01 Vivaldi Musica sacraVivaldi – Musica sacra per alto
Delphine Galou; Accademia Bizantina; Ottavio Dantone
Naïve Vivaldi Edition Vol.59
(vivaldiedition.com)

Unlike Bach and Handel, Vivaldi’s instrumental works continue to be better known and more frequently performed than his vocal and choral music, though this imbalance is slowly being rectified. History is partly to blame for this, as even the renowned Gloria was only reintroduced in 1939; but Vivaldi is now considered a versatile and highly innovative composer of vocal music, a reflection of his ambition to become a universal composer who excelled in every aspect of his art.

One significant contributor to the propagation of Vivaldi’s vocal music is the Vivaldi Edition, an ambitious project to record 450 of the Italian composer’s works, many of them unknown. Musica sacra per alto is volume 59 in their collection and features four sacred pieces for alto with orchestral accompaniment, ranging in size from small-scale mass segments lasting only a few minutes (such as the two introdutioni, which resemble solo motets in a form unique to Vivaldi) to the five-movement Salve Regina.

Contralto Delphine Galou and the Accademia Bizantina give convincing performances of each work on this disc, whether a languid aria or compelling allegro, uncovering the distinctly Vivaldian characteristics on the page and translating them into spectacular sounds. Although the material may be unfamiliar to many listeners, the style is unmistakable and this disc provides a fine example of why Vivaldi’s reputation as a composer of vocal music is continuing to grow, due in large part to the work of organizations such as the Vivaldi Edition.

02 Mozart EntfuhrungMozart – Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail
Soloists; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala; Zubin Mehta
Cmajor 752008 (naxos.com)

This production is a replica of a 1965 Salzburg performance designed by famous Italian director Giorgio Strehler which was so successful that the audience refused to leave the theatre. Since then it has been revived periodically and now again to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the director’s death. A young firebrand, Zubin Mehta, conducted then and now, at age 80, is conducting it again.

It certainly lives up to expectations: an impressive, monumental and symmetrical set bathed in sunlight suggests an atmosphere of dreaminess. The singers are lit alternately from the front and the back creating silhouettes as if we are watching a shadow play such as was fashionable in the Vienna of 1782 when this singspiel, Mozart’s first breakthrough success, was premiered. There is strong artistic control over all elements, e.g. costumes, colours, carefully choreographed movements and gesticulations, all coming together beautifully; the mark of a great director’s work.

The crowning achievement however is the singers and they all are of the highest quality. First and foremost, Dutch soprano Lenneke Ruiten, as Konstanze, is simply unbelievable in the three concert arias that follow one another and culminate in the magisterial, defiant and very difficult Martern aller Arten, sung with sustained, powerful high notes and without any trace of vibrato. This is a focal point of the opera, photographed from every possible angle, conductor’s included; it’s worth buying the video for this one aria alone. 

Swiss tenor Mauro Peter as Belmonte, her lover, is a revelation. He is referred to as a ”real discovery, a classic Mozartian tenor with warmth and style.” And there is Osmin, the basso profundo malevolent palace guard portrayed hilariously by Tobias Kehrer. An eye candy of a production.

03 Rossini RIcciardoRossini – Ricciardo e Zoraide
Soloists; Coro del Ventido Basso; Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale Della Rai; Giacomo Sagripanti
Cmajor 752608 (naxosdirect.com)

The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, La Gazza Ladra – familiar Rossini titles, but La Gazzetta? Ermione? Bianca e Faliero? All these, along with Ricciardo e Zoraide, were among the 14 operas emerging from Rossini’s conveyor belt during his busiest four years, 1816-1819. Most were soon forgotten amid this superabundance; Ricciardo e Zoraide, here making its DVD debut, was unperformed for almost 150 years until its revival at the 1990 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Rossini’s birthplace. 

Agorante and Ircano are warring kings in medieval Nubia. Agorante lusts after his captive, Zoraide, Ircano’s daughter, who yearns for Ricciardo, her Christian-crusader lover. Disguised, Ricciardo attempts her rescue, but is captured. Zomira, Agorante’s jealous wife, plots the lovers’ downfall.

This 2018 Pesaro production boasts a fabulous international cast, headed by lustrous South African soprano Pretty Yende (Zoraide), phenomenal Peruvian high-C wizard, tenor Juan Diego Flórez (Ricciardo), sturdy Italian bass Nicola Ulivieri (Ircano) and two powerful, beefy voiced Russians, tenor Sergey Romanovsky (Agorante) and mezzo Victoria Yarovaya (Zomira). There’s a major Toronto presence, too: Opera Atelier’s co-directors, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg are, respectively, the stage director and choreographer, their familiar predilections for mannered stage movements and bare-chested men further undermining the far-fetched scenario’s minimal dramatic verisimilitude.

I won’t call this opera a neglected masterpiece. However, conductor Giacomo Sagripanti and the truly spectacular singing provide plenty of Rossinian thrills over its nearly three-hour duration, making this a must-have for all opera-on-DVD enthusiasts.

04 Offenbach Un MariOffenbach – Un mari à la porte
Soloists; Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Florentino; Valerio Galli
Dynamic 37844 (naxos.com)

“Sheer silliness” were the words that kept coming to me as I watched and listened to this unfamiliar, 48-minute, one-act Offenbach operetta. Following the graceful, charming waltz-overture, Florestan (tenor Matteo Mezzaro) literally drops into Suzanne’s bedroom, falling through the chimney after scampering over rooftops to escape from a jealous husband. He hides when Suzanne (mezzo Francesca Benitez) and her friend Rosita (soprano Marina Ogii) enter, fresh from Suzanne’s wedding party. Rosita extols the delights of dancing the waltz in the operetta’s hit number, the effervescent Valse Tyrolienne.

Henri, the groom (baritone Patrizio La Placa), arrives at the bedroom door, only to find himself locked out – to avoid being discovered by Henri, Florestan, now out of hiding, has locked the door and thrown the key out the third-floor window. Stuck outside the bedroom, Henri adds his voice in an exuberant quartet, a sparkling example of Offenbach’s high-spirited “patter” music. Finally, after Henri manages to find the key in the garden, it all ends happily, with the newlyweds reunited and Florestan and Rosita potentially altar-bound themselves.

The exaggerated silliness of the plot is reflected in the exaggerated, silly costumes, makeup, props and gestures by the animated cast in this 2019 Florence production, while conductor Valerio Galli keeps it all bubbling along. My only cavil: adding another one-acter would have made this fun-filled but very short DVD even more desirable.

05 Weber FreischutzWeber – Der Freischütz
Soloists; MDR Leipzig Radio Choir; Frankfurt Radio Symphony; Marek Janowski
Pentatone PTC 5186 788
(pentatonemusic.com)

Since it was first performed in 1821, Der Freischütz has remained popular in Europe – especially in composer Carl Maria von Weber’s native Germany. The music is inspired, the plot suspenseful and the atmosphere evocatively romantic. Yet it is rarely performed in North America, though in Toronto both Opera Atelier and Opera in Concert have done worthy productions. 

Undoubtedly the long passages of dialogue present problems, especially on a recording. Often the dialogue gets trimmed down, removed altogether, sung using Berlioz’s added recitatives, or turned over to a narrator. 

On this recording, the dialogue has been totally reconceived by stage director Katharina Wagner and dramaturge Daniel Weber, and split up between two narrators. But, confusingly, both are pivotal characters in the opera, a Devil called Samiel, and a Hermit. So it is disconcerting to hear them (in the original German – a libretto with translations is included) give away key plot points, scold other characters, and do their best to disrupt things. 

In the opera, Samiel doesn’t sing, so it works seamlessly to cast this role as female. But Corinna Kirchhoff’s voice is too grating and unnuanced here to cause terror, especially in the nightmarish Wolf’s Glen scene. In the opera the Hermit is a selfless, wise holy man who shows up only at the end to save the day. But in this narration, he comes off as vindictive and pompous. 

In any case, Lise Davidsen, magnificent in the first act of Die Walküre with the Toronto Symphony last year, is powerfully radiant here. Andreas Schager, who made a thrilling Siegfried in the Canadian Opera Company’s recent Götterdämmerung, is here just as ardent and versatile. The rest of the cast, the choir and orchestra are standouts, especially with the buoyant phrasing and clear textures shaped so expressively by conductor Marek Janowski.

06 Wagner TristanWagner – Tristan und Isolde
Soloists; Orchestra and Choir of Teatro Opera of Rome; Daniele Gatti
Cmajor 752208 (naxos.com)

Arthurian legend provides raw material for Wagner’s greatest opera, but his treatment for the story was inspired by Schopenhauer’s philosophy, specifically his contention that bliss can only be found through the negation of will and desire. Schopenhauer is certainly a presence in the opera, which ends in blissful annihilation, but desire is its governing force. Essentially, Tristan und Isolde is a five-hour love song.

The plot is refreshingly simple. Tristan is sent to Ireland to bring the Irish princess Isolde as a bride for his uncle King Marke of Cornwall. But Tristan falls passionately in love with the bride-to-be and she reciprocates. They conclude that death is the only way out and take what they believe is poison. But Isolde’s maid Brangäne substitutes a love draught and their passion is reconfirmed. Their affair continues until they are caught by one of Marke’s knights. Tristan is wounded and taken back to Brittany where he dies just as Isolde arrives. Sinking into his body, she is united with him in death.

The cast directed by Pierre Audi (and musicians by Daniele Gatti) masterfully navigate Wagner’s sinuous melodic lines and suspended harmonies. A sense of heady sensuality and physical longing saturates this production. Andreas Schager and Rachel Nicholls are brilliant in the title roles.

07 Gomes Lo SchiavoAntônio Carlos Gomes – Lo Schiavo
Soloists; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari; John Neschling
Dynamic 37845 (naxos.com)

Brazilian-born Antônio Carlos Gomes (1836-1896) lived many years in Milan, composing operas for La Scala, before returning to Brazil as a national icon. He intended Lo Schiavo (1889) as a protest against slavery, still legal in Brazil when he began working on it, setting a libretto prepared for him by Rodolfo Paravicini. A success in Brazil, it was largely ignored in Europe, although Caruso recorded Américo’s Act 2 aria, Quando nascesti tu. This 2019 production from Sardinia’s Teatro Lirico di Cagliari was, in fact, its Italian premiere.

The opera is set in 1567, near Rio de Janeiro, during a revolt by indigenous Tamoyos, many having been enslaved by the conquering Portuguese. Américo (tenor Massimiliano Pisapia), the abolitionist son of slaveholder Count Rodrigo (bass Dongho Kim), loves the slave girl Ilàra (soprano Svetla Vassileva). To separate the lovers, Rodrigo orders Américo to the battlefront and forces Ilàra to marry Américo’s friend, the enslaved Tamoyo leader Iberè (baritone Andrea Borghini), before selling them to the Contessa di Boissy (soprano Elisa Balbo). Despising slavery, she sets them free. They rejoin the Tamoyos who soon capture Américo. Iberè, rejected by Ilàra and loyal to Américo, helps the lovers escape. Facing the rebels’ condemnation for his action, Iberè commits suicide.

This production’s exotic sets, costumes and choreography, reflecting the libretto’s historic time and place, admirably reinforce Gomes’ bold, assertive, robustly scored late-Romantic music, with stirring choruses calling for freedom and the end of slavery.

08 Bruckner RequiemAnton Bruckner – Requiem
RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin; Lukasz Borowicz
Accentus Music ACC30474
(naxosdirect.com)

Pious and naïve, church-organist Anton Bruckner may never have shed his lumbering manner and rustic accent but his massively soaring music attests to his ability to communicate the redemptive force of the divine. The composer, however, found his true musical vocation when he saw Wagner conducting a performance of Tannhäuser in Linz. In what became a kind of Wagnerian moment, Bruckner realized (like Wagner) that in order to move forward he must assimilate and then break every theoretical rule in the proverbial book.

Bruckner’s legacy, enshrined not only in his symphonic works, rises to prominence in his choral music, the most vaunted being the Te Deum. Bruckner was, after all, a devout Catholic and his faith pervades all of his music, considered to be Gothic cathedrals in sound. Requiem (the disc) is a magnificent example of Bruckner’s majesty as a composer of spiritual material not least because of these performances. No less than four of the eleven works on this disc are premiere recordings. 

Perhaps the most moving work is the Libera in F Major. But the Requiem in D Minor is the crowning glory. It evokes the mass tradition of Mozart and Haydn, the lyricism of Schubert and the austerity of Bach. Moreover, the Requiem presents the grand melodic roar of the organ, moaning trombones and soaring voices of the RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin which combine to provide the most intensely moving Bruckner music ever recorded.

09 Stanford TravellingCharles Villiers Stanford – The Travelling Companion
Horton; Mellaerts; Valentine; New Sussex Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Toby Purser
Somm Recordings SOMMCD 274-2 (naxosdirect.com)

In 1835 Hans Christian Andersen published The Travelling Companion, a touching yet violent story full of wizards, princesses and mysterious strangers; in 1916, the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford set this text to music, creating what would be his last opera. Although reprised occasionally since its premiere, this recording of The Travelling Companion is the first of its kind, captured live at Saffron Hall in December 2018.

It is immediately noticeable that this is a live recording, as the sound quality lacks some clarity, with slightly blurred timbres and occasionally opaque orchestrations, as well as the feeling that everything is being performed at a distance. Despite the issues of transferring this live performance to disc, the musical execution itself is of notably high quality, with soloists, chorus and orchestra combining to present a cheerful and charming interpretation.

Cheerful and charming are also the best words to describe Stanford’s score, which maintains the levity and brevity characteristic of early-20th-century English music, never falling into verismo’s dramatic angst or Wagnerian mysticism. Major keys run consistently throughout the work, as do little woodwind marches, fanfares, and lighthearted figurations. This can only be taken as a deliberate decision on the part of Stanford, for his symphonic and choral works are some of the most stunning of his era and leave no doubt that this was a man who was highly capable of writing whatever music he wished to hear.

English opera has relatively few major composers to its credit: Purcell, Handel and Britten are three that have maintained a presence in modern opera houses, but there are also works which are only occasionally revived and recorded that are well worth listening to. Such is the case with Stanford’s The Travelling Companion and this disc by New Sussex Opera.

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