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.


02_wagner_gotterdamWagner - Gotterdammerung

Schmittberg; Hoff; Mowes; Meszar; Foster; Weissmann; Staatskapelle Weimar; Carl St. Clair

ArtHaus Music 101 359


The last, cataclysmic instalment of Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle from Weimar is very much a vision of the director, Michael Schultz. His strong philosophy is most manifest here where his pessimistic views are aided by the apocalyptic story. “There are tears in the world/as though God had died…” The grief is never ending.


To the cruelty and murder so prevalent in the drama the director adds his own issues: cruelty to women and even to defenceless animals. The 2nd act turns into a pandemonium of mass rape by the Gibichung thugs (reminding us of British soccer hooligans). Brunnhilde’s horse Grane is portrayed by a pantomime actress with flowing white hair much abused throughout by Hagen and the adolescents also added to the production. The Director believes that children of the world are cast out, helpless therefore aggressive. They witness all major turns of event but are unable to participate and move around in curiosity, with blood-stained hands.


Difficult to describe this theatrical experience with words, one really has to see how powerfully it’s handled by sparse visual means. Stage background is black throughout; there are virtually no sets and lighting plays a prominent role. So memorable to see Siegfried tenderly mourned by Grane, the long suffering horse and at the final scene water is cascading from above over the abused women, who are reborn & cleansed by Brunnhilde’s self sacrifice and redemption.


Young American conductor Carl St. Clair keeps tight control and never lets the tension sag. The cast is very strong. Renatus Meszar as Hagen, is a formidable presence and even more formidable voice. Catherine Foster easily conquers the endurance test of Brunnhilde’s role. Siegfried, Norbert Schmittberg, is treated as a vulnerable, somewhat naïve plaything for the evil Gibichung, a fine choice for not being the typical beefcake Wagner tenor. Gunther, portrayed as weak and somewhat tragicomic, is sung and acted wonderfully by Mario Hoff. Great theatre, this is a moving production that will give you food for thought.


01_haydn_orlandoHaydn - Orlando Paladino

Marlis Petersen; Tom Randle; Pietro Spagnoli; Magnus Staveland; Freiburger Barockorchester; René Jacobs

EuroArts 2057788


Early music enthusiasts may be attracted to this DVD by the name René Jacobs, renowned as a counter-tenor; here he enjoys the role of musical director. From the opening Sinfonia, he brings out the best in the Freiburger Barockorchester.


Last summer was the two-hundredth anniversary of Haydn’s death; this DVD shows the Berlin State Opera's commemorative production. Almost incredibly, with the reputation Haydn enjoys for serious symphonies and masses, Orlando Paladino, with its heroic and comic themes, was the Haydn opera performed most often during his lifetime.


The accompanying notes with this production are comprehensive in all but one respect – only two-and-a-half lines are devoted to the plot of the opera. The rest of the notes cover historical context. Mercifully, the Internet yields several extremely helpful synopses.


There are spirited performances in Act 1 from Magnus Staveland (Medoro) in the aria “Parto. Ma, oh dio, non posso” and also from Marlis Petersen’s Angelica, who makes her presence felt throughout the act. Tom Randle is noteworthy for his passionate interpretation of Orlando. What a contrast with the enforced timidity and frustration of Sunhae Im (Eurilla). One feels poor Eurilla is left to sort everything out on her own; she gets aggravation - and our sympathy vote.


Acts 2 and 3 are, if anything, more zany. “Vittoria, vittoria!” (Victor Torres, Pasquale) proves this. Opera purists will appreciate “Aure chete, verdi allori” (Angelica) and “Miei pensieri, dove siete?” (Orlando) but frankly, for those expecting the costumes and scenery to be as authentic as the orchestra, they aren’t. Let’s just say that this is a highly individual production!


06_hvorostovsky_radvanovskyVerdi - Opera Scenes

Dmitri Hvorostovsky;

Sondra Radvanovsky

Delos DE 3403

Among Giuseppe Verdi’s gifts to the opera repertoire is a welcome body of duets for baritone and soprano. Unless baritones can cultivate a credible upper range to allow for occasional forays into tenor repertoire, they often languish for opportunities at musical dalliance with sopranos.

Moreover, matching vocal colour and weight in a baritone/soprano duo can be tricky… but happily not impossible, as this recording demonstrates so well. Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s long career and vocal gifts have placed him in that small group of must-hear Verdi baritones. Pairing him with the beautifully matched voice of Sondra Radvanovsky makes for a wonderfully compelling recording of Verdi opera excerpts.

Hvorostovsky brings tremendous vocal security and experienced dramatic delivery to his various roles. Radvanovsky matches him measure for measure and the results are stunning. The recording’s producers have wisely selected Un Ballo’s Act 3 Scene 1 duet by Amelia and Renato to open the CD. Beautifully executed, this track firmly holds the listener’s attention for the balance of the disc.

In addition to the duets, 3 solos let us enjoy the voices in their own spotlight. Radvanovsky performs “Song to the Moon” from Dvorak’s Rusalka in a way the composer must have imagined a Slavic voice should sing it. Her semi-spoken ending is especially poignant. Further, Hvorostovsky sings Mozart’s “Deh vieni” from Don Giovanni, lightening his approach as much as possible but perhaps leaving us appreciating the more natural airiness of his Italian counterparts.

However, one cannot fault the authentically Russian colour and tone of Hvorostovsky’s voice. While artfully managed in the Verdi repertoire, it flowers fully and richly in another recent recording of Tchaikovsky Romances (DELOS DE3393).

Radvanovsky finally closes the live performance with a powerfully and flawlessly executed “Vissi d’arte” (Tosca). The audience in the Moscow Conservatory’s Great Hall reportedly applauded for twenty minutes after this concert – and they had every reason to do so.

Concert Note: Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky are featured in “An Italian Opera Spectacular” at Roy Thomson Hall on March 20.

05_berlioz_benvenutoBerlioz - Benvenuto Cellini

Wiener Staatspernchor; Wiener Philharmoniker; Valery Gergiev

Naxos 2.110271

One could be hard pressed to give an unbiased judgment on this “controversial” production of Berlioz’ first opera and undoubted masterpiece. Controversial, as director Philipp Stölzl created a fun filled futuristic fantasy extravaganza, placed in a New York-like setting filled with helicopters, robots and even a whale. So one could ask: what has this got to do with 16th century Rome? However, if you think about it, swashbuckling Cellini was himself no ordinary person, but one whose life story could fill a novel, and the first truly Romantic hero, ahead of his time. Obviously no ordinary treatment would do and so the director created a vastly different, anachronistic but constantly fascinating and innovative theatrical experience. Perhaps he went overboard a bit with the robots, but his imagination really knew no limits. In this respect he emulates the composer, young Berlioz who also “pushed the envelope” musically with extremely difficult singing roles, double, triple, quadruple choruses and cross rhythms etc.  

To control this mammoth task a master conductor is required, of course. About 30 years ago it was Sir Colin Davis who rediscovered and recorded the opera, but now it is the incomparable Valery Gergiev who can propel his orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, into the Berliozian stratosphere.

Burkhard Fritz as Benvenuto is a strong heroic tenor and copes well with the vocal demands of the role, while Maria Kovalevska as his beloved Teresa enchants us with her lovely voice and physical beauty. English baritone Brindley Sherratt is very capable and convincing as Balducci, the Pope’s treasurer. In the supporting cast American soprano Kate Aldrich is superb as Ascanio and Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko creates a hilarious cameo role as the Pope. The production is a visual stunner and comes together wonderfully, particularly at the carnival scene with a Brueghelesque feel about it. And just wait till you see the ending which is like a Vesuvian eruption with a giant foundry engulfed in flames, smoke and molten iron!

04_winterreiseSchubert - Winterreise

Mark Padmore; Paul Lewis

Harmonia Mundi HMU 907484

Known primarily as a baroque tenor, Mark Padmore turns out be a first class lieder singer. This is a personal opinion and I am well aware of opponents who would argue that Schubert must be sung by a singer whose native tongue is German. Padmore, who sings in the original key, communicates Wilhelm Müller’s lyrics with disarming, heartfelt sincerity. The tenor possesses a tender, floating voice that illuminates the cycle with a fresh and contagious approach. He projects the texts in such a way that he seems to be singing directly to the listener and not to an anonymous audience. There is not another version that comes even close to this one. One can only marvel at its daring originality and compassion.

In comparison with the version by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten I was really surprised to find that Padmore and Lewis’s is interpretatively superior in every respect. Paul Lewis is a perfect partner. He is highly respected as a Beethoven and Schubert exponent and, as we now witness, proves an ideal collaborator in this genre.

While I remain enchanted by the timeless, sublime versions of the three Schubert song cycles sung by Herman Prey that I wrote about in the December issue - Winterreise was particularly moving as interpreted by that late German baritone accompanied by Helmut Deutsch (CMAJOR 700208) – Padmore’s new recording is perfectly balanced, clear and enjoyable, making his Winterreise a stand out. Harmonia Mundi promises that the other two cycles will follow.

03_mozart_maniaciMozart Arias for Male Soprano

Michael Maniaci; Boston Baroque;

Martin Pearlman

Telarc TEL-31827-02

Michael Maniaci apparently does not mind being a Canadian. In one interview he admitted that frequent performances in Toronto (with Opera Atelier and others) convinced some of his fans that he must be a Canuck. He may not be one by birth, but he certainly was born to share his rare gift with us.

Male soprano has the same ring to it as narwhal – a rare, almost mythical creature, barely known and even less understood. By an accident of nature, Maniaci’s larynx did not grow to a full size in puberty and produces sounds that best can be described as unusual. Much higher than a countertenor, much more robust than a boy soprano, his voice is one of a kind, possibly approximating what castrati might have sounded like. It is a perfectly pitched instrument, with a lot of agility and great technique.

For his first solo album, Maniaci chose music written by Mozart especially for castrati, including the celebrated “Exsultate, jubilate”. This voice takes some getting used to – at first, Alleluja! sounds strange and not entirely convincing. Once you get over the shock of the unknown however, especially in the Lucio Silla arias, this new interpretation triumphs over pre-conceived notions. Our initial resistance to what is in effect a return to Mozart’s preferred interpretation is a testimony to the way in which performance standard shapes our listening ability. So, open up your ears (and minds) to Michael Maniaci’s unique voice and indulge in what could be considered full period performance of the familiar music.

02_bach_violinBach - Violin and Voice

Hilary Hahn; Matthias Goerne; Christine Schafer; Münchener Kammerorchester; Alexander Liebreich

Deutsche Grammophon 477 8092

The twelve arias on this disc have been selected by violinist Hilary Hahn because they all feature a prominent part for solo violin. She has searched through Bach’s cantatas, the St. Mathew Passion and the B- Mass to put together a lovely, surprisingly well-balanced program.

But the concept behind this disc, evident right from the title, “Violin and Voice”, overplays the role of the obbligato violin in these arias. It’s not the leader here – its job is to comment on what the singers are singing. Fortunately, Hahn proves to be a sensitive ensemble player. Responding to the singers and never intruding on the vocal lines, she lightens her sound, restricts her vibrato, and sharpens the edges of her phrases.

The Münchener Kammerorchester under Alexander Liebreich offers buoyant support. But the key to the success of this venture lies in the heartfelt, dramatic singing. Baritone Matthias Goerne’s yearning intensity in “Welt, ade”, with soprano Christine Schäfer singing the chorale part, is matched by Hahn’s expressive obbligato. Schäfer is equally affecting, with an engaging honesty that illuminates these mostly religious texts. Her poignant “Erbarme dich”, given here in Mendelssohn’s transposition, blends exquisitely with Hahn’s lyrical, stylish playing.

The highlight for me is the impassioned performance by Goerne and Schäfer of the duet “Wann kommst du, mein heil?”, with Hahn providing beguiling elaborations on the operatic dialogue between Jesus and a soul longing to join him.

01_meashaNight and Dreams

Measha Brueggergosman; Justus Zeyen

Deutsche Grammophon 289 477

Has it really been twelve years since soprano Measha Brueggergosman made us sit up and take notice when she sang the title role in James Rolfe’s Beatrice Chancy here in Toronto, followed by her appearance a year later at the Millennium Opera Gala? Since then, this native of Fredericton, New Brunswick has rightfully gone on to international fame, appearing regularly on concert stages throughout Europe and North America. Her newest disc - the fourth altogether and second for Deutsch Grammophon - appropriately titled “Night and Dreams” is inspired by all things nocturnal.

With German-born pianist Justus Zeyen providing a sensitive musical partnership, this is a wonderfully varied program indeed! While most of the repertoire dates from the mid-to-late Romantic period with songs by composers such as Debussy, Fauré, Duparc, Brahms and Wolf, there is also a lied by Mozart, a lullaby by Montsalvage, and an evocative Portuguese song, Anoiteceu, by Francis Hime. All are miniature gems, and within the overall intimate and introspective context of the whole Brueggergosman effortlessly captures the varying moods of each song. Her interpretation of Debussy’s Beau Soir – the opening track – is magically lyrical, while Duparc’s Phidylé soars with joyous intensity. In all, this is a most satisfying recording and further proof (if any were needed) of this soprano’s enormous talents.

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