01 Lady of the LakeLady of the Lake
Maureen Batt; Jon-Paul Décosse; Simon Docking
Leaf Music LM213 (leaf-music.ca)

Canadian soprano Maureen Batt performs with clear diction and memorable musical nuances in this fascinating release of two contrasting song cycle versions of Sir Walter Scott’s 19th-century epic poem Lady of the Lake.

Franz Schubert’s song cycle is rooted in the familiar German Romantic style. Mostly scored for voice and piano, it is a treat to listen to the complete version here. The Halifax Camerata Singers conducted by Jeff Joudrey with pianist Lynette Wahlstrom create luscious harmonies in a tight ensemble performance of Coronach, Op. 52, No. 4, while the TTBB version of Bootgesang Op.52, No.3 is rollicking. Bass-baritone Jon-Paul Décosse sings with colour, while Batt’s soaring rendition of the original German-language version of the familiar Ave Maria is great. Pianist Simon Docking supports the voices with rhythmic drive and melodic excitement.

Canadian composer Fiona Ryan writes in the liner notes that she composed her Lady of the Lake in a more operatic/theatrical fashion. The folk-song flavoured A Warrior’s Farewell features a perfect rendition and closing a capella section by Décosse. The three recurring Battle Cries sections are driven by dramatic sung lines, spoken word sections, bent pitches and driving contrapuntal piano writing. The highlight is the more new-music flavoured closing Reconciliation/Mémoire. Batt and Décosse sing the dramatic tricky vocal lines with precision and emotion.

Both Lady of the Lake cycles are well composed and held together by Batt’s shining voice.

03 Veronique GensVisions
Véronique Gens; Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Hervé Niquet
Alpha Classics ALPHA 279
(alpha-classics.com)

There are many unique voices, but you know you are dealing with an extraordinary one when it is referred to as a category by the name of its owner – I am talking about the Falcon soprano. Cornélie Falcon, a 19th-century diva, possessed that voice, albeit for a tragically short time. She lost it, onstage, only five years into her career at the age of 23 while singing in Niedermeyer’s Stradella at the Palais Garnier in 1837. In her meteoric career, she was THE soprano of the Paris Opera, especially in Les Huguenots by Meyerbeer and La Juive by Halévy.

So what is a Falcon soprano? Well, it is a voice of surprisingly small range, just two and a half octaves, but it sits in a soprano’s golden spot. No burnished copper notes of lower register, no silvery flourishes on the improbably high top. Instead, it’s all pure, unadulterated, shiny and resonant gold. You can hear it easily in this recording, for Véronique Gens is the real McCoy. In this collection of outtakes from French Romantic operas, Gens traces the roles sang by Falcon and some later material from Bizet, Franck, Massenet and Saint-Saëns. Pause if you will, at track number three, the very melody by Niedermeyer that permanently broke Falcon’s voice at its second performance.

04 Jewish WomenJewish Music & Poetry Project: Surviving Women’s Words
Ensemble for These Times
Centaur Records CRC 3490 (centaurrecords.com)

With the release of this deeply moving and well-conceived project, the San Francisco-based Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) has put forth a superb and relevant spoken word and musical recording. Composer David Garner has created a song cycle that underscores powerful poetry written by four female, Jewish, Holocaust survivors: Mascha Kaléko (1907-1975), Rose Ausländer (1901-1988), Elsa Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945) and Yala Korwin (1933-2014). Garner has also assembled a fine ensemble, including soprano (and E4TT founding member) Nanette McGuiness, pianist Dale Tsang and cellist Adaiha MacAdam-Somer.

Opening the cycle is Chanson für Morgen (eight poems by Kaléko). On Lied zur Nacht, Garner is seemingly metaphysically connected to Kaléko, and has musically captured the nearly Arctic, lonely introspection and unsettling disconsolance of Kaléko’s poetry. Sophisticated voicings and sonic clusters define this work, and McGuiness’ dynamic soprano is the alchemical component that makes it all work. Also stirring are Nachts – a macabre, melancholy waltz that whirls the listener into the abyss – and the very contemporary Herbstanfang, which features a sonorous and complex cello counterpoint by MacAdam-Somer. 

The only section of the cycle to be sung in English is Song is a Monument (five poems by Yala Korwin). Korwin lived in the United States until the time of her recent passing, and her Yankee influence is clearly felt and complemented exquisitely by Garner.

Now more than ever, as the U.S. experiences a déjà vu of hatred and is poised on the brink of societal unravelling, the potent and timeless messages of survival, love, tolerance and forgiveness contained on this brilliant presentation need to resonate throughout the world.

05 Donizetti RosmondaDonizetti – Rosmonda D’Inghilterra
Pratt; Mei; Schmunck; Ulivieri; Lupinacci
Dynamic 37757

Here is a fine example of how an opera can be presented effectively at relatively low cost with a dedicated, talented creative team, simple, minimalistic sets evoking the milieu, atmospheric lighting, colours and non-intrusive direction relying on the natural movement of the actors. Director Paola Rota should be congratulated for bringing Donizetti’s forgotten opera after 171 years’ slumber into shining focus at the Bergamo festival. The period is 12th-century England and the story is about an innocent young girl, Rosamunda Clifford, with whom Henry II fell in love, who in turn falls victim to the jealous rage of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. The underlying menace of this dismal story is well captured, and with Donizetti’s gorgeously melodic score it really hits home to an enthusiastic audience at Donizetti’s birthplace.

Jessica Pratt is one of the best bel canto sopranos today, and she is the star in the title role with her glorious, strong high notes and lovely legato singing. In the complex role of the scheming, murderous Queen, famous Italian soprano Eva Mei’s brilliant performance brings lots of excitement. In the lesser parts of Arturo the rejected lover and Clifford the anguished father, mezzo Raffaella Lupinacci and baritone Nicola Ulivieri are also very effective. The only weakness is the King, high tenor Dario Schmunck, who has some difficulty keeping up with the strain of high tessitura of this very demanding role.

My great delight and a major contributor to the success is young conductor Sebastiano Rolli. His innate grasp of the score (that he conducts from memory!), perfectly chosen tempi and deliciously accented pointing, are the mark of a great conductor in the making.

06 Rossini AdelaideRossini – Adelaide di Borgogna
Sadovnikova; Gritskova; Anderzhanov; Vlad; Zubieta; Watanabe; Lewenberg; Camerata Bach Choir, Posnań; Virtuosi Brunensis; Luciano Acocella
Naxos 8.660401-02

Here is a rarity of rarities, an opera by Rossini not only recorded for the first time, but one dating back to 1817 and staged scarcely more than a dozen times. Since it disappeared from the repertoire in 1825 (due in large part to the unfavourable reception of Roman critics – it was Rossini’s first opera written for Rome), there were only a few efforts to revive it. Why then history’s cold shoulder? Well, that is the $64,000 question. Yes, Rossini was young, only 25, when he wrote it, but this is not juvenilia. It came right on the heels of Armida (with whom it shared a librettist) and La Cenerentola, both well-loved and often-performed operas.

Adelaide di Borgogna is centred on the events in medieval Italy (circa 950 AD) that led to extending the Holy Roman Empire from Germany into the Apennine Peninsula. The action is, unusual for an opera, historically accurate, well-paced and intriguing. We cannot fault the music either – Rossini himself frequently reused passages from this work in his later operas to great effect. So, in the end, yet another great work killed off by negative reviews. Listening to this recording truly has made me more aware of my responsibility as a music critic. My only regret for this unique recording is the relative mediocrity of the assembled cast, with the notable exception of Margarita Gritskova in a splendid trouser role as the Emperor Otto the Great.

07 Wagner ParsifalWagner – Parsifal
Marco-Burmester; Petrenko; Struckmann; Ventris; Lang; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Iván Fischer
Challenge Classics CC72619 (challengerrecords.com)

German Romantic opera reached its pinnacle under Wagner. Once he found his stride, Singspiels and Italianate number operas would be side-tracked in German-speaking opera houses. Wagner melded mythical stories to seamless, powerful symphonic music in masterpieces including his iconic Ring Cycle. Then Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera, broke that mould, when it was premiered at the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882. The opera – an adaptation of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century epic poem Parzival – caused a stir with its depiction of religious fervour, purity of caste and women as sexually depraved heathens. Reactions were confused at first but by 1887 they turned vehement. Still, Wagner remained adamant and, in an era increasingly bereft of sacred experience, he was emphatic in his belief that music dramas should fully absorb audiences in mystical truths.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s performance of Parsifal, conducted by Iván Fischer is a considerably minimalist production directed by the Wagner expert and director of the Dutch National Opera, Pierre Audi. Produced for television and DVD in 2012, it may be short on the lavish density of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s acclaimed 1982 production. However, with a wooden strut-like framework depicting the castle that houses the suffering Amfortas drenched in his blood, and its preternatural stairway to heaven, an atmosphere of both horror and pity is superbly created. Such spare environs are perfect for the cavernous voices of Titurel, founder of the Knights of the Grail and his son Amfortas, sung by Mikhail Petrenko (bass, who also sings Klingsor) and Alejendro Marco-Buhrmester (baritone) respectively. Falk Struckmann (bass) as the veteran Knight of the Grail, Gurnemanz, rumbles on sublimely too. But the tenor Christopher Ventris’ Parsifal and soprano Petra Lang as Kundry leave indelible marks on both roles.

The magnificent vocal colouring and shifting tonalities in the agony and ecstasy from Act I to Act III is convincingly Wagnerian. More important than that is the transition from agonizing sinful states to depictions of redemption and salvation. Here, in their complete transformation, every principal cast member shines. Anish Kapoor’s set design especially in Act II – where the backdrop of an orb of sorts seems to reflect the depth of the characters’ changing emotions through spectacular lighting by Jean Kalman – is absolutely magical. There are minor fluctuations of volume in the DVD sound, but these are minor irritants. The miraculous translation of the three-dimensional depth of the play onto the flat television screen is a major production triumph.

08 Gurrelieder DVDSchoenberg – Gurrelieder
Soloists; chorus of the Dutch National Opera; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; Marc Albrecht
Opus Arte DVD OA 1227 (also on Blu-ray)

This is a video of an attempt to stage Schoenberg’s extraordinary cantata based on poetry by Jens Peter Jacobsen. It is not an opera and actions on the stage do not always match the libretto. The text is dreamy and melancholic, a Tristanesque tale of impossible love. I confess that over many years of listening, although totally absorbed, I have not mentally pictured or “seen” the events described by the singers and the orchestra. The score does its job and the goings on, the thoughts, events and emotions are unmistakable, but remain abstractions.

The great room of Gurre Castle is director Pierre Audi’s set for this production with various props to define a scene… a large bed, screens, panels, etc. The prominent curved metal staircase adds a vertical dimension and supports some of the action. A huge, rather formidable fish, perhaps representing a fantastic eel, passively enters into the room in Part Three during Klaus Narr’s pantomime-like scene that follows the rousing, exhilarating Wild Hunt.

King Waldemar is sung by tenor Burkhard Fritz, who is scheduled to sing Siegmund in Leipzig’s Ring Cycle early next year. Tove, his beloved, is soprano Emily Magee and the Wood Dove is contralto Anna Larsson. Bass-baritone Markus Marquardt is the Peasant and tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is Klaus Narr, the court jester. Actress Sunnyi Melles is the narrator who introduces the evening, settling the audience down for what’s to follow. She moves as an observer through the scenes, sometimes commenting and finally breaking into an unusually impassioned delivery of the sprechgesang exultation of the sun. Internationally renowned for her interpretations of Mahler, Larsson’s Wood Dove is outstanding and genuinely tragic as it should be, delivering the news of Tove’s murder and closing Part One. Incidentally, because she is acting it out, Larsson is completely caught up in the role as she was not in the very fine recent version conducted by Edward Gardner reviewed in March. The chorus is better than outstanding. Under Marc Albrecht, the orchestral balances, so brilliantly recorded, are dynamic and expansive, letting the brass sing out, most importantly in the awe-inspiring choral finale as the sun rises and the nocturnal fantasies are banished.

On first viewing, not knowing what to expect, the staging was something of a letdown. By the third playing, no longer expecting anything different, I was enrolled, appreciating this most unusual experience immensely. As noted above, the surround sound is awesome. All in all, quite an experience.

09 Floyd SusannahCarlisle Floyd – Susannah
Susan Hellman Spatafora; St. Petersburg Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Mark Sforzini
Naxos 2.110381

In an interview included in this DVD, Carlisle Floyd describes the two major influences on the creation of his most-performed opera. As a young university professor in Florida, he witnessed what he calls “the destruction of innocence” by false accusations during the 1950s McCarthy era. The son of a Methodist minister in South Carolina, he had also experienced the mob hysteria of small-town revival meetings. “I personally found it very terrifying as a child to go to these meetings,” he says. “What offended me most was mass coercion – and it still does!”

Floyd’s self-written libretto transfers the Apocrypha tale of Susannah and the Elders to “New Hope,” a small town in Appalachian Tennessee. Susannah’s folk-flavoured, often quite beautiful score amplifies a powerful drama – the innocent Susannah victimized both by the townspeople who believe her “pretty face must hide some evil” and the evangelical preacher, Olin Blitch, captivated by that same face.

Susannah has been performed hundreds of times since its 1955 premiere, but this is its first, very welcome, commercial DVD release. The St. Petersburg (Florida) Opera’s 2014 production is low budget yet highly effective, the single set doubling as Susannah’s house and the New Hope Church. Soprano Susan Hellman Spatafora is a feisty, radiant Susannah, baritone Todd Donovan a sturdy voiced Blitch, the revival-scene chorus truly “very terrifying,” while conductor Mark Sforzini revels in the music’s beauty and passion.

If you don’t already know this opera, you should – it’s unforgettable!

10 Gordon GettyGordon Getty – The Canterville Ghost
Oper Leipzig; Gewandhausorchester; Matthias Foremny
Pentatone PTC 5186 541

“Stage and page have different needs,” writes composer Getty, son of billionaire Jean Paul, explaining in the CD’s booklet the alterations in his libretto when adapting Oscar Wilde’s novella. Wilde’s whimsical tale remains essentially intact, however, with the Otis family moving into an English manor haunted by the 300-year-old ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville, unable to find release in death.

Instead of being frightened, Mr. Otis offers the Ghost oil to lubricate his chains, Mrs. Otis gives him a tonic to quell his moaning, and the young Otis twins throw pillows at him, push a cream pie in his face and douse him with water.

Only 15-year-old Virginia hasn’t offended him. In the longest scene of the hour-long opera, the Ghost tells her, “You must weep with me for my sins… pray with me for my soul… and then… the Angel of Death will have mercy on me.” His skeleton is discovered the next day. The final scene takes place five years later at Sir Simon’s graveside, where Virginia, now married, sings a lovely duet with her husband, “Stay with me, beautiful,” the opera’s lyrical highlight.

The Canterville Ghost was premiered in Leipzig in 2015 by the performers on this disc. Bass-baritone Matthew Treviño is the forceful but sympathetic Ghost, soprano Alexandra Hutton is all sweetness as Virginia, and Getty’s bright, witty score strongly supports the action.

This is a very stage-worthy and entertaining addition to the repertoire of one-act, English-language operas.

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