03 DonizettiDonizetti – Il Castello di Kenilworth
Pratt; Remigio; Anduaga; Pop; Orchestra/Coro Donizetti Opera; Riccardo Frizza
Dynamic 37834 (naxosdirect.com)

A double rarity: an all-but-forgotten opera and a non-updated production – the Tudor-era costumes actually reflect the period of the opera’s events. Andrea Leone Totolla’s libretto, derived from Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth, pits the Earl of Leicester’s love for his secret wife, Amelia, against his ambition to gain the throne by exploiting Queen Elizabeth’s love for him. When Elizabeth arrives at his castle, Leicester has his squire, Warney, confine Amelia in a remote room. Warney professes his love for Amelia; spurned, he plots her death.

Leicester’s and Warney’s separate schemes begin to unravel when Amelia manages to escape and encounters Elizabeth (foreshadowing the confrontation of Mary and Elizabeth in Maria Stuarda). All four principals, together, then express their anguish at the sudden turn of events. Unlike Scott’s novel, in which Warney kills Amelia, and unlike Donizetti’s other Tudor operas, this one eventually ends happily. Warney’s murder attempt is foiled; Leicester’s love for Amelia leads him to confess his deception to Elizabeth; she forgives him and blesses his marriage.

This production from the 2018 Donizetti Festival in Bergamo, Donizetti’s home town, features a bare-bones set, minimal props and no scenic backdrops, all on a postage-stamp-sized stage. What makes it very worth watching is Donizetti’s melody-drenched, rhythmically energized score, ably sung by sopranos Jessica Pratt (Elizabeth) and Carmela Remigio (Amelia), and tenors Xabier Anduago (Leicester) and Stefan Pop (Warney). The Donizetti Opera Chorus and Orchestra are energized, too; bravo to conductor Riccardo Frizza.

04 As OneLaura Kaminsky – As One
Sasha Cooke; Kelly Markgraf; Fry Street Quartet
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0127 (brightshiny.ninja)

In the five years since As One was premiered, it has been performed, apparently, more frequently than any other new opera in North America (though it has yet to reach Toronto). No surprise there, judging by this recording. For one thing, it’s timely, following the journey of a young woman, Hannah, as she transitions from male to female. It’s concise, just 75 minutes long. The cast is minimal – two singers, a string quartet and a conductor. The music is alluring, if unprovocative, ranging from lyrical to sharp-edged, and the libretto is at once poetic and hard-hitting.

The role of Hannah is split between Hannah before, a baritone, and Hannah after, a mezzo-soprano. Both sing throughout, an inspired twist which allows composer Laura Kaminsky and librettists Kimberly Reed (whose real-life story this is) and Mark Campbell to present Hannah’s transition as an ongoing process.

This recording, the first of the complete opera, assembles the terrific musicians from the original production. Kelly Markgraff is endearingly open-hearted as Hannah before, and Sasha Cooke makes a powerfully convincing Hannah after. The Fry Street Quartet responds with irresistible immediacy to Hannah’s fraught challenges. Conductor Steven Osgood effectively balances Hannah’s hard-won moments of tranquility with dramatic urgency.

As One is a deeply moving tale of one rather extraordinary transgender woman’s complicated path to self-discovery, yet its appeal is universal. It will surely resonate profoundly with anyone who has ever grappled with who they are and where they belong.

05 VireoVireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser – An opera by Lisa Bielawa
Various Artists; Lisa Bielawa
Orange Mountain Music OMM7017 (orangemountainmusic.com)

Composer Lisa Bielawa conceived the idea of the young teenage heroine Vireo, who is lost in the world of visionaries, witch hunters, psychiatrists and artists in her auditory and visual hallucinations. Set to the libretto by Erik Ehn, the 12-episode, over-two-hour opera directed by Charles Otte was originally made for television and online viewing. There is no stage here – sets include forests, indoors, a monastery, and even the Alcatraz Prison. The singers and musicians share the action locations equally, all shot by a single camera as the opera weaves almost cryptically from 16th-century-France witchcraft all the way to the present day.

Bielawa’s dense score includes tension-building interval repetitions, nods to minimalism, descending chromatic lines, percussion effects, piano chords and even touches of familiar children’s songs. The Kronos Quartet sets the opening musical stage with violin solo to full quartet to the San Francisco Girls Chorus singing to the clear, beautiful voice of Rowen Sabala as Vireo. Sabala was herself still a teenager performing in this production and her work is amazing, from her troubled gyrations and twitches, interchanges between her mother (Maria Lazarova), Doctor (Gregory Purnhagen), teenage cohort Caroline (Emma MczKenzie), and real/imaginary witches. Though too numerous to mention, all the singers and musicians perform and look convincing.

Highlights include piano clunks as the Doctor moves his scary, lengthy medicinal needle towards Vireo; the piccolo making bird sounds sets the stage as the action moves back in time in Beginner: The Cow Song segment, though distressing, breaks into humour as a hilarious horn band performs in front of a cow while the others grab a grilled meal. Up to nine identical frames at once visually build the girls’ tensions in Boarding School. Sharp bright and dark lighting, atonal music, and hurdy-gurdy solo in Alcatraz build tension and grief. Orchestra members dressed in lab coats and characters in circus costumes fuel the busy Circus, featuring a successful stereotypical Queen-of-Sweden operatic performance by Deborah Voigt until the calming final solo departure of Vireo into the forest in My Name is Vireo.

The libretto is shown on the DVD yet the clear CD production makes understanding words with music manageable. Whether one watches the DVD film or listens to the CD, the detailed intense magic of music, sound, and visuals are uniquely compelling, troubling and entertaining! Everyone involved in the production and performances deserves a standing ovation.

01 Winterreise SlySchubert – Winterreise
Philippe Sly; Le Chimera Project
Analekta AN 2 9138 (analekta.com/en)

In the course of Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey), a stranger wanders out of a hostile town in nasty weather. His heart has been broken, and he’s desperately miserable. While this landmark song cycle represents the spirit of Romanticism, it does feel achingly modern.

These 24 songs have long inspired various arrangements. But why a klezmer Winterreise? Both Wilhelm Müller’s poems and Schubert’s music, like klezmer, have roots in folk song. And the cultural connections between Schubert’s wanderer and the wanderer of Eastern European Jewish-Romani traditions run deep.

Though Le Chimera Project’s adaption is far tamer than, say, Hans Zender’s radical revision, it goes further than Normand Forget’s sensitive transcription. The voice part remains untouched, but the piano accompaniment, now arranged for a typical klezmer ensemble – clarinet, violin, trombone and accordion – takes a step outside the classical tradition. The spirited musicians of Le Chimera Project pull off the plaintive tremolos and trills, jazzy syncopations and bent notes, and stylish interpolations, with seamless vitality.

Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly is enthralling, right through to the harrowing final song, Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-gurdy Man), when the wanderer, with Sly accompanying himself on a hurdy-gurdy, contemplates going off to join an itinerant hurdy-gurdy player. When Schubert’s opening song Gute Nacht (Good Night) is revisited at the very end of this daring – and rewarding (even without texts and translations being included) – recording, it gains new meaning here, especially with the shattering impact of Sly’s now hollowed-out, desperate voice.

02 Puccini ToscaPuccini – Tosca
Harteros; Antonenko; Tézier; Mastroni; Staatskapelle Dresden; Christian Thielemann
Cmajor 748308 (naxosdirect.com)

In addition to considering voices, now with video versions available, we may, and usually do, evaluate the sets and the general stage business. Sometimes the staging pleases, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it amuses. I remember a video of a CBC black and white production of the second act with Renata Tebaldi and Louis Quilico. It was credible until Tosca snatches an untapered, round-nosed kitchen knife to do the deed. It was patently obvious to all of us that this knife certainly was not made to penetrate anything. That was the part we each remembered.

This new production is different from all the others that I have seen in some significant ways, all without modifying or interfering with the existing texts, spoken or sung. But actions, it seems, speak louder than words! In the second act as the beautifully performed scene closes and Tosca has left the room, we see Scarpia, who should be lying dead, stir and drag himself across the floor. In the third act we see a group of teenage boys awakening and dressing and then, instead of a military firing squad, five of these blue-shirted boys shoot Cavaradossi with revolvers. More stage business and when Tosca would traditionally run and jump, the wounded, lurching Scarpia arrives with his men; Tosca shoots him and he, now dying, shoots her dead.  

The lead singers are perfectly matched. Soprano Anja Harteros is an impressive Tosca with her glorious voice and glowing characterization. She is matched in every respect by Aleksandrs Antonenko as Cavaradossi. Ludovic Tézier is suaver than the usual merciless Scarpia making him even more dangerous. Under Thielemann, the orchestra is right there supporting the singers and heightening the action. The costume and set designers for this 2018 Salzburg Easter Festival performance deserve a lot of credit for putting the cast in the right place. Kudos down the line for the other cast members of this self-recommending performance.

03 Rossini OryRossini – Le Comte Ory
Talbot; Fuchs; Arquez; Hubeaux; Les éléments; Orchestre des Champs-Élysées; Louis Langrée
Cmajor 747408 (naxosdirect.com)

Rossini’s two-act Le Comte Ory was inspired by a medieval ballad in which knights end up seducing nuns. In the one-act version offered to Rossini by librettist Eugène Scribe, the knight dresses as a nun to seduce a countess. Rossini is known to have requested that another (first) act be added for which he composed delightful arias, ensembles and choruses, making his last comic opera an immense success.

In this version of the opera, Denis Podalydès’ staging combines period settings with contemporary mise-en-scène. The DVD of the staging, directed by Vincent Massip, captures the ambitious production with great clarity and dramatic effect. The cinematography is highly evocative; in keeping with Rossini’s vaunted arias which are voiced with uncommon mastery by – among others – the tenor Philippe Talbot, playing the rakish Le Comte Ory, soprano Julie Fuchs (as La Comtesse), mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez (as the count’s page Isolier), Jean-Sébastian Bou (as Raimbaud, the count’s friend).

The lead singers generate a strong sense of ensemble with Talbot’s Le Comte and Fuchs’ La Comtesse making the most of their comic opportunities. It is Fuchs who charms with a heady coloratura, more honeyed tones and a dramatic weight, tempered by comic timing. The quality of the singing is matched in every way with the acting. The staging is enormously accomplished and the excellent production values show that nothing was spared in an effort to bring this elaborate production to fruition.

01 Renmen LamentsRenmen Laments
Renaissance Men; Eric Christopher Perry
Navona Records nv6210 (navonarecords.com) 

RenMen, short for the Renaissance Men, have teamed with Navona Records to release Renmen Laments, a beautiful reimagining of the music of such composers as Pablo Casals and Darius Milhaud, along with the ensemble’s continued relationship with the great contemporary American choral composer Daniel E. Gawthrop, that easily evokes an otherworldly ethereal beauty in celebration of the adult male voice. Beautifully recorded at the Westminster Presbyterian church in Buffalo, New York the ten-piece vocal group, formed in 2014, offers up another fine collection of music that demonstrates why they are a welcome addition to the already busy choral music scene in Boston, and a satisfying collection of new work for choral music fans worldwide.

On Laments, the group is authentically and expertly able to bring a Renaissance vocal approach and sensibility to the wide swath of music presented here, leaping countries of origin, historical timelines and style. Finding artistic simpatico with American composers Gawthrop and the fellow Massachusetts-based musician Patricia Van Ness, the Renmen have worked, and succeeded, at bringing what some may view as a historically antiquated music into cultural relevance for 21st-century audiences. With this victory, coupled with what I hope is the widespread dissemination power of a new record company and a busy calendar of public concert engagements in 2019, the group holds the promise to help Renaissance music have its own renaissance in the foreseeable future. Laments is a highly recommended recording for enthusiasts of vocal music, choral work and the Renaissance more generally.

02 Dernier SorcierPauline García Viardot – Le Dernier Sorcier
Soloists; Manhattan Girls Chorus; Trudie Styler
Bridge Records 9515 (bridgerecords.com)

The French/Spanish mezzo-soprano, composer, and pedagogue Pauline García Viardot composed Le Dernier Sorcier (The Last Sorcerer) in collaboration with her partner, Russian novelist/librettist Ivan Turgenev. After its 1867 premiere, the original manuscript of this two-act chamber opera, scored for solo voices, treble chorus and piano, was held in a private collection until the Harvard University Houghton Library recently acquired it and allowed this world premiere recording.

The libretto tells the story of Krakamiche, (bass-baritone Eric Owens), a once powerful sorcerer who has fallen on hard times after upsetting the lives of the fairies, (sung brightly by the Manhattan Girls Chorus), who live in the forest. The love story is between his daughter Stella (soprano Camille Zamora) and the lovelorn Prince Lelio (mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala). Other characters round out the story. The great thing is that though sung in French (with liner notes both in French and English translation), actress Trudie Styler as the narrator recites in English between sung moments.

This entertaining, funny, toe-tapping, quasi-cliché opera merits dancing and singing along. The music is so very in the style of the operas of the day, with such classic sounds as alternating loud and soft volumes, piano accompaniment marching, waltz and lyrical lines, vocals soaring high and low. Pianist Myra Huang supports all the superb singers with clear playing.

Totally unexpected fun makes this a recording to lift one’s spirits!

03 Benjamin LessonsGeorge Benjamin – Lessons in Love and Violence
Stéphane Degout; Barbara Hannigan; Gyula Orendt; Peter Hoare; Samuel Boden; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; George Benjamin
Opus Arte OA 1221 D (naxosdirect.com)

It’s been four years since the Toronto Symphony gave an unforgettable concert performance of British composer George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin. It featured the dynamic Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, who subsequently premiered Benjamin’s gripping new opera, Lessons in Love and Violence in this production from the Royal Opera House two years ago.

Playwright Martin Crimp uses Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan play Edward II, along with historic records, to recount the messy downfall of the 14th-century British King, who ruled neither wisely nor well. Director Katie Mitchell pulls off some innovative moves to shape an exciting drama from Benjamin’s gorgeous, evocative music, Crimp’s poetic text and Vicki Mortimer’s stylish modern sets and costumes. The resourceful but unobtrusive camerawork from video director Margaret Williams ensures a sense of immediacy, especially in the use of imaginative overhead shots, soft focus, and close-ups.

As riveting an actor as singer, Hannigan provides the opera’s most chilling moments as Isabel, the alluring, raging Queen. There are vivid performances from Peter Hoare as Mortimer, Isabel’s lover and the King’s nemesis, Samuel Boden as the son, Ocean Barrington-Cook as the daughter (extraordinary in a non-singing role), and Canadian mezzo Krisztina Szabó, who also sang in that TSO performance, as a courtier. But the most moving passages belong to the two splendid baritones, Stéphane Degout as the King and Gyula Orendt as his lover Gaveston, especially in their impassioned duets.

This is a timely work – and all the more eloquently rich for that. While it’s the King’s blind infatuation that brings him down, the problem isn’t that he is gay. It isn’t even that he is having an affair. The problem is that he has abused his power by neglecting his family and his people, lavishing all his attention and resources on Gaveston. Yet it’s only after the King rejects Isabel that she turns on him. By the time their children, who have been forced to witness the violent power plays that ensue, manage to seize the power for themselves, they are able to show that they have learned their lessons only too well.

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