05 Thomalla Dark SpringHans Thomalla – Dark Spring: Opera in 11 Scenes
Shachar Lavi; Anna Hybiner; Christopher Diffey; Magid El-Bushra; Nationaltheater-Orchester Mannheim; Alan Pierson
Oehms Classics OC 994 (oehmsclassics.de)

The whole idea of Dark Spring as being born of both song and opera is a considerable philosophical and stylistic leap. But what its creator Hans Thomalla achieves in this work is a lofty Singspiel recast as musical meta-theatre. Happily the 11 scenes are acted and/or sung by a fine cast who interact with each other in a deeply emotional manner as this avowed song-opera goes like a bolted arrow directly into the listener’s heart.

Thematically this is a cautionary tale (the word “narrative” is technically more appropriate), one whose four characters we meet at an existential 21st-century crossroad where the theatre of Brecht and the angst of Jean-Paul Sartre collide. The playwright and novelist appear to have inspired Thomalla’s work, an operatic adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening (1891). Dark Spring roars with the socio-political demons that drive our digital media world. Song lyrics by Joshua Clover reflect the shattered mirror of violence, while peer and parental pressures hover dangerously close at hand. 

Relationships crumble in overwrought romanticism and roiling sexuality leading to the climactic suicide of one of the four characters, Moritz, played with explosive combustion by countertenor, Magid El-Bushra. Tenor Christopher Diffey, contralto Anna Hybiner and mezzo-soprano Shachar Lavi sing their respective ways through the storyline that exudes visceral energy throughout Dark Spring. The Nationaltheater-Orchester Mannheim conducted by Alan Pierson shines as it navigates this difficult score.

06 Brian FieldBrian Field – Vocal Works
Various Artists
Navona Records nv6360 (navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6360)

Reactions to Brian Field’s Vocal Works – as well as the red-white-and-blue graphic evocative of the forbidding spires on a US/Mexican border wall – can be predicted: it’s an important disc, no doubt, often dripping with sardonicism and bitterness, shrouded in the music’s frequent dissonance. Gorgeous songs complemented by great choral and solo singing, however, triumph over these feelings, in a program selected and sequenced with uncommon care, with Field drawing on his consummate musicianship fuelled by hopefulness. 

Field’s extraordinary lyricism is deeply attuned to human emotion. Even when his music is immersed in feelings of fear, disappointment or even sarcasm – as in his adaptation of Charles Albert Tindley’s poem on By and By, in the swirling music accompanying Pablo Neruda’s bittersweet love poems, Tres Canciones de Amor and his own uniquely American satirical commentary in Let’s Build a Wall. In those works as well as elsewhere, Field shows that he isn’t afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve, nor does he shrink away from the bitterness of social commentary. 

He is also a master of atonal turbulence and semi-spoken lines describing both political and intimate interactions. Field’s music in the song cycle Chimneys, Sonnets-Realities, dramatically reinvigorates the poetry of e.e. cummings with masterfully applied dissonant harmonies. The pinnacle of the recording, however, comes when Field pours his spirituality into the intense, gospel-soaked Let the Light Shine on Me.

Listen to 'Brian Field: Vocal Works' Now in the Listening Room

07 Stephen PowellWhy do the Nations
Stephen Powell
Acis APL51200 (acisproductions.com)

American baritone Stephen Powell’s album Why do the Nations is a personal, vibrant and thoughtfully curated collection of 27 art songs from 11 nations in ten different languages, written between 1839 and 1965.  

Dictated by world pandemic isolation requirements and in part as a personal challenge, Powell takes on the musical task of both singing and accompanying himself on the piano. Powell’s artistry imprints the album and flows via his warm and capable voice. His skillful accompaniment is especially on display in the songs of de Falla, Ives and Rachmaninoff. Even more compelling is the album's depth of introspection, based equally on the minutiae of his research and his interpretation of text. 

Why do the Nations takes its title from a bass aria in Handel’s Messiah, Why do the Nations so furiously rage together? (Psalm 2). This question ultimately guides the album’s journey with Powell asking his listeners to reflect not on the manmade geographical lines that divide us into nations, but to focus on what unites, what connects us and our shared humanity: “if listeners can hear the connections between countries represented perhaps they will appreciate that everything we do ripples across oceans and through time.” 

Why do the Nations offers a rich repertoire of art songs from well-known composers (Brahms, Schubert, Verdi) and composers to discover such as Xavier Montsalvatge (Spain), Cláudio Santoro (Brazil), Rentarō Taki (Japan) and Zhao Yuanren (China). Also of note, Terra e Mare, one of the few works Puccini wrote outside of opera, and a world premiere recording of Petits Enfants by Émile Paladilhe (France).

01 grazia delle donne 5qsixLa Grazia delle Donne
Miriam Leblanc; Ensemble La Cigale; Madeleine Owen
Analekta AN 2 9159 (analekta.com/en)

Eight books of compositions? Little, if any support from the Church? Or from a spouse? And a woman? This was Barbara Strozzi, understandably the best known female composer of her time (1619-1677).

It is her compositions that occupy pride of place on this CD. Lagrime mie combines the passion of Myriam Leblanc’s soprano singing, the anguished lyrics of Pietro Dolfino and the supportive yet inspiring playing of Ensemble la Cigale to form a masterpiece of the Italian Baroque. Masterpiece, too, is the deserved description for Strozzi’s other piece on the CD, Hor che Apollo, as the same musicians master perhaps even greater achievements with this latter text and score. 

It is clear from the very first two tracks, Isabella Leonarda’s Purpurei flores and Sonata prima, that this CD brings together the best in female Baroque vocal writing along with one instrument in particular which is at last allowed to display its versatility – the Baroque recorder. Full credit, indeed, to Leblanc and recorder-player Vincent Lauzer. 

The prominence given to the two composers above should not detract from the others’ contributions. Prodigiously talented, Vittoria Aleotti mastered the harpsichord at a phenomenally early age. The results are very apparent as Leblanc interprets three of her songs, all very short but all very moving in their musical and lyrical context.

This CD proves the presence of female singers and, above all, female composers in the Renaissance. It challenges preconceptions.

Listen to 'La Grazia delle Donne' Now in the Listening Room

02 rossini lequivoco grywdRossini – L’Equivoco Stravagante
Antonella Colaianni; Patrick Kabongo; Giulio Mastrototaro; Emmanuel Franco; Gorecki Chamber Choir; Virtuosi Brunensis; Jose Miguil Perez-Sierra
Naxos DVD 2.110696 (naxosdirect.com/search/2110696)

The little town of Bad Wildbad, a spa, is located in the Black Forest in Germany, a very scenic holiday spot with a small, intimate opera house and a relaxed, but keen, enthusiastic audience. This performance was for the Wildbad Rossini Festival’s 30th anniversary in 2018. L’equico Stravagante (Curious Misunderstanding) is Rossini’s first opera, written when he was only 19, his first step toward becoming a master of bel canto and an amazing career of wealth and fame and 39 operas.

It is a two-act dramma giocoso, a farce format that Rossini got very good at, but it ran into difficulties at the premiere in Bologna because its somewhat risqué libretto offended public taste! It was cancelled after three performances and disappeared into oblivion until its present day revival. Risqué because the heroine was accused of being a castrato and a deserter to avoid military service; a curious misunderstanding indeed!

It’s a silly story, but offers good theatricals and lots of funny situations. The small stage is practically bare; with ingenious lighting effects and shifting panels as a backdrop but filled with a youthful, energetic cast, headed by the primadonna mezzo-soprano Antonella Colianni and primo tenore Patrick Kabongo, all superb voices and buoyant, delightful music. Most notable are Rossini’s beginning efforts of ensemble writing: duets, trios, quartets, and a beautiful quintet: Speme soave, ah, scenda. The first act finale is a real showstopper with the whole cast on stage, all singing up a total mayhem. This feature will appear in many of his later operas and become a Rossini trademark.

We must emphasize the Overture, a remarkably mature work conducted by the young, convivial José Miguel Pérez-Sierra with vigour, hugely enjoying himself.

03 franck hulda o5317César Franck – Hulda
Soloists; Opern-und Extrachor des Theater Freiburg; Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg; Fabrice Bollon
Naxos 8.660480-82 (naxosdirect.com/search/866048-82)

It shouldn’t have taken until 2019 for Hulda to receive its first-ever complete performance, recorded here. César Franck finished his magnum opus in 1885, but died before its 1894 premiere in an abridged version, as were all its few subsequent productions.

Set in 11th-century Norway, Charles Jean Grandmougin’s lurid, blood-spattered libretto was based on an 1854 play by Norwegian Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, 1903 Nobel Prize-winner. Hulda (soprano Meagan Miller) vows revenge on her family’s murderers, Aslak (bass Jin Seok Lee) and his sons. Forced to marry Aslak’s son Gudleik (baritone Juan Orozco), at the wedding feast she entices the king’s emissary, Eiolf (tenor Joshua Kohl), who fights and kills Gudleik. Hulda and Eiolf declare their love but when Eiolf betrays her with his former lover Swanhilde (soprano Irina Jae Eun Park), Hulda conspires with Aslak’s remaining sons to kill him, and Eiolf’s warriors to attack them in return. Her vengeance complete, she commits suicide.

Franck’s surging, vehement score, influenced by his much-admired Wagner, features the use of leitmotifs, fervent arias, ecstatic Tristan-like love duets and many opulent choruses and dances, the orchestra often in the foreground. Conductor Fabrice Ballon drives the 15 soloists, chorus and orchestra with unremitting urgency, maintaining momentum throughout the opera’s 162 minutes.

Regrettably, the 3CD set omits the French-language libretto or English translation, offering only an act-by-act synopsis (Wikipedia provides a better one). Nevertheless, I was delighted to finally hear Franck’s incandescent Hulda just as he had intended.

04 american originals 9mmoeAmerican Originals: A New World, A New Canon
Reginald Mobley; Agave
Acis APL20445 (acisproductions.com)

For countertenor Reginald Mobley, this is a deeply personal project. In his booklet notes, he describes his early years studying music as a person of colour, when he was convinced that “nothing worth hearing and knowing in classical music was ever written by anyone who looked like me.” How better to expose what he rightly calls the “whitewashing of music history” than by highlighting some remarkable, largely unknown composers of colour? And so we have this adventurous survey of vocal and instrumental works from across the Americas, dating from the Baroque to the 20th century. 

In six gorgeous songs – and two instrumental song arrangements – by Florence Price (whose music is finally starting to receive the attention it deserves), Mobley and the versatile musicians of Agave convey the impassioned vision underlying the composer’s evocative imagery. The Brazilian priest José Mauricio Nuñes Garcia’s exquisitely Mozartian Te, Christe, solum novimus leaves me wanting to hear more from this composer (his magnificent Requiem is featured in Paul Freeman’s landmark Black Composers Series on Sony Classical). A virtuosic performance of Baroque composer Esteban Salas y Castro’s Taedet Animam Meam reveals its sublime intensity. It’s hard to understand why his music is so rarely heard outside his native Cuba. 

Mobley draws on seemingly endless reserves of power and beauty. But there’s something even more exciting going on here – a direct, urgent connection with the music. In this he is well matched by Agave’s vivid colours and stylish phrasing.

01 Handel RodelindaHandel – Rodelinda
Lucy Crowe; Iestyn Davies; Joshua Ellicott; Tim Mead; Brandon Cedel; Jess Dandy; The English Concert; Harry Bicket
Linn Records CKD 658 (naxosdirect.com/search/ckd658)

Success is a funny thing – sometimes it finds you, and sometimes you create it for yourself. This latter circumstance is the one in which Handel found himself in 1711 after bringing Italian opera to London with his Rinaldo and achieving tremendous success as a result. Over a decade later, Handel would revisit Italian opera in London through three separate works: Giulio Caesare, Tamerlano and Rodelinda.

Regarded as one of Handel’s greatest works, Rodelinda was first performed in London in 1725 but did not receive a permanent place in the modern opera repertoire until the Baroque revival movement in the 1960s. Since then, it has been staged in major opera houses across the globe and featured on numerous recordings, not the least of which is this stellar essay featuring the English Concert led by Harry Bicket.

From the opening notes, it is apparent that this performance of Handel’s masterpiece is well worth the time spent listening. The French overture has the requisite gravitas and agility, delightfully shaped and exquisitely performed, and it only gets better from there. Throughout this two-disc set it is immensely satisfying to hear such well-paced and thoughtfully performed interpretations, never ranging to extremes either in tempo or dynamic, always feeling that the singer and orchestra are collaborating comfortably, and allowing the singers themselves to express the dramatic intricacies of Handel’s vocal writing in a measured yet fluid manner.

Whether unfamiliar with Handel’s operas or a seasoned expert, this recording is a magnificent addition to any collection and an utter delight to listen to from beginning to end.

02 Beethoven FidelioBeethoven – Fidelio
Lise Davidsen; Christian Elsner; Georg Zeppenfeld; Dresdner Philharmonie; Marek Janowski
Pentatone PTC 5186 880 (naxosdirect.com/search/ptc5186880)

Beethoven named his only opera after a young man who doesn’t actually exist, even in the opera. He’s a character that the heroic Leonore uses as a disguise to rescue her husband Florestan from prison. Leonore is a complex role, as challenging dramatically as vocally. Yet it often gets less attention than the role of Florestan, who doesn’t even appear until well over halfway through. 

Here, a commanding performance from the young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen puts the spotlight unquestionably on Leonore. Davidsen’s combination of power, virtuosity and beauty, which makes her Act I aria, Absheulicher! (You monster!) so moving, is rare and wonderful.   

Davidsen is supported by a largely terrific cast. In particular, I love how Georg Zeppenfeld brings out Rocco’s humanity, compromised though he may be. Johannes Kränzle makes a satisfyingly nasty Pizarro, and Christina Landshamer is an affecting Marzelline. But Christian Elsner’s ragged, effortful Florestan is a letdown. 

The exquisite Dresden Philharmonic plays with the agility of a chamber ensemble, while the MDR Leipzig Radio Choir is inspired, soaring in the rapturous O welche Lust (Oh what joy). Conductor Marek Janowski propels things forward with buoyant vitality. 

Fortunately, the dialogue has been retained, though it has been judiciously pared down. The singers speak their own lines – no actors or narrators are brought in, as is done too often. Unsurprisingly, this makes for natural, seamless transitions between dialogue and music. Special kudos to Pentatone for including the full text and English translation in the booklet.

Back to top