03_don_giovanniMozart - Don Giovanni
Simon Keenlyside; Kyle Ketelsen; Eric Halfvarson; Marina Poplavskaya; Royal Opera; Charles Mackerras
OpusArte OA 1009 D

Francesca Zambello’s brilliant production of 2002 has stood the test of time and this eagerly anticipated film was well worth the wait.

Such a pleasure to see a modern production of the complete score without the current trend of Euro-trash modernization, updating and inserting outrageous “new ideas” that pass for inventiveness. This performance is traditional in a sense, but full of imagination and inspiration. A revolving stage is simple and versatile with a curved wall that acts as a trompe l’oeil forming a false perspective of a magnificent renaissance hall for the first act finale. Generally the stage direction aims to clarify the sometimes confusing story and to show the hero in an unsympathetic light while the women are treated with compassion.

Apart from being a visual triumph it is also a wonderful musical performance. This opera requires eight soloists of the highest order, not always possible but here pretty well achieved. Simon Keenlyside is an outrageous and irreverent Don in fine voice and with his sidekick Kyle Ketelsen (Leporello) accentuates the comedy with an excellent vocal and dramatic performance. Among the ladies, all of them memorable, perhaps Joyce DiDonato (Donna Elvira), a highly accomplished singer, stands out the most. Ramon Vargas here is tested as Don Ottavio with splendid results. Robert Gleadow of the COC makes an effective Masetto with his fine deep baritone voice.

But the real success is Sir Charles Mackerras. Now in his 80’s, he is a great conductor and scholar whose achievements are too many to mention, an advocate of period instruments and Mozart specialist (how can we forget his series of Mozart symphonies on Telarc). We can only admire how he springs his orchestra into life with a beautifully detailed, well paced and crisp sounding performance.

Janos Gardonyi

02_elektra_gardenfixElektra’s Garden
Elektra Women’s Choir;

Morna Edmundson & Diane Loomer

Independent EWC0901 (www.elektra.ca)

 

 

 

03_victoria_scholars

Distant Voices
Victoria Scholars
Independent VSR 1002

(www.victoriascholars.ca)

Two Canadian choral releases arrive on the scene at the same time as natural companions: one, an ensemble of all men’s voices, the other, all women’s. The Victoria Scholars are an all-male Toronto group led by Jerzy Cichocki. Their new CD features works by Canadian composers, both secular and sacred. The Elektra Women’s Choir, is based in Vancouver and co-conducted on this recording by Morna Edmundson and Diane Loomer. Their new recording features secular songs from around the world with largely Canadian arrangements.

`Elektra’s tone is light and playful, featuring arrangements of English, Hebrew, Finnish, Spanish, and French selections with some interesting settings of folksongs and poetry. The choir sings with an airy and child-like tone very suitable to the chosen repertoire.

`“Distant Voices” finds its sweetness in Srul Irving Glick’s settings of The Song of Songs, gorgeously enhanced by David Hetherington’s cello. The choir shines in introducing its dark and mystical element with the dramatic title piece by Tomas Dusatko, a 14-minute journey from chaos to reverence. Commissioned by the choir, the skilful execution of this piece is no mean feat. Although also admirably performed, I felt that Imant Raminsh’s Ave verum corpus loses some of its natural shimmer without the full range of male and female voices, though interesting to note is that Elektra has performed this work in its SSAA version.

Dianne Wells

01_fleurs_du_malLes Fleurs du Mal - De Fauré à Ferre
Marc Boucher; Olivier Godin
XXI XXI-CD 2 1590

“Les Fleurs du Mal” (Flowers of Evil), the seminal collection of poems by the French poet Baudelaire, is over 150 years old and it remains an almost inexhaustible source for French song composers. In fact, no less than 30 composers, ranging from Fauré to Debussy to Duparc to Ferre used this poetry as a basis for song cycles and individual masterpieces. All of them were no doubt fascinated by the groundbreaking nature of Baudelaire’s poetry but also to the phrasing lending itself so naturally to musical interpretations. Montreal–based collaborators Marc Boucher and Olivier Godin have undertaken the task of sifting through the mountain of possible options, to come up with 18 songs that are quintessential French Fleurs du mal.

Boucher’s baritone, a resonant and beautiful instrument, tackles Baudelaire’s lyrics with the required romanticism and intensity. His history of collaborating with Godin results in a seamless, almost telepathic connection, where the piano and voice mesh perfectly, embracing the Baudelairian idiom. This may well be the reference recording of “Les Fleurs du Mal”, however eclectic the selections might be.

Robert Tomas

01_il_pianto_di_mariaIl pianto di Maria - The Virgin's Lament

Bernarda Fink; Il Giardino Armonico; Giovanni Antonini

Editions de l'Oiseau-Lyre 478 1466

Bernarda Fink is a singer of extraordinary measure and a brilliant match for two rare settings of the Virgin Mary's lament: one originally attributed to Handel, but later discovered to be by Giovanni Battista Ferrandini, a composer in the court at Munich; the other by Monteverdi who took the music from his famous Lamento d'Arianna and inserted a sacred text. Rather than matching the impulsive fire of Il Giardino Armonico, Fink holds steady her natural grace and maturity, allowing the orchestra to express the undercurrents of torment and anger while she declares her sorrow with dignified acceptance. The effect is not diminished in any way, in fact, by maintaining her poise she resists all temptation to resort to showy hysterics; but at the same time there is an edge to her delivery that clearly informs us of the depth of her grief. Il Giardino Armonico performs with all the passion and vigour for which they are known, making for an exciting performance that keeps listeners on the edge of their seats during instrumental works by Vivaldi, Marini and Pisandel. In a world premiere recording of Francesco Bartolomeo Conti's Il martirio di San Lorenzo, Fink and the ensemble join together for a deeply moving aria that features a rarely-heard ancestor of the modern clarinet, the soprano chalumeau, which adds a most tender and plaintive note.

Dianne Wells

02_verdi_requiemVerdi - Messa da Requiem

Fantini; Smirnova; Meli; Siwek; Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino; Symphonica Toscanini; Lorin Maazel

Medici arts 2072438

In 2007 for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Toscanini's death Lorin Maazel, his erstwhile protégé, gave a series of concerts in Italy. The former child prodigy who at the age of 11 conducted Toscanini's own NBC Symphony and was blessed by the ‘gran Maestro' with a kiss on the forehead is now in his 70s and is himself a gran maestro and one of the foremost conductors of the latter half of the 20th century.

The highlight of these concerts was this memorable performance, captured on DVD, of Verdi's Requiem from the San Marco Basilica where it was first performed in 1874 under the baton of the composer. Under the golden domes, half domes and pendentives of the 1500 year old Byzantine masterpiece was gathered Maazel's own orchestra that he organized for this occasion, with a magnificent choir and soloists of the highest order. Maazel is like a wise owl with hooded eyes, almost immobile, but with the merest flicker of his finger he unleashes these forces into a tremendous whirlwind of sound while another slight flicker silences it in a split second. Without much visible effort he achieves a beautifully detailed, heartfelt, thoroughly understood and perfectly paced performance.

The quartet of soloists, upon which many a performance has crumbled, is a tremendous asset here. Norma Fantini is a highly accomplished soprano with a wide range and great emotional involvement in the final Libera me section. Young Russian mezzo Anna Smirnova is very impressive in her lower registers and her heartfelt solos and Francesco Meli is a strong tenor who shines in the Offertorium prayers. Rafal Siwek, a stentorian basso-profundo, has a perfect voice for Mors stupebit and Confutatis, some of the most impressive moments in the performance.

Janos Gardonyi

03_cunning_vixenJanáček - The Cunning Little Vixen

Tsallagova; Rasilainen; Lagrange; Minutillo; Kuebler; Bracht; Gay; Opera National de Paris; Dennis Russell Davies

Medici arts 3078388

A mere 30 years ago Leos Janáček's operas were virtually unknown in the West, but today there is hardly a reputable opera company that hasn't performed some of them. The Canadian Opera Company, for one, can be proud of having performed five of the operas here in Toronto. Although Paris is just beginning to discover his greatness, this live performance certainly makes up for any lack of appreciation in the past. Apart from an interesting, novel concept, there is abundant talent and wit in the stage direction, sets, colour and costume design, not to mention singers and musical direction.

According to director André Engel, the stage is set as a bright sunflower field, representing nature, but bisected by a railway that shows mankind's brutality. Where the two meet is where things are happening, where indeed anything can happen. There is tragedy, but in Janáček's optimistic outlook it is followed by rebirth and the cycle of nature continues indefinitely.

One of Janáček's most beautiful scores, the story was undoubtedly inspired by his love for a much younger woman at the age of 70. The opera simply throbs with love and affection towards his young female protagonist, the vixen, in this case the ebullient Russian high soprano Elena Tsailagova, who simply radiates and dominates the performance. The three rather pathetic male figures are all well characterized and sung by Jukka Rasilainen (forester), David Kubler (schoolmaster) and Roland Bracht (parson). There is also a charming choir of children dressed in hilarious costumes representing the little animals.

Music Director Dennis Russell Davies' flawless and beautifully flowing conducting brings out the beauty and lyricism of the score and deserves much of the credit for this delightful performance.

Janos Gardonyi

 

02_schumann_lemieuxSchumann

Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Daniel Blumenthal

Naïve V5159

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What a treat to listen to a goodly measure of Schumann’s vocal music sung in full, rich and womanly contralto. Marie-Nicole Lemieux, though still in her early thirties, displays the maturity of tone and dramatic sensitivity demanded by this quintessential Romantic genre. Whether playing the young betrothed made breathless by the excitement of her approaching nuptials or evoking the first stirrings of motherly instinct or the grief of widowhood, Lemieux delivers a stunning and credible execution. And accompaniment by Daniel Blumenthal is most expressive whilst never overreaching the support role and yet is quite unique in its tone and pacing compared with other performances of this repertoire. In addition to Frauenliebe und-Leben, Lemieux and Blumenthal perform another of Schumann’s song cycles, Liederkreis, as well as five other Schumann lieder: Die Löwenbraut, Der Nussbaum, Er Ist’s, Lorelei, and Widmung. While Frauenliebe und-Leben and Die Löwenbraut work within a narrative framework, Liederkreis and other selections simply evoke the atmospheric qualities of Romanticism: nature, sentimentality and longing, alongside a most seductive fear of the dark and the unknown. The obsessive spirit of Schumann’s total immersion in lieder in 1840 along with his idealized perception of womanhood which drove his pursuit of Clara is well realized by these two exceptional performers.

Dianne Wells

03_handel_semeleHandel - Semele

Cecilia Bartoli; Orchestra La Scintilla; William Christie

Decca 074 3323

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Suspension of disbelief is one of the most important elements to possess when watching opera. You know what I mean - the middle-aged soprano singing of celebrating her 16th birthday (Madama Butterfly); the less-than youthful and not so slender Ophelia in Hamlet; the numerous “in trousers” roles…. That is the primary reason why for centuries now there is a tension between singers gifted with an incredible voice and not looking the part and those who only look, but don’t sound the part. Some of the greatest operatic careers were built mostly on the looks (Renée Fleming, take a bow!). Then there is Cecilia Bartoli. Years ago, her beautiful, but not very powerful voice was upstaged by her stunning looks. But as her voice has matured, no suspension of disbelief is necessary. Her performance as Semele is a case in point. The grasping, foolish Semele instead has a problem not of her own making - the minimalist production by Robert Carsen. The modern, Royal House of Belgium-like set and costumes do not convince as a dwelling of Jupiter and his favourite mortal. And yet, in the third act, both Bartoli and Charles Workman as Jupiter deliver a gripping, powerful interplay of love and misunderstanding. The human and divine emotions shine in their voices as they do in the voices of the other principals and the precise, if not very period-inspired playing of the familiar music of Handel. Although not a complete triumph, this is one DVD worth keeping – if you can suspend disbelief

Robert Tomas

04_puccini_butterflyPuccini - Madama Butterfly
Angela Gheorghiu; Jonas Kaufmann;
Orchestra e Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; Antonio Pappano
EMI Classics 2 64187 2 8

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In the DVD era it comes as quite a surprise that EMI is investing in a brand new CD set of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Especially Butterfly, an opera recorded umpteen times and favoured by some of the greatest conductors, most notably Karajan who probed the depths and unearthed so much beauty in this score much to the chagrin of its detractors who ridiculed it as shallow and sentimental. Favoured also by the great sopranos, Callas, Tebaldi, the unforgettable Scotto, Freni etc. who made the principal role their own over the years.

Yet it is still important to hear new artists tackling the score and this handsomely presented new set with demonstration sound does just that. From the first bar onwards we are instantly aware of the excitement and electricity of Antonio Pappano’s brilliant, empathetic conducting, turning the orchestra into a major dramatic role in an almost Wagnerian fashion. His feeling for detail is uncanny. Feel how he creates an almost unbearable and horrifying near silence just before final tragedy.

Jonas Kaufmann as Pinkerton is a strong ‘heldentenor’, singing out the notes, but I am missing the Italianate charm that I am sure Puccini intended. In the supporting roles, Fabio Capitanucci (Sharpless) and Enkelejda Shkosa (Suzuki) are not comparable to such past greats as Christa Ludwig and Giuseppe de Luca. However, the second major factor that makes this recording so extraordinary is famed Puccini heroine Angela Gheorghiu in the title role. It requires a singer-actress of the highest caliber to portray the development of a 15 year old geisha into a lover, a proud mother and later a tragic heroine. She accomplishes this daunting task beautifully with a memorable performance.

Janos Gardonyi

 

 

 

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Beethoven - Fidelio

Kennedy; Sherratt; Coleman-Wright; Kampe; Milne; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Mark Elder

Glyndebourne GFOCD 004-06

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Debussy - Pelléas et Mélisande

Roux; Duval; Reynolds; Hoekman;

Wilbrink; Bredy; Shirley-Quirk;

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Vittoria Gui

Glyndebourne GFOCD 003-63

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This year the Glyndebourne Festival in Sussex, England celebrates its 75th year. This is no mean achievement considering its survival depends entirely on private funds and donations. For any artist it has always been a great honour to be invited to be the guest of the Christie family, the founders and owners of this event. There have been many improvements over the years not the least of which is the magnificent new auditorium built in 1994. Glyndebourne has always been in the forefront of recording opera. As early as the 1930’s they were doing Mozart operas on EMI like the famous Don Giovanni with Fritz Busch. This year they have begun issuing recordings under their own label and this month we are presented with two of these: an inspired Fidelio from 2006 and from the archives, a 1963 performance of Pelléas et Mélisande.

Beethoven’s only opera embodies his innermost philosophy of life, the triumph of good against evil and the journey from darkness to light. This is what the Leonore Overture #3 does by compressing the journey into perhaps the most glorious 15 minutes of music ever written. With an emphasis on the symphonic nature of the opera, Mark Elder and his London Philharmonic, with excellent pacing and throbbing energy propel the music forward and yet illuminate all the nuances. Similar to the 9th Symphony the finale is truly an explosion and a culmination of joy.

The almost faultless cast deserves much credit. Soprano Anja Kampe as the heroine sings with heartfelt passion and tenderness and occasional outbursts of sincere indignation; Tornsten Kerl, the wrongfully convicted Florestan, has a shorter but no less gruelling role and his strong heroic tenor overcomes all the difficulties. The Glyndebourne Choir also makes a tremendous contribution.

At the end of the 19th century French music was under the heavy influence of Wagner and Brahms. A fervent desire for change was in the air and the young Debussy was the right man at the right time to bring it about. With new harmonies and translucent textures he brought in a breath of fresh air with a completely new approach, l’impressionisme. His sole opera Pelléas et Mélisande is a sublime masterpiece and a pinnacle of French art. It is totally different from anything written before yet, to be honest, still owes homage to Tristan and Parsifal which Debussy admired. Its long score is delicate but of the highest inspiration and every phrase is meaningful. It moves in the atmosphere of shadows, in and out of silence, generally quiet, rarely reaching a fortissimo.

This performance from 1963 is an inspired one from the beautifully poetic impressionistic sets by Beni Montresor, through the incisive and sympathetic conducting of Vittorio Gui to the faultless, impressive cast. French soprano Denise Duval is exceptional as the fragile, semi wild creature Mélisande. Dutch baritone Hans Wilbrink with his slow awareness to love and ardent declaration is most memorable. A worthwhile listening experience.

Last but not least, an A+ for presentation of these discs: elegantly designed hardcover books, with complete quattro lingual libretto. They will be a treasure for any collector.

Janos Gardonyi

 

Wales - The Land of Song

Shannon Mercer; Skye Consort

Analekta AN 2 9965

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In her fourth CD for Analekta, once again the lovely soprano voice of Shannon Mercer rings clear and true, this time in a most warm and heartfelt performance of Welsh songs. As the daughter of a long-time member of the Ottawa Welsh Society, Mercer well understands music and language as the cultural glue that binds people of Welsh descent. And what fond melodies they are. In fact, Mercer attributes her choice of career to the influence Welsh song had in her young life. The imagery inherent in the poetic language along with the sweet lyrical melodies chosen for this recording have quite an emotive impact on the listener, despite the fact that no translations are provided in the liner notes. Best-known pieces on this album are the well-loved lullaby Suo Gan, as well as the poignant Dafydd a Gareg Wen (David of the White Rock) and the unrequited Bugeillo’r Gwenith Gwyn.

In arranging the accompaniments and instrumental pieces, Sean Dagher has done a marvellous job of preserving traditional elements while melding them to a more contemporary aesthetic. The Skye Consort which includes flute, violins, cello, bass, cittern, accordion and percussion adds a 17th-century Italian harp similar to the Welsh triple-harp. Beautifully played, beautifully sung.

Dianne Wells

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bach_jesuBach - Jesu, Meine Freude

Agnes Zsigovics; Daniel Taylor; Benjamin Butterfield; Daniel Lichti; Ottawa Bach Choir and Baroque Orchestra;

Lisette Canton

Ottawa Bach Choir OBC2009CD

(www.ottawabachchoir.ca)

For this CD, which finds our column just in time for Easter, the Ottawa Bach Choir's conductor and founder, Lisette Canton, has chosen three works by Bach which focus on the theme of salvation through death and resurrection and which represent three distinct periods in Bach’s output. The first Cantata, BWV 4, Christ lag in Todes Banden is famous for its exquisite descending semitones. The ensemble artfully resigns itself to the recurring sighing motif and cascading counterpoint. Sandwiched between the two cantatas on this disc is one of Bach’s most famous motets, BWV 227, Jesu, meine freude.

The choir does a brilliant job with the starts and stops that represent the type of hesitant, breathless, yet joyful declaration reminiscent of someone recovering from long periods of weeping. Lastly is the Cantata, BWV 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele, the highlight of which is the soprano/alto duet sung with great agility and energy by Agnes Zsigovics and Daniel Taylor. Benjamin Butterfield and Daniel Lichti execute the dramatic recitatives and arias of this cantata beautifully. True to its name, this choir appears to make an annual pilgrimage to perform at Bach’s Thomaskirche in Leipzig. I’m sure Bach would be pleased.

Dianne Wells

Concert note: On April 25th at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Ottawa the Ottawa Bach Choir presents “Prelude - Europe 2009”, a concert to launch the choir's third European tour to London, Paris and Leipzig.

The Ice Age and Beyond: Songs by Canadian Women Composers

Patricia Green; Midori Koga

Blue Griffin Records BGR173

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green_ice_age

 

green_unsleepingUnsleeping: Songs by Living Composers

Patricia Green; John Hess

Blue Griffin Records BGR177

(www.bluegriffin.com)

The songs on these two discs were all written in the last fifty years. Patricia Green, a Canadian mezzo known especially for interpreting modern music, does full justice to these always interesting, frequently moving songs.

The Ice Age and Beyond: Songs by Canadian Women Composers” presents new and rarely heard art songs by women composers. Why just women composers? To call a disc “Songs by Canadian Men Composers” would be laughable. But it would also be unnecessary, because almost all recordings - Canadian or otherwise - contain just male composers.

In the booklet notes Green writes that Barbara Pentland “laid the path for young women composers across Canada”. Pentland’s searing, gorgeous works are visionary, and she remains one of Canada’s most important, if under-appreciated, composers. What I like best about Green’s performances of her songs is that they capture Pentland’s fierce passion. In Ice Age, Green is especially sensitive to the mood of desperation summed up in poet Dorothy Livesay’s concluding question, “Who among us dares to be righteous?”

Shifting rhythms enliven Emily Doolittle’s charming Airs of Men Long Dead. The shimmering lyricism of Isabelle Panneton’s Echo reflects the colourful imagery of the text. In City Night, Alice Ping Yee Ho explores the more percussive qualities of voice and piano. Kati Agócs uses clarinet, violin and cello accompaniment to set the medieval texts of Imagination of Their Hearts so eloquently. This is the only work described in the booklet notes, but for every work there are song texts and biographies of all involved, including the versatile pianist Midori Koga.

Unsleeping” takes its title from Jonathan Harvey’s moving Lullaby for the Unsleeping. The highlight for me is R. Murray Schafer’s Kinderlieder, written to texts by Bertold Brecht as well as two German nursery poems. Green is terrific at colouring her voice to capture the irony in Brecht's lyrics. Each image takes on symbolic meaning, like the tree that survives war-time destruction in The Poplar in Karlsplatz. Pianist John Hess is an expert accompanist throughout.

In both collections, Green approaches each text with conviction, uncovering layers of meaning. She sings convincingly in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Hungarian, and even Latin, along with English. There is a great deal of beauty in her lower and middle ranges. Too often as she goes higher she gets louder – and shriller. But even then what stands out so effectively is her dramatic power.

Pamela Margles

 

by Seth Estrin

Six new recital discs from a variety of great operatic singers offer opportunities to hear them in a new light – in new repertoire, with different partners, or for the first time on a recital disc.

 

 Until she recently gave up the role, the German soprano Diana Damrau was known as the most thrilling Queen of the Night on stage today. She has descended from the stratosphere into other Mozart roles, as heard on Mozart - Opera and Concert Arias (Virgin Classics 2 12023 2), and we are the luckier for it. Her sparkling high notes and effervescent coloratura is still heard to excellent effect on several tracks, but what is new here is the darkness and depth of her voice. It is rare that a single singer can sound so convincing in such a variety of Mozart parts – from Donna Anna to Donna Elvira to Blonde to Kostanze – but Damrau’s remarkable versatility makes her sound at home in each role. The period orchestra Le Cercle de l’Harmonie under Jérémie Rhorer provide expert support.

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 American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato has emerged as one of the most exciting Rossini singers in recent years, but on the recital disc Furore: Opera Arias (Virgin Classics 5 19038 2) she presents an all-Handel program. DiDonato is a sensitive stylist of baroque music, and uses her rich but clear voice to great effect. For an essentially light mezzo voice, she has unusual darkness in her lower register, and is not afraid to dip into her chest voice. She gives rich, impassioned readings of the music without romanticizing it, and she ornaments de capos elaborately but with taste. Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques help make this one of the best Handel recitals in recent years.

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 Juan Diego Florez may be one of the most celebrated tenors of his generation, but with the great bulk his repertoire coming from the work of only three composers – Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini – it must be difficult for him to come up with new arias to record. So on the disc Bel Canto Spectacular (Decca 478 0515) sampling works from those same three composers we get to once again hear his nine high C’s in the famous aria from Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment – but this time in Italian instead of French. We also get five wonderful bel canto duets, which pair him with five fantastic singers, including Placido Domingo. With a balance of usual and the unusual repertoire, this makes a charming disc that, with the variety of singers, never gets monotonous.

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 Baritone Thomas Quastoff’s operatic recital Italian Arias (Deutsche Grammophon 4777469) is unusual because it contains only arias by Joseph Haydn – a composer famous for almost everything except his operas. But several of Haydn’s many operas have been staged in recent years, and Quasthoff makes an excellent case for continuing this trend. The disc covers selections from the dramatic operas, such as Armida, perhaps the best known of Haydn’s operas, to buffo roles in comic operas such as The World on the Moon. Quasthoff, one of the finest lieder singers of his generation, is a supremely intelligent singer, but he shows himself an excellent comedian as well. With top-rate support from the Reiburger Barockorchester, this disc provides an excellent overview of Haydn’s operas – from a baritone’s perspective, at least.

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 Everything René Pape offers on Gods, Kings and Demons (Deutsche Grammophon 477 6408) will be new to listeners, since this is his debut solo recording. But Pape has for some years been considered the outstanding operatic bass of his generation, with a burnished, warm sound that is commanding without being simply a wall of dark sound. This disc showcases his versatility as an artist – the Wagner, Verdi, and Gounod tracks stand out in particular. Sometimes extended scenes can sound out of place on recital discs, but Sebastian Weigle, conducting the superb Staatskapelle Dreden, gives both the longer and shorter selections unusual shape and dimension.

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 Whether we really need another recital disc from Russian soprano Anna Netrebko is perhaps not a fair question, but her latest disc Souvenirs (Deutsche Grammophon 4777639), in what by now must be the most substantial discography of any soprano of her generation, fails to make a convincing case for itself. Netrebko presents this disc as a selection of her favourite songs and light arias from operas and operettas. It is, for the most part, a lovely if somewhat insubstantial selection. Netrebko’s dark, plangent voice is skillfully deployed to create several beautiful moments. But the voice sounds slightly looser than on earlier discs, and her diction is poorer than ever. Besides the eclectic repertoire, there is nothing here that cannot be heard to better effect on Netrebko’s earlier discs.

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 Be Thou My Vision

Oriana Women’s Choir; William Brown

Independent WRC8-8072

While this fifth recording by Oriana consists of popular hymns, anthems and psalm settings, it is a treat to hear them set for women’s voices with six new arrangements commissioned by the choir by John Beckwith, Eleanor Daley, Derek Holman, Leonard Enns, Jon Washburn and Ruth Watson Henderson. Added to the stellar list of Canadian composers represented on this CD are psalm settings by Srul Irving Glick, two of which are sung in Hebrew. The women’s voices blend superbly and this repertoire is performed with skilful beauty thanks to the direction of William Brown, with expert accompaniment by James Bourne on piano or Michael Bloss on organ. Two absolute gems stand out on this recording: Fairest Lord Jesus arranged by Leonard Enns and All Things Bright and Beautiful in an arrangement by Mack Wilberg. Both employ the services of Leslie Newman, flute and Clare Scholtz, oboe with parts creatively interwoven through the fabric of these well-known melodies. Add to that the light-hearted There’s a Little Wheel A-Turnin’ in my Heart (arr. Robert A. Harris) and a heartfelt Kumbaya (arr. Paul Sjolund) at the end of the recording; this is an offering sure to inspire the spirit.

Dianne Wells

 

 Bellini - La Sonnambula

Bartoli; Flórez; D’Arcangelo; Orchestra La Scintilla; Alessandro De Marchi

Decca 478 1084

The raison d’être of any recording of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, one of the most charming bel canto operas, is a great coloratura soprano. This recording offers something different – a great coloratura mezzo. Cecilia Bartoli is a remarkable singer, commanding a huge range, stunning agility, and overwhelming dramatic inclinations. But her idiosyncratic mannerisms – excessive breathiness, quiet cooing noises, heavily aspirated coloratura – are cloying, especially when she is allowed to indulge in them as often as here. While she makes great efforts to lighten and soften her voice, her rich mezzo with its tightly-wound vibrato is the wrong colour for the sleepwalking Amina. And transposing three scenes down to accommodate her lower range makes the recording more about Bartoli than Bellini.

No transpositions are needed for tenor Juan Diego Flórez, who gives one of the finest performances of Elvino on record. Flórez sails through this difficult part with accuracy and élan, confirming his reputation as the finest bel canto tenor on stage today. Ildebrando D’Arcangelo gives a warm, commanding performance as Rodolfo, though the smaller roles are taken by singers of lesser talents. The Orchestra La Scintilla of the Zurich Opera House provides authentic period instrument accompaniment, and is beautifully conducted by Alessandro De Marchi. Though there is much here to enjoy, those looking for a recording of the opera in modern sound would be better off with Natalie Dessay in the title role on a recent Virgin Records release.

Seth Estrin

Concert Note: Orchestra La Scintilla accompanies Cecilia Bartoli in a program celebrating the life and art of the great 19th century opera singer Maria Malibran, a superstar of her era and inspiration for such composers as Rossini and Donizetti, at Roy Thomson Hall on March 1.

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 Harrison Birtwistle - The Minotaur

Tomlinson; Reuter; Rice; Watts; Langridge; Royal Opera House Orchestra and Chorus; Antonio Pappano

OpusArte OA 1000 D

Harrison Birtwistle’s most recent opera created a sensation when it was premiered at London’s Royal Opera House last spring. This DVD, recorded during the run, shows why – and why Birtwistle is generally considered the leading composer of his generation in England.

In this telling of the ancient Greek myth, the Minotaur - half human, half beast – develops a soul. By the end, he comes to realize that he must die unloved because his actions are so vile. As John Tomlinson sang the Minotaur’s dying aria, I actually felt sympathy for this lonely guy just looking for love – Tomlinson’s acting is as riveting as his singing.

Ariadne is not merely devious here. She is complicit in her half-brother’s murderous rampages. She does help Theseus into the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur, but only after the beast has dispatched the twelve young Innocents sent from Athens as annual tribute. And not without bargaining with Theseus – the robust Johan Reuter – to take her away with him. Christine Rice’s nuanced performance justifies the composer keeping Ariadne on stage for the whole opera.

Birtwistle’s pacing is expert. His angular but lyrical vocal lines have a natural flow, and he sets David Harsent’s poetic libretto so that the voices can project over the colourful, often violent orchestrations. The staging is powerful, although during the graphic on-stage rape and slaughter of the youths I did wish I was seeing this opera from a seat in the Royal Opera House instead of up close on this DVD.

It is heartening – and rare – to be able to watch a composer and librettist come on stage to accept cheering curtain calls. When Theseus claims that only the shedding of blood can stop bloodshed, little does he understand how futile that is. This landmark production reminds us how opera can so effectively provide searing commentary on our times.

Pamela Margles

 

 

 

 

 

 

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