02 Handel ParnassoHandel – Parnasso in festa
Various soloists; La Cetra Barockorchester & Vokalensemble Basel; Andrea Marcon
PentaTone PTC 5186 643
(pentatonemusic.com)

For those of us convinced by the comic Adam Sandler movie that wedding music usually consists just of bad karaoke, here is an antidote: music written for the royal marriage of Princess Anne, the second daughter of King George II of England, and Prince William IV of Orange. Well, let’s say adapted, as Handel used mostly existing music from his oratorio Athalia, not yet heard in London at that time. Only nine passages were new ones, but the text was suitably changed.

Depicting the dogged pursuit of the nymph Thetis by King Peleus (that resulted in nuptials and the birth of Achilles), the libretto is probably by Giacomo Rossi, but its full provenance was never confirmed. The central event, the Celebration at Parnassus, home of Apollo and the muses, is the wedding. Though not a musical drama, the piece is filled with philosophical observations and dialogues on the nature of virtue and love – a perfect wedding present! This recording qualifies as such a gift, as La Cetra under Andrea Marcon is one of the best Baroque ensembles around. The celebrated countertenor David Hansen is nothing short of sensational as Apollo, and PentaTone sets a new standard for clarity in the recording of a period performance.

04 Rossini SigismondoRossini – Sigismondo
Gritskova; Aleida; Tarver; Bakonyi; Sánchez-Valverde; Arrieta; Camerata Bach Choir Poznan; Virtuosi Brunensis; Antonino Fogliani
Naxos 8.660403-04

By the age of 23 Rossini had written 13 operas, including two masterpieces inspired by and under the spell of his muse/innamorata Maria Marcolini, the greatest mezzo at the time. Not all were successful, but resourceful fellow that he was, he recycled some of the music later and no one knew the difference. As I was listening to Sigismondo I couldn’t help but recognize several melodies of the Barber of Seville, one in particular, the famous crescendo of the La calunnia aria first appearing here. Sigismondo was Rossini’s last opera for Venice, an opera seria written for Marcolini, who was supposed to be King of Poland. A travesti role, it is here sung by Margarita Gritskova, singing up such a storm with a voice of phenomenal range, power and emotion that one can certainly get an idea what La Marcolini must have been about.

Naxos’ latest release in this series of Rossini's complete 39 operas is a winner on many counts: soprano Maria Aleida (as Aldemira, the King’s wife whom he expelled from the court but on second thought wants her back badly) gives an extraordinary vocal display that’s quite a match for Gritskova. Rossini excelled in writing for female voices; their duets are simply heavenly and rival Bellini. Tenor Kenneth Tarver, familiar to us in this series, is the villain who planned the murder of the Queen and is so severely tested in the high-flying tessitura that I felt Rossini planned to murder him instead. Antonino Fogliani can hardly be bettered in his magisterial handling of the score. Most enjoyable, highly recommended.

05 Faccio HamletFranco Faccio – Hamlet
Paul Cernoch; Claudio Sgura; Julia Maria Dan; Dshamilja Kaiser; Wiener Symphoniker; Paolo Carignani
Cmajor 740608

In 1887, Franco Faccio conducted the world premiere of Verdi’s Otello, set to a libretto by Arrigo Boito. More than 20 years earlier, Faccio and Boito had collaborated on a different Shakespearian opera, Amleto (Hamlet). Well-received at its 1865 premiere, a poorly performed revised version flopped in 1871 and Faccio, disheartened, withdrew the work. It remained unperformed until 2014 in concert in Albuquerque, and the fully staged 2016 Bregenz (Austria) Festival production recorded here.

What a wonderful discovery! Faccio’s Hamlet, with its intense, powerful score that anticipates verismo, deserves to be welcomed to all the world’s major opera houses. The fiery “Get thee to a nunnery” duet between Hamlet and Ophelia foreshadows the Santuzza-Turiddu duet in Cavalleria Rusticana; the dreamy music of Ophelia’s mad scene is hauntingly beautiful; and the poignant, stirring strains of her funeral procession could easily be mistaken for a Mascagni intermezzo.

Boito’s skillful libretto tightens Shakespeare’s play but retains all the famous episodes, adding a remorse aria for Gertrude to match the aria on Shakespeare’s prayerful text for Claudius. Heading the excellent cast is Pavel Černoch, superb as Hamlet with his dark, focused tenor and rock-solid high notes. Thankfully, stage director Olivier Tambosi eschews the grotesqueries common at Bregenz, although he introduces some inexplicable movements by silent courtiers into the otherwise traditional, un-updated mise-en-scène. Another puzzling touch – large images of eyes on most of Gesine Völlm’s period costumes.

That aside, this DVD is an absolute must-see-and-hear for every opera lover.

08 HvorostovskyRussia Cast Adrift
Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Delos DE 1631 (delosmusic.com)

The relationships between composers and their favourite interpreters are responsible for some of the best vocal music ever written. Sometimes they are romantic in nature, as in the case of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. On many occasions, they are simply a meeting of two musical geniuses – both attuned to a secret chord within, as with Gerald Finley and the late Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. Georgy Sviridov found his muse in Dmitri Hvorostovsky. They met for the first time just four years before the composer’s death in 1994. The occasion was an auspicious one: Hvorostovsky was performing Russia Adrift, a “poem” for voice and piano, immortalized in performances by the redoubtable Elena Obraztsova. Upon hearing Hvorostovsky’s version, the composer was enchanted and a beautiful friendship followed. In the remaining years, Hvorostovsky became “the” voice for Sviridov’s music.

The one project the composer did not finish before his death was an orchestral version of Russia Adrift. Here it is recorded by an orchestra and folk-instrument ensemble, in a version completed by Evgeny Stetsyuk. The words of Sergei Yesenin, the once-blacklisted Soviet poet from the 1920s, are filled with nostalgia for the Russia of yesteryear. Given the present situation in that great nation, those words acquire additional poignancy. Hvorostovsky’s voice does not betray any traces of the serious health crisis he has been undergoing of late. The album closes with a spine-tingling song, The Virgin in the City, from the vocal poem Petersburg, written especially for him.

09 Stephen ChatmanStephen Chatman – Dawn of Night
University of Toronto MacMillan Singers; Hilary Apfelstadt
Centrediscs CMCCD 24617
(musiccentre.ca)

As a choral singer, I have always enjoyed the works of Stephen Chatman. Infusing softness of tone with luscious harmonies, his music always sounds deceptively simple, yet, as both he and conductor Hilary Apfelstadt point out, it requires a fair amount of preparation for a chorus to get it right. After all, the heartfelt texts Chatman chooses, such as those by Sara Teasdale, Walt Whitman, Christina Rossetti and poet/wife Tara Wohlberg, require an elegant and sensitive touch, which he applies with great care in order to enhance the essential meaning.

The benefit of collaborating with Chatman, who worked as co-producer of this recording, clearly shows in the exquisite performance by the MacMillan Singers led by Apfelstadt. For pieces using piano, Laura Dodds-Eden provides a vibrant and robust accompaniment. There is also in these pieces beautiful writing for other instruments; for example, poignant trumpet interludes played by Anita McAlister in Reconciliation (from Whitman’s Drum Taps), gorgeously pulsing harp and intoning cello provided by Angela Schwarzkopf and Jenny Cheong in Dawn of Night, and Clare Scholtz’s soaring oboe in June Night and Dreams Offer Solace. Recorded at Toronto’s Grace Church on-the-Hill, this recording must have truly been a labour of love for students and mentors alike.

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.

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