01 Michelangelos MadrigalMichelangelo’s Madrigal
Kate Macoboy; Robert Meunier
Etcetera KTC 1623 (etcetera-records.com)

Through this CD, Australian Kate Macoboy and Canadian Robert Meunier, who now reside in London, England attempt to restore Italian madrigal composers to their true position as some of the leading exponents of the medium. They even find time for some sensuous lute solos from the same group of composers.

In a CD of 19 tracks, it is difficult to single out the most emotive compositions, but Macoboy’s interpretation of Pesenti’s Aime, ch’io moro has a languorous, almost haunting, quality to it which is reminiscent of the greatest Italian madrigalists of the later stages of the Renaissance. It is difficult from this CD to imagine that these Italian composers were somehow overshadowed by their colleagues elsewhere in Europe. Poignantly, Ben mi credea passar mio tempo homai is not only pensive and moving because of its music but it benefits from the poetry of a certain Petrarch – and was still overlooked by contemporary audiences!

Then there is the lute playing. While it is once again difficult to select a personal favourite from these pieces, Da Milano’s Fantasia 42 has a soothing and intricate quality ably brought out by Meunier. But this CD is really about its soprano. For the full range and power of Macoboy’s singing skills, listen to Bartolomeo Tromboncino’s Per dolor me bagno il viso, with its plaintive demands on both singer and instrumentalist.

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02 Beethoven LeonoreBeethoven – Leonore (original 1805 version)
Nathalie Paulin; Jean-Michel Richer; Opera Lafayette; Ryan Brown
Naxos 2.110674 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110674)

Staging the very first (1805) version of Beethoven’s only opera, then still referred to as Leonore, begs some questions: Why now, in its three-act format, when the maestro himself revised it and reduced it to two-acts, when Leonore failed twice before finally getting the recognition it deserved in 1814 and that as a considerably revamped Fidelio?

You will find several answers in the meticulously detailed booklet notes by Nizam Kettaneh, co-executive producer of this performance. A more compelling historical reason comes from Beethoven himself who, while forever wrestling with a political-philosophical credo, quite fittingly continued to refer to the opera using its full, preferred, name: Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe. The original production may also have been shortened for political and commercial rather than purely artistic reasons; after all, it first played to a French audience which reportedly didn’t care much for German opera. Thus Beethoven may have reacted by making the 19th-century version of what composers today might call a “radio-friendly edit.” 

And then there’s this compelling performance itself. At the hands of Opera Lafayette, Leonore flares to life as if for the first time. Ryan Brown conducts the opera with a muscular fervour to proclaim the youthfulness of Beethoven’s masterpiece. Jean-Michel Richer’s Florestan is splendid and Nathalie Paulin’s Leonore/Fidelio is breathtaking. The prisoner’s chorus is soul-stirring. Best of all, the themes of unselfish love, loyalty, courage, sacrifice and heroic endurance all shine brilliantly throughout.

03 Schuberts WomenSchubert’s Women
Klaudia Tandl; Gabriele Jacoby; Niall Kinsella
Gramola 99223 (gramola.at)

In his songs, Schubert reveals uncanny empathy for women – not just for the Romantic ideal of the eternal feminine, but for authentic, individual women. Irish pianist Niall Kinsella has put together this program of songs to feature some of those complex women Schubert was drawn to, from Goethe’s Gretchen and Mignon to Kosegarten’s Louisa and Schiller’s Thekla.  Austrian mezzo-soprano Klaudia Tandl voices their thoughts and feelings with both tenderness and drama. Austrian actor Gabriele Jacoby’s recitations of texts are rich with colour and insight, though it can be jarring to encounter them interspersed among the songs.

In the narrative songs, Tandl uses her considerable expressive powers to convey the vivid atmosphere Schubert evokes. Goethe’s ballad Der Fischer tells of a seductive water nymph who lures a fisherman into her deadly waters. Tandl captures the jaunty but chilling atmosphere, while Kinsella delves into Schubert’s endlessly inventive images of swelling, surging water.

But Tandl is at her most moving when Schubert is directly describing the characters’ own suffering and joys in the first person. In Die junge Nonne, a young nun describes the turbulent longings which lead her to rapturous visions of the divine. Kinsella conjures up storms and church bells, while Tandl achieves sublimity with the closing repeated “Alleluia.”

Tandl and Kinsella’s perspective is so fresh and fruitful; I’m looking forward to hearing more of Schubert’s women-focused songs from them – especially the 12 songs he set to texts by women poets.

04 Tristan und IsoldeWagner – Tristan und Isolde
Juyeon Song; Roy Cornelius Smith; Ostrava Opera Men’s Chorus; Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra; Robert Reimer
Navona Records nv6321 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6321)

It’s a plausible idea to remove opera from the opera house to the concert stage. It makes it more accessible to the public, much less expensive and musically just as satisfying. (I recall seeing Nabucco for the first time in New York, Carnegie Hall, with Tito Gobbi and Elena Suliotis in concert form and still treasure the memory). In this instance, Tristan und Isolde was performed in concert under the aegis of the Claude Heater Foundation of San Francisco at the Penderecki Cultural Center in Poland with the forces noted above. And what a performance! Thanks to Facebook I actually saw excerpts from it on a wide stage with the full symphony orchestra and soloists all at the same level and a large screen behind with projected images following the mood of each scene.

The result is this audio recording with young singers, largely unknown, and a wonderful orchestra from the nearby Czech Republic enthusiastically and passionately conducted by Robert Reimer, an up-and-coming young German conductor, well known and already very successful in Europe.

Tristan was sung by American heldentenor Roy Cornelius Smith with amazing vocal power and total emotional involvement shaping the difficult, strenuous role. Isolde is a big surprise: largely unknown Korean dramatic soprano Juyeon Song, a petite figure but what a voice! A vocal powerhouse with secure high notes; a strong and passionate Isolde. Just listen to her angry outbursts of indignation in the first act, the impatient longing when awaiting Tristan for their secret tryst, the sheer ecstasy of their first embrace and that wonderful love duet with waves of passion that never wants to end! South African mezzo, Tamara Gallo, a thoroughly convincing Brangäne, shines in her soliloquy warning the lovers of the coming danger, and American basso John Paul Huckle as King Marke is perfect as the wronged husband. Excellent spacious sound favours the singers. An impressive new issue, highly recommended.

05 Alex EddingtonA Present from a Small Distant World: Vocal Music by Alex Eddington
Kristin Mueller-Heaslip; Daniel Ramjattan; Jennifer Tran; Joseph Ferretti; Elaine Lau; Alex Eddington
Redshift Records TK483 (alexeddington.com)

Toronto composer Alex Eddington made a splash in 2004, winning a SOCAN Award for his cheekily titled monodrama Death to the Butterfly Dictator! (libretto by Kristin Mueller-Heaslip). His ambitious vocal-focused debut album A Present from a Small Distant World is as unorthodox and in some ways just as cheeky. 

Eddington’s work embraces orchestral and choral music to electroacoustics, on the way adding period instruments and steel pan ensemble to his catalogue. And like much of Eddington’s oeuvre A Present from a Small Distant World can certainly be branded eclectic. It consists of six art songs composed between 2008 and 2020 authoritatively sung by soprano Mueller-Heaslip, plus three aphoristic acoustic guitar-centred interludes, sensitively played by Daniel Ramjattan, disrupted by spacey, Morse coded electronics by Eddington.

One of the album’s leitmotifs is interstellar communication. Its inspiration is revealed in the title track where Mueller-Heaslip sings part of Jimmy Carter’s 1977 speech that launched the Voyager spacecraft. Onboard was the Golden Record, a phonographic metal disc with a cross-section of the words, images and music of humanity. Explains Eddington, “… there is something wonderful about sending greetings hurtling outward,” even though chances they will be intercepted are slim.

The last track, INTERSTELLAR, To the Makers of Music (text: inscribed by hand on the abovementioned Golden Record) neatly brings together all the elements previously presented – (multi-tracked) vocals, guitar and electronics – atmospherically summing up Eddington’s vision of music drifting through time and space toward an unseen audience.

06 LITANIESNick Cave; Nicholas Lens – L.I.T.A.N.I.E.S
Various Artists
Deutsche Grammophon 483 9745 (deutschegrammophon.com/en)

Dark, intimate and beautiful – the music on this album flows like the fragmented pieces of night’s shadows in search of belonging to a world that is no more. Featuring four voices and an 11-piece instrumental ensemble, this chamber opera is simply breathtaking. There are no big arias here and no extravagant operatic gestures; instead, the melodies are unpretentious and the music is dreamy, almost trancelike, creating a self-enclosed world of small wonders. 

Belgian composer Nicholas Lens and Australian rock icon Nick Cave’s second opera collaboration unfolded during the lockdown in 2020. The album was recorded in Lens’ home studio where he and his daughter, Clara-Lane Lens (who accidentally found herself in Brussels during the lockdown), stepped into the singing roles, along with fabulous Denzil Delaere and Claron McFadden. The understated voices added a beautiful and real vulnerability to both the music and lyrics. Cave’s libretto cuts through the tonal layers like a well-honed knife; his poetry is both haunting and relentless in its chase of divine recognition for humankind. The sparsity of the music proved to be advantageous in this opera – every note, every phrase, every word, has a visible meaning. From the opening Litany of Divine Absence, to the gorgeous violin lines in Litany of the First Encounter and Litany of Godly Love, to the cinematic Litany of Divine Presence, the 12 movements unravel stories of the human condition.

07 Rising The CrossingRising w/The Crossing
The Crossing; Donald Nally
New Focus Recordings FCR281 (newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/?artist=11549)

Living in the throes of a raging global pandemic we all experience our “new normal” differently. If ever we could imagine a soundtrack that unites us through the silent roar of isolation it would be one that reflects both the hopelessness of it all as well as the uplifting energy of hope itself. With its soul-stirring music, Rising w/ The Crossing certainly qualifies to provide powerful anthems for our self-isolating sensibilities. 

The choral ensemble conducted by Donald Nally brings uniquely thoughtful and penetrating insight to music by Joby Talbot, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Dieterich Buxtehude, Paul Fowler, Alex Berko, Ted Hearne and Santa Ratniece; works that follow in the wake of David Lang’s powerfully prescient protect yourself from infection, the text of which was inspired by instructions that rose out of the last pandemic: the Spanish flu. 

The sense of awe and wonder which hovers over this entire recital is particularly close-focused in Lang’s work. It is echoed in the ever-shifting heartbeat of the wonderfully supple voices of the singers who make up The Crossing; voices that ceaselessly and eloquently trace the melodies of other stellar miniatures too. 

Much of the music is performed a cappella and this gives the works in question a wonderfully spectral quality. This is certainly true of Hearne’s 2016 work What it might say. But equally, it is Buxtehude’s Baroque-period works featuring the Quicksilver ensemble that enliven the elusive moments of this ethereal music’s whispered breath.

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08 Ruders 13 ChildPoul Ruders – The Thirteenth Child
Soloists; Odense Symfoniorkester; Bridge Academy Singers; David Starobin; Benjamin Shwartz
Bridge Records 9527 (bridgerecords.com)

The Thirteenth Child is an opera in two acts by Danish composer Poul Ruders (The Handmaid’s Tale) with a libretto by Becky and David Starobin. Performed by a large cast of excellent soloist singers, the Odense Symfoniorkester and the Bridge Academy Singers, the opera is based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, The Twelve Brothers.

The Thirteenth Child follows Princess Lyra’s quest to find her 12 exiled brothers and bring them home to save the kingdom. The singers are all excellent and their vocal abilities are displayed throughout the opera via the modern and challenging parts written for them, often covering extreme tessitura on both sides of their vocal range. This is especially evident in the several falsetto effects sung by the two bass-baritones. 

The opera is fast paced and action packed with spells and adventures of good versus evil mixed in with tragedy and triumph. The cast of principals is large and the opera runs a short 77 minutes. As a result, the characters are not as developed as they could be and this makes meaningful audience engagement challenging. It may be that adding a third act could not only resolve this but would also allow for the story to be modernized and for Ruders to showcase more of his capable writing as he does for Princess Lyra and her suitor Frederic.

Commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera and the Odense Symfoniorkester, The Thirteenth Child was recorded in Denmark and New York. It was premiered in Santa Fe, July 2019.

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09 CooperstownCooperstown – Jazz Opera in Nine Innings
Daniel Montenegro; Carin Gilfry; Rod Gilfry; Daniel Favela; Julie Adams; Band; Sasha Matson
Albany Records TROY1848 (albanyrecords.com)

Cooperstown: Jazz Opera in Nine Innings, is scored for a 1950s-style jazz quintet and five singers. The composer is Sasha Matson with libretto by Mark Miller, inspired by A. Bartlett Giamatti’s essay The Green Fields of the Mind. Although this story takes place at the ballpark, it features all of the elements of a great opera: Angel, from impoverished Santo Domingo and newly raised to the majors as a pitcher, falls in love with Lilly from the Upper East Side. Undermining their romance is Marvin, the aging pro catcher and Jan, the jealous sports agent in love with Angel. The dual love of baseball and romantic love stories unfolds as the team manager, Dutch, attempts to manage the relationship struggles to focus on winning games. 

In the liner notes Matson describes in detail the recording process that allowed his team to capture sounds reminiscent of the original Blue Note recordings (microphone choices, specific recording and mixing equipment). The result is an outstanding listening experience: the sounds are rich and full but the music is as close and detailed as it would be in an intimate luscious jazz lounge. The classically trained voices are gorgeous and skillfully blend in with the jazz quintet. Each scene (inning) is bookended by a short and seamless transition in the form of an instrumental jazz chart played with impressive skills by musicians of the jazz quintet. Cooperstown might perhaps be more at home on a theatrical stage than at the opera house but it is a top-shelf musical experience.

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