01 Handel AlmiraHandel – Almira
Emöke Barath; Amanda Forsythe; Colin Balzer; Boston Early Music Festival; Paul O’Dette; Stephen Stubbs
cpo 555 205-2 (naxosdirect.com)

Besides being Handel’s first exercise in operatic composition, Almira (1704) is a notable, if slightly eccentric work for several reasons. Various styles and languages are mixed, with the opera including both German and Italian arias, as well as vocal dance numbers, da capo pieces and instrumental ballet inserts. The result is a colourful and surprisingly unified mixture, and the melodic signatures that we consider so typical of Handel are already recognizable.

This recording features an expert interpretation of this middle-Baroque work, as the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and soloists manage to synthesize Almira’s Venetian, German and French influences into a cohesive and convincing musical and dramatic product. The use of harpsichord and lute in the basso continuo section provides a temporal reference point, between theorbo-based Monteverdi and the later harpsichord- and organ-grounded works of Bach.

Although Handel’s later operas and oratorios receive the vast majority of modern performances, it is worthwhile to encounter an expertly performed edition of such an early work from such an esteemed composer. Much like Bach’s early chorale preludes, Almira reflects the effort of an already extraordinarily gifted musical mind, which continues to be developed and refined as the years progress. This opera’s apparent eccentricities aside (largely due to the traditions of the Hamburg opera, rather than Handel’s own innovation), Almira is a rewarding listen for all who appreciate the style and evolution of Baroque opera.

03 Other CleopatraThe Other Cleopatra, Queen of Armenia – Il Tigrane Arias
Isabel Bayrakdarian; Kaunas City Symphony; Constantine Orbelian
Delos DE 3591 (naxosdirect.com)

Yes, there was another Cleopatra and thanks, in part, to Isabel Bayrakdarian the wife of King Tigranes (140-55 BCE) has a bright new light shone on her. These arias are, of course, from composers who knew of her and first glorified her in opera: Hasse, Vivaldi and Gluck. What Bayrakdarian has also done as with many of her recordings, is to shed light on the historical riches of Armenia. More remarkably, however, on The Other Cleopatra: Queen of Armenia Bayrakdarian seems to sing as if with real, lived experience.

Bayrakdarian is a bright lyric soprano, but she can also swoop really low into what must clearly be the edge of a soprano’s comfort zone. One such example comes with Baroque smokiness in Hasse’s elegant aria Strappami pure il seno; also a wonderful example of her breathtaking eloquence and range. Chronologically Vivaldi’s version of Il Tigrane (1724) was premiered first, followed by Hasse’s (1729) and finally Gluck’s (1743). All three operas were based on the same libretto by Abate Francesco Silvani. 

Most interesting, however, is the subtle differences in the music by each of the composers. Vivaldi delivers characteristic vivacity, dazzling vocal solos with dashes of acute characterization. Gluck’s demands a complete balance between music and drama and Hasse’s is a highly lyrical blend of style and emotions. Meanwhile, Baryakdarian’s artistry enables her to deliver each style absolutely masterfully.

04 Karina GauvinNuits Blanches – Russian Opera Arias of the 18th Century
Karina Gauvin; Pacific Baroque Orchestra; Alexander Weimann
ATMA ACD2 2791 (atmaclassique.com/En)

Johann Sebastian Bach’s ambition of becoming a musician at the Imperial Russian Court never materialized but that disappointing fact – plus the unfortunate reputation of 18th-century Russian music – has not deterred recent musicologists from discovering some very accomplished composers. Combine that with the artists listed above and Nuits Blanches is the pleasing result. 

As might be expected, Karina Gauvin’s soprano voice dominates this CD. Listen to the variations in her voice as she literally runs a gamut of emotion in determining Armide’s relationship towards Renaud in Gluck’s Armide. And then there is the opera Demofoonte by the tragically short-lived Maxime Sozontovitch Berezovski (1745-1777). This is a work which does not survive in completeness; what does survive is a disturbing unravelling of events which is deeper in intensity than many better-known and complete operatic works. The two arias recorded here bring home not just this complexity of plot but also the extent to which Gauvin’s expertise is tested. 

In fact, Gauvin’s singing does not monopolize this CD. Listen to the Ouverture from Le Faucon by Dimitri Stepanovitch Bortnianski. It offers a genteel introduction to the subsequent complexities of the relationship between Don Federigo and Elvira. 

This CD introduces listeners to music which is almost unknown. Enjoy, incidentally, not just its soprano and instrumental qualities but also some deeply researched and sometimes rather amusing program notes.

Listen to 'Nuits Blanches: Russian Opera Arias of the 18th Century' Now in the Listening Room

05 Wagner WalkureWagner – Die Walküre
Soloists; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Antonio Pappano
Opus Arte OA 1308D (naxosdirect.com)

Ever since Patrice Chereau’s centennial revival in Bayreuth in 1976, dozens of Ring productions have proliferated all over the world. In fact every major opera house has created one, all different concepts exploiting every possible angle: historic, sociological, psychological, philosophical etc. Rings are named after the various cities and/or the directors or the conductors. Now we have a Met Ring (Lepage/Levine), Berlin Ring (Kupfer/Barenboim), Stuttgart Ring (Zagrosek), St. Petersburg Ring (Gergiev), Vienna Ring (Rattle/Adam Fischer), Valencia Ring (Zubin Mehta), not to mention our own from Toronto. This production from London (2018) heralds a new, and judging by this Walküre, a momentous one directed by Keith Warner.

From the staging point of view it is a sound and light extravaganza, using all possible audiovisual technology culminating in the third act Ride of the Valkyries with films in the background combined with shadow play of the warrior maidens and superb choreography. The magic fire that envelops the stage is a spectacular finale. Pappano’s conducting is nothing less than magnificent. He absorbs himself thoroughly in the score, and no detail is missed.  There are moments of ecstasy like the first act love-duet between Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) and Sieglinde (Emily Magee) in waves and waves of passion as the “world never heard before” (Sir Simon Rattle), and at the climax when Siegmund triumphantly pulls out the sword from the ash tree, wow!  Or Wotan’s final embrace of his daughter Brünnhilde, a moment at which I almost cried when I first heard it.

The entire cast is phenomenal headed by John Lundgren as a powerful, larger-than-life Wotan, a very complex character, a god torn between his duty to the law he created and the love for his daughter, Brünnhilde (the wonderful Nina Stemme) whom he has to punish. A gripping Walküre, highly recommended.

06 Contes dHofmannOffenbach – Les contes d’Hoffmann
Soloists; Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra; Carlo Rizzi
Cmajor 752808 (naxosdirect.com)

Often spoken of disparagingly in his day, Jacques Offenbach clearly knew what he was doing. With equal measure of sardonic humour and lyricism, he triumphantly invented the whole idea of the operetta, paved the way for Lehár and Sullivan, and eventually came to be called (by Rossini, no less) “the Mozart of Champs Élysées.” Fusing dialogue and show-stopping pieces, Offenbach also created the can-can dance and laid the ground for the modern musical. But in 1881 he also produced his first and last opera – Les Contes d’Hoffmann – his only through-composed work without spoken dialogue; replaced by a sombre libretto instead. 

Three acts recount three tales by the German Romantic writer E.T.A Hoffmann. Tobias Kratzer’s spectacular staging adds a prelude and background to the story (Act 1) followed by the three acts conceived by Offenbach. The first concerns the inventor and his mechanical doll, Olympia who seduces Hoffmann. The second involves Hoffmann’s other passion, the consumptive singer Antonia, preyed upon by the evil Dr. Miracle. The third tells of Giulietta, who tries to trick Hoffmann into selling his soul. The final act presents Hoffmann, liberated, returning to his muse.

The sweep of Offenbach’s score is supremely caught by Carlos Rizzi in a reading that tingles with frenetic energy while bringing out the lushness of Guiraud’s recitatives. John Osborn is in his richest voice, summoning the impetuous ardour of Hoffmann. Nina Minasyan excels in the bravura arias. Overall, the casting is inspired and outstanding.

07 Respighi BellaRespighi – La bella dormente nel bosco
Soloists; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari; Donato Renzetti
Naxos 2.110655 (naxosdirect.com)

The legendary Ottorino Respighi’s La bella dormente nel bosco (The Sleeping Beauty) was first conceived in 1922. The version presented here by the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari has been enhanced from the original by Respighi’s inspired orchestrations. Although he died in 1936, this fresh, emotional and fantastic rendering of the original fairy tale about the Princess who pricks her finger on a spindle, and falls into a comatose state until she is awakened by her Prince, is as new and exciting as if presented on Broadway today. Brilliantly directed by Leo Muscato (with video direction by Tiziano Mancini, Donato Renzetti as conductor and a lively book by Gian Bistolfi), this production features a broad-palleted mis en scene, which is a delectable feast for both the eyes and ears.

Featured performers include the versatile Veta Pilipenko (the Queen, Old Lady and Frog); the impossibly lovely Angela Nisi as the Princess; baritone powerhouse Antonio Gandia as the Prince and the venerable Vincenzo Taormina as the King. Clever, bombastic and magical costumes (perhaps reflecting a bit of the Comedia Del’Arte) by Vera Pierantonio Giua and choreography by Luigia Frattaroli complete this thoroughly entertaining and spiritually uplifting operatic pastiche.

Written in three acts, the piece opens with a conceptual, almost surreal appearance of birds on swings and frog-like ladies (or lady-like frogs!), and ends with the expected kiss as the diaphanous princess rises up from her crescent moon bed, and into the arms of her Prince, followed by a joyous, dance-infused number by the entire cast. Huge kudos to the Teatro, for not only presenting this nearly lost treasure of one of the world’s foremost 20th-century composers, but also doing it to perfection!

08 Ted Hearne PlaceTed Hearne; Saul Williams – Place
Vocalists; Place Orchestra
New Amsterdam Records NWAM137 (newamrecords.com)

Although the drama of Place is somewhat diminished without a visual staging (i.e. a possible DVD of a presumptive film version), its power is not diminished because of the inventive way in which its principal artists – Ted Hearne (music, libretto) and Saul Williams (libretto) – have used their respective artistic specialities. This means not only words, music and vocalizations, but also their compelling, internecine method of adapting traditional and contemporary artistic styles – from hip-hop to chamber music – and infusing this event with every possible sonic element: music, noise and pregnant silences. 

Music and poetry collide in Place as Hearne and Williams describe the emotional effects that the gentrification of a city has when people and their cultural habitat are trampled upon in the name of money and modernization. Williams’ poetry pulls no punches, especially regarding racism. Using this poetry, Hearne creates jagged miniatures to simulate a musical disruption of the senses that mirrors the socio-political upheaval of their city.

Some spiky, and often serrated, songs are like miniatures depicting human upheaval. This is characterized by extraordinary, jagged rhythmic flexibility. These episodes alternate between moments of tenderness and heartache, anger and despair. An ink-dark atmosphere pervades even when relative calmness is explored in The Tales You Tell Your Children. Occasionally brightness might break through, as in Hallelujah in White, but not for long. The glistening delicacy of the musical equanimity is broken in the finale, in the desperate plea against gentrification of Colonizing Space.

Editor’s Note: A performance video of Place is in the final stages of production and will likely be available on a major public platform by the time this article is published.

01 Rossini ZelmiraRossini – Zelmira
Soloists; Górecki Chamber Choir, Krakow; Virtuosi Brunensis; Gianluigi Gelmetti
Naxos 8.660468-70 (naxosdirect.com)

Dating from 1822, Zelmira is the 33rd of Rossini’s 39 operas and the last one he wrote in Naples. By that time he was aiming for international attention, first step to be Vienna. Zelmira achieved great success there and later in Paris, but inexplicably it fell out of public favour and simply disappeared for nearly two centuries. By a stroke of luck in 1995, Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland found the score in an antique bookshop in Paris and it was quickly bought by the Pesaro Festival and triumphantly performed there with a stellar cast.

The reason for the disfavour was Rossini’s attempt to reconcile Italian and German styles by devising new harmonies and orchestral effects, no doubt to please Vienna audiences, but unfortunately it was too unusual for Italians. Too bad, because it’s a tremendous grand opera with magnificent, original and highly inspired music and great opportunities for singers; particularly for the two principal tenors and the lead soprano (written for Rossini’s wife, Isabella Colbran).

The story takes us to the Age of Antiquity, to Lesbos on the Aegean Sea. It revolves around the king’s daughter Zelmira, who after many vicissitudes, false accusations and even prison, saves her father, and her son, from wicked usurpers to the throne. The main villain is Antenore, secondo tenore (American tenor Joshua Stewart) with a tremendously difficult tessitura, full of powerful high notes à la Rossini. He comes to the stage first, but just you wait for the primo tenore, Ilo, prince of Troy and Zelmira’s husband (sung by Turkish virtuoso Mert Süngü), and his first cavatina – Cara! deh attendimi! – with even more hair-raising vocal acrobatics.

Silvia Dalla Benetta is Zelmira. She crowns it all with her superb voice and is thoroughly enchanting in Perché mi guardi e piangi, one of Rossini’s most inspired creations.  All wonderfully held together and conducted by veteran Rossinian maestro Gianluigi Gelmetti.

02 Janacek House of DeadjpgLeoš Janáček – From the House of the Dead
Bayerisches Staatsorchester and Chorus; Simone Young
BelAir Classiques BAC173 (naxosdirect.com)

Janáček’s From the House of the Dead is a gripping dramatic work. The last opera he composed, this adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel premiered in 1930, two years after Janáček’s death, with an orchestration completed by two of his students. From the House of the Dead is notable for a number of reasons, including the use of chains as percussion in the orchestra (to reflect the sounds of the prisoners shuffling back and forth) and the lack of narrative content; there is no overarching storyline, but rather a number of episodic narratives relating to individual prisoners interspersed with occurrences within the prison itself.

This video release from the Bayerische Staatsoper is captivating, providing a gritty interpretation of Janáček’s work. Featuring an onstage cage in which the majority of the large ensemble cast is contained throughout the performance as well as superb costumes, including an homage to the famous Day of the Dead, the visual plays as important a role in this opera as the music. It is fascinating to see how this production so ably serves the dramatic requirements of Janáček’s opera and reinforces just how confined and uncomfortable this Siberian prison camp is, as told by Dostoyevsky. 

The Staatsoper soloists, chorus and orchestra are superb throughout this short yet intense work, conveying the depth and darkness of the score without once coming across as melodramatic. One of the 20th century’s most profound and significant operatic composers, Janáček displays his mastery in full force in From the House of the Dead, and this production is highly recommended to all who enjoy this Czech master’s works.

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