08 Mercadante FrancescaSaverio Mercadante – Francesca da Rimini (Pier Luigi Pizzi, direction; Gheorghe Iancu, choreography)
Soloists; Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia; Fabio Luisi
Dynamic 37753

Saverio Mercadante composed some 60 operas, but unlike his contemporaries Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, he’s completely unrepresented in today’s active repertoire. Francesca da Rimini wasn’t even performed until this world-premiere production at the 2016 Valle d’Itria Festival.

The ill-fated 13th-century adulterous lovers, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, have been depicted in Dante’s Inferno and many operas, notably by Zandonai and Rachmaninoff. Historically, Lanciotto Malatesta killed his wife and brother upon discovering them in flagrante. In Mercadante’s version, Lanciotto instead sentences them to death. Francesca’s father, Guido, rescues them but when Lanciotto tracks them down, they commit suicide.

There’s some lovely music here, particularly Francesca’s Act One aria recalling past pleasures, and her love duet with Paolo, both episodes enhanced by prominent harp arpeggios. Soprano Leonor Bonilla (Francesca), mezzo Aya Wazikono (Paolo) and tenor Merto Süngü (Lanciotto) are dramatically convincing while negotiating the score’s coloratura demands. Bass Antonio Di Matteo adds forceful stature as Guido.

A grey architectural backdrop serves as a wall of the palace, the dungeon and the convent where the lovers die. Wind-blown, flowing robes, gowns and curtains create incessant stage movement. Conductor Luisi keeps the music moving as well, but Francesca still takes over three hours to unfold. What the booklet notes call “Mercadante’s propensity to a slower theatrical pace” likely contributed to posterity’s neglect of his operas. There’s enough good music, though, to make Francesca worth watching and pique curiosity about Mercadante’s many other forgotten works.

09 Rigletto Traviata ToscaAndrea Andermann presents 3 Live Films: Rigoletto in Mantua; La Traviata in Paris; Tosca in Rome
Various Artists; Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale RAI; Zubin Mehta
Rada Film Production 2.110374-77

Firstly a large marquee credit must go to Andrea Andermann who produced these three made-for-television films of Verdi’s Rigoletto and La Traviata, and Puccini’s Tosca. Dreaming big with an uncompromising attention to detail Andermann brought together the finest production team, found classic locales and a stellar cast featuring Placido Domingo, Julia Novikova, Eteri Gvazava, Catherine Malfitano, and of course, the great Zubin Mehta to conduct and a legend, Vittorio Storaro to film it all. Still, one must also confess to wondering how on earth the producer, and directors Marco Bellocchio (Rigoletto) and G.P. Griffi (Traviata and Tosca) were going to make the grandeur of design and scale work for the small screen. More than anything the solution came in the form and miracle of Storaro for it is the cinematographer who made the grandeur of locations look equally grand for television – and therefore DVD as well. His use of lighting to bring lifelike proportion to characters on screen was no less extraordinary as was his ability to make long shots and big close-ups leap out at you.

You absolutely cannot go wrong with perfect scores and librettos in the hands of Mehta, who brought all of this to life aided and abetted by superb (film) direction, casting and the creation of atmosphere so transcendent that it felt as if you had been teleported to the Italy of a time long gone by. And then there was the conjuring of Verdi in the Mantua of Rigoletto, and the Paris of the real Marie Duplessis, the fallen woman Violetta Valery of La Traviata.

In both cases the intense melodrama of Verdi’s works becomes the very epitome of the word “operatic” as he addresses themes of love, betrayal, violence, power and death. Above all there is his genius for matching unforgettable melodies to moments of high drama that sustains his name even today. Of course there seems no one better suited than Domingo to play Rigoletto despite having to sing well below his preferred tenor range, for Verdi cast his principal character here as a baritone. Domingo pulls it off with aplomb. Still he is almost completely upstaged by the pristine soprano of Novikova. A more perfect Gilda there will not be in this lifetime nor is there likely to be a La donna è mobile as devastatingly wonderful as Vittorio Grigolo’s Duke of Mantua.

The music of La Traviata cannot be faulted although it flopped at its Venice premiere on March 6, 1853. And yet the opera – based on the life of Marie Duplessis, written by Alexander Dumas fils in La Dame aux Camélias (1852), grew to become one of the world’s favourite operas. Griffi’s film is just as lyrical and dramatic as the arias, including opera’s most famous brindisi, Libiamo ne’ lieti calici, sung here by José Cura (Alfredo Germont), Violetta’s lover. The extended duet between Violetta and Giorgio Germont and Violetta’s swooning last testament are perfectly nailed by Rolando Panerai and Eteri Gvazava.

Another casting coup appears in the form of Catherine Malfitano who plays the lead in Puccini’s memorable opera and appears to be as inspirational to Griffi in the role of Tosca as Sarah Bernhardt was said to have been for Puccini himself. Her fiery temperament that powers Act II as Tosca confronts Il Barone Scarpia (Ruggero Raimondi) as each uses sex as a weapon until Scarpia dies at her feet is the high point of the opera. Keeping pace with the action, Puccini’s orchestration is at its stormiest forever after as passion is substituted for poetry.

10 Wagner LiebesverbotWagner – Das Liebesverbot
Soloists; Chorus & Orchestra of the Teatro Real; Ivor Bolton
Opus Arte OA 1191 D

Finding a decent position as Kapellmeister with a provincial opera house, 20-year-old Wagner took Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure as a source to write an opera, his second, where a tyrant tried to reform society by banning all fun and lovemaking, but ended up made a fool by a clever, beautiful woman. Das Liebesverbot (Forbidden Love) did get performed in Magdeburg and predictably failed disastrously and was buried for some 150 years, but now rediscovered comes to us from Spain’s Teatro Real, Madrid, in this immensely entertaining, creative and gorgeously colourful show you’ll love. Failure aside, the action is quick-moving, full of surprises and humour, the music full of Italian charm and melody, lively rhythms and all very un-Wagner. We with 20/20 hindsight will be amazed at the young fellow’s uncanny feel for theatre, his writing for voices and ensembles, his orchestrating skill and occasional outcroppings of genius.

Brilliantly directed by Kaspar Holten with an ingenious multilevel set lit with neon lights, stairs, hidden corridors and cavernous spaces that can become a noisy bar in one moment and a nunnery or a prison the next, a young, wholesome, talented cast propelled by conductor Ivor Bolton who, like an energized bunny, moves the whole rip-roaring show like a steamroller. I am gratified by seeing leading lady Manuela Uhl again with her gorgeous and powerful high soprano towering above the cast, but Christopher Maltman as Friedrich the hypocritical tyrant, principal baritone (Cardiff’s Singer of the Year), is a worthy foil. Even the lesser roles are all excellent: Peter Lodahl, Ilker Arcayürek – two strong and sensitive tenors who end up winning the girls – plus the hilarious police constable Ante Jerkunica pining after the luscious subretta Maria Hinojosa.

11a Vaughan WilliamsVaughan Williams – Riders to the Sea; Holst – At the Boar’s Head
Soloists; Warsaw Chamber Opera Sinfonietta; Lukasz Borowicz
Dux DUX 1307-1308

This fine CD set is an innovative collaboration between Warsaw’s 2016 Easter Ludwig van Beethoven Festival and the Yale Opera Program directed by Doris Yarick-Cross. Riders to the Sea is convincing and gets even better towards the end. The libretto is an abridgement of the celebrated play (1903) by John Millington Synge who, staying in the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, saw a body wash up on shore. Synge was well-versed in local speech and customs and knew the threat of tremendous storms to fishermen. Vaughan Williams’ chamber opera reflects the story’s pathos and resignation in melancholy, restless parallel chords underpinning the idiomatic rhythm and line of the singers’ dramatic recitative. Compared to the play though, folklore and overall Irishness are much reduced with no Celtic music or Irish accents; the music is early modernist with considerable dissonance. The orchestra is less than classical-sized, but directed by Łucasz Borowicz, the Warsaw Chamber Opera Sinfonietta strings are precise and full-bodied. Woodwinds provide evocative solos and added ocean-wave sounds are effective.

Maurya is the mother of five sons lost to the sea. The tragedy becomes unbearable when Kathleen Reveille sings eloquently of the sixth and last, “Bartley will be lost now,” in her rich, haunting mezzo-soprano backed by the wailing women’s chorus. Soprano Nicole Percifield and mezzo-soprano Evanna Chiew as her daughters, and baritone Gary Griffiths as doomed Bartley, emerge as distinct personalities with clear diction and emotional depth.

11b HolstGustav Holst’s At the Boar’s Head (1924; the Boar’s Head is a pub) arose from the idea of fitting scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV involving the character Sir John Falstaff to English folk-song tunes. To appreciate this one-act comic opera, with material familiar to English audiences then but less so to us now, one must read the libretto beforehand and check out Elizabethan English vocabulary (sometimes bawdy or sexist). Fortunately, Shakespeare’s dialogue and rhetoric are outstanding and with coaching by Yarick-Cross, this cast’s projection and tone are impeccable. As the opera progresses events become more and more tangled as does the music, for example when Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet sing a ballad while young Prince Hal (the future Henry V) delivers an aria with the text of Shakespeare’s sonnet “Devouring time, blunt thou the lion’s paws.” Excitement mounts as Falstaff’s enemies start to appear; I won’t reveal the ending.

Bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu is spirited and sounds wonderful as Falstaff. Tenor Eric Barry is smooth and pure-voiced as Prince Hal, especially in the sonnets which also include When I do count the clock that tells the time. I would have liked to hear more of Hal’s nasty side in his singing. As in the Vaughan Williams, Nicole Percifield as Doll and Kathleen Reveille as the Hostess are convincing dramatically and musically. With roles for bass Pawel Kołodziej and three baritones the production becomes a feast of low male voices, recommended for those interested in Shakespeare and English song.

12 Bernard RandsBernard Rands – Vincent
Soloists; Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra and Opera Chorus; Arthur Fagen
Naxos 8.669037-38

Not every artist’s life can be called operatic. Yet the life of Vincent van Gogh certainly fits the bill. Born into a family dominated by an Old-Testament-God-like father, Theodorus, a preacher, Vincent was destined to fail at everything he tried.

He fails as an art gallery director in Paris. His feverish religiosity first garners him a position as a rural preacher, only to have that zeal undermine the position. His attempts at relationships are pathetic: he tries to marry and “save” a prostitute, only to have his noble intentions rejected. His friendship with Gauguin collapses, leads to (or according to some scholars, not at all) the famous ear-cutting episode. The only constant in van Gogh’s life is the love and support of his younger brother Theo, the source of money, paints and canvasses. Alas, progressive epilepsy and beginnings of mental illness (perhaps with a touch of lead poisoning) defeat Vincent. The final irony is of course the sale of his first paining shortly after his death and then posthumous fame.

This is an epic life, condensed here into two acts of beautifully representative music. The only flaw is the lack of an overture. This element, so brilliantly deployed not so long ago by Bernstein in Candide, is increasingly eschewed by contemporary composers, here to a fine work’s detriment.

13 Romberg Student PrinceSigmund Romberg – The Student Prince
Petersen; Wortig; Blees; Ezenarro; WDR Radio Choir and Orchestra; John Mauceri
CPO 555 058-2

I presume that those of us who enjoy operetta, and others, are familiar with the many deservedly popular songs from The Student Prince, if only from the movie version featuring the singing voice of Mario Lanza shown again recently on TCM. Sigmund Romberg was born in Hungary, studied in Vienna, emigrated to the USA in 1909 and in 1914 became a US citizen. The Student Prince with lyrics by Dorothy Donnelly opened on Broadway in December of 1924 and ran for an astonishing 608 performances, a record number that stood through the 1920s and 1930s. It even outpaced Jerome Kern’s Show Boat that played for 572 performances. The many memorable songs include the Serenade (Overhead the Moon Is Beaming), Deep in My Heart, Golden Days and, of course, the rousing Drinking Song.

The cast of classically trained singers under John Mauceri, who is at home in all genres of music from symphony hall to Broadway, are well-chosen for their roles. There are nine soloists, the leading roles sung and spoken by Dominik Wortig as Karl-Franz, Anja Petersen as Kathie, Frank Blees as Dr. Engel, Arantza Ezenarro as Gretchen and Vincent Schirrmacher as Graf Hugo-Detlef. This winning, naturally balanced recording of the complete score includes some dialogue and the entr’acte music and opening ballet for Act Three.

01 Bach MathausBach – Matthäus Passion
Berliner Philharmoniker; Sir Simon Rattle; Peter Sellars
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR140021

“Everyone knows it’s the great piece of music in the Western tradition,” affirms Peter Sellars with chorus master Simon Halsey in their 51-minute illuminating discussion of the St. Matthew Passion incorporating Sellars’ staging. The two sat on the stage of the Berlin Philharmonie and talked about aspects of the music and this performance. Here are some of Sellars’ thoughtful musings:

“It’s not theatre, it’s a prayer, a meditation, and I invited them to dedicate the opening chorus to someone they care about, to one who is still with them or maybe someone who is not. Someone who’s leaving the world now or someone who needs their help or thoughts or some act of kindness and to make the performance itself to be the prayer that reaches that person whether they are here or gone. Bach wrote the music for us to place everything we hope and care about into the vessel of this music… . This music has been the property of the early music movement for the last 20 to 25 years and it has been hands-off. Now the actual sense of discovery of this group of musicians is quite amazing, it’s the first time they have held these scores… In this pentagonal, 360-degree hall we could do the St. Matthew Passion in Bach’s imaginary spacialization, two choruses face each other, two orchestras face each other in a communal cross where there is no proscenium. We are not standing back and admiring it but opening it and going inside, a communal event. People are not performing out but performing to each other and what you get is a community engaging with itself and working through issues together and talking it out and so equal time is spent playing and singing and listening and being receptive.”

The participants in this performance of April 11, 2010, are Mark Padmore (Evangelist) and Christian Gerhaher (Jesus), together with Camilla Tilling (soprano), Magdalena Kožená (contralto), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor) and Thomas Quasthoff (bass) in the recitatives and arias. Peter Sellars is the stage director and the conductor is Sir Simon Rattle, who has said that this is the best thing he has done.

In every way, this is music-making at the very highest level. It is no longer a matter of listening to and watching a group of singers before an orchestra but a depiction of the events behind the words, raising Bach’s great work to a new level of appreciation and understanding. We look forward to the Sellars, Rattle, Padmore, BPO St. John Passion that follows.

If you acquire a copy of this set, I most heartily suggest that you first absorb the complete conversation between chorus master Halsey and the charismatic Sellars, a bonus on these discs. Their appreciation of what you are about to see and hear, how it was achieved and so much more, sets up the performance. As I write this I am re-watching this conversation just for the pleasure of doing so.

02 Puccini TurandotPuccini – Turandot
Nina Stemme; Maria Agresta; Aleksandrs Antonenko; Coro e Orchestra del Teatro Alla Scala; Riccardo Chailly
Decca 071 3937

Review

Puccini’s regretfully unfinished Turandot was premiered at La Scala in 1926 under the baton of Toscanini. It was a likely choice to celebrate Milano Expo 2015, directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff and conducted with passion and vehemence by La Scala’s new music director, Riccardo Chailly. It also features a new ending composed (in 2001) by modernist Luciano Berio that unfortunately does away with the jubilant and exuberant finale that served well for over 80 years and which one would expect after the cruel and terrifying mayhem of this fairy-tale opera.

The opulent and impressive monumental, symmetrical set suggests a timeless, universal rather than explicitly Chinese milieu with an ever-present bloodthirsty crowd of identical gloomy figures in dark gowns and face masks reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Gorgeous colours shift according to the mood of each scene and the central focus is the Emperor or the Princess elongated into divine proportions.

True to the spirit of La Scala the singers are top quality. Famous Swedish soprano Nina Stemme (Turandot) has phenomenal presence in her black multi-dimensional costume, her voice impressive as it soars over the theatre in the showstopper In questa Reggia. The grand tradition of Pavarotti lives on in Aleksandrs Antonenko’s splendid Nessun Dorma. The riddle scene is a spectacular climax with both tenor and soprano in top form dramatically and vocally. Maria Agresta (Liu) was touching, beautifully singing Tanto amore, segreto with a gossamer-like ethereal vocal line. There is a commedia dell’arte quality in the comedy trio of the three Chinese ministers consistent with the surrealistic feel of this unorthodox but impressive and thought-provoking production.

04 Alma MahlerAlma Mahler – Lieder und Gesange
Catharina Kroeger; Monica Lonero
Brilliant Classics 95469

Alma Schindler was an aspiring composer who, in 1900, became a student of Alexander von Zemlinsky (who also became her lover). In December 1901 she became engaged to Gustav Mahler, who did not allow her to compose. He was the composer of the family; she was to be the loving companion and understanding partner of her husband. Such an attitude seems insensitive and draconian but it would not have been uncommon at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1910, at a time of great personal stress, Mahler relented and helped his wife revise five of her songs for publication. After his death two further publications followed: four songs in 1915, five in 1924.

The performance of the Alma Mahler songs is complemented with Patrizia Montanaro’s Canto di Penelope, in which the protagonist “rejects the role that has been assigned to her by the myth and lays claim to her own autonomy as a woman, a mother and a head of household.” The oblique relevance to the story of Alma is clear.

It is time to move past the notion of Alma Mahler as Gustav’s wife and to listen to the songs in their own right. Several of them are certainly arresting, with surprising harmonies. They are beautifully sung by the soprano Catharina Kroeger. The pianist Monica Lonero is especially fine. I note that in November soprano Barbara Hannigan and pianist Reinbert de Leeuw will perform in Koerner Hall works by members of the Second Viennese School and that the concert will include not only works by Alban Berg and Anton Webern but also songs by Hugo Wolf (a forerunner?) and Alma Mahler. It will be interesting to see how her work will stand up in that context.

Back to top