08 Massenet Don QuichotteMassenet – Don Quichotte
Gábor Bretz; David Stout; Anna Goryachova; Wiener Symphoniker; Daniel Cohen
Cmajor 754008 (naxosdirect.com/search/814337015404)

If Jules Massenet was discouraged by the scorn that fellow French composers and musicians poured upon his work, he showed no sign of it in lyrical new works infused with emotion. And while it is true that all of his compositions seemed to eschew the Wagnerian sense of drama, his work – especially later pieces such as Don Quichotte – could explore and evoke strong emotions. 

It is somewhat curious that this late opera often hardly merits a mention in the scores of tomes dedicated to the dramatic art. Mariame Clément’s brilliant staging of it ought to alter this somewhat unfair historical narrative. This version of Don Quichotte, with Henri Cain’s libretto (after Jacques Le Lorrain’s Le chevalier de la longue figure) has been exquisitely recreated in this 2019 production and the Weiner Symphoniker directed by Daniel Cohen breathes new life into Massenet’s last opera.

After briefly referencing the original fin-de-siècle setting, Clément resets the story in a meaningful contemporary manner. With stark yet innovative sets, dramatic lighting and of course, lyrical, beautifully paced and theatrical music, this melodious dramatic tragicomedy lives again. The masterstroke is the casting; delivered here with a dazzling performance by Anna Goryachova (Dulcinée). However, Gábor Bretz (Don Quichotte) and David Stout (Sancho) all but steal the show, especially in Ecoute mon ami and in the glorious dénouement of Act V, L’Étoile! Dulcinée! Le temps d’amour a fui which makes for an evocatively tragic end.

09 Messager FortunoAndré Messager – Fortunio
Cyrille Dubois; Anne-Catherine Gillet; Franck Legeurinel; Jean-Sebastien Bou; Philippe-Nicolas Martin; Choeur Les Elements; Orchestre des Champs-Élysées; Louis Langrée
Naxos 2.110672 (naxosdirect.com/search/747313567256)

On June 5, 1907 André Messager, who had conducted the world premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande five years earlier, led the first performance of his own operetta Fortunio at the Paris Opéra Comique, with two leading members of the original Pelléas cast singing principal roles, and Debussy himself in the audience. Fortunio was a great success, remaining in the Opéra Comique’s repertoire until 1948, then inexplicably shelved until its 21st-century revival.

This 2019 Opéra Comique production delights both visually and musically. The attractive, fin-de-siècle sets and costumes are historically accurate, while Messager’s lovely, sentiment-laden score receives spirited performances from the excellent cast, led by the captivating lyric tenor Cyrille Dubois, wrenching emotions as Fortunio.

Jacqueline, the sex-deprived young wife of the much-older local notary André, begins an affair with Clavaroche, a lecherous army captain newly arrived in town. Another newcomer is Fortunio, a timid fellow from the sticks whose uncle brings him to his cousin Landry, one of André’s clerks, hoping Fortunio will accept a similar position. Reluctant at first, Fortunio agrees after glimpsing the beauteous Jacqueline. To allay her husband’s suspicions of her infidelity, Jacqueline enlists the smitten Fortunio to pose as an innocuous, lovelorn “decoy,” but she eventually succumbs to his heartfelt adoration, declaring her own true love for him.

How very French! Characteristically making light of adultery, with raunchy double entendres, erotic physical byplay, clandestine intrigues and endearing, charming music, Messager’s sugary confection Fortunio succeeds admirably in every way.

10 FrulingssturmeJaromír Weinberger – Frühlingsstürme
Soloists; Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin; Jordan de Souza
Naxos 2.110677-78 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110677-78)

When Frühlingsstürme opened in Berlin on January 20, 1933 it seemed to be another success for its celebrated composer, Jaromír Weinberger. But ten days later the Nazis took power, crushing the creative spirit of the Weimar Republic; Frühlingsstürme was shut down. This staging from January 2020 at the Komische Oper Berlin was the first since that precarious time. It too was shut down – by COVID-19. Fortunately, it was filmed. 

Frühlingsstürme is a dramatic spy story with a doomed love affair between a Russian widow and a Japanese general at its heart. The music is sophisticated and delightful. Gorgeous melodies draw on Weinberger’s Czech and Jewish heritage, and complex rhythms recall popular styles of the day like jazz, foxtrot and tango. 

Barrie Kosky, the provocative Australian director who leads the Komische Oper, presents Weinberger’s operetta as an imaginative sequence of scenes taking place in and around an oversized, constantly transforming box. So an intimate duet like Traumversunken, liebestrunken can turn into a campy burlesque spectacle complete with a Busby Berkeley-style staircase and dancers wielding quivering ostrich feather fans. 

The cast is effective enough, with soprano Vera-Lotte Boecker a charismatic presence. Tansel Akzeybek’s well-placed tenor is lovely, if restrained. But soprano Alma Sadé as a sexually precocious teenager too often turns exuberance into shrieking, especially in the overlong passages of dialogue. 

The terrific orchestra under Canadian conductor Jordan de Souza, who is well-known to Toronto audiences for his work with Tapestry Opera and the COC, balances the frivolous and the poignant with versatility and stylishness. Their much-needed momentum reinforces the pleasures of this valuable, if uneven, addition to the operetta repertoire.

02 Voices in the WildernessVoices in the Wilderness – Music from the Ephrata Cloister
Elizabeth Bates; Clifton Massey; Nils Neubert; Steven Hrycelak; Christopher Dylan Herbert
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0141 (brightshiny.ninja/voices-in-the-wilderness)

This technically thrilling and historically significant recording is the brainchild of noted musical director/producer, Christopher Dylan Herbert, and boasts the prestigious vocal talents of soprano Elizabeth Bates, alto Clifton Massey, tenor Nils Neubert and bass Steven Hrycelak. The entire project is composed of a cappella hymns, written just under 300 years ago by the residents of the Ephrata Cloister – an 18th-century celibate community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, established in 1732. Nearly all of the music here was written by the solitary sisters of Ephrata – the earliest known female composers in North America.* These challenging pieces have never before been performed by a professional ensemble, and in keeping with the authenticity of the CD, the recording itself was done in the very room for which the material was originally composed.

With the opening, Rose-Lillie-Blume Sequence, the voices introduce themselves and come together in perfect symmetry, rendering this rich composition in all of its original majesty. The acoustics of the Ephrata Cloister provide the sonic platform for this stirring piece – rendered in perfect classical, High German. On Herzog Unsrer Seligkeiten, dynamics as well as precise rhythmic motifs are utilized, and of special mention is Wann Gott sein Zion Losen Wird, where the satisfying arrangement explores curiously modern chordal motifs, foreshadowing chorale works yet to come, and the eventual emergence of 12-tone composition.  

The final track, Formier, Mein Topffer, is both emotional and direct. Written by Sister Föbin (Christianna Lassle) the chord voicings are placed in the exact sweet spot for each register, creating a shining jewel of vocal music, and a celebration of early female composers/vocalists, as well as their creative vision, which is more than timely.

Editor’s note: Some might dispute this claim, and suggest that an Order of Ursuline nuns in Montreal were more likely the first female composers on the continent. I checked with noted Canadian music specialist John Beckwith who told me that, in an essay on Canada’s earliest music-theory treatise (1718), Erich Schwandt (formerly with the music department, U. of Victoria), claimed that the Ursulines wrote original music. The order was established in 1639 and was noted for its attention to culture and the arts, especially music, suggesting that these sisters were composing nearly a century before those of the Ephrata Cloisture.

03 Beethoven Christ Mount OlivesBeethoven – Christ on the Mount of Olives
Elsa Dreisig; Pavol Breslik; David Soar; London Symphony Chorus; LSO; Sir Simon Rattle
LSO Live LSO0826D (lsolive.lso.co.uk)

In the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke capture Jesus’ last moments as a free man. Aware of his impending arrest and execution – having been betrayed by Judas Iscariot – Jesus uses his final night to reflect and pray at a familiar location, the Garden of Gethsemane, located on the Mount of Olives. To this day, the location remains a site of Christian pilgrimage and, in 1803, afforded rich artistic fodder to Beethoven, who used its physical beauty and importance as a site within Christian theology to pen his compelling, rarely performed, and only Passion oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives

Although not theologically Christian, but rather an Enlightenment-era deist, Beethoven was most certainly drawing a parallel between this Gospel narrative of Jesus at his most fallible and his own looming existential crisis of encroaching deafness and isolation. Written while living at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien and understood, at the time, within the context of other 18th-century oratorios that focus on religious themes, subjects and iconography, Christ on the Mount of Olives deserves to occupy a more central place within Beethoven’s already bountiful canon. Good thing then, that it is performed and recorded so beautifully here on this 2020 LSO Live release by the London Symphony Orchestra with Sir Simon Rattle at the helm. 

Fleshed out with an enormous chorus of nearly 150 under the direction of Simon Halsey and released in honour of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, this must-have recording packages together a compelling religious narrative with the majestic backing of the LSO and inspired soloists Elsa Dreisig, Pavol Breslik and David Soar performing a variety of biblical figures from Franz Xaver Huber’s libretto. With the religious importance for some of the upcoming Christmas season, this recording could not have come at a better time.

05 ElgarElgar – Sea Pictures; Falstaff
Elīna Garanča; Staatskapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim
Decca Records 00028948509683 (deccaclassics.com/en/catalogue)

A new and sumptuous live recording from Decca features two important works by Sir Edward Elgar: the five Sea Pictures, Op 37 (1899) and the seldom-heard “symphonic study,” Falstaff, Op.68 (1913).

Elgar was both proud and fond of his Falstaff. While it was well received at its premiere in 1913, it hasn’t quite found its footing in the standard repertoire to date (at least outside of England). Conversely, the Sea Pictures have long captured the imaginations of singers and audiences alike. The sea itself is central to British identity and, while many other cultures could claim the same, an Englishman’s love for his island’s coastal waters is of a particular brand; Elgar epitomizes this relationship in his cycle. They are unique for their dark and rich soundscapes, initially scored for contralto. (Canada’s own Maureen Forrester sang them – almost as trademark – throughout her career.) The five Pictures set words from different poets, including the composer’s wife: In Haven (Capri).

Daniel Barenboim is no stranger to interpreting Elgar. What an experience it is, to hear him steer this record’s course. Barenboim’s seasoned Elgar is luminous and emotive, ever balanced and rational. One might argue that he brings just a hint of German cerebralism to such overtly English Romantic music. Mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča contributes her own impressive artistry here, embracing this ravishing repertoire with all that she’s got. Her voice soars above the Staatskapelle Berlin, buoyed and serene, “to rolling worlds of wave and shell.”

06 Egon WelleszEgon Wellesz – Die Opferung des Gefangenen
Hwang; Cerha; Dewey; Koch; Vienna Concert Choir; Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien; Robert Brooks
Capriccio C5423 (naxosdirect.com/search/845221054230)

Austrian-British composer Egon Wellesz (1885-1974), of Hungarian Jewish origin, was a prolific composer. Extensively performed and decorated during his lifetime, he achieved success early, being the first of Arnold Schoenberg’s students to receive a publishing contract from Universal Edition, before Berg or Webern. Generally neglected in the decades since his death, this world premiere recording, by the Vienna Concert Choir and the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien of Wellesz’s 1924-25 opera-ballet Die Opferung des Gefangenen (The Sacrifice of the Prisoner), is part of a wider revival of interest in his music. 

The opera’s story is based on a scenario by Eduard Stucken after the ancient Mayan play Rabinal Achi, performed annually in Rabinal, Guatemala. Subtitled “a cultural drama for dance, solo singers and choir,” Wellesz’s work is about an imprisoned prince who is waiting for his execution after a battle. It’s not a huge stretch however to see the story reflecting many of the post WWI anxieties around the consequences of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

Replete with dramatic vocal and choral scenes and massive orchestral passages with Mahlerian and Schoenbergian echoes, Die Opferung is a prime example of Wellesz’s mature Viennese musical style. His signature colourful orchestration is underscored by forte brass choir and bold percussion statements.  This theatrical work, parts of which would not be out of place on a later blockbuster movie soundtrack, reads surprisingly well on audio CD, even without the visual and dance elements of a stage production. 

07 English SongsEnglish Songs à la Française
Tyler Duncan; Erika Switzer
Bridge Records 9537 (bridgerecords.com/products/9537)

British Columbia-born/New York-based baritone, Tyler Duncan, and his wife, pianist Erika Switzer, are internationally renowned performers as a duo, and individually. The clever idea of performing French composers’ settings of original English texts started when French baritone François Le Roux handed them Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cherry-Tree Farm score, set to Horace Lennard’s poetry. More of these Romantic/20th century songs were compiled, which, after their recital in Tours, led to this, their remarkable first duo album.

A literal who’s who of French composers successfully set the original English texts. Reynaldo Hahn’s Five Little Songs (1914), set to Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, are short children’s songs with tonal word painting like the florid piano lines behind lyrical vocals in The Swing, and colourful low vocal pitches with piano tremolo night sky effects in The Stars. Darius Milhaud’s settings of five Rabindranath Tagore Child Poems (1916) are operatic, such as the fully orchestrated piano part supporting lyrical emotional singing in the closing, The Gift. Love Maurice Ravel’s Chanson écossaise (1910) setting of Robert Burns’ text. Ravel emulates a Scottish quasi-bagpipe folk song without ever creating a parody. Jules Massenet’s setting of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Come into the Garden, Maud (1880) foreshadows future musical theatre sounds. Poulenc, Roussel and Gounod works complete the recording. 

Duncan and Switzer deserve a “bilingual” standing ovation for their tight duo musicianship and colourful interpretations of these one-of-a kind art songs.

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08 Saman ShahiSaman Shahi – Breathing in the Shadows
Maureen Batt; Fabián Arciniegas; Tiffany Hanus; Various Instrumentalists
Leaf Music LM237 (samanshahimusic.com)

The debut album by Iranian-Canadian composer and pianist Saman Shahi, Breathing in the Shadows, feels like a gentle journey through the kaleidoscope of meaningful images, each captured in a subjective and probing way. The three song cycles included on this album are worlds unto their own – powerful and empowering, existential blocks of unique and diverse musical language combining minimalism, dodecaphony, hints of Iranian traditional music and rock. The poetry is beautiful and impactful, but it is the music that propels it beyond its scope. Shahi’s music lets the poetic images breathe and blossom and underlines the themes of inner and outer struggles, yearnings, rebelliousness and death (symbolic and physical). The rhythmic drive and atonal segments create an immediacy that is enlivening. 

The titular song cycle, Breathing in the Shadows, is based on poems by five poetesses from around the world and features a wonderfully talented duo – soprano Maureen Batt and pianist Tara Scott. Each song is a statement of independence and defiance in the face of oppression, longing or, simply, love. 

The second cycle, Orbit, builds on sharp imagery conceived by Serbian-Canadian singer-songwriter Jelena Ćirić. The waves of colours Shahi creates in the piano lines are just gorgeous and tenor Fabián Arciniegas’ phrasing underscores the words with subtle urgency.

The concluding cycle, Song of a Wandering Soul, merges several musical forms that Shahi considers a part of his musical identity. Written for a larger ensemble, using improvisation and electronics to create varied textures and riding on the perfectly suited timbre of Tiffany Hanus’ voice, this cycle is pure rock ’n roll in a classical setting. 

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