05 OgloudoglouOgloudoglou – Vocal masterpieces of the Experimental Generation 1960-1990
Sara Stowe
metier msv 28593 (divineartrecords.com)

English soprano Sara Stowe is a versatile and inventive musician with repertoire ranging from contemporary concert music to medieval song. A prize-winning harpsichordist and pianist at the start of her career, she then decided to learn 20th-century vocal music in Italy. One of her specialties is the songs of the outsider composer, Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), whose reputation leapt to international prominence only at the end of his life.

Ogloudoglou, titled after the song by the same name by Scelsi, is a skillfully curated album focused tightly on 11 art songs from 1960 to 1990 by what Stowe calls “the experimental generation.” She renders boundary-stretching songs by Italian composers Scelsi, Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, Niccoló Castiglioni and Sylvano Bussotti, as well as one each by the Argentine-German Mauricio Kagel and Americans John Cage and Morton Feldman. And experiment they did.

Outstanding tracks for me are Nono’s cinematic, epic La Fabbrica Illuminata for voice and tape, and the more concise, though perhaps even more musically compelling, Sequenza III by Berio. The latter is beautifully rendered by Stowe – and I’ve heard Cathy Berberian, for whom it was composed, perform it live.

Breathtakingly iconoclastic, perhaps even shocking when brand new, this tough song repertoire is little programmed today, at least in Canada. Stowe thus does us a favour, presenting her recital of songs by seminal later-generation high modernists with virtuoso verve. She committedly follows their demanding performance instructions and groundbreaking aesthetics, by the end winning over those who care to listen with her exhilarating musicality.

06 Sanctuary RoadPaul Moravec – Sanctuary Road
Soloists; Oratorio Society of New York Chorus and Orchestra; Kent Tritle
Naxos 8.559884 (naxosdirect.com) 

Stories of the plight of the African slave in the US have echoed in the secrecy of the Underground Railroad for hundreds of years, the best of them recounted in prose, poetry and, somewhat recently, also in film. Musical stories – sung in the style of classic and modern blues and extended narrative jazz compositions – have also been heard. However, the operatic stage with live characters offers a distinctly different canvas where some of the most uplifting stories of the escape from slavery have been told.

In this most recent one, Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell have come together as musician and librettist in Sanctuary Road, to recreate epic narratives of William Still’s book The Underground Railroad. This is a powerful work, layered with meaning, rich in detail, tragedy and triumph and, above all, cathartic pathos. All of this takes more than the stories themselves. It takes a fabulous cast, which Moravec and Campbell have found in the singers and musicians of the Oratorio Society of New York Chorus and Orchestra directed by Kent Tritle.

On Sanctuary Road Still’s narratives rise to a rarefied realm thanks to compelling performances by its soloists. Soprano Laquita Mitchell is radiant, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis is mesmerizing, and tenor Joshua Blue, baritone Malcolm J. Merriweather and bass-baritone Dashon Burton are spellbinding. Each of the soloists palpably evokes the suffering and joy of those who escaped to freedom from the American South into Canada.

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.

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