02_meyerbeer_crocaitoMeyerbeer - Il crociato in Egitto
Teatro La Fenice; Emmanuel Villaume
Naxos 8.660245-47

A great deal of what is known as “French Grand Opera” has Italian (Verdi’s “Don Carlos”) or German roots. Case in point for the latter – the output of Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jakob Beer near Berlin). Known to today’s opera goers from a handful of showcase arias (“Shadow Song” from Dinorah, “O Paradis” from L’Africaine), Meyerbeer was in mid-nineteenth century the king of the genre. A direct musical descendant of Rossini, an inspiration to Bellini and Verdi, Meyerbeer’s operas were extraordinary triumphs.

Much of the credit for the present-day obscurity of his work goes to the relentless campaign waged against him by Wagner. Motivated in equal parts by professional jealousy and anti-Semitism, Wagner derided and undermined Meyerbeer at every turn. It is then great to see the Master’s operas produced again. “The Crusader in Egypt” previous to its 2007 production at la Fenice was not staged for over 100 years. That alone would make this disc set worth owning, but then there are the performances. Even though Patricia Ciofi is a darling of the Venetian crowd, having heard her live in La Traviata, I have to admit I am not a fan. Her wobbly and frequently shrill soprano does warm up as the opera progresses, but the true revelation in this recording is Michael Maniaci. The role of Armano, once sung by the legendary Giuditta Pasta, offers him a great opportunity to showcase his unusual, beautiful voice. With a solid cast and great choral scenes, this disc set is highly recommended.

01_pollySamuel Arnold - Polly
Aradia; Kevin Mallon
Naxos 8.660241

This is a thorough and charming recording of the 50 rather slight musical numbers written and arranged for the little-known sequel to John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. The newly-published edition of the score is a labour of love by Robert Hoskins, a musicologist on faculty at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington. The opera follows Polly Peachum to the West Indies as she seeks out MacHeath and the score follows a similar “ballad opera” blueprint, offering famous tunes of the day paired with literal and sometimes clumsy lyrics describing the characters’ predicaments.

Polly is boldly subtitled “an Opera”, written by a learned English composer/scholar who was known for his mastery of providing incidental music for plays in the latter half of the 18th century. In the end, what makes opera interesting and compelling is thematic development and poetic imagery, both in text and music, and both are missing in this piece to a great degree.

In the latest addition to its extensive Naxos discography, the Toronto-based Aradia Ensemble, directed by Irish violinist Kevin Mallon, sounds warm and tidy in their accompaniments of the short songs, while in the instrumental numbers – the overture and dance suites of Pirates and Indians – they are given a little more opportunity to shine. The local singers turn in spirited and lyrical performances, notably soprano Eve Rachel McLeod, mezzo Marion Newman, tenor Lawrence Wiliford and baritone Jason Nedecky, all of whose diction paves the way to a greater understanding of the story.

05_norgard_wolfliPer Nørgård – Der gottliche Tivoli
Stadttheater Bern; Dorian Keilhack
Dacapo 6.220572-73

Composer Per Nørgård wrote in February 2007 how his visit to an exhibition with works of Adolf Wölfli marked a turning point in his own compositional sensibilities “...I experienced the encounter of Wölfli’s chaotic art as a mental dive into a different, dark world – eerie, unpredictable, but fascinating and above all highly specific”. The opera Der gottliche Tivoli (The Divine Circus) is best described in this same manner – the operatic rendition of Wölfli’s life is mind-boggling in its musicality.

This is not easy listening – there are no clear cut operatic arias where the singers can showcase their virtuosity. In fact, the real operatic diva here is the percussion-heavy orchestration. The opening prelude (performed brilliantly by Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen) is identical to the fourth movement of Nørgård’s solo percussion work, “I Ching”. Throughout the opera, the six percussionists in the orchestral ensemble are key players. There are atonal melodies to support Nørgård’s libretto (which is based on Wölfli’s own writings) but the rhythms best describe Wölfli’s schizophrenic descent and the calmer artistic periods of his life. Touching is Nørgård’s choral arrangement of Wölfli’s own folksong melody at the end of opera.

The vocal soloists, under the direction of conductor Dorian Keilhack, are superb in this high quality live 2008 performance from Stadttheater Bern. Der gottliche Tivoli is a difficult yet intriguing adventure in the life of a troubled artist and the curious composer who was moved by his artistry.

04_Keenlyside_schubertLive at Wigmore Hall – Songs by Schubert, Wolf, Fauré and Ravel Simon Keenlyside; Malcolm Martineau;

Wigmore Hall WHLive 0031

The operatic baritone, as a rule, gets upstaged. It is the voice of villains, fathers, and older brothers. The tenor usually ends up in the spotlight and even in operas where the baritone is the central character, it is as an anti-hero (Hamlet, Robert Oppenheimer in “Dr. Atomic”). We are fortunate to live in times when there are several world-class baritones around who, aside from making appearances on stages around the planet also record their voices for our enjoyment. I have shared with the readers my feelings about the brilliant Thomas Quasthoff and Gerald Finley, so it’s time to wholeheartedly recommend Simon Keenlyside.

During recent performances of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet at the MET, Keenlyside in the title role overcame the insipid set and not fully cooked production and with the power of his voice transformed the opera into an intimate recital. Here, on record from Wigmore Hall, he offers the Keenlyside treatment to a sampling of lieder. His voice, aside from power and projection, possesses the agreeable timbre that’s impossible to describe, yet instantly recognizable. The singing is effortless, as if it were to him the most natural thing, like breathing. Keenlyside works very well with accompaniment, be it a piano or a full orchestra. Here, Malcolm Martineau deserves a special mention of his own. And to think, that at one time this gifted singer was considering a career in zoology, which he studied at Cambridge – the animals’ loss is most definitely our gain!


03a_fiset_melodiya03b_fiset_ophelie

Melodiya
Marianne Fiset; Marie-Eve Scarfone;
Orchestre Radio-Canada Musique;
Jean-Philippe Tremblay
Analekta AN 2 9962

Ophélie – Lieder et Melodies
Marianne Fiset; Louis-Philippe Marsolais;

Michael Mahon
ATMA ACD2 2628

 

The province of Quebec has had of late its disproportionate share of great young vocalists. It could be argued that the commitment to culture and classical music is much stronger there and a greater number of competitions and musical festivals allow the young new stars to shine brighter. It is not just a funding issue, however. The artistic sensibility of both the artists and the audiences there is different. Frequently, European artists make Montreal or Lanaudière their first foray into North America. You can call it a certain je ne sais quoi, but it seems to be working. Case in point – Marianne Fiset. To say that the young soprano burst onto the scene is to understate it. Four awards in a young vocalist category and a Juno nomination for her first record “Melodiya”, a collection of Russian songs and operatic excerpts on the Analekta label, speak for themselves.

On her ATMA disc, “Ophélie”, Fiset lets her voice shine – literally. Juxtaposed against the brilliantly played horn of Louis-Philippe Marsolais, the young Quebecer’s beautiful instrument dialogues through a thoughtful selection of music by Berlioz, Donizetti, Strauss, Schubert and Lachner. The interpretations are engaged, full of understanding and delicacy and the rare combination of horn and voice delights the ear. Much as her Juno nomination is well deserved for “Melodiya”, “Ophélie” (recorded 6 months later) showcases a young artist whose craft is getting better with each outing. Bravo!


02_carissimi_oratoriosCarissimi – Oratorios
Les Voix Baroques
ATMA ACD2 2622

Charles Darwin wouldn’t be the least surprised by the evolution of early music performance practice. After emerging from the post-romantic brine with proto feet and oh-so-strict ideas about how things must sound, the species now displays an elegance of balance and sensibility that may have brought us to the pinnacle of the art form.

Les Voix Baroques is an ensemble of young voices with a remarkable ability to create startling colours in ensemble passages. Only artful listening can make this happen – obviously something the members of Les Voix do extremely well. These four Carissimi oratorios have far less chorus than solo material, so the shift in texture from solo passages to harmonically rich part singing is dramatic and highly effective.

The singers’ solo work also merits comment. We’ve placed much value on straight tone (vibrato-free) singing for early music repertoire, and there’s certainly plenty of it in this recording. Unusual, however, is the freedom for individual singers to move into a vibrato at specific points in phrases. This contrast between vocal styles gives emphasis to key moments in a text or musical line. It’s a wonderful effect and feels quite natural.

Particularly lovely is Suzie Leblanc’s “Plorate filii Israel”. Her vocal style is immediately recognizable and exquisitely captures the anguish of the plaintive text.

The eight member instrumental ensemble is superb in its supportive role and relishes its several orchestral moments. They are remarkably consistent in their early music tuning (temperament) teasing us with harmonic intervals placed just slightly askew of where our modern ear expects them to be.

A very satisfying disc… Viva Les Voix Baroques!


01_cacciniFrancesca Caccini – O Viva Rosa
Shannon Mercer; Luc Beauséjour; Sylvain Bergeron; Amanda Keesmaat
Analekta AN 2 9966

Francesca Caccini, daughter of composer and Florentine Camerata member Giulio Caccini, enjoyed a brilliant career as a renowned performer and composer in the Medici court. Admired by Henry IV of France and Claudio Monteverdi, she was often referred to as “La Cecchina” (The Songbird). Caccini’s vocal compositions reflect her great artistry as a singer, incorporating impossibly long melismas and exquisite ornamentations that few mere mortals can manage. But suggest this repertoire, as harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour did, to a singer like Shannon Mercer and she will set to work and rise beautifully to the challenge. Not just technically, but emotively as well. For this music also requires an extremely sensitive interpretation of its delicate sensuality and oftentimes anguished vulnerability.

The repertoire is chosen from Caccini’s Il primo libro delle musiche (1618), and the were songs likely originally accompanied by theorbo alone. This recording features a fuller continuo, with Beauséjour (harpsichord), Sylvain Bergeron (lute, baroque guitar, theorbo) and Amanda Keesmaat (cello) who are featured in additional instrumental selections, some by father Giulio. While the liner notes provide an excellent historical survey of the composer, I was a little disappointed that the lyrics and their translation were not included, though there is a note that they are available on the Analekta website. That being said, this CD is an exquisitely executed offering of truly rare gems in the vocal repertoire.

04_terfelBad Boys

Bryn Terfel; Swedish Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra; Paul Daniel

Deutsche Grammophon 477 8091

 

Tenors may win winsome hearts playing the romantic lead, but, as we often see, the “bad” bass-baritone elicits a strange yet much more compelling attraction. Perhaps it's raw brute force that turns our heads and makes us quiver with excitement, or maybe it's the element of danger that we find fascinating: the kind of thrill that even the noble Donna Elviras of this world can't possibly resist. With this recording and a tour of the same name, Bryn Terfel offers highlights from villains of the opera house and musical theatre in all their various forms, ranging from gossips, swindlers and cads to the ruinous, murderous and satanic.

 

He is menacing as Sweeney Todd, cruel and calculating as Iago (Otello) and Scarpia (Tosca), pure evil as Mephistopheles (Faust) and Kaspar (Der Freischutz). As Sportin' Life (Porgy & Bess) “It ain't Necessarily So” transposed to the baritone range gives him the opportunity for a carefree, devil-may-care attitude. The final scene of Don Giovanni provides the best showcase of all as Terfel sings all three roles: The Commendatore, Leporello and Don Giovanni.

 

Bryn Terfel is a consummate showman; he brings these characters driven by lust, revenge and greed to life with sheer power and range of emotion few are capable of. And, at the same time, he seems to be having an awfully good time giving us a good scare with a fierce growl.

 

03_finleyGreat Operatic Arias

Gerald Finley; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Edward Gardner

CHANDOS Opera in English CHAN 3167

 

For no logical reason, opera sounds better when you can’t understand it. We seem satisfied with knowing the plot and reading projected “surtitles” in order to follow the progress of grand opera. We grant a foreign language status as carrier of refinement and class, keeping opera tantalizingly beyond the reach of many potential new followers. English seems just fine for Oklahoma and Pinafore but what about Verdi and Wagner?

 

Baritone Gerald Finley is a key player in the CHANDOS Opera in English series funded by British Philanthropist Peter Moores whose mission is to have us all enjoy opera as much as Italian, French and German audiences do. The project’s core belief is that opera in an audience’s native language conveys the immediacy of each moment more effectively.

 

Perhaps not surprisingly, operas originally written in English seem just fine. And this may actually prove the point. Gerald Finley does a truly splendid job with arias from Adams’ Doctor Atomic and Turnage’s The Silver Tassie. These tracks offer credibility to other selections from Don Giovanni, Die Meistersinger and Otello. The Tosca excerpt is especially rewarding.

 

Whatever the final verdict from opera lovers, it’s clear that opera sung in English translation seems a bit odd – at first. Much depends on the quality of the translation, matching English text to the phrasing and cadence of music never intended as a poetic partner. Done well, however, it actually works. Listen to Gerald Finley and you’ll understand why.

 


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