beautiful village waltz in the second act turned into a wild, frantic cabaret can-can and the famous ballet later in the fourth act seen as a horrifying, infernal nightmare that I am sure Gounod never intended. Musically however we are amply compensated with a superb cast, chorus and orchestra. With brisk tempi, young and energetic conductor Dan Ettinger is thoroughly engaged with full control of the score. 

American tenor Michael Fabiano (whose debut disc I reviewed here in November 2019) as Faust has some difficulties acting as a decrepit old man, but quickly becomes a dashing young lover with a voice to match. Particularly his third act Cavatina, Salut, demeure chaste et pure is wonderfully sung with the concluding high C almost ethereal. With Russian soprano Irina Lungu (Marguerite) they make a wonderful couple and their love duet is sheer delight. Mephisto, the devil, a rather youngish Uruguayan powerful bass-baritone, Erwin Schrott, is very friendly and debonair in the first half of the opera, but gradually turns dark and menacing as the action descends into a terrible tragedy. Interesting and thought-provoking, this new production is a visual delight.

06 Heggie Atwood SongsJake Heggie; Margaret Atwood – Songs for Murdered Sisters
Joshua Hopkins; Jake Heggie
PentaTone PTC 5186270 (songsformurderedsisters.com)

In collaboration with Margaret Atwood and Jake Heggie, Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins delivers both a call to action and a powerful homage to his sister Nathalie Warmerdam, a victim of domestic violence. 

With a concept inspired by Schubert’s Winterreise, Songs for Murdered Sisters follows Hopkins on his journey of seven short songs: Empty Chair, Anger, Dream, Bird Soul, Lost, Rage and Coda: Song. Hopkins is beyond moving in his vulnerability and willingness to address the complicated and disorderly feelings of grief, the grieving process, and the loss of a loved one under tragic and violent circumstances. Atwood’s experience in writing opera libretti comes through with evocative and heartrending singable texts: Who was my sister is now an empty chairYou opened the door… I was too late… so many sisters lost. Heggie’s seasoned writing skills are also on display throughout, especially in the setting of texts, the skillful use of Hopkins’ vocal register and colours, the compelling dynamic choices, and, most powerful, the deafening silences. 

With this 27-minute song cycle, Atwood, Heggie and Hopkins use their collective voices to raise awareness about violence against women from an intimate or former partner. In the film version of Songs for Murdered Sisters, Warmerdam’s Empty Chair eventually turns into hundreds more chairs, a powerful statement representing the countless women lost to gender-based violence. Hopkins invites the listener to take the white-ribbon pledge to end violence against women and girls (whiteribbonsisters.com).

Co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and Canada’s National Arts Centre, Songs for Murdered Sisters is offered in digital format. The NAC plans to premiere an orchestral version when concert halls reopen.

07 Peter EotvosPéter Eötvös – Senza Sangue
Viktória Vizin; Jordan Shanahan; Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra; Péter Eötvös
BMC Records BMC CD 278 (bmcrecords.hu)

Senior postmodern Hungarian composer-conductor Péter Eötvös (b.1944) is among today’s most active opera composers. His 12th stage work, Senza Sangue (2015), is an opera in one act with libretto by Mari Mezei after a novel by Alessandro Baricco. 

Eötvös’ first large-scale compositions were for film and his feel for drama and pregnant atmosphere is amply reflected in the premiere live 2018 recording of Senza Sangue starring mezzo Viktória Vizin and baritone Jordan Shanahan. The composer conducts the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra in his colourful score for an orchestra and cast very similar to the one in Béla Bartók’s weighty and difficult to program single-act opera, Bluebeard’s Castle. It’s no coincidence; according to Eötvös, he expressly composed Senza Sangue as a concert companion to Bluebeard

The resemblances extend to their librettos. As in the Bartók opus, love, sex and death go hand in hand in the Eötvös opera, except that multiple deaths precede the narrative unfolding in Eötvös’ 45-minute work. Entwined themes of war-fuelled cruelty, violence, compassion, trauma and above all revenge, transform into a kind of parable of reconciliation as the last mysterious low chord dies out. 

As for the musical language, it is expressionistic, with splashes of bold emotion, though Eötvös insists that “there are no avant-garde endeavours whatsoever [in it]. I’d like my work to be performable in 50 years too.” Judging from the performance on this album chances are very good that it will.

Eötvös’ subsequent opera, Sleepless, composed in 2020, is scheduled to premiere in Berlin later this year, with additional performances slated for Geneva in 2022.

08 Chaya CzernowinChaya Czernowin – Heart Chamber
Patrizia Ciofi; Noa Frenkel; Dietrich Henschel; Terry Wey; Ensemble Nikel; SWR Experimentalstudio; Deutsche Oper Berlin; Johannes Kalitzke
Naxos 2.110673 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110673)

A woman drops a jar of honey on a busy stairway. A stranger picks it up and gives it to her. Their hands touch. From that chance encounter results the complicated love affair that the much-performed Israeli-American composer Chaya Czernowin explores in her brilliant new opera, Heart Chamber.  

With tangible immediacy, she tightly interweaves her music with her own libretto. It feels organic, pertinent and real – like life itself. Past traumas and present dreams drive the two unnamed characters to ask each other tough questions like “Will you open up my life?” and “Will you always stay?” Layers of gorgeous sonic textures suggest the possibility of happiness for them. But there’s a lot of pain as well, reflected in angular, primal episodes. 

I can’t imagine these characters portrayed with more conviction and poignancy – and technical dazzle – than by soprano Patrizia Ciofi and baritone Dietrich Henschel. Ciofi wears her apprehensions with playfulness and, in spite of her unfortunate costuming, allure. Henschel shows how charismatic vulnerability can be. 

As the woman’s internal voice, contralto Noa Frenkel eloquently exposes her most intimate subconscious feelings. The man’s internal voice, powerfully sung by countertenor Terry Wey, is as candid as his female counterpart. But he’s less demanding, so causes less trouble for his character.  

This is the third opera by Czernowin that Claus Guth has directed. Like his production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro seen at the Canadian Opera Company in 2016, it’s set on a stairway. But here, unlike the controversial Mozart production, the relationship between Guth’s concept and the work itself is seamless. 

Conductor Johannes Kalitzke deftly commands the large assemblage of remarkable musicians, with the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Czernowin’s frequent collaborators, the new music group Ensemble Nikel, enhanced by vibrant electronics from SWR Experimentalstudio.

09 Songs by Black ComposersDreams of a New Day – Songs by Black Composers
Will Liverman; Paul Sánchez
Cedille CDR 90000 200 (cedillerecords.org)

Dreams of a New Day – Songs by Black Composers is an album that features art songs by eight composers. From Henry Burleigh (1866-1949) to Shawn E. Okpebholo (b.1981), the album showcases several generations of composers and a repertoire that offers an honest, and, at times, devastating, account of life for African Americans in the United States. Composers set music to texts of raw poetry by American poets and artists such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Adela Florence Nicolson. 

Paul Sánchez captures our attention with a breadth of pianistic sonorities and timbres while baritone Will Liverman’s skilled and beautiful singing elicits all of the nuances of challenging topics that include the Middle Passage, Civil Rights, past and present injustices, and Black pride. Most poignant are Okpebholo’s Two Black Churches songs (Ballad of Birmingham and The Rain, commissioned for the album) and Birmingham Sunday (Richard Fariña 1937-1966). Whereas the first pair combines several tragic events and deals with race-based violence, the last song reminds us that while dreaming of a new day, the road to equality for all is still ahead of us. 

The booklets included with the album provide both context and the rich history behind the repertoire with a 15-page song booklet and a 20-page extensive program note booklet written by Dr. Louise Toppin, a specialist of African American composers’ concert repertoire.

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