08 Christina Raphaelle Haldane…let me explain
Christina Raphaëlle Haldane
Redshift Records TK464 (redshiftrecords.org/releases/tk464) 

It would be a travesty if the celebratory and de rigueur noise of multiculturalism should drown out the voice of homegrown Canadiana in poetry and song. But worry no more, for here is an outstanding recording by a breathtaking artist that celebrates just that. Christina Raphaëlle Haldane’s recording of contemporary Canadian compositions …let me explain – a collection of Canadian Art Songs is a marvellous performance of contemporary Canadiana that brings together poetry and music in repertoire that is at once silken in its lyricism and powerfully and vividly atmospheric in colour and tone texture. 

Haldane’s inspirational and poetic soprano throughout this repertoire is something to treasure for a lifetime. Her traversal of pianist and composer, Carl Philippe Gionet’s Three Acadian Folklores is sweetly scented poesy, floribunda that would fill a whole flowershop. The pervasive melancholy of Ahania’s Lament is deeply affecting. David Jaeger’s delicately coloured music for the singer’s father Seán Haldane’s poems in The Echo Cycle is the record’s crowning glory. Haldane brings exquisite tenderness, expressive depth and consummate beauty to this cycle.

Haldane also, thankfully, celebrates the legendary Oscar Peterson with two pieces – Why Think About Tomorrow, the lyrics for which were penned by Peterson himself, and Land of the Misty Giants from his iconic Canadiana Suite. Sharing the spotlight with Haldane are the brilliant pianist Stu Harrison and bassist Ross MacIntyre. Both men perform this music with outstanding integrity and a wholly appropriate sense of occasion.

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09 Monkiest KingAlice Ping Yee Ho – The Monkiest King
Canadian Children’s Opera Company; Teri Dunn
Centrediscs CMCCD 28020 (cmccanada.org/shop/cmccd-28020) 

The Monkiest King is Canadian composer Alice Ping Yee Ho’s fourth opera. Commissioned by the Canadian Children’s Opera Company for its 50th Anniversary, the 60-minute one-act opera features the most excellent soloists of the CCOC and six choruses of different ages interpreting over 30 characters.

Marjorie Chan’s libretto is based on Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, a 16th-century novel considered one of the greatest classical works of Chinese literature. The opera is mostly set in an ancient and imaginary magical world and follows Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. Initially a bit of a trickster, the Monkey King’s journey leads him on a series of adventures where he learns about personal responsibility, compassion and, ultimately, courage.

Primarily sung in English with Mandarin and Cantonese words, the language is accessible to a young audience, yet the story is compelling for a variety of ages. Personal growth is explored via life themes and lessons as opposed to the old-fashioned fable. The use of Chinese instruments such as the dizi, erhu, gaohu, pipa and guzheng allows children of all backgrounds to either connect with sounds they are familiar with or make exciting new discoveries. Ho’s skillful contrast between Chinese and Western instruments, the well-placed dissonances and the numerous vocal and instrumental glissandi provide a unique and vibrant listening experience. Most exquisite, Chan’s libretto and Ho’s music are expertly woven together, seamlessly moving the action forward. The Monkiest King was nominated for two Mavor Dora Moore Awards in 2019 for Outstanding Performing Ensemble and Outstanding Original Opera.

01 Handel AlmiraHandel – Almira
Emöke Barath; Amanda Forsythe; Colin Balzer; Boston Early Music Festival; Paul O’Dette; Stephen Stubbs
cpo 555 205-2 (naxosdirect.com)

Besides being Handel’s first exercise in operatic composition, Almira (1704) is a notable, if slightly eccentric work for several reasons. Various styles and languages are mixed, with the opera including both German and Italian arias, as well as vocal dance numbers, da capo pieces and instrumental ballet inserts. The result is a colourful and surprisingly unified mixture, and the melodic signatures that we consider so typical of Handel are already recognizable.

This recording features an expert interpretation of this middle-Baroque work, as the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra and soloists manage to synthesize Almira’s Venetian, German and French influences into a cohesive and convincing musical and dramatic product. The use of harpsichord and lute in the basso continuo section provides a temporal reference point, between theorbo-based Monteverdi and the later harpsichord- and organ-grounded works of Bach.

Although Handel’s later operas and oratorios receive the vast majority of modern performances, it is worthwhile to encounter an expertly performed edition of such an early work from such an esteemed composer. Much like Bach’s early chorale preludes, Almira reflects the effort of an already extraordinarily gifted musical mind, which continues to be developed and refined as the years progress. This opera’s apparent eccentricities aside (largely due to the traditions of the Hamburg opera, rather than Handel’s own innovation), Almira is a rewarding listen for all who appreciate the style and evolution of Baroque opera.

03 Other CleopatraThe Other Cleopatra, Queen of Armenia – Il Tigrane Arias
Isabel Bayrakdarian; Kaunas City Symphony; Constantine Orbelian
Delos DE 3591 (naxosdirect.com)

Yes, there was another Cleopatra and thanks, in part, to Isabel Bayrakdarian the wife of King Tigranes (140-55 BCE) has a bright new light shone on her. These arias are, of course, from composers who knew of her and first glorified her in opera: Hasse, Vivaldi and Gluck. What Bayrakdarian has also done as with many of her recordings, is to shed light on the historical riches of Armenia. More remarkably, however, on The Other Cleopatra: Queen of Armenia Bayrakdarian seems to sing as if with real, lived experience.

Bayrakdarian is a bright lyric soprano, but she can also swoop really low into what must clearly be the edge of a soprano’s comfort zone. One such example comes with Baroque smokiness in Hasse’s elegant aria Strappami pure il seno; also a wonderful example of her breathtaking eloquence and range. Chronologically Vivaldi’s version of Il Tigrane (1724) was premiered first, followed by Hasse’s (1729) and finally Gluck’s (1743). All three operas were based on the same libretto by Abate Francesco Silvani. 

Most interesting, however, is the subtle differences in the music by each of the composers. Vivaldi delivers characteristic vivacity, dazzling vocal solos with dashes of acute characterization. Gluck’s demands a complete balance between music and drama and Hasse’s is a highly lyrical blend of style and emotions. Meanwhile, Baryakdarian’s artistry enables her to deliver each style absolutely masterfully.

04 Karina GauvinNuits Blanches – Russian Opera Arias of the 18th Century
Karina Gauvin; Pacific Baroque Orchestra; Alexander Weimann
ATMA ACD2 2791 (atmaclassique.com/En)

Johann Sebastian Bach’s ambition of becoming a musician at the Imperial Russian Court never materialized but that disappointing fact – plus the unfortunate reputation of 18th-century Russian music – has not deterred recent musicologists from discovering some very accomplished composers. Combine that with the artists listed above and Nuits Blanches is the pleasing result. 

As might be expected, Karina Gauvin’s soprano voice dominates this CD. Listen to the variations in her voice as she literally runs a gamut of emotion in determining Armide’s relationship towards Renaud in Gluck’s Armide. And then there is the opera Demofoonte by the tragically short-lived Maxime Sozontovitch Berezovski (1745-1777). This is a work which does not survive in completeness; what does survive is a disturbing unravelling of events which is deeper in intensity than many better-known and complete operatic works. The two arias recorded here bring home not just this complexity of plot but also the extent to which Gauvin’s expertise is tested. 

In fact, Gauvin’s singing does not monopolize this CD. Listen to the Ouverture from Le Faucon by Dimitri Stepanovitch Bortnianski. It offers a genteel introduction to the subsequent complexities of the relationship between Don Federigo and Elvira. 

This CD introduces listeners to music which is almost unknown. Enjoy, incidentally, not just its soprano and instrumental qualities but also some deeply researched and sometimes rather amusing program notes.

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05 Wagner WalkureWagner – Die Walküre
Soloists; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Antonio Pappano
Opus Arte OA 1308D (naxosdirect.com)

Ever since Patrice Chereau’s centennial revival in Bayreuth in 1976, dozens of Ring productions have proliferated all over the world. In fact every major opera house has created one, all different concepts exploiting every possible angle: historic, sociological, psychological, philosophical etc. Rings are named after the various cities and/or the directors or the conductors. Now we have a Met Ring (Lepage/Levine), Berlin Ring (Kupfer/Barenboim), Stuttgart Ring (Zagrosek), St. Petersburg Ring (Gergiev), Vienna Ring (Rattle/Adam Fischer), Valencia Ring (Zubin Mehta), not to mention our own from Toronto. This production from London (2018) heralds a new, and judging by this Walküre, a momentous one directed by Keith Warner.

From the staging point of view it is a sound and light extravaganza, using all possible audiovisual technology culminating in the third act Ride of the Valkyries with films in the background combined with shadow play of the warrior maidens and superb choreography. The magic fire that envelops the stage is a spectacular finale. Pappano’s conducting is nothing less than magnificent. He absorbs himself thoroughly in the score, and no detail is missed.  There are moments of ecstasy like the first act love-duet between Siegmund (Stuart Skelton) and Sieglinde (Emily Magee) in waves and waves of passion as the “world never heard before” (Sir Simon Rattle), and at the climax when Siegmund triumphantly pulls out the sword from the ash tree, wow!  Or Wotan’s final embrace of his daughter Brünnhilde, a moment at which I almost cried when I first heard it.

The entire cast is phenomenal headed by John Lundgren as a powerful, larger-than-life Wotan, a very complex character, a god torn between his duty to the law he created and the love for his daughter, Brünnhilde (the wonderful Nina Stemme) whom he has to punish. A gripping Walküre, highly recommended.

06 Contes dHofmannOffenbach – Les contes d’Hoffmann
Soloists; Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra; Carlo Rizzi
Cmajor 752808 (naxosdirect.com)

Often spoken of disparagingly in his day, Jacques Offenbach clearly knew what he was doing. With equal measure of sardonic humour and lyricism, he triumphantly invented the whole idea of the operetta, paved the way for Lehár and Sullivan, and eventually came to be called (by Rossini, no less) “the Mozart of Champs Élysées.” Fusing dialogue and show-stopping pieces, Offenbach also created the can-can dance and laid the ground for the modern musical. But in 1881 he also produced his first and last opera – Les Contes d’Hoffmann – his only through-composed work without spoken dialogue; replaced by a sombre libretto instead. 

Three acts recount three tales by the German Romantic writer E.T.A Hoffmann. Tobias Kratzer’s spectacular staging adds a prelude and background to the story (Act 1) followed by the three acts conceived by Offenbach. The first concerns the inventor and his mechanical doll, Olympia who seduces Hoffmann. The second involves Hoffmann’s other passion, the consumptive singer Antonia, preyed upon by the evil Dr. Miracle. The third tells of Giulietta, who tries to trick Hoffmann into selling his soul. The final act presents Hoffmann, liberated, returning to his muse.

The sweep of Offenbach’s score is supremely caught by Carlos Rizzi in a reading that tingles with frenetic energy while bringing out the lushness of Guiraud’s recitatives. John Osborn is in his richest voice, summoning the impetuous ardour of Hoffmann. Nina Minasyan excels in the bravura arias. Overall, the casting is inspired and outstanding.

07 Respighi BellaRespighi – La bella dormente nel bosco
Soloists; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Lirico di Cagliari; Donato Renzetti
Naxos 2.110655 (naxosdirect.com)

The legendary Ottorino Respighi’s La bella dormente nel bosco (The Sleeping Beauty) was first conceived in 1922. The version presented here by the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari has been enhanced from the original by Respighi’s inspired orchestrations. Although he died in 1936, this fresh, emotional and fantastic rendering of the original fairy tale about the Princess who pricks her finger on a spindle, and falls into a comatose state until she is awakened by her Prince, is as new and exciting as if presented on Broadway today. Brilliantly directed by Leo Muscato (with video direction by Tiziano Mancini, Donato Renzetti as conductor and a lively book by Gian Bistolfi), this production features a broad-palleted mis en scene, which is a delectable feast for both the eyes and ears.

Featured performers include the versatile Veta Pilipenko (the Queen, Old Lady and Frog); the impossibly lovely Angela Nisi as the Princess; baritone powerhouse Antonio Gandia as the Prince and the venerable Vincenzo Taormina as the King. Clever, bombastic and magical costumes (perhaps reflecting a bit of the Comedia Del’Arte) by Vera Pierantonio Giua and choreography by Luigia Frattaroli complete this thoroughly entertaining and spiritually uplifting operatic pastiche.

Written in three acts, the piece opens with a conceptual, almost surreal appearance of birds on swings and frog-like ladies (or lady-like frogs!), and ends with the expected kiss as the diaphanous princess rises up from her crescent moon bed, and into the arms of her Prince, followed by a joyous, dance-infused number by the entire cast. Huge kudos to the Teatro, for not only presenting this nearly lost treasure of one of the world’s foremost 20th-century composers, but also doing it to perfection!

08 Ted Hearne PlaceTed Hearne; Saul Williams – Place
Vocalists; Place Orchestra
New Amsterdam Records NWAM137 (newamrecords.com)

Although the drama of Place is somewhat diminished without a visual staging (i.e. a possible DVD of a presumptive film version), its power is not diminished because of the inventive way in which its principal artists – Ted Hearne (music, libretto) and Saul Williams (libretto) – have used their respective artistic specialities. This means not only words, music and vocalizations, but also their compelling, internecine method of adapting traditional and contemporary artistic styles – from hip-hop to chamber music – and infusing this event with every possible sonic element: music, noise and pregnant silences. 

Music and poetry collide in Place as Hearne and Williams describe the emotional effects that the gentrification of a city has when people and their cultural habitat are trampled upon in the name of money and modernization. Williams’ poetry pulls no punches, especially regarding racism. Using this poetry, Hearne creates jagged miniatures to simulate a musical disruption of the senses that mirrors the socio-political upheaval of their city.

Some spiky, and often serrated, songs are like miniatures depicting human upheaval. This is characterized by extraordinary, jagged rhythmic flexibility. These episodes alternate between moments of tenderness and heartache, anger and despair. An ink-dark atmosphere pervades even when relative calmness is explored in The Tales You Tell Your Children. Occasionally brightness might break through, as in Hallelujah in White, but not for long. The glistening delicacy of the musical equanimity is broken in the finale, in the desperate plea against gentrification of Colonizing Space.

Editor’s Note: A performance video of Place is in the final stages of production and will likely be available on a major public platform by the time this article is published.

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