05 Donizetti RosmondaDonizetti – Rosmonda D’Inghilterra
Pratt; Mei; Schmunck; Ulivieri; Lupinacci
Dynamic 37757

Here is a fine example of how an opera can be presented effectively at relatively low cost with a dedicated, talented creative team, simple, minimalistic sets evoking the milieu, atmospheric lighting, colours and non-intrusive direction relying on the natural movement of the actors. Director Paola Rota should be congratulated for bringing Donizetti’s forgotten opera after 171 years’ slumber into shining focus at the Bergamo festival. The period is 12th-century England and the story is about an innocent young girl, Rosamunda Clifford, with whom Henry II fell in love, who in turn falls victim to the jealous rage of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. The underlying menace of this dismal story is well captured, and with Donizetti’s gorgeously melodic score it really hits home to an enthusiastic audience at Donizetti’s birthplace.

Jessica Pratt is one of the best bel canto sopranos today, and she is the star in the title role with her glorious, strong high notes and lovely legato singing. In the complex role of the scheming, murderous Queen, famous Italian soprano Eva Mei’s brilliant performance brings lots of excitement. In the lesser parts of Arturo the rejected lover and Clifford the anguished father, mezzo Raffaella Lupinacci and baritone Nicola Ulivieri are also very effective. The only weakness is the King, high tenor Dario Schmunck, who has some difficulty keeping up with the strain of high tessitura of this very demanding role.

My great delight and a major contributor to the success is young conductor Sebastiano Rolli. His innate grasp of the score (that he conducts from memory!), perfectly chosen tempi and deliciously accented pointing, are the mark of a great conductor in the making.

06 Rossini AdelaideRossini – Adelaide di Borgogna
Sadovnikova; Gritskova; Anderzhanov; Vlad; Zubieta; Watanabe; Lewenberg; Camerata Bach Choir, Posnań; Virtuosi Brunensis; Luciano Acocella
Naxos 8.660401-02

Here is a rarity of rarities, an opera by Rossini not only recorded for the first time, but one dating back to 1817 and staged scarcely more than a dozen times. Since it disappeared from the repertoire in 1825 (due in large part to the unfavourable reception of Roman critics – it was Rossini’s first opera written for Rome), there were only a few efforts to revive it. Why then history’s cold shoulder? Well, that is the $64,000 question. Yes, Rossini was young, only 25, when he wrote it, but this is not juvenilia. It came right on the heels of Armida (with whom it shared a librettist) and La Cenerentola, both well-loved and often-performed operas.

Adelaide di Borgogna is centred on the events in medieval Italy (circa 950 AD) that led to extending the Holy Roman Empire from Germany into the Apennine Peninsula. The action is, unusual for an opera, historically accurate, well-paced and intriguing. We cannot fault the music either – Rossini himself frequently reused passages from this work in his later operas to great effect. So, in the end, yet another great work killed off by negative reviews. Listening to this recording truly has made me more aware of my responsibility as a music critic. My only regret for this unique recording is the relative mediocrity of the assembled cast, with the notable exception of Margarita Gritskova in a splendid trouser role as the Emperor Otto the Great.

07 Wagner ParsifalWagner – Parsifal
Marco-Burmester; Petrenko; Struckmann; Ventris; Lang; Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Iván Fischer
Challenge Classics CC72619 (challengerrecords.com)

German Romantic opera reached its pinnacle under Wagner. Once he found his stride, Singspiels and Italianate number operas would be side-tracked in German-speaking opera houses. Wagner melded mythical stories to seamless, powerful symphonic music in masterpieces including his iconic Ring Cycle. Then Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera, broke that mould, when it was premiered at the second Bayreuth Festival in 1882. The opera – an adaptation of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th-century epic poem Parzival – caused a stir with its depiction of religious fervour, purity of caste and women as sexually depraved heathens. Reactions were confused at first but by 1887 they turned vehement. Still, Wagner remained adamant and, in an era increasingly bereft of sacred experience, he was emphatic in his belief that music dramas should fully absorb audiences in mystical truths.

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s performance of Parsifal, conducted by Iván Fischer is a considerably minimalist production directed by the Wagner expert and director of the Dutch National Opera, Pierre Audi. Produced for television and DVD in 2012, it may be short on the lavish density of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s acclaimed 1982 production. However, with a wooden strut-like framework depicting the castle that houses the suffering Amfortas drenched in his blood, and its preternatural stairway to heaven, an atmosphere of both horror and pity is superbly created. Such spare environs are perfect for the cavernous voices of Titurel, founder of the Knights of the Grail and his son Amfortas, sung by Mikhail Petrenko (bass, who also sings Klingsor) and Alejendro Marco-Buhrmester (baritone) respectively. Falk Struckmann (bass) as the veteran Knight of the Grail, Gurnemanz, rumbles on sublimely too. But the tenor Christopher Ventris’ Parsifal and soprano Petra Lang as Kundry leave indelible marks on both roles.

The magnificent vocal colouring and shifting tonalities in the agony and ecstasy from Act I to Act III is convincingly Wagnerian. More important than that is the transition from agonizing sinful states to depictions of redemption and salvation. Here, in their complete transformation, every principal cast member shines. Anish Kapoor’s set design especially in Act II – where the backdrop of an orb of sorts seems to reflect the depth of the characters’ changing emotions through spectacular lighting by Jean Kalman – is absolutely magical. There are minor fluctuations of volume in the DVD sound, but these are minor irritants. The miraculous translation of the three-dimensional depth of the play onto the flat television screen is a major production triumph.

08 Gurrelieder DVDSchoenberg – Gurrelieder
Soloists; chorus of the Dutch National Opera; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; Marc Albrecht
Opus Arte DVD OA 1227 (also on Blu-ray)

This is a video of an attempt to stage Schoenberg’s extraordinary cantata based on poetry by Jens Peter Jacobsen. It is not an opera and actions on the stage do not always match the libretto. The text is dreamy and melancholic, a Tristanesque tale of impossible love. I confess that over many years of listening, although totally absorbed, I have not mentally pictured or “seen” the events described by the singers and the orchestra. The score does its job and the goings on, the thoughts, events and emotions are unmistakable, but remain abstractions.

The great room of Gurre Castle is director Pierre Audi’s set for this production with various props to define a scene… a large bed, screens, panels, etc. The prominent curved metal staircase adds a vertical dimension and supports some of the action. A huge, rather formidable fish, perhaps representing a fantastic eel, passively enters into the room in Part Three during Klaus Narr’s pantomime-like scene that follows the rousing, exhilarating Wild Hunt.

King Waldemar is sung by tenor Burkhard Fritz, who is scheduled to sing Siegmund in Leipzig’s Ring Cycle early next year. Tove, his beloved, is soprano Emily Magee and the Wood Dove is contralto Anna Larsson. Bass-baritone Markus Marquardt is the Peasant and tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is Klaus Narr, the court jester. Actress Sunnyi Melles is the narrator who introduces the evening, settling the audience down for what’s to follow. She moves as an observer through the scenes, sometimes commenting and finally breaking into an unusually impassioned delivery of the sprechgesang exultation of the sun. Internationally renowned for her interpretations of Mahler, Larsson’s Wood Dove is outstanding and genuinely tragic as it should be, delivering the news of Tove’s murder and closing Part One. Incidentally, because she is acting it out, Larsson is completely caught up in the role as she was not in the very fine recent version conducted by Edward Gardner reviewed in March. The chorus is better than outstanding. Under Marc Albrecht, the orchestral balances, so brilliantly recorded, are dynamic and expansive, letting the brass sing out, most importantly in the awe-inspiring choral finale as the sun rises and the nocturnal fantasies are banished.

On first viewing, not knowing what to expect, the staging was something of a letdown. By the third playing, no longer expecting anything different, I was enrolled, appreciating this most unusual experience immensely. As noted above, the surround sound is awesome. All in all, quite an experience.

09 Floyd SusannahCarlisle Floyd – Susannah
Susan Hellman Spatafora; St. Petersburg Opera Orchestra & Chorus; Mark Sforzini
Naxos 2.110381

In an interview included in this DVD, Carlisle Floyd describes the two major influences on the creation of his most-performed opera. As a young university professor in Florida, he witnessed what he calls “the destruction of innocence” by false accusations during the 1950s McCarthy era. The son of a Methodist minister in South Carolina, he had also experienced the mob hysteria of small-town revival meetings. “I personally found it very terrifying as a child to go to these meetings,” he says. “What offended me most was mass coercion – and it still does!”

Floyd’s self-written libretto transfers the Apocrypha tale of Susannah and the Elders to “New Hope,” a small town in Appalachian Tennessee. Susannah’s folk-flavoured, often quite beautiful score amplifies a powerful drama – the innocent Susannah victimized both by the townspeople who believe her “pretty face must hide some evil” and the evangelical preacher, Olin Blitch, captivated by that same face.

Susannah has been performed hundreds of times since its 1955 premiere, but this is its first, very welcome, commercial DVD release. The St. Petersburg (Florida) Opera’s 2014 production is low budget yet highly effective, the single set doubling as Susannah’s house and the New Hope Church. Soprano Susan Hellman Spatafora is a feisty, radiant Susannah, baritone Todd Donovan a sturdy voiced Blitch, the revival-scene chorus truly “very terrifying,” while conductor Mark Sforzini revels in the music’s beauty and passion.

If you don’t already know this opera, you should – it’s unforgettable!

10 Gordon GettyGordon Getty – The Canterville Ghost
Oper Leipzig; Gewandhausorchester; Matthias Foremny
Pentatone PTC 5186 541

“Stage and page have different needs,” writes composer Getty, son of billionaire Jean Paul, explaining in the CD’s booklet the alterations in his libretto when adapting Oscar Wilde’s novella. Wilde’s whimsical tale remains essentially intact, however, with the Otis family moving into an English manor haunted by the 300-year-old ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville, unable to find release in death.

Instead of being frightened, Mr. Otis offers the Ghost oil to lubricate his chains, Mrs. Otis gives him a tonic to quell his moaning, and the young Otis twins throw pillows at him, push a cream pie in his face and douse him with water.

Only 15-year-old Virginia hasn’t offended him. In the longest scene of the hour-long opera, the Ghost tells her, “You must weep with me for my sins… pray with me for my soul… and then… the Angel of Death will have mercy on me.” His skeleton is discovered the next day. The final scene takes place five years later at Sir Simon’s graveside, where Virginia, now married, sings a lovely duet with her husband, “Stay with me, beautiful,” the opera’s lyrical highlight.

The Canterville Ghost was premiered in Leipzig in 2015 by the performers on this disc. Bass-baritone Matthew Treviño is the forceful but sympathetic Ghost, soprano Alexandra Hutton is all sweetness as Virginia, and Getty’s bright, witty score strongly supports the action.

This is a very stage-worthy and entertaining addition to the repertoire of one-act, English-language operas.

Monteverdi – Vespro Della Beata Vergine
Various Soloists; Monteverdi Choir; London Oratory Junior Choir; His Majestys Sagbutts & Cornetts; English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner
Archiv Produktion 479 7176

The Beauty of Monteverdi
Various Artists
Deutsche Grammophon 479 7193

01a Monteverdi VespersJohn Eliot Gardiner first heard the Monteverdi Vespers when still a schoolboy: over the radio in a performance from York Minster conducted by Walter Goehr. When Gardiner was an undergraduate at Cambridge, he himself conducted the work, in 1964, in the great Gothic chapel of King’s College. It must have seemed to him that here was a great work comparable in scope to Bach’s B Minor Mass, yet totally different. Gardiner was also concerned with moving away from what he saw as the bland English choral tradition which sacrificed dramatic vitality to blend and purity of sound. His first recording of the work came in 1974 and is still available. It uses singers like Jill Gomez and Philip Langridge who were in no way connected with the emerging Early Music Movement. Gardiner’s second recording, now under review, followed in 1989. The third recording, available as a DVD only, was released in 2016. It was recorded in the Chapelle Royale in Versailles. (I reviewed it in the April 2016 issue of The WholeNote.)

The 1989 recording, now reissued both as CDs and a DVD, was recorded in the spectacular space provided by St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The DVD fully explores the basilica’s architecture, its mosaics and its sculpture. There is no clear record that the music was originally performed there or anywhere else in Monteverdi’s lifetime. There is now a critical consensus that its first publication (in 1610) does not represent a proposal for an actual liturgical performance but instead constitutes material on which Monteverdi wished to be judged. It may well be on the strength of the 1610 publication that Monteverdi was offered the prestigious post of Maestro di Cappella at St. Mark’s three years later.

The performance is spectacular with rhythmic vitality and precision and with great dramatic emphases. The singers include soprano Ann Monoyios (who has given us so much pleasure in the past in Toronto), tenor Nigel Rogers and, surprisingly, a very young bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. For vitality it will be hard to beat this reissue, but there are now a number of fine recordings. If you prize what has been called “lyric intimacy” over dramatic vitality, you might explore the versions conducted by Savall or Christie, Parrott or Alessandrini.

01b Monteverdi BeautyThe other CDs reviewed here constitute an anthology of parts of Vespers, several of the operas and a selection of the Madrigals, the Scherzi musicali and the Selva morale e spirituale compiled to honour the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth. Much of the singing is very fine, and the solos by Anne Sofie von Otter and Magdalena Kožená alone are worth the price of admission. This kind of anthology clearly offers limitations, and I would hope that hearing these would spur a listener to explore the works from which they are taken.

07 Room 29Room 29
Jarvis Cocker; Chilly Gonzales
Deutsche Grammophon 28947970101

In this age of streaming, Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, randomized playlists and self-publishing, do we still need record labels? All these electronic access modes are merely measures of popularity, not quality. Sure, an occasional gem will have 10 million views on YouTube, but so will a cat dancing to a laser pointer. The role of record labels is to “curate” (goodness help me for using this word) the listener’s experience.

Enter Room 29, a collaboration that would have been drowned out by the latest Kardashian selfies. Deutsche Grammophon championed this unlikely coming together of two very different musicians. Jarvis Cocker is the former frontman of Pulp, the very definition of Britpop of the 1990s. Gifted with an Elvis Costello-like voice and sensibilities, nowadays, he is an actor, director and radio personality who draws comparisons to Jools Holland and John Peel. Chilly Gonzales, a Jewish Hungarian-Canadian, despite having worked with Feist, Drake and Daft Punk, became truly known for Solo Piano, an album of original music that made some critics compare him to Erik Satie. Here, Cocker and Gonzales team up to sing and play about Room 29 in the iconic Hollywood hotel Chateau Marmont (where Billy Wilder met his inspiration for Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard fame). If all this sounds contrived, consider that the inspiration for Room 29 was none other than Ryuichi Sakamoto – known among other things as a composer for film. The biggest surprise, it works very well! Gonzales is a phenomenal pianist, Cocker an engaging balladeer and the album bears a third and fourth listening. Will wonders never cease!!

02 Verdi BalloVerdi – Un Ballo in Maschera
Soloists; Bayerisches Staatsorchester; Zubin Mehta
Cmajor 739408 

Munich has been at the cutting edge of bringing opera into the 21st century with highly original productions by the best directors and designers as well as streaming them live through the internet and onto your TV screen, worldwide and free of charge. A few of these have been released on DVD such as this Ballo from 2016, Johannes Erath’s “musically super-sensitive” gorgeous, highly acclaimed production many people travelled to Munich for.

Verdi’s opera of illicit love, betrayal, conspiracy, revenge and murder has been a special favourite of mine, with its heavenly music throbbing with emotion and ecstasy, reminding me of Tristan. Erath created a dreamlike, surrealistic show in dominant blue and black with projections of shadows and in semi-darkness, suggesting the ever-present power of black magic and the subconscious. There is a single set throughout, a bedroom that with effective light changes can transform in one’s imagination into many different settings.

The Staatsoper selected a dream cast as this opera requires the highest order of singers. Young Polish tenor Piotr Beczała, in love with his best friend’s wife but also guilt-ridden, is vocally and visually radiant in the role of Governor Riccardo. Amelia, the wife, tormented and in a conflict that threatens to tear her apart, is German soprano Anja Harteros, her dark-hued voice full of intensity. The wronged husband Renato, one of Verdi’s most inspired creations, is George Petean who perhaps lacks the expected aristocratic bearing but his strong, heroic and heart-rending baritone completes this exemplary trio of principals. Even the lesser roles: Sofia Fomina (Oscar) and Okka von der Damerau (Ulrica) store wonderful surprises and, to top it all, Zubin Mehta’s masterly handling of the score makes this production truly memorable.

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